Wednesday, June 30, 2010

An under appreciated Vietnam movie

Casualties of War
starring Sean Penn and Michael J.Fox
Directed by Brian De Palma

This is one of DePalma's best films, a straight forward and powerfully told morality tale , highlighted with notable performances from Michael J.Fox and Sean Penn. De Palma has always been a master of moving the camera in virtuoso turns (or rather, someone who has mastered the virtuoso camera turns of others, ie Hitchcock, Eisenstein, et al), but he is too often a lousy story teller, replacing a tricky sensationalism for plausibility. Here, he gets the combination right, a crucial issue at hand--at what point do liberators fighting for an Essential Good become worse than the evil they think they're fighting?-- the right script , the right actors, a balanced trifecta that compels the would be maestro to keep his film making in balance as well.

There is not a wasted scene, not a gratuitous cut or splice to hijack this movie's power. Michael J.Fox does a credible job as a soldier with religious convictions that are in conflict with his Mission, who's perimeters, he finds, are being improvised and diminished, and Sean Penn is stunning as hyper-macho team leader whose loyalty for the good of the men under his command changes from Good Soldier to Concentrated Evil; his sense of morality is shattered and ground to dust and there is a gleaming insanity just behind those radiating blue eyes. What additionally comes into an articulate focus are De Palma's views on violence towards women at the hands of warped men.

Rather too often in films, women seemed little more than witless innocents or scheming, sulking whores who were engineering their violent ends due to a variety of self-scheming schemes; leeches, blood suckers, vampires, debilitating things to be poked, shot, prodded with blunt instruments, drills, knives. The director, a competent technician with a conspicuous  desire to sit among the greats in the Auteur Pantheon , seemed to have issues with women, issues that seemed to find only extreme resolutions. The ambivalent treatment of the misogyny made you wonder whether DePalma was an inept moralist who couldn't make his movies perform both as entertainments and moral inquiries, or if he was merely interested in the thrill of seeing women abused by disgruntled men.

With Casualties of War, the focus turns  the churning culture of men  in war time, on a band of soldiers who recreate and embrace their loyalty only to one another in the field to the tragic exclusion of all else. DePalma lines up the scenes of escalating violence and decreasing reason, until Penn's character offers up a lone Vietnamese women for his men to rape, offered up like a cash reward for a job well done; this is more than a melodramatic turn according to a prefigured script, but an effective, disturbingly presented result of group thinking. The issue aren't nuanced considerations of good versus evil and what appropriate and punishments should be meted out--it is a  blunt, plain truth, the inflicting of pain by the powerful against the weak. This problematic director for once gets that across forcefully, artfully, unambiguously.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Caught in the loop

Erica Wagner does a serviceable job of summarizing the new Bret Easton Ellis novel Imperial Bedrooms in the New York Times, in which he brings us to speed on the whereabouts and doings of the characters in in his first book, 1985's "Less than Zero". She does a creditable job as well at highlighting his novelist skills --a talent as a surreal quick sketch artist is duly noted--and furnishes a longer list of matters that have made him , in large part, the most tedious of contemporary novelists. It would suffice to say that Ellis has a love of characters who are impossibly, ruthlessly detached from the violence and decadence they observe or create, and that the trick of having a creation observe himself being observe is a dated use of a loosely construed idea of phenomenology. Comparisons to another novelist who harps on repeated themes, Joyce Carol Oates, are obvious enough --his fascination with the bombed out souls of post-eighties consumers, she on the trials and traumas of women who cannot seem to avoid violence coming upon them--but the qualitative differences are striking. Ellis never really seems to leave the parking lot of his plot lines; his scenes and locations are alarmingly the same, whatever names or coats of paint and layers of wallpaper he applies to them. Oates has, at least, energy and speed of production on her side--while a good many of her books, one after another, seemed composed from compulsion than inspiration, she does connect with novels of real power and psychological complexity, as seen in The Falls and The Tattooed Girl: the idea that victim-hood is something one attracts is a subtle idea on many fronts, and Oates, as subtle intelligence despite her fascination with brutal narrative developments, explores the issues . At her best she is as unnerving as Flannery O'Connor could be in her novel Wise Blood

Ellis prefers flat-affect in his presentations: the detail of a photograph or a bit of video tape, unconsidered, unfiltered, tersely revealed. He has the hope that somethig of Hemingway emerges from his writing and that a greater effect takes hold ; he wants the zeitgeist of his decade, the 80s, to sweep over us. He invites us to weep over the loss innocence.

His obsession with the self-referential was once effective,but the value as irony as been exhausted, what had been taken as an implicit critique of 80's drug-infused egomania seems now like nothing else other than a repeating tape loop of rearranging old ideas. There is little to suggest in the body of work he's published at this late date that he's capable of doing anything other than performing face lifts , elaborate productions and smaller bits of of nip-and-tuck--on the short story that furnished the sketchy basis for his first novel. Ironically, an epitaph for this new book is a line from a song by Elvis Costello, "Beyond Belief", from his album Imperial Bedroom.  The quote itself is less important than the fact that Ellis borrowed his novel's title from an album by a musician who has convincingly gotten over the issues of his twenties and hasn't spent the remainder of his career retro-fitting his old conceits.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Al Gore


I could care less if Al Gore had tried to convince a late middle aged masseuse to entertain his Happy Wand; what matters to me is the work he's done and continues to do in campaign for policies to counter act the effects of climate change. As tired as many of us are of the subject, the severity of not doing anything about it remains fatal, and Gore's arguments in favor of a major change in our our political and economic methods haven't lost their urgency. I suspect the population would rather not contemplate the permanent ruination of a everything that matters in this life and would prefer to reduce the issue to another run of the mill celebrity sex scandal. The thinking seems to be that the diminution of Al Gore's reputation will likewise diminish the importance of literally saving the planet from our worst, accumulating habits; this is not far removed from witnessing a cancer patient trying to wish away their disease by ignoring it or playing loud music.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Myth and Use

Myths, as well anyone can describe them, are working elements of our personal and social psychology, and whose elements are "modernized"-- better to say updated -- as a matter of course. Declaring a goal to make them relevant to the slippery degree of modernist convention sounds is an insight best suited for a Sunday book review.


