Rot, Punk, Plotless, Too Padded
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Intermediate Hedonics

She cried, "All this to Love and Rapture's due;
Must we not pay a debt to Pleasure, too?"
- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

Why do we care about these dangly or tucked-away bits? Why should we even notice them?

Because they give pleasure. In fact, we're unlikely to be capable of seeing an anthropological sample, or a piece of commercial trash, or amateurish thrashing, as art until our interpretation of that something-else-in-the-kinks flips from "a mistake" to "a pleasure."

Hey, I'm no Johnny Greencarnationseed. I understand that the motive forces of life include much more than happiness, and that happiness includes much more than pleasure, and that most intense pleasures exist outside the aesthetic realm.

But philosophers are right to so often treat hedonics and aesthetics together. Art, being both in some sense external and in some sense non-utilitarian, definitively outlines pleasure in a way that other triggers do not. When a mathematician, for example, talks about a proof as beautiful, what's meant is not just that the proof exists aside from any application, but that its existence gives pleasure.

If we were a more rational species, "Form follows function" might be merely descriptive; what makes it instead a prescriptive aesthetic is the delight the prescriber takes in the resulting form.

. . .

Intermediate Hedonics

"You must learn to choose between right and wrong."
"Right and wrong? But how will I know?"
"'How will he know'! Your conscience will tell you."
"What are conscience?"
"'What are conscience?'! I'll tell ya! A conscience is that still small voice that people won't listen to."
- The Blue Fairy, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket
In practice it is seldom very hard to do one's duty when one knows what it is, but it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to find this out. The difficulty is, however, often reducible into that of knowing what gives one pleasure, and this, though difficult, is a safer guide and more easily distinguished.

Why I should have been at the pains to write such truisms I know not.

- Samuel Butler

Pleasure, like pain, is a signal to pay attention.

Attract the attention of a verbosely analytical person and you get verbal analysis. Pleasure is not the only thing in life. It's not even the most important thing. But for a critic it's the pertinent thing.

And so I've been puzzled by its absence in most academic criticism, perhaps because such euphemisms as "jouissance" and "cosmic laughter" make me queasy. As critic, it seems to me I have a singular code of ethic: To remain true to pleasure, no matter how embarrassing or inconvenient that may be. To betray that is to betray the entire enterprise. I can no more know what's going on in art if I ignore pleasure than I can know my own sexuality or my own diet.

I realize, of course, in an unhappy sort of way, that not everyone feels that way that for some people, sexuality is what it would be dangerous not to profess, and diet is what they've had all their lives in abundance, and what's artistically interesting is what's come out most recently, or what everyone in their social set is talking about, or what they need to advance their career, or what they've been assigned to review. And clearly I can't agree with Kant that the Beautiful is somehow more universally valid than the Pleasant, or follow the tenuous corollary that greater Universal Beauty is carried by art that is scrubbed of all but artiness. For someone in my unattractive $20 shoes, aesthetic relativism, like ethical relativism, isn't just another doctrine on special in the marketplace of ideas, but an obstinate fact that must somehow be lived with.

When it seems I assault the validity of your pleasure, I intend only to express my own pain. It genuinely saddens that Spielberg never fulfilled the promise of Sugarland Express and genuinely infuriates that Saving Private Ryan so gulled me. Conversely, what are we supposed to do when someone argues against the possibility of taking pleasure in Frank O'Hara? Need we sully our cause by championing it on the villein's own chosen battlefield? Or can we nod and smile and leave the laborer sweatily building their model-hell-kit in model-heaven-kit's despite? My own impulse is to point towards my pleasure and state (firmly but politely, toujours the lady): "Nevertheless, it moves."


Un regard oblique directs us to an appropriate bit of foreword by W. S. Merwin.

