items and notes
Rome via Nobel Laureate in Literature, Grazia Deledda
I worked through Pasolini and Carlo Levi while in Rome this summer but also read Grazia Deledda’s excellent and very funny novel After the Divorce. Since, like all places, cities seem most vibrant in the imagination, this book ended up being a good addition – for most Italians (including those before and after there was even a nation-state called Italy) Rome was a destination known only through inscrutable legal edicts, strange demands from missing landowners, and stories of distant relatives lost in the devil’s playground. And the pope. Levi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli” (a book not about Rome) obviously describes similar countryside notions about the horrors of the terrible, imperial city. But I’m going to write something about him in another place – stories of metropolitan and provincial eccentricities are not so funny when you’re in exile and the City of God is overrun by fascists.
Anyway, this is just a small moment in Deladda’s After the Divorce, beginning with a fight over whether or not a guest (Uncle Paolo) deserves to have a candle, and if their single and partially-used candle is even good enough. Apparently, a man of his imagined standing isn’t normally forced to suffer the indignity of lamps fueled by olive oil. Uncle Paolo’s niece is chiding her grandmother about this:
“He has been to Rome!”
“To Rome! The idea! They only don’t have lights like that there because they have to buy their oil by the pennyworth. Here, we can use as much oil as we want.”
[And, later, in discussion with a thin Uncle Paolo concerning food and living in Rome …]
“It looks as though you had found very little to eat in the Eternal City!”
“Eh, that is precisely what I was saying just now,” said Aunt Porredda. “Beautiful streets, if you will; but – when it comes to buying anything – the pennies have to be counted down! I’ve been told all about it! On my word, they say that there are no provisions stored in the houses as there are here, and you all know for yourselves that with no provisions in the house it is not easy to satisfy one’s appetite!”
Aunt Bachissia nodded affirmatively.
[The idea of regular markets and shops to buy food are strange concepts – and later …]
“How the money must go in Rome!”
“Ah, if you only knew” sighed Paolo. “Every single thing is so frightfully dear. Twenty centimes for a single peach!”
“Twenty centimes!” exclaimed the company in chorus.
[And after finishing a simple breakfast …]
“Do you know how much this breakfast would cost in Rome? One franc! Not a centime less; and then the milk is all water!”
“Lord preserve us! Why that is frightful.”
Interestingly, now that I live in the provinces, I’ve both behaved the boor and listened to occasional hateful locals in various Indiana venues. As the boor, quoting the rent I paid for my apartment in Chelsea, for instance, I’ve never not received gasps. I’ve since stopped having these discussions because I realized I enjoyed making everyone gasp and felt ashamed. That said, I’ll never forget sitting at a bar as Hurricane Sandy made it’s way up the east coast and listening to an assembly of brawny, hard-working men watching the television news and talking about how they hoped that every inch of New York City was wiped off the map. The hatred and thrill they felt was really shocking. But I’m also sure that it was the hatred and thrill of a sports fan. It’s hard to believe those men would want what they said they wanted if they knew what it really meant – 8 Million People dying; the guy at the the other end of the bar (me), his family members and friends dying. It might as well have been a Colts game for them (or footage of refugees, but who isn’t somehow guilty of this illusion and denial). Anyway, a digression, but capital cities (financial, cultural, political) are pretty interesting from the vantage of people who take instructions and fill orders from such far off places, and Deledda depicts this perfectly.
Yates, Bruno, and what you give up for an MFA and writing fiction
Leaving a PhD program in European History was a good move for me. I could have finished and I think I could have had a shot at a decent job, which is a lot to ask for these days. Of course, I could have also easily become an alcoholic slave in the clerical bowels of some obscure local government office. There’s no way to tell.
The thing is that changing trajectories also changed entirely what I read and what kind of knowledge I had to master, and I still have moments of longing when I try to remember, for instance, things about French social planning in Algeria post 1830. Topics like this do come up (and I wrote my MA thesis on the subject) but mostly my end of the discussion now consists of, “Wait, what was the name of that book I read?”
