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. . . 2002-06-04

Astoria, Oregon, 2002

Tools For Genius

- photo by Juliet Clark

. . . 2002-06-05

... later he will tell the story, upstairs in Elvis's private "superstar" suite. Sammy has taken the night off from his own show at the Sands to party with his third wife, Altovise, a handsome black dancer who was once a member of Sammy's troupe, and with Donald Rumsfeld, President Nixon's aide and director of the Cost of Living Council, who is staying at the Davises' with his wife, Joyce.

Tonight is the finale of the Rumsfelds' Western swing that took them from the Republican National Convention in Miami to Los Angeles, to attend the Republican-sponsored party there for prominent entertainers, and then to Las Vegas, to lounge around Sammy's private pool and play a little tennis....

Outside the superstar suite, Sammy pauses in the corridor to do an impersonation of Elvis on stage, mimicking Elvis's catatonic stance and what Donald Rumsfeld calls his "weird" smile. The impersonation is successful; Joyce Rumsfeld takes him by the shoulders, shakes him playfully, asks, "What are we going to do with you, Sammy?"

"Well," he says, "you're stuck with me for the next four years."

- from "Sammy Davis, Jr., Has Bought the Bus" by James Conaway, The New York Times Magazine, 1974,
quoted in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader ed. Gerald Early

. . . 2002-06-06

People differ. People recognize.

One proposition, then the other, slapped across the yap like a big stinking dead cross-eyed fish.

. . . 2002-06-07

Tired of complaints, I'm ready for fun.
I'll make friends with anyone.
Are you out there, somebody like me?
If you are, I hope you can see:

I am just a guy who likes to rock and roll,
I am just a guy who likes to get drunk,
I am just a guy who likes to dress punk,
Get my kicks and live up my life.

+ + +

How different was this letter from the other! Though perhaps not so well written; for one does not shew so much wit in suing for pardon as in venting reproaches, and it seldom happens that the soft, languishing style of a love-letter is so penetrating as that of invective.
I think I understand what Visible Darkness is getting at with links. I wish I didn't.

It's more relaxing when I can pretend that it's just you (out there) and stuff (out there) and my function is to point -- or, more precisely, to place a marker and leave. I'm happiest (happy in a secure stable confident way; not most gleeful or most driven) lending people books or showing them movies or playing them music that they like, and as much as I may strive to instigate and encourage their enjoyment by my own overbearing example, I'd be betraying the Code of the Autodidact if I denied the value of a library card and time alone in the stacks. (Not that linkin'-logs have much in common with libraries -- they're more like kids trying to impress each other with what they got for Xmas. A weblog's sidebar [or sidepage] list of favorites provides a closer equivalent to browsing someone's bookshelves than do the links in a weblog proper.)

And when I feel especially sickened by the tawdry deceits of "expression," as I occasionally and currently am, that's what seems safest: publish, point, disappear.

[Naturally, I've turned for publishing relief to someone who's not at all bothered by melancholy or guilt, or even by tawdry deceits. Grammont's introduction to the court of Charles II is challengingly crowded with new characters (and just as densely packed with notes). But the introductions are not without Hamiltonian charm; for example, to "Montagu, no very dangerous rival on account of his person, but very much to be feared for his assiduity, the acuteness of his wit, and for some other talents, which are of importance, when a man is once permitted to display them."

And with the next two chapters, we find ourselves comfortably settled on the high plateau of cheerful self-satisfied amorality whereon the remainder of the Memoirs will amiably amble.]

For better or worse or richer or poorer, I can't maintain dignified silence for long. A call (no matter how illusory) for response will rarely call in vain, and while I've lately preserved a model pout here, I've written plenty in email, comments, and mailing lists.

Even responding, I'd rather point to already published sequences of words than generate new ones; for example, by drawing a line from "Words' true work is to restore life itself to order" to "Sharp as mud." But, as a critic who prefers an informal style and primary sources close at hand, I may well find myself tempted into more active engagement against Ricoeur's formula that "Conversational speech presents; writing represents"....

. . . 2002-06-09

Since the biggest problem with biographies are the biographers, why not just get rid of 'em?

In an email message a while ago, Jessie Ferguson fantasized one approach to erasure: "I still want to write a biography that passes no judgments at all and raises no questions it isn't equipped to answer." And I imagine something like the "Chronology" in a Collected Works, except busting out all over with source documents like a microwaved popcorn bag....

