pseudopodium
. . . Marriage

. . .

Marriage is like when you give a kid an extravagant present and all it wants to do is get inside the box.

. . .

Undercover girl reporter Constance Kandle joins the club with the first installment of her investigative series, the Nonprofit Chronicles, featuring Bossy the Clown:

Here Comes Bossy

Bossy's Day
------- ---

9:45 Arrive at the office

9:45-10:05 Call Dad to thank him for the credit card bailout, complain a little about the struggle of working "40 plus hours per week," and promise that his money really will go to pay off debts

10:05-10:10 Talk to personnel manager about candidates for director of the institution, "even though my opinion doesn't count for much around here anyway." Express concern about "the first guy," who seemed nice but used "embarrassingly low-resolution" digital images in his presentation to staff: "We're arts professionals! He should have known better than that!"

10:10-10-12 Leave phone messages for friends on the East Coast

10:12-10:15 Read email

10:15-10:35 Call a friend to discuss the breakup of her marriage

10:35-10:40 Tell Constance about breakup of friend's marriage and difficulty of being a shoulder to cry on

10:40-10:45 Cigarette break

10:45-10:50 Call back friend on East Coast who called during cigarette break; tell her too busy to talk

10:50 Leave for an optometrist appointment, after asking Constance to make sure to be around at 1:00 to open the research center (it's Bossy's day to sit at the desk) in case nobody else can get back from lunch in time

. . .

Recently received: Invitation to a wedding at the Wing Lam Kung Fu Studio. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for marriage, I have to admit that some weddings have been fun:

. . .

We've been tardy about noting the nice write-up that Juliet Clark's Art of Walt Disney received from peterme a while back:

Join Juliet Clark on a well-crafted, Disney-inspired reminiscence. There's something almost haunting about it.
(I guess the "almost" is in there so's not to confuse it with that f/x movie all the kids are crazy for.) Cholly will add that, like her other illustrated pamphlets, it's an enviably blissful marriage of text and picture, a Fred Astaire of graceful economy somehow strayed into the "Heyyy-eyyy, Abbott! I'm expressing myself! Look! I'm EX-PRESS-SING myself!" wide world of the Web.

. . .

In the Company of Mormon:

The titles below are particularly popular with customers from Brigham Young University.
1.  HTML 4 for the World Wide Web: Visual QuickStart Guide
2.  Tainted Truth; The Manipulation of Fact in America
3.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (Darth Maul Cover)
4.  Asking the Right Questions : A Guide to Critical Thinking
5.  Film Scheduling : Or, How Long Will It Take to Shoot Your Movie?
6.  The Millionaire Next Door : The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy
7.  Mary Parker Follett : Prophet of Management
8.  Film Director's Team
9.  The Act of Marriage : The Beauty of Sexual Love
The titles below are particularly popular with customers from West Sacramento, CA.
1.  Songs From Ally McBeal Featuring Vonda Shepard
The titles below are particularly popular with customers from Charities & Nonprofit.
1.  Live Now Age Later : Proven Ways to Slow Down the Clock

. . .

Although the pacing's a bit stodgy, 1936's Mayerling wins on performances, especially from the youthful-but-still-middle-aged Charles Boyer as Prince Rudolf: dissipated, undisciplined, and 100% tragically noble. I would say that Boyer was over-the-top great, but one of the reasons Boyer was always middle-aged was that he was never over-the-top. Under pressure, he just got more impacted.

Besides instigating this woman's marriage, Mayerling's other great achievement was getting me interested in the history of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. 'Cause, I've read Robert Musil and listened to Arnold Schoenberg till the cows came home, but not even the cows ever had the decency to tell me about Only Heir to Empire Dead in Double Love Suicide!, and, brother, that's what I call news.

Well, allowing some elbow room for glamor and the use of French actors, it turns out the movie actually does present the semi-official version of the story pretty accurately. Alas! for romance, it also turns out that not that many people ever believed that version of the story -- what's more likely to hit a Hapsburg: romance or assassination? -- and now it's been thoroughly disproved.

Even after learning that love means nothing, the "what happened next?" factor was still strong, especially since the next thing I found that happened next was the assassination of Prince Rudolf's mother, the Empress, less than a decade after the murder of her son. And by then we're getting close to the Great War.... Would I have to, like, go buy a book or something to work all this out?

No fear of that, because the Atlantic's already bought a book (coincidentally also from 1936) and put it up on the Web: Rebecca West's big dummy's guide to the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I remember when its posting was announced as a public service during one of the more recent genocides, but of course it took an old movie to attract my attention....

West works a well-established mainstream genre -- travel notes alternating with history lessons -- but you can't beat the combination of Balkans history and fascist-era travel for human (i.e., morbid) interest, and in its smoothly mainstream way the series builds to near hysteria by the time it reaches Sarajevo in Part 4:
'So when the poor mayor began to read his address of welcome the Archduke shouted out in a thin alto, "That's all a lot of rot. I come here to pay you a visit, and you throw bombs at me. It's an outrage." Then the Archduchess spoke to him softly, and he calmed down, and said, "Oh, well, you can go on." But at the end of the speech there was another scene, because the Archduke had not got his speech, and for a moment the secretary who had it could not be found. Then when it was brought to him he was like a madman because the manuscript was all spattered with the aide-de-camp's blood.'


At that moment the young man smashed his fist down on the table and cried into Constantine's face, 'Judas Iscariot! Judas Iscariot!'

'No,' said poor Constantine to his back, 'I am not Judas Iscariot. I have indeed never been quite sure which of the disciples I do resemble, but it is a very sweet little one, the most mignon of them all.'

Marie Vetsera
I'm a little worried about West's preoccupation with obesity, though. Would you agree with her that "Marie Vetsera was a very fat and plain little girl"? Ess, ess, Rebecca!

. . .

The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Reckless Moment Meeting the son-in-law

"Cyberspace is no place for mommies." -- Karen Joy Fowler
Maybe not, but The Reckless Moment proves that there's sure a place for 'em in film noir. In fact, as with a lot of formulas favored by self-pitying spoiled sons, film noir makes more sense with a mommy in the lead.

Sit-coms and comic strips love the American family because something big always seems to be happening but everything is back to normal by the end of the episode. The Reckless Moment repositions that once-a-day cycle from the mother's point of view: the family member's job is to present every passing fancy as an emergency to the mother, but the mother's job is to maintain stability at any cost. Where Douglas Sirk's domestic tragedies emphasize suffocation (the enveloping family keeps you warm at the cost of snuffing out flames), Ophuls pecks to death.

The eventual effect of this affection-hungry din is to level all stimuli out. Thus Ophuls's thoroughgoing use of a narrative technique I've never seen used anywhere else in film, fiction, or theater: the deliberate tossing away of obvious opportunities for suspense and emotional climaxes. Drama is replaced by fretfulness:

And so on, until it's completely understandable that someone who needs $5000 overnight would start trying to figure out how to trim the electric bill, and that someone might panic as much over the distinction between "getting" a loan and "making" a loan as about murder, blackmail, and truly doomed love.

(Those intrigued by Ophuls's gynocentric approach to film noir should also seek out Caught, which must be the only Hollywood movie in which a miscarriage supplies the happy ending. And then probably move on to Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai Du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles....)

. . .

Movie Comment: Boy! What a Girl

As Juliet Clark points out, it's a rare putting-on-a-show musical comedy that could boast of such intimate acquaintance with desperate golddigging (although if Orson Welles had directed a musical comedy...): Given their strictly limited set of venues, race movie producers had to scramble even more than the Poverty Row studios, and this was one of their last gasps.

Slam's high note Like many a last gasp before and after, Boy! What a Girl bet on sheer quality being enough to change the world and save the day. (As we in the software industry know, that trick never works.) Its pressbook boasted that "the production cost of the picture is at least four times that spent on any all-Negro feature to date" (meaning, apparently, about $50,000), and predicted that "an all-Negro motion picture can be produced to play any theater in the country and not merely confined to the some 600 odd playhouses that cater strictly to an all-Negro audience."

They managed the sheer (very sheer) quality. Of the race movies I've seen, Two-Gun Man from Harlem and The Duke Is Tops were kind of fun, the others have been "of historical interest," but Boy! What a Girl is just plain (very plain) good: consistently knee-slapping farce (no one's ever come up with a silly French name to beat "Gaston de la Quatrième de la Douzième de la Pousse-café"), consistently professional acting, music (led by "Slam" Stewart) excellent enough to help us overlook the not-so-consistent lip-synching, and some of the dirtiest jitterbugging ever put on film. Even the familiar ugly-guy-in-drag shtick worked: unlike, say, Jack Lemmon, "Madame Deborah" gave forth with so much personality that you could really believe the marriage proposals.

But, of course, they lost the day. Even with cool white guy Gene Krupa making a cameo appearance, there was no way for a "race movie" to achieve crossover success in 1947: you can't reach the audience if the theaters won't show you, and that would've required the cooperation of major studios and their distribution channels. Instead of triumphantly launching a new business model, Boy! What a Girl signalled the end of an old one: in just two years, Hollywood began to loosen up a bit on its "servants and singers only, and make sure the singers can be cut" rule, and, unable to compete with the application of big money to limited visibility, the production of race movies ceased.

Though their timing may have been bad, the movie-makers' instincts were vindicated some years later when their show's leading lady was called out of retirement for a genuine (and typically compromised) crossover success.

. . .

(Continuing with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "that gentle degradation requisite in order to produce the effect of a whole"....)

Legs The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Married Woman

One of the nice things about works of art, and vacations and drugs, is that they give us delimited events to point to and say, "This -- this was the turning point. This was where my life changed," as opposed to the usual waking up to find yourself in a strange bedroom thousands of miles away with a resculpted nose and no left leg and the phone off the hook and the cops hammering on the door.

For example, I used to be pretty normal about movies. I liked them and so forth. I'd say things like "Wanna see a movie?" and then later on say things like "That was pretty good."

Then, twenty-three years ago, I went to the Temple University Cinematheque (which I guess is closed down now) and saw Jean-Luc Godard's movie from thirteen years earlier, The Married Woman. And by the time it was over, I had turned into me.

An essential aspect of turning into someone is that other people don't simultaneously turn into the same person. Even while I sat there head ringing and sparkle-eyed, comments like "Did you get that?" and "Weird!" began to worm their way through my protective daze. On my shamble out, I stopped to thank the wizened Anglophile who ran the place. "I hate Godard myself," he said, "but someone has to show him."

