Saturday, December 03, 2022



This is a paragraph from an essay Musil wrote about Bela Belazs’s famous book about film, Visible Man:

The observations that I will add in the following concern these contact and luminal surfaces. The question of whether Film is an independent art or not, which is the entering point for Balazs’s effort to make it one, incites other questions that are common to all the arts. In fact film has become the folk art of our time. “Not in the sense, alas, that it arises from the spirit of the folk, but instead in the sense that the spirit of the folk arises from it,’ says Balazs. And as a matter of fact the churches and the cults of all the religions in their millennia have not covered the world with a net as thick as that accomplished by the movies, which did it in three decades.”


As is so often the case with these Viennese intellectuals, Musil is astonishingly sensitive to the changes being wrought by modernity – with the wisdom; of nemesis perched on the apocalyptic battlements. His  reference is shrewdly to religion, rather than to other forms of art – that is, his reference is to the community of souls. The soul as Musil knew was dying out as an intelligible part of modern life. Modernism – or perhaps one should say the industrial system, under the twin aspects of the planned economy and capitalism – operated as a ruthless commissar in the great purge of interiority- and in that purge, killed, as a sort of byproduct, the humanist notion of art. In retrospect, the whole cult of art stood on the shakiest of foundations. What was really coming into being was something else – the entertainment complex. Film’s effect was not some technological accident, but a phenomenon in the social logic that was bringing us to where we are today, when the primary function of the subject is not to think – that antique cogito – but to be entertained. Here we are now, entertain us – Nirvana’s line should have a place of honor next to cogito ergo sum in the history of philosophy, I am entertained, or I am not entertained – these are the fundamental elements of subjectivity. God himself, within these parameters, is nothing other than the first entertainer, world without end.

Friday, December 02, 2022

writing is not hard. It is the easiest thing in the world.



 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.

The margins to the center – that was briefly a slogan of the Italian extreme left in the 70s. The margins cannot be margins and go to the center, however – structure resists that kind of simple minded restructuration.

The earliest use of the term craft in the current “creative writing” sense that I can find is by Vernon Lee, in the Contemporary Review, 1895. It is, I admit, a pretty good essay on literary construction, and gets the construction part right. Here’s how she begins: “The craft of the writer consists, I am convinced, in manipulating the contents of his reader’s mind, that is to say, taken from the technical side as distinguished from the psychologic, in construction. Construction is not only a matter of single words or sentences, but of whole passages and divisions; and the material which the writer manipulates is not only the single impressions, single ideas and emotions, stored up in the reader’s mind and deposited there by no act of his own, but those very moods and trains of thought into which the writer, by his skilful selection of words and sentences, has grouped these single impressions, those very moods and trains of thought which were determined by the writer himself.”

From thence one can draw a line to Shlovsky’s writing as a devise and Benjamin’s writing as a social function. Vernon Lee was no goof. Violet Paget, to use her real name, had her eye on what Henry James was doing and satirised him in a story that put a finis on their relationship. He wrote to his brother that “she is as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent-which is saying a great deal. . . . She's a tiger-cat!"

She wrote in three languages – French, Italian and English – and was nobody’s fool. It is the impress of this multi-lingualism that allowed her to see that the “deposit” of a language’s bits in the writer’s mind is not a willed thing, but a force internalized. And to that extent – to the extent that craft works on a resistant material – she is utterly justified. Unfortunately, the word craft has migrated from witch and iron to arts and … It signals, to me, a certain hobby-lobbyness. As well as a whole ethos about “good” writing being hard, which is just bullshit.

Writing’s a doddle.

at the center of the city, the insane asylum

 The city, like the labyrinth, hides its center through a multitude of false routes to the center. And once in the center, the city hides its exits by imposing its one way streets, while the  art of the labyrinth is all in dead ends. The homology between the city and the labyrinth doesn’t stop there – for at the center of the labyrinth, to get the narrative going, to motivate its structure, there is a monster – and at the center of the city, there is a crime,

At least, this is the city as viewed by German expressionists. I’ve just watched Fritz Lang’s last film from the Weimar German period, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, made after M. The film was made, I’ve read, in Hungary. It was written by Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou. They split up conjugally and artistically after the film came out – or rather, was repressed by the Nazis in 1933. Lang went to Hollywood, Harbou, apparently with a new lover in tow, made a couple of films under the Nazis. The compromises one makes.