Jordan Davis writes:

There used to be a parlor game (back when we had parlors): assigning personality type according to the phrase that comes to mind when O'Hara's "Personism" manifesto is mentioned. You have your "Mineola Prep" and "they do may" types needing to be reminded when they do and do not control a situation, your "bully for them" and "only Whitman and Crane and Williams... are better than the movies" people suffering from excessive well-adjustment (probably not standard English), your "nostalgia *for* the infinite" and "life-giving vulgarity" people (probably the best poets of the bunch), and of course your "not Roi, by the way, a blond" and "Lucky Pierre" types, who went to Brown.

As for Aaron of Godofthemachine and his dubious "poetry scans" proposition, generally I find I'm better off not striking up a conversation with someone with fists raised to strike me.

Aaron himself protests he's no fighter, even if he's not always a lover. So far I follow him, having denied that dichotomy in the paragraph that linked him. He also protests that his attacks on (what seem to him) artlessness have nothing to do with pleasure, art being a discipline akin to civil engineering. My dissent is the topic (such of it is) of this (meandering and frankly disappointing) series: Art is unknowable except by pleasure; when previously held notions of "what's allowed" can't take into account one's pleasure in an artwork, it's a sign that the notions need to be rethought, not that the art is bad; the critic's noblest job is to undertake such rethinking, John Latta on O'Hara a convenient case in point.

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Intermediate Hedonics

I beg the reader to boycott the scurvy misnomer of "price hedonics." Purchasing is driven not by pleasure but by desire. (In what sense is planned obsolescence pleasurable?) Properly, economists should instead refer to "consumer epithymetics" or "consumer bulimics" or "pornometrics."


Lawrence La Riviere White previews the Advanced course:
Here's a reason I've avoided thinking about pleasure: it leads on to another term, energy. What a dorky word, old-fashioned, vague, encrusted w/sins of the previous century. But I can't get away from it.

Because pleasure in writing isn't always pleasant. Here we get to the great advancement Freud made over the previous rationalist psychologies: sometimes pain is pleasure. Freud of course bedeviled by mechanical metaphors draws these pictures of drives & objects, which crudify the whole thing, but his fruitful confusion of pain & pleasure shows us how the energy level, the psychic wattage, as it were, of the feeling might be its most important quality.

Psychoanalysis, I believe, has some nice pictures to help us understand motivation. & like all pictures, they have their limits. Lacan's jouissance is more sophisticated than Freud's ego psychology, but it is still a limited picture. There's more wonder in Spicer's poems than dreamt of in the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Criticism & Theory.

Making (insert here a dirty big etymology of poetry) requires motivation, and motivation shapes making. Poetry works at a level where the motivational energy remains close to the made thing. With the poem the mantle is thin & you can feel the magma heat bleeding through. Of course not everything that calls itself a poem has this heat. Some are just rocks.

Pleasure in poetry, the pleasure that gets at the heart of the matter, seems a nervous thing, a low buzz, a dull glow on the horizon, the tooth's ache you cant help prodding.

Surrealism (psychoanalysis' idiot brother who started a rock band & has all the fun) breaks the mantle to get at the hot gooey stuff.

And then wisely appends:

As a pre-emptive modification of my previous post, lava-love is not the only pleasure to be gotten from poetry. To take a bad example, back in the day when Robert Hass was my everything, I found his poems pleasing fantasies of the cultured bourgeois life-style--gnostic frisson included!--I thought I was working toward. It turned out to take a lot more work than I was capable of.

There are obviously many different pleasures. The ones that interest me the most are the ones difficult to name or describe. I mean, I'm not totally lazy.

As the conscious justification of art changes from place to place and time to time, so does the pleasure: it may be the pleasure of collaboration; it may be the pleasure of exercised vigilence; at its worst, it may be the pleasure of the snapped trap, or of simple flattery. What keeps it an aesthetic pleasure is its source in irreducible object.

Like most critics, I overemphasize those pleasures for which a vocabulary has already been defined. But that still small voice nags and tugs, and quotes the last Martian broadcast: "My vocabulary did this to me." Which is when it seems important to write something about Hogg or Charles Butterworth.

