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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

For E.D.

 

 

I’d as soon lay hold of Emily’s dash

and trifle

as I would lift my uncle Jeff Cash’s

favorite rifle

 

from out of the case where he keeps it

in his den

- under where the head of an 8 point buck sits

and scares men

 

and little girls who enter – I should know

who used to stare

back at the monster until I’d go

Beyond my fear.

 

From this I culled my fiercest dreams

- the dash from Emily

would be heavier and scarier than it seems

similarly.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Marginalia, a poem by Karen Chamisso


Like everybody else, I live among my marginalia.
The orange peels, the leftover lentil stew, goes in the trash,
I presume. I let the maid take care of it.
There are drawers full of photos, although I
Am a blur in them all, as though some thumb came down
and pressed and turned viciously in the emulsion.
There’s no end of it, until there’s the it, which must be tossed
Into the furnace or the coffin
And the marginalia is cleared away, testimonials all.
I will let the undertakers take care of it.
I presume they know how to do that kind of thing.
-Karen Chamisso

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Against Craft

 Tennyson, famously, was averse to the word "scissors". Something about the s-es. I don't know if Tennyson had a lisp. When I was a child of six or so, I did. Scissors would be a treachery. My own aversion is for the word "craft". How I hate to hear "craft" applied to writing! The "craft" of the story, poem, whatever. It repulses me, with its overtones of some genteel, antiquated hobby. Engineering, that would be alright, I suppose. Art, design, plumbing, all of that, which puts writing where it should be, in the world where people build, repair, create fixes, mob up, make spaghetti, help their kids with homework, and are alternately illuminated and tired. Craft comes from the early modern guild economy, the fierce nostalgia for which has fed the fascism and reaction of the 20th and 21st century. (Even though I should add that guild organizations, from doctors to profs, have endured to our day with more vigor than unions. Alas.)

So where did it come from, this blight of "craft"? I suspect it came by way of the conservative modernists, the agrarians, the Tates and Ransoms, who viewed modern society as a blight in contrast to the organic societies of the pre-bellum South, i.e. societies held together by slavery. As opposed to the Russian formalists, who were seeking a vocabulary of devices and machinery, in line with their sympathy for socialism and the stripping away of superstition, the conservative modernists wanted a vocabulary that would make supplant the radicalism of, say, the futurist with the dark port wine views of a Spengler, moaning for an aristocracy.
In spite of this, "craft" did, to an extent, democratize literary culture. That culture was overwhelmingly masculinist, and I feel that it is turning. Put that in the balance with the trivialization effected by craft, the mini-industry that has sprung up around it, the mystification of the culture producer's position in the system of media and entertainment. Everything that I value in literary culture is anti-craft. Sloppiness, guesses, rants, jibes, reportage, stories told while waiting in line, raps while drinking in the park, emails, tweets, porno fan fic- these are the forms I want to go back to.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

the stub principle: there has never been a Truth era



We are not living in a post-Truth era, for the simple reason that we have never, ever lived in a Truth era.

We are living in the era of data availability. For instance, I don’t know whether it has quite been realized in the social sciences that when archives and libraries throw unimaginable masses of texts – books, newspapers magazines - on line, and subject them to the search engine, we have a very interesting means of catching the way histories have been written – and have overwritten troubling details. I’ve been working on a non-fiction/fiction story about the assassination of Dmitri Navachine, a minor figure, cut down in 1937 in Paris. And I’m seeing how from the get go the assassination was lied about, Navachine was lied about, specific parts of the whole scene were taled and re-taled like some chromosomal code gone awry, with mutations galore, and how this seeped into almost every historical account of the 30s in France written by historians, many of them Anglophones. Navachine is supposed to be part of a series of the minor lives of the Cold War – I’ve already written about X, a real figure whose murder was solved, but never prosecuted. Navachine is a variation on this theme. The one and only certainty I go by is the stub principle. Stub was the word introduced by William Gibson to designate alternative time tracks – pasts that don’t converge on one canonical past. The reviewers all reference multi-universe theory and what have you, when they could just reference our common past, our twentieth century past, where stubs proliferate. The thirties were an intense time – a low decade, as Auden put it – as compared to, say, the fifties. Or so it might seem looking back. But once you dive into the huge datapile that the internet has made available, you find out that it is stubs all the way down.