Anyway, we just stayed in a street off Campo dei Fiore in Rome for the last week and only half-way through did I realize that I knew (or had known) all about the main dude in the middle of the square, Giordano Bruno. He was burned for heresy and this man was the real thing when it comes to being a heretic. But the thing I remembered most was devouring Frances Yates’s magnificent Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as an undergrad. Her work was one of the main reasons I wanted to be a scholar and not a novelist (a thing I then, and sometimes now, regarded to be a notch or two below an alcoholic government functionary).
Still, I really can’t remember anything about Bruno beyond the obvious facts. Nothing involving any depth or insight. It was nearly 25 years ago that I read about him, and I went on to focus on other things, so maybe I get a pass. Still, feel like I’ve recently been coming to vague conclusions about how everything unfolded for me. Four below.
1. Despite the cultural status of novelists, there is an incredible lack of learning in our community. It’s likely necessary – reading time has to include long fabrications that tell us little important about Italian heretics, as engaging as a novel about Italian heretics may end up being. Still, it’s not the same, and while a good historical novel might fill in some lapses in scholarly imagination – of which there are many – it’s no way to even begin to form a proper analysis or understanding of anything.
2. Work with scholars should be a necessary element of any MFA program, as difficult as it is to be taken away from your artistic labors. It may chip into your daily word-count, but nothing beats spending a semester, say, with a Defoe scholar who’s spent his or her life studying the writer’s work and can tell you exactly what centuries of research have turned up.
3. I’d love to approach both ends of things at the same time, but I’m not sure it can be done properly. This is why I so often cringe at the call for more “Public Intellectuals”. When I hear that term I can only think of Sartre et al. defending Stalin. Sartre was a brilliant man but hadn’t done any of the painstaking work to come to well-formulated conclusions about the Soviet Union. He just said, I’m brilliant and thus my opinion about everything must be valid. I feel like this happens so often with writers who, for all the wrong reasons, are often asked to comment on things they have little expertise in – or who have great rhetorical power but just have to offer quick comments on something without having to make an actual decision.
4. Finally, just as a person develops a kind of love for a narrator or author as fiction unfolds, a similar thing happens in the middle of a great and thoroughly non-commercial academic book, and I really miss it. Anyway, I’m reassembling my reading list for the year.
Long, long semester and I’m now re-entering the world of reading work that is not by students via French signs, advertising copy, and wrappers of commercially produced food products. Re-integration needs to be slow or the consequences are similar to what happens when a person on the brink of starvation resumes eating with an entire pot roast. Anyway, below are a few samples similar to the riz compote French doctors believe is the surest route to recovery from stomach and nutrition problems.
Above: strangely, throughout the French Alps there are signs warning you to either not do something that no rational person would do – “Even though it’s a hot day, don’t play in the 200m waterfall that is surrounded by sharp rocks!” – or signs advising against immoral behavior that a decent person would never dream of doing. (And what deranged person is going to be dissuaded by from his actions by a sign posted by the French government?)
My wife’s reaction to this sign was not one of moral indignance but one of self-consciousness – had she dressed improperly for the trail; was she capable of pulling off a look like this? I myself felt quite embarrassed by the poor state of my arm muscles. The problem with posting about this sign is that it’s the point of departure for an entire monograph on contemporary French visual culture, so I’m cutting this short and letting the image speak for itself.
French people bemoan the influx of American culture and yet they consume it with freakish pleasure. Even the most swank people in Paris can tell you their favorite lines from the show “Friends.” What I love about the Snickers shake is that (as is often the case) they’ve taken our popular food culture and made it even more bizarre. And yet there’s likely some secret French ministry convinced that things like candy-bar shakes are an American plot. Ironically, this same ministry likely exists because it was once tasked with with actively forcing French Culture on the rest of the world. Anyway, the worst of what we have is in France because they love it, and I feel the same shame for them as I do for myself.
With the “Speed Pockets” I’m simply interested in the market research that determined that changing “Hot” to “Speed” was the key to blockbuster sales. Likely a big-time Anthropologist from Paris V got paid a stunning consulting fee for this one.
