Saturday, October 19, 2013

In praise of firbank

I’m interested in a tone.
This sentence, for instance, in Ronald Firbank’s Caprice.
“My dear, I once was thought to be a very pretty woman. ... All I can do now is to urge my remains.”

This comes from an otherwise mildly repulsive secondary character, a Mrs. Smee, who Firbank mingles in with the theatrical set he is writing about. A woman whose first and abiding characteristic is her two moles. When two moles are thrown at the reader first thing, the reader backs up a bit, and a quick bit of mental business equating moles and witches occurs in the subconscious. Yet, Mrs. Smee’s remark implies a sort of conversational intelligence that is both bound to a certain class, or idea of class, and a certain ambiguous sexuality, the degree of which corresponds to the legal rigidity with which it was persecuted. One might well say that camp sprang from the law book.
One can in a way divide writers as followers of the law book or eccentrics from its captiousness by using the test of Firbank: those who can’t stand him – such as Kingsley Amis – will never find Mrs. Smee anything other than repulsive. Auden wrote that those who could not stand Firbank were all very well in other respects, but as for himself, he avoided them. It was Auden who saw the sly genius, the religious genius, in Firbank:
“All that really matters is in fact that the Firbank world should exist,  a world in which a country church can have the “scheming look of an ex-cathedral” and a choir-boy who has been taking the lead in a mass of Palestrina’s “the vaguely distraught air of a kitten that had seen visions”, in which an inflamed girl can “leave the room warbling softly “depuis le jour,’”, and a queen motor for hours and hours with her crown on, it “was quite impossible not to mistake her”…
“Firbanks extraordinary achievement was to draw a picture, the finest, I believe, ever drawn by anyone, of the eafthly Paradise, not of course, as it really is, but as, in our fallen state, we imagine it to be, as the place, that is, where, without having to change our desires and beihaviour in any way, we suffer neither frustration nor guilt.”
The distinction between paradises – those we can imagine and the unimaginable paradise beyond our reckoning – is perhaps an Auden touch, whereas Firbank could reckon very well with the paradise in which his dolls hold sway. Still, what Firbank presents, and what Auden sees well, is that Firbank creates a world where, in spite of scandals and insinuations, nobody gets hurt. Innocence, here, is invulnerability – and it is that invulnerability which threads its way into the prose, into the style.
Style is, to use Barthes’s distinctions, a matter of the punctum, not the studium. A style is the equivalent of the italicized word – we recognize the difference in that word from its plain print kin, but at the same time, it is the same word. The style is meant to establish a clique – and to brave the dislike to which it is inevitably destined, the dislike of the rough and tumblers on the playground come to adulthood and hard liquor – the Kingsley Amises of the world. Firbank abounds in felicities – while it is the rough and tumblers glory to leave them out. Yet it is obvious to me that the greatest roughs in twentieth century literature – writers like Hemingway – learned how to write from the felicity-mongerers. Hemingway is forever paired with Stein in my mind.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

the family luck

I’ve never murdered anyone. My father never murdered anyone. My grandfather never murdered anyone. Alltogether, we’ve lived a shelter life, us Gathmann men, in the twentieth century, for the state’s nets were out, and millions fell into them, drafted and turned into murderers. Or lets not exaggerate – there were those among the drafted who did not serve in the infantry, sail the seas, or fly in bombers and fighters. But millions did. It was in fact a generational experience for American men, a first blood kind of thing. World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam – duty or at least the law armed the stripling male and commanded him to murder. The same thing, of course, was demanded of British men, Russian men, German men, French men, etc. It was always the same thing: see the woman there, nursing the child? The command was simply to roast her and her suckling, make sure it was good and hot, and that around her the houses burned and the streets buckled from the heat. Simple. See the man advancing to murder other men with his rifle? Put a bullet in his skull, or perhaps blow his legs off, double quick! Its an order.
And so it goes down to now. I’ve recently been reading Randall Jarrell’s war poetry. Jarrell, like all the generation of poets that experienced WWII, was permanently seared. Robert Lowell said that Jarrell’s war poetry was the best to come out of those particular years of mass slaughter. There are small perfect poems, and larger ones that are more drafty. But the eye is on what it means:
The other murderers troop in yawning;
Three of them play Pitch, one sleps, and one
Lies counting missions, lies there sweating
Till even his heart beats: One; One; One.
O murderers!... still this is how its done:

This is a war…
I hope the family luck continues. Never to be a soldier, always a protester … oh what bliss.

