Friday, June 15, 2007

"THE MEANING OF LIFE" by Terry Eagleton

The Meaning of Life
By Terry Eagleton (Oxford)

Terry Eagleton , a long time literary critic of Marxist training (Marxist Literary Criticsm, Literary Theory, Illusions of Post Moderism) and Catholic church moral rigor and one of the best explicators of the dually condensed and convoluted intersections of literature, philosophy and political action, has give us all a small, witty, tersely choice gift with his new book, more correctly an essay, called The Meaning of Life. Eagleton's intent, despite what one might assume, isn't to cast a disparaging glare at what has to be simultaneously the most over- asked and least answerable question issued forth, continually, but the swelling ranks of the Middle Brow readership. Eagleton is one of the few truly fine stylists in Leftist literary criticism, an intellectual who is able to translate the most involuted and deferring theoretical quagmires in elegant, comprehensible English, and who is likewise able, and blessedly inclined to make the murky suppositions of other academics sweat by insisting that notions of reading deal , finally, with a book's perceptible idea, and that analysis of the workings have something to do with a reader's experience of the text they've finished and seek to fruitfully ponder. He steers clear of the stalling abstractions of Frederick Jameson, and more clearly addresses the same idea advanced by the increasingly oracular Harold Bloom--the investigation into how Literature helps us think about ourselves and our deeds in the world.

The author does not sneer, deride, nor deride the question, although more than a little of his prickly wit bubbles up from under the surface of his elegantly poised writing. It's a question he takes seriously--it must be important,since queries into grander, greater (or lesser) significance in our existence have been debated for as long as humans could write and record their knowledge and history-- but he is one who is rather tired of the various sophistries that have absorbed the question and tried to force it into submission. He is short fused with the New Agers, who's dreamy capitulation of personal responsibility to whispering drives are useless to most of us who find ourselves denied celestial epiphanies in ruthless material plain, and Eagleton is equally contemptuous of post-modernist theorizers who would argue, abstrusely, thickly, blockheadly, that the Meaning of Life is a merely a social construction and that one is finely better off, by implication, attempting nothing to change one's state and purpose and instead enjoy the spectacle of observing the culture collapse upon itself. 

An attractive aspect of Eagleton's progressive dissections of concepts and the language that gives them form is a tangible humanity; he refuses to slide into pessimism with the false assurance that the population is too stupid or deluded to do better by themselves and their fellows, or that the quest for meaning of our deeds is delusional. There is a series of skewerings , interrogations and elucidations of the basic elements of the need to define the life worth living-- the rise of the need for metaphysical certainty as expressed in religion, philosophy and political thought, and the latter day "eclipse of meaning" as modernism and postmodernism seem to fragment phenomena into a incoherent multi-verse that could be be authoritatively unified under banner of general noble purpose. 

The thrust of the book, we find, is that seeking the answer to what The Meaning of Life is is less an attempt to find that patch of wise and fertile soil on which one may advance their lives with a given purpose, but that that it is a way of life. Far from being static, the genuine quest for coherence, meaning, a means by which to measure one's best intentions and making them effectively congruent with their actions, is in itself the purpose of being alive and productive, above and beyond the biological imperative. The species is quite capable of much nastiness and unmistakable evil, but we are likewise capable of great works of art , compassion, charity. That capacity, after the pseudo systems of philosophical side streets have been blocked off, the sweetness of new age thought turns into a fouling stench, and the apocalyptic ravings of religious extremes reveal themselves as useless to the question to what one does in this life that's useful, Eagleton considers the open mind interested in the ongoing need for the good to be the thing which we must prize over all.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" by Jeff Skinner

Prose poems are those strange paragraphs that makes one think of what Henry James once called the long novel, "loose baggy monsters", and as such it's a risk for the reader to enter a piece that tries to contain the associative leaps of the free verse poem with the rhetorical drive of a working paragraph. The results are often unsatisfactory, containing the merits of neither form.Jeff Skinner's "I've Been Working on the Railroad" impressed me less for its poetic acumen and more for his seeming knack to tell a shaggy dog story; when the mind is idle, there is nothing between to between tasks (either assigned by the boss or off a self-designed agenda) and there is nothing you either need to or want to discuss with your fellows, you retire into the recesses of the mind, mulling the gathered archive of collected impressions and stored obsessions, talking to oneself as if there was an other at arms length to soak in the ramble.It is the mind in the act of automatic writing, images and aromas and bits of old jokes and city scenes brought together with an alarming fluidity; there is less in this poem in terms of associative leaps and more in the general style of untrammeled, unfettered conscious spew; this is the mind producing it's own white noise to keep the mind sharp and fully aware of what it's habit of mind has accumulated over a few decades of one's senses bringing in the bother and bustle of a cantankerous existence.