Yeah. Nowadays I'm just embarrassed when I see those 1960s Godard movies, but I wouldn't blame the old guy for that any more than I would blame my mom for how embarrassing it is to think about toilet training. The only one I enjoy all the way through is his comedy noir, Bande à part, which reminds me of the Coen Bros., who, like Godard, seem to have been raised in some sort of white plastic box from which they take random stabs at what real life might be like -- there's a very thin crust of experience sagging under the weight of all these violent gesticulations, a bouncing on the plywood mood that seems to work best with dimwit comedy. Of Godard's work from the 1970s, I like the TV interviews with "real people" where he sounds like Charles Kuralt from Mars; from the 1980s and 1990s, his crazy old coot self-typecasting in Prénom Carmen. The only serious Godard moments that still work are the ones where he finds himself back in that white plastic box trying to figure out why everyone looks at him funny: for example, staring into a coffee cup while taking a break from trying to show off those supposed Two or Three Things I Know About Her that, nowadays, it seems obvious to me that he never knew at all.

How to Strip Not that anyone called him on it. There's no safer way for an uncool nerd to show off than by bragging about his up close and personal knowledge of women (or, safer yet, "Woman"). All those nouvelle vague guys leaned on that tactic big time; Godard, being Godard, just did so most explicitly. (As French censors realized, the title's "The" is an important part of The Married Woman's ambition.)

And, to Godard's credit as a forever uncool nerd, he was the only one of the nouvelle vague guys to try to engage equally explicitly with feminism. Unfortunately, he's also forever unable to approach female characters without interposing the clearest (and most brain-dead) demonstration of "inside knowledge": nude photography.

At the time, of course, I was more than willing to fall for such demonstrations; as an eighteen-year-old sex-crazed uncool nerd, they seemed like a darn fine idea.

And at the time, all such considerations seemed completely unrelated to what was most important about the experience, which, the next day, I inadequately described as the realization that "movies can do anything."

At the present time, my inadequate description would be that "movies can combine the discursive and the narrative."

I don't feel as comfortable with either account as I feel with explaining why they differ: It's natural for the individual who's gone through an ecstatic revelation to assume that there must be some relevance to the individual's life.

What's changed in my life is what seems relevant.

Twenty-three years ago, I probably thought of myself as someone who "could do anything," so that's how I was predisposed to understand the experience. Right now, I think of myself as someone who has to drag the discursive into every experience, so I think that the movie just happened to strike a natural-born critic.

You see, even though I promised a couple paragraphs back that I wouldn't bring blame into it, I couldn't just leave the question alone; I felt like I had to try to figure out what happened. For us natural-born critics, it's not enough to say, "My taste changed," or "Can you believe we used to like that stuff?" When we like something, it's a public statement, like pledging our troth.

Not that marriages really do last till the death-do-us part. What marriage means is that, having made a public statement of allegiance, you have to make some correspondingly public statement of divorce.

And then you get to make jokes about your ex for the rest of your life.

. . .

Today we're proud and kinda sad to present the final episode of Juliet Clark's "The Dream Factory". Let's hope that her subject has infected Clark with a touch of sequelitis....

THE DREAM FACTORY

Hold Your Man (1933)

When I was an actress, in the early 1930s, I played a girl in love. In this movie I wanted to marry you, but social issues kept getting in the way. Labor struggles, for example: once we had a wedding, but the minister had to go out on strike before he could put the ring on my finger. We chased him through the halls of the apartment building and into the street, but lost him in the crowd of striking preachers. After that you got disillusioned about marriage and started dating other people, including a tall, dark and sullen girl who worked at the candy counter with me. (I used to be a lot smaller and blonder back then.) We all went out to dinner at a restaurant, and to teach you a lesson I decided to disguise myself as the waitress. I became even smaller and blonder, and more intriguing; everyone wanted to dance with me. But you kept getting distracted, and eventually I was so discouraged I turned into a piece of candy in a plastic box. Not a very appealing candy, either -- I was lumpy and misshapen, and my chocolate coating was a pale streaky brown. However, the minister eventually returned from the picket line and offered to finish the ceremony. We all met again at the restaurant and the preacher got ready to put the ring on my hand, but it was so huge it fell right off again. So the minister had to run to the restaurantís coal-burning stove, melt the ring down, and re-shape it to fit my dainty finger. I thought things might fall through again at any moment. I thought, "This wedding is even more suspenseful than the one in Hold Your Man!" (Although this movie was otherwise pretty dissimilar. I was less glamorous than Jean Harlow, and not in a reformatory.) But finally the wedding was complete, and we were both overcome with joy -- all our doubts and struggles were past. You gazed into my eyes and told me, "Now youíll be my lover forever. Though you might not realize it yet, youíre going to die soon. But youíll be a beautiful ghost, my beautiful lover from beyond the grave, so you see nothing will ever change." Thatís what I call a happy ending.

. . .

A horse and carriage go together when you're a horse-drawn carriage driver

Marriage takes a sexual relationship and publicly acknowledges it to state and church. Which is a pretty perverse thing to do with a sexual relationship unless state and church need the knowledge to properly allocate rights and responsibilities -- of citizenship, say, or of child-rearing.

Across all disciplines, experts tend to overestimate the importance of what they're focused on -- things get bigger up close -- and so blowhards encouraged to provide the most criminally unreported news or the most egregiously popular fallacies will always come up with something from their own fields. (See Fig. 3, Fig. 4, and also.) And that's where theologians and priests made their entirely understandable mistake: Sex isn't solely for procreation. Procreation just happens to be the only way in which sex is of professional interest to theologians and priests.

Sailors is importink

. . .

Our Motto: (via June Brigman & Mary Schmich)
Your medicine
What with nostalgia for when I had more writing time and anticipating when I'll have it again and too many dampened spirits among my compeers and maybe even a trace of Joey Ramone sentiment, I feel like expressing less sheepishness than usual about these web ventures. Although deciding that one's desire is deserving of respect probably fulfills some nutritional need or another, audience members with weaker stomachs may wish to turn away.

Yeah, as another asshole said in the catchiest phrase he'll ever coin, occasional writings are advertisements for oneself. But the reason so many of my treasured friends write well is because they're also advertising something better than just self: curiosity, engagement, humor, anti-solipsistic passion.... It's possible to attract attention for a worthwhile purpose, like mutual satisfaction.

And yeah, the web is vanity publishing. But it's not only vanity: it's also an attempt to add to the evidence that love is other than career. If that's hubristic, at least it's in a tradition of not particularly destructive hubris: Virtually every piece of critical writing I care about came from "amateurs," and quite a bit of the art as well. As a reward for being an amateur at a time when the persistent and cheap publishing medium of the web is available, I get a heartening number of responses from working students and from working artists (although only once from a working academic, I wonder why) -- but the beauty of amateurism is that by definition numbers don't matter. The success of a marriage doesn't depend on how many priests attend the wedding.

So, at Juliet Clark's suggestion (she's been reading E. B. White's wartime essays about his small egg-and-dairy farm), I'm going to stop using all those more unpleasant names and start calling myself a "gentleman critic."

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe

Lawrence L. White simultaneously kicks off our end-of-school special and continues our previous thread in high style:

 
I spent several days composing a response to your comments re Curtis White, but couldn't make sense in my own head. As Adorno also says, the aesthetic is inarticulate. Though he claims philosophy is necessary, he recognizes that the artwork always withholds its best part. It's a perfect marriage: one party claims the other can't live without them, the other party knows it.

One of the few ideas that have made sense to me in this dreadful canon debate is John Guillory's suggestion that instead of thinking of canons we should think of syllabi. It's an inescapable fact: only so many books can be assigned for the term, or, for those who have survived their educations still reading, only so many books can be read. (Mr. Bloom acts as if he has read everything, which is his claim to greatness, 'cause none of the ideas he's had about these books amount to squat.) You have to make choices, though you don't have to, or may not be able to, explain them.

Just as there is are Great Works syllabi out there, so too are there Race-Class-Gender syllabi. & both can be automatized. Try to get an American Studies PhD w/out reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. & try to read any of this stuff the way someone like Spicer would read. I bet my copy of Aesthetic Theory (w/marginal notes throughout to prove I read the whole thing) someone out there is doing a Race-Class-Gender critique of Updike, & is thorougly kicking old Johnny-boy's ass. Yes, he deserves it, but aren't there better things to do w/your time?

I want to read books that are smarter, truer, more beautiful (&, as Adorno & Stein point out, beautiful can be ugly) than I am. Criticism that's superior to its object is masturbation. & as my pa told me, beating off is a fine hobby but you don't want to make it your life's work. One of my fellow students did a master's thesis on Fern Gully. Kicked its ass up one side & down the other, undoubtedly. (Which reminds me: Derrida can avoid the topic of greatness because it goes w/out question in France. The question on the bac is about Rimbaud, not Asterix.)

The example of Spicer's reading -- wide, idiosyncratic, passionate -- shames me when I think of all the time I have wasted in graduate school.

  Bent over the old volume

. . .

Strange, that in a work of amusement, this severe fidelity to real life should be exacted by any one, who, by taking up such a work, sufficiently shows that he is not unwilling to drop real life, and turn, for a time, to something different. Yes, it is, indeed, strange that any one should clamor for the thing he is weary of; that any one, who, for any cause, finds real life dull, should yet demand of him who is to divert his attention from it, that he should be true to that dullness.

There is another class, and with this class we side, who sit down to a work of amusement tolerantly as they sit at a play, and with much the same expectations and feelings. They look that fancy shall evoke scenes different from those of the same old crowd round the custom-house counter, and same old dishes on the boarding-house table, with characters unlike those of the same old acquaintances they meet in the same old way every day in the same old street. And as, in real life, the proprieties will not allow people to act out themselves with that unreserve permitted to the stage; so, in books of fiction, they look not only for more entertainment, but, at bottom, even for more reality, than real life itself can show. Thus, though they want novelty, they want nature, too; but nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed. In this way of thinking, the people in a fiction, like the people in a play, must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.

If, then, something is to be pardoned to well-meant endeavor, surely a little is to be allowed to that writer who, in all his scenes, does but seek to minister to what, as he understands it, is the implied wish of the more indulgent lovers of entertainment, before whom harlequin can never appear in a coat too parti-colored, or cut capers too fantastic.

-- Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade

    Pierre, in POLA X

+ + +
Movie Comment: POLA X

Canons is the crrrrraziest people! I mean, I love Melville, but what could be nuttier than assigning a book like Moby Dick to a bunch of kids?

Beats me, but doing a big film adaptation of Pierre, or, The Ambiguities has got to come close.