Jung and Campbell are ahead on that score, and Eliade certainly stresses the relevance of mythic iconography strongly enough: current gasbag extraordinaire Harold Bloom advances the case for mythic narrative ,-- borrowed in part from Northrop Frye (my guess anyway) -- in the guise of literature, constructs the psychic architecture that composes our interior life, individually and as member of a greater set of links: the stuff helps us think ourselves, personalities with an unsettled and unfastened need for a center aware of its adventures in a what comes to be , finally, an unpredictable universe.


Bloom somberly asserts in  Shakespeare:The Invention of the Human that the Bard is the fount from which mythic forms find a contemporary set of metaphors that in turn became the basis for our modern notion of dramatic conflict, and argues that Freud's genius lies not in his scientific discoveries, but for the creation of another complex of metaphors that rival Shakespeare's for dealing with the mind's nuanced and curious assimilation of experience, the anxiety of influence in action, as process, and not an intellectually determined goal to navigate toward. The point is that modernization of myth is something that is that is already being done, a continuous activity as long as there are people on this planet...

------------------

An associate was recently doing his best to demean and diminish the status of literary critics at recent pot lock I happened upon. He pointed me towards a computer monitor and told me the address of his book blog. His most recent post was basically the same rant he was delivering at the party I quote him thus:




Academics determine what is taught, but they do not determine what is "literary". Literary, like language, is determined by use.

Use by critics among others, I think, not the general readership alone. Books can have an extraordinary appeal to a vast public, and it is among the critics tasks to study what the basis of the appeal might be, and then to make distinctions among the elements, to give or detract value to specific works, their genre, and techniques. A concept of "literature", a kind of writing that does the reader a tangible good with a malleable knowledge that can be applied to one's life with good effect, is a creation of a university system where critics had to justify the systematic study of poetry, fiction and drama. The literary criteria has since trickled down to the larger, popular discussions among the public, not the other way around.

Academics hardly try to eliminate works from the ranks of literature: more often than not, the aim is to bring works into the fold, though no one, whatever degrees they do or do not hold, will ever be convinced that the mass and popular use of Danielle Steele will confer upon her literary qualities that will have her stock rise amongst academics, critics, what have you. This is an activity that comes from a critical discourse that makes such a conversation possible beyond a popularity contest.It's not that the best criticism claims to create the things that makes writing ascend to greatness, but only that it gives those things names that make them comprehensible to a larger, curious audience. But the terms are not locked, not fixed: literature changes given the changes in the world its writers confront, and so the terms of discussion change to, lagging, perhaps, a bit behind the curve. It's less that descriptions of literature fail, but instead are forever incomplete.

Literature, by whatever definition we use, is a body of writing intended to deal with more complex story telling in order to produce a response that can be articulated in a way that's as nuanced as the primary work, the factors that make for the "literary" we expect cannot be reducible to a single , intangible supposition. Use is a valuable defining factor, but the use of literature varies wildly reader-to-reader, group-to-group, culture-to-culture, and what it is within the work that is resonates loudly as the extraordinary center that furnishes ulitimate worth, varies wildly too; there are things that instigate this use, and they aren't one determinant, but several, I suspect. A goal of criticism, ultimately, is not to create the terms that define greatness, but to examine and understand what's already there, and to devise a useful, flexible framework for discussion. Ultimately, the interest in useful criticism is in how and why a body of work succeed or fail in their operation, not establishing conditions that would exist before a book is written.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Something my Dad told me

My father worked as room clerk in a Detroit hotel during WW2, where rooms were scarce and the racial divide was still strongly enforced. He told one night that there was a clutch of nervous looking white men who wanted to check in a guest--there was a small mob, and the intended guest was still waiting in a car outside. My dad was about to hand over the room key when a manager tapped him on the shoulder and eased him to the side. The manager explained to the man who was signing the hotel register that the hotel was full-up, and politely offered to call the nearby Wolverine Hotel to see if they had a room. The intended guest in the car was Lena Horne, it turned out; the hotel my dad worked at had a policy of not allowing blacks stay at their Inn, regardless of any other considerations.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rock and Roll: pass on or pass it on?

What really killed rock music, if you insist on hanging withthis tenuous thesis, weren’t rock critics, but rather fans that bought therecords and went to the shows. And I noticed in my time that the fans who buythe newer, grainier, more strident and dissonant stuff are younger than Iam--gadzooks! The avant gard I matured with was now a younger listener’sretro-indulgence. Simply, styles change, and much of what is new at first seemsugly to an audience who's tastes are entrenched and internalized.
 
Rock criticism, like in any other criticism, makes the unknowncomprehensible or at least momentarily comprehensible for the moment. Blaming writers,though, for the murder of music gives them too much power--it's doubtful thatthe history of long, abstract, numb skull dissertations in the Village Voice,let alone Rolling Stone ever convinced a tenth of their readership to makealbum go double platinum. That stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty inthe use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in myexperience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath ofcredible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music in tact,and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweepis anyone’s' guess. In the mean time, I reserve the right to be excited,engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original.
 