I suppose the hope is that at some point, the violence leaks out: that the I – you relationship is re-established. In Lucretian terms, ultimately love rules the universe. I think that is in fact a better account than one that relies on the truth. The truth is a cold thing, as cold as a clue, while love is an organic thing, and warmth is not just its milieu but its essence. We can’t live in a truth era, ever; we can’t suppress the stub principle. The dream should not be everybody agreeing on one canonical version of the world, but rather, a polis in which the citizen is taught to sublimate the violence inherent to their stub – to live in it with the appropriate humor.
IMO, as the kids text.

what is this poem selling

 

What is this poem selling?

For the plausible, the uncle looking man

On the You Tube channel is definitive:

It is by selling that we die and live

 

All things we see above us

And the terror in which we are dressed

Is to sell something to someone

And so on. I was impressed

 

By this cosmic vision. When God made the earth

And it was good – it was to sell

And even the devil is a pr man

Marketing property in hell.

 

Well well well. Everything is sales,

 And always be closing, you hear?

This poem is selling an irony

While I’m shedding a tear in my beer.

 

O O, I can’t argue with the uncle looking man

But suspect selling everything’s a bad bad plan.

- Karen Chamisso

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

genteel and mongrel politics: the Democratic Party trap


 The genteel trap

When Santayana used the phrase “genteel tradition” to refer to a certain strain in American thinking - a romantic avoidance of the real, haunted by Calvinistic rules that equated happiness with sin – the phrase escaped his essay and came to stand for an damning avoidance of the vulgar in American art and by extension, America’s middle class self-consciousness. An editor at Scribner’s magazine, which was popular in the 1920s, wrote that he refused stories that contained “slang, profanity, vulgarity, agnosticism or radicalism.” (quote from The Black Genteel Tradition by Gorman Beauchamp). This rule was, as well, once the rule of genteel politics, and most especially of the Republican party, centered in the Northeast among businessmen.
The Democratic party was quite different. From the beginning, it was the libido to the Whig Id. It welcomed both the Southern planter and the ethnic immigrant, mainly Irish. And it was animated with the anti-Black fevers of both groups. However, by the 20th century, due to this tradition of welcoming, it gradually made way for POC – especially after Roosevelt.
For Santayana, I think, the opposite to gentility was a vulgar pragmatism – vulgar in the best sense, akin to vulgate, a literature of the common tongue. To me, the Democratic party in its period of greatest effect, was not vulgar, but mongrel.
I take the word from Ann Douglas’s great Mongel Manhattan, an attempt at a real synthetic American cultural history that doesn’t dicker with the segregation demanded by the academic inventorists, but sees the black strain in every cultural artifact of white modernism and the white strain in the disjunctions of the great products of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a two-headed monster, this America, at least, or two times x heads, with the white head continually trying to destroy the others, though that would mean the death of the entire body.
It is as a mongrel part that the Democratic party stepped into history. It is as a mongrel party that it reconciled the ethnic bosses, the Cold War, civil rights and social democracy.
And it is the mongrel rawness of the party that the generation after the seventies has tried to kill. Though it speaks with a mongrel voice, occasionally – just listen to Bill Clinton go on about trickle down! – it has adopted the forms and norms of gentility. It has trivialized racism, which is a systematic hole in the pocket of every black household in America, as a lingo rule to guide rich privileged people in talking about those they lord it over. The mongrel democrats dreamed big and loved to press publicly on the levers of power – the genteel democrats dream little and far be it from them to use their power in any dishonorable, viz, helpful to the people they represent, way. Like Scribners, they don’t want any “slang, profanity, vulgarity, agnosticism or radicalism”, which is why, when a shortfingered vulgarian claims the election was stolen cause he lost, they don’t holler back that the election was as close as it was because of systematic Republican suppression of the vote, stealing the rights of the people, which are your property. No, it is all – when President Bush lost, he sent such a gracious letter. Gracious , I tell you!
Depending on your enemy to be gracious is a way to lose everything. Which, I could care less except those schmucks represent us. The Republicans are a faux mongrel party – full of white working class resentment, directed towards propping up the worst excesses of the mostly white plutocracy. It is as if the Confederate part of the Democratic party was cut out and implanted in its opponent.
I’m hoping that somebody in the D side in DC is remembering that they represent a vast constituency, and not a small circle of people who send each other gracious notes. Cause those notes are valuable enough to wipe your ass with, and nothing further.
Fight

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

wasted

Throwin time away - hattip BLCKDGRD

The story of the structural anthropologist and his deconstructive sidekick (his Sancho Panza, his Gilligan, his Groot). How they go out, like shamen, into the bush to listen to the phrase and fable of the tribe. How they ponder, back in Sherlock Holmes apartment, the cliches they have collected from the folk like songs. How it stitches together into a mythology – the structuralist – and how the weave unweaves itself – the sidekick.

