Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Armies of the Night (2)

Yes, my production has (once again) slowed considerably of late. Obviously I should really let the site go, but the compulsion to keep the charade going, to myself if no one else, that I lead some kind of 'life of the mind', while weaker than it has been at almost an point in the last twenty-five years, is not quite extinguished wholly yet. With my new found free time I could get to know my neighbors, mentor youth (in what exactly?), volunteer in community beautification efforts and whatever else it is ordinary dull-witted but good and honest citizens are supposed to do. Eventually I assume this ongoing identity crisis will have to resolve itself and I will become fully conscious at long last of who I actually am, what I can do, and what I really want to do, and have always wanted to do. Actually I assume nothing of the sort, and expect to go on as I am now forever, such being the postmodern condition. But no one wants to hear that. "...(Mailer) had learned from years of speaking in public that an entertainer's first duty was to deliver himself to the stage with the maximum of energy, high focus, and wit--a good heavy dinner on half a pint of bourbon was likely to produce torpor, undue search for the functional phrase..." Perhaps this was my problem. I always ate before parties.

"He was shrewd enough to know that (Robert) Lowell, like many another aristocrat before him, respected abrupt departures." We all can't be aristocrats, but it would have been nice to have been schooled in (or picked up on) a few moderately attractive or interest-piquing habits at some point in one's youth. What a disaster social life is for the majority of men.

Mailer writes about sex a lot, of course. Evidently what, or the way, he writes about it, though superficially not uninteresting, kills any enthusiasm I have for continuing on the subject myself. " to Mailer's idea of it was better off dirty, damned, even slavish! than clean, and without guilt...Without guilt, sex was meaningless...Onanism and homosexuality were not, to Mailer, light vices--to him it sometimes seemed that much of life and most of society were designed precisely to drive men deep into onanism and homosexuality...Just as professional football players love sex because it is so close to football..."

There was an article making the rounds of the blogosphere last week by Camille Paglia lamenting the sexlessness of contemporary bourgeois life and culture. While I have previously identified Camille Paglia as one of that venerable school of writers who almost touchingly believes that the time and place where she herself happened to be between ages 18 and 25 or so was the last vital age of culture, learning, eros, etc, and while I thought most of her specific points in the article were rather silly, the main premise obviously is true. I have no memory of the 60s, but I do have a memory of the late 70s and 80s, and the comparison of the active virility and confidence, sexual and otherwise, of the run of 35-45 year old men of that era--who at the time were considered themselves to be rather weak compared to their own fathers and grandfathers--to those of my generation is to further emphasize just how pitiful and irrelevant most of the men my age have become. It is never entirely safe to use one's own relatives as the example, but my father was a high school teacher, as were many of his friends at the time, and while I won't say it was completely open season on female students and babysitters, to say nothing of adult women, for these guys, it was definitely not closed season, such as it is now, by any stretch of the imagination. One of my father's friends whose house we used to go to had a young female neighbor, probably 17-19 years old, who was something of an exhibitionist and when she would start prancing around in her undergarments or other scanty clothing with the shades open all the men would have to make their way over the window to have a look, regardless of their wives and children being present or not, and this was considered, as far as I could tell, natural and not unreasonable behavior. Apparently a good part of the work day for white collar men in this era was spent flirting with and propositioning the various comely females in the office, which to be honest would not be an unpleasant change from time to time from compulsively surfing the internet and maintaining a constant facade of neutered (and not only sexually) amiability. So people my age are pouring themselves into raising their children in my opinion because public life has become so sterile and boring that their only hope to somehow break through to a revivified mental and aesthetic environment is through their children's developing more regularly human intellects and personalities. But I have lost my train. I had the whole section on how men had to project authority or competence, fullness in some sense, and how this generation at 40 has been completely revealed to have very little of this in them. However I will leave that out. My ultimate point, which I noted in my earlier writings on the "White Negro" essay, is the fairly obvious observation that any society which embraced Norman Mailer's approach to sexuality in any sizable degree would be neither socially nor culturally stable enough to support itself. That does not mean that everybody ought to live as if he were a eunuch however.

Now we're up to page 34, and Mailer is contrasting the vigorous and manly section of society--soldiers, cops, football players, mill workers, politicans--which he assumes to support the conflict and Vietnam, with the "Freud-ridden embers of Marxism...the urban middle class with their...secret slavish love for the oncoming hegemony of the computer and the suburb..." Hey, he's talking about my people now. Sure, it looks like it should be a total mismatch, and I suppose ultimately it always is, but I certainly grew up drinking the Kool-Aid that the militant suburban left had, after nearly a decade of ever-waning struggle, brought the military-industrial complex to its figurative knees and put an end to American involvement in the Vietnam War. Indeed, I think that is still the official story. Yes we can.

On page 35 we're back to talking about "real orgies... with murder in the air", the MC's ignorance of which, in Mailer's opinion, at the rally the night before the demonstration, necessitates him taking over that position in a putsch at the conclusion of the sexless man's speech. There is a lot of funny material in this, I have to admit. Again, I think for my generation, because the time of our childhood and adolescence was one of rather extreme and uncontrolled public violence compared to most times in history, including today, that this fascination with introducing it into the routine of life which seems to have afflicted a lot of intelligent people in the late 1960s is one that we have largely gotten over. My readings into the much celebrated edgy sex of the 1965-1980 period as against the comparatively maligned 1950-65 era haven't convinced me that apart from increased availability, the former time was qualitatively much better, though the early baby boomers especially, one must admit, have collectively an envious ability to believe in the excitement and superiority of their own experiences, educations, abilities, etc, to other people and times. Mailer, as I will comment on further in another place, unlike most of his own generation was very impressed with the irreverence and edginess of the young hippies in this book by the way, which no one seems to have seen coming after the bland, well-behaved and at the time frequently maligned kids of the 50s.