And finally, after looking at so many menus, it was strange to see this one while visiting the main church in Chamonix. By the way, there is an inordinate number of funerals here every summer. Rich people willing to pony up? Or is 130 Euro a good deal for the cheap and the modest? I don’t know anything about the price of funerals.
Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the Pocket-Sized
One of the great tragedies of contemporary times – and I mean that without hyperbole at least where my life is concerned – is that classic novels are now rarely published in traditional mass-market form. This may enhance the gestalt of living-room bookshelves and the pageantry of book clubs, but who cares about that when compared with the fact that mass-market versions fit in a person’s pocket. Breast for a blazer, lower interior for various overcoats, and back trouser pocket when weather is warm. Used to be that I could wander all over NYC with no bag – just me, door key, credit card, metro card, and my current reading.
Above to the left is the new permanent size of all versions of Memoirs from the House of the Dead. It doesn’t look like much of a difference, but the larger is not even close to pocket-sized, especially if you’re wearing jeans.
And for the thicker of the mass-market versions, below is the obvious solution (constructed 2002). A pair of scissors, packing tape, and a masterpiece in fourths. Again, some might object citing curb-side appeal or the desecration of art. I hardly know what to say to these people. The below photo also helps illustrate the absolute democratic nature of literature. I can own the same cultural artifact as the most effete hedge-fund art collector and do what I like with it without changing the millions of other exact copies in the world. Likely, there would be objections if I cut up a Chagall so I could carry it around in my pocket. Hurrah for the age of mechanical reproduction.
Blake’s 7 and the Virtues of Underfunding Art
Obviously the Blake’s 7 rumors are still strained and it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening. However, since I lived as a boy in the UK during Blake’s 7 ascendency, and it was one of the great cultural influences of my life, I have one thing to say:
If it is going to be re-made, which I’m not against, it should be given a budget proportional to what they had from BBC1 in the late 70s to 81. Limited cash was what made the show so excellent. They had nothing to rely upon but thrilling writing and underpaid artists who could work magic with cardboard. If this show is over-funded or even decently-funded it will destroy the improvisational creativity that made this the most scary and ethically challenging work of art in my young life.
So, no shit like, “We’ll give you whatever you need, just make it pop!” Instead: “We’ll give you no money, but we’ll give you a venue and an audience for whatever you can make that is magnificent and beautiful.”
A Destructive Urge
Read most recent translation of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl since freaks tried to ban it again. Anyway, as has been reported many times, remarkable complexity, self-doubt, contradictions and a willingness to live with these things rather then edit them into ugly consistency – and she did do plenty of editing. So, that said, and despite her many deep passages on the pleasures of life and goodness in human beings, it’s the following passage that struck me hardest and seems to be closest to what I think about it all:
“I don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists. Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago! There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!”
Yes, not many opportunities to act when living under authoritarian regimes. But Hitler was voted into power, and most wars start with multitudes of cheering flag-wavers leading the way, thrilled populations ready to throttle the people they hate most. In the end, the main thing people like and are good at is killing each other and taking each other’s shit. This is not a theoretical statement but an empirical fact – it’s pretty much our entire history. Anyway, Anne’s line, “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill” is about as poetic as it comes. An “Urge to rage” in everyone. That’s almost all there is to say. People are horrible and there’s no way out.
So, hide under your bed with books and only show yourself when there’s a chance to eat dinner with people you love. There’s nothing else.
In Partial Disgrace Quotes now Quote
“The inclination of human nature is to crush the human spirit”
In my attempts to keep pushing the late Charlie Newman’s book, In Partial Disgrace, I assembled my long list of favorite moments to post here. But in reducing the stack, as they say, I decided that the above captured best what he’d been trying to express for his entire life and why I loved him and his work so much. (All the same, please see post below for important nuancing.)
Charles Newman, Joshua Cohen, and living in Partial Disgrace
I hate postmortem debates about who the “real author” was and I’m not trying to get involved in such a thing. First, there are people who knew Charlie much better than I did – I was a friend and a student, but many had far deeper insights into his life. And I’m not trying to quarrel with Joshua Cohen, who’s not only proven himself as a critic in countless ways but who was also smart enough to agree to write the introduction to Newman’s In Partial Disgrace (Dalkey Archive 2013).
