“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

Friday, September 08, 2017

Salut, Kate Millett

We owe a lot to Kate Millett. She was, in a sense, "all over" the seventies, and she burned the notion of "patriarchy" into feminism, and via the national press's fascination with "women's lib", into the national consciousness. But there, I feel, it faded. What was a call to overturn patriarchy and its values became a call to find places in patriarchy. Instead of a critique of the whole value system around the "strong" and the "tough" - these blind, violent impulses - the critique softened to a search for "Strong, tough" women. Understandably - the patriarchy didn't after all fall, but strengthened in the seventies. And it wasn't clear how the politics of sexual politics would actually proceed. Still, the goal set by Millett early on seems to me ultimately the more worthy one: in the 47 years from 1970, the degradation of the environment and the incredible stress that is now normal for most working lives has become worse. That strong and tough are bullshit words, delegating pain hierarchically to subordinate factotums - it isn't the tough president who is out on the frontline, but the soldier, the civilian, the insurgent, who are "inspired" by the strong leader to ever greater feats of barbarism - needs continually to be repeated.

There was an interesting dialogue that prefigured these issues that occurred in 1975 in L.A. at a forum featuring Marcuse and Millett, where the issue was how socialism connected to feminism. Marcuse was never the burning boy of the Frankfurt School, never Mr. Negative Dialectic. So it is good to see him take babysteps towards acknowledging the obvious: that the socialist left, in the name of class struggle, has long subordinated feminist struggle, or distorted it in terms consonant with patriarchy. What that means to me is the need for a double transformation, on the one hand of socialism, and on the other of feminism. Easier said than done! The one piece of good news from the debacle of American politics is that these transformations seem to have become real everyday issues.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The American "something"

Hemingway wrote a short story called The End of Something in the fine beginning of his career, when the stylized silences were new, impressive, and deep, and a terrible story, fossicked from his remains by his posthumous exploiters, entitled Everything Reminds you Of Something, at the end of his career, when the simplicity had turned simpleminded and the hardboiled silences had gone soft and squishy – the kind of thing that make Old Man and the Sea so unreadable. The end of something is all about the masculine refusal to speak its pain, while everything reminds you of something is all about the masculine refusal to shut up, even when it had nothing to say. And maybe there’s a story there.

“Something” in its American splendor is not considered in Mencken’s book on the American Language. Nor is it in Brewer’s phrase and fable, which disappointingly lists only one something-headed item, viz., something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It is as if the American something were so pervasive that it never strikes anyone as a phrase or fable. But it surely is, and it surely can be dated, at least in print, to sometime in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when writers like Ring Lardner and Hemingway were discovering in the speech of the folk the ethical sports and monsters of the American subconscious. And Broadway too, and the movies, and the cartoons.
Richard Burton wrote in his diary when the Gemini splashed down about the astronauts: “Sat on balcony until lunch reading newspapers. Learned to our relief that the ‘Gemini Twins’ were back from the Cosmos safely.83 For some reason we both felt oddly nervous about them. It is odd, too, that I almost always think – no condescension intended – of Americans as being gifted and brave but almost always child-like. White, the man who walked for 20 minutes in space, when asked how it was replied ‘It was really something.’ 

White’s comment is a sort of Summa of something – God reduced to gosh, world without end. 

Karl Kraus, that most un-American of essayists, wrote that thought can’t be the master of language, only the servant. Or something like that. I know I’ve read that somewhere. The house is a mess, I can’t put my finger on the book, or the notebook in which I jotted down this bit of intellectual tittle. However, I do know that Kraus’s whole life was a war on cliché, on the deja connu, on newspaper verities. As he said, the newspaper was the black art, the end of the world, the wormwood cast into the waters, apocalypse now with all the trimmings. World War I proved him right. So did World War 2.
 And yet if that Sacher-Masoch colored scene between thought and language is at all true, then it is hard to see how we are going to avoid just the kind of writing and talking that drove Kraus nuts.  For what after all is the newspaper verity than language pulling thought along, or rather, dispensing with thought all together in a simulacrum of thought. In other words, aren’t we all doomed to incantation, to abracadabras of variously elevated tone?