White continues the discussion:

I thought of yet another version of pleasure unconsidered in my hypothesizing, & this one is kind of the 800 lb. gorilla: how the poem or the book can itself be an object of desire, obsession, hysteria. Again I would like to talk about motivation: what drives the critic? What are they trying to do? Plenty of my fellow grad students wanted to make the world a better place. They thought that reading potboiler novels from the 19th century was part of a progressive, liberatory program for the present. I disagreed, but at least it's a nice idea. But texts became tools. I on the other hand am still troglodytic, & these books are magic and mysteries. I want to use both terms in a religious sense: these books have powers to which I am in thrall. & the greatest sign of their power is the pleasure I get reading them. It will come as no surprise that as an adolescent (a state that lasted well past 30) I tended to make minor deities of my crushes. Lots of poems about girls. There are obviously many problems w/my way of thinking about things. But there also seem to be problems w/the other ways, & I'm not a really good impersonator, so I might as well work on improving my act. I will never make top billing at the local burlesque, & I'm certainly not getting to Hollywood, but it beats mowing hay.

All of my thoughts about poetry & pleasure seem to translate quickly into erotics. Surely this slide marks one place where the larger culture--"Who is the girl wearing nothing but a smile and a towel / In the picture on the billboard in the field near the big old highway?"--influences my thoughts on the smaller culture--"I have my books and my poetry to protect me." In any case, my thoughts bear a particular aspect, & when I see that I think there must be other aspects I am blind to. In other words, someone else could have a very different & equally true way of looking at it.

Update, 2017-12-29 - Thirteen years later, hedonics in the news:

The brain does have pleasure centers, but they are not modulated by dopamine. So what’s going on? It turns out that, in the brain, “liking” something and “wanting” something are two separate psychological experiences. “Liking” refers to the spontaneous delight one might experience eating a chocolate chip cookie. “Wanting” is our grumbling desire when we eye the plate of cookies in the center of the table during a meeting. Dopamine is responsible for “wanting” – not for “liking.” For example, in one study, researchers observed rats that could not produce dopamine in their brains. These rats lost the urge to eat but still had pleasurable facial reactions when food was placed in their mouths. All drugs of abuse trigger a surge of dopamine – a rush of “wanting” – in the brain. This makes us crave more drugs. With repeated drug use, the “wanting” grows, while our “liking” of the drug appears to stagnate or even decrease, a phenomenon known as tolerance.

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North by Northwest Considered as "An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge"

Redemption depends on the tiny fissure in the continuous catastrophe.
- Walter Benjamin, "Central Park"

"Depends on" should be replaced by "is," shouldn't it? What further redemption past discovery of that fissure, fingertips planted beneath a sprig of little-leaf rockcress? Having paused at a final problem, what further solution?

Let's get real: Cary Grant reaching down was as good as it's going to get.

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A comment on "Some Versions of Mock-Pastoral, Part I"

2) It turns out there are fairies, men and women can't be friends, one big speech can save the nation and win your love, a guy in tights will protect us from a guy in tights, Republican retards do make the best philosophers, love does conquer all, Charlie Kaufmann must throw in the car chase, chivalry is not dead, Jesus loves screwball nuns, the highest corn stalk successfully blinds the rogue elephant, the right team always wins the big game, Ed Wood did produce a hit....

Yes, we knew it already; we tell it that way ourselves. Fools are almost always vindicated. Even before the pressures of the producer's pitch and the ad campaign, it's so much the fastest way home. Narrative closure is where any fiction, no matter how ostentatiously naturalistic in other ways, stops mimicking reality: where we more-or-less forcefully, more-or-less idiotically, shut our eyes to make the world go away. Intelligence complicates plots; only stupidity can end them.

That fraudulence stings less when there's more to it. Buster Keaton didn't just play a holy fool: he played a holy fool who performed phenomenally graceful and painful stunts.

Even so the formula does get tiresome. (They save the world and next month the world needs saving! They die tragically and then they come back! Oh, fermez la porte, s'il vous plait!) And so does living with the results of all this fool-flattery.