That said, I’d just like to counter Cohen’s statement on page VII of the introduction that “Newman loathed Wash U” with the argument that Newman loathed nothing. He was a bizarrely kind and sentimental man, and his cutting criticism and the destructiveness he exhibited in the relationships that were most important to him came with a sense of doubt and regret and back-tracking that really is the province of the best kind of thinkers. I’ve heard him say many, many terrible things about colleagues, students, institutions, (never dogs), but I can’t remember him not also following up his cutting but brilliant and hilarious complaints with some attempt to reduce his insight to just one man’s annoyance that likely wasn’t significant or accurate. “It’s hard to run a university,” “she’s got a really tough job,” “we should all embrace our own work and not get hung up worrying about other people,” “when you think about it, this is actually the greatest place you can hope for, despite what I’ve said.” These are all things I heard and all following the bitter screeds that Newman was famous for.
The point is that there’s no contradiction. Newman knew how smart he was. He knew how able he was at picking-up on flaws and hypocrisy. And he never held his tongue. But he also never spoke without wondering if there was something more to the story, and he never didn’t address this with quick qualifications, or by declaring what was the core of all his thinking, namely that life is hard and we all do stupid things and when we find villains in the world it’s most important to show compassion and to think about who we are and who we’ve hurt and all the stupid crap we’ve done. In a way, he was always making the same point with his bitterness: it’s a rough lot being human and forgiveness is how every hostile and satirical attack should end. He loved Wash U, but you had to wait around till the end of his tirade to get it.
(That said, I’m still glad he’s not one of my colleagues now – much easier with him to be a friend.)
Dostoevsky, Calvino, and Indiana
I’ve been strangely happy in Indiana this past semester, but still grumpy enough to be convinced that some kind of trick is being played on me. Came across this recently from Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, his semi-autobiographical novel about being imprisoned in Siberia. It’s after he’s surprised to find that he’s settling into his new surroundings.
With every day, the common scenes of my new life became less and less disturbing to me. – [Opening Paragraph of section 7, Part I.]
Been saying things like this to myself a lot lately: “Funny, I’m not half as scandalized by that grotesque building as I used to be” etc. Made me then think of my favorite part of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, although I will point out that even in the first month here I never referred to Indianapolis as The Inferno.
He [Kublai Kahn] said: “It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.” And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” – Invisible Cities, last two paragraphs
Anyway, the question: have I heroically learned what is not inferno and labored to make it endure, or have I lost my sense of what is and what is not hell. Not sure I’m qualified to answer.
William Gass, Illuminated and Alliterated
Gass by Guston
Art by Gass
Given current fashion, it feels strange to claim that a novel is magnificent because of its alliteration and slant-rhymes. After all, with Middle C William Gass has created a narrative, clearly a novel, and not a thing that we might otherwise associate with such devices. Rare that such things like Middle C are still tolerated – as much a fugue as a Romance, with its motifs and variations. Anyway, someone somewhere on a publishing panel got bullied by the right person – this is one of the best things I’ve read this year but it still feels like the last example of something that is already gone.
Maradona and Virtue
Going through summer records and found this photo and was thinking about it, etc.
I understand why people have mixed feelings about Maradona. Certainly he’s caused himself and others quite a bit of suffering. Still, I saw this poster in a friend’s apartment – an Argentinean winegrower now in France – and was pretty taken. Maradona’s smile, the goofy hair, the fat (brilliant) legs, etc. is so different from anything you’d see portrayed in a sports star today. No guile, no mystique, no provocative photo angle. Nothing.
Anyway, there’s no point in being cynical about “these days” even if “these days” have not brought out the best in our friend above. Still, there’s something so un-warlike about this picture, something so happy and non-threatening. Sometimes it seems that sports (or the way we portray them) are all headed down the road of mixed martial arts or a recapitulation of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. A cocaine addict etc. Maradona may have been (among other problems), but at least in this poster there’s no cultural or narrative link between sports, greed, violence, and self-indulgence.