And the opposite of the highminded abracadabras, as the young Hemingway hoped, was in a speech that was modest in its claims, truthful in its sentiment, factual in its slant. This message is made clear in Farewell to Arms. That speech, it turns out, comes with a price – it turns life into a data-filled competition. Into baseball. Or something a bit more exotic among expats. What starts out as a revolutionary stripping of established lies ends up as a flattening of effect. It’s really something.
I’ve always loved the scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life when death comes to a bunch of American yuppies and their friends, English gentrifiers. They, of course, take death as a colorful local yokel at first, but eventually he starts to make his point that he is Death. At this point the American man pulls out his pipe and begins to pontificate about the experience they are all going through. This breaks it for Death, who begins a wonderful rant: “Shut up! Shut up, you American. You always talk, you Americans. You talk and you talk and say 'let me tell you something' and 'I just wanna say this'. Well, you're dead now, so shut up!”

“Let me to tell you something.” There it is again, through a hoax dialectic come to mean not, as in Hemingway’s “The end of Something”, that expression must be tied to the particulars, however painful, but to mean, let me fill in all the verbal space. And then let me walk in it, drifting, in a self-contained suit, safely attached to a large white phallic shaft.

That’s something else.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

On Ashbery and a certain tone of poetry bullshittery

I like Paul Muldoon,  mostly. But this paragraph in the obit for John Ashbery in the New Yorker pulled me up short – or rather, while it scrutinized me, I squinted at it:

“He managed this by developing a poetry that was absolutely equal to our later-twentieth-century/early-twenty-first-century predicament. It’s a simple argument: a world that is complex requires a poetry that is complex; a world that is somewhat incoherent may actually demand a poetry that is itself incoherent; a world in which no conclusions apply may even revel in its inconclusiveness. To read a John Ashbery poem is to be scrutinized by it. It is less a recording than a recording device, a CCTV screen taking us in.
Start with the last line, and ask yourself when you considered all poetry a recording – like, never? And the addition of CCTV screen, which I suppose is supposed to be techno-hip, sort of poses the question – is it a recording device or a CCTV screen – or perhaps a hidden microphone, or maybe – I can be techno-hip too! – it’s a polarization gating spectroscopy device, which is used to probe the intestine. In any case, it is really a poem. And how a poem scrutinizes the reader is perhaps one of those incoherent things about our modern predicament that demands a poetry criticism that is itself incoherent.
If I were to look for a poetry that tried to be equal to “our” predicament, I’d look at Adrienne Rich more than John Ashberry. John Ashbery does fit comfortably in Muldoon’s “our” – Rich was outside the ‘our’, measuring the system that created it, counting the victims.
This, you might think, is a pretty ungrateful way of saying Salut, John Ashbery – but I think Muldoon’s bizarre obituary says a lot about the predicament of a twenty first century infantilism: the pervasive use of an advertising trick of making its product so exciting that the product’s details become secondary. Muldoon’s entire paragraph tells you nothing at all about the specific qualities of Ashbery’s poems. Its hateful, a disservice, an occasion for blowhardery.
I am not, I admit, a great finish-er of the poems of John Ashbery. My grip as a reader is lost as the poem itself becomes whimsical like, oh, a CCTV screen dying in static. But I am able to finish and even like some of Ashbery’s earlier poems. So there’s this, from “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”:

“… The soul establishes itself. But how far can it swim out through the eyes/
And still return safely to its nest? The surface/
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases/
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point/
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept In suspension, unable to advance much farther/
Than your look as it intercepts the picture. Pope Clement and his court were "stupefied"/
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission/
 That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,/
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,/
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind, /
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay/
Posing in this place. It must move/
 As little as possible. This is what the portrait says./
But there is in that gaze a combination/
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful/
In its restraint that one cannot look for long./
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,/
 Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,/
Has no secret, is small, and it fits/

Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.”

