Friday, February 7, 2014

At risk

Culture is worth a little risk, as Norman Mailer would have it, but we should add that that we need to skeptical of anyone's say-so and disdain any set of world-shrinking absolutes. Cultural pontiffs often enough start off as punks in the alley hanging out by the stage door and wind up giving us revised histories of their salad day heroes by arguing at length that the music, the novels, the plays and the poetry they liked in college and early professional life didn't try to smash rules, break forms or set fire to the palace , but rather tried to return art and aesthetics to principles that have been dormant, abandoned, forgotten.

 Culture is worth a little risk, of course, but there are times when culture is the risk.Mailer's quote, originating in his seemingly glib response to convict /  author's Jack Henry Abbott's murder of a waiter not long after he'd been paroled on the Authorities belief that he had rehabilitated himself by becoming an author. Mailer, we remember, had stabbed his wife Adele and nearly killed her. The books he wrote following this heinous incident were in large measure sincere and often brilliant mixtures of existentialist self-definition, mysticism and imaginative takes on the psychology of violence, of how it is often the result of the lone m person without means who attempt to berserk themselves into transcendance. He had given us one  fantastically problematic novel, An American Dream, in which his hero defies the combined forces he imagines have conspired against him and aspires to become a "new kind of man". The  consequences of that saga are anything but reassuring , especially for Mailer himself.  One of Mailer's heroes, William S.Burroughs, drunkenly shot and killed his wife Joan i when trying to shoot a glass off her head with a pistol. There have been times, more often than not, that I  wish the pontiffs , the pundits and the writerly men of action had stayed with their pens and pages and left the guns for the truly deranged who didn't care a wit about art or a nuanced philosophy behind their violence. Here we pause and wrestle with our conscious  and ponder if we can compartmentalize our horror for the acts these writers commit and still esteem the  brilliance their writing has challenged our bed rock assumptions with. In either case, these patently evil and insane events were motivations for the future prose of both writers--Mailer commenced on a life long inquiry into the spiritual malady that makes violence the preferred means to move events along in society , and Burroughs, not the most expansively regretful man in show business, as much said that the accidental murder of his wife Joan was the reason why he wrote from that point forward. Wrote Burroughs:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out..
Both men seemed to continue writing in order to buffer themselves against acts that were  irrefutably ugly, evil, foul; the sheer process of making the world a  new, over and over, with their fiction, of combining different elements, subverting some genres and extending others, of making the fact of existence a cruel and painful process through which we conduct ourselves with some modicum of grace and invention, or relinquish our wits and allow strange and  powerful forces to manipulate our lives and  make a a mockery of what intellectual integrety we thought we possessed. the respective bodies of work of Mailer and Burroughs seem, to me, a heads up to the reader that they are at risk for merely being born, univited, in the middle of someone else's agenda. And the critic, the pundit, the explainers of art that offers no solace nor comfort, make a career practicing an extemporized philosophy that translate the literary horror and bludgeoning poetry of writing that seeks to make the fairy tales and their tragic ends palatable by acting as if there is a lesson to be learned. A doomed practice, I suspect, as I see day when we will have no real use for priests, film reviewers and reviewers who think they are priests . Eloquent apologies for one's formative taste, though, does not constitute a defense of the starker, more brittle frameworks that have dissolved like so much sugar in the guise of avant gard impulse; I am all for risk taking and rule breaking, but even the nastiest, least comprehensible bodies of work created by suitably sociopath  experimenters there are things that catch your ear, your eye, your fancy as you read what's in front of you, there are measures of genius that find that one thing in experience, that issue that no one had engaged, that combination of forms, ideas and attitude that had yet to be combined that strikes you a get level as real genius.

 I think these elements are genetic, organic, a hard to phrase dimension of human experience that transcends , easily , the problematics of social construction and canon making. The secret history of art history, the  secret history of artistic expression, is how much social misery the creative impulse has caused. This is why I tend to support subjective or heroic criticism--the critic less as taste maker than as someone who gathers their responses, knee jerk and reasoned both, and conducts an inquiry to his own first-person criteria as to what constitutes failure or success in a frame, in a line, in a string of musical notes.

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