Of course, he’s so young here. Before the turn, I guess. But what’s most strange is that this poster is from a time that the image of happiness, youth, and unrefined virtue (tell me those ridiculous legs highlighted in those ridiculous shorts would pass muster with an art director today) could so easily be part of popular culture, could be sold as a poster. Amazing. I admit, with naive shame, I feel bad that this is all gone, even if it didn’t exist in reality, even if it was just the story we told.
Nietzsche, an Italian after all!
Imagine, all these years I assumed Zarathustra walked down from the Wetterstein or Allgäu Alps to announce god was dead, but in fact, it was at this bus stop along Il Golfo Paradiso in the Italian Riviera where he made his declarations. No joke. Above is the sign I accidentally encountered to prove it.
Anyway, I must have read that Nietzsche wrote part of Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil here in Italy’s Portofino Preserve but ignored it because it seemed so impossible. Moreover, thinking more deeply about the implications of all this (after leaving this bus stop and making it down to the beach), had I been Zarathustra, I would have given up the truth-telling and simply devoted myself to squab-liver ravioli, drinking Cynar, and sleeping in the sun.
Really hard to imagine things like Beyond Good and Evil being written in such a place. Perhaps it demonstrates one of Nietzsche’s great gifts – an endless internal life and an ability to articulate it. Surely nothing he thought could have emanated from what he saw around him. And documentation suggests he seems to have loved and appreciated entirely his surroundings. So a puzzle. As a man who believes in no god, I understand Nietzsche’s general instinct, but this particular geography does not lead me to want to try to convince people that god is dead.
The one thing I will say is that the so-called nihilist wrote with more joy than anyone I know, so maybe the whole connection makes perfect sense.
Brilliant Natalia Ginzburg on eating boys, from Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s exceptional translation, A Place to Live, and Other Selected Essays.
Once upon a time there was a child whose mother died. His father married a new wife and this stepmother didn’t love the boy. So she killed him while the father was out in the fields, and made a stew out of him. The father came home and ate, but when he finished, the bones left on the plate started singing:
My stepmother mean and cruel
Cooked me into a gruel
And my greedy father ate
Every bite upon his plate
The father killed his wife with a scythe and hung her from a nail on the front door.
Schopenhauer, justice, and the horror of noise
Tragic. Here is the shamefully neglected site of the rooming house where Schopenhauer famously (or didn’t as is now scandalously being argued) threw his landlady down a staircase because she was deliberately making intrusive noise.
The thing is that I’m against violence toward landladies. However, I’m for Schopenhauer’s complete intolerance toward noise of any kind. Throwing someone down a staircase is, of course, never appropriate. But maybe this position is my cultural narrowness coming into play. Is a lawsuit, zoning interdiction, anonymous web complaining any better? Me, considering it now, I’d rather be thrown down a staircase.
Still, though, throwing people down staircases is always wrong. But I also maintain that people who make noise have as much to answer for in our society as anyone else. Why should thinkers in Berlin who need total silence have any less rights than Schopenhauer’s hated chattering Hegelians or those idiot people with motorcycles? We all live in some kind of society, and we have to get along, and sometimes, if the law can’t act, the good among us have to take up the cause of justice on our own. Everyone from John Milton to MLK said this, and I’d like to add my small voice now as well.
The Nietzsche Archive and a timely warning to my 4-year-old son about syphilis
My son and I visited the so-called Nietzsche Archiv, a semi-archive, really, with lots of pictures of FN dying and the original death mask, but with proper records safely elsewhere in Weimar. As far as I can tell, little happened here other than it was where Nietzsche was nursed to his death in his final states of delusion and blindness.
A teachable moment, though, for my son – the agony of dying via syphilis. It’s not unlikely that Nietzsche died a virgin, so this obviously shows that syphilis is not always a disease transmitted via erotic interaction. Nevertheless, STDs were an important part of my discussion with Evan and I imparted an important rule I’ve always lived by, namely, to behave as though all Northern Europeans are infected with some kind of venereal disease and to take appropriate precautions.