 

Take the phrases, the binary: wasting time/saving time.

In the wasting corner: masturbation, addiction, hobbies, the masculinist view of emotional expression. In the saving corner: technology, devices for home and work, rationality, investment.

When I was growing up in the seventies, a mark of the way the parental order was being overturned was the elevation of waste to an honorific. Man, you were wasted last night was said not as a reproof, but as a sign of respect, as though the waster had won a battle. Indeed, by being wasted, that is, intoxicated, high, time was wasted in a superbly aristocratic way. Outside, in the parental order, savings were squandered: schoolwork wasn’t done, grades were falling, teens were sullen and alien.

The parental order, for my generation, reasserted itself, but the mark of time wasted was on that generation. And indeed, time saving devices – the computer, the connected computer, the Internet – were touted as ways in which time would be available – for wasting. As it turned out, the more time that was saved, the less leisure there was. Instead of the computer making the office easier, it made the office ubiquitous.

Such is the structure of late capitalist culture. The tear between the stone age metaphysics of our consciousness of time and the physics of time, in which time became the space-time continuum, glimmered before us in films, which can give us the retro-illusion that time goes backwards – a hopelessly Newtonian illusion – and can also give us a sense of how backwards and forwards are not part of the fundamental structure.  But these facts are not part of our stubborn experience. You can go to Santa Monica and send postcards saying: Having a good time in Santa Monica, wish you were here. But you can’t find cards saying: having a good space time in Santa Monica, you are already here – cause that wouldn’t have any meaning for the sender or receiver. Here would crack open, and out of it would emerge something formless.

In The Hour of the Wolf, the Ingmar Bergman film with Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman, von Sydow plays one of those tormented artistic types who takes his depression out in being mean to women. At one point, von Sydow tortures Liv, his wife, by holding up his watch and demonstrating how long a minute lasts. Nothing happens but the watch ticking, and it turns out that a minute is an infinite thing. Here, time and waste collapse into each other. Indeed.

 I write this in Paris and Margaritaville. Man am I wasted. Wish you were here.


Sunday, November 08, 2020

Political advice, of a kind, from your friend and mine: Northrop Frye

 


In my opinion, one of the worst pieces of advice in all American history is: 'when they go low, we go high.' This is not just appeasement, it is smug appeasement - the kind of passive aggressive gesture that makes you want to go lower. It is a symptom of what George Santayana called America's genteel culture. So what is the counter-model to be adopted by those rejoicing in the ruin of Trumplandia - or its temporary ruin?

American politics is a revenger tragedy, and the liberal difficulty - liberalism in the purest sense - is to disentangle the toils that keep the revengers and the offenders united in the slaughterhouse. One can't pretend the slaughterhouse isn't there. Or lift yourself out of the revenger tragedy by thinking pure thoughts. Who by thinking, as the Man sez, can grow a cubit taller?

The liberal answer must, at last, make peace with ritual. Rituals operate in the now - they have the vaguest sense of the long term. The now has to be welcomed: the spontaneous overflow of gloating, cursing, crying, laughter can't be dealt with by references to page 454 of the U.S. Treasury's report on the budget deficit.

So, how to be low in a limited sense? Here, politicians should turn to their well thumbed copy of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, who gives a good hint for those caught in a revenger tragedy:

 

"We notice however the frequency of the device of making the revenge come from another world, through gods or ghosts or oracles. This device expands the conceptions of both nature and law beyond the limits of the obvious and tangible. It does not thereby transcend those conceptions, as it is still natural law that is manifested by thetragic action. Here we see the tragic hero as disturbing a balance

in nature, nature being conceived as an order stretching over the

two kingdoms of the visible and the invisible, a balance which

sooner or later must right itself. The righting of the balance is what

the Greeks called nemesis: again, the agent or instrument of nemesis may be human vengeance, ghostly vengeance, divine vengeance,

divine justice, accident, fate or the logic of events, but the essential

thing is that nemesis happens, and happens impersonally, unaffected,

as Oedipus Tyrannus illustrates, by the moral quality of human

motivation involved. In the Oresteia we are led from a series

of revenge-movements into a final vision of natural law, a universal

compact in which moral law is included and which the gods, in the

person of the goddess of wisdom, endorse. Here nemesis, like its

counterpart the Mosaic law in Christianity, is not abolished but fulfilled:

it is developed from a mechanical or arbitrary sense of restored

order, represented by the Furies, to the rational sense of it

expounded by Athene."