And POLA X is a pretty close adaptation, given that the story's been bumped forward 150 years. Leos Carax even improved the original by explaining the dark sister as a refugee from the Balkans, which takes care of Melvillean mysteries like her lack of education, her fear of authority, and why in the world a false marriage would be more useful than a firmly stated fraternity. And should Herman Melville have developed a time machine, and travelled into the present day, he would almost certainly watch the Carax version, perhaps on a DVD, would he not? And then it seems clear that the incandescent metal coil of competition would drive deep into his heart, and heat and stir his blood, turning him into a lava lamp of nineteenth century American fiction -- is that not also true? And so it would follow that upon returning to his own time, Melville would modify his novel to make Isabel an escaped slave, which would match Carax's explanations point for point and up the ante by explaining the mysterious weightiness of the paternal sin and Pierre's resultingly mysterious compulsion to atone. And then Carax, in despair, would fold.

Which would be just as well, because the movie doesn't work.

As long as I'm rewriting history, would there have been any way to make it work? First, a true film adaptation of Pierre would have to be about a spoiled kid squandering all of his fortune and then some on making a film, a film upon which he would be desperately staking the fate of himself and all his loved ones, a film which would ultimately not be accepted by any festivals, which would, at best, go straight to video. Next, the film itself -- the film which told the story of this sad indie director -- would have to be equally utterly disastrous for the career of its maker, a contemptuous and self-loathing disaster much bigger than, for example, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, a disaster on the level of The Lady from Shanghai or Marnie. But then also the look of the film must be fevered and murky rather than slick and glamorous.... Oh, perhaps if George Kuchar had married Geena Davis, we'd be approaching the necessary conditions -- but what are the odds? Slim; very slim.

. . .

Revised at 4:30 AM because I couldn't stop worrying about it

  1. An energetic provisionally-held euphoria ("Hey, this is hot stuff!") can aid the production of extended work.
  2. Provisional loss of that euphoria is part of the process of improving one's skills.
  3. Stubborness in the face of rejection is useful for any career dependent on submitting work.
Analogies can be made between those statements and the delusions of megalomania or the cycles of manic-depression -- but they're not necessarily useful analogies. As Eclogues (February 5th, 2002 entry) points out, such mental disorders interfere with the production of actual artwork. The working artists I've met certainly don't suffer from them.

Discussions of "creativity" and "insanity" are often muddied by their emphasis on post-Romantic high art, whose practitioners have stakes on both sides of the "crazy artist" label and whose publicists have adapted to the public's (sometimes justifiable) lack of interest in actual artwork as compared to biographical narrative. More murkiness results from the late twentieth-century marriage of diagnostic psychiatry and self-help books, in which any personality trait can be re-interpreted as a symptom and made reassuringly meaningful in a case history narrative.

But even analogically speaking: If one defines an artist as someone who produces artwork (rather than as a particularly unpleasant lifestyle), wouldn't the proper comparison be obsessive-compulsive disorder?

. . .

Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are

"That's The Bag I'm In" by the Fabs

Every morning when I wake up
I burn my fingers on the coffee pot.
My toast is cold and my orange juice hot.
I could start over but I'd really rather not
'Cause it would only happen over again.

Well, yeah!
Well, that's the bag I'm in.
That's the bag, that's the bag, that's the bag I'm in.
That's the bag, baby!
That's the bag I'm in.
Well, that's the bag I'm in.

I never met a girl I thought could be my friend.
The only money I got is Chinese yen.
They'll probably drop the bomb the day my ship comes in.
I want a steady girl who could be tall and thin.

Well, that's the bag I'm in.
Well, that's the bag I'm in.
Well, that's the bag I'm in.

  "Fickle Heart" by Johnny Garfield

Every heart is a fickle heart,
No matter what the good folks say.
But I'd rather love a fickle heart
And make every day a rainy day.

Every dream is just make believe
Of the things you want every day,
But I'd rather dream just little dreams
Than let your love fade away.

When I hear your call,
Pitter pat on my door,
The world becomes alive.
You always return
the love that I yearn.
What else can I ask?
Nothing more.

Every heart is a fickle heart,
No matter what the good folks say.
But I'm so glad of the love you give
With your fickle heart every day.

 
To further cite Dorothy Wordsworth's much cited formula, poetry takes its origin from dining digested in tranquility.

And nothing more reliably feeds pop lyricism -- pop being, as Leonard Bernstein and Rod McKuen assured us, the poetry of our time (that is, too early in the morning) -- than breakfast, whether the breakfast be good or bad.

I love breakfast songs, and bummers, and my favorite bummer breakfast song used to be Neil Young's "Last Dance": "The coffee's hot and the orange juice is cold... cold... cold."

But the Fabs bum worse. And they deserve to.

And they know it! And they don't care!

'Cause they want it that way! No compromise! No learning! Your fingers get burnt, you just push 'em right down home on the range again! Fuck learning! We chose to do this and we will keep on doing it!

You know, like when people quit publishing on the web because it's so disgusting to pay attention to hit counts and to newspaper stories and self-promoting programmers and all those things that I guess must be inherent to publishing on the web. Or like asshole yuppie men complaining about how whiny and airheaded and golddigging all attractive women are, or like asshole yuppie women complaining about how sleazy and manipulative and moneygrubbing all attractive men are. God forbid you should ask them to define "attractive."

I especially like how the unmodulating 1-2-1-2 garage chords and thump-thump beat emphasize that "it would only happen again."

I understand how legal partnerships can be useful when managing expensive property like houses or children or senatorial seats. But I never got how marriage proves emotional commitment.

I mean, why would the government be interested in your emotional commitments, and why would you want them to be? You show an emotional commitment (usually quite explicitly enough to embarrass your friends) by staying emotionally committed. Making a public oath of emotional commitment seems as nuts as swearing that y'all'll nevah be hungreh agehn. It's not up to you. At most, it's inviting disgrace; at best, it's unnecessary.

Some folks, not to name names, have accused me of cynicism on this score. Not so! I think emotional commitment is entirely possible. And nice! But I haven't noticed oaths helping it along. People just like to make oaths.

Johnny "Everybody Dies" Garfield, on the other hand, he would seem really cynical.

Kind of.

If it wasn't for this... his... triumph.

Garfield belts the song out like a puffy heldentenor: it's heroic how heroic he feels. It's that Nietzschean clasping of tragic fate, but closer than usual because he's really not complaining. He liiiiikes it. What tightens the ties that bind, cutting voluptuously into his flesh, is an ecstatic faith in betrayal.

May blessings rain and sizzle upon him and his, pitter pat, acidly and basely.

. . .

Simperialism

This seems as good a time as any to brush up our reading comprehension skills. Let's have a go at botanist William Bartram's 1791 Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing An Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians (via Sexual Revolution in Early America) :

Having paid our attention to this useful part of the creation, who, if they are under our dominion, have consequently a right to our protection and favour, we returned to our trusty servants that were regaling themselves in the exuberant sweet pastures and strawberry fields in sight, and mounted again; proceeding on our return to town, continued through part of this high forest skirting on the meadows; began to ascend the hills of a ridge which we were under the necessity of crossing, and having gained its summit, enjoyed a most enchanting view, a vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields; a meandering river gliding through, saluting in its various turnings the swelling, green, turfy knolls, embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds; flocks of turkies strolling about them; herds of deer prancing in the meads or bounding over the hills; companies of young, innocent Cherokee virgins, some busily gathering the rich fragrant fruit, others having already filled their baskets, lay reclined under the shade of floriferous and fragrant native bowers of Magnolia, Azalea, Philadelphus, perfumed Calycanthus, sweet Yellow Jessamine and cerulian Glycine frutescens, disclosing their beauties to the fluttering breeze, and bathing their limbs in the cool fleeting streams; whilst other parties, more gay and libertine, were yet collecting strawberries or wantonly chasing their companions, tantalising them, staining their lips and cheeks with the rich fruit.

This sylvan scene of primitive innocence was enchanting, and perhaps too enticing for hearty young men long to continue idle spectators.

In fine, nature prevailing over reason, we wished at least to have a more active part in their delicious sports. Thus precipitately resolving, we cautiously made our approaches, yet undiscovered, almost to the joyous scene of action. Now, although we meant no other than an innocent frolic with this gay assembly of hamadryades, we shall leave it to the person of feeling and sensibility to form an idea to what lengths our passions might have hurried us, thus warmed and excited, had it not been for the vigilance and care of some envious matrons who lay in ambush, and espying us gave the alarm, time enough for the nymphs to rally and assemble together; we however pursued and gained ground on a group of them, who had incautiously strolled to a greater distance from their guardians, and finding their retreat now like to be cut off, took shelter under cover of a little grove, but on perceiving themselves to be discovered by us, kept their station, peeping through the bushes; when observing our approaches, they confidently discovered themselves and decently advanced to meet us, half unveiling their blooming faces, incarnated with the modest maiden blush, and with native innocence and cheerfulness presented their little baskets, merrily telling us their fruit was ripe and sound.

We accepted a basket, sat down and regaled ourselves on the delicious fruit, encircled by the whole assembly of the innocently jocose sylvan nymphs; by this time the several parties under the conduct of the elder matrons, had disposed themselves in companies on the green, turfy banks.

My young companion, the trader, by concessions and suitable apologies for the bold intrusion, having compromised the matter with them, engaged them to bring their collections to his house at a stipulated price, we parted friendly.

  1. Were you successful in forming an idea to what lengths the protagonists' passions might have hurried them?

  2. Why do you think the narrator described the vigilant matrons as "envious"?

  3. This passage has been described as "sensuously lyrical." How synonymous are those terms with "revealingly coy"?

  4. To feel a sentiment is not the same as speaking sentimentally. To apply rationality is not the same as espousing rationalism. Rationalists claim to fear sentimentality and sentimentalists claim to fear rationalism, but both will shift affinities to avoid an inconvenient marriage of sentiment and rationality. Can you find any examples of such a shift here or in your other readings?

. . .

The Trowbridge Retreat    
The Weeds of Crime: Three Men on a Horse
 

Synopses: A sissy in a mutally adoring marriage who's threatened by masculine hostility and a job crisis can solve all his problems by joining a bunch of gangsters.

Charlie, Frankie, Erwin, and Patsy
More mugs than you can shake an ugly stick at
  Three Men on a Horse trampled Broadway in 1935, and has been trotted out for summer stock, amateur theatricals, and sit-com rip-offs ever since. Handed such a slab of certified Grade-A merchandise, Hollywood took the rare and unadvisable step of adapting it closely -- that is, barely.