If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the grave yard.
 
I think it's criticism that's ailing, if not alreadydeceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to becoming agossip magazine, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions and for thescads of "serious" commentary, much of it has vanished behind fauxpost- structurualist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at handwithin an artists work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead,again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words andlyrics can be about anything.
 
But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit thatmoves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstrusewriting can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivialexercise.
My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm aharmonica player of thirty five years gasping experience in some timesbands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between techniques versustalent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to getyour fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent,though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is aninstinct that, or ,say, an intelligence that knows how to make the best use outthe sheer bulk of technical knowledge: making it all into music that'sexpressive and new.
 
Rock, like the blues, the closest elder relative, isprincipally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others asgreat musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musicalelements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums, bassand guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice thatseeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth ofLiterary Criticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitarlick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-miked drums and abstruse lyricsconvey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel,or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip hop, asense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when towith hold. Feel.
 
Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressiblein terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Christgau,Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, atleast, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again,so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivism of art making, beit music or other wise. One sometimes assumes the Garden of Eden was so muchnicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone, andthat, regardless of musical terminology tossed about like throw rugs over alumpy assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table thumping that isdemonstrably empty of content.
 
Reading any good history of rock and roll music will havethe music develop along side the growth of an industry that started recordingand distributing increasingly diverse kinds of music in order to widen marketshares. The hand of the business man, the soul of the capitalist machine hasalways been in and around the heart of rock and roll: every great rock and rollgenius, every jazz master, each blues innovator has the basic human desire toget paid. Suffice to say that some we see as suffering poets whose travailsavail them of images that deepen our sense of shared humanity see themselvesstill as human beings who require the means to pay for their needs and financetheir wants, like the rest of us.
 
There has always been a market place where the music isplayed, heard, bought and sold--and like everything in these last months, themarketplace has changed, become bigger, more diffuse with new music, and newtechnologies.  Something inside me pinesfor that innocence as well, but innocence is the same currency as naïveté, and consciouslyarguing that the way I formerly perceived the world was the way it actuallyworked would be an exorcise in ignorance, as in the willful choice to ignoreavailable facts that are contrary to a paradigm that's sinking into its looselypacked foundation.
Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being anartist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the activity ofborrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, rightup and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities forBorg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have nomusic to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selves may belocked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but ourcultural forms mix together freely and easily.
 
I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of aninstrumentalist to a sound board jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops,but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new artseems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader mediabrings itself up to speed. I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is anentrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll,and will mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise. Asmusic and musicians have always done.
 
 
Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehowresponsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in thenarrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, thisis where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what theygather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general.Neither the quacking vulgarisms of the left nor the quaking apostles of theright like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarilyreasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was tofall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists'responsibility" for the de-familiarizing "aestheticization" ofreal social problems , thus robbing working people of real political consciousnessand maintaining the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.
 
Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a Ilistened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo’s'portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upontheir canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, thatbabies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn,finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bibleor in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involvesa tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible, in their view, to the errantneed for self-expression.
 
Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, andagain, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocativeto bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth thatstirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to wantto fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenetthat artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so manyconditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless.We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bakesales. 
How pathetic. The rock and rollers duty, as it is with anyartist, is to seek and express the truth they perceive in the comprehensible interms that extend our notions of what the human experience is.  Parenting is part of that profound experience.Might some people still be alive today if parents paid attention to what theirsons were up to? Marylyn Manson is only the messenger of what's already inplace: to shut up artists because the message is some times vile and ugly is,at best, cutting off our antennae to what the rest of the world is feeling.
 

Snark

Fiction does not need theory in order to be written. First the fiction is written, the artistic moments, and then theory, or theories, arises as a consequence of critical reading. Theory is a coherent statement of known and verified material facts, in this case works of fiction, and the formation of theory, if it's to be interesting , comes after the appearance of a the primary source.  Critics and erstwhile template -gutters  seek to have theory on the same level as fiction, literature, but in terms of actual practice, theory is a secondary activity, a delayed reaction to fiction, not a simultaneous occurrence.Changing tastes and fashions have more to do with novels falling off the radar, not an absence of theory. And a philosophy without a theory to begin with is not a philosophy at all, only the same said fashionable chatter. For real philosophies that get dropped into our dirty bin, it's most likely that their systems and suppositions have been supplanted, discredited and sufficiently critiqued into submission, which is just the happenstance of intellectual shelf life. All bad writing comes from writers who are writing badly, even normally good writers who've undertaken bad projects. There are many tangible reasons for bad writing, not the least of which is the plain truth that the world is full of bad writers who manage to get their scams published. Modernism cannot get "less modern", I think, because the modernism seems, in itself, only a tidying up of Romantic impulses before it, as post modernism seems only a refinement, an updating of some essentially modernist tropes and stylistics. Each age takes the conventional set of dreads and sagas and makes their contours conform to the constructed world of the current moment. What counts is the individual talent that becomes the substance worth talking about.



Sunday, June 20, 2010

for Father's Day

EDWARD NAVIN BURKE
(1923 -1995)

Never blind to their light
but always reaching for it,
the way garden flowers
lean to the sun to issue forth
pro genies of design,
distinct chips of an
ironwood block shaping themselves
in the rooms you imagined.

Shaving in the bathroom
with the door open,
and singing
that you love Paris
in the winter
when it's snowing
although we lived
along Detroit freeways
thinking Westward and onward
until California was the place
where The Motor City drove us.