Interestingly, the building is likely most important (since Nietzsche didn’t really do much there besides die) because it was designed by Henry Van de Velde, the spiritual and artistic educator of Gropius and the soon-to-be Bauhaus movement.
Edward Gorey and Lucky Jim
I’ve been really fortunate with WW Norton in terms of book design and covers, but I often feel that I’m not writing in the era I’m supposed to be writing in, and every time I see a book cover done by Edward Gorey, this seems to be even more true. At any rate, I came across this cover of Lucky Jim that Gorey did. It somehow embodies my feelings.
Also, and again with proper gratitude to my book designers, I feel sad that I’ll not have a chance to ever have Gorey do a cover for me since he’s now in heaven and not available for hire. Perhaps it’s also upsetting that a cover like Lucky Jim would never be approved these days by a publisher because (as they’d rightly say) it would never sell, especially since it was the first novel published by Mr. Amis and he wasn’t the celebrated man he later became.
Anyway, here’s the Lucky Jim cover and also Gorey’s War of the Worlds’ cover. I love them both, as much as I love both books. And, frankly, I also love the fact that Gorey was a work-for-hire artist as well as a man who did work he conceived on his own. As a long-time grub street writer myself (I even used to rent an office on the once-known-as Tin Pan Alley – 28th between Broadway and 5th) Gorey makes me feel proud to have shifted for cash with my pen for so many years.
Elias Canetti’s magnificent control of the erotic in literature (from Auto-da-Fé)
Here’s the set up: Herr Doktor Peter Kien, owner of one of the most important private libraries in Austria, has married his housekeeper (Therese Krumbholz) based solely on how moved he is by what good care she takes of his books. The marriage is unconsumated, however, and Professor Kien is upset by this, blames his new wife, and while it’s apparent that he’s a virgin, feels as though he’s owed a thing that husbands are owed. In the midst of his delusional scheming about how to convince his wife to have sex with him – he’s quite angry – he’s astonished to discover that she herself has sexual desires. In the midst of his agony, Therese surprises him in his study and, with great bravado, addresses the issue.
“Therese took off her petticoat, folded it up carefully and laid it on the floor on top of the books. Then she made herself comfortable on the divan, crooked her little finger, grinned, and said, “There!”
Kien plunged out of the room in long strides, bolted himself into the lavatory, the only room in the whole house where there were no books, automatically let his trousers down, took his place on the seat and cried like a child.”
At any rate, should anyone ever wonder about my literary ambitions, this scene captures everything I’ve been trying to write about for my whole life.
L-F Céline on love and the slaughterhouse
Looking for something in my copy of Journey to the End of the Night and came across this – my favorite passage on love of all time. And, frankly, a fairly accurate assessment of the way the world seems to be.
“A poor man in this world can be done to death in two main ways, by the absolute indifference of his fellows in peacetime or by the homicidal mania when there’s war. When other people start thinking about you, it’s how to torture you, that and nothing else. The bastards want to see you bleeding, otherwise they’re not interested! Princhard was dead right. In the shadow of the slaughterhouse, you don’t speculate very much about your future, you think about loving in the days you have left, because there’s no other way of forgetting your body that’s about to be skinned alive.” L-F Céline (Manheim)
Addiction and narrative
Was thinking about the connection between Netflix binges, drugs, and the recent changes in the Netflix subscription models. I have a very close friend who’s entirely addicted to pot (yes, it’s possible!) and his mode of living is flushing his stash on Monday, claiming he’s done with his so-called monkey, and then meeting his dealer on Thursday because he says he can “be cool about it from here on out.” This is my history with Netflix. I cancel and reinstate with regularity, claiming first that my media binges are ruining my life and then asserting that it’s no big deal and I can watch Breaking Bad like an adult and with temperance and restraint. (Like how most other people can have a glass of sherry before dinner without finishing the night drunk and confused and in a Canadian brothel.) But is this the lie of the addict? I can’t have Netflix. Not a drop of it. But I haven’t found the strength to give it up. But maybe I can handle it. Thus I cancel and restart over and over. Perhaps it’s the absence of brothels (staffed with Canadian people) in our own culture that is causing this.
