Saturday, February 25, 2023

The American Pain


I noticed years ago that the American Pain, which used to die in shacks and mansions unheard, has migrated to the Net to be heard – for every pain wants an ear, desperately. Thus, my morbid fascination with the comments on YouTube videos, a vast lamentation. It is here that mothers grieve daughters gone to overdose, daughters grieve mothers gone to Covid, and crooked lives find, at least for a comment, some airing.

This is, I believe, a unique  ethical and aesthetic phenomenon. The blues came out of the American heartland, and scattered singers throughout the land. Seriously. I remember in Shreveport, in the 1970s, when I was working as a janitor at a warehouse, that at break, this one old battered warehouse lift operator would sometimes bring a guitar and sing “a shaky song”. Interrupting the ongoing dominos games.

It makes sense to me, in a painful way, these voices, these anecdotes shared with nobody. The boy who overdoses and dies with the headphones on, the Dad who crashes and burns listening to some R.E.M. song. It is surprising and not surprising at all that so little ruckus is made about the more than million overdose deaths in America in the last decade, or the way suicide has become the number one way out for the under 35 year old cohort. In other times, this amount of pain would have moved mountains, would have somehow rocked the boat.

But it hasn’t, so it ends up in YouTube video comments. This could be one of those YouTube video comments.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Cracking wise


When Edith Wharton’s dramatization of her novel, The Age of Innocence, flopped on Broadway, William Howells consoled her by saying that Americans prefer their tragedies to have a happy ending.

I like this because Edith Wharton and William Howells seem class stratospheres above the bootlegger or the private detective, and yet here they are, cracking wise.

The wisecrack has not gotten the philosophical respect it, perhaps, deserves, even as it encodes a very urban American notion of wise. Wise is wisened up. Wise is not a stage in the quest to understand what I know, it is knowledge roughened on the street, knowledge that knows the gangster and the banker, knowledge that drank bathtub gin in the twenties and snorted cocaine in the eighties.

Americans like their wisecracks. I am hopelessly American in that respect.

George Nathan, Mencken’s partner in crime in the twenties, anatomized  the stereotypical comic wisecrack in American theatre in an essay published in his theater column for the American Mercury in 1926. He presents a collection of forms that are still recognizable in tv sitcoms on Netflix - never reaching their sell-by date. There is the What do you think you are? A …. Which is varied by where do you think you are, who do you think you are, etc. There’s the This isn’t a x, it’s a y – that isn’t a stomach, it’s Mount McKinley, ta da, ta da. Variations of if that’s a x, I’m a y – if that’s a diamond, I’m a Rockerfeller – to be said when looking at paste jewels.  There’s the “if I had a x like that, I’d y” – Nathan’s example is, If I had a face like that, I’d sue myself for damages.

Nathan’s conclusion cracks wise on the wisdom of the wisecrack:

“What we obviously have in these forms are a half dozen branches on the family tree of the so-called wise-crack. The wise-crack, as I have noted before, is the species of repartee that from time immemorial has been accompanied on the vaudeville and burlesque stages either by a boot applied to its sponsor’s seat or by a newspaper applied to his nose. It is humor that proceeds in no wise from character but simply from a dummy that serves as the mouthpiece of the state writer. It relies for laughter solely upon itself’; what has gone before it, whether in dialogue or character drawing or dramatic action or what not, is utterly immaterial. It may be isolated from its context and, unlike ture comedic humor, loses nothing in the process. And it is today the worst handicap under which American comedy writing is laboring.”

I am not so down on the wisecrack as Nathan. I object to the idea that the wisecrack is a wholly textual devise – I see in it some oral grace, or at least some oral descent. It is cousin to playing the dozens, and to the barbershop quartet of jokes and remarks which carry the flow between haircuts and shave and gel and the mirror. The waitresses putdown, the bartender’s assessment.  All of which are routines. Routines, behind the back of literary critics still looking for rituals, are the real repetitions in modernity.

And that is the reason that the wisecrack can be isolated from its context. Its context is the drama of the routine, the scheduled action, the expected time. And the great wisecrack writers – Thurber, Lardner, Hammett, Chandler, Parker, Ephron, Perelman, etc. etc – all work with routines, and in some cases – I’m thinking here of Lardner and Parker – of routine as existence itself. Wisecracking leads to a certain savagery: the deadeyed cliches mouthed by Jim Thompson’s deputy sheriff in The Killer Inside me is all about the wisecrack frozen in murder.

And that is American comedy with an unhappy ending. Slip the yoke and reverse the joke.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Little Black Sambo and the sentimental heart of White Supremacy: or, Roald Dahl and bookburners against bookburning

 The pseudo-controversy about editing Roald Dahl's books to suppress bigoted material for the woke crowd - just one incident in the history of the slice n dice of Dahl's books, which nobody seems to have ever objected to before (the Ladybird edition of Charlie and the Chocolate factory book, for instance, trims the 180 pages down to 48 for young readers. The horror!) reminds me of the suburban Atlanta of my youth - back in the wondrous 60s, when the civil rights era was upsetting all the verities! Back then, the suburban white crowd was upset about the censorship of everybody's fave classic, Little Black Sambo. How could one deny white kids and even the colored kids such a wondrous comic classic? That and a couple of lynching postcards, and you would have a fine breath of the American mind.

The banning of Little Black Sambo was probably told to little future Fox News figures as a horror story: surely it was the Jews and the liberals that did it! Looking around for that history, I found out it started - aha! - in Canada.

"Is The Story of Little Black Sambo, the children’s book written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman in 1899, the fantastical tale of a heroic boy who faces danger courageously, outwitting tigers and being rewarded with pancakes? Or is it a prejudiced story whose caricaturized illustrations of blacks had invidious and hurtful effects on generations of black children? That was the question faced by the Toronto Board of Education in 1955 when a concerned parent objected to Sambo‘s presence in his son’s school. The ensuing debate prompted a furor across North America."

The north American nations, founded on a pretty rigid system of racism, but with democratic appurtenances, are prone to these fights. If there is one field that the white supremicist impulse holds dear, it is its popular culture, from Aunt Jemima to Buckwheat.
It rather warms my heart that at the beginning of the fight over Little Black Sambo, the proto-woke opponent was an open communist - a woman named Edna Ryerrson. The Cold War liberal version of Communism was that Communists were just entrapping and using black people - not like the Cold War liberals, who was all about gradual change and equality in, perhaps, 2100.
Edna Ryerson urged that a committee report on the book. A committee did, and saw - of course - that free speech and childhood joy would be impeded by any block to its circulation of being assigned in class:
"The resulting report written by Phimister and Director of Education C.C. Goldring and tabled on January 6, 1956 was dismissive of Braithwaite’s concerns {Braithwaite was the black parent who had complained to Ryerson]. “It is felt that it is unwise to ban from the Public Schools a book which has such a wide appeal for children,” it concluded, “and which cannot be said to be discriminatory in that it is a children’s fantasy which portrays a little negro boy who has a great adventure in the jungle, from which he emerges successfully.” Newspaper coverage of this initial debate likewise denied any legitimacy to Braithwaite’s claims, dismissing the very idea of racial intolerance in Toronto as Communist rabble-rousing."
The woke have, of course, taken the place of the Communists. It is almost as if there were a structural and systematic defense of white supremacy that we can detect here. But shucks, that can't be true!
The debate about the book could be transported to Florida today, and it would seem like just another news item about the important work De Santis is doing in de-trumpizing the GOP and making it a wonderful party once again!
"A fiery, 90-minute debate followed, with Ryerson’s attempts to speak repeatedly cut off by the chairman. “I am somewhat tired of you making political issues out of racial issues,” chairman D.M. Morton loudly declared to the Communist trustee.
“This is book-burning,” superintendent Phimister declared, warning his colleagues that they’d be setting themselves on a dangerous path “along the same lines as book-burning and censoring to which there is no end.” He added: “‘Sensitivity to the word Sambo is in the minds of the minority and not of the majority. The word Sambo doesn’t mean anything bad to me.” Another trustee added that his own children loved the story and they’d “never thought of it as prejudicial to any race.” Another conceded that the book should be removed, but only from specific schools where it was perceived to cause offense."
This is a regular candybox of rightwing and centrist canards. I especially like the mention of book burning by the same people who would turn around and ban any book that criticized in any way the racism of the "majority" - that would be considered, at the time, just communistic, and in our time, as too woke. Can't have that! And so it is that the bookburners decry bookburning and their children see Sambo as an adorable object. The beat goes on and on in the moronic inferno.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Two anecdotes