One way to de-simplify is to display those results: Don Quixote riding the bomb that'll trigger the Doomsday Device, hee-yah!; or Troilus and Cressida, even: A Trojan Ending. That's intellectually respectable, but there's something unlovably smug and stand-offish about it, with a whiff of titillation-and-punishment hypocrisy. Despite its manifest inferiority as a script, I find the ending of Elektra: Assassin far more satisfying than that of Watchmen (and the happy endings of The Sentimental Education and The Temptation of Saint Anthony far more satisfying than Madame Bovary's catastrophe).

Another way is to allow the dolts their rightness while still rewarding the clever, who, after all, only need to get stupid while negotiating the finale. Most of my favorite romantic comedies might be described that way; see also the aplomb with which Bill Murray redirects his cynicism from gullible students to the gods themselves in Ghostbusters.


Other possibilities include stepping in to remove the sophisticate before the third act, either by train (Metropolitan) or suicide (Primary Colors).

Postscript: See also the finale of Prince Prigio.

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The Saddest Music in the World: Follow-Up Speculation

One title is The Saddest Music and the other is Tristana was it Poe who wrote that amputation of a famous model's gams is unquestionably the most melancholy topic in the world?

Ah, that leg, that leg

Lost in Translation: Follow-Up Speculation

Regarding the worst Bill Murray movie ever, Lawrence La Riviere White writes:

I have one verisimilitude question: as a thorough student of the Larry Sanders Show, I noticed that Bill Murray's character seems oddly distant from his handlers. Doesn't a guy who can pull down 2 million for a week's work have a personal assistant w/him? On a more serious note, & to help shore up my fragmentary knowledge of film, isn't Wim Wenders the original Rolex to LIT's sold-on-the-sidewalk knock-off? Even down to the knowing hip music references? (I remember Wenders short w/a guy sealed behind a panoramic window looking out at Central Park. At one point he's flipping through albums. I was delighted to see the second Psychedelic Furs in there.) It has been a long time, but I was quite taken w/Kings of the Road & Alice in the Cities. & shooting the Coppola surrogate in The State of Things. Do you have patience for Bruno "I'm the saddest puppy in the pet store window" Ganz?


I would only note that while there is, indeed, more than a trace of Wenders, it's mostly lost in an attempted translation of Wong Kar Wai.

Josh, however, is of the majority opinion. Wish I were there, but having been raised on a diet of Persona and Red Desert, I retain the old-fashioned distinction between depression and petulance. And as charming as it would be to imagine LIT's encouragement being played like the ESP test in Ghostbusters, the autobiographical protagonist who's forecast a brilliant future is too well established a narrative convention for me to ignore.

On the other hand....

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Intermediate Hedonics

I wish they wouldn't call me “a hedonist”; it produces such a bad effect on the minds of people who don't know Greek.
- Walter Pater to Edmund Gosse

International Masturbation Month having just ended, we're well acquainted with the limitations of solitary pleasure. Among more social pleasures, bullying and torture often predominate. George W. Bush displays the lineaments of gratified desire more plainly than Allen Ginsberg even did, and I dislike him more as well.

So, no, hedonism is not enough. There's a reason humanity went to the effort of developing concepts like responsibility and shame. It's less a philosophical foundation than an empirical corrective.

Lingered over, sought out, often emphasizing what we'd do anyway, pleasure doesn't necessarily surprise us. Nevertheless, being above all else a signal, pleasure performs individuating and anti-systematic functions. It humanizes the humanist, puts the spring in Springfield, wakes the drowsy and dopes the knotted. Regular dosages are particularly recommended for guilt-ridden bible-thumping natural twisters such as, to take the example closest to hand, myself: in George Harrison's beautiful phrase, "a stuckup, up-tight, tight-assed asshole."

If my profile is at all typical of those whose life was saved by rock and roll, we deserve our poor reputation. Still, it's not like we'd be less creepy without our little inanimate friends. Hedonism is what's missing from Adorno's jeremiads, and he seems no more simpatico for its absence.