To return to my phantom theme, the Testament of Dr. Mabuse is an eerily appropriate close of the period of German filmmaking that begins with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In both films, the center of the city – or labyrinth – is an asylum for the criminally insane. German Gothic, as we all know, was a much more serious matter than French or English Gothic. English Gothic begins with the building of grottoes on the estate of Horace Walpole, whereas German gothic comes from the dark heart of the people – the Grimm brother’s tales (and never mind that one of their main informants was the daughter of refugee French Huguenots). The German Gothic was always conscious of itself as the shadow of a larger politics. The infinitely mercurial Hoffman was a refugee in 1813, uprooted by both Napoleon’s troops and the Russian troops moving across Germany in pursuit. That period put its own spectres in his work. The expressionists, the Prague group around Meyrink, all of this fed into the two great expressions of gothic angst in Germany – Kafka’s work and the expressionist German cinema. M. and The Trial have ties to each other that have nothing to do with Lang’s knowledge of Kafka’s novel – I imagine he didn’t know it. Although Thea might have.

Of course, it is impossible to view Dr. Mabuse without thinking of the history of Germany that came after it. Or without thinking of the extreme political violence of the Weimar era itself – all the assassinations. The hypnotic master-mind – both an excuse and a nightmare, conjured up from the Juniper Tree, or Hansel and Gretel.

Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt /der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete…

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Memory's dream


In 2003, an editor named David Barker started commissioning a series of short books on albums, which he called  33 ½. It was a genius idea: Mark Polizzati on Highway 61 Revisited, Warren Zevon on Dusty in Memphis, Jonathan Lethem on Fear of Music, etc.  It is a rather brilliant conceit, which takes up the album as a complete unit. It has rather unravelled – the album that is – since 2003. This was something we all knew was coming with the download/upload Web. Even before the Internet – the B.I. years, as they will eventually be known – peeps were making tapes that bound together different songs to create a different unit of experience. I remember many of those tapes fondly, although if I held one in my hands this morning, I would not know what to do with it – I don’t have a tape player, and haven’t had one since I got my first PC, back in the back of….

Albums are excellent memory objects. I would be easy for me to write, say, short stories infused with my memory about Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, or Donna Summer’s Bad Girls. Each track could be correlated to some day, or at least epoch, in my life.

Which brings me to my topic: memory.

In my experience, memory has two directions. That is, when I remember, the direction memory seems to take is either straight, direct, or lateral. In the former case, I am like a fisherman casting a line – I cast my mind back and hook my object, that thing or event in the past. Or I don’t. When I don’t, it means I have either forgotten it or it didn’t exist. Psychologists have shown that it is a rather simple matter to create fake memories, in which case what was never there is remembered anyway. But regardless of whether the object is absent, non-existant, or forged, the direction of memory, here, is direct. It is analogous to double book accounting, where the column with the object and the column with the memory are on one plane, side by side. Lateral memory, however, is a different thing. It is about connotations and associations. Memory here is something that emerges without, at times, my having made any effort to remember. I will, instead, suddenly remember. This suddenness has something of the character of waking up – it speaks of two very different states of consciousness. And yet, just as I can wake up feebly, and fall back to sleep, so too I can suddenly recall a thing and then it will slip away. I will forget what I just remembered, or rather, the memory that was forced upon me. If it was something that I wanted to note down, or something that I remember in the moment of remembering that I was supposed to remember, I’ll mentally rummage around. The direct method here fails me, because though I can directly remember the event of suddenly remembering, the object here, the event, is wrapped around something I’ve forgotten. To find that content, I often resort to association – to trying to construct what I was doing when the sudden memory hit me. Or, having a sense of what the content of this sudden memory was – having it on the tip of my tongue – I’ll try to find associates with it – I’ll play a sort of guessing game.