The lives you gave us
with the breaths you took,
our faces having divided
the b est of your features
in the children
that follows the best we've
been doing.
Somewhere in history
someone will always look like you.
Light comes into all the rooms
from all the sunshine
that covers the green mountains
like glowing shawls of rapture
that are the beaded notes
of the Paris you loved
and imagined,
you eyes blue as burnt ash
arranging the forms of the world
in new configurations
always, surprising as trick knees
and the lurch of love
that is bottomless
and full of a world.

I have your hair
but none of your combs,
I have your eyes
but none of your vision,
I am myself all of you in the making,
grey hair and trick knees.

We stand here where you brought us
in rooms that
are signed with your name,
you've done all the work
you had to.

Our shoulders are broad and we stand erect,
somewhere in history,
someone will
always look like you.



--9-23-95

Thursday, June 17, 2010

LangPo for the Long Haul


I wouldn't disagree with the assertion that Language Poetry distinguishes itself from the dry confines of Marxist formalism by allowing the author the room to upturn, uproot and upset the conventionalized narrative strategies several generations of writers and readers have absorbed; it is a refreshing notion that the author needn't be taken to task or potentially punished for not following a political script. Language , though, is that thing that we cannot step out of it and take a hard look at, as if through a microscope, and this is an idea that has been with writers for like generations, those poets and writers at the further edges of their period's cultural lines. The  inspiration to  engage in free-play with the usual phrases with all sorts of convention -shattering constructions didn't begin with the Language Poets. Few of the like-minded iconoclasts coming before them, however, were as much fun. It was double- barreled combination: the theories were exciting and persuasive, and the poems challenged, provoked, irritated, and entertained, and after all the controversy and reasoned dismissals and lines in the sand, the books were still read, still on the shelves , moved from apartment to apartment, still capable of making you want to yell "eureka" when the right deconstruction came along.
 
What I'd say is that writings of LangPo's central writers--Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, the late Leslie Scalapino, Barrett Watten, Fanny Howe, Bob Perelman--read amazingly well after the decades have passed. It is a poetry that foregrounds language and it's seductive verbal templates as the subject, but this is not a poetry to stall itself on the trite assertion that the subjects and meaning of writing are undecidable, or that the writer and his or audience are seduced by multiple hegemonies intended to keep populations complacent . These are not dry politicos--within their shared interests in how ingrained rhetorical approaches create the coherent narrative line that amounts our existence, each poet is distinct in their thinking , in their writing.
 
Rae Armantrout's inward, delicately arranged lyrics project a personality assuming itself through a continued assault of formula poses, Ron Silliman assembles the details of the overheard and the closely observed for something coming close to the jazz visuals painter Stuart Davis awarded his art patrons, Bob Perelman directs a circus with a dozen center rings where the tropes of advertising,the Academy, Literature, television and popular culture transgress over each others' obtuse  readings  of simple phrases,  and Leslie Scalapino insisted on recalling and imagining a hard perception from all the angles,like a cubist painting, luring a reader to look at a skeletal phrasing about a tangible event, and then making them look at it again, from a different vantage, in a different voice, in different clothes, until one is frightfully aware of how vulnerable one is when they are shaped in the word choices of another agent. This is the trusty sidekick horse in Ed Dorn's Gunslinger cautioning all he came upon to make take care as to not find themselves "described", as it is the equivalent of being eaten alive.  These descriptions of their poems, of course, are too general to be of any critical help, but they do  show, I think, that Language Poets were not an ossified political movement with members co-signing each other's over recited talking points; these good people are a diverse group.
 
One might name their own choice example of destroyers and creators who've livened up the verbal assaults prior to the avant gard, but my favorite of the moment is Mikail Bakhtin, who wrote of the writer charged with the task of "making strange" the language of their tales, and of the ploy of "defamiliarizing" the narrative in ways that force to reader to grasp the linguistic tricks and twists that are at play. Bakhtin, I suppose, had a socialist utopia in mind as the ideal situation at the end of his philosophical rigor, but his assumption seemed to be, along with most Modernist ideas of icon smashing, that a collective Awakening would assert itself once the audience was exposed to the figurative props were exposed and from there be empowered to make real decisions about how to maintain social change. The real result, of course, is legacy of experimental writing informed by provocative, if occasionally opaque theories. The work itself is judged , in retrospect, on aesthetic value rather than political virtues, which is another way of saying that entertainment value has usurped transformative promise as the thing we look for. Language poets haven't forgotten their progressive desires , it seems to me, but they seem unburdened by the notion that one must consider their work as a continuous critique of what capitalism has done with our language. Theirs is a poetics of pursuing an approach that honestly interests them.

Monday, June 14, 2010

notes on Ayn Rand

The Ayn  Rand Sampler is a  promotional give away that  has been sitting my house for years. Never a fan of the writer,  I ignored it, confident that I knew  from reading of The Fountainhead and selections from her political  philosophy, just what a rank, turgid  crypto-fascist Ayn Rand was. I hadn't, though, read what seems her central effort, Atlas Shrugged, which her followers consider to be the highest synthesis of her work as both artist and a philosopher; what the hell, I thought, I needed something to read on the bus, so I decided to take the book along and read the sixty page excerpt from the novel. I was prepared to be surprised--one would think that a writer as famous as Rand, no matter how awful a writer or pretentious a thinker, had to have written as least one book that transcends everything she has going against her.