* * *

As Lawrence White has already commented, where there's pleasure, desire follows. And aesthetic desire, like all desires, can turn bad in a hurry: a regent who dungeons the prince. Of all the "there but for the grace of pleasure go I" monsters that torment my dreams, the collector may be the scariest, what with the full weight of corporate capitalism pushing aesthetes toward that reassuringly simple, communal, and self-destructive role. Again, close attention to what's attracting our attention is the best (or at least the cheapest) prophylactic I know.


That scene in 'Deliverance' where they're in the canoes and Reynolds' character Lewis yells "...Drew was shot!"? That's us too. And the Ned Beatty incident as well. And the church even, jacked up and lifted to higher ground. That Dickey was a diabetic isn't pertinent exactly, though it may have some relevance I can't get to right now. Used to have a mint set of Django Rheinhardt 78's from the 'Hot Club of France'. Now it's 'Third Watch' reruns shared communally with the rest of America.

Mikarrhea has anticipated me.

. . .

The Flying Programmer

From "The Flying Tailor"
by James Hogg

Oft have I striven by meditative power,
And reason working ’mid the various forms
Of various occupations and professions,
To explain the cause of one phenomenon,
That, since the birth of science, hath remain’d
A bare enunciation, unexplain’d
By any theory, or mental light
Stream’d on it by the imaginative will,
Or spirit musing in the cloudy shrine,
The Penetralia of the immortal soul.
I now allude to that most curious fact,
That ’mid a given number, say threescore,
Of tailors, more men of agility
Will issue out, than from an equal show
From any other occupation say
Smiths, barbers, bakers, butchers, or the like.
Let me not seem presumptuous, if I strive
This subject to illustrate; nor, while I give
My meditations to the world, will I
Conceal from it, that much I have to say
I learnt from one who knows the subject well
In theory and practice need I name him?
The light-heel’d author of the Isle of Palms,
Illustrious more for leaping than for song.
First, then, I would lay down this principle,
That all excessive action by the law
Of nature tends unto repose. This granted,
All action not excessive must partake
The nature of excessive action so
That in all human beings who keep moving,
Unconscious cultivation of repose
Is going on in silence. Be it so.
Apply to men of sedentary lives
This leading principle, and we behold
That, active in their inactivity,
And unreposing in their long repose,
They are, in fact, the sole depositaries
Of all the energies by others wasted,
And come at last to teem with impulses
Of muscular motion, not to be withstood,
And either giving vent unto themselves
In numerous feats of wild agility,
Or terminating in despair and death.

Now, of all sedentary lives, none seems
So much so as the tailor’s....

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The Happy Transvaluator

I'd always been mystified by the "Reagan made America proud again" line. He and his handlers had so blatantly dedicated themselves to transforming ignorance and greed into positive virtues. What ambiguity had I missed?

Only this morning the answer finally struck me: ignorance and greed are what they mean when they say "America."

* * *

The Great Communicable

Today let us mourn the late Lew Ayres: med student, musician, genuinely devout hero, and Otto Preminger's pick to play a decent President.

Not the kind of fella to steal two gals from the same sad sack; maybe not the sort to be attracted to Nancy Davis in the first place. But I wonder if, during the 1980s, he ever thought back on Donovan's Brain not as an opportunity missed, but as a nightmare prophecy.


The great obfuscator . . .
Renfrew here. I had forgotten about Lew and Mrs. R appearing on-screen together in Donovan's Brain: I wonder what the atmosphere on that set was like. In looking over Mrs. R's film credits, it's interesting to note that of her 11 above-the-tiny-print credits, 9 of her roles were (a) nurse (b) doctor (c) patient, or (d) caretaker of an ill or dependent person. 10 if you count the religious movie. And, she played opposite Senator George Murphy in another. Was it just the roles women of her physical type got?

Or was it something deeply intertwingled going on in the roles she chose, and the leading men she chose?

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .