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Showing posts from February 19, 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

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 c

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

  T he 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 h

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 infl

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 s