Monday, October 14, 2013

the death of Candide

I’m here to tell you that Candide is dead. Deader than Buffalo Bill. Deader than God.
This point was borne home to me Saturday night.
The plan was the babysitter, a movie, dinner. Going through the offerings, we decided that the Aero theater on Montana, being close and being sorta arty, was the place to go. There was a Diablo Cody premier there – her movie, Paradise. Diablo Cody rang a distant bell in a dusty part of my memory, which I refreshed with Wikipedia. We’d seen her last movie, or the movie she wrote, in Paris – a good night!
She was supposed  to do the Q and A at the Aero after the movie was over. We figured we’d duck out of that, go sneaking off to some restaurant that would surely be open on Montana.
In fact, we ended up sneaking out at about the point the movie, after its experiment with satire blew up in its face, made a turn towards sentiment. I believe at this point our heroine was getting in a taxi cab after telling her two new friends that she did not come to Vegas to be coddled.
No, as those who hadn’t ducked out at this point knew all too well, she had come to Vegas to Sin! The variation of the Candide plot as it played out here was that simple or even, I’d say, simpleminded. As opposed to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, which sought to  “Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;.
But vindicate the ways of God to man”, the Candide plot is meant to be “candid” about the laughability of the vindicative ways of God to man. Leading us to reject the Enlightenment apologetic for the Christian God constructed by Leibniz. The local circumstances with which Voltaire worked can be, in the anti-Christian genre, reworked, but the point is supposed to be the same. The ways of God to man are really nature red in tooth and claw.  In the negation of the premise that God is a loving God, we negate the principle of Christianity, and we can then hang other ornaments on that anti-Christmas tree, kicking it for this or that moral precept.
Paradise, from its very title, is certainly an entry into this tradition. But what it shows is how dead and dead and dead the tradition is. The plot goes like this: some 19 year old blonde Barbie, raised in a fundamentalist community in Montana, undergoes some horrible – but never really very clear – accident involving a jet, as a result of which she suffers from burns on 80 percent of her body and generally has to be reconstructed. Oddly, since one of the great points of Cody’s film is that the fundamentalist community is bigoted and reactionary, the essential plot point here accepts without question an old Republican fantasy: that the victims of accidents all get showered with money from insurance companies and from corporations fearing huge losses in court. This is of course nonsense – for the most part, victims of accidents in the states face the bankruptcy of their near and dear as the medical bills mount, insurance companies that bridle at showering money and don’t, and a court system that has long been scewed to reflect the desires of the monied in re: liability for those not rich enough to be entitled to every jot and tittle of it. Anyway, our Barbie/Candide is rich, and begins by getting up in Church and announcing there is no God to a fundamentalist congregation that is, of course, supposed to be shocked by this kind of thing. It is a Hollywood fundamentalist congregation, which means that it is essentially sketched in by people saying amen to the preacher from the pews. The sign system here couldn’t be clearer: the viewer is definitely not one of “those” people. From the start, in other words, the viewer is invited to wallow in his or her own presumed superiority. This is always a bad start for a satire. And the level of the laughs is about at the level that you would suspect. For instance, laugh one is supposed to be generated when Barbie tells the congregation that she is even going to vote Democratic. In fact, all the jokes are this kind of fluff. This is the kind of movie that thinks has caught a real howler when it has the heroine refer to gays as Sodomites. And if you think that is a howler, this movie is for you!
Which seemed to be the case with the California audience, although I think, maybe, that we are talking friends of the director here. Still, the chuckling over such inanities struck me as genuine enough. This was sad, as it made me feel much superior to the audience. Having a superiority complex anyway, I quickly realized this movie was not only stupid – of that variety of stupidity that comes with groupthink - but bad for me.
So, to make it better for me, I tried to reflect on Paradise as another proof that anti-Christian mockery, as a genre and theme, is past its prime. In fact dead – and you can’t be more past your prime than that.
The question is: why?
Perhaps it is because Christianity, as Pope and Voltaire knew it, is dead. That is, the ideology of the clerks – the ideology of what James Scott calls the Great tradition – has moved on. It is no longer about glory and redemption. It is about commerce and science. Religion, in the Great Tradition culture, is now something to oratorically affirm on set occasions. Meanwhile, in the little tradition, in the daily life of the masses, belief has gone back to the wild. Thoughts are free – meaning it is all syncretic, a little astrology here, a little pop science there, a little Jesus, a little Oprah, a little politics.
In these circumstances, the great biting ferocity of the old Candide tradition is simply out of place.
Of course, there are fundamentalists, but they, too, are for the most part more moved by politics and commerce than anything like Christianity. Of course, my own stance on fundamentalists is that they are misnamed, since any literal reading of the Bible will tell you a number of things: that wealth is evil, that princes and nations are misguided, that primitive communism is the way to go, that thoughts aren’t free. The prophets are invariably – without exception – traitors. The messiah in the Gospels is serious that the first are last and the last are first in the kingdom of heaven. He is also serious about taking up your cross.
But that is a mere aside. I think the Candide genre died in The Master and the Margarita. Perhaps I should say, the death is explained in The Master and the Margarita. At the beginning of the book, there is a conversation between a poet and an editor. The latter, Berlioz, commissioned the poet, Ivan Ponyrev – or “Homeless” – to write an anti-Christian poem, but as he explains to Homeless, he is not satisfied with the result. The poem attributes dark motives and actions to Jesus – but the point, Berlioz says, is to bring out the fact that Jesus is a myth. He never existed.
Now, Bulgakov is having some fun here, because as both are soon to find out, the Devil not only exists but has come to Moscow for an event. Berlioz’s rational world is swept away before the first chapter is over, in fact. But his theory about Jesus as a myth is a pretty good way of getting at why Candide is dead. In fact, in the current culture, whether Jesus existed or not doesn’t matter. Which is why some nice, no holds barred assault on Jesus would not go over in film, nor evoke chuckles from the feeble minded audience that thinks the word “sodomite” is a hoot. Our sentiments would be offended not because of belief in Jesus, but because of the belief that we should be tolerant of the belief in Jesus.
Such is the current state of explaining the ways of God to man

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...