I've always had trouble with the boss, even when I was self-employed.

Why do I have to sit there for eight hours when I can finish the day's

work in fifty-seven minutes? And there was a flaw on the face

of the office clock, a flyspeck or mole between five and six

where the eye went naturally, as if to the corner of an otherwise

impeccable woman's lips. I kissed that flaw in my mind, over and over,

because I had nothing else to do. The idea of work is fine, but

must we put every idea into practice? The trees, which I sometimes

catch waving to me, seem content in every weather, as if they

were continuously employed actors, and when the script calls for caress

the willow bends and draws its leaves delicately across the grass;

More than anything else, Skinner's poem hints at word salad, the talk of schizophrenics form whom the order of past, present and future has collapsed upon themselves and all incidents and all concerns , in their respective tenses, are merged, expressed at the same time. This lack of discretion, the failure to make distinctions or abide by circumscribed hierarchy gives this poem an explosive charge; this is stammering with all cylinders firing. The speaker tries to talk about everything at once.There's a resemblance to the bulging rampages favored by Albert Goldbarth, for whom the weight accumulation and each detailed dent and ding of experiential discomfort and annoyance sometimes results in an inspired rant, but Skinner pares his unanchored, rudderless ramble to the minimum. Goldbarth at least has script he sticks to, while Skinner's poem goes off the rails and becomes a suspended bit of verbal strangeness.What is appeals to me here is the way this piece approximates the stammering velocity of someone who is usually quiet and perceived as nerdy (or just plain old weird ) by his community, who, when given the chance to speak, or rather taking the chance to speak, cannot focus on what he wants to talk about, cannot organize his thoughts, cannot sound at ease with the ideas he's trying to express.

What gets to me is the way the poem suddenly stops. This is someone who hears himself talking too loudly at work, at a party, in a bar, in line for a movie, and just falls into a desperate quiet, hoping no one was paying attention.. The final line, which might be taken as poetic in the conventional sense, a metaphor intended to make the reader's heart rise or sink with the imagined rhythms of the poet's intention, strikes me rather as some mysterious sounding bit of pseudo profundity that is intended by the speaker to toss a blanket of bewilderment over the words that had just come out of his mouth.

Perhaps in the end all work

is equally forgotten, and the transmission of knowledge a long train crossing

Kansas at 3 a.m., a glowing tube full of dreaming passengers.

Dazzle ‘em with genius, or baffle ‘em with bullshit, as the T-shirt says. One over hears or indulges in the speaker's diatribe, expecting it to land somewhere, and is then handed this as a parting shot, a summation. I think Skinner has captured the style of the awkward orator, who's habit is tie up adrifting stream of conscious with a cryptic summation. And one is left standing there as they walk away, scratching their head , wondering what it was they were trying to talk about in the first place. I think this is a good poem.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Black Out in New Jersey: The Sopranos Finale.

Bobby, Tony Soprano's brother in law, commented about the fabled bullet coming at you that maybe a guy wouldn't even here it coming. And now here we are, at the end of the Sopranos final episode, seeing Tony look up from a restaurant table where his entire family is seated, eating onion rings, and we're suddenly dumbfounded when the screen goes black and the credits roll after long seconds have ticked by. Did Tony see his daughter Meadow coming through the door, or was it something truly awful? Whatever you think, this is a finale we'll be debating for years.One of the things David Chase and his writers were good at was doing something that went against anyone's expectations; I like the cat too, and I loved the fact that the kitty was staring at Christopher's picture and later showed up outside the pork shop while Paulie sunned himself. I don't know if it could have ended any other way, since anything they did would have pissed fans off. How can you end a show that's been this amazing? So we're left in the lurch, wondering if Tony looked up to see his daughter coming through the door or if he saw a glimpse of a hood with a gun aiming straight to the middle of the head. Either way, it's an amazing send off of a fictional family into the netherland of endless reruns.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Legacy and Anti Legacy of Sgt.Pepper's