Quotes relating to literature: "'The one mind a novelist cannot enter is the mind of a novelist superior to himself' said once to Mailer by Jean Malaquais." "'...if novelists come from the middle class, poets tend to derive from the bottom and the top.'" I think I knew or believed that already. Mailer was writing, or as it were speaking, at length about the poet Robert Lowell, who also took part in the rally, and whose patrician background and manners, combined with his talent, seemed to have an effect of awe on the normally unfazeable Mailer. He noted that a few years earlier Lowell had refused an invitation from President Johnson to attend a White House party for artists and intellectuals, the "only invited artist of first rank who had refused. Saul Bellow, for example, had attended the garden party" (nice dig at a rival by the way). Mailer admitted that he probably would not have been able to refuse such an invitation himself, though he "assured the audience he would not probably have ever had the opportunity" which provoked "hints of merriment in the crowd". The parts where Mailer admits his social and professional weaknesses, jealousies and so on have the unfortunate effect of being rather endearing after all the bombast. You think maybe he's not such a bad guy after all, that he's maybe on your side even, whatever that even is. There is something in this writing though which I cannot put my finger on which is definitely repulsive though, even though this particular book I think is quite good, and very entertaining. Maybe I will figure out what it is before I finish this.

More on Lowell: "One did not achieve the languid grandeurs of that slouch in one generation--the grandsons of the first sons had best go through the best troughs in the best eating clubs at Harvard before anyone in the family could try for such an elegant note." Mailer went to Harvard too by the way, though you wouldn't know it from this passage; obviously it was not the same Harvard that he is talking about here. I saw one of Mailer's son's on TV (C-Span) once. He appeared to be a few years younger than I am--Mailer has many children spanning several decades--and although the son had written a book of some kind, he did not have anything like the social graces or elegant expressive speech such as one would imagine a person who was the son of a famous literary author and (one would assume) had gone to expensive schools and had considerable exposure to serious intellectual company from an early age would have. If anything, he seemed to be a bit of a lout.

Indeed, Mailer loved obscenity. He claims to have come to love regular Americans while in the army in World War II, and it was primarily their obscenity that he credits with securing his affection to the type. "...the American corporation executive, who was after all the foremost representative of Man in the world today, was perfectly capable of burning unseen women and children in the Vietnamese jungles, yet felt a large displeasure...and disapproval at the generous use of obscenity in literature and in public." I suspect he believed obscenity was the primary means by which the language of the time sought and expressed truth, conventional speech having been so manipulated by corporate and political interests through mass media, etc, for its eternal horrid ends. Now of course conventional obscenity been co-opted by the authorities and had whatever vigor it once had tamed out of it, though we still have forbidden or inappropriate speech. Howard Stern, to name one obvious example, is completely uninteresting when he is being merely obscene, but will occasionally say something inappropriate that is slightly amusing.

Film reference!--"ever since seeing All the King's Men years ago he had wanted to come on in public as a Southern demagogue." That was supposed to be good (the 1949 version), wasn't it? I've never seen it. How about a link to the trailer!

Mailer stayed at the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington. Here is their current website. Unfortunately they are at the moment closed until October. Writers tend to travel in more style than I had been wont to believe.

"One may wonder if the Adams in the name of this hotel bore any relation to Henry; we need not be concerned with Hay who was a memorable and accomplished gentleman from the nineteenth century (then Secretary of State to McKinley and Roosevelt) other than to say that the hotel looked like its name, and was indeed the staunchest advocate of that happy if heavy style in Washington architecture which spoke of a time when men and events were solid, comprehensible, often obedient to a code of values, and resolutely nonelectronic."

The hotel's web page announces that the high temperature in Washington today was 101 degrees. Yikes. I am heading in that direction on Wednesday.

I can't believe how many hours over a period of about a week it took me to write this post.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Prague Pictures II

Hobby Centrum-Praha 4 (Krc[h]). This is the community center that S. originally was assigned to teach at, English classes being one of the hobbies offered to the neighborhood. Though she did not continue in that position the second year, due to the connections and warm feelings she developed for this part of town we continued to reside there--our apartment block was directly to the left of the photographer in this picture--and take part in various Hobby Centrum field trips. Visible parked inside the fence is the Hobby Centrum van, which (augmented by whatever private cars could be rounded up) served on many of these trips to the countryside, usually after several hours of preparatory tinkering on Friday afternoon before departing, after which a capable mechanic was still required to accompany it wherever it went, much as Mortimer Adler in his later years working the lecture circuit had to have a doctor waiting backstage in the not improbable event of emergency. For the annual trip to Austria, they chartered, or at least got, a more modern bus, the Hobby Centrum-mobile being one of those oddities that is endearing within the national family but would be a bit of an embarrassment if taken abroad. Besides that it would have been highly unlikely to make it up the side of the first Alp it came to.

English Teacher's Bedroom at Hobby Centrum. Hey, the German teacher had to procure his own accomodation off site.