That sounds nice.

An easier approach, which could be said to be even more honest, being even less interpretive, is just stringing the blatantly heterogeneous source material together, like in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader, 500 pages of Gerald Early's selections from memoirs, interviews, and journalism.

Which is nice.

Having an actual example brings on a couple of new thoughts, though, which just goes to show that examples are worthwhile:

  1. If you don't rush into things, secondary sources eventually turn into primary sources. Back in the 1950s, the astonishingly nasty Confidential pieces were just destructive gossip; now they're essential to understanding what the heck was going on.

  2. There's an awful lot of repetition. With variation. Me, I enjoy tracing slight changes from one retelling of an anecdote to another as it rots into accepted history, but I don't know how many others share that rarefied pleasure.

  3. To quote Jessie Ferguson again, "you can't apply the work-as-mirror-of-life analysis to someone whose life is lost to history, that being the negative lesson to take from the case of Emily Bronte."

    You need a fairly wide variety of voices and publication genres for a biographical compilation to work; else all you've got is a reprint of someone else's book (not that there's anything wrong with reprinting someone else's book). For some biographical subjects, you might be able to get sufficient variety out of letters and diaries. Outside such knitting-brow circles, the approach will skew you towards the kind of people who get talked about in memoirs, interviews, and journalism: that is, to show-biz celebrities. And performers just don't tend to be very interesting. Their work can be interesting, but as people, with few exceptions, they fall within a pretty narrow range of affection-craving self-dramatizing technique-obsessed personalities.

    Sure, there are noticeable differences between performers. Those more-or-less unique aspects are what passes for interest in memoirs, interviews, and journalism, and what incited Early's hard work on Sammy Davis, Jr. But there are even more similarities between performers, and the constant background noise of those shared aspects starts (to me, anyway) to get numbing after a while.

  4. All theoretical speculation aside and against, a highlight of the book is Early's still-young-enough-to-be-a-secondary-source introductory essay:

When we were children, my sisters and I were often ridiculed by our black schoolmates for "talking like white people" or "sounding white." Some of this was purely in jest, some was motivated by envy and some by sheer malice and ignorance, but whatever the cause, I could never reconcile myself to it. First, I was never trying to imitate a white person's speech. At the time, the only white people I knew well were the Italians who lived in the neighborhood, and I recoiled from their ethnic expressions as much as I recoiled from "talking colored." I was imitating the speech of my black schoolteachers, of movie stars like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Woody Strode, and James Edwards. I had heard the so-called vernacular of actors like Hattie McDaniel, Willie Best, and Stepin Fetchit, and I wanted no part of that. Indeed, I thought black vernacular was an aberration: I assumed that most black people spoke standard English or wanted to. I heard James Baldwin give an interview on the radio and he spoke standard English. So did Martin Luther King and so did Malcolm X. I once yelled at some boys who were needling me for "talking white," "I don't know any white people who talk like this." That wasn't quite true, for like all the black people around me I watched television, and like all the black children around me I read comic books, and whatever one might say about the deficiencies of the literary quality of this genre, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and the like all spoke standard English. But what I said to those boys was very near the truth, for I was never inspired by any white person to use standard English. And I hated black vernacular speech, even though I could perfectly replicate it as a youth, when it suited my purposes to do so. I hated it because it reflected an experience that was narrow and provincial, because its vocabulary was so limited and so heavily reliant on profanity, particularly variations of the word "fuck." And, of course, the word "nigger" was used all the time by blacks, a word I utterly loathed. I hated the vernacular because it was a language with no ability to grow, a language that could not encompass what I felt, what I wanted to express, and I was as black and as poor as all the others in my neighborhood. Indeed, I was poorer than most of the black kids I grew up with. What good was this language to me, if it could not envision or accommodate my emotional or psychological existence? Here, I thought, even as a boy, was a language, this black vernacular, that was meant to be as limiting as the experiences that black people were permitted in this society, and what was even more defeating, more tragic, was that the people who spoke it exclusively had decided to accommodate themselves to those limitations. It was the language of oppression and accommodation. The vernacular could, in a meager but sometimes very affecting, even passionate way, convey anger, resentment, self-pity, the humor of cynicism, a spirituality mixed of hope and frustration, disappointment and hatred -- all the emotional preoccupations of the powerless and the confined. But it could not express the ideas of power or the power of ideas, the necessity of meaning, nor could it even express the idea of itself or of the meaning of itself. I knew instinctively why Davis spoke the way he did. I knew what drove him because some variation of that drove me, too....

