Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is Blogging Over?

I remember reading something to this effect recently, that whatever dynamism was being infused into cultural life by bloggers has moved on to newer, more timely formats and modes of expression, that blogging had been mainstreamed, adopted and taken over (on the Google Search Rankings anyway) by the organized, professional media. It makes sense. I certainly have to come to grips with the realization that the historical moment has passed this blog by. When I started I had taken for one of my models the old Spectator papers of 1711-12 which took both contemporary England and the course of English literary history by storm. This page has now been going considerably longer than the original Spectator did (it lasted about 16 months, I think), and, so far as I can tell, its impact on society and history to this point has not been comparably pronounced. So do I do the wise, the pro-active, the vital thing, and shut the blog down and anticipate, even have a hand in creating, the next wave of literary-inflected communication, be for once at the forefront of a movement instead of straggling in amidst a motley mass long after all the choicest vantages have been claimed? No, because I am incapable of imagining that anything new will be the thing needed, let alone any good or not, before I am clubbed over the head with evidence of it, but changes will be coming, the tone and atmosphere of the page will be made less overbearing, and hopefully a stage will be reached where I can rationally determine if there is a purpose for the blog to continue, and if so to let it attain that purpose in a manner indicative of some degree of amiable humanity, and if not to recognize the fact and let it be snuffed out.

Cold Climates and Poverty. Having recently been reading some (in my current opinion greatly exaggerated) estimations of the hardships and deprivations about to sweep the American populace due to the collapse of the economy concurrently with a recent traveler's account--Paul Theroux's new book actually where he retraces the trip across Asia he took in 1973--of the incredible level of poverty that still exists in India, all of which was juxtaposed with a solid thirty day stretch where the temperature never got above 20 degrees, I became convinced that such sqalid conditions--the incredible numbers of people sleeping on the streets, in train stations, in tin and cardboard shacks, defecating and washing clothes in the rivers, battling with rats over scraps of food, etc, that are frequently remarked about life in third world countries--would be impossible to duplicate in any northern latitude on any but the tiniest scale due to the climate. People would freeze or starve to death, or have to leave, very quickly if conditions reached that desperate state. For some reason the idea of 100,000 people in Vermont freezing to death (only about 400,000 live there, and the majority wouldn't ordinarily die even under extreme dire circumstances) is less disturbing to me than its being crammed with 20 million living at an Indian level of poverty; I hope this is because I don't think it (the mass death by freezing) is ever really going to happen. That the climate of India allows for the survival of tens of millions of people effectively without housing or any participation in the greater economy through apparently endless generations I thought was its peculiar curse, though this is certainly not the proper way to look at the matter from any spiritual point of view; India being of course famously one of the most spiritually developed places on the planet, while the snow belt of North America historically has been conspicuously neglected by the palpable presence of any vital gods whatsoever. Indeed, the presence of gods, or at least interesting ones, appears to correlate highly with a confluence of sunshine, heat and a large, materially deprived population, all of which is short supply in most of the world's cooler regions.

There are however a few anomalies which threaten to confuse my theory, the main ones at the moment being Russia, and Detroit, though it is probably not a coincidence that these are currently two of the most rapidly depopulating areas on the planet. The survival, not to mention the continuous growth and relative increase in strength of Russia over the last 800 years seems to me one of the more improbable episodes of history given the incredibly harsh conditions of life as a poor person--always the vast majority of the population--and seemingly inconsistent patterns of industry and social organization that have often held sway there. Now that they can however more people than previously do appear to be deciding that it is not worth while carrying on there anymore. Detroit meanwhile seems simply to have ceased to function at a level necessary to sustain, or even to offer any reasonable hope of ever attaining again, most of the basic requirements for human beings to thrive in a rather dismal climate. I would say that it has really no choice but to die or become even more grotesque, but it is curious that Windsor, Ontario, which is right next door, as well as other nearby cities in Ontario seem to be prosperous and at least somewhat alive. They function anyway, and have attained some mastery over poverty, which the consensus seems to be are triumphs beyond the grasp of any collective will Detroit as presently constituted can hope to muster.

Picture: I am pretty sure this is Detroit. If it isn't, it should be. Jobs They Never Told Us About in School, Part 1

The children in the picture below are not merely playing with paints, as the naive reader might suppose, they are engaging in Art Therapy. Art Therapy is a profession requiring considerable training (and certification) in both Art and Therapy in which patients are enabled to heal psychologically through engagement with the fine arts, which sounds akin to the long tradition of depressives seeking consolation through philosophy, religion, poetry, music, etc, that have been coming down to us since antiquity, only now with the assistance of a professional Art Therapist, the likes of which would have been only to Boethius or Mill. It is not an especially lucrative profession--the median income is $45,000, with a master's degree, though administrators or Phds in private practice can sometimes make up to $100,000. Still, their self-esteem and belief that their work is important seems to be fairly high, which is no small consideration. There are 4 of them employed where I work (all women), and they are not in the least abashed to proclaim what they do before the greatest neurosurgeons and millionaire benefactors of the organization.

The Caine Mutiny (the movie)

I saw this a couple of weeks ago now, and thought at the time there were a few matters of interest in it to write about. Hopefully I can remember what they were. This is one of those old Hollywood movies where you often find yourself for long stretches being impressed by how smoothly good it is, only to wince five minutes later. I guess it is mainly this I guess that I had wanted to write about.