This place was an excellent example of why workplace/institutional novels offer greater possibilities to authors in other countries than they seem to here. For one thing it seemed to employ about thirty people at taxpayer expense, albeit at very modest, even borderline subsistence, wages, though at the time this still enabled one to live within ten minutes of the center of Prague and within the context of a society where almost no one was remotely wealthy by the standards of New York or London. Such people as were succeeding somewhat in the capitalist system were not yet plentiful enough to have cordoned off large areas of both physical and economic territory within the society to themselves, though my impression is that this has taken place since then. The director, who had one of those European degrees which translates to a master's degree in this country but allows one to be addressed as 'Herr Doktor' or 'Pany Doktor' over there, could regularly be spotted staggering around the neighborhood raging drunk and spouting unpleasant greetings at strangers and people he recognized alike, on weekends always but frequently at three in the afternoon as well. Because of his qualification and title he was the highest paid employee, of course. He didn't seem to have to do much work. His wife I remember was not well and may have been institutionalized. Her daughter by a previous marriage worked at Hobby Centrum as well, I forget in what capacity, though she and her stepfather/boss were not on speaking terms during the two years we were there. This lady, whom I somewhat liked in spite of the fact that she had a lot of bad personal qualities, such as nastiness, duplicity, haughtiness, vast areas of ignorance about which she was so oblivious that pointing them out had no effect on her ego whatsoever, was also given the dubious assignment of being my personal instructrice in the Czech language. In addition to the English teacher, there was also in residence in an apartment on the ground floor an old lady whose function was a mishmash of sidewalk-sweeping, gate-locking and light-extinguishing. There was a very lesbian-looking older gym teacher straight out of the Sputnik era who ran the bicycling trips and generally spent her time screaming and ordering people around. She was one of those old school Communists/natural Europeans who, when it was time to change after a hike would strip right down in the center of a crowded room, mixed company or no. She's probably dead by now.

In Czech the "J" is pronounced as "y". 'Ahoy' has managed to become the standard informal greeting among Czech people despite the well-known circumstance that the country is landlocked and has no navy or substantial maritime culture or history. Legend has it that some Bohemian youths at one point in the not so distant past--the 1800s perhaps--ran off to Germany or somewhere and ended up as sailors for a time, bringing the expression back to Prague when they returned home, where, for whatever reason, it caught on in a big way.
While driving was not a foreign concept, even people who had cars tended to use them only for specific occasions, almost never on a daily basis. One of the things that struck me especially at the time was that gas stations were still so relatively infrequent that every one in the country, including within the city of Prague, was still denoted on road maps.

Right now we are in Slovakia. I could never figure out if the frog crossing sign was supposed to be serious or was one of those inside jokes of a place undesirable to and therefore largely excluded by the cool and powerful currents of modern life.

Slovakia was to the Austrian Empire approximately what West Virginia is to the rest of the United States, to Czechoslovakia what northern Maine is to the rest of New England--or at least to southern Maine. At this time its president was a former boxer who was given to favoring politically incorrect initiatives directed against Gypsies, Hungarians and other undesirable/threatening minorities within the Slovakian territories (something like 11% of the population of Slovakia is actually Hungarian). It was an embattled little place with a terrible inferiority complex towards the Czechs and Prague, let alone the rest of Europe. Very interesting to pass through, to walk about in, however, because it was about 50, sometimes even 80 years out of date in terms of its living arrangements, economic activity, etc.

This jaunt to Slovakia took place over Easter Weekend. Slovakians are Catholics, though apart from very old people no one appeared to be especially devout. On Saturday night there was a girl at the pub who was something of a good time girl, I guess you could say, leather and black eyeliner and signaling availabity to certain of the men--some might use an expression such as slutting it up, but that would not be my choice of words. Anyway, the next morning, Easter, at mass, guess who should come into the church side by side with her babushka-like grandmother (probably mother, for all that), still decked out in the leather jacket and black eyeliner, walk straight to the altar, cross herself and drop into a completely submissive, prostrate kneel before the altar cross and remain in this very intense state of total devotion for about five minutes before slowly rising as if in a trance and wandering back to take her seat in one of the pews. Extraordinary.

This is back at Prague, the church at Vyshehrad, which I mentioned in the previous post. This castle/park was a very beautiful and peaceful, though still urban spot--you had a good view of the river and some of the iconic sights downtown--and as before mentioned was quite close to our part of town, so we hung out there a good deal.

The Grand Hotel Europa was still actually kind of seedy at this time, the bar had video gambling machines and such, though there were plans to restore it to its former elegance. I'm not sure now why I included this picture over several other ones taken that same day on the same jaunt around town.

Statue of Jan Huss (formerly known in English as John Huss) in the Old Town Square, Prague. Huss was famously burned at the stake for heresy in 1415 on the spot where his monument now stands. He and his followers were (less fortunate) forerunners of Luther who were in rebellion against the hypocrisy, luxury and general decadence and organization of the established church as well as differing in various points of doctrine. The square is quite beautiful and dynamic and as such is a popular tourist attraction, and it was already mainly given over to them even at this time. In the Christmas season though there was still a pleasant but fairly modest fair or market set up which seemed to cater primarily to local people, at least at the food and beer stalls, and the St Nicholas Day festivity (December 6) was a big event that drew lots of families and such into the square.

One of the Statues on the Famous Charles Bridge. Gratuitous, but not to have any pictures of the more famous sights also makes it seem a little incomplete. Even in the books of the avant garde photographer Josef Sudek he slips in a few pictures of the most famous attractions of the city, albeit from unique angles, with odd lighting, etc, etc.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Poem On the Oil Spill

I was going for something in the style of Betjeman or MacNeice, but it wasn't coming out...