 Two anecdotes

“Every prominent landholding family in the Rajput caste, I discovered, inherited a family of oral genealogists, musicians, and praise singers, who celebrated the family's lineage and deeds. It was considered a disgrace if these minstrels were forced by neglect to formally "divorce" their patrons. Then they would break the strings of their instruments and bury them in front of their patron's house, cutting the family off from the accumulated centuries of ancestral songs, stories, and traditions. It was the oral equivalent of a library or a family archive being burned to cinders.” This is from William Dalrymple Home in India.
I love those broken strings, that burial! This anecdote is good for thinking - it is of that type, nearing the status of a parable. Isn’t this what happened, on a macro scale, in the 19th century, as art became detached from the old systems of patronage – from the aristocracy, the court and the church? Visual art was and is as inflected by this detachment as by any formal shift in its consciousness – or I should say that the formal shifts, like the cutting of the strings of the instrument, were unconsciously related to the moment of detachment. The melancholy of emancipation, if you will.
Another anecdote, this one from Leonor Fini’s letters. Fini is an amazing person who has rather been forgotten or at least marginalized. She was an artist who was fully equal to the other surrealist painters of her time. And she was a figure in Tout Paris, a fashionista, a wearer of Schiaparelli, a women who liked to refer to her own nervous beauty in her letters to her rather louche writer-lover, Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues. Her acerbic comments on the fashionable and artsy in the interwar period are fascinating – Richard Overstreet, in his introduction to the letters, writers of her “sovereign way of redefining the relation between the sexes”. These sovereigns, these self-appointed kings and queens, these celebrities, these rebel rebels!

So, in 1935, she writes to Pieyre de M. about De Chirico. She knows him both as a painter and another Italian in Paris. There’s a De Chirico shown at the galerie Percier. Kahnweiler finds a Czech client who wants to buy it. The client says he would be “happy to have a dedication from de Chirico behind the canvas.” So De Chirico shows up a few days later and says: “I never made that painting. It is really a pigstye (cochonnerie)! I have never painted that genre of canvas, etc. etc.”
“Can [Fini’s name for Kahnweiler] explains to De Chirico that the painting has been sold and that is the way it is, it is rather tedious. So De Chirico declares, okay, it is really no bother. He writes an affectionate dedication behind the canvas and says: if you need some older paintings, don’t buy them from the dealers, come to me.” Some days later another client shows up, asking for an older De Chirico of the same period. Can goes to De Chirico, who says: I don’t know one, but I can make one in a few hours. (In fact, he painted it, I saw it, it is a disgrace). I find all this strange and hallucinating. There is certainly a side of De Chirico that is practical, a little naïve and piggish, which wants to cheat and make money. One thing is certain: the original painting wasn’t a counterfeit. It is typical of De Chirico to say it is.”
I love this anecdote. Fini’s letters were published long after Derrida wrote “The Truth in Painting”, but this anecdote, with its intricate knitting of the true and the false – much like Poe’s story of the Purloined letter – has that fine castrated parable glide to it, a solution in search of an enigma.