I thought I would power my way through the pages, but I couldn't even read ten of the sixty pages Rand's publisher selected for us to read. As has been said by critics more willing to speak at length about her inadequacies as a stylist, Rand's style of writing is wooden for great lengths, less rhythmic or musical as, say , the typical photo caption; making matters worse is when the late writer/pundit would try to lift her writing up a bit and applying similes that read more like after thoughts rather than spontaneous insights , and metaphors that performed the rather mechanical function of boosting her storyline--which is , of course, one dualistic straw-man argument--to a philosophical level. Mechanical is the operative word here, as the attempt on Rand's part to frame her ideas about unrestrained power for brilliant capitalists in fictional disguise leaves us with a choppy, big footed shaggy dog of a novel that is in the tradition of unreadable novels-as-polemic. I closed the book and finished my ride to work looking at the neighborhoods I have passed through a thousand times before. This was more exciting, yes, more illuminating than a thousand pages of Ayn Rand's crabby, delusional exhortations to live free.

__________
Now, more than ever, I believe The Fountainhead, to be a dangerous book. This may worry a point already mulled over here, but one cannot just pass-off this book's implicit assertion that mass destruction is justified in the name of "higher values" whose substance supposedly overrides the need to respect and protect human life. It is only irrational romanticism and literary convenience that Rand softens Roark's destruction with an empty structure. Roark is the hero of all those ruggedly individualist libertarians whose opinions sound as oddly uniform as CPUSA position paper, but shed of the that odious veil, he's pretty much the prototype of the perplexed goons and gangsters whose lives are committed to making the world notice them by the most miserable means available.

Rand a sense of humor, a meat hook kind of satire that wasn't especially funny to a readership unaware of her set of villains; a salon scene in Fountainhead, where progressives and other manner of elite collectivizers hold forth amid an exchange of vaporizing platitudes, comes as a surprise, considering the otherwise lock-box seriousness of the rest of the novel. It's ironic that I imagine this scene makes me think of Rand and her circle sitting around them at some interminable skull session, reaffirming a core set of inflated starchy tropes that reduce what they think is a comprehensive critique into short and simple phonemes.

Anyone wondering what practical use a Rand-obsessed architect might be outside a ridiculous plot line would pose the question. Rand's brutal prose makes her hero's activities to be the most direct means to Resounding Truth , but she is an extreme romantic who , no doubt, thinks that her fiction were reasonable outlines of how the world actually works. No doubt she sees the actions in her novels as being the diagnosis of what ails her adopted society, which places her in a tradition of the Naturalists, who in turn wrote longish, turgid works. Even so, one is within one's rights to query what real good Rand's heroes might be if you needed them to commit an actual task, apartment demolition excluded.

The idea of social construction has more to do with the structures humans create within a phenomenal world, and it additionally supplies an idea of how the human structures of culture, society, law, institutions are able to adapt to a world that functions quite independently of the absolutism Rand would insist she's able to distinguish. Rand insists that there is a world with a fixed, finite, and intimately knowable existence upon which her Ideal Geniuses can impose their own Systems of use. This is the kind of End-of-History daydreaming that often sullies insight, whether Marx, Toffler, or Rand, and with Rand's ideas, giving the phenomenal world over to the unencumbered exploitation by the kind of genius that is hers alone to define, we come to the end of discourse and arrive at a dreamy heaven.

Social construction, in the writings of Erving Goffman and Thomas Berger, Lyman and Scott, among others, describes the ingenious ways that humans create cultures and societies and form kinds of political resources that aid populations to exist within an unmindful nature, and they describe as well the notion of action within the socially-constructed systems; it is more a theory that describes how communities are formed and remain dynamic within a material world, whose final and ultimate nature is unknown, unknowable, and finally irrelevant. If we can't know anything about the ultimate nature of reality, how can we make claims about it, such as whether "it" has any "relevance" to the familiar world of medium-sized objects?

We can make our best general statements about what comprises what we know of reality drawn from the best measurements we can take of it, but a claim to a final,, conclusive and "ultimate" definition of that reality, is arrogance, and over rates science's ability to replace the comforting theology of religion and other exotica to contain our references within comprehensible and metaphorical boundaries. Such boundaries prescribe limits to what nature is, and operate on the notion that it is containable and finally exploitable to our own end, as the thinking has been for centuries that reality exists only to furnish us with raw materials to pursue or own needs and abstracted desires, free of consequence.

This is hardly been the case, as the results of industrialization and war have come back to choke us in the air we breathe. We can, though, make statements about what we measure, and piece together some sense of reality that becomes a comprehensible world where laws, culture, religion, art and economics are devised to aid in the creation of human communities. Within that grossly over stated riff, there is infinite variation in how resourceful the human race is in constructing relevant communities of politics, culture and commerce. Only that which man makes can man know. Vico wrote that.

__________

Feminism has made the demand that there be more strong women in this life and the next so that young females coming up will have living and legendary examples of those who've come before who've not allowed their gender to relegate to the back seat, the bench, the receptionist's desk while men profited from their labor and garnered the cash and the credit for all good things. Fine, well and good, and bully, one would say, and one is grateful for politics, the arts, the sciences being all that much keener, graceful, and interesting for the inclusion of brilliant women in prominent roles. Praise them all.


All? Strong women don't by default make for a feminist role model, certainly not in the case of ersatz novelist and circuitous thinker Ayn Rand; feminists are strangely silent about her. Who can blame them, Rand, guru of the nascent libertarian movement in the Forties, has made a virtue of being a disquieting in a democracy, and for what she wrote about and promoted in fiction, plays and essays about the glories of genius worship, the evils of charity, the nefarious intent of The State in all matters, makes her an uncomfortable idea among those who think that government ought to be used to do the people's business. Less her godless conservatism makes her an unlikely choice for feminist admiration than it is her unabashed adoration of the male figure, within who resides genius, power, drive, charisma. Rand in her real life affairs made the men in her circles wilt like dry lettuce, but in her fantasy life, it was the male who made things happen, who got things done, who blasted, belittled, bested, battered or raped anything that got in the way of his Will and his genius. Not a friend of the common gal, but certainly Larry Flynt's idea of dream date.