It started out "Old money may be better than new money/But oil money is the worst," then went to "Nothing is sacred in the face of it/man himself not least". I was looking then to hone in on various aspects of this money's especial irresistibility, aggressiveness, crassness and mocking characteristics, taking for example the oil wells that stand, or used to stand, on the lawn of the Oklahoma state capitol, or the immediate appearance of state of the art transportation and communications infrastructure, as well as steakhouses for the oil company employees, in formerly long neglected backwaters when oil is discovered in them. I was then going to suggest that 'resistance' to this power 'justifies any measure'--or something of the kind. Then I realized I didn't have the time or the words ready enough at hand to make the go of it I wanted.

These were all rather languid and abstract impressions anyway. I am in pretty complete agreement that one ought to be angry about the oil spill--even unfocused and impotent rage, if heartfelt, is a more honorable response than passive resignation, though of course one would like to believe that the entire segment of life with which he has any contact is capable of more than merely this. And I don't actually believe that the current dominant forces of our society are beyond all restraint or law or effective opposition, though they have certainly done a thorough job of making me feel that way much of the time. I think they will suffer some kind of significant diminishment within the next 10-15 years however, the basis which will immediately appear obvious and be a cause of great embarrassment to those of us who spent the prime years of our lives baffled about how to break the death grip these entities and the people attached to them held over our minds. I once came across a book in a second hand store a few years ago that had been published in 1987 by a very self-assured writer with impressive sounding foreign policy credentials about the likelihood of Soviet infiltration of all Central America, Mexico included, within 10 years and the eventuality of the American homeland being suffocated and overwhelmed by this pressure one way or the other. This current arrangement of society will pass, and most people even in positions of authority and expertise have a limited capacity to predict human affairs.

I find nonetheless--or perhaps thus--that I am not able to work myself up into real anger over the oil spill. I have seemingly no emotional connection with the affected areas or creatures and therefore the images and reports arouse little synaptic response in me. My job and the circumstances of my life and the limited understanding I have of science, particularly brain science, seem to have made me a total vegetable. I already have largely given up talking and real personal interaction with anyone outside my children, and I might my ability to write or even think becoming more and more confined and crippled by the day. I am on the verge of having to shut down and go silent completely at age 40. This is not unusual; I wonder if this is the sort of thing that afflicted J.D. Salinger and Glenn Gould and Howard Hughes, who similarly retreated into silence at about the same age, though obviously in their cases after having achieved significant accomplishments. Everyone assumes that these famous men still had plenty to say and do but chose not to, and perhaps they did, but if they felt different, as if they had in fact nothing to say, perceived nothing to come into their minds worth saying, which is what has been happening with me, it would not surprise me. I am starting to wonder also if the President does not feel something in this vein, which would be a serious problem. I do not believe him to be deficient of intelligence, but I am starting to think he lacks the kind of mental vigor which is especially necessary in politics.

For my non-literary reading I have been working on a psychology book which is heavy on pharmacology, brain chemistry and so on. I am trying to incorporate more science-related material into my reading, since that seems to be where all the most serious mental activity and advancement of knowledge in our time seems to be taking place, but the actual hard science for the most part just does not excite me as much as the introduction of the case histories and the author's anecdotes of his brilliant classmates and mentors in medical school. I tried to rationalize and deny the truth to myself for years, but I am ready to confess that I am not as smart as people who love and think deeply about, or at least are comfortable in the thought processes of pure theoretical science, stripped away from the trappings of narratives, university positions, scenic research locals, etc. I would like to think there is still a place for me in an intellectual world where this type of intelligence is ascendant more stimulating than to be a kind of silent drudge, but I am starting to think perhaps not. In the psychology book, one of the author's patients is the provost of a Jesuit college and well-known scholar of the medieval Church who suffered a breakdown as a result of a struggle with the other Jesuits over whether to open up the college to secular faculty and curricula. Although he attempts to be respectful towards the patient it is obvious that the doctor considers the seriousness of all this drama to be a little silly, and that a religious scholar is not a mental figure on anywhere near an equivalent plane with a researcher in neuropsychiatry. Perhaps this is right, too, in terms of absolute brainpower, and the modest learning of even the typical accomplished humanist is comparatively nothing much worth aspiring to, and could be mastered by any sharp scientist fairly easily and quickly if the latter felt it worth his time, as is frequently suggested. My problem is twofold. It is not that I do not want to learn and master science, but that I largely feel no pleasure or excitement in doing so; and I cannot master the areas that do excite me and give me pleasure, and therefore can never achieve any sense of any fullness or well-being as a person. I appear to be of a dysthymic temperament (from the Greek "impaired spirit"). Dysthymia "has much in common with the shy and pessimistic profile--the introvert for whom life is a constant struggle, and who habitually withdraws from the world as a difficult, frightening place." The doctor seems to believe this can be treated and contained with drugs. I have a fantasy that if I underwent real psychoanalysis they would find something interesting in my past and the patterns of my life that would explain what the hell is really wrong with me, but probably that would not happen. The drug solution is very unsatisfying to me. I want a full and fascinated investigation into the peculiarities of my specific case, with reference to the unique form of my intellect, etc. But I have been over all this before...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Norman Mailer--The Armies of the Night (1968)--Part 1 Norman Mailer is one of those writers that I used to hope very much would turn out not to be so good in the end, because I knew even as a teenager that if he were the model of what it took to be a great writer in our society, that I was doomed. I had always regarded him as a kind of personal bete noire, and experienced feelings of great relief whenever someone who seemed to be both well-placed and reasonably knowledgeable about literature would excoriate one of his efforts. When I finally read some of his work--the essay "The White Negro" in particular, and some of the other selections from Advertisements For Myself--I was buoyed by the idea that there was a good probability that was essentially ridiculous, though the tone was not as off-putting and sneering as I had anticipated, and there was a sense of humor in it. I was still not looking forward to The Armies of the Night, and so deeply ingrained is this ancient sense of aversion towards the man that I will probably never look forward with excitement to any Mailer book; however, I have to say it is quite a good book, or at least the first 3/4ths of it is, the "history as a novel" section. The final part, 'the novel as history', is written more in the dry style of a newspaper report and obviously is meant to make a point but is not memorable in the way the rest of the book was.

