. . . Cabell

. . .

This past week, Tom Parmenter's far-too-sporadic emailzine Desperado issued an appropriate response to the "respect the US flag" constitutional amendment that's being cheered on through our do-nothing-and-proud-of-it Congress. One might think that our politicians' patriotism would be better expressed by eliminating tax shelters and offshore labor. But no, the greenback remains the most furiously guarded symbol of their country.

My reaction to flag-hagiographers is even more unmixed than Tom's, possibly because pretty much the only use I've seen the flag get put to is as a quick hiding place. I'm so glad I'm living in the USA because of the Bill of Rights, the unusually (if still insufficiently) permeable class system, and the achievements they've made possible. Forcing children to take daily oaths of allegiance to a piece of cloth doesn't seem so useful; it's also hard to see what benefits can be derived by the flag-hags' getting their red-white-and-blue panties in a twist over furriners' bonfires. The most pleasant association the flag has for me is as verifier of post office or embassy.

A couple of months ago, I read James Branch Cabell's These Restless Heads, which spends quite a few pages observing the USA flag at eye level from a high-placed summer cottage:

I note that those seven red stripes and those six white stripes are so alternated as to suggest the uniform of a convict.... That blue canton I know to contain some and forty stars; but for seven whole years I have tried without success to count them.... It may well reek with irreligion, in that it boldly attempts to improve upon the celestial plan by arranging its own stars in six parallel rows.... I recollect, in the nick of time, that those some and forty white pentangles were borrowed from the Washington coat-of-arms, in which they did not represent stars but the rowels of spurs.....

The patriot everywhere, it may be observed, remains always exceedingly careful lest his country's banner become besmirched by any touch of that bloody sponge which is his brain....

For any of antiquity's heroic standards a liquescent barber's pole seems a poor substitute.... Red-and-white-striped peppermint candy is a spectacle which, in itself, connotes rather less of high-mindedness than of an over-cloying and sticky saccharinity; and I imagine that in this aspect it may rhetorically mislead a great many patriotic orators. I wish, in fine, that both the flag and I were somewhat different looking.

. . .


As a certified holder of a Bachelor of Mathematics certificate, I can confidently assert that rationality exists only as a way to juggle all the words one feels compelled to throw into the air. But even that certificate is no guarantee of success, and the Outsider Art go-round left a hatchet, a raw egg, and a beach ball on my face.

Most of the muddle was caused by my smudging across questions of production (what do we notice? what attitude do we take? what markets do we approach?) and questions of consumption (how do we notice? how do we understand? how do we enjoy?) as if all of 'em were one big really dumb question.

Thus, Doug Asherman points out that I claim that the worst thing is the formation and mutual support of a mediocre group, when the really REALLY worst thing is when the mediocre group manages to convince larger groups to take it even more seriously than it takes itself.

Regarding "insularity," David Chess suggests

that there is no "mainland" at all, except in the sense of a particularly large (or visible, or well-funded, or populous) island.
(In fact when we're talking The New York Review of Books it's not even that large an island; it's just that the islanders think it's centrally located.... Minifesto: I'm not sure that a decentered self is necessary for ethical living, but I'm pretty sure that a decentered self-image is.)

And giving David Auerbach the last long word:

With all respect, I want to reframe your insider/outsider argument, because I'm not eager to see another generation of writers inspired by Colin Wilson's The Outsider willing themselves into solipsistic states of media attention and minor celebrity. I'd like to displace the insider/outsider dichotomy into the realm of 'material'. There's a quote from John Crowley's review of Lanark that I'm thinking of:
It is more like the great homemade books, the all-encompassing works that have always been constructed not of mainstream materials but of the author's own peculiar mud and straw: Pilgrim's Progress, say, or Branch Cabell's Jurgen.
I'm willing to admit that the considerations of the intellectual market matter only once you've rejected the satisfactoriness of Borges' "Secret Miracle" [....] But at that point the question of whether the creation of something was approached from the insider or outsider standpoint is more one of idiom than anything else. Or to put it another way, you can't be Kaspar Hauser and Ian Curtis at the same time. (And for a different take, I just read the conclusion of Kim Deitch's latest serial in Zero Zero, which "solves" the problem under discussion by inverting both Heinlein's "Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" and Charles Fort -- rather than "We are property," it is "We are entertainment.")

