“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up with Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to be wild or he was nothing in particular. He had to go fast, like an American, or he was all torpor. Half horse half alligator. – Charles Olson

The writer no more creates writing than the electrician creates electricity. Invisible currents move at their own speed, out there, among unknown elements – and the writer merely captures a bit of that invisible world in the poor conductors available to him, and measures it and deludes others – though not himself – that he made the conductor, the current, the speeds and fluctuations.

New, yes, to our science, but not to that invisible world itself. Nothing is new or old, there.

So … I received a salutary shock, much like that given to Franklin by the key tied on the wet kite string, from a paragraph I wrote today about ghost stories. Making a plebian précis of Machen’s glorious image of Grimaldi the clown pursuing the spectre of his brother through the London streets, always a minute or two behind him at every house, I wrote:

“That echoing minute behind, that tardiness as a suddenly autonomous and separate domain of time chunked off of secular time, in which you have a chance to “be on time” – as though one were caught in a world of “too late,” with only one possibility – the unlucky one. If one is looking for the “effect” of the Enlightenment, vide our last post, one of them is surely that the ghost story, the uncanny that so fascinated Freud, fills the place in Western culture that the ghost once filled.”

Well,I looked at that graf with a little amazement, because – although not precisely worded, I should have been a little less gnomic about the kingdom of heaven, or being on time, and pandemonium, or being late -- I should have pointed to the root of meritocracy in the schedule, the saint's luck of always being on time -- I should have pointed out how its negation, being late, is not precisely its negation but a sort of parody, a shadow of being on time that infects its victim even when he is on time, so that his on-timeness is always slightly addled, unlucky –anyway, all of this somehow met in that paragraph, and it seemed to be the missing piece I was looking for, or at least one of them, in my project of understanding success and failure in America. In fact, the psychoanalysis of the meritocracy should definitely accord a large place to the uncanny. Anyone who has read Freud’s essay On the Uncanny will see a parallel in Grimaldi’s hopeless bummel.

And thinking of this, I also thought of a line from Olson’s Maximus poem. A line about failure. I’d stored that line up, put it in some notebook, but I couldn’t find it. I looked for it and stumbled across Olson’s essay on Melville.

I decided to put up the first part of it, Call Me Ishmael – also the name of the whole book. The essay has the spaced intensity of poetry. Olson is an essayist along the same lines as Emerson, or Nietzsche –the pendulum is always swinging between the vatic and the vapid. It is a prose that makes large bets. This excites adolescents, and gives those who have outlived all avatars, moderate souls dessicating their way towards retirement, something to jeer at

What I like best about Olson was how intensely he felt about failure and success in America – how he knew some bone truths about this gristle hearted country. Of course, poets in the fifties and sixties, like novelists, could be successes. Not in the way they are successes now, with the soft shoe act on NPR, the terrible kindergarten readings, all so educated in not dramatizing a line it is funny, the last horrible debris of modernism combined with the complete eclipse, in America, of oratory – an art that only survives, heavily disguised, in hip hop. Successes nevertheless, in the fifties -- Robert Lowell got his face on the cover of a Time magazine. Meanwhile, Olson taught, delivered the mail, and watched the Organization Man, the tranquilized behemoth, bestride the suburbs.

Anyway, Olson’s essay on Melville gets the elements right away:

"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman's): exploration."

He also gets a basic fact about the culture, one so disguised that you can only see it historically, at a distance, it so goes against the grain of what you are supposed to feel in this place:

“Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.

To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby-Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.”

And Olson gets the polarity right. It also gets the mythic names right. The polarity is Melville and Poe:

“He had the tradition in him, deep, in his brain, his words, the salt beat of his blood. He had the sea of himself in a vigorous, stricken way, as Poe the street. It enabled him to draw up from Shakespeare. It made Noah, and Moses, contemporary to him. History was ritual and repetition when Melville's imagination was at its own proper beat.”

The names are strewn through the text (John Henry, for instance, is there) like so much phosphorescence. Here’s an instance of it:

“This Ahab had gone wild. The object of his attention was something unconscionably big and white. He had become a specialist: he had all space concentrated into the form of a whale called Moby-Dick. And he assailed it as Columbus an ocean, LaSalle a continent, the Donner Party their winter Pass.”