What Norman Mailer did well in this book was to illuminate and explain in a clear, considered and entertaining manner the real nature behind what he saw as the genuinely disturbing political problems in America, which were not specific policy questions so much as that the modern technological state had seriously affected people's ability to be autonomous and individual both in body and mind. One can argue that people have always been subject to mind control, through priests or the sophistication of their masters, but the idea I suppose is that in a small and isolated community a man of real strength and individuality of thought will still be able to challenge the system, which the modern mass technoculture is largely able to control and mitigate the influences of dissenting and differently alive voices. Mailer manages at least to write like a sensible person whose opposition to the government, the war and corporate domination over society has a certain not inelegant logic about it, which he was not always successful in doing elsewhere.

If you are not familiar with the premise of the book, it is an account of an actual event, a protest march in Washington D.C. that took place October 21, 1967. In the main body of his book Mailer wrote about it in the style of a novel, but the characters are all actual people (including 'Norman Mailer') and the places and events presumably the places Mailer went to and the things that actually happened to him.

Mailer introduces himself as a character by reprinting an account of the rally from the next week's Time magazine, is which he is described as "slurping liquor from a coffee mug...Mumbling and spewing obscenities as he staggered about the stage--which he had commandeered by threatening to beat up the previous M.C.--...described in detail his search for a usable privy on the premises." It continues in that same strain of bravado, expletives and scatological talk. Although Mailer disputes the accuracy of his portrayal in this article, one gets the sense that he also enjoys it. The account was further lightened for me by a Dwight Macdonald sighting--you may remember him as a New Yorker writer, and one of the more ferocious middlebrow-despisers of the 50s and 60s, though like most such people how he was able to ascend to the ranks of the highbrows where so many others have failed was always left unexplained. Anyway he seems to be quite forgotten today, though 50 years ago he was a mainstay of the New York literary establishment.

There are a lot of humorous quotes in this I am going to let pass. Ones of literary interest I will include such the description of a friend with "a profound air of defeated gloom " looking "the way J.D. Salinger would have looked if J.D. Salinger had been tall enough and beefed-up enough to play football, and had fumbled Catcher in the Rye." Norman Mailer apparently loved football by the way, at least in the 1960s (it was a lot cooler then). He refers to it quite a lot in the course of this book, and found it noteworthy to mention several times that taking part in the protest was causing him to miss watching the pro games on TV that weekend.

I've been quite depressed lately--the typical middle age ennui and sense of declining vigor, which I did not have an excessive supply of to start with--which is why my postings have been dragging somewhat. The most celebrated examples of postwar American writing, I have to admit, even when I think it is good, do not on the whole enhance my mood. I think I am not suited for the impermanence and lack of solidity of everything in modern American life, relationships, institutions, communal traditions. Norman Mailer especially I find insuperably depressing even when I have some admiration for his book. There is no identifiable pattern or rhythm or sense of rootedness to any profound idea or habit of life present in his writings. I find that very hard to take.

Back on the subject of celebrities, I thought it interesting that then vice-president Hubert Humphrey appeared at the 1967 National Book Awards festivities to address the assembled literati, where he was snubbed by a small group of protesting writers who walked out while he was giving his speech (Mailer was boycotting the event generally on principle). Writers are so far off the radar of powerful politicians and other people nowadays of course as any kind of serious force in society that the idea of their speaking at the National Book Awards--and being snubbed into the bargain--seems comical. This is also comical: "Jules Feiffer (a writer of some kind-- apparently not a pal of Mailer's) walked out with the demonstrators, then sneaked back to go to a party for Humphrey."

p.8 "Mailer hated to put in time with losers...there had been all too many years when he had the reputation of being a loser; it had cost him much." The untidy and ever-fluctuating necessity of constantly producing losers whose purpose in life is to serve as the bland and faceless opposition to the master class is the curse of America.

p. 14 "Mailer was a snob of the worst sort." After reading the Brideshead book, I assure you, Mailer only wishes he were a snob of the worst sort..."New York had certainly wrecked his tolerance for any party but a very good one." I like that line, and it's probably true. My goal for this immediate year in fact is to wrangle an invitation to some kind of New York party. I deserve it.