Robert Birnbaum, LSD, the importance of editing interviews, and a transcript of my shame.
This week I saw a verbatim transcript of my 2 hour interview with Robert Birnbaum and I’m stunned by how inarticulate I am. It’s noon, I’m stone sober, we’re at a coffee shop in West Newton, MA with few distractions, and I still sound like I’ve eaten an entire sheet of acid. This is not to say I don’t make my points, but the “I mean’s” and the “you knows” and the “like, I mean it’s like, like, you know’s” are so shocking to me that I can only conclude that being a writer was the exact proper vocation for me – a profession where I can backtrack and edit and re-edit until I don’t sound like a mealy-mouthed idiot. Anyway, totally demoralizing, especially since I didn’t actually have any LSD. Wouldn’t that have added to my street credibility, though, to say I did my whole east coast tour while tripping? I’m actually tempted to lie and say it now, but it seems more interesting and relevant to confess that responding to questions in an interview has such damaging effects on my language abilities. Or maybe it’s me speaking at all that causes this damage.
Secret to artistic transcendence: sitting alone in a peach tree
My son and I are slowly working through my favorite cowboy songs on the drive to school every day and I’m now turning him on to Don Walser. Aside from having been a magnificent musician, Walser uttered one of the most articulate accounts of early artistic formation I’ve ever heard.
I’m quoting from memory – it was on a radio show long ago – but when Walser was asked how he learned to yodel as well as he did (was one of the best in the world) he said, “Well, every day, growing up, I’d sit in the peach tree out front and yodel.” Anyway, lesson is obvious, although my 4-year-old is tired of hearing me talk about it.
Walter Pater scholarship proves that anonymous slander and praise was not invented by the internet
Ask experts on technology and “the future” and they’ll tell you that hostile and fawning electronic reviews with no attribution, or attributions like “bignutty51” are a product of our complex and changing mode of social interaction. However, from the first gossip – gossip must have been the first thing people did as language took root – to printed slander nailed to trees in Hyde Park, passion for anonymous calumny and puffery has a long history. Examples are endless, but I really loved Laurel Brake’s essay dealing with the august Walter Pater in “Censorship, puffing, ‘piracy,’ reprinting“ in Modernism/modernity (V19,N3). So fun to see such a high-brow heavy-weight like Pater having participated in the kind of sneaky critiquing that some think was only just recently invented by deceptive internet users. Again, revolutionary technology so often just produces new ways for humans to do the same things they’ve always done.
J.D. Salinger prefigures complaints of stupid things on internet in 1951
Salinger, in The Catcher in the Rye, writing about suffering through popular movies and the terrible newsreels he was forced to watch: “There’s always a dumb horse race, and some dame breaking a bottle over a ship, and some chimpanzee riding a goddam bicycle with pants on.”
Again, Holden was talking about how much he hates newsreels, but it does point out that people have been passing time by watching animals doing absurd things long before YouTube. Yet another example of technology being revolutionary but human behavior remaining exactly the same. This also reminds me of one of Flaubert’s letters to a pal while he was touring North Africa (obviously before any kind of moving pictures) where he went to a carnival and saw a man who charged money to an audience to watch him sodomize a monkey. Not the same as a monkey on a bicycle in pants, but there’s a kind of imaginative spirit about it. And he made a living doing it. This is the kind of can-do attitude we’ve lost in this generation. (Maupassant has a similar scene in a short story – title forgotten – that involves a goose.) The everyday internet (Flaubert and Maupassant were popular writers, after all) suddenly seems quite tame.
PS: See coming post for an interesting example of pre-internet internet behavior by Walter Pater.
Art or Amway?
I’m always willing to shift for money, but there’s something about book readings that makes me feel like an Amway representative. I invite people over for a party, we all have a great time, and then I conclude by wheeling out my product and asking them to buy it. It feels very shameful. Not sure how to resolve.