As with Too Many Girls, there's some documentary interest in getting an unadulterated look at 1930s theater, complete with original cast members, original bathroom and easy virtue gags, and even original sets. But Too Many Girls had Rogers & Hart & lunacy on its side, and it quickly becomes apparent that the art of the legitimate "well-constructed" comedy hasn't declined nearly as much as the art of the musical. The talkies were better than plays pretty much right away.

Stuck in our expensive seats, we pause for laugh lines, we pause even longer for forced laugh lines, we check our watch when it's time for intermission, and the cinematographer's snore goes almost entirely uninterrupted. (Or, as the IMDB reviewer puts it, "Throw a few special effects in and the movie would be a real winner.")

Well, actors enjoy plays even if cameras don't: Sam Levene is easier to take as a negligent criminal than as his usual negligent cop; worrying about her Erwin "lying in some hospital sick, or the back of some drug store," Carol Hughes ditzes with the best of them (where the best of them, as we'll see, is Una Merkel); Frank McHugh discards his usual cynical-idiot bray for unshakable dignity and becomes a surprisingly touching poet-hero. I didn't know he had it in him.

Nor did I know that Joan Blondell had that voice in her; nor did I want to. (Virtue is easy; accents are hard.) Blondell putting on a fake New York accent is as disturbing as me putting on a fake Groucho nose. It says something about the difference between acting and movie acting that she's the least professional aspect of the film and figures in its only moment of visual interest: a bizarrely interpolated upside-down glamor shot explaining why she's draped across the hero's legs. And -- "'Cause I'm just crazy about poetry. That's why." -- she also initiates the kind of exchange a guy wouldn't mind on his tombstone:
"You're kind of nice, do you know it, Erwin?"
"No. No. But I've always tried to be as decent as I know how."
  Joan Blondell as Mabel
"I'm dizzy, Patsy."

. . .

 
The Weeds of Crime:
 
The Harrington Gambit Baby Face Harrington
 

Butterworth in party hat
"Watch me. I'm going to be dynamic. Hey hey!"
Baby Face Harrington was also based on a play -- but that play had died under another name after four performances ten years earlier, happily freeing the adaptation of filial obligations. A bare hour of film doesn't require a professional three-act structure; it can manage very well on a few gag sequences -- even fewer when taken at Charles Butterworth's molto adagio tempo.

I've never particularly welcomed Butterworth's appearance in a film. He seemed to hobble progress: the camera positioned itself, eager for amusement, waited, faltered, and finally, baffled, moved on. Now I understand the deadlock: Butterworth is as out of place in someone else's movie as a Larry Eigner lyric would be in a paragraph of a techno-thriller, as out of place as an inventor in a Restoration court.

Like his friend Robert Benchley, Butterworth didn't offer a collection of jokes but a critique of consciousness. Where Benchley is driven and betrayed by articulation's social component, Butterworth drifts and dogpaddles into wistfully meditative isolation. Refusing to let go of anything and unable to maintain focus to any conclusion, he clings to blooming buzzing confusion, the material world looming in and out of the fog as idealized promise and as incomprehensible threat. He's certain that a speeding train will let him pass once he's signaled a left turn, and yet he's possibly the only man ever to be physically menaced by Donald Meek.

BROAD FOREHEAD: The Cunning of a Wolf
"This fella says I got a split personality."
"Oh, you mean a sissy."
"No; it's a term used by psychiatrists."
 
As you might imagine, this approach to comedy requires a bit of patience. The first set piece of Baby Face Harrington -- a tediously botched "trick with eggs" -- is a static and unamusing nothing by its bare self. The leisurely, seemingly improvised, lead in and build up and reaction are the good stuff, although if this was anyone else's vehicle they would've had to be trimmed. What captivates isn't the painfully executed performance but the forever unfulfilled promise:
"I also imitate birds. Purposefully."
Similarly, any movie might take pleasure in the sight of Una Merkel with a gun; the scene only becomes Butterworthy as she dreamily begins to use it to smooth her beloved's hair.

Although director Raoul Walsh didn't find this assignment worth mentioning in memoirs or interviews, he soldiers manfully through slow parts good and bad, and although cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh may have thought it a bit of a let-down compared to his other MGM jobs that year (A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and Lubitsch's The Merry Widow), he provides an appropriately dim look, especially striking in the movie's most extended sequence, a suicide attempt:

Trying the rope Philosophy

Suicide is always good for a laugh, but the best way to end a comedy is with a sex joke; ending in marriage is merely a special case. (Heck, the only funny moment in Some Like It Hot is its final sex joke, and that was apparently enough to make it the best comedy ever.) And Baby Face Harrington won my heart with a last smut as peculiarly satisfying as Sherlock Jr.'s or The Sin of Harold Diddlebock's: Butterworth's reward is to be permitted an honorable (rather than shameful) retreat from frighteningly unreliable community into the cozily shared confusion of eros. Something to remember on New Year's Eve....

Tentative
"Would you care to dance?"
"If you do."
"Well, I do if you do."
Fretsome
"Well, I do if you -- Willie, do you know you haven't kissed me yet?"
"... In front of all these people?"
"I will if you will."
Decisive
"....... Let's go home."
+ + +

A sissy in a mutally adoring marriage who's threatened by masculine hostility and a job crisis can solve all his problems by joining a bunch of gangsters....

Public-minded citizens may wonder at the effect of such a message. Who knows how many crimes were incited and souls degraded before Hollywood finally got around to acknowledging a possible downside to that formula, twenty years later?

. . .

"Going with the flow has driven some people insane."
- pop outsider Professor Anonynomous

"Is this the way I used to fall off this log?"
- rockin' weblogger Fred Metascene

For Phillips, his experiment's success initiated a new business model. Rather than having to compete with larger labels such as Chess for rights to the blues and R&B artists he'd been recording, he could sign potentially more lucrative (since they didn't have to deal with segregation) teenage crackers cheap and exclusive. They were eager to follow Elvis's trail, and Phillips was eager to help them.

On the world outside Memphis, the most immediate effect was rockabilly: a collection of easily copied mannerisms that spread fast as Jimmie Rodgers's yodel and shriveled afore the crops came in.

More lasting, being easier to sell, was a transvaluation in which success became a matter of "being real" and "keeping it real," setting sincerity and spontaneity against skill and groove. And I'm comfortable calling that a "rock" attitude, even though its effects haven't been confined to a single recording genre or even a single medium. (Andy Kaufman imitated Presley in more ways than the obvious one.)

As intended, it's generated records of otherwise unattainable moments which, god knows, I idolize. But they remain by design and essence isolated: every hit its own one-hit wonder. Amateurism is a lottery of grace whose winnings are taxed to fund the lottery program.

Irresponsibility is a heavy responsibility, man. You can keep the spark in a stodgy old-fashioned marriage to your art just by occasionally greeting the muse at the door in a little leather G-string. But how to maintain l'amour fou? And why to? Exposed to air, infatuation turns fatuous.

The symptoms aren't hard to find: half-assed tourism (i.e., "experimentation"), flame-outs, desperation unto suicide, or lassitude unto retirement -- or even unto professionalism. (Unless you're a complete fucking nutcase.)

. . .

Another waffling Democrat!

From "Dean's straight-talking image is getting tarnished By Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times":

Dean, a 54-year-old physician by training, had a more moderate record during his 11 years as Vermont governor than his current favor among liberals would suggest. He was a friend of the environment and signed landmark "civil union" legislation that granted gay and lesbian couples all the rights and benefits of marriage. But at the same time, he supported gun-owner rights, cut taxes, capped spending and consistently balanced the state budget, leaving enough for a rainy-day surplus that has spared Vermont the fiscal trauma facing most other states.
Yes, as a liberal, I insist that rights go unsupported, that budgets be unbalanced, that governments maintain no surplus, and that spending always increase. In fact, the persnickety fiscal competence of the Reagan and Bush and Bush adminstrations is the very thing that turned me against them. No deficit, no peace!

. . .

Wendell Corey abraded 1950s Hollywood like an imperious acne-scarred iguana: outstandingly inexplicable as The Furies' love interest -- Barbara Stanwyck should've spent more time studying that copy of Are Snakes Necessary? -- and delivering his Rear Window banter with such open contempt that I half-expected him to try to pin the murder on Jeffries's little trollop.

But Corey also landed at least two parts perfectly suited to his Republican alienation from the species: "Smiley" Coy and Leon Poole.

You shouldn't have done that
"I don't know why you'd do such a thing."

I'd say Corey's Poole was as indelible a performance as Perkins's Norman Bates or Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter, except that no one seems to remember it. It certainly seems more realistic (although I've only met, that I know of, one mad killer myself), much more someone about whom you'd say, "He always seemed like such a nice man" and still never want to befriend or even stand very close to.

My shame to admit it, I probably wouldn't have gotten palsy with John Payne or Tom Neal, either. As Juliet Clark pointed out to me, Poole is a film noir hero in a film noir villain's role. The Killer Is Loose crossbreeds three strains of thriller (with a suggestion of the big heist film in the background):

And Poole comes spinning out the top chute. When his old sergeant takes advantage of Poole's service industry position to nostalgically revive an old course of public humiliation, he maintains professional cool:
"Even the island boys, they'd say Corporal Foggy, he get lost again, he forget his rifle."
"Yes, I remember."

Kitchen with gun
"Yes, I remember."

Thus for the military. That other masculine bureaucracy, the police department, is equally dismissive:

"Worked himself into quite a stew, hasn't he?"
"Scared amateur -- bolted inside."
We want Poole to prove his worth and show up the bullies, ideally without undue show of ego, just as part of the dirty job what a man's gotta do....
"Don't you see how wrong it was to do that?
I'm certainly going to settle with you for it."
Which he does, kind of. Like later comic hero Travis Bickle would thwart the villains and get the girl, kind of.
"You said he wasn't crazy!"

Model prisoner
"What's more, you've demonstrated an earnest and sincere intention to pay your debt."
"I've tried to follow the rules, sir."

Although Poole remains self-possessed and hard-working, the clear-headed dignity of his first scenes proves anomalous. Unbenownst to us, he was being sustained by the love of a good woman. Love meaning:

"She never laughed at me once."
We never get to know this good woman, and, given the general run of pariah relationships, that might be just as well. But even if she had turned out to be Marie Windsor, the Pooles would've been sure to present a more appealing spectacle than the passive-aggressive whine festival offered by the movie's purported hero and heroine.