I going to cut it short and stop again for a few days.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Prague Pictures I

I've been thinking a lot about my days in Prague lately--that was pretty clearly my Brideshead period for better or worse, and enough time has passed now (since 1996-97) that the pictures have acquired a decided air of a lost yesteryear that is never to be regained about them. I have never been back since the afternoon I left my apartment down the road from Pankrac station for the last time. By now surely the atmosphere and most of the places I frequented that made the deepest impressions on me are either gone or unrecognizable. Of course most of the coolest, or least most authoritative, people from the advanced capitalist countries considered that whatever magic the post-communist city had had offer was already finished as early as '93, by which time its interesting Milan Kunderian character had already been hopelessly compromised and trampled by Western influence. But there were still a few corners that this latter infection, or blessing, as many doubtless regard it, had not yet penetrated much at all in '96, and not all of these were entirely desolate of curiosities for the moderately intelligent inquisitor. The myriad flaws of this world have many chroniclers, and it is no interest to me to recount or much to consider them here. At the time I was looking, as many people do, for the kind of beerhall and cafe and theater and streetcar life, all at affordable prices, that the great cities of Europe offered about a hundred years ago, which the cities of the post-communist central and east, with their primitive economies and the preservation of many cultural habits since 1939 in a kind of sooty amber, approximated as closely as it was likely I would have been able to find anywhere.

There was a fair amount of talk at the time about the American expat crowd in Prague in the 90s being akin to that of the Lost Generation in Paris in the 20s, and there was some guarded expectation that this would bear artistic fruit of a kind, though as the years began to pass and no one had yet managed to emerge as a remotely viable Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald or even Alice B Toklas-like figure, these comparisons quickly began to be thrown about much more in sarcasm than in earnest. I mention it because I was there, and writing and other artistic pursuits were something that clearly people were doing, or at least thinking about doing, though not for the most part openly, including myself, and it is not I think an insignificant chapter in the history of the general literary failure, particularly on the part of middle class male writers, of my generation, embarrassing and humiliating as the ever growing sense of this failure is to me personally. The furtiveness of so many of the male American would-be writers is very telling, I think, in that they knew the first exposure of their 'work' or learning or approach to writing to any kind of rigorous examination would immediately blow their fragile pretensions into so many pieces that they would not even have a point from which to start anew. Better to nurse that novel like a sickly infant far from the air and light of life and at long last burst forth, unassailable with your masterpiece in your hand. But as we all understand now, with extremely rare exceptions, that is not how literature works.

I thought about putting these up on Facebook, but there is something a little too lifeless and ephemeral about the effects that seem to happen to old pictures there. There is a little more intimacy here, I have a little more control over the presentation--these pictures evoke a lot of strong feelings in me even so many years later, happiness, sadness, nostalgia, regret--apart from my schools, it is the only place I've ever lived where I really felt like I was at home. When we went to Italy for ten days or whatever it was in the middle of our time there, we returned to the city very late, around midnight on a Sunday, and we came into town, past all the gloomy junkyards and grey Soviet apartment towers, and I had really enjoyed Italy too, but I was also excited to get back to my little Prague apartment and my Metro stop and have a bottle of Czech beer and look forward to doing all the things in town in the upcoming week that I liked to do. There was a lot to be said for it.

We Are Now in Prague. The film used on this picture looks like it may have been a remainder from the communist era.
These are the Vanderbilt Sorority Girls. I believe I mentioned them once in another place. They were with the same teaching program that my wife came over with. This picture has a kind of ghostly air about it too, since I actually only met these people myself about three times, yet here they preserved forever are on a beautiful September day in Prague in 1995. This picture is taken at Vyshehrad Castle in Prague, overlooking the (Vltava) river. It was a little south of the center, within reasonable walking distance of our apartment. The castle is actually gone except for the walls which surround the hill it is on, within which there is a very striking 19th century neo-gothic church on the grounds of which many prominent Czechs are buried (I believe Dvorak is there) and a park.

Now We Have Moved Down to the Austrian Border, Somewhere in Sumava (the Bohmerwald).

It's a small country, and a lot of the people who live in Prague love the countryside and go there frequently, often several weekends a month, especially if they have cottages, which, as with the Russians and their dachas, and us and our Vermont bungalow, many people manage to do even though they are in no way wealthy.

Anyway, this building was a church more or less right on the Austrian border--it was literally fifty yards away--that the communists trashed and used for some military purpose, which I forget the exact nature of, during the cold war. As you can see it was still awaiting restoration in the mid-90s. The writing on the wall says something like "Now that life was taking shape as an endless long watch, to forget life, this was." I assume this is in reference both to the building's military function and a general statement on the various states of absurdity which the Cold War reduced individual and largely disinterested persons to.

The Outside of the Same Church

Interior of the Church

A Girl With a Blue Scarf Posing Before the Czech Lion in Petrin Park, Overlooking Prague. There are some people who just make life look--I'm not sure of the word I'm looking for, but less problematic, and certainly more pleasant, than it ordinarily appears. It is not that such people are less complicated than all the people who contribute more to the misery of the world than otherwise, but they actually possess a wonderful gift, and that is for reducing potential problems to manageable sizes so that their solutions appear much clearer and simpler.

At various low points in its history this park had the world's largest statues both of Stalin and Michael Jackson (unfortunately not at the same time) though both were eventually removed.