The plot construction, pacing, dialogue and suchlike storytelling mechanisms of this, as well as many other classic movies, has an ease and naturalness in its execution that almost everything put out in the last 40 years does not begin to approach. Old movies are comparatively almost all dialogue, unless there is a fight scene of some kind--no 5 minute interludes showing characters getting themselves in shape or working or walking all around the city's landmarks or writhing in bed as music plays--and the dialogue is always in the service of moving the plot in a definite direction, a writing skill which became undervalued in the experimental fervor of the 1960s and 70s and which consequently few modern screenwriters, even talented ones, employ with the same control as their predecessors. There are no two scenes in The Caine Mutiny (apart from those involving the love story, which I will get to farther on) which do not bear a clear relation to each other, do not recognizably follow directly from what has come before, and lead to what is coming next. This sounds perhaps like an unimaginative, by-the-book way of presenting a story, but it is does with an admirable degree of skill. Organizing a plot thus neatly, so that the film, which is slightly over two hours long, moves and never really drags, even in the ridiculous romantic parts, and so that the climactic scenes, especially the trial at the end, seem almost rushed and underemphasized compared to the modern method of plot construction, which would involve a half-hour of soul-searching and philosophizing and time-killing before presenting the trial as a spectacle, is not easy to do, and is a refreshing approach if it is not one you have seen for a while.

We are alerted that we are in San Francisco by a three second shot of the ship steaming under the Golden Gate bridge against a backdrop of very busy docks and a mid-century skyline. Then it's right back to dialogue and moving the story. The real purpose of this observation however is that it has been a long time since I've seen anything filmed in San Francisco in which the impression conveyed, either intentionally or unintentionally, was "industrial might" (The film was made in 1954).

At the same time that I praise the construction and pacing, the imagination and intellectual heft of the writing at the end of the movie (and presumably the book) I thought had some weaknesses. Popularized 50s ideas about psychology are woefully dated and look absurd when you see them being treated as serious now. Also the emphasis on the captain's obsession with the missing can of strawberries in playing such a leading part in his downfall struck me as a very trivial device on which to hinge a story about a mutiny in a U.S. Navy ship during wartime. Both the book and the film however were very popular in their time, when this era was fresh in the collective memory, and the annoying trivial minutiae of military life was a popular subject in books that came out about the war so I have to assume the incident was symbolic of an attitude widely-held at the time.

Most commenters on this movie cannot resist pointing out how ridiculous the love story is (it even tries to work in a Freudian angle involving the male character's mother issues), though I did like the sojourn the lovers took to Yosemite--the lodge looked like a fun place to stay, and the expected level of physical exertion and respect for the environment for a proper visit contained within limits I can handle. The Fifties was not a good decade for romance, though few have been, especially since the end of World War II. The Forties I always thought was very good, one of the best, because there was some real intensity and yearning in that era, directed at reasonable objects of desire (i.e., the boy or girl next door, or at the soda fountain) who bore some resemblance to actual human beings as well as representing symbols. By 1954 evidently people had already had, like Blanche Dubois, enough of realism and were looking for something else. Our WWII hero is smitten with a pneumatic and by our standards very fleshy, red-bustier-wearing nightclub singer. Meow! (The actress, May Wynn, whose career never really took off, is the kind of woman that you want to avoid seeing if you haven't gotten any action for a while--or ever--and you are already six or seven drinks into your evening; the only chance you have that is likely to improve is that of getting arrested.) Back to the 50s though, people really became disillusioned with domesticity; I think either it became too much separated from other currents of interesting adult life (which it still is) or, what is probably more likely, that the definition of interesting adult life got upgraded to something that in actuality very few people actively experience. I am going on at greater length than I wanted to, but the trend in the 50s was decidedly away, in the more interesting movies and literature anyway, from any vision of attaining longterm romantic satisfaction--or growing out of the need for constant new, but not necessarily psyhcically enriching, sexual excitement. Hence the Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, even Audrey Hepburn generation of movie stars.

Again unlike a lot of modern movies, I was struck by the abundance of generally likable male stars in the cast. If they happened to be really bad guys in actual life, I apologize. I have not turned up anything that indicates that to be the case. Humphrey Bogart has always struck me as those of a decent, reasonable sort of person. Fred MacMurray is back playing another morally icky character, as he did in The Apartment; to be honest, I always found him a bit creepy on My Three Sons as well, but he does a good job playing a pretentious character unpretentiously here, which I imagine is hard, and he also displays a better sense of wit here that I thought he had in him. I would have been taken in by his character whole-heartedly. Van Johnson, who I see just died in December at the age of 93, is easy to dismiss as a totally bland, whitebread 50s kind of guy, but I've seen him in several movies now and I rather like him. He plays a similar type of role in all his movies. He's not an alpha male, not a leader or dominating personality, but he is not a loser either, which often seems to be presented as the only two options available nowadays. He is competent--in The Caine Mutiny actually the most competent person on the ship, and as the sidekick in Brigadoon he demonstrated an ability to tapdance, which contrary to popular belief, is usually an indicator of further substantial capabilities--and his abilities and moral decisions often turn out to be as crucial to the success or failure of great enterprises as those of his leaders. This doubtless mirrors a general attitude that was prevalent in the whole society at the time. The Last Time I Saw Paris, another film he was in, is not a great movie, though he does decently portraying an alcoholic failed writer in it (I would know) who marries Elizabeth Taylor and proceeds to get eaten alive (I didn't marry Elizabeth Taylor at least--that would have been really ugly--but I can still relate). Unfortunately however I'm afraid the lesson one takes from the movie is that Paris, literature and bombshell women are no countries for earnest whitebread American boys to mess around in separated from a guided tour, lest they end up broken, quivering shells of human beings.

By the way Herman Wouk, the author of the novel The Caine Mutiny and a plethora of other doorstop bestsellers from the 50s to the 70s, is still alive (he's also 93). He is definitely not regarded as a contender for the Nobel Prize, and I don't think is even considered to belong to the realm of literature anymore, though he did win the Pulitzer way back in 1951.
I have to stop this post now, which means I will have to elaborate on my theory that the 1941 Judy Garland vehicle Babes on Broadway was Hollywood's answer to Triumph of the Will, which I had intended to do in here, at some later time. It is probably for the best given the delicacy of the subject manner, though the parallels of the two films are eerily and unignorably striking to me every time I consider the matter.

Hey, I have a follower! It is probably an error of some kind, but for the moment it is a pretty exciting development.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dorian Gray--Part 2

I think I will start with a joke. "And now I must bid goodbye to your excellent aunt. I am due at the Athenaeum. It is the hour when we sleep there." "All of you, Mr Erskine?" "Forty of us, in forty armchairs. We are practising for an English Academy of Letters." It would be vaguely amusing if anyone in real life were to ever actually talk like this on a regular basis, though I probably would not want to live with the person.

You will remember that Dorian Gray "falls in love" with the actress Sibyl Vane, or rather her portrayals of classic characters ("Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secrets in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth."), only to reject her coldly when her love for him betrays her into behaving as her actual self with him, at which she goes on to commit suicide. It is of course overwrought by the conventional standards of literature, but it is pulled off well enough for the purpose it serves here: Wilde/Gray is socially and artistically ruthless according to his personal code. Live up to the standard, or expect ridicule and scorn, and forget about any idea of collegiality you may have had. This also renders him impervious to ordinary love, which, especially in our competitive age, is increasingly seen as a trait giving his possessor extraordinary social, and probably academic, advantages. Thus while the book contained much of interest in the style and technique, and was a good deal of fun to read through, it never gripped me. The scene in Chapter 7 where he walks in the dead of night all through the sleeping organism of the city of London after ceasing to love Sibyl Vane was quite eerily reminiscent of some similar jaunts I had there in the 1990s (usually after some hours fruitlessly passed in trying to find an exciting nightclub after the pubs shut down at 11), even down to ending up in Covent Garden. Walking around London at 3 or 4 in the morning is unlike doing so anywhere else, because, first, compared to every other city of comparable size I have ever been to, for the most part no one else is out on the streets at all, and second, because every few blocks you are coming upon a world famous, in some cases legendary street or building or square or bridge, and at that moment it is as if you alone possess it of all the world, which I find a very odd sensation to have.

The idea of the "world-spirit" is of especial significance in this book, by which I mean to say, that it is always significant to a certain degree even when people aren't aware of its influence, but Wilde is always aware of its influence, and I think it is clear he does not think of it as being at all positive in his generation. He is no nostalgist though, unless it is for a certain kind of style or attitude or aesthetic sensibility; he does not believe people in the grip of past manifestations of the world-spirit were any nobler or more moral than men have ever been, and are today. The use of this often-hazy concept to characterize what it is that makes Gray Gray--his fascination with the psychological novel about the Parisian "who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed..." is very deftly and admirably done from a writing standpoint. The world-spirit as it pertains to men is both ultimately trivial and of the utmost importance in the forming of men's characters and souls at the same time, which about captures Oscar Wilde's worldview at the peak of his career.
Ch. 11. On concerts featuring the music of exotic lands such as Tunisia, Peru, Chile, and Mexico, which were all the rage in London at the time: "The fantastic character of these instruments fascinated him, and he felt a curious delight in the thought that Art, like Nature, has her monsters, things of bestial shape and with hideous voices." We may not regard, or at least wish to regard, the productions of the Aztecs and other non-Western cultures in this simplistic and insensitive light in our time, but the idea of art having its own monsters surely is not controversial. Indeed in my own novel I referred to Art as a "demoness" as if it were the outstanding feature of her nature, quite unconscious of this passage, though I doubtless picked up the idea from some Romantic poet or early Modernist or other.

On men who give bad dinners: "Even the cardinal virtues cannot atone for half-cold entrees, as Lord Henry remarked once, in a discussion of the subject; and there is possibly a good deal to be said for his view." He then of course goes on to compare the canons of good society, the necessity of form, etc, with art, which with Wilde, though he famously asserted that all of it is quite useless, is always equivalent to life itself.

Chapter 12 opens on the eve of Gray's 38th birthday, which on the day I read the passage made him exactly 12 days younger than I was. Spooky! No, not really of course, but I thought it was an interesting coincidence.

Someone's Bedside Reading. I can't make out the book in the middle now.

As this point in the book Gray has ruined the reputations of a slew of well-born men by his debauched lifestyle. Obviously contemporary readers had to know what was inferred by all this, beyond cavorting with dancing girls and streetwalkers. Those crafty, subtle Victorians, not letting on all they knew about the seedy side of life, quite the opposite of us, who mostly know very little about it but chatter on incessantly as if we understood it all! Hallward: "What about Lord Kent's only son, and his career? I met his father yesterday in St James's Street. He seemed broken with shame and sorrow."...Dorian: "If Kent's silly son takes his wife from the streets what is that to me?"

The scene ends darkly however as Gray murders Hallward, who is the genuine artist in the book, and the painter of the picture which gives the book its title. I thought the passage where he opens the window of his loft and scans the absolutely calm and silent surrounding streets (those eerie late night London streets again) was very well done and apropos, that the effect is probably exactly what one who was highly conscious and unaccustomed to murdering would feel like after committing one in the dead of night, with there being no likelihood of detection or suspicion falling upon one for several hours to come. Very disturbing to contemplate.

My oldest son's name is Oscar, and naturally a lot of people thought I had named him after Oscar Wilde. This was not specifically true. I was paranoid with the oldest child of burdening him with a name that just screamed "boring suburban mediocrity" which, as I have a very common and unaristocratic last name and a completely generic and anomic first name for my generation I had always felt to be the case with myself; indeed, a girl even once told me that I was not only boring and mediocre in myself, but that these qualities announced themselves in my name. "Oscar", evoking as it did a world before television and the suburbs and the consolidated high school that has culturally impoverished so many of us, a world of witty dinner conversation and singing around the piano and ginny, smoke-filled jazz joints, at least said to the world, the next generation is coming to the battle ready to fire a few shots before succumbing to complete social and intellectual evisceration. I calmed down a little after this though and gave the next two kids slightly more conventional, though still old-fashioned names.

There should only be one more post on this book.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Still Clearing Out the Detritus of My Old Mind I have the whole year to do this. This post could be rather long in its gestation due to the weather. One evening in the writing it was -21 degrees outside, at which point my furnace ceases to be able to keep pace with even my modest aspirations for it--i.e., the thermostat may be set at 60, but the temperature is not going to make it there. I could probably store fish right now in the room where my computer is without anyone noticeable effects. I know it is much colder in Fargo and Yakutsk; nonetheless, it is remarkable to be able to contemplate that if the temperature were suddenly to go up 50 degrees, it would still be below freezing. I had started to write a rant about the shameless lobbying for government bailout money, but as it was more of a general impression than an intimate familiarity with the details of the case, and as the thought of delving deeply into those details was not enticing to me, I abandoned it. Still I would be reassured if I could see a few people at least accepting their government largess with some portion of embarrassment/humility about them. I don't usually make a note of celebrity deaths, but as my middle name was given to me in honor of Andrew Wyeth--which tidbit I have tended to keep buried for the most part in the more neglected recesses of my psyche--I was a little jolted by the news of his death, especially as I had not thought about him for several years, and had forgotten that he was still alive. Needless to say he was greatly admired by my father, who has done a considerable amount of painting himself and started out as something of a Wyeth imitator, a course made especially easy by the circumstance that we lived in Pennsylvania quite close to the very sorts of mills and covered bridges and abandoned barns and desolate brown fields that Wyeth famously painted. But really it is amazing to me to think that he lived this long; the world which produced and sustained and elevated Andrew Wyeth seems at this particular instant to belong to the very remote past indeed.

I was amused the other day when I bought something from the Amazon site to look at my recommendations, and the box of categories which I guess the computer has deemed to be my areas of especial interest. Assuming that larger and bolder type indicates the strongest interests, my top 3 categories are "British Cinema", "L. Frank Baum", and "Action & Adventure"(?). Baum was the author of the Oz books, a number of somewhat plush editions of which I have ordered for my children. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I have recently learned that I really oughtn't to like him or his books anymore because before he became famous he allegedly once wrote an editorial in an obscure newspaper in South Dakota or somewhere in which he called for the extermination of the entire American Indian population. This was indeed a very bad thing to advocate, and I certainly hope that someone was at least able to prevail upon him at some point to reconsider his position. I was never greatly attached to him personally--he always retained something of the hustling, small-time ne'er-do-well about him, frequently living well beyond his means and bankrupting himself in shaky business ventures. He was inexorably attracted to the shiniest, most modern innovations and developments, whether cars, or movies, or California, which is an unusual, though in some instances not necessarily a bad, quality for a writer to have, but it is not one with which I seem to have much affinity. The books, as I look over them again, have many flaws and annoying tics in them as well, but they still have more genuine humor and fun in them than most children's books, which I take to be their main appeal. I also found the mode of travelling--generally on foot--through various provincial settings and geographical regions with a handful of companions, usually culminating in a grand reunion in the city at the end, which was the standard pattern of the series, to be appealing, but I am not sure how much that sort of thing would resonate with anyone else. It is worth noting that numerous races of (presumably wicked) creatures do get effectively exterminated in the course of the series, gradually making Oz a much less wild and progressively more mechanized, modernized, Americanized place--which the child, if he is me at least (I know this is not grammatically correct, but "if he is I" or "if he be me" sounds a bit persnicketty to me), is absolutely duped into believing is all for the best. The above is my illustration for "British cinema". I hope it is actually a British scene. It looks like one. The choices came down to this and one of Kate Winslet nearly bursting out of a tight shirt. Since I can't bring myself to like Kate Winslet enough to give her a place of honor on my blog, and also since the British cinema has gone to the dogs in the last 10-15 years even more than our own, I went with the throwback photo to the heyday of British film. I am not usually a big one for buying movies, but after toting around various lists of films I wanted to see but never could because none of the video stores in the locales I frequented ever had them, when people began unloading their old VHS tapes on the internet for about the price of a rental a few years back I started buying some of these unseen classics, a lot of which happen to be British, though "Europe", "France", "Irish" and "Italian" made it among my categories too, which I guess I think makes me look like a bit of a cosmopolitan, and swells some weak strain of my ego, over which I evidently have no command, with a foolish pride. Then again, Aidan Quinn (or Quinn, Aidan) made it onto my list of favorites as well, though I doubt I could have picked him out of a police lineup before looking him up on the internet. Nontheless I have somehow given the Amazon supercomputer reason to believe I am obsessed with him. I'm not sure what I could have ordered that would catapult him over the likes of Ruskin or Restoration Drama or Luis Bunuel onto my list, but I am going to have to do something to get him off it. This post has already gotten way out of hand, and I haven't even gotten to the main object of it, the next installment of the popular Books I Read As a Child That Probably Contributed More to the Crippling of My Adult Potential Than Enhancing of It series. Today I will revisit the All-of-a-Kind-Family series, which appeared at intervals between 1951 and 1972, though the last volume was published some years after the others, and is much the weakest entry of the group. The All-of-a-Kind-Family books were about a Jewish immigrant family and their 5 American-born daughters (a son was finally born in the midst of the series) growing up on the Lower East Side, later relocating "uptown", I don't remember where, in approximately the 1910s. The books were very girly--doing a quick perusal of other blog entries and about 60 Amazon reviews, I have not found a single one written by a man prior to my own. Most of the series' adult fans are divided into two camps, rather insipid Christian types who like the books for their wholesome values and "introduction to Jewish customs, holidays, etc", and much cleverer Jewish women who seem to regard the books overall with affection but do so from an ironic and more feminist-minded (among the more notorious chapters of the initial volume is one entitled "Dusting is Fun") critical distance, as is typical of our generation. This review I thought was very well done. One of the Amazon reviewers--who, upon a second perusal, seems to be a man--calls it "one of those falsely sunny books that came out of the 1940s and 50s". Why "falsely sunny", when the author is clearly writing from memory about her own childhood? While I can see how life for a poor adult in New York or other American cities at that time period might be regarded as grim, there is plenty of literary evidence that this was in many ways an exciting and hopeful time and place to be a child. The family's material life and security continually increases as the series goes on, the children grow ever more at home and part of the life of their city, which was probably the most interesting and dynamic place in the world to live at that time, I would say even more so than now, certainly for a family of ordinary means. Why wouldn't the overall mood be one of optimism? Because health standards were low and the girls had limited career opportunities by our standards? As opposed to the standards of Czarist-ruled Lithuania, or wherever their parents had fled from? Not to worry, false sunniness works itself out by the second or third generation--I know you'll be getting no sunny books from me about my old neighborhood and childhood friends--though I wouldn't have minded belonging to the sunny generation myself.

This still leaves the question of how I ever got mixed up with these insidious books in the first place. I came to them through volume 6 of the Collier's Junior Classics Set "Harvest of Holidays", which is still in my possession, appropriately positioned right next to The Decline of the West on the dark bookshelf in my back hallway. The Harvest of Holidays is yet another seductive and monstrous kiddie compendium published in 1962, an anthology of holiday-related children's literature. Two chapters about the All-of-a-Kind-Family got in there, under Book Week--naturally they were a voracious little band of readers, despite their poverty--and Hanukkah. I think what happened is that I developed crushes on these little girls, especially Ella, the oldest of the brood, not the most carefree but not the most melancholy either, possessed of a nervous, careful optimism for the most part, rather like myself. Later in the series she gets a boyfriend, Jules Roth, who is so earnest and unobjectionable and determined to do the right thing by his parents, his religion, and America that even as a kid I thought this guy must be stopping off at leg shows on the way home after putting in a virtuous evening dining with the All-of-a-Kind-Family. Also I was obviously attracted to their interesting lives in New York City, the neighbors and local merchants who seemed to know who they were, their large family, both nuclear and extended, the fact that their lives both did seem fun, and that people seemed to like them and feel optimistic about their prospects, which I suppose I contrasted with what seemed to be the state of my own existence. I must confess I never got a good grasp on what was going on with most of the Jewish holidays, which is usually touted as one of the main benefits of reading the series. All the Jewish food references went over my head too. Overall the tone of the books was gentle and sunny, and I spent many an hour taking refuge in them when I should have been out in the street getting into fights and learning how to combat, both verbally and physically, with other boys my age instead of getting into the deadly habit of avoiding direct competition with other people as much as possible which plagues me unto this day.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

More On My New Year's Resolution

I mentioned in passing a couple of posts back that one of my foremost goals for this year was to develop a more progressive and modern outlook, and preferably one that was genuinely heartfelt. This is not an official or particular New Year's Resolution--those never have an air of reality about them, so I don't even bother to make them--but the sense of this necessity was weighing upon me urgently throughout the holiday season, and as it did not go away when it the holidays ended, I have chosen to assume it has some association with the changing of the calendar, and to be respectful of that possibility.

My real desire, of course, is to become somehow more compatible with people so that I can have friends, a normal social life, be welcomed into the bosom of a culture, or subculture that actually has an existence, whose members at least have a modicum of above-average intelligence, and whose particular cruelties and hatreds I can somewhat work with. Given my personality defects and total inability to converse with people this is unlikely to happen anyway, but one must make some effort, and the confused, outdated, socialist-populist-patriotic-with-socially-conservative-instincts stance I've been drifting into these last few years is not going to cut it in the 21st century among the kinds of people who are my most plausible hope for being, if not friends with, at least cordial and mutually respectful acquaintances. Henceforth I am determined to go all in on the major liberal social issues; hopefully if I commit myself to doing this wholeheartedly I will sooner rather than later come to see the absolute righteousness of them that has been so clear to their more impassioned advocates--and my natural friends and intellectual circles manques--for years. There is also the promise that I might find letting go of my reservations and pinched, antique attitudes liberating, that my mind will be able to breathe and expand and be able to operate better with a clearer, more correct and more serene comprehension of what is really happening, or should be happening.

I also misread for many years the seriousness of the whole you-are-what-you-eat social dynamic, and by my dogged adherence to french fries and soda as dietary staples have consigned myself by degrees to total social isolation from the people among whom I naturally belong. I had a rather sad encounter the other day in the cafeteria where I work. A woman with whom I had attended my orientation when we began there 11 years ago and whom I rarely see anymore happened to be in there as I was ordering some kind of meat sandwich on white bread. She is about my age, seemingly of a similar background to me, attended a similar eastern private college, similar humanities degree, year abroad, etc, etc. I consider her to be good-looking, as she has an attractive and intelligent face, though as she is short and more of the marriageable than the bombshell type she is not the sort the guys ever talked about much in an inappropriate way around the water cooler. At this orientation we were, it seemed to me, not only social and cognitive equals more or less, but possessed of a natural affinity. We were of the same kind and class of people. This equality, and this affinity, is no more. She is now a polished professional who has steadily moved up, and figures to continue to move up, through the ranks of the organization. Perhaps most tellingly of all, when she enters the cafeteria, she always goes without hesitation right to the salad bar and the spring water fountain--as do all the successful and upwardly mobile employees of the organization. The only people hanging around the grill with me are obvious proles, most of them overweight. Some of the girls getting buffalo burgers are cute, sure, but they are not drawn from the even minimally cultivated classes, and most are/were single mothers before getting out of their teens. I have unwittingly marked myself off to my professional betters as belonging to the class of the unspeakables. Salad?--Arugula?--Pesto(?)--12-Grain Bread?--What? I don't even know where to begin with the eating. Is there any hope I can make my back across the great food divide to my rightful social circle?

Is People's Eyesight Improving? My two oldest sons are five and six and they can identify objects in the third story windows of buildings across a four lane street. When I was five I already had coke-bottle glasses and couldn't make out objects ten feet in front of me without them. My wife had glasses by that age too. I don't notice too many kids with glasses in my children's schools either. Maybe one or two per class at most. I remember there were at least six kids in my first grade class who had them, and by third grade it was probably close to 40 percent of the students. My wife thinks the increased frequency of breastfeeding may be a cause for this improvement. I believe it is supposed to help in this area somehow, but I can't believe that is the whole cause, because plenty of people still don't do it. Baby formula has probably improved too; the diet of yuppie children is probably much better than it was 35 years ago (see above), but the majority of the population seems to be eating worse.

70's Parties. I don't know why I am bringing this up, but I have been dipping into some various reading material from and about the 70s recently, and it was just amazing to me to read the accounts of ordinary 30something suburban people, with children and so on--just like me--going to barbeques and neighborhood parties where they proceeded to do things like snort cocaine and strip naked and get into the hot tub with their neighbors, their neighbors' wives, people from the office, whomever. Can you imagine? Do regular people still do this somewhere? (they sure don't in my town).

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Picture of Dorian Gray--Part 1

I had never read this before. At the time--I started it January 10, 2008, so you see I am hopelessly behind in my journal-keeping and will probably never come current--it had been a while since I had read a regular old novel, especially one that goes down as easy as this one more or less does. One feels while reading it about literature the way one feels about life on a visit to New York or London or some such place after a long confinement in the hinterlands of civilization: that one has somehow rejoined the mainstream of it for a short time, even if he does not have as perfect mastery over the experience as he would like. For a great many people have actually read Dorian Gray, and everyone has heard about it and alludes to its central plot device freely, from Rush Limbaugh to Brent Musberger to my mother-in-law.

As such I anticipate I can afford to write about it more sparingly than has become my habit. Quotes from the book are already nearly ubiquitous, so the famous ones--and there are at least fifty of those--I will refrain from repeating here. Wilde's attitude and various pronouncements on art tend to set the critical faculty at its ease; The reader at least does not sense that there is a coded Straussian message embedded deeper in the text than he can ever hope to penetrate wherein the real story and real meaning of the book are contained; he anticipates a reward that is out in the open, visible right on the surface. Ultimately of course, I had to find fault with this--really earnest bourgeois like me tend to grow uncomfortable at the idea that genuine literature could ever be something we experience as fun, or natural, or easy. No, it can't. As I wrote last year:

'There are a few worthwhile observations here. O.W. does (I believe there should be a "not" inserted here) get sidetracked by or sucked into "profundities". He paints his scenes according to the attitude he lays out and they work as objets to be admired. Though he largely perceived no problems beyond beauty worthy of addressing, this attitude in fact became his subject.'