Like it or love it, Sgt.Pepper is among the most important rock albums ever made, one of the most important albums period, and forty years after it's release, it is time to assess the album free of the globalizing hype and mythology it's biggest supporters have honored it with, and to veer away from the chronically negative reaction those less in love with the Beatles and the disc have made a religion out of. It is, in my view, important for any number of reasons, production and songwriting among them, and for me it's not just that Lennon and McCartney have set the standard on which such things would be judged against from now on, but that they've also given us the examples with which rock critics, paid and unpaid, by which we can tell who is being pretentious, phony, unfocused, incoherent, just plain bad.
Sure enough, the best songs have survived--"A Day In the Life, "Getting Better", "Good Morning, Good Morning", "Mr.Kite", but sure enough the less accomplished songs, all manner, pose, nervy and naive pseudo mysticism and intellectuality as in "Within You Without You" and "She's Leaving Home", are hardly played anywhere, by anyone, unless one tunes in an XM satellite station where the play list is all things Beatles, without discrimination.
What the Beatles did with the song craft, the central genius and downfall of much of Pepper's legacy, is that they've introduced thousands of forthcoming arty rockers to new levels of sophistication and fantastically dull pompousness. I love the Beatles, of course, that's the standard qualifier among us all, but this is the album with which rock criticism was finally created. Lovers and Haters of the disc finally had a rock and roll record that might sustain their liberal arts training. Sgt. Pepper also gave us brilliant and much less brilliant rock commentary. Here you may pick your own examples.

The reasons Beatle fans in general (rather than only) "hipsters" prefer Revolver to Sgt.Pepper is for the only reason that really matters when one is alone with their CD player or iPOD; the songwriter is consistently better, the production crisper, the lyrics succeed in being intriguingly poetic without the florid excess that capsized about half of Sgt.Pepper's songs, and one still perceived the Beatles as a band, guitar bass and drums, performing tunes with a signature sound that comes only after of years of the same musicians performing together.

It might be compared to Miles Davis when he was performing with his classic bands--John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock,Tony Williams, Ron Carter, et al-- with a long string of releases like Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue (name your favorite here) and when he turned to the jazz rock fusion of Bitches Brew and On the Corner, which featured the endeavors of Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin . The first mentioned releases are conspicuous examples of bands sensitive to each members nuances, strengths and weaknesses, quirks and signatures, combing with the material to offer adventurous improvisations as part of an ensemble effort, while with Bitches Brew Davis and his producers culled performances from hours of taped jam sessions where ideas and motifs were explored to produce albums that are, in effect, mosaics. a The general tone of the later releases was less the sparks that occur between musicians confronting each other in performance but rather something more theatrical; thought the musicianship is rather magnificent and often times bracing on the later electric releases, they seem more in service to Davis' cantankerous muse , performing as directed. As much as I admire and respect the accomplishment of both the Beatles and Davis in their late work, studio craft and all, a larger part of me would have preferred if the musicians had found a way to expand their horizons without abandoning their identities as bands. The Rolling Stones sought to produce their own version of Sgt.Pepper with the releases of the bloated and wasted Satanic Requests, and it's a fine thing to appreciate the Stones self critical response to bad notices (and perhaps some sober listening to the record, after the fact); they abandoned their attempts to compete with the Beatles on their new turf and returned , brilliantly, to riffy, rhythm and blues tinged rock and roll.

What hasn't been mentioned here is that Frank Zappa released his first Mothers of Invention album Freak Out on June 27, 1966, a full month before the Beatles released Revolver in August of that year. Zappa was an erratic, quizzical, quarrelsome presence, but he achieved things with that album that neither the Beatles nor the Stones came close to; both those bands were more influential in the pop music sphere, where their separate approaches to including cross genre and avant gard gestures made for pleasant and easily appreciated (and imitated)music for a large record buying public. Zappa, though, with his solid chops as composer, producer, guitarist, satirist and multi media maven, was miles further up the road and around the bend with respect to advancing the primitive ways of rock and roll into an art form. A good amount of Zappa's early music remains challenging to this day, which is another way of saying that it's hard to sit through and that it's downright ugly. The ugliness, though, wasn't merely my limited aesthetic; Zappa cultivated it, advanced it, and gloried in it. Now that's integrity.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Tilted Arc

There's a fine slideshow/essay available on Slate about the MOMA retrospective of the career of sculptor Richard Serra. Serra, a former literature major taken with the writings of Herman Melville and Charles Olson who has made his famed , site specific buffed steel formations take on and suggest the movement of waves, ships and motion, is an intriguing subject whose progression from minimalist (one whose ideas and materials scorn ornamentation and leave the problematics of "meaning" at the side road) to maximalist (sizes matters as means of forcing viewers to renegotiate their familiar public areas) is one of the more interesting transformations in contemporary art. The article deals mostly with his successes (which are many and considerable), and talks about his most notable disaster, Tilted Arc.