It seemed that Rand had an unseemly adoration for the idea of Ultimate masculinity, and that she was fairly well peeved by the fact that she was born a woman and had to distinguish herself from her gender fellows and their culture of girly things. She refused to believe that a woman, in life or in faction, can be strong, brilliant and assertive of her own accord: for that, she needed the dim wit Laurentian brutishness of her male heroes to turn her out, so that some sense of vital elan would invigorate her perceptions of the universe she could see only as a deluded, submissive play thing. She was a quintessential anti-feminist whose life and manner defined a feminist tact in a masculine world.

Rand wasn’t an intentional fascist, given her experience with the brutal stupidity of Soviet socialism, but it obvious that she was so taken with the idea of the charismatic individual, the lone genius, as being the key to civilization’s advancement and preservation that winds up maintaining what it was she opposed.


Her heroes, we remember, are to be admired and followed and, by implication, obeyed without pause or debate. For an atheist, there is something religious in all this, in which the hero-genius will show us the means to achieve heaven-on-earth.  I suspect that a fascist agenda was at the secret heart of her dreadfully clogged thinking: she spoke of liberty and freedom, but her remarks returned time and again to the idea of "genius" and how about how society would be better off if the rabble just got out of the way of the work of the genius and allow them untrammeled, unregulated and unaccountable expression of their projects. The next step of the thinking was to allow the ill-defined geniuses to run things, to make policy, to smooth out the nettlesome complexities and demands of mass culture. Her agenda, I think, was to place everyone else in some place where they would stay out of the way of her and her genius buddies while they carved up the landscape erecting monuments to them. Rand was not a fan of democracy.

Why on earth does anyone think that the following argument is somehow legitimate: "I used to like Rand, but I've grown out of her"? Probably because the similarities between what passes as a literary art and a moral philosophy in Rand's dicey world- view resembles a particular phase of growing up, the ages between 13-17, when a person is inordinately preoccupied with their own being, the issue of whether their desires or impulses are gratified at once or denied. Despite the grim world that made for this view, the substance of her argument romanticizes the worst attributes of children as being a sustainable, preferable state of existence: The Noble Brat.

Part of the intense self-awareness of the mindset is that no one, if any one, is up to the level of idea and perception as oneself, and the world would be a better fit for all on it if one only had ones' way, without interference or obligation to consider a greater consequence. Rand values self-reliance and self-determination, virtues held important in our political philosophy, but Rand, I think, had no use for democratic processes.

Her ideas are based on an abstracted impulse that the gratification of an ill-defined "genius" desire to unleash their will on the world handily assumes priority over the question of any kind of accountability. Howard Roark, I would think, would not have been bothered with building codes, given her perfect world. This is a dreamy thinking that cannot be trusted to even simple tasks. It's a gross immaturity that Rand has made into a compelling argument whose intensity is meant to burn through strong counter views, though you can also say that her intensity, the absolute unwillingness to consider another view sans vilification comes to little more than sustained, albeit convoluted tantrum. I enjoyed Rand's books, especially The Fountainhead, when I was in high school when it fitted my most intense years of self-involvement and juvenile foolishness, but luckily I had a personality that actually wanted to be around people because I valued a sense of community and ideas not my own: a stronger sense of a greater good in a generalized democratic framework seemed a more natural development , emotionally and intellectually, than the coarse outline Rand and her cement-cast prose offered on her best and sunniest day. I grew out of Rand's egocentric rantings. I became an adult. I also read better novelists.

What do you think Rand would have made of Tim McVeigh?

Rand would call him a "patriot": from everything I've been able to discern from his statements, McVeigh, like Roark, thought the justness of cause so great that lives and property were of no consequence as long as the blow against the State and its' collectivizing institutions was forcefully delivered. Randians might argue that Roark took appear ant measures to ensure that no one was at the site before he destroyed his defiled housing project, but the psychology is the same, still.  Though professing freedom for all, Rand was effectively a social-Darwinist where a form of natural selection would winnow out less hardy member of the race --at least to the extent that they are socially neutralized from positions of power and influence--and leave the world to be administered and molded by her particular cadre of industrial geniuses and toadying technocrats. An exclusive club.

Marx was nominally against elitism and privilege, but he thought that the traits would vanish, made historically useless -- incapable of reproducing themselves as culturally cultivated habits -- only after a proper sequence in the dialectical mode of history had completed its violent transition. Seeing that man was capable of perceiving the precise set of economic and historical conditions that have made capitalism a seemingly entrenched and intractable force that virtually controlled the way the world is perceived, he thought it necessary to have an enlightened, committed few to dedicate their lives and their wills to the mobilizing of the masses: this was the work of a specific kind of person, and the thinking, perversely similar to those of Rand's  final vision of her preferred social realm, was that it will take the few to lead the many to an ultimate End of History.

Marx’s' ideas of historical process, resulting ideally in a workers' paradise where humans are returned to their natural state, free of any constraints or concentrated power that exploits them, mirrors more than one set of religious mythology, unavoidable, perhaps, yet ironic given his insistence that his interpretation of history was the result of discovering "scientific laws." Only his "heaven" was earth-bound, and like End Days, the arrival of the revolution is always deferred, conditioned by some hazy "law" or condition that had yet to express itself in a manner conducive to a furthering of final justice. In the meantime, which is forever in Communist States, the select cadres who slowly marshal transition to a final withering away of the state remain in place. Intractable, elite. Until they're thrown out by oppressed populations who realize that they've no real use for the Stalins, or the Rands of history.