In Touch of Evil, Orson Welles mocked the narrative convention of the noble cop's good marriage with parody. The Killer Is Loose undercuts it more directly by collapsing that convention into the convention of the middle-class family who's never been tested by fire. By 1956, Joseph Cotten's schoolmarmishness had ripened into querulous old-maidhood, and his shallow bride (best known to noirists as Out of the Past's second-string femme fatale) makes his dithering dotage even more glaring.

The couple's domestic ineffectiveness seems catching, eventually spreading through the entire LAPD and squandering technology, time, and personnel in cross-purposed confusion.

"I think so, but I can't be sure."
"Is it a man or is it a woman?"
"I'm not sure."
"If it is Poole, what's he waiting for?"
"He's not sure it's Lila."
"That could be...."
  Ugliest broad in L.A.

While Poole advances unprofessionally, clumsily, obliquely, bumping into a police car, driving over the center line, limping through the rain, slumping, slopping....

Does he make it?

Silly question. Naturally the natural order prevails, depositing a foggy pool of drag on a neatly trimmed lawn, to be mopped up off-screen later by some equally discardable service industry peon.

That's the story we've been told we were being told, but it's not the only story we've heard.

There's the triumph of being the one who walks out of the last frames of the movie, and there's another type of triumph in defining them. There's the triumph of victory, and a triumph in having set the game. And even a triumph in refusing to acknowledge the existence of a game at all.

What would such uncompetitive types want with winning anyway?

. . .

Movie comment: Balseros

This patient and splendidly constructed documentary glommed onto a group of Cuban rafters in 1994 and had the good fortune to not let go.

As the rafters struggle to exchange the hopeless claustrophobia of community for the glorious promise of acquisitive isolationism, their story touches on the deadpan fish-out-of-water picaresque, the ensemble-decay saga, and the post-industrial engineering suspense film (e.g., Flight of the Phoenix).

Its most unique genre success, though, may be as a survey of the American Dream, where to my eye it bests such ponderous competition as Elia Kazan, Michael Cimino, and Francis Ford Coppola. Despite the small sample size, the Dream's most familiar manifestations are covered: lotteries, cab driving, drug dealing, whoring (subcategory: marriage), rednecks and blue collars, religious mania.... And the ambitious viewer can even gather some notion as to which path might be best to follow.

(Not to spoil anything, but the spirit of proletariat solidarity needn't feel betrayed. Hee yah!)

. . .

Men are from Champ de Mars, women are from Picardy

The chief quality of a dolt is to espouse causes on the basis of popular belief and hearsay.

+ + +

Further, the human animal, taken rightly, is neither man nor woman, the sexes having been made double, not so as to constitute a difference in species, but for the sake of propagation alone.... And if it is permitted to laugh in the course of our journey, the jest would not be out of season that teaches us that there is nothing more like a cat on a windowsill than a female cat.

+ + +

Jesus Christ is called Son of Man, although he is that only of woman.

+ + +

And if men boast that Jesus Christ was born of their sex, we answer that it had to be thus for necessary reasons of decency, since he would have been unable without scandal to mingle as a young person and at all hours of the day and night among the crowds in order to convert, succor, and save the human race, if he had been of the female sex, especially in the face of the malice of the Jews.

+ + +

Finally, if Scripture has declared the husband the head of the wife, the greatest folly that men can commit is to take that as a license conferred by their worthiness. For in view of the instances, authorities, and reasons noted in this discourse, by which is proved the equality let us even say the unity of graces and favors on the part of God toward the two sexes, and in view of the fact that God declares, "The two shall be but one," and then declares, "The man shall leave mother and father and give himself to his wife," it appears that this declaration of the gospel is made solely for the express need of fostering peace in marriage. This need would require, undoubtedly, that one of the conjugal partners should yield to the other, for the usual weakness of intellects made it impossible for concord to be born of reason, as should have been the case in a just balance of mutual authority, nor, because of the imposing presence of the male, could the submission come from his side. And however true it may be, as some maintain, that such submission was imposed on woman in punishment for the sin of eating the apple, that still hardly constitutes a decisive pronouncement in favor of the supposed superior worth of man. If one supposed that scripture commanded her to submit to man, as being unworthy of opposing him, consider the absurdity that would follow: woman would find herself worthy of having been made in the image of the Creator, worthy of the holy Eucharist, of the mysteries of the redemption, of paradise, and of the sight indeed the possession of God, yet not of the advantages and privileges of man. Would this not declare man to be more precious and more exalted than all these things, and hence commit the gravest of blasphemies?

The Equality of Men and Women, 1641
by Marie le Jars de Gournay
translated by Richard Hillman & Colette Quesnel

. . .

The true wonders of this world

"... poets and artists in reviving a more living sense of our moral traditions are political in that way -- cleansing the air."

Regarding the ever-fresh topic of political art, I recommend scooting on over to the Sacramento Bee to listen to Maria Shriver's Maya Angelou reading at the inauguration of Herr Governor Schwarzenegger.

Even in a politician's wife, rarely have I heard fear so tightly corseted. But her strangled dignity reaches Story of O levels at the lines:

"... whose hands can strike with such abandon, that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living. Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness, that the haughty neck is happy to bow and the proud back is glad to bend."
That truth was perhaps a little too brave and startling, since she then stumbles:
"Out of such chaos, out of such contradiction, we learn that we are neither devils nor divines. When we come to it, we this people, on this wayward floating body, created on this Earth, have the power to fashion for this Earth a climate where every man, and every woman, can live freely without sanctimonious piety and without --

"Enduring history --

"When we come to it, we this people on this wayward floating body, created on this Earth, of this Earth, have the power to fashion for this Earth a climate where every man and every woman can live freely without sanctimonious piety, without crippling fear. When we come to it, we must confess that we are the possible, we are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world. That is when, and only when, we come to it."

Where Shriver stumbled, of course, was at "crippling fear." Which she replaced with the improvised equivalent, "enduring history," an easier thing to live without.

In either case, one could say that she spoke truth to power, since Maria and Arnold, like Angelou's other admirers, would indeed be willing to confess that they are the possible, that they are the miraculous.

But why should speaking truth to power so often involve marriage to power and the duty, as hostess to power, of keeping attractive young women out of power's groping hands at public functions?

Well, that's where art comes into it.

This poem was written and delivered in honor of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
© Maya Angelou

. . .

With, Around, or Over?

Etymology all round humps fecundity and pleasure together with smacking, fidgeting, flicking, scratching, messing up, and sweeping across. Only Old English seems to have prioritized the homey fuckbuddy (which I admit warms me towards Tolkien), and only French the kiss.

Even a preposition isn't always enough to disambiguate. Is the fucking off we confess to the same fucking off we demand of others?

* * *

I see chess as an allegory for life. The point is it's a contest between two opponents.
- Weldon McDonald
Because problems are the poetry of chess. They demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, harmony, conciseness, complexity, and splendid insincerity.
- Vladimir Nabokov

Journalists call them both chess "masters". But as I remember Vladimir Nabokov considered himself more problemicist than competitor, whereas by all accounts Marcel Duchamp played a vicious semiprofessional game.

Could that be why chess supplanted Duchamp's artistic career but nourished Nabokov's?

* * *

There are at least two ways to get a game wrong:

  1. Refusal to stay within the bounds of the game.
  2. Inability to see outside the bounds of a game.

The second mistake is more dangerous, since it's more often made by winners, and their rewards usually come from outside the game's bounds and the players' expertise in a large nonrenewable fee after a boxing match, for example, or in journalistic attention after a bestselling novel, or in governmental control after an election.

* * *

Mixed emotions and two left feet. This is a peculiar dance, and like everyone else I step it peculiarly.

As spectator of aggression, I love the graceful conviction of martial arts films, but I can't fill the imaginative gaps left in superhero comics or pro wrestling.

As actor, "I like it but it don't like me." I get the kind of kick from public elocution that people other than Cole Porter get from cocaine, but the rebound's fierce. Between the crush of doubtful conscience, a low boredom threshhold, and a hair-trigger temper, I'm worthless or worse at anything but the smallest-scale cannon-fodder political actions. Similarly, despite my self-evident pleasure in pontification, I'm unable to teach when coercion or grading are involved.

In both cases, skills relevant to a game are more than offset by my distracting awareness of conditions outside the game proper.

Which makes me a very unprofessional player.

It doesn't make me a player hater, though. Our society depends on good politicians, good teachers, and good propagandists. What makes Tom Matrullo's shylockia ridiculous is his implication that political games are novel, rather than an inevitable aspect of representative republics.

What makes him outrageous is his acquiescence to game-for-game's-sake: the refusal to acknowledge that a game is more than a score and that a life is more than a game. Whether a reporter is "partisan" or not hardly matters when all the pages are sports pages, when a voter's job is not to save themselves but to pick the most attractive contestant, when a senator's job is not to avert a health care crisis but to beat Clinton. All three branches of federal government are now made up of high-fiving high-scorers. The destruction of my country simply doesn't register except as winnings.

I led such a quiet life. Then somehow I woke up and found myself married to Mike Tyson.

Responses

kari edwards draws an unpleasant connection between this unpleasant post and the unpleasant image on the title bar:

your gender graphic seems to be the same cheap "trans" gender joke that shows up in the mass media, such as sheik 2... this is a cheap joke as the expense of a population that is the target of hate crimes.

and if it is so so funny.. replace it with a person of color, or someone with a disability-.. and if not, why not? why is gender the joke? are you not just reenforcing gender stereo typing from a phallocentric gaze...? some on.. this is on the same level as george bush's ruse on gay marriage..

Another reader, another correction:

The destruction of the idea of your country. Right before Grandmasters comes Ghosts. Wasn't Parcheesi the one where you could let other kids play too?

Or, more cautiously still, the destruction of my idea of my country.

The destruction of our idea of our country. I need the reminder at times. Other times I need a minder. Matrullo is calling you "Ray" as familiar or opponent? I couldn't get that from either context. Things are heatin' up. Get that belt on.

I hardly ever wear a belt. But it's easy enough to give me one.

And here to do the job is another nightmare husband:

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the weight lifter and Hollywood actor turned California state governor, accused the state legislature of being "girly-men" and called on voters to "terminate" those that oppose his budget plans at the polls, California news media reported Sunday....

Key provisions of the Governor's budget proposal include school distribution of steroids and Viagra, new subsidies for L.A.'s plastic surgeons, and mandatory sexual harassment insurance.

A sheik joke for John le Bischop, finding his own corrupt flesh remembered long after its integrity got relinquished; who, filled with whatever that is, used his position to generate steam of a kind, the unnatural repression of natural inclinations, dubbed un- while he indulged them. Love the sinner hate the sin; love the baby, hate the act that brings it into being. Flicking is suggested for the mosquito, after smacking, as the smear so common among the thoughtless causes release of bodily fluids, hers, which can be pathogenic to the smearer, as the dermis is breached immediately prior, being the cause of the smacking itself. And remember, she's just trying to feed her kids.

Impressed by the cut of my gormlessness, Candida Cruikshanks offers me a chance at a capon gown.

As if I wasn't already having a bad hair day, another reader pours scorn upon my head:

Natterless bumpkins.

As we both know, we don't come here to watch me bemoan what we call "personal life." In default of anything better, here are a late addition to the Milly Bloom discussion and a warning to avoid installing Yahoo Messenger 6.

An anonymous grader at the School of Love gives me:

amores 3.7

No more summer sessions, hurrah!

Adam Kotsko approves.

. . .

Consumer News

A free market is a dumb market. I mean, even aside from its stubborn feuds with education, health, species survival, and so on even on its own terms of delivering quality goods to people who'll pay for them, it's a screw-up. Look at how short-sighted zombie-lived speculative greed over copyright has blocked consumer access to a wealth of wonderful reissues. Look at the Betamax. Or fresh produce.

But in those cases I know what went wrong. A more mysterious failure of American capitalism is the vanishing of orange bitters, key to such classic cocktails as the Manhattan which can bull on through regardless of casualties, like the Dirty Dozen Minus Two and, more tragically, the martini.

A mere mix of gin and dry vermouth is as dull, oily, and incoherent as the defeated executives who classically swill it. But with a brush of this liquid Philosopher's Stone, in a harp-and-bell glissando a bad marriage becomes a Drink an sich and you're transformed from Henry Jones to William Powell.

So why isn't it stocked anywhere? It's not like the bottles are that big.

Anyway, I'm not saying this just to taunt you, unless you don't live in the East Bay. I found a shelf that carries orange bitters at Monterey Liquors, 1590 Hopkins, Berkeley, conveniently near a source of fresh produce. Go thou and do likewise. (As garnish for the complete Cholly Martini, olives stuffed with preserved lemon are available from the Spanish Table on San Pablo Ave.)

Responses

Je zia sano!

Off your vole! (A raised glass: the truly universal language.)

By gum, that's an inestimable public service you just performed. Come over some time for a martini or three. -paul

It'll take a while to work out just which Paul this is. Happily, I have almost a pint of orange bitters.

I've been reminded that some connoisseurs "suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin." And it's true that the most sophisticated solution to bad marriages is to spend days at the office and nights at the Club. Hélas! I am a sentimental shopkeeper at heart.

Jordan turns out to be a child of privilege. Huh.

Under the provocatively proper subject line "I like 2:1 myself", brilliant Richard Butner pours:

Agree on free market = dumb market. Oh so many examples.

[...] But, re: the cinepad link in your recent post. Ahem. Bunuel (sorry, no tilde in this mail program) was right about a lot of things, but probably not the proper role of vermouth in martini construction. (At least he got the brand right.) See LCRW #12! A martini without vermouth is just a punchline to a bad joke.

I'm with you and we are right. I tried to let the spirit of Buñuel down soft and easy with some self-deprecation, but the sincerity of my self-deprecation wasn't meant to negate the sincerity of myself. I like the idea of a saved marriage.

A martini without vermouth is just a reference. Not even a joke. And I know the difference, 'cause I can't tell jokes.

. . .

The Spasmodic Gap

(Written for The Valve)

In mid-nineteenth-century Great Britain, a group of left-wing lower-class poets publish autobiographical free verse epic dramas. Critics name them the Spasmodics.

It sounds like a Howard Waldrop premise. Could the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Poetry be hoaxing us?

For a while, my answer was "Baby, I don't care." Editors Charles Laporte and Jason R. Rudy select well and structure novelistically. First, Herbert F. Tucker begins with a high overhead shot of exposition, a lightly satiric, lightly sympathetic tone to draw us into the story. Then, with admirably ethical opportunism, a series of contributors apply varied professional interests to bring out aspects of Spasmodic characters and times. Details and depth accumulate. Finally, Florence Saunders Boos, openly partisan, fully engaged, describes the movement's catastrophe, with heroes ambiguously vanquished and villains ambiguously triumphant, leaving the signature effect of alternate history: an exhilarating sense of possibility; a melancholy sense of possibility foreclosed.

When curiosity won, though, I found confirmation (if not texts) easily enough.

"But, by a certain gorgeousness or intricacy of language, by a scrupulous avoidance of the apparent commonplace in subject; by more or less elaborately hinted or expressed unorthodoxy in religion or philosophy; and, above all, by a neurotic sentimentalism which would be passion if it could, and, sometimes, is not absolutely far from it, though it is in constant danger of turning to the ridiculous or of tearing its own flimsiness to tatters by all these things and others they struggled to avoid the obvious and achieve poetic strangeness."
- George Saintsbury, Cambridge History of English and American Literature

How to excuse, or at least explain, my ignorance?

When I search my memory for verse of the 1840s and 1850s, I find Poe smouldering at one end of a long flat expanse of Tennyson, broken by a few Brownings, between the issueless extravagance of the late Romantics and the parentless extravagance of Swinburne and Whitman.

That bare spot is where the Spasmodic impulse once grew. Insofar as the Spasmodics could be construed as a group, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is what's left of them. Kirstie Blair points out that, for once, reactionaries had reason to welcome a major work by a woman. Despite its provocations, Leigh's redemption ("Oh, wait did I say Art was the most important thing? Sorry, I meant Marriage.") provided a reassuring ending all round. Domestication was what the Spasmodics most infuriatingly lacked.

+ + +

"A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. [...] USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!"
- Charles Olson, "Projectivist Verse"
"Words rhythmically combined affect the feelings of the poetic hearer or utterer in the same way as the fact they represent: and thus by a reflex action the fact is reproduced in the imagination" ... "Depend on it, whatever is to live on paper, must have lived in flesh and blood." ... "certain rhythms and measures are metaphors of ideas and feelings" ... "the word of Man made flesh and dwelling amongst us."
- Sydney Dobell
(quoted in "Rhythmic Intimacy, Spasmodic Epistemology" by Jason R. Rudy)

+ + +

Pace (not really) Ron Silliman, the School of Quietude sometimes wins. Not by being remembered, but by making sure its competitors are forgotten first. (Silliman, for example, seems as ignorant of Whitman's Spasmodic interests as I was.)

The literary canon, like other institutions, bases its authority on a set of fragile contingencies. And literary justice, like other justice, usually depends on a few outspoken individuals who refuse to let an injustice go. I'm not sure all English majors realize how unlikely their access to Melville or Dickinson really is. (Most of the creative writing MFAs I've met could certainly benefit by deeper meditation on the subject.) In my own lifetime, Zukofsky and the other Objectivists might have stayed out of reach if weren't for Robert Creeley.

John Keats barely made it through the gates into the immortality of persistent reprinting. Thirty years after his death, plenty of authorities still wished he hadn't and wanted to ensure that it didn't happen again.

+ + +

"Take yourself, and make eyes at it in the glass until you think it looks like Keats, or the 'Boy Chatterton.' Then take an infinite yearning to be a poet, and a profound conviction that you never can be one, and try to stifle the latter. This you will not be able to do."
- W. H. Mallock, "How to Make a Spasmodic Poem"
(quoted in "Glandular Omnism and Beyond" by Herbert F. Tucker)
"What a brute you were to tell me to read Keats's Letters... What harm he has done to English Poetry. [...] But what perplexity Keats Tennyson et id genus omne must occasion to young writers of the όπλίτης [hoplite] sort; yes & those d-d Elizabethan poets generally. Those who cannot read Gk shld read nothing but Milton & parts of Wordsworth: the state should see to it...."
- Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, 1848
(partially quoted in "Victorian Culture Wars" by Antony H. Harrison)

+ + +

In this case was literary injustice done?

It depends. (See, that's what sucks about justice.)

Like George Saintsbury, the Victorian Poetry essayists admit more or less kindly that the core Spasmodic works aren't great. Although I've only found excerpts so far, they certainly don't seem to my own taste.

But tastes differ. I also dislike the Beats, hippie shamans, declaimed celebrations of groupthink, and most attempts at lyric confession. That hasn't stripped them from bookstores and libraries.

And tastes change. The Spasmodics don't sound more embarrassing than the self-pitying concept albums of 1970s AOR. Or more embarrassing than I was back then, a teenage cracker in an isolated farming town writing imitations of John Berryman and arguing the relative merits of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson with my best friend, soon to become a born-again journalism major. A year or two later, for a few months during an alcoholic nervous breakdown, I even liked Charles Bukowski. For me, as for so many overweeners, Keats's defiant blush has always been a beacon.

At the very least, if I'd heard of them, my college band would have been named the New Spasmodics.

Most pertinently, authors can change if they're given the chance. Victorian Poetry essayists describe most Spasmodic targets as first volumes from beginning writers, not outrageously weaker than the first volumes from their better remembered peers, and usually more interesting than any volumes from their most hostile enemies. If there was a Spasmodic "school", it was shut down before the students matriculated. I was able to read this academic journal as alternate history partly because it so often emphasizes their lost potential.

Their pop-scientific poetics anticipated twentieth century avant-gardes. Their class diversity anticipated the GI-Billed New American Poetry. Their sprawling yet motionless epics of young writers struggling to produce sprawling epics anticipated the Thomas Wolfe subtype of the Great American Novel. Their shameless invocation of neuraesthenia as muse should have interested Eliot and the poet-professor crowd. That poor sap R. H. Horne anticipated the New Directions paperback with his one-farthing-cheap Orion. The young Alexander Smith was advised to produce one long poem rather than a collection of short ones, and that's a fairly early example of narrative trumping lyric.

Smith chose to embed his lyrics in an autobiographical fantasy epic drama, since that's what everyone else seemed to be doing. And it did indeed attract attention. It got him and his advisor whacked by viciously conservative William Edmondstoune Aytoun, first from the sniper tower of Blackwood's, and then in a book-length parody, Firmilian.

"Other 'spasmodic' impulses migrated into fiction, most conspicuously the 'sensation fiction' of the 1860s, but the shadow-movement's preoccupations with romantic populism, formal experimentation, and unguarded honesty endured. Aytoun played successfully to a receptive claque, but subsequent generations have largely consigned his sensibilities to a literary and political backwater. Then as now, it was easier to be a clever critic than it was to write a memorable poem.