Those I'd spoke to who had a chance to take a long gander at the Tilted Arc installation before it was dismantled, most of whom instinctually desired to protect artist's rights, in control of content and how it's handled after the work is completed and delivered, found themselves sympathetic with the grousing over the monolithic presence. A large conceit on the part of site-specific artists and architects is to act as philosopher-teachers and ersatz gods of a kind in their percieved need to force people to relate to their landscape or cityscape in different ways; bolstered by soggy progressive notions that the mass of us are encased and buffeted by material objects and the desire to garner more material things before they die, Serra, at turns brilliant and magnificently literate, falls in line with an elitist notion that we need to shaken up and made to see things as they actually are, according to his script.

Often times this succeeds, and a community experiences the marvelous, if somewhat puzzling experience of seeing familiar spaces transformed into something else altogether; hardly so with Tilted Arc, which transforms it's original space for sure, but at the sacrifice of wonder or the desired revolutionizing of the senses.It was an intrusion, an obstacle of arrogant mass, impeding rather than improving the city space it sat upon. Immensity alone, sheer volume of scale, seemed enough for Serra to deliver his metaphor with. It actually diminished one's capacity , whether they be worker or visitor, to enjoy the city scape, as winds got sharper, colder, shadows were longer, the work rested in became darker longer, sooner.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Snowed In

John Hodgen's poem ,"Driving Back From Crotched Mountain, Winter Storm, New Year's Eve" is itself snowed in by all those subordinate clauses, all those asides, all those artful digressions from the image of the angry man waving his arms in the snow storm. The trick with this kind of poem is to begin with an image and then riff upon it at some length, seizing anything from language to memory that would elaborate on the initial image and provide the appearance of a thesis, and then return to the same image at the end of it all, that image being in tact save for the accumulated associations we now associate with it. In this instance, the man in front of his own driveway is supposed to be resonating with a gathered meloncholy that comes out as mute rage.

All sorts of associations are supposed to rear their heads in the collective memory of the reader and we're supposed to feel the slight tug of sadness the image suggests to our under attended sentimentality. Everything is here except the craft, as it reads as if we'd gotten our hands on Hodgen's notebook instead of the finished poem.

The man in front of me—what's he doing?—pulls over, no signal,
********to the side of the road,

gets out, begins sloughing his way, stooped and bent against the wind,
********to what I presume

is his driveway winding up and around the small box of a cabin
********that is his home.

He is waving me around, annoyed somehow, his left arm swooping low
********above the snow

in a way no man younger than himself would wave someone around,
********as if he'd been a soldier

or farmer all his life, as if he lived a little closer to the ground, his arm
********a sweeping scythe,

as if it were his holy job to wave the world to go around, as if he were
********my father, consigned

instead of hell to Peterborough, New Hampshire, where it turns out
********it always snows

These are notes, sketches, single sentence epiphanies that would work effectively had they been given an architecture ; the poem , rather than being a work where Hodgen's sparks speak, is more like a blathering . The subordinating clauses usurp Hodgen's intent and add only bloat, not momentum. The tone of it all reminded me of Russell Bank's thoroughly dispiriting novel "Affliction", where sons and alkie Dad muddle up their mottled affairs the more they try to talk about them. I thought the initial image, a man waving his arms angrily in the snow, was wonderfully suggestive, but what dilutes it and and finally kills it were the parade of similes attached to it. This suggests strongly that Hodgen thought the image, in itself, was inadequate. The effect of the digressions, linked so obviously to the defining trope, is explication rather than poetry. I don't mind drift in poems if what's being included can stand alone as poetic material and not didactic buttressing.None of the items in the above stream really have linkage; the effect is that these are the rattlings of meth head sweating out an ugly detox. The "as if's" are arbitrary and tyrannical. It would be interesting to have this piece work shopped and handed back to Hodgen for revision, with specific instructions (well, suggestions) that the diversions be given the gravity of experienced context, items drawn from memory. The aim would be to have the differences between what's been forced together in the same sentence provide a tone, a clue to what is perceived and how it's assimilated into larger, deeper memory. Overall, though, I think it's one of the many lost chances we see here when there's a good idea for a poem that is instead writ by a writer who has an eye on the clock and another on the exit.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Sgt.Pepper and the Terminal Ennui of Gina Arnold

June 1st marked the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club album , and not missing a beat to raise the hackles of both baby boomers and subsequent generations of rock and pop music fans, Salon has decided to spark a debate whether the epochal album is The Most Important Album Ever Made or not. Or even if the disc was all that epochal. It's a cheap and easy way to get readers to focus for the few minutes it takes to scan the column, and I can't say I wouldn't have the same had I been the editor; the relative worth of Sgt. Pepper's forty years hence, and it might well be time for the album to go through a reappraisal. This, however, is not what Salon has set out to do, and goes the route of the cranky and formulaically contrarian anthology of anti-canon rock reviews Kill Your Idols 
, a snotty collection of reviews where younger critics eviscerate many of what many older reviewers consider the core discs of rock and pop music history. For the book,

it's a blown opportunity for genuine revisionism, and one suspects the writers misunderstood editor Jim DeRogatis' instructions to write an alternative version of rock and roll critical thinking. The writers busied themselves with being young, loud and snotty and leveled the typical charges against the Beatles, The Beach Boys, the MC5, Joni Mitchell; they're boring, they're lame, they are over rated, they are old. Not much more elevated a dissent than what members of the typical Bakersfield Greyhound station might offer if so queried about what tunes they'd like to never hear again.

Salon brings in Gina Arnold , a nitwit hypothesizer and unfocused rambler who's idea of evaluating the worth of a band or its albums is by how often they slammed dope, how many band members died stupidly, and what were the cut of designer rags they wore when either playing in concert/discovered by a maid, dead in the bathroom, wrapped around the toiler, a needle or an empty vial shattered or spilled on the tile. "Sgt.Pepper" doesn't rate because it lacked all topical references and wasn't hug-gable enough, blistering enough, "real" enough. These are vague particulars, and Arnold, who writes as airily about music as Greil Marcus minus Marcus's elegance or occasional genius for making the far flung connections across historical periods and art movements, has little to say about those remarks should matter to us. She seems unable to talk about the music, the performances, the quality of the songwriting, elements that any music discussion comes down to, regardless of one's variety of nonconformist opinionating.

For me and most I know, the album is good if over rated, about half good to great, the rest arch and pretentious; some of the songs and lyrics are among the best in the Beatles body of work while the rest is as pretentious as anything the Vanilla Fudge or Moody Blues would contrive. It;s an album whose importance is both musical and one of style blazing and it's obvious with time that the better songs have survived because their substance is solid as craft and imagination, while all the fashionable studio tricks come across as several shades of hokey; nothing ages worse than yesterday's avant gard.One could go along this line, taking songs apart and putting back together through any number of filters, and much would , I wager, be worth reading. It depends on who is doing the talking. Meghan O'Rourke and Louis Menand , both first rate culture critics, would have have understood the disconnection in the Beatles' work and parsed the mixed blessing the album unleashed upon the audience and other musicians. Arnold isn't able to make distinctions and speaks in moldy generalizations, and mulls over Beatles v Stones and opines that God is a creep because most of the Ramones are dead while Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are still alive. Does one wonder if Arnold is even interested in the subject she's made a career writing about?

Arnold doesn't like the Sixties, she doesn't like rockers in their Sixties, she doesn't like to discuss music. But the obituaries. She's all over that with a ghoulish relish, and from what I'm able to determine from reading her in The San Diego Reader and Spin Magazines over the years is that she herself is that she's waiting for her own demise, perhaps a fantasy in which every album and CD she owns is cut up, snapped in two, smashed with a hammer into tiny pieces, all her books are in a pile, smoldering in a flame, and she sits there under a Kurt Cobain poster , waiting to at last to achieve what has yet to be done; to be bored to death.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dave Eggers and the Crowded Language

It's been one of those weeks when there's little else to do after the laundry is done than to stare for long periods at the bookshelves and make provisional decisions about to keep on hand and at the ready and what to box up or bag and take to the local used bookshop for trade credit, which means trading in old used books with all my dog eared ages and marginalia for new used books, with dog earing and marginalia rendered by people I've probably never met.Sometimes the mind seems like nothing less than a noisy circular file, a recycling bin of metaphors that are parted out and tweaked to meet new situations which one's brain has to accommodate, lest the world unhinge and roll down some celestial bowling lane. The "maximalist" writers, authors who cannot tell you the time without addressing what's amiss in our insular cosmologies, have not fared well in these separations. Where minimalist , spawned by Papa Hemingway's tight, skinflint style and buoyed by Raymond Carver's art of of making the convolutions of alcoholic despair crisp and lean as polished steel rods, sought the fewest possible words to express the smallest though deepest wounds to the psyche, maximalist are intent on exhausting every observation, each crazy idea, pursuing every tangent and tributary as it marginally relates to what would loosely be termed a plot. There are no story arcs in these tellings, only the literary equivalent of urban sprawl. It is often times genius untouched by a good editor's sane blue pencil.

I exchanged the David Foster Wallace tome Infinite Jest last week for a half dozen John Updike and John Cheever used paperbacks, vainly staking my claim for writers of longish sentences who are actually revealing something hidden in human behavior rather than running away from it with the distractions rudderless prose potentially affords you. I prefer my shaggy dog stories confined to movies these days, which one can witness in The Big Lebowski , written and directed by Rob and Ethan Coen. Wallace has his uses, and at times hits pay dirt (Oblivion, his recent collection of stories, gives one hope that he has abandoned the Exhausting Novel and is ready, just maybe, to use shorter sentences), but his books over all tend to rob the room of the air I need to read better books. Each book he's written since Genius has been variations on a jet stream of language, a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize the way many in his generation actually talk, rapidly, long word ribbons filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen. Or, more on point, that a point is about to be made,all of this, virtually all (no exaggeration) presented with an unmerciful and even arrogant lack of emphasis.Experience is spoken of as if everything regarding storyline depended solely on the present tense, all memories, history, details, relegated to the same junk pile of references that are never gone through or made to construct a nuanced effect or make a scene that achieves emotional complexity. There is, however, clutter, an amassed set of things brought together indiscriminately, pack rat like. Clutter, however, isn't the same as complexity, and the sorry state of Egger's writing is that there is no inner life in his characters--Genius, being a memoir, is that rare exception in his body of work--that gives you a sense of inner life and struggle on the character's part. Theodore Dreiser was a less adroit stylist, perhaps,but An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie particularly made up for the lack of grace with massive amounts of humanity that made us think about nagging notions of Destiny, Free Will and Duty . Dreiser's topics remain with us, and what he offered us remains part of that discussion. Eggers The suggestion that he read Tom Wolfe, pre-Bonfire of the Vanities,is well taken, since Wolfe in his journalism showed away to adjust and mold his style around the subject matter. A more recent model for Eggers to go to school on is Esquire writer Mike Sager's collection of magazine pieces Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, where the writer brings a wonderfully subtle literary personality to his portraits of spectacular American failures at the margins of the mainstream. Eggers writes well enough in short bits, patches, a paragraph hither and yon, but he does so without shining any light, nor casting any shades of darkness for that matter; what the world doesn't need is a political satire that cannot convince you that it's an exaggeration of the real thing.

Jonathan Franzen, another mad bomber of the language whose weighty and over worded The Corrections won praise and best seller status for a turgid family comedy that everything going for it except the niceties of heart and editing, is presently at the top of the next stack of titles that will find their way to the used book dealer, to be either sold, traded in donated outright. Franzen, remember, isn't a bad writer, but he is an under edited one, since their are sentences and even whole paragraphs in The Corrections that just give up in the middle, or wrecked like speeding cars meeting head on as he tries to manage one metaphor after another with which he attempts, over and over, to contain the perversions and anomalies of American family life in as short a space as possible. Not graceful stuff, this, and an astute editor would have blue penciled the offending pages out of the final book, reducing its bulk by at least a fourth. How to Be Alone, a fine collection of essays he published two years ago about the reading life, fares better at sentence management and poise, but one wonders of what kind of writer Franzen turns out to be if what he composes remain congested fiction or essays essentially praising himself and those few like him for being introverted, geeky and bookish. It's an act that gets old, a voice that wears out. I intend to trade him in for some Tom Robbins, a novelist who can have fun with his convolutions, although he is not without risk. The cutie-pie , Zap Comix surrealism and the far flung similies (here's a writer still in competition with Raymond Chandler!) will often times crowd out development; as a friend once remarked about The Grateful Dead, sometimes his writing amounts to "what the fuck"? In one instance it can be something spirtual along the lines of uttering "let go and let God", meaning that one needs to pick their battles wisely, but on the other hand, the other hand being huge palm upraised as if asking for a five spot, is that it simply amounts to defeat
by way of being too spaced out. Robbins likes to drive the car only so far, and is likely to take his hands off the wheel and listen to the radio with his eyes closed just as his vehicle is merging with freeway traffic. Not good.