So, that's the plan, guys and dolls. Let's hop to it!

 

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

seems like total destruction the only solution

 - Bob Marley The Real Situation

The stories of Noah and Jonah in the Bible mirror each other to the extent that they seem variations of some deeper story, one sprung from the Apocalypse that happened at the very beginning of culture.

The story of Noah is about a righteous man who is told that total destruction awaits the world. He is given the mission to save himself and his family and every living thing, which he does by building an ark. In the ark he is marooned from the deluge that destroys everything. So goes the best known part of the story. But what comes afterwards takes up as much time as the story of the ark in the Noah narrative. Once he lands, God makes a covenant with Noah and all living things to never again bring about total destruction. And then we are told that Noah planted grapes, and invented wine. On that wine he got drunk and uncovered himself in his tent. His youngest son went in andcovered him up. When Noah woke up, he cursed this son. He cursed him the way the father in Kafka’s The Judgment cursed his son. There’s a certain gleefulness, a certain casting off the mask, a psychotic seizure here, as though the darkest part of the unconscious was peeping out.

Survivor shakes, the prophet’s PTS.

Jonah’s story is that God gave him a message that Nineveh was to be totally destroyed unless it repented. Instead of relaying this message, Jonah fled the message, hiding on a boat. He, like Noah, marooned himself from total destruction on the ocean. But a storm came, and Jonah was thrown overboard, to experience an even deeper marooning as he was swallowed and remained alive in the belly of a great fish, or sea monster. It was only in this second marooning that Jonah stopped resisting the great No God had put in his head. The fish vomited Jonah up on shore, and he made his way to Nineveh and announced the total destruction of the city unless the city repented.

Survivor shakes, the prophet’s  PTS. Nineveh repented, God stayed his hand, and Jonah could not accept it. He camped outside the city wall and resisted the Yes. God then had a gourd grow, which cast a shadow over Jonah and sheltered him. And then the gourd wilted, at which point Jonah cast himself down and wished to die. Then God asked Jonah whether it was well to be angry for the gourd. Jonah, clinging to the No, told the Lord it was well to be angry. And the Lord answered back:

Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:

11 And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”

And so the book ends, with that wonderful concern for the cattle.

Both stories deal with total destruction. Since we live in an era that is, it seems, on the verge of total destruction, I think of these two stories as emblems, cracked mirrors on either side of us.

I think, as well, that as we are passing into this era, we are being failed ethically. Failed by the philosophers. The Anglo-American philosophers, for decades, have been busy devising a problem-centered ethics that revolves around highly contrived situations that “suss out” our moral intuitions. It is a form of advice columning with a little Bayesian probability thrown in for fun. And it takes no crack at the total system.

In the twentieth century, both the Kantian and the utilitarian modes of ethics failed to understand the system – the system that can lead to total destruction. They took no crack at it: in consequence, they failed to interrogate our real moral lives, we who live in the high income states, we who live in our individual comfort zones well knowing that the future will be brutal. The concentration camps went up. The atom bomb was built. The victims were piled high in proxy struggles in the Cold war. The oceans warmed. The atmosphere shifted. The permafrost began to melt.  

One of the popular topics of the day is the discussion about having children. Is it right or wrong? And if wrong, is it wrong because the child is marching into the future that we have made for it – a future of total destruction – or is it wrong because the child will grow up to be another, albeit unconscious, dronelike producer of the disaster: as a  consumer and a laborer, as a user of the total energy used by creatures like blue whales, except in a 150-250 poound packet? This discussion uses the child to discuss a problem about the parent: for this is really a discussion about us: does a real sense of the disaster ahead require, ethically, that we commit suicide?

This ethical requirement, I think, has sunk into the collective unconscious. It leads not only to the phenomena measured by statistics in terms of life expectancy, suicide, overdose, etc., but as well to the violence and hatred in our politics and collective sense of ourselves.

I am a late father, a father in my late middle age. I am against the big NO, I am for my son living within a disaster averted, I am against the total disaster,. I have even spent much of my thinking life wondering how to separate the total disaster from the total system: the war system, the treadmill of production, capitalism.