.... Davis's speech was a kind of elegance and grace, a dignity, sometimes a bit forced and self-conscious, but all the more affecting for that, that said to me as a young black kid "English is my language, too" and "I may be other things but I'm as American as anybody else." As Davis knew, despite the racism in America, where else could he have had the outsized success he did except in America. I learned from Sammy Davis, Jr., that there was nothing wrong with a black wanting to be an American, with wanting to acknowledge that, with wanting to adopt white forbears and influences as well as black ones, with seeing oneself as interracial, not simply mixing with two races but as a link to bringing two races together. So his speech was not antidemocratic but the fullest personal expression of the democracy in which he lived and for which he tried to live. His speech was, to use a popular word of today, "inclusive."

- Gerald Early, from The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader

My memory is that the race-traitor routine kicks in solid during the junior high years. And that it was substantially more direct and heart-breakingly destructive than any gender divides introduced by puberty.

When they see themselves as a group, humans act as if their main job is to maintain the group, and, members of the group having consciousness and all, internal variations of behavior and thought are seen as a more present danger to group solidarity than any threats from the outside could be. It's an often demonstrated problem with few known solutions, 'cause for obvious reasons there's not a huge amount of pressure for it to be solved.

This particular variation, which has the desirable side-effect of keeping a underclass persistently under, isn't uncommon among colonized peoples. It's one of the complaints the more skeptical Irish made against Irish nationalists at the previous turn of a century, for example. There are many other examples.

The ray of hope for most colonized groups is the one that's directed back and down at the land behind them. There's always the dream of reclaimed soil, re-established traditions, and reborn language. Anti-assimilationist pressure is justified by hope for a regained (if mythical) glory.

What helps keep American racism such a stable system is African-Americans' near unique status as an imported colonized people: Europeans, finding North American natives more suited for extermination than colonization, kidnapped and relocated an entire nation's worth of labor. The backwards gaze is drowned in the Middle Passage. There's nowhere to retreat to but where we're at, and we're all in the same place. The only glory we can hope for is still, nerve-rackingly, to be sought in the future.

+ + +

2015-12-19 update from Josh Lukin:

"Hughes judged that if Zora Neale Hurston, 'with her feeling for the folk idiom,' had been its author, 'it would probably be a quite wonderful book.' Baldwin, however, 'over-writes and over-poeticizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them' in what finally was 'an "art" book about folks who aren't "art" folks.'"

. . . 2002-06-10

The opinions expressed herein are
strictly those of the Muse, and
should not be taken to represent the
views of the editor or publisher.

I'm Forty-Three! What are you?
Are you -- Forty-Three -- Too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! they'd cut us off -- you know!

How dreary -- to be -- Twenty-Eight!
Publicly -- to Flog --
One's name -- and book -- the livelong June --
In an A-Listed Blog!

. . . 2002-06-11

Manner of Holding Card Why, this is blooming buzzing confusion, nor am I out of it.

In keeping with the theme, some scattered reflections on identity:

. . . 2002-06-12

I got my act together and it closed in Boston

My characteristically glum affect skewed yesterday's scattered reflections, but that's what happens with scattered reflections....

. . . 2002-06-13

Coming this fall: Birth Control for Smart People

+ + +

Shocking Worldwide Self-Esteem Surplus:

"My Greatest Mistake" : 447 results   "My Greatest Achievement" : 2,110 results
"My Greatest Failure" : 187 results "My Greatest Success" : 818 results
========= =========
634 results 2,928 results

. . . 2002-06-15

Grin & plummet

  That's what I've always felt about nervous breakdowns, if you're not really whacked out, or schizophrenic; basically, you're making a decision that is so hard that you need the excuse of neurosis. I think nervous breakdowns were much more common in the late '50s and early '60s, and the world is more hip about those things today, so that people can make decisions without claiming that excuse. But it works both ways; it was a great advantage having nervous breakdowns.
-- Thomas M. Disch

Possibly related: Samuel R. Delany's mild dismay when noting that depression is often a sign that one's life should change in some drastic fashion, and that the blanket prescription of antidepressives some-subset-of-often delays that necessary change, some-further-subset indefinitely.

Not entirely unrelated: This present mental institution's third (of a projected five) anniversary approaches.

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

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2002 Ray Davis.