That the polarity and the names are all of the peculiar dialectic of success and failure – the way failure searches through the street for its lost other, is killed on the Texas coast and cannibalized in the Sierra Nevada and comes out of that innocent (I’ve always loved that one of the survivors of the Donner Party opened a restaurant in Sacremento – the most American of stories!) – is where you have to begin to look at the whole odd structure of petrified luck and its worship in these here States.

"Whitman we have called our greatest voice because he gave us hope. Melville is the truer man. He lived intensely his people's wrong, their guilt. But he remembered the first dream. The White Whale is more accurate than Leaves of Grass. Because it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root."


New York Pervert said...

'Yes, we wouldn’t want to wake up, would we'

because, if we do, this is all we see in the grand old U.S. of A.?

'The White Whale is more accurate than Leaves of Grass. Because it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root."'

It seems to me that luck worship is not peculiarly American, but self-hatred is. No wonder the California New Age stuff is not just fluff anymore, it's even truth, it's de facto truth, man, a new American invention and defiled term, I'd believe in it myself if I hadn't already 'graduated' from it. I believe in it for other people, who still need it in order to find amorality-licensing therapies and religions (think Buddhism for the largest number of exclusive desires that are worried their guilt might get in the way of their nose for fashion)

Suicide rate is even higher in the super-welfare states of Europe, in New Zealand, etc., so it's a legitimate response anywhere, I guess. Yeah, yeah, slow suicide.

What seems to be luck is often skill at keeping circumstances open for opportunity. Most of the time, luck (at least for anybody sharp) is just something that happens that wasn't preconceived consciously--so that, if you weren't expecting it almost out loud, it's called 'luck.'

It's certainly not all just a choice between 'luck' and forcing open small doors for job training and contract work and cashier jobs.

In the meantime, one lives off whatever kind of currency (tragic that word has been so defiled by the blogosphere) that gives an illusion of security--including ruminations of dark-toned sorts to keep one company--till one has the 'luck' to sell out, but not 'too evilly,' maybe.

Some layman's definition of 'idealism' (forget Hegel or whoever the hell it was in the more specific sense) always makes getting even a functioning-when-necessary hard-nosedness seem just oh so inaccessible, vacuous, and nowhere.

roger said...

nyp, I imagine self hatred is one of the civilized arts. Surely the Russkies are pretty good at it too. And the Irish. As Yeats said, out of the quarrel with myself, I make poetry. Or was that Johnny Rotten? One of them.

What I can't stand, though, is self indifference. That inability to give a damn one way or another, or to even pay attention -- that kills me. I guess that is why I put all my woes down to the national response to 9/11, which I find so crazy that I think it has made me crazy. Hey, I could be making bucks working as a secretary in a lawyer's office right now, and scribbling artistically, except for that event!

And my experience with California New Agers -- drying out in Santa Fe -- was that their major problem, through all the absurd therapies, the fifty year olds concerned that mommy was indifferent to their first grade achievements, or the past life experiences to compensate for the this life experience -- was dealing with that interior indifference. And that makes sense, in a way -- I mean, our animal history came through hunger, right? And now more people in these here states die of overeating than hunger. And the hungriest are the puzzling anorexics, surrounded by sweets and suburbia. Where are the instructions for this lifestyle?

I hope you check out the rest of that Olson essay. My favorite William Carlos Williams' pieces aren't the poems, but the essays in In the American Grain, and Olson's Call me Ishmael is in that line.

New York Pervert said...

roger--that's an excellent reply, I'll vow, articulated beautifully and giving me quite a nice surprise.

'I imagine self hatred is one of the civilized arts'

Yes, but not the very highest, don't you think? You'll notice that the most aggressive European nations of 'recent old'--Britain, France and Germany--do not spring to mind as having heavy streaks of it. One thing I've often found disturbing is the peculiar lack of much guilt about the Holocaust in individual Germans I've known (and adored!) It's as if they both know something nobody else will face, and won't face something everybody else is sure they know (and surely they really do know.) But what I mean about 'not the highest' is that even this 'civilized art' is surpassed by those same well-rotted civilized nations' other achievements much of the time--although Yeats et alia, Joyce et alia, I'll grant, as well as numerous specific others.