This autumn, I’ve been reading a book that actually does take a crack at the system, in the shadow of total destruction: Martin Buber’s I and Thou. I prefer I and You, since the “thou” is a tonally off. Instead of going back to Kant, or starting off with happiness, Buber starts from You. It is the You – of all living things, of the earth, of god or the gods, of persons – that comes before the I. It is out of the You that the I is derived. Once the I is derived, though, it struggles with all living things, the earth, god or gods, and persons. It struggles to contain them in an “It”. This struggle does illuminate our moral “intuitions” as they are, in fact, living bits of us. The struggle of the I to recognize the you is the moral story, the story that goes against the total disaster in which everything, every little thing, becomes an it. Even the ominipotent I becomes an it, caught in its own devices. Buber wrote I and Thou after World War I, and before the Nazi seizure of power, which is to say, in the shadow of total destruction. He took from Hasidic tradition and from Daoism, and he gives us an ethical understanding of the system – he takes a large crack at it. This is not ethics as consolation, as a consumer tipsheet based on the latest pop science findings from neurology. It is not self-help.

Everyone I know is suffering, lately, from the survivor shakes. From the Prophet’s PTS.

And to everyone I would say: get ahold of a copy of I and Thou and read it slowly in the long winter season, the season of imminent fascism and plague. Cause we need to take down this system.  

 

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Paris

 

A ghost town lives beneath the skin

Of this metropole.

Abandonment is lodged within

each brick, block and pole

 

Coughs in the pipes, leaves skidmarks

On the staircase wall

Rustles in the pocket corner remarks

Of your neighbors down the hall.

 

Mene mene tekel uparsin

Says the Chinese fortune cookie.

Yver is icumin in.

We are all waiting here for delivery.

 

A pigeon sits on the roof of the burned out cathedral

Here are the horses, child, and here is the steeple.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Prospero's country: race and political journalism

 

The term “white privilege” has never been my favorite. It seems like teacher’s pet or something – some mild insult. It is a coinage that purifies a violent history of racism. But I have learned not to kick against the lingo du jour too hard. In the case of political reporting, it gives us a useful tool.

It is the contention of the polls that Trump is the favored candidate of the white majority in this country. How favored? I’d take Pew’s poll, done in August, as a benchmark, which puts the support at 54 percent.

It is through this mirror we must go in order to understand the peculiar liberal reporting about Trump. We have to remember that the media, while full of diversity hires, God bless em, is strongly moved by the white community. The Neiman lab recently studied seven surveys of newspapers, and reported:

“About three-quarters of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic white, compared with about two-thirds of all U.S. workers, according to a 2018 analysis from the Pew Research Center. About half of newsroom staff are white men, compared with about a third of the overall workforce. Newsroom diversity remains far below the goal the American Society of News Editors set in 1978 “of minority employment by the year 2000 equivalent to the percentage of minority persons within the national population.”

 

According to the Columbia Press Review, in the category of “newspaper leadership”, only 13% is non-white.

The political news, going all the way back to the mythical founding, is immersed, saturated with, redolent of, rolling in, drowned dead in, digested by, lock and stock, for better or worse, for richer or poorer white privilege on steroids. In the Trump era, this has led to any number of news phenom. My favorite is the “my parents have been driven crazy by Fox News” sub-genre. This has become one of the knickknacks of the Trump era, up there with the MAGA hat. And just as the Maga hat rarely sits on the head of a person of color, the my Trumpist parents meme is rarely if ever penned by a person of color.

This is where I think things get interesting. There’s a story in the NYT that disputes the mere “poll”results, showing that Biden is heavily favored in Pennsylvania, with one reporter’s experience that the Trumpists seem triumphant in his Pennsylvania.

“Polls show Mr. Biden leading by five to 13 points, but I grew up around here and am dubious. This place — the land of hoagies and Bradley Cooper and Rocky Balboa worship and Tina Fey’s “Cousin Karen” accent — has transmogrified into Trumplandia.”

In timehonored NYT fashion, in order to show that there is a lot of support for Trump in the Philadelphia suburbs, our intrepid reporter goes to a Trump store, selling Trump memorabilia, and interviews people there to get their view of things. This has been going  on since 2016 – white quasi liberal reporters going and interviewing white ‘working class’ people and asking them whether Trump isn’t icky, and whether the high school president shouldn’t be a candidate from the debate club with a high SAT score. Laughs abound.

“Isn’t she bothered by the president’s loud mouth and tetchy Twitter fingers? “There’s a shock factor, for sure,” Ms. Girard said, “but I think we know what to expect now.” She added, “He’s not a politician, and that’s why he works for us.”