"More disspiriting were the enduring triumphs of the iron laws of class and education that Aytoun exploited. No acknowledged 'major' poet of Victorian Britain came from working- or lower-middle-class origins, and none of the 'spasmodists' is likely to gain more than token entry into any twenty-first-century anthologies. Even here, however, Dobell, Smith and the others might have found a measure of vindication in the vast palette of subsequent generations' preoccupations with despair, recovery, aberrance, marginality, and self-examination a palette they helped, in the face of withering critical abuse, to configure."

- Florence Saunders Boos, "'Spasm' and Class"

Snobs produce memorable satires and parodies because reactionaries depend on reaction. Without venom, their tongues go dry. Without a victim to strangle, they lie limp and tangled, a heap of parasitic ivy. Having deadened the nervous impulse that gave it life, even Aytoun's Firmilian vanished from collections: an Acme-brand hole slapped onto the cliff face, and then peeled off and thrown away.

+ + +

"The calm philosophy of poetry, in its addresses to the understanding and the domestic affections, now holds the ascendancy; but as the fresh and energetic spirit of the present age advances, a contest is certain to take place in the fields of Literature on the above questions. The sooner, therefore, the battle is fought out, the better; and to this end, the poetical antagonisms shall at once be brought into collision."
- Richard H. Horne, A New Spirit of the Age, 1844
(quoted in "Editorial Introduction: Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics" by Charles Laporte & Jason R. Rudy)
"... and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

Responses

i am still suspicious of a hoax.

Apparently, if you happen to have university library privileges and can get away from your job and family for a bit, you can see for yourself.

an elaborate hoax.
The word "hawk" begins in the air and ends with talon in the heart

'At's a good one, boss. Now I tell one: What's high in the middle and round on both ends?

Minnesota

Right! (I was gonna guess "E-40", myself.)

. . .

Kubrick, Critic

(Written for The Valve)

The first time I watch a Stanley Kubrick movie, I'm thrilled by its ambition and clarity.

The second time, the anticipated moments of humor, beauty, and shock re-arrive precisely in order, but thinner, like an anecdote that's outlived the memory it tells. Actors who'd conveyed life in other roles are played like tokens. My laughter and startles are a bit forced, as though I'm trying to put a lecturer at ease.

The third time, after the first ten minutes or so, there's no more movie. Just an idea I already know.

Only two Kubrick movies have interested me past that point. Both are literary adaptations, and in both, the ideas are formal. I watch them as literary analysis. With a 100-to-1 shooting ratio.

+ + +

"How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?"

Well, Lolita is a story of European guile in crass America. To make a highbrow book of it, European artist Nabokov told it guilefully. To make a commercial movie of it, American "they" told it crassly. In Nabokov's medium, Humbert Humbert takes advantage of a decadent tradition of ambiguously angst-riven confession. In Kubrick's medium Hollywood film, c. 1960 if you wanted to show middle-aged men lusting after girls, you made a leering sex comedy. And so that's the movie Kubrick made: The Twelve-Year Itch.

The logic is undeniable and, for me, anyway, irresistable. And James Mason makes an ideally sophisticated Tom Ewell, although Sue Lyon seems better suited to play the good-humored attractive wife than the drool-bespattered fantasy. (Tuesday Weld turned the role down after playing a similar part in a less prestigious movie and before playing similar parts in less prestigious movies.).

The problem is that Kubrick, as heir to Stroheim's flesh-loathing joylessness, isn't good at sex comedy. Even within the esoteric sub-sub-genre of leer noir, Lolita was bettered by Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid.

Maybe if they'd gotten Tony Randall for Clare Quilty?

+ + +

What most rewards me with pleasure viewing after viewing is Barry Lyndon.

I realize this reaction isn't universally shared. It's not, however, unique. I've watched the movie with others who've enjoyed it I even remember one very successful pan-and-scanned commercially interrupted viewing on late-night television. And maybe it's helpful to see it in such irreverent circumstances: I laugh pretty much all the way through, but acolytes seem to find (or seek and not find) a different experience the fresco series of sadness described by Mark Crispin Miller.

Although I admire Miller's argument, do I really care about Barry's sad fate? Or the sad fates of all who surround him?

Of course not. It's a Kubrick movie. I don't care about these characters any more than I cared about the fates of the Haze females, or HAL's or Alex's victims, or all life on Earth. And, in this case at least, Kubrick's coldness is no betrayal of his source material.

William Makepeace Thackeray attempted at least four simultaneous goals in The Luck [or Memoirs] of Barry Lyndon, Esq.:

This was an extraordinarily ambitious combination for a second novel. It was also kind of a mess.

In place of Thackeray's stew, being more a pastry chef, Kubrick neatly separated each ingredient and layered them in a tidy pattern.

First, to resolve the mix of fictional conventions, his movie splits down the middle. Its first half, naturally enough, is assigned the eighteenth-century: painlessly ironic misadventures of a young man, fairly good-hearted but amoral and far from bright, attractive through sheer boisterous health. This picaresque story ends in the hero's ascension to landed prosperity and a good marriage.

After an intermission, we enter the nineteenth-century: domestic melodrama, the horrors of class mobility, cross-generational tensions building and snapping, tragic accident, and villainy brought down, with lingering regret.

The problematically unreliable narrator was resolved by relocating out-of-character quotes from Barry into the omniscient third-person voice of Vanity Fair or Trollope's novels. The feeling of unreliablity was maintained by persistent discords between the dismissive tone of the "author" and the evidence of screen and soundtrack.

This solution kept Barry's character inarticulate and opaque, well within the scope of Thackeray's original blundering creep (or Ryan O'Neal's acting), and able to inhabit both halves of Kubrick's new scheme without dissonance. The new narrator was similarly at home, perhaps a bit more detached and worldly in the first half and a bit more censorious in the second.

Other techniques help bind the two halves. Kubrick's slow zoom-outs begin scenes as formally as the chapter titles and introductory paragraphs which were common to both centuries. Natural lighting, location shooting, and period costumes push material reality forward, while the meticulous care lavished on them reinforce the abstraction of pre-naturalistic style. As with Barry's character, so with others: Kubrick tones down Thackeray's vicious caricatures (which, photographed directly, might give us something more like Fellini's Satyricon or Welles's Don Quixote than like Richardson's Tom Jones) and adds flaws to Thackeray's more admirable (but almost blank) figures, resulting in fairly even affect.

The result, I admit, is cold and schematic but also intellectually engaging and very funny. It even induces, yes, a pleasant melancholy.

Not directly, though; not through parodic extravagances such as The Death of Little Bryan, with its "sad music" (that one piece of sad music, used whenever "sad music"'s needed), its angelic pain-free child, and its bravely tear-choking parents. That scene is pure clip art, like the Spooky House, Soul-Shattering Perversity, and Horrors of War sequences in other Kubrick movies.

No, the sadness is one uniquely suited to Kubrick's abilities. It's the sadness of distance. The distance between these dehumanized figures, each forever their own framed portrait, nailed to the wall, untouched and untouching. The distance between them and us, separated by time and telling. The implied identity with ourselves, and our own distances.

Even the voiceover dies as we watch, and a printed epilogue emphasizes the point:

It was in the reign of George the III that the above named personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.

"... and [to complete the quote] do not the Sunday papers and the courts of law supply us every week with more novel and interesting slander?"

. . .

The Terrorist of Malta, Part III

(Also at The Valve, with long comments)

No government which executed so many citizens could be called "limited," but Elizabethan England was certainly privatized: Constantinople's "British ambassadors" were directly employed by the Levant Company. Government's role was to coordinate espionage networks, corporal punishment, military action, proclamations of religious intent, spectacular patronage, and highly profitable monopolies by and for the benefit of the powerful few. Delivering arms to yesterday's or tomorrow's enemy helped finance the looting of today's. Power was centralized and capricious, the middle class kept in line by a mix of fear and feverish speculation. Life was spent in display and exited in debt. Expressions of charity, unlike professions of faith, were left strictly to the individual conscience; long-lived consciences learned to be flexible in their professions.

Marlowe's play fantastically alters a siege that took place the year after his birth. Obviously, some alterations were part of his job as a playwright with a scene-chewer to feed. Speculatively, some were due to religious-economic war with Catholic empires and Anglo-Turkish conspiracies against Malta.

Given these backgrounds, what strikes me about the play isn't its cynicism, or its plea for tolerance, delivered by neo-con Machiavelli himself:

I crave but this,— grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertain'd the worse
Because he favours me.

What strikes me is who's been added and who are missing.

The addition, of course, is Barabas.

In Marlowe's alternative history, Barabas gives the Maltese governor the trifecta of his dreams: Barabas provides an excuse for the governor to steal all his possessions, purportedly to pay off an urgent debt which is then reneged on; Barabas blocks an embarrassing interfaith marriage between the two families; Barabas delivers a valuable hostage into the governor's hands and is then neatly deposited down his own trapdoor.

In Marlowe's real history, there existed Jewish (or quasi-Jewish) agents who played all sides against each other. But it was a thoroughly British relative of Marlowe's own Lord Strange who engineered the time's most Barabas-worthy betrayal. And the English (like the Maltese) managed to eke out some profit through these wicked middlemen before discarding or slaughtering them.

Who're missing are the English.

Absent Protestant characters, the play's taken-for-granted pro-Christianity and its boisterous anti-Catholicism clash scene by scene. On the one hand, the Jew's daughter assuredly gains redemption by joining a convent and the Maltese victory is thanks "to Heaven"; on the other, the monks are money-grubbers and the nuns are whores. In Wilson's formula, Barabas somehow stands for the English point of view and yet the governor of Malta is clearly meant to be cheered by the English audience and yet the Catholic Maltese were (in Wilson's theory) Marlowe's patrons' chief targets.

Such awkwardness has its uses.

Since the Christian governor cheats Turk and Jew twice over, when Barabas advances arguments like:

Thus, loving neither, will I live with both,
Making a profit of my policy;
And he from whom my most advantage comes,
Shall be my friend.
This is the life we Jews are us'd to lead;
And reason too, for Christians do the like.

Or:

It's no sin to deceive a Christian;
For they themselves hold it a principle,
Faith is not to be held with heretics:
But all are heretics that are not Jews....

No one disputes his points. Instead, they bring up less ambiguous issues, such as his people having been cursed by God, or his having poisoned a nunnery. In doing so, they've been relieved of the responsibility of making his arguments themselves. They reap the benefits of tacit agreement while avoiding the danger of overt advocacy.