But the outsider brand, in its two forms--

--From without--

The Jack Spicer bit is priceless, but all those "Crazy Buddhist art. Crazy Hindu art. Crazy Medieval German art." fall more under the rubric of exotica rather than "outsiderism," I'd say. What the two have in common is a desire to attach the label of foreignness to the work. I think this is less a narrative conceit (as you say) than an impulse on behalf of both the producers & consumers to mythologize & escape. And it's going on contemporaneously too: what Richard Ford & David Foster Wallace have in common is a mythologizing of everyday materials, albeit in very different form. It's not very good mythologizing (Richard Yates did it best, and most honestly, in my view), but it's still an updated variant on what Mailer, Updike, Oates, and the rest of those geezers have been earning accolades for for years. The dominant short story paradigm in most of the anthologies these days seems to be (1) the "I'm so real" Carver-derived approach of Tilghman, Offutt, and many others whose names I've forgotten, or (2) the creepy, sub-supernatural angstploitation of Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, David Gates, and I suppose Russell Banks. Both are variants on the same impulse to impose a private "outsider" view on ordinary materials through sheer will -- because that's the only thing that can make it worthwhile. It's a lousy approach. I think the consequent turn to the exotic stems from the same cause -- when people get fed up with the fakery of the above, they turn to the irreducibly foreign.

And then there's people like our friend Jandek who apparently achieve some level of commodification by being fetishized by collectors, and the ensuing debate over whether he and others are the "real [foreign] thing" or not. It's very important to the consumers that they are -- what could he possibly have to say if he were just like you and me?

Granted, I think America (north and south) is more prone to mythology than the Europeans or Asians (hence our great legacy of comic books & comic strips!), but the current crop of writers is too civilized to do it honestly. So while they're too self-conscious to apply the label to themselves even as they incorporate it into their fiction, those who feel it...

--From within--

still don't use it as a primary marker in their work, though they may try. I look at Bruno Schulz's work and compare it to Beckett's, and while I see them trying for similar effects, I think Beckett is more successful. This despite Schulz's Kafka-like isolation and Beckett's (relative) integration into the various scenes around him. I'm tempted to see the issue, then, as irrelevant to the quality of the work being produced -- though it may just be that Beckett was just such a prima facie genius to everyone around him that he could have been totally maladjusted and still fit in.

Thomas Bernhard, on the other hand, is a writer who I think really hurt his work by being so socially involved in Austrian theater and politics, but I don't think that it was socialization per se that damages his books so much as an innate desire to throw obscene epithets at other people. With or without the opportunity to hurl them from a respected position in Austrian letters, I think his work would've suffered the same.

. . .

Visible Man

"... racial politics be temporarily damned ..."

"Ironically, the little sub-men of the great cities best express their own sense of helplessness by means of Negro music. While ostensibly setting about the freeing of the slaves, they became enslaved, and found in the wailing self-pity and crooning of the Negro the substitute for any life-style of their own. They destroyed or rejected the best things in the South and took the worst."
- Marshall McLuhan, "The Southern Quality"

In 1930s and 1940s Hollywood musicals, African-American performers would be brought on screen for one number and disappear afterwards, leaving the plotline untouched. Those scenes excised, the films could then be distributed in the South as artifacts of an all-white world. Most times the performers just weren't brought on screen at all, "histories of jazz" being restricted to innovators like Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, and Rudy Vallee.

Are such movies less racist than the movies in which African-American actors played comic servants? Or were they equally products of a racist culture, differing only in how easily they let later spectators ignore their context?

America fattened on racism like England fattened on colonialism, and all products of the Southern states raised themselves, directly or indirectly, with the assistance of a permanent underclass: notoriously nowadays, conflicted idealist Thomas Jefferson, but equally the blandly unconcerned Andrew Jackson; Joel Chandler Harris, of course, but also James Branch Cabell; Jerry Lee Lewis no more than Johnny Mercer.

Slander may provide a consoling origin myth for our discomfort with hillbilly cats, but the discomfort came first and cut across political lines: Elvis Presley's untoward rise to wealth raised miscegenation fears at the time; as blatant evidence of where we still live it can still bother liberals now.

His debts and allegiances were all over him like red beans on rice. But does that make Presley more beholden to racism than Pink Floyd, Yo La Tengo, Guided By Voices, or, for that small matter, myself? He surely sent more royalties to black songwriters than any of those other fellas have.


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