What about his flirtation with white supremacists? “I’m sick of people coming to me and telling me I’m a racist because I’m Republican,” Ms. Girard said. “My son is half Puerto Rican. I don’t understand where that comes from.”

Granted, these women were voluntarily at the Trump Store, but there seemed to be nothing about the past four years that gave them pause.”

 

That is an intro clause for the books. Gee, volunteers at the Trump store, weirdly enough, are for Trump!

 

I don’t remember this kind of reporting about Bush. Was there ever a NYT reporter who interviewed a Bush supporter in 2004 and asked, well, what about Bush’s flippant negligence of intelligence about Al Qaeda that led directly to the WTC attack? Cause that kind of question wouldn’t be nice. We were all – that is, all us white people – in this together, in the Great Moderation!

 

White privilege has to be treated dialectically to be a tool of analysis. That means not treating “white” as a homogeneous term. In fact, the divide between a white minority that has adopted liberal social views while benefitting from the neoliberal era and a white majority that has kept its views from 1968 or 1972 and benefitted either enormously or not at all – that familiar far right coalition of the pissed off proles and the pissed off plutocrats – has upended political reporting. The earthquake of 2016 was exactly about this: the confidence of the white minority, which infuses the culture of the media, was shaken in two ways: first, the discovery of the white other in their midst, and second, the falsification of all the big data tech that they had confidently assembled to ‘predict’ the election.

 

First it was the Great Moderation, where we could predict downturns and let the private sphere deal with them with prods here and there, de-regulating merrily, betrayed us. And now our polling had gone awry!

 

Myself, I am going with the polls than with the reporter who finds, shockingly, that people working at a Trump store support Trump. OTOH, I am not invested in predicting the winners in an American election. I think other predictable events are much more important: the prediction, for instance, that the effects of climate change is going to be getting much much worse; the prediction that the American political system is helpless to nudge, budge or blow up the plutocratic grip on American society; the prediction that, for most people, college tuition loans and medical costs are going to contour lives more and more; the prediction that the hollowing out of American manufacturing, and the nationwide bet on the speculative economy in non-productive products, is going to produce ever more violence – these are predictions I’m going with vis a vis America.

 

Prospero’s country.

 

 

 

 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Eliot

 


I don’t remember from what library I first checked out T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems, 1909-1962. It could have been the Decatur Georgia library, which I absolutely loved to bike to. Or it could have been the Clarkston High School library, which was well stocked – I mean, it had Ulysses, a pretty bold item for a Georgia High School library in 1974. This was the result of the massive spending on schools in Dekalb County under superintendent Jim Cherry, of blessed memory. No doubt the funny flowed to white schools, but Clarkston was integrated when I was there.

I was in the 9th grade, and desperate for a larger life, a cosmopolitan life with cafes, which I was clearly not going to get in Clarkston Georgia, a bedroom suburb of Atlanta. Eliot, it turned out, was my good luck. We clicked immediately. Prufrock’s mermaids seemed much more relevant to my psychosexual life than, say, the hit of 1975 in my class, Aerosmith’s “walk this way”:

 

Singin' hey diddle diddle
With your kitty in the middle of the swing like you didn't care
So I took a big chance at the high school dance
With a missy who was ready to play
Wasn't me she was foolin' 'cause she knew what she was doin'
And she told me how to walk this way

 

Eliot’s poems sank into my ordinary life. I remember reciting bits of the Wasteland to the cross country team (sue me, I was a snobbish little teen!). And though the poems are not on my official favorite list of favorite poetry, I’d be kidding myself to deny they are fundamental. Also, unlike other poets I discovered – Pound, Wallace Stevens, poor old Allen Tate – they were imminently recitable – you could DIY recite them. A lot of poets, you have to figure out the sound system.

 

Later, in college, I witnessed the buttend of the Eliotic dominance in English departments. Slowly, Old Possum’s favorite books and dislikes were no longer being considered the canon. Eliot was enormously important for the postwar English department, combining an accessible modernism with a high falutin’ conservatism. He was an institutional dream. But this was all going on the block. And that conservatism was never a good fit even for his own best poetry. Or the U.S. Seriously, you can’t use Charles Maurras to guide yourself around St. Louis, MO, babycakes.