Sunday, September 03, 2017

notes on santa monica

Notes on Santa Monica
Beautiful days. If you live in Santa Monica, you face an iron curtain of beautiful days. Granted, there are worse iron curtains. Still, if you want to write, the days, in the monotonous self-affirmation, can give you the frustrating feeling that there’s nothing here to grip, nothing to fight with. True, there is June gloom, there are a few days in what is laughingly called winter where you keep the heat on almost all day, and days of summer where we tickle close to Dixie. But basically you walk out, the sky is blue, the sun is up, the flowers (all immigrants here) are springing with exotic colors and designer stamens, the cars are expensive, the yoga places and gyms are doing a roaring business, and the ladies in the numerous nails and hair spas are all kneeling before obviously well to do women, helpfully rounding nails and, well, aroma pedicuring, whatever that is. Win/win, obviously, up and down the block and all the way out to the Pacific, which is we know a little worse for wear, a little dangerously warmer, but still licks the shore bluely, in the distance. The joggers and dogwalkers compete for sidewalk space, the tourists are heading for the beach, and everything is as right as an icecream cone in the fist of a child.
I can’t complain. I complain. I was born complaining, a whiner from the first doc’s whack on my buttocks. Still, on our last night, when we went to Loews, ordered drinks, got in the hot tub and watched the sun set over the Pacific, I had to remember that this isn’t normal.
And then I remember other things. How Mutually Assured Destruction was planned out by a buncha the mildest war criminals in history just down the street. How Whitey Bulger retired here. How the sidewalks are filled with half naked homeless people, whose raving speeches, though often devolving into simple curses, are often, as well, much more eloquent and rhetorically interesting than the conversation of the college educated and well off in the line at the Whole Foods. I remember that Carlos Castenada led a strange, mostly female cult just up the street in West L.A., sending his “witches” to recruit on 3rd street. I remember that Santa Monica was “Baytown” for Raymond Chandler, a corrupt little berg with a bunch of hooey clinics where the docs dispensed heroin to junkies with a wink. I even sometimes remember that all the world isn’t white.

Of course, the beautiful days sometimes got up the snoots of certain observers – most notably, Theodor Adorno, whose Minima Moralia is much like a death threat to the whole scene.  More elegantly written, granted, than your average serial killer or kidnapper’s screed. Still, lovely in its roving meanness.

“Every tegument which intervenes between human interactions is felt to be a disturbance of the functioning of the apparatus, in which they are not only objectively incorporated, but to which they belong with pride. That they greet each other with the familiar egalitarian hellos instead of doffing their hats, that they send each other interoffice memos devoid of addresses or signatures instead of letters, are the endemic symptoms of the sickness of contact. Alienation manifests itself in human beings precisely in the fact that distances fall away. For only so long as they are not overwhelmed with giving and taking, discussion and conclusion, access and function, would enough space remain between them for that fine mesh of threads, which connects them to each other, and whereby that which is external [Auswendige] truly crystallizes as what is assimilated [Inwendiges].”

Yes, you can see the death of civilization creeping closer with the death of the custom of doffing hats. Those Europeans! One if reminded of Freud’s reflection that the American custom of “flirting” shows what an essentially unserious society America has produced.
But I understand. The Elvis Costello rule (“I want to bite the hand that feeds me/I want to bite that hand so badly”) applies here if it applies anywhere. I’ve heard the rumor that Dogtown – formerly the cheaper part of Santa Monica, running along Main street – lucky to buy a house below 750 there now – was crucial to the birth of Southern California Punk.
But I floated in the pool at Loews, gulped down my margarita, and got sentimental about the four years we spent here. I love it that Adam learned his “American” here. I loved the round of coffee shops in which I wrote and wrote, on a computer that had a French keyboard that was freezing up, one key at a time. Have you ever had that divine moment when you cry out, yes, I would do it all over again, in exactly that order, with exactly those actions, facing exactly those consequences? The eternal sandglass of existence will be turned ever once more, and you with it, you grain of sand! Something like that. Well, that was my Loew’s experience.


Then, next day, we left for Paris.