Fellow maximalist David Eggers little better in the sorting and prioritizing. Out the books go . A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , a memoir of his assuming the parenting role for his younger brother Toph after the back-to-back deaths of their parents, is a bit of masterpiece of the hurried voice; a stammering and rushing narrative of someone having to shed the remains of teenage slackertude and learn adult behavior in a hurry, Eggers' style was appropriate to the subject. Given circumstances that made his reality seem to collapse upon itself, Eggers could do nothing else except move forward, as if running up the hall from a burning house, instinctually moving toward the daylight coming from a door at the end. AHWOSG , breathless, impatient, agitated and at times staggering, as it were, in it's balancing act of grace and wit and awkward locutions and shotgunned transitions, remains a real document of a writer having to leave his cozy assumptions of living the bohemian life and take on the weight as family head.
The desperation was real, and was interesting for the way the author didn't assume the disguise of narrative know-it-all. Beguiling as that was, one would have thought he would have changed his style, suitable to idea and subject, but he has not. It's about the hurry, the haste, the speed of writing coming as quickly as the speed of perception. It is the speed of the Internet generation, and the result is broad banded mediocrity. Every book he's done up until now has been a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize of his generation actually talk, rapidly, long streams of sentences, filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Dave Lucas and "Steelhead"

"Steelhead", a poem by Dave Lucas, is a not-bad addition to the mass of fishing literature
that we've read over the decades, a splendidly compact version of Old Man and the Sea or the fishing stories of Jim Harrison (to name but a few). A lone man in the morning fishing the cold lake waters engaged in an activity that's both meditative and primal, and then snap! the line goes taut and there is a magnificent animal at the end of the strand, reeling against the deep gash of the hook, battling to survive with instincts that are beyond the fisherman's ability to adequately turn into a phrase. But phrase it he does, and what we have after the struggle, the splashing, and the final landing of the fish is the inevitable regret not he part of the fisherman, who speculates rather mystically about the cycles of life and death and what it was in him that brought him, against all cultivation and sophistication, to participate in
hunter/gatherer behaviors one would have thought had been refined out of him.

If we could see the eyes
or the blunt spade
of its head, we might claim
to see courage in them,
or spirit.

It is this turn where poet Lucas drives off the cliff with a rather labored Laurentian valorization of the Steelhead's spirit and spirit. Lacking tea leaves or a human palm to inspect, he sounds as if he's peering deep into the soon to gutted gills for The Lesson that The Poet is supposed to have. It comes off as some as someone looking for their misplaced cell phone as it rings and keeps on ringing
somewhere nearby. Lucas does not leave it there, though, and continues to sift through the thrashing animal for footnotes and emendations to his discovery of the fish's courage

But what propels its
ten slick pounds
through the water is beyond
what we know of ourselves,

the education of the angler,
who lets out the line, then
pulls back, the give and take
of two odd lovers, until
the moment

when he jerks back,
when the water gives up
its silver cache.
And then the hollow drum
of fish

on boat. Now we can see
the black eyes, the snub-
nose and gunmetal scale,
the prehistoric fins
that keep on

treading phantom water.
The gills gape. It flips
itself over once, and stares
back with what must be called
It would have been fine if Lucas had pondered the sadness, if sadness is the word, in terms less lofty, but he ruins, utterly ruins his effect by the ham-handed and equivocating insertion of "...and stares back with what must be called defiance."
Well, no. We shall call it a dead fish and admit that fish eyes are expressionless, in fact, they exhibit no nuance of emotion, and that the term "fish eye" is synonymous with a stare that is seemingly without life, emotion, or empathy.

I can see why this would strike readers as a powerful poem, but it reads to me more an exercise on a subject that's hardly unrepresented in literature. Lucas is a good writer and I rather liked the leanness of his descriptions, but what I couldn't escape was the expectation that there would come, toward the end, something Lucas learned from
hooking this particular fish. It's obvious, and it seems false in execution. One would imagine people this given to revealed truths from common events would be too sensitive to fish in the first place.

This might have worked better had Lucas given us a proper parallel set of events. Imagine this poem's narrative commencing without the attempted anthropomorphizing, just told straight faced, and then we have the fisherman involved in his own struggle that he would struggle with, seemingly in vain, such as trying to get out of snowed in parking lot, or being at the end of a very long line for gas.
Just a suggestion, but the point is that the comparison between the fish he hooked and human qualities would be more plausible, less strained.
The steelhead is imbued with human characteristics such as "spirit", "courage" and "defiance", which indicates that the narrator his comparing his lot against that of the creature hooked on the line.

It's not far fetched to assume that the narrator assumes the fish to be in a state of shock, to be at the end of a line, on a hook, unable to breath, and that the empathy extends further to the irony of his own situation; a sophisticated person indulging in
primal activities where raw survival is the only matter at hand. In any regard, I think the implicit message is more of a package one deals with when they decide to write this kind of poem, which is to say that it's less Lucas doing the talking/musing than it is a fulfillment of genre expectation.