This is thinking that mistakes passionately expressed notions of how one wants the world to be with how the world actually is: pits the tragic flow in this line of thought that assumes that big, loud, deadly gestures are only a symbolism that can wake everyone else up to their erring ways and compel the population to a state of alert and vigilant correctness. Charlie Manson thought much the same way when he and his tribe committed the Tate/LiBianca murders in the 60s, delusional thinking that this would start a revolution and race way after which Charlie and crew would emerge as the leaders of the new order.

Roark, with his thinking carried just a few paces further, would have been a McVeigh, leading more violent acts against anti-individualist institutions. Rand seems to think that Roark wouldn't have a problem getting away with the outrages: in her fantasy, Roark admits crime, gives a glib summary of his world view, and is acquitted.

There is not a single line in any of her books that I know of that glorifies mass murder in any way, shape, or form.  The fact that Howard Roark blows up a public housing project he designed in Fountainhead because his proprietary rights were trifled with by collectivist charity-mongers is a sure sign that she advocated violence of what she would rationalize as a "principled" sort it such acts can reveal the evil of government and all charitable schemes to an awakening world. The poor, whom this housing development would have benefited, are of no concern here.

Rand's interest in the novel are Roark's petty egomania and how it's a perfectly rational act for to utilize high-powered explosives so he can feel good about itself. Following suit, I think she would have answered as I indicated had she been asked her opinion of McVeigh , his act, and his reasoning, albeit it's plausible that she might have chided him for being messier than he needed to. But I think she would have regarded him a great man, her kind of guy.







Saturday, June 12, 2010

Meditation on Loud Rock and Roll

I like loud and distorted guitar the old school way,in the form of jamming power trios, those guitar-bass-drums shoot outs where the downbeats started at debated counts and the length of improvised middle section was undetermined and unpredictable. Improvisation, riffing, vamping, monochromatic chord mongering, the center portions of this species of spontaneous noise took a style cue  from several generations of black American blues geniuses and took their clear, elegantly expressed formulations of anger, pain , dread and joy and tweaked the pentatonic elements to a narrowed strain of white male rage, performed at volume levels beyond endurance levels , with the nimble, simple, eloquent rhythms and solo configurations of guitar , harmonica, banjo being replaced with a waves of distorted notes bent to their furthermost pitch of emotional credibility. It was perfect for the smoky ballrooms I went to in the late 60's, where the likes of Cream, Blue Cheer, Sir Lord Baltimore,T.Rex and Mountain belched, groaned and assaulted a beleaguered audience of addled brains with their instrumental abuse; on some nights the commotion and clamor reminded you more of a demolition derby instead of a unique engagement with a fleeting muse. Impact was more important than configuration. There was joy when , in Detroit where I lived, I came upon the MC5 and the Stooges. The 5 were every car Detroit had manufactured being tossed off the top of the Penobscot, the tallest building in down; they had a speed and power only the fury of a accumulating gravity could provide, and half the fun of watching these guys batter, abuse and flail their instruments while the wiggled and wrenched themselves in hip-thrusting deliriums was the expectation of their metaphorical car crashing, smashing into the hard, metal strewn concrete below. The Stooges were, on the other hand, the guitar that was tossed off with a violent fling at a bad rehearsal and left on, still plugged into the amp, humming and crackling the whole night; Ron Ashton's guitar work was perfect, imperfect, with a wood-chipper rhythm, a perfect three and two chord background for Iggy Pop, who's psycho-sexual explorations into the outer areas of teenage impatience would make you think of a zombies severed arm. It still twitches across the blood, the hand is still making grasping motions for your neck, you realize that even death cannot stop this force that requires your attention.



Thursday, June 10, 2010

Low dose Irony with Billy Collins

Billy Collins writes as if he's a tourist in his own reality, a walker in his town discovering and re-noticing the things and details of a community he has strolled through countless times, on countless days. He presents in ideas in tidy frames , discussing their parts with low doses of  irony, a splash of erudition, and then reassembling his subject so that that it pretty much resembles what it looked like before, if slightly reconfigured. This amounts to rearranging the same furniture in the same room much of the time, which means the element of surprise is no longer possible. His poetry is graceful and  amazingly approachable in its best form, but soon becomes formula .The reader, desiring a variation something (much) darker or more difficult than the handy menu of resolutions that are Collins' stock in trade, finds it harder to distinguish the poet from a writer of light and limited amusements. His books are more interesting if you consider them the way you would a new season of a favorite television drama;  whole new episodes that amount to new paint jobs on old story lines. This would allow you reap much more praise on Collins without the queasy  qualifiers that attend an honest appraisal of the work. He's writing the same old scenarios with absolute brilliance!!

"The Quaintness of the Past" is typical Billy Collins, the narrator, at home, reading a magazine in which he happens across a photograph that gets his attention and draws him in, an image of an old road house with a Plymouth parked in front. Where another poet would have done their best to merge with the contents of the photo and attempt a reconstruction of the lives, details and tone of the period with a vivid and often strained re imagining of a time they did not know first hand, Collins plays what is often his best card, the observer who wants to assemble his own version of the quaint image that caught his eye. He admits up front that he thinks for a moment of contriving his own memorable image, taking a snapshot of some random place in his neighborhood, perhaps the ideally described cafe near his home where he has coffee, a pastry and admires the French girls behind the corner, and then reappearing on this scene a hundred years later to experience how quaint and picaresque one's old time can appear, given enough distance.