A Welcome Sight. This is "Michael's Tavern". Another country bike trip, this time in another section of Sumava, on the western edge of Bohemia along the border with Germany. Unlike in the United States, where the hobby of bicycling requires a lot of serious training and equipment and is primarily fitness oriented, in the Czech Republic a day of biking means gathering in one's regular outdoor clothes at the agreed upon meeting place around 9, passing the vodka bottle around a couple of times, riding in the woods or along a country roads for a couple of hours, perhaps if you come upon a village stopping to look at the old church if there is one, finding a pub around noon or one for lunch and a couple of beers, more vodka, another session of riding among the byways of rural Bohemia until 4 or so, at which time one returns to base, showers and dresses and gets ready dinner and a full evening of drinking and often music or some kind of game or other. I suppose you have guessed which country I have actively biked in and which I have never gotten around to actively biking in.

Sumava Woods. I must have an ancestral memory of these kinds of forests, because I always found them extremely calming to walk through (though I suppose they do have an eery quality as well because of the association they have with the political calamities of 1938-89 especially). Besides my Lithuanian great-grandparents someone who has recently taken up of their own volition looking into my ancestry has found a great-great-something German-speaking grandmother from Silesia, which is now primarily in southwestern Poland, and is very near the places in the pictures above and below. And then I really felt oddly comfortable when I was in that part of Poland (Wroclaw), though apart from the beautiful Polish college girls it was an unrelentingly dreary and somber place.

Castle Ruin. Between October and January the sun pretty much never comes out in that part of the world. For real.

Iconic Prague Sights in Winter. The New Town and the Prague Castle. In December there are only about 6 hours of daylight.

The Famous Charles Bridge and the Old Town. The one with the statues on it.

Charles Bridge and Vltava, with Petrin Hill (where the park is) Looming in the Background.

These last three I put in mainly to try to give a feel for what the winter looks and feels like. In Prague, and apparently in much of the world, the weather will remain exactly the same for two and three weeks at a time. When it's cold and drizzly it stays cold and drizzly, likewise when it drops below zero, or in the spring when it is beautiful and sunny.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

More Lessons From the Brideshead Generation

This is going to be largely about writing and the process of becoming a writer, subjects which remain of great interest to me in spite of my increasingly frequent desires to leave the realm of literature behind and find something else to do and be interested in, preferably my elusive authentic and intended calling. This has not yet come about however, and it remains my intention and desire for the time being to someday write another book, and more after it. Though I have no longer any hope of having a career as an author, and very little of even producing something publishable, I really can't think of anything else that I both could do, and would be interested in doing. Psychologically this is a very depressing place to be in middle age, as one is left asking oneself the same two questions over and over, the first being Where did it all go wrong?, and the second, increasingly, Was there ever any real hope of things turning out otherwise than they have?

In studying the history of this group of writers I have been referring to lately one is immediately struck by how rapidly they were able, especially in their youth, to turn out a completed book. Waugh's and Graham Greene's 1930s and 40s novels were regularly knocked out in 3-4 months, George Orwell's not much more. 8 months was considered a long time. P.G. Wodehouse, who is increasingly considered as a great writer, was perhaps the model of a professional author in this period, and required even less time to knock out a book. To me the lesson the young writer should take from this, and indeed pretty much the whole history of letters is, get that first book done and out of the way quickly at all costs, and then, get the second one out of the way. After that, you can start to move on. The young American writer who has the misfortune of finding himself trying to navigate the contemporary literary world exclusively through the university system and workshop/ MFA circuit may not ever hear this. First of all, he probably won't understand that if he really had serious literary potential he'd already be employed in some capacity as a writer and developing a readership. As such, he'll be treated by his teachers as an ingenu and told about the importance of endless revision, and grow obsessed with the idea of the airtight, fact-checked, error-free, and ultimately lifeless book impermeable to the criticism of these same. He may also have bought into the idea that the only worthwhile end of writing is to produce a certain kind of masterpiece, and having seen two routes to this end extolled, one of which is pretty much to be a genius, and the other, seemingly more attainable one, being the Thomas Pynchon/David Foster Wallace/James Joyce/Flaubert, etc model, where one labors for a decade or more ensuring every word is in its proper place, by the end of which process our would-be author is well into his 30s and the cultural moment has long passed him by. The process and critique of writing are important, but at a certain point, especially if it is what one is ultimately interested in, so is moving one's work in the direction of getting ready for the press, and any sense of this urgency, or even of much of a connection to the actual publishing world, is largely lacking from the collegiate/MFA system.

The books of the Brideshead-era writers are loaded with imperfections, but they are on the whole smart, vigorous, funny, and oddly personable and accessible. They tended to repeat themselves in their many books, and I'm not sure how profound their engagements with the human condition were, though I do think they approach meaningful insight at intervals within most of the volumes I have read. Graham Greene published 7 short novels, one a year, from age 25 through 31, of which only two received favorable criticism and one, Stamboul Train, had even modest sales (8,000 copies, which in 1932 was a decent number I guess). His second and third novels were apparently very poor, and once he became successful he disowned them and would not allow them to be re-printed. But he finished books and got them to press, and in time he made himself into a writer. Anthony Powell, same kind of thing. Had a well-reviewed, though modest selling, debut at 26, wrote three or four more novels over the next 8 years that showed declining promise, then had a odd lacuna between ages 34 and 46 where he didn't publish any novels (the first half of this period was the war), and then emerged from this fallow period with a volume of his great Dance to the Music of Time sequence (which Waugh and some of their other friends thought was too much) every two years until he was 70. Of course, these guys had money, and connections, and a very different education and upbringing, drenched in literature and art, and moved in a world where writing and criticism were things everybody more or less did naturally, but that doesn't make the lessons on how to become a real writer any less valid.