For instance: let’s say I am trying to recall the sum total of my experiences with Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger song. I’d have to recall putting the album,  Songs of Leonard Cohen,  on the bulky fake wood stereo my parents bought at some fortunate point when I was twelve or thirteen, a purchase that informed my entire musical life. I would have to take a memory glimpse at that stereo, which had drawers underneath the record player – needle combination in which I stored my albums. I would have to think about the storing of albums, how they lean thinly one against the other. I would have to think of album art, which at one time had an importance that is now entirely fabulous, since it has no popular existence. It exists now as a small icon on a screen. I would have to remember the album, where I purchased it – without doubt some pre-Walmart emporium on Memorial Drive – and the way Leonard looked not at all pop on the album, but rather pleasingly  like some poet. And I’d have to remember that I did, over time, get by heart the words of that long long song. Then, the first time I saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which begins with the Warren Beatty character, in a bearskin coat, riding on a horse through the wilderness – a vision and a sound that shot through me and gave me, and still gives me, the sense of an expanded existence in the wilds of America, a sense that has always remained with me and makes me, in spite of the old tired racisms and idiocies that issue from that country continually, know the country in terms of a crush I will probably never get over. I would have to think about how I instantly recognize the guitar fingerings that introduce that song, which I believe was the first song on the second side – unless that was the Master Song.  I’d have to remember the distinct small scratch of putting the needle on the groove that starts that song, that static which after a while becomes part of the song itself. This is of course a teen memory, the teen slowly dying over the years until it is a mere whisp, like a dead warrior in the Greek afterlife, a summonable being. And then the memory would have to take on my singing of that song, which I have done frequently, especially when driving a car or riding a bicycle – which to me are occasions for singing to myself. More than a shower, a shower is a more pensive adding up things I have to do experience. And this singing would bring up travels – for instance, driving from Atlanta to Santa Fe. And so on.

This kind of lateral memory, with its suddenness and its frustrations as to the exact details of the remembered and memory signified object, is only one aspect of  lateral memory. The other aspect relates memory to the daydream – it is the memory dream.

In fact, in the 1990s, I tried to write a book using the memory dream as a methodological principle. Take an object or event – a humble spoon, or looking out the window – and specify its real instances.  That is, touch in your present, mentally touch, the spoon or the looking in its stark and naked particularity.  Say the spoon is a measuring spoon, part of a set of measuring spoons made of some cheap pewter like material and bound together with a ring, with measurements imprinted on the handle: 2 oz, 5 0z, etc. Or take the window that you looked out of in your ground apartment in Austin on 45th street, decades ago. That view was really a nonview, comprising a sidewalk, some raggedy bamboo plants grown large enough to form a wall of sorts, and behind that a large dull brown fence that was evidently erected to keep the residents in the cheap apartment house that I was living in – marginals all – from peering at the apartment complex next to us, where it was all swimming pools and nice cars and barbecue on the patio. Here, the logician’s great tool – quantification – breaks down, since it really isn’t clear what divides one looking out from the other. The turn of the head? The mental act of attention? Is looking even defined by consecutive looking, or is the lookings out the window that are divided by other events unified by the intention to look out the window – I say, for instance, I was looking out the window, waiting for the landlord. Quantification is, however, a way to get into the memory game – because the fun in the game is to pose these questions so that gradually you broaden the memory dream, you remember, unexpectedly, the waxed paper into which your mother poured the flour mix for the cupcakes, you remember where it was kept in the cabinet, you remember the other things in the cabinet and the smell of vanilla, etc. In a sense, instead of fishing around in memory, here we are treating it as a jigsaw puzzle. And one that is not, it should be noted, played on one horizontal plane – for the connotation of looking out the window can lead you backwards and forwards in time to other lookings out of other windows. The goal is to cut through the cloud of essences in which the particulars in our life have been wrapped. The routines, which excavate the particularity of an event and substitute a likeness of that event – I remember the window not as it looked, smudged, the yellowing curtain in suspense above it, on some particular moment of some particular day, but I remember the essence of looking out the window, a composite of watchings.

Happy days, wiling away my time in the memory dream!

It is said that the Emperor Rudolph of Bohemia, who had one of the largest collections of curiosities in Europe, possessed a vial in which was held the dust from which the Lord made Adam. This is a curiosity indeed, maybe the Ur-curiosity. There’s a number of paradoxes involved in this object. Was this dust the remnant, the leftovers, of the dust from which Adam was made – or did Adam have two bodies, one of human flesh, the other of dust. Memory seems to give us a parallel paradox. We, too, contain the motes of which we are made, the instances that memory represents. Yet the container, here, is identical to the sum of those motes – just as Adam was both that dust and a divine animal. The artist in me would like to collect every mote, every jot. An impossible grab and snatch expedition, granted, but one I am eternally tempted to launch, to lose myself in, finding that lost, interior Eldorado.

The synthetic progressive

I have been searching for a term to encompass one of the great features of capitalism – the non-necessary synthesis. I guess I will call it ...