Picture 1--I think if nothing else I am getting a little better in selecting pictures for these posts. I have been spending more time on it, searching through multiple pages of possibilities and trying to wait until something grabs me as a true winner before I pounce.
The scent of flowers coming through open windows as we go through our mail and take our tea, even in town, seemed to be a stronger and more noticeable presence in novels back in those days before World War I than they generally have been since. People still write about it, but receiving and describing the sensation requires much more concentration and detachment from other mental activity that it did in this earlier period. For my part I almost never am conscious of smelling flowers or trees, other than cut grass, even when I am at the house in Vermont, which is set in the midst of vegetation, mainly trees, at least as copious as would have been found there in 1890. My suspicion is that we are somehow less attuned to this and therefore it usually fails to make the impression on us it should. On the other hand this may be a peculiar characteristic of the landscape of England, for it is in their writers where its presence is most strongly noted.

The style of the writing struck me as containing many echoes of Henry James of all people, mostly with regard to the manner of the psychological quivering and probing. This was odd of course because these two authors are generally thought of as opposites both in personality and writing: Wilde outrageous and witty but ultimately jejeune, James deadly serious, the most boring and impenetrable writer conceivable to many, the profound Master of the workings and motivations of the human mind through pure language to others (personally I think there is a great deal to be learned about the mechanical aspects of fiction writing in studying his work; beyond that I cannot assert anything with real confidence or conviction about his merits. I do not dislike it, but I don't love it either, and my sensibility is not fine enough to understand what fires and repulses his characters, and why). On the other hand both had similar obsessions with aesthetics, art, social class, even if these manifested themselves in different ways.

I don't know if it is recorded anywhere that little Henry and William James at the ages of 5 and 6 were in the regular habit of screaming at each other, fistfighting, and talking about the other's bodily functions, though I doubt any of this ever happened in the presence of their father at least, who knew how to keep the level of discourse on a very high plane at all times. I have tried to introduce the subject of the James family (as well as other renowned intellectual families) on occasion at my own dinner table, as if they were our well-behaved and studious contemporaries, neighbors even, and competitors for future honors and the affections of teachers in the hope of impressing upon my sons that much of the human species by their age has already turned its attention to more advanced subjects than those favored by them, but my intentions are misunderstood, and the topic usually shouted down on all sides at once.

Picture 2--I was not familiar of this picture of our author before. I think it's a good one. He really looks like himself in it.
The homoerotic imagery in the book is quite overt to anyone living in this depraved age. One would think it would have caused a scandal in 1890, but Wilde appears to have avoided much widespread suggestion of that sort of thing until he was more or less caught in flagrante delicto with Lord Douglas, the Marquis of Queensbury's boy, several years after the publication of this book. Either the Victorians were more sophisticated in these matters than they are usually given credit for, or they were obtuse regarding them probably beyond our ability to conceive.

The degree of vanity which the main characters own to openly is also fairly shocking and outrageous, especially for the time, and especially as I don't think there is supposed to be anything tongue-in-cheek about it. These guys are flat-out divas.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the book reads very much like a play, even the descriptions of the scenery and settings are more like stage directions for the character to ask against the background of than the delineating of a world in which it is the character's fate to exist, which is the more common attitude of novels.

Picture 3--There are many film and TV versions of the book, none of which I have seen, and of which the advertisments for and stills from the modern ones, at least, look extremely annoying to me, but this is probably due in great part to my sense of personal estrangement from the whole current age. This beautiful gelatinous looking title from, I believe, the 1945 Hollywood version, was just too good to pass up. There are whole web sites (of course) devoted exclusively to title shots from movies. I don't dislike the idea in itself, and the pictures are fun to look at, however, I haven't found one that is accompanied by any particularly interesting writing or insight as to why the poster chose this format to be the theme of his website.
p. 47--Regarding a scandal: "The thing was hushed up, but, egad, Kelso ate his chop alone at the club for sometime afterwards." Chop references are like Helen Keller jokes to me. No matter how I try to resist, they kill me every time.

At the time I read the book, I made a note that I was learning from Oscar Wilde what was uncool in conversation, as if I were anticipating some kind of big social breakthrough after I had finished the whole thing. Whatever those lessons were, I have apparently forgotten all of them now.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Worst Music Post Yet--The Blog is Now Officially in Crisis

I appear to be incapable of getting turned on by music that is actually great. Since I work in the health care industry and hear constant propaganda about the way that breakthroughs in genetic research and treatment are going to be able to change our fundamental beings within a matter of a few short years--and who needs his fundamental being changed more than I do?--I hold out hope that I will not have to live with this blinkered mind I have too much longer.

My wife hates this song, and yours probably will too. The Jack Jones version is better/more offensive but apparently no one has gotten around to posting a video of it.

I usually do a very good job of blocking the decade of the 70s out of my mind entirely, but for some reason this lodged itself in my head for several days last week; "Jimmy sits alone in the moonlight/saw his woman kiss another man/takes a ladder steals the stars from the sky/puts on Sinatra and starts to cry." This is not O.K. Nice video by the way, which does bring back the atmosphere of listening to music which prevailed among friendless losers in the LP era: prop up the album sleeve and alternate between staring at picture on the cover and watching the record spin around between bouts of crying for hours on end. This is how people lived back then.