Another refreshing side of this book is that it is nice to read (not that I can necessarily believe it) some antidote to the relentless chest thumping of the internet especially that technological progress is the greatest thing ever, that scientists and engineers and computer geeks and business owners and such value creators are the only genuine smart people in society and the other 95% of the population is essentially worthless, and certainly nothing without them. Waugh especially of course, fancying himself an 18th century style aristocrat and aesthete, regarded the whole modern project of ever increasing comfort and entertainment and shopping opportunites for the masses to be an unrelieved horror, and in his literary world at least technicians and businessmen and their like are kept in their proper places, both seen and heard as little as possible, and endured only at extremities (Graham Greene seemed to have more respect for doctors/scientists and other types of worldly men so long as they were 1) very accomplished in their fields and 2) of an existentialist kind of bent). I admit, old-fashioned European literary culture seems to me much more interesting and attractive than this supposed super high-IQ utopia that is supposed to have been created in modern America. The internet obviously is an incredible invention, and people who have never lived without it probably won't be able to imagine how anyone ever did so, and it is obviously great for things like buying airplane tickets or checking schedules or looking up one's friends even if one doesn't always quite know what to do once one has found them, or buying books--but then see, for example, before the internet took off I used to have to go to Boston several times a year to buy books that I couldn't find up here, which now I don't have to do, but the thing is, I really liked going to Boston every couple of months to buy books, and the defined nature and perceived necessity of the task ensured that I would do so. I'm not really making my point, which is that in the techno-society our intelligence and experiences seem to move primarily in a certain direction, to put it bluntly an ever geekier, less sensual, less verbal, less aesthetically conscious one, which I hate.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Louis Armstrong--"What Did I Do to be So Black and Blue"

"I'd like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue"--all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin...Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible...Invisibility, let me remind explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music."-- from Invisible Man.

Well, this is a good song, isn't it? It's the blues, which I know I've said in the past I don't like, but there are exceptions to everything. Ideally art is still an elevation of the ordinary banalities of feeling, and most thought, to a form where the sensation gives pleasure to the mind, even where the subject is an unhappy one. This last point has I suppose always been a point of conflict among people who prefer truths to be delivered unvarnished and discomfiting, but most consumers of art will not, after a time, return to a production that offers to the mind no pleasure along with its difficult medicine. This music sounds like the state of mind in which an astute and unavoidable melancholic would most desire to endure life, because there are contained in it consolations of greater spirits, beauties, and hopes that ordinary experience generally shows him.

A lot of people I went to school with live in New Orleans, which is famously where Louis Armstrong came from of course, and apparently they love it, the food, the culture, the diversity, the street talk, the edginess. People who move to staider places like Minnesota lament the food and street culture they've left behind for years afterwards, and I have to say, there does seem to be a level of social comraderie among what I guess you would call my demographic that is for whatever reason non-existent almost everywhere else. Still, I can't imagine I would like it there. The weather first of all would be unbearable. I start to wilt around 78 degrees, and there the air is basically soup 8 months a year and disturbingly mild in winter. The place just looks seedy and weedy and underdeveloped in a disturbing rather than comforting way. I probably wouldn't actually like the food, certainly not enough to appreciably enhance my joy in living there. I would lack the personality and verbal agility to banter with all the colorful characters there, which would make me irritable and depressed. The place is increasingly a vortex attracting disasters both natural and manmade towards it. In short, it seems like kind of a hellhole, though obviously cultural and personal magic for people with the right temperament and receptivity to its dynamic. I don't think that would be me though.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Barnegat Lighthouse, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

I'm on a picture frenzy right now (it's also about all I can do anymore). This was an attractive and unspoiled looking place. Of course hardly anyone was there in late April, though by New England standards it was definitely outdoor weather, if not beach weather. This is the northern end of the island. At the southern end the view is of the ominous-looking high rises of Atlantic City. Once you got past the suburbs of Philadelphia the drive over was completely sylvan and uncrowded as well. Though New Jersey is famously the state with the highest population density, no one seems to live in much of the center of it.

1. We must get our bearings at the monument. This place hasn't been a fully operating lighthouse for a long time, maybe the 1940s or so. The sea around it looks extremely dangerous even to someone like me who knows almost nothing about navigation, all kinds of shoals and shallow coves, extremely windy. 2. The Crew Climbing the Lighthouse Steps, in Shadow.

3. The Crew Again, With Flash. Look at the health on display after a turn in that brisk salt air. The effect on me is for some reason not so salubrious, and tends to bring out my old acne pits in ever sharper and harsher relief. In another twenty years I fear I'm going to look like an extra in a Hawthorne or Melville novel, and that's probably a best case scenario.

4. High Up, Buffeted by the Wind.

5. Too Heartwarming to be True.

6. Water in Abundance. Nature loves gigantism and excess.

7. This One Has the Most Hair, and Thus Gives the Best Idea of the Strength of the Wind.

8. Tackling the Rock Wall With Lighthouse Now in Distance. More expression of health and general fitness so as to be entrusted someday with the carrying on and out of civilization.

9. Apart from the Child's Clothing, There May Not be an Abomination of Modern Human Manufacture in Sight. The world as it is meant to be regarded and experienced.

10. I am Caught on the Rocks.

11. Here are Some People to be Reckoned With.

I can't think of a durn thing to write here (that isn't demented and absurd--this is why I have to try to write another novel or story--you can be absurd in them, and it not unfrequently improves the story).