Monday, February 20, 2023

an image from montaigne

Comparisons, it was anciently thought, were among the royal tools of thought, along with logic. One of the interesting thing about comparisons is how, buried beneath them, we find coincidences, intersections on the plane of concept or image. And the comparison is all the more powerful in that, like a coincidence, it produces a cognitive shock, a crossroads surprise. The shock, if the comparison goes off well, will be transmitted to the object we began with. It will seem not only as if we have given an explanation, but we have given a surplus of explanation.
It is here that comparison runs into trouble, for, like coincidence, it seems tangled in superstition. Enlightenment begins, perhaps, with a suspicion of the surplus of explanatory value. Ancient  enlightenment – the sceptics and epicurians who came after Aristotle – recognized that comparison did too much work. It is as if an occult power, a dark force, planned that meeting of concepts or images or situations. The enlightenment state of mind is always allergic to occult forces. These are, after all, the things that plunge us perhaps all innocently and without taking notice into a magical view of history. And yet, if the Enlightenment wants to have a history of itself in which it too figures against the forces of unreason and superstition, if it works towards “progress”, it is always itself subject to a self-subverting contradiction, the projection of some force that makes for history as a progress, a force that is not a force, when logically analyzed, leaving us a history without a motion, which frustrates our idea of what history should be.  Which is just to say that enlightenment itself often does not resist the temptation to seek out destinies and fates, and tarries with an image of history as a sort of white magic.
This is one side of comparison. Another side is its absorption, over time, into the literal, the long march from connotation to denotation. Coincidence, here, is routinized, or overlooked so often as to seem no coincidence at all.
There is a haunting comparison in Montaigne’s essay, “On the useful and the honorable” – which Florio translates as the Profitable and the Honest – which speaks to comparison itself within the public sphere. This essay begins the third book, which was published four years before Montaigne’s death, in 1592. The third book has a certain retrospective splendour, rather in the manner of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – one feels that Montaigne, like Prospero, is about to break his rod and drown his books, as the last voyage approaches. On the useful and the honorable (de l’utile et l’honnête) mingles memories or summings up from Montaigne’s public career with a reflection on the division between what it is useful to do for the state – what profits the prince, or one’s ambitions - and what it is honest, moral, honorable to do from the perspective of the private individual.
The image and comparison I have in mind arises in the context of a characteristic moment of self-accounting, with its to-and-fro motion:
“What was required by my position, I furnished, but in the most private way possible. As a child I was plunged into it up to my ears. And I succeeded well enough, but I have often, in good time, disengaged myself from it. I have since avoided meddling in public affairs, rarely accepting to do so and never requesting it. Holding my back turned to ambition. If not like rowers who advance, thus, backwards. Nevertheless, being embarked, I find myself less obliged to my resolution than to my good fortune. There are, indeed, paths less inimicable to my taste, and more adapted to my temperament, by which, if my fortune had called me in the past to public service and advancement in the opinion of the world, I know I would have bypassed all the arguments of my reason and followed it.”
The to and fro is held together here, I think, by that discrete glimpse of rowers advancing with their back turned. It is an image of progress that surely has a double root in Montaigne’s own experience and in the classical authors.
For a man who saw the world as constantly dissolving one hard element into another, Montaigne was very phobic about water, much prefering solid land, and even the bumpiness of coaches, to the waves. Nevertheless, he did travel, sometimes, by water. In a gabare, a flat bottomed boat that was poled or rowed. There was one that went from Bordeaux to Blaye, a village on the Garonne that was a point of contention in the guerilla war between the Catholics and the Protestants when Montaigne was mayor of Bordeaux. Indeed, advance has an emphatic military meaning as well as one that indicates a certain directed movement. The symbolism of the rower who, facing backwards, advances the boat must have suggested itself to Montaigne hundreds of times. But perhaps he was also inspired by an essay of Plutarch’s which was thematically akin to this essay: If it is true that we should live a hidden life.
“The oarsmen, turned towards the stern, chase after the catch by the action that they impress on the oars in a sense contrary to the direction of the vessel. Something similar happens to those who give us such precepts: they hurry after fame in pretending to turn their back on it.”
I have been revolving this image in my head, and it grows more interesting the more I think about it. Here fate, fame, progress, and a strange reversal of how we think of human progress all come together. I think there is a long European history of this image, which to my mind, more than the invisible hand, says something interesting about the upper class view of what eventually becomes capitalism. Aren’t we, vagabonds outside of the gated community, those backwards rowers?

Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...