I've decided that I like Ricky Nelson. In the end, the sound carries all before it. If any of my children ever decide to take up the guitar--not likely, since we unfortunately don't have much of a musical tradition in our family, and none at all on my side--I certainly hope they go more in the direction of the twangy, snappy, jangly, steel string sound rather than "the blues" which if I am out somewhere when the band starts playing them is a reliable signal to me that I can safely go home without missing any fun (not that I ever do of course), especially as I don't derive any enjoyment out of openly expressing my worship of musicians and unworthiness before them, which strikes me as a characteristic of blues-oriented concerts, intentionally or not. Back to Ricky Nelson--yes, the audience in "Lonesome Town" is a bit comatose, and it's hard to have street cred as a rocker when your parents are beaming proudly around their veneer coffee table at your song, but don't tell me you don't want to jump on those two girls on the sofa. They were there for Ricky, and they were enjoying themselves. I wouldn't trade the one on the left for forty Led Zeppelin groupies.

Speaking of guys who were just loved by the ladies, and always will be, Al B Sure! was The Man for about a month back in '84. I have to admit, it was never very clear to me why this should be the case. It's good to see that he has not been entirely forgotten.

I was reading some kind of "Generation X Turns 40" article the other day--naturally it was a comic piece, this age cohort being, apart from a few brilliant outliers, essentially a ridiculous group of people apparently--in which one of the top 5 causes of despair people (presumably the men) were having upon reaching this age was the realization they were never going to sleep with Winona Ryder. Not so fast, I thought. Now it is true, one's chance to sleep with the nubile incarnation of Winona Ryder is decidedly gone, but given her track record of lightning relationships and the circumstance that she has evidently has no interest in getting married, one cannot rule oneself out of the picture entirely yet. Writers, especially, if they can build up their cultural status, have a great track record of dating film actresses 30 years past their prime. Erich Maria Remarque got to be Paulette Goddard (one of my favorite's)'s fourth husband. I remember Philip Roth dating Mia Farrow, who never did much for me but seems to be irresistible to Jewish intellectual types of a certain age, when she was about 55 (when she was 20 she was going out with Frank Sinatra); given that many people consider him to be the greatest living American novelist, that fact that he has to get in line behind Woody Allen in the quest for babes gives you a hint as to how excited women are at the prospect of dating even world-famous authors. I suppose Arthur Miller, who seems to have something of a jerk in his personal relations such as is often appealing to women, married Marilyn Monroe when she was still fairly young, though after the great DiMaggio (who bailed quickly) and seems to have contributed mightily to driving her both insane and into the licentious arms of the Kennedys. But I am digressing.

I'm not sure when exactly Winona Ryder was identified as the quintessential Generation-X actress, but certainly by the time the mid-90s parody (it was supposed to be a parody, I assume) Reality Bites came out, she was the obvious choice to play the love interest. What a ridiculous movie it was! Her main attribute as a romantic lead other than that she is prettier than most people is that she seems earnest; like so many of her generation, she would like to be less mediocre, a little smarter and more educated (I read once that she had a collection of autographed first edition works of literature--no Paris Hilton she), a competent actress, have some understanding of what it would entail to be all these things, but she seems to lack the basic foundation of character, selfhood or whatever to build this upon. But this is where serious Art and Thought are concerned. In the world as portrayed by Reality Bites, she is the only argument (albeit a shaky one for the most part), against killing yourself put forth in the entire picture.

Winona is in any case no Teresa Wright (note: she isn't the singer, if you don't know her; she comes in at about 1 minute), though she is comparable to her, as both are strongly identified with a particular generation and epoch, in which lots of moviegoers looked at the star, or at least the types of characters the star tended to play, as a sort of dream girlfriend. Teresa Wright's is probably thought of more fondly by more people overall, but certainly everyone does not share the enthusiasm. Indeed, if I am to make good my New Year's resolution to really try to be more progessive and modern in my outlook on life, really feel where our society and the world needs to be going and become one with that viewpoint, my current infatuation with Teresa Wright, and the kinds of movies she makes, and the ideas she represents, are going to have to go. But she was just so adorable. Not to mention that she was probably a card-carrying FDR Democrat to her dying day, though that is just a hunch. She doesn't look like much of a Republican to me, though.

On a somewhat unrelated note, while I loved the film The Pride of the Yankees as a kind, and I am sure the tears would still flow at the speech when Lou Gehrig declares he considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth if I saw it today, the idea that he was the stammering idiot around woman that he is portrayed as being in this movie strikes me as rather implausible. The guy was a hulking athlete and national hero with legendary upper body strength--he is one of the very few sports figures of the 1920s and 30s who is considered to have the body and physical skill set approaching that of a modern professional athlete. I wonder if he was not actually gay (not actively of course, but by inclination), though I have never seen this brought up in mainstream baseball books, and I don't generally read a lot of gay-oriented media. He famously lived with his mother until he was almost thirty, and well into his baseball career, never showing much interest in women, then married a rather homely lady (she was no Teresa Wright herself), with whom he never had any children. He had attended college, which was fairly unusual at the time for baseball players, and was always depicted in the press as a gentleman and a sensitive fellow, again in an era when ballplayers were seen as, if not quite the barbarians they had been regarded as prior to World War I, generally rough and hard-living characters. I'm sure this has been picked up on before though.

I'm going to have to cut back on this stuff too