I probably brought this up because I used to suffer from it and have gotten over it--but in my case, my work is infinitely the better for it. I can see from what you said that that would not necessarily be always the case. It probably has a lot to do with the substance itself--that very thing that one is most passionate about.

Brian MIller said...

New York Pervert: Wouldn't you say there is far more guilt among the German people than there is among the Americans for our own (lesser, perhaps??) genocide? A genocide which is the very core of American history?

New York Pervert said...

Brian--I imagine there is a lot of German guilt, I was just talking about how surprised I was when one of my best friends started talking with great pride about his German mother, an infant at the time of the Nazis, but clearly a daughter of Third Reich supporters. Another praised Hitler's contribution of the Autobahn, and both of them referred to Jews in disparaging ways. This is in no way admirable, but I'm not the sort to think 'hate talk' is one of the worst vices, although if I saw it translated into 'hate action' I'd definitely feel differently. I have no reason to think this is or is not representative, but I have never met a German who worried nearly as much about his country's disaster as Southerners like me have felt guilty about theirs (but I've done my time, as I've mentioned, I do not think being a white Southerner is anything lesser than Yankeedom, for chrissake, especially since New Yorkers kept their slaves till they didn't need them any more, and plenty of them enslaved me as long as they could get away with it); and curiously, slavery, a known evil, has been practised with delirious vigour by the well-known magnificent ancient Greeks, to mention but one among thousands. Of course, Southerners generally remain racist, as do French continue with anti-Semitism, and Brits are anti-Irish and anti-black, etc., and ad infinitum.

'A genocide which is the very core of American history?'

I don't think this is the very core of American history, but rather it is one aspect. The Anglo-American theft of Indian lands is simply large-scale theft of the same sort practised by every predatory people in history. If it's not done one way, it's done another.

Guilt has its uses, but needs to be placed more skillfully if it's to lead to anything of any merit. It's according to how you want to spend your time: If you have social consciousness in a very strong way, you do marches and write about it. This is legitimate, but life is bigger than this. People involved in social and political reform too often present it in a guilt-giving way so that the gullible can be recruited. But the fact remains that they, like everyone else, have plenty of things to attend to that don't involve fellow-feeling, but their talk does not emphasize this. You'd think that their concentration on socialism was never broken at all, till you see how quick they are to abandon it in ever of some schizophrenic form of hedonism if the price is right.

New York Pervert said...

in ever=in favour

New York Pervert said...

I should add that what I see as American self-hatred that makes it possibly somewhat singular is the complex that started in the 60's and developed with Nixon and the Vietnam War. In high culture and related matters, there's also 'Europe envy', as is well-known, and that connects with various pop forms of anti-Americanism, especially of the French type with some intellectuals (some of this 'Europe envy' is indeed warranted, but French incomprehension of American popular culture (especially Broadway and Hollywood) ought to be transparent by now. When I lived there, Parisians wanted to, for example, set their 'musical comedies' apart from 'les musicales americains,' although they didn't originate the form or make it profound in its day (the U.S. did), even if they did make a few excellent individual ones from time to time.)

Finally, the matter of Indian land and life theft is a crucial thing, but I don't think it's one of the cornerstones of Americans who have become anti-American in modern times. Before the 60's, American patriotism was taken for granted. The 50's were all about 'halcyon American' and its prosperity and innocence. The Indians had been cornered into reservations long before the 50's, and hardly anybody was thinking about that--regardless of what the facts were, and/or how one wants to situate them in determining how to assess the U.S. Vietnam was more powerful, not because it was any worse, but because contemporary forces (television, for example) all came together in a way that made people begin to doubt the ethos of the U.S. Since then, many people wonder how they live in the U.S. at all--and the technique of it is, in fact, not all that easy to do well. If anyone is able to do it, he probably sets an example that may well be useless to someone else who still doesn't know, not only what to make of such an idea, or whether he even wants to make anything of it. So that the idea of success in America can seem so tarnished a concept that no perceived forms of it can seem like real success. I disagree with this, but do see the immense difficulty involved.

Apologies for such length, but I think these matters of American success and failure are very important, and I am glad you brought them up. When it seems oppressive, it can even seem amazing that such considerations can even be scrutinized at all anymore.