Which makes it frustrating because this poem almost works. A bit of indirection instead of a direct address of his idea might have given us a surprise instead of disappointed groan. Lucas's narrator is looking for a human quality when
the regret of winning the battle hits him. What it comes down to was that what he might have seen--Lucas is smart to hedge on his qualifications-- , whether courage, spirit, defiance, are intended as a Lesson. Lucas wants the lesson to be a military one; given the choice of qualities he tentatively assigned the Steelhead. All this is certainly implied, and it's worth bringing out.

I tried thinking of the poem as a lean metaphor for
invasion and defense of territories and to think of it as a critique, somewhat, of the current failure of American foreign policy, but that it became a labor-intensive riff as I worked on it. Sure, the elements are there in order to make the case, but I still think Lucas is wandering through Rousseau's neck of the woods and imagines himself in battle with an ennobled animal. Lucas is a good writer, but I'm not enamored of the mythology he wants to handle with a straight face here, unless, of course, he were willing to step several miles further than the conventional struggle/victory/winner's remorse scenario these pastoral situations must have and instead do something truly remarkable. There's a Paul Auster novel I can't remember the title to in which the point of view is the dog's who, credibly, is burdened with the task of finding a new master when it realizes his current one is dying. A remarkable read for a straight-forward novel.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

BLUES HARMONICA GENIUS!! Sugar Blue Blows Them Away!!@!

Code Blue
Sugar Blue (Beeble Records)

I've been playing blues harmonica for almost forty years, and the long and short of the that statement is that I'm not easily impressed with blues harpists who come along late in the day. Sugar Blue, though, is someone I take my hat off to; best known to the general rock and roll audience as the harmonica player on the Rolling Stones' Some Girls album (that's his sweet, Paul Butterfield-like solo on the signature "Miss You" track), I've seen him a couple of times when he and his band happened through Southern California on tour, and after both concerts I didn't touch my harps for a week, after which I picked them up again and commenced to practice more than I had in years. The man is restores the legitimacy of technique and speed to the blues harmonica, traits that had been sullied by John Popper, a muddy, imprecise musician whose harmonica improvisations resemble so much audio mud.Sour-note central. Sugar is fast and crystal clear and very clean in his attack; he's been criticized, in fact, for being "too clean". As it goes, there isn't a blues harp player alive who has better execution than Sugar Blue. The added plus with Sugar's playing, rare among those players who play fast and long that his solos make melodic sense. Jason Ricci and Howard Levy are others who combine superlative technique with innovation. The man can build a solo. It's not that I'm into speed and technique for their own sake, but I do admire Sugar Blue's ability to have these aspects serve real musical ideas. The new album Code Blue, is a whirlwind of the blues harp applied to a broad array of approaches, including traditional blues motifs, Rolling Stones' style guitar rock, Mahavishnu/Dixie Dregs fusion. His solos are sleek, cutting, rapid in the musical ideas coming from the band leader. Bear in mind that a little of Blue's singing goes a long way--he is like that guy in the chorus who steps out for a solo, singing at the top of his range, slipping off key too often. That, combined with some lyrics that tend to be preachy and the lead-footedly philosophical, can make the vocalizing a bit agonizing. It does give one an embarrassing flashback, as the more Sugar stretches his vocal chords in what he assumes is maestro's knack for rhythm and blues melisma reminds me of those times , in the seventies in bands that were rally drinking associations when I was in front of the microphone, screaming and grunting and bellowing in the mistaken and drunken illusion that I sounded like a hybrid of Jack Bruce, Otis Redding and Gene Pitney. Sure enough, when tapes were played back from the frat parties and keggers we played in around the dock pilings of San Diego's beach areas, I was shamefaced and humbled. At best I sounded as if I had a sock crammed down my gullet, my mouth sealed with duct tape, trying to scream because a crazed Lobo fan threatened me with a reconditioned Trojan while I struggled against an ugly metal chair I was tied to. It was not pretty, not hardly. The best of it all was that no one was killed during my performances, and that I had fun. Or so I was told but witnesses who were not as deep in the back as I had been.Still, for Sugar Blue's part, the harmonica work is about the best one can come across, and the band is simply crack jack, nimble, sharp as a drawer full of razors.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ayn Rand's Phallocentricism

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, guruette of the nascent libertarian movment 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 whom 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 élan 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 take 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 themselves.
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. Radians 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 Rands' 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 earthly, 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: its the tragic flow in this line of thought that assumes that big, loud, deadly gestures are only a symbolism that can wake every one 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.
Not mass murder, per se, but 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 ego mania and how it's a perfectly rationale 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.