I have seen Eliots come and go since. There was the phase of the anti-semitic Eliot. There was the phase where Vivian was touted as the next candidate for Zeldahood. And really, there is a case to be made that Eliot was something like the character Gatsby in Zelda’s husband’s book, except the boy from St.Louis knew better than to crib knockoffs of Spengler when he could read Spengler in the original, by God.

I met the guy from the Midwest in Paul Keegan’s recent review of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale. How pleasant to meet this Mr. Eliot! The one lodging a class complaint about Virginia Woolf, for instance:

 

Virginia’s Room of One’s Own irritates me; and I have wanted to tell her that I have never had £500 a year of private (unearned) income or anything like it, and that I have never had a room of my own except a bedroom at a Lausanne pension for a month where I wrote most of The Waste Land.’ 

This Eliot is more recognizably one of the clerks of literature, like Pessoa, Kafka or Melville, or innumerable fiction personnages. He’s more approachable. He’s less magisterial. This is the guy who did a lot for me, a nobody from a Georgia suburb.

Read the review. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n20/paul-keegan/emily-of-fire-violence

Cancel culture and the uncancellable

 First published in the now defunct Willettsmag


Cancel culture was born on October 18, 1924, when a pamphlet was thrust upon the world entitled: A Cadaver. The subject of the pamphlet was Anatole France, a Nobel prize winning author whose death, on October 12, 1924, was announced on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: Anatole France Great Author dies … Author of “Thais” and “Le Jongleur de Notre Dame” Classed as Leader of Modern Stylists”. The writers of The Cadaver (Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, etc.) were having none of this. The Cadaver was a surrealist action of the most violent and definitive kind. Breton classed Anatole France with the “cops”, and wrote: “With Anatole France, a little human servility goes out the door.” Eluard, under the heading, An old man Like the Others,  wrote mockingly to France: “The harmony, ah, the harmony, the knot of your tie, my dear corpse, your brain on the side, everything arranged beautifully in the coffin and the tears that are so sweet, aren’t they?” But it was Louis Aragon who really ripped poor Anatole France’s corpse another asshole. Under the heading: “Have you ever slapped a dead man?” Aragon attacked the whole idea, the stink and the shallowness of “beautiful writing”, and wrote: “I declare that every admirer of Anatole France is a degraded being.” It is polemic in the highest ranting style:

What flatters you in him, what makes him sacred, please leave me in peace, is not even the talent, which is arguable, but the vileness, which permits the first louse that comes along to exclaim : How is it that I never thought of this before !

And, the peroration:

“Today I am in the center of that mildew, Paris, where the sun is pale, where the wind entrusts its horror and its inertia to the smokestacks. All around me I see a dirty, poor busy-ness, the movement of the universe where all greatness becomes an object of derision. The breath of my interlocutor is poisoned by ignorance. In France, they say, everything ends up as a song. Let he who dies in the heart of the general beatitude go up in smoke in his turn! There is little that remains of a man. It is even more revolting to imagine that one, who was, in any case, a man. On certain days, I dream of an eraser that could wipe out all of this human stain.”

This is how you do cancellation, my droogs.

In this case, the surrealists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. By 1930, literary lights like Blaise Cendrars were claiming that France was “boring,” and Andre Gide put in the boot by saying that his oeuvre was “not considerable”. Yet when he was alive, Anatole France held a position in the overlapping worlds of literature, culture and politics that was similar to that held by, for instance, Saul Bellow in the U.S. It is hard to imagine Saul Bellow being spit on to this enormous extent when he died…

Except that Bellow did, in a sense, imagine it. Bellow sampled his own heckling by students in 1968 by working up a similar scene in Mr. Sammler’s planet:

“A man in Levi's, thick-bearded but possibly young, a figure of compact distortion, was standing shouting at him.

"Hey! Old Man!"

In the silence, Mr. Sammler drew down his tinted spectacles, seeing this person with his effective eye.

"Old Man! You quoted Orwell before."

"Yes?"

"You quoted him to say that British radicals were all protected by the Royal Navy? Did Orwell say that British radicals were protected by the Royal Navy?"

"Yes, I believe he did say that."

"That's a lot of shit."

Sammler could not speak.

"Orwell was a fink. He was a sick counterrevolutionary. It's good he died when he did. And what you are saying is shit." Turning to the audience, extending violent arms and raising his palms like a Greek dancer, he said, "Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He's dead. He can't come."