The point Collins is getting at, not so subtly and in the plainest, least compelling language he can muster, is that our imaginations arrive on the scene before our eyes do. Instead of offering up a real image of things and places from another era and giving us view of how life actually was, the narrative forms we've learned get the better of us and compel us instead to view the images as perfect arrangements of a sort, a world of harmony and natural order. Collins undermines this view and bluntly informs         us bluntly that the perfect arrangements and harmony are constructions based on our collective desire to believe that there was a better life in less complicated times. This habit is a generational yearning that gets pushed on to each succeeding generation, and he asserts that there will observers of future images from our time who will wish they had lived in the early 21st century, before the fall from grace.

There is a collective habit to distance ourselves from the past so that we might be able to construct an idea of a social perfection where the conflicts of our time melt away once we come to our senses. I think it less about the evasion of our own deaths (although that is an implicit idea in the poem) than it is in the willing creation of various kinds of Heavens on Earth; what Collins does is step back from the encroaching nostalgia and sees himself inventing his own narrative and thinking how he'd go about fabricating his evidence that what religion regards as reserved only for the after life--peace,harmony, serenity--is achievable while on earth. It is , of course, the problem with photography as a medium, discussed persuasively by Susan Sontag in her essay "On Photography"--that because the photograph seems to arrange it's accurate images of real things in well balanced frames that suggest a natural set of relationships between the people and things in the image--forgetting, as often as not, the photographer's skill at manipulating what he or she is making a record of--there is a habit of mistaking the scenes as being free of editorial intervention.

From a distance of years, decades, the relationships seem without stress, conflict, and that becomes the mythologized Usable Past with which diverse populations--average citizens, politicians on the left and right, captains of industry, philosophers and poets--  use to make sense of the current period. Collins , of course, cannot let his point stand by itself and supplies us with a Twilight Zone -like coda in the last verse, instructing his readers that this habit will go on long after our long speculations have turned to dust A large part of why Billy Collins has such a large readership is that besides from being superficially clever, he provides, often, a moral of the story, something that puts him more in league with Rod Serling than the company of other poets. No offense to Serling or the Twilight Zone, a series I revere, but Collins' points, his lessons, his morals are obvious and smug, elements he is often able to disguise with a judicious application of deflecting wit.His insight is that our plans seldom work out for us, but we continue our practices despite  evidence to the contrary, the lesson being that a utopia that exists between our ears is better than no utopia at all. One senses Collins bemusement and comes away from his books feeling patronized. Here, though, his usually persuasive artifice can't make this poem seem anything more than a simple set up for a punchline, a clever ending. You've read this poem before you've actually scanned the first line; you know exactly what he's going to do with it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Rand Paul's Rush Job


Rand Paul's campaign for Senate has received from legal representatives of the band Rush informing them that they are using some of the band's copyrighted music without permission. You'd link that it would part of that erstwhile libertarian's animal instinct to pay Rush the money required to lawfully use their music to sell his brand of anti-statist snake oil. I would imagine an intern, aiding a campaign advance man, cobbled together the soundtrack on the fly without a second thought to obtaining permissions, but the notion that creators should receive compensation for use of their work is such a bed rock belief in the firmament that you wonder how this slip, though minor, could have happened. The pun is obvious enough; who did the soundtrack preparations for the Paul campaign did a rush job.(Sorry.)Funny thing, since Rush are Ayn Randians. Unrestrained free-marketeers ripping each other off, go figure.Imagine a world ruled by people who take what they want with what ever cavalier strong arming it takes . Rush and Rand are a perfect match, by the way: the respective music and novels each has produced are big, clumsy, and chicken ranch dumb.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Booked up


Not one of us, I don't think, hasn't desired to write a short poem that could beautifully,succinctly encapsulate the essence of an impossible broad subject. The dominating desire would be, I believe, that one wanted to at least say something tht would make the reader nod their head in recognition, a accomplishment that would rise above yet another dirge abut the impossibility of our language to convey experience with anything resembling accuracy. "Books" by Campbell McGrath is such an attempt at the short and sweet lyric on a philosophical duty.This poem begins with comparing books to honey in a beehive, and continues for several lines with nothing less than a travelogue, a history lesson, a anthropological slide show.Linking the unlikely is always a refreshing activity when the things being connected have a plausible yet unexpected relationship the Inspector Poet notes and presents forth in grand language.

Campbell McGrath has, at least, the grand language, as his transitions here are not glaring or tuneless; as he investigates the idea that true value, real beauty and shared assumptions of the sublime lie not on surface appearances but in essences that have to be patiently searched for--one must "dig" for the good stuff, one must go behind and beneath and beyond surfaces to reap the richness that might otherwise remain sealed-- he sustains a remarkably musical flow in his tone. But this makes the poem's pleasure a sonic one, a handy disguise that this is merely an ordinary idea even in a reader's most indulgent state of mind.


McGrath provides no surprises, but rather merely surmises a number of narrative starts that are abbreviated for a series of convenient "for examples". I do have a preference for the tightly reigned in poem these poems, those splendidly woven odes where concision and illuminating word choice highlight a perception that would have been other wise lost in a stream of moments, but what McGrath has taken here is not a conceit, but a topic requiring discourse.

Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery and , I insist, A.R.Ammons have been here before, merging, invading or ripping apart the civilized membrane that subdues our response to raw experience; each ,in their kind, have wandered among the imagined realm beyond appearances and offered up respectively visceral reactions. McGrath begins his poem with a simile and does not grow beyond that; he dares tread only so far to the edge and is not likely to be fully seduced by his muse. Sweet as it is, this poem is an itch he will not scratch, and that's an irritation on a whole other level.