At the time Mr. Sammler’s Planet came out, George Orwell had already assumed a rank at the top of the pantheon of brave “truth-tellers”, so the cancellation of Sammler and of Orwell together in one kick was loaded with voltage. Of course, Bellow’s characters are always haunted by a ghost at the heel, taunting them with the idea that they are only ham actors, all of their beautiful thoughts only occasions for various big wig louses to say, how had I never thought of that before! Charley Citrine has Von Humboldt Fleisher, and Herzog of course is in flight from Valentine Gersbach. But Sammler is special, since his cancellation moment is so entirely public. 

Twitter has become, for the media establishment, what the heavily bearded young man was for Artur Sammler – an emblem of the end of the world in sheer barbarism and blasphemy. Of course, in the media establishment, it is very hard to get canceled. Noam Chomsky managed to do it by criticizing American foreign policy after the Vietnam war, when the wound was healed and all bien-pensant American “thought leaders” agreed that America had the most adorable and charming plans for the rest of the world (and was only being misunderstood as it spent trillions on the military and put these plans into effect by invading Panama City here, helping the stray Salvadorean death squad there, droning (accidentally!) some Yemeni wedding over in the corner, and so on). Otherwise, you will never find the deck chairs changing very much on the opinion pages of the great dailies, nor will you find Meet the Press or that ilk of tv inviting on anybody ‘foreign” or really anybody except its usual quota of great white male politicos and pundits. Even when a figure, like Mark Halperin, is discovered to be a serial groper and goes down, his media friends have a hard, hard time letting him go – as do his friends in both party establishments – and they keep campaigning to uncancel that pitiful mook.

Of course, the media establishment does not extend this courtesy to the rest of toiling humanity. The NYT business page looks on with equanimity when a corporation, stuffed to the gills with cash, decides a mass layoff is just what they need. You will never hear the words “cancel culture” applied in such cases. Rather, it is a matter of cash flow. When Uber recently “downsized” its work force, this is how the New York Times reported it:

“In response, Mr. Khosrowshahi has shaken up Uber’s top ranks and tried to cut costs. After cutting jobs in the marketing team in July, he instituted a monthlong hiring freeze and instructed executives to re-evaluate the size of their teams. In addition, he pushed out top executives, including his chief operating officer and chief marketing officer. Uber’s board has also undergone some turnover.”

When, on the other hand, a twitter user made a joke about Bret Stephens being a bedbug, the NYT not only permitted Stephens to write a whole column about it in which the great Stephens compared himself to all those who suffered at Auschwitz, but various member of the media, who gathered around Bari Weiss at her recent coming out party, sniffed loudly about the de-platformin’, generally wrong-headed youth, spiritual descendants of Louis Aragon, louts all:

MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, who has frequently hosted Weiss on her morning show, deplored “cancel culture.” “On a regular basis,” she said, “people say to me, ‘I wouldn’t say that in public.’ As soon as people start to retreat and not share their views, it’s bad for society and culture.” – from Boris Kachka, New York magazine http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/09/bari-weiss-book-party.html

Times, admittedly, have changed since an Anatole France could be celebrated as a master “stylist” on the front pages of great American newspapers. Bourgeois society’s need for intellectual legitimation – for a certain protective, brainy smugness – is now supplied by a legion of pop scientists, mostly white, male, and willing to consider the tough questions: such as, why does nature shower white males (such as me) with such genius and brilliance and money? And the answer they come up with is – it must be the genes! The function, though, is the same. Anatole France, it must be said, was not as much of a smug idiot as our current iterations of Steven Pinker. His reputation went into a tailspin, but one has to say that a man who could attract kudos from such various sources as Edmund Wilson, who devoted a chapter of Axel’s Castle to him, Ford Maddox Ford, who named Conrad, James and France as the great novelists of his younger days, and Kenneth Burke, was not a total loser. Proust took certain elements from France’s life and made him into the character Bergotte, which is, sadly (for France, at least), how he is best remembered in the Anglophone world. 

Still: hooray for the surrealists! And hurray for the twitter mob! There is something so, well, right about Stephanie Ruhle’s friends whispering their sweet little bigotries in her ear and then admitting that they are afraid to say them in public. Not, of course, that they won’t – to the chauffeur, to the maid, to the clerk at the store, or to any unfortunate who serves them at a restaurant, over and over again.

The hallmark of cancel culture is the fact that the firing, the layoff, so admired in America – Trump is, literally, president because he starred in a reality show that was all about firing people – has now been seized by the fired. They are, as it were, firing back. Louis Aragon, at least the Louis Aragon who, as a mere cricket, shit on all the literary bigwigs, would be pleased.