By having the Jewish villain espouse doing business with heretics, Marlowe avoids the propaganda problem that worried Edward Barton. By having the Jewish villain commit such horrendous crimes, Marlowe insinuates by contrast that doing business with heretics isn't so heinous.

These "love the sin but hate the sinner" narratives are familiar enough. We're titillated; we condemn; all's well.

Sometimes such narratives smuggle out otherwise uncommunicable signals. It's Snowflake's Choice: a narrative which dehumanizes or no narrative at all. The envelope cuts both the sender and the recipient; the envelope may even be poisoned; still, the urge to communicate finds outlet.

But Marlowe apologists should limit their liberatory claims. No gaybasher was ever stricken by remorse at the memory of the insane killer in Laura. And Marlowe's choice of a Jewish scapegoat for capitalist sins doesn't undo medieval anti-Semitism or Counter-Reformation anti-Semitism so much as anticipate nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Semitism.

Similarly, the play's Christian-and/or-Catholic awkwardness reminds me of the awkwardness a later generation of privatizing profiteers faced while constructing a "Judeo-Christian" pseudo-identity which permitted relations with "good" (that is, profitable) non-Judeo-Christians, at least until such heretics could be cut out of the picture....

And the play's solution isn't far from theirs: Justify a war for profit as a war on terror.

* * *

I began this essay in an approved New Critical monogamous literary relationship: individual reader and individual work, in bed alone with the covers drawn up. Maybe spiced a bit mendaciously by fantasies about the author. All very legitimate and, in this instance, very unsatisfying.

By opening our sheets to encompass the work's political and economic context, vague background texture snapped into vibrant focus. The relationship became intriguing.

And problematic.

Well, that's my problem, not Marlowe's. And so to solve it I had to broaden the scope again, to my own to the reader's political and economic context.

In doing so, although I strayed from what might be called "appreciation", I don't think I dragged in arbitrary matter. The extent to which The Jew of Malta is depiction, indirection, prediction, or coincidence is unascertainable, but Marlowe himself opened this purse of worms. His play becomes more interesting when politically contextualized because his play was to some unknown degree a political act not only a depiction of Realpolitik but an example of it.

* * *

Some time ago CultRev requested "brief statements about what we think the role of politics in the study of literature might be." This one wasn't very brief, I'm afraid. Particulars are my statement, and particulars take a while.

Thanks to some gruesome reaction of genetics and environment, I'm an unapologetic aesthete. (OK, I apologize sometimes, but it doesn't do much good.) Art is central to my metaphysics, ethics, and even (shamefully) my politics. It's the lightbulb the world revolves around.

However, I revolve with the world. To an absurd extent, my essay on Lubitsch's final movie and my edition of The Witlings were prompted by last autumn's American elections. In the case at hand, if I'd wanted to write about shallow trash on purely aesthetic grounds, I would've chosen John Marston, the English Renaissance Trey Parker.

And the light's not confined to the bulb. "Politics" can clarify what would otherwise remain obscure, solve puzzles or remove the blinders of arrogance. If we ask readers to imaginatively ally themselves with those heroic canonical authors, why not promote imaginative alliances with their circumstances? If it's not cheating "literary value" when we explain The Jew of Malta's vocabulary or the conventions of blank verse, or when we treat a haphazardly published assortment of poems and commercial scripts as evidence from which to deduce a fascinatingly singular Marlovian mind, how could anyone protest when we explore the political and economic conflicts at the dirty heart and fingertips of the play? If students bitch about Jane Austen's lack of interest in colonial injustice, we might remind them of their baggy jeans' provenance. If they snub Thomas Jefferson, we might point out the profitability of their state's prison system.

There are other roles for "politics", I know maybe I've been displaying them myself; you tell me bulking up one's blinders, deploying righteousness as an ornamental shield for ignorance....

I just don't think they're as useful in the study of literature.

. . .

The Road from Son of Paleface

Hurry up; this is impossible.
- Junior Potter, Son of Paleface, 1952

Although Son of Paleface made money, Paramount didn't extend Tashlin's option. His next break came in 1955 when he managed to squeak under Hal Wallis's stringently low standards, and incidentally provided Jerry Lewis's first inkling that cinema could be a worthwhile medium.

Hope fell back to familiar (if depleted) ground. No more panicked thoughts of escape; the animal had become reconciled to its cage, unresponsive to prod or thrown trash. When he turned to the camera, it was in search of cue cards. Six years later Hope reprised the watered-down Western parody of Norman Z. McLeod, who Tashlin never did get around to killing. The final stop of interest is 1960's The Facts of Life, a grim comedy of re-failed-marriage in which Hope's forced unfunniness worked as stark naturalism.

Tashlin meanwhile found a way out of his pacing issues, not by accelerating the gags but by integrating them with the mise en scène. In his best pictures, even ontological intrusions fit into an overall rhythm the snapping point intermission of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, the choreographed walks of The Girl Can't Help It, Jerry Lewis's shtick-till-I-drop slow a-goh-nee.... After Son of Paleface, Tashlin redirected his satire from the bad habits of dying genres to those of the movie mainstream: juvenile delinquency, gray flannel angst, and most notoriously the overstated but under-remarked bosoms of the era, which, especially in Rock Hunter, seemed to embody a miserable oscillation between the devalued real and the alluring purported.

His best pictures were intermittant, though, and their generation brief. After being tossed between the Scylla of Doris Day and the Charybdis of Lewis, a stormweary Tashlin vanished beneath the waves in 1968, Bob Hope aboard the wreck.

I have always thought that the most fitting way for an American man to die is in a brutal accident on the freeway. Because that way he will be giving up the ghost in a rare moment of freedom.
- Frank Tashlin, interview with Robert Benayoun, 1964
Rich as are the gifts of the imagination bitterness of world's loss is not replaced thereby. On the contrary it is intensified, resembling thus possession itself. But he who has no power of the imagination cannot even know the full of his injury.
- William Carlos Williams, Prologue to Kora in Hell, 1918

Responses

Jaime J. Weinman has unearthed Harvard University's response to their less-than-favorite son, and a New York Times piece by Tish-Tash himself.

Doris Day had wings, she could really sing, her timing (musical) is inspirational. She wound up with the zeitgeist overload of archetypal 50's jivety All-American girl, and thus those who disdain that, her. No fair. Like Lucille Ball, another too-popular for her own good genius.

Your cause is just. For that matter, I probably count as a Jerry Lewis fan I keep a copy of The Total Filmmaker close at hand. But this is an essay at Tashlin rather than Day, and I don't think The Glass Bottom Boat or Caprice represent either party's best work.

p.s Firefox blocks psdpdm with a "Suspected Attack Site!" no go page. Sea Monkey doesn't though.

Most of Pseudopodium is hand-crafted and impervious to non-self-inflicted harm, but the one portion of the site which I stupidly made dependent on web-hosted software NO ONE SHOULD USE WEB SOFTWARE! NO ONE SHOULD HIRE WEB PROGRAMMERS! exposed its succulent belly to some predator while I was in the midst of the professional and personal issues which continue to block my next damn post. Google picked that up and alerted the protection service used by Firefox 3. I've hurriedly dealt with the issue and I hope the good Googlians will overlook those intemperate remarks about web programmers and restamp their approval soon.

alleyalleyincomefree

. . .

CONSTABULARY NOTES FROM ALL OVER

From The New Yorker, July 28, 2008, "Fantasy Suite" by Hilton Als:
It's a note that Durang himself struck in a recent Times interview, in which he referred to "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" as his "one unabashedly autobiographical play." "My relationship with my partner has lasted twenty-three years and my parents' bumpy marriage lasted fifteen years," Durang said. "So I win." The only thing a playwright should be concerned with winning is a greater command over the truth and his art.

. . .

Return of the Candid Friend

... and to console her private Distress I called into the Room to her my own Bosom Friend, my beloved Fanny Burney; whose Interest as well as Judgment goes all against my Marriage whose Skill in Life and Manners is superior to that of any Man or Woman in this Age or Nation; whose Knowledge of the World, ingenuity of Expedient, Delicacy of Conduct, & Zeal in the Cause will make her a Counsellor invaluable; & leave me destitute of every Comfort, of every Hope, of every Expectation.
- Hester Lynch Thrale's Thraliana, November 1782

. . .

Good Enough

I'm reluctant to call anything a "cultural universal," even something that pretty much decides whether an archaeologist announces the discovery of "culture," but art-making is certainly more universal than the justifications offered for art-making. Which is not to say that art is best when motivated least but merely to confess that, as with other cultural near-universals (marriage, say), any particular motivation won't suffice for the general case. Or even for the particular.

Thus the let-down. Thanks to the Republican furloughs I finally disgorged the "ethical criticism" essay that lodged between brain and trachea for a year and a half, and to quote Lord Bullingdon "I have not received satisfaction." Not that I could receive satisfaction, I know that much by now. Cross-posting to the Valve would've bought me at most a day or two, and appearing in a print organ would've sickened me for months instead of weeks. The least miserable producers I know avoid hangovers by making sure a new project's underway by the time the old one's facing the public. With this dayjob, though, the best I can manage is hair of the dog.

Of course I am obscure; I am not offering myself but my hospitality. Nor do I hawk my hospitality abroad. I give out indications of my willingness to dispense hospitality on a basis that protects my integrity as a host.
- Laura Riding, letter to the Times Literary Supplement, March 3 1932,
six years before closing her quaint-curiosity-shoppe-with-New-York-deli-service

Given my mood, I wondered why our beloved metameat didn't flourish das Gift, but upon reflection in someone else's mirror I realized that probably once you've learned German and read Finnegans Wake and a shitload of critical theory you'd get a little tired of that particular false friend, even if no false friend was ever better named.

Or was it? Maybe we can't trust it even that far. A perfect false friend, like a perfect rhyme or perfect pun, should be the product of miraculous chance. Whereas Gift is poison because poison is something given:

[Com. Teut.: OE. ghift str. fem. (recorded only in the sense 'payment for a wife', and in the plural with the sense 'wedding') corresponds to OFris. jeft fem., gift, MDu. gift(e) (Du. gift fem., gift, gift neut., now more commonly gif, poison), OHG. gift fem., gift, poison (MHG., mod.G. gift fem., gift, neut., poison), ON. gift, usually written gipt gift (Sw., Da. -gift in compounds), pl. giptar a wedding, Goth. -gifts in compounds.... The two words 'gift/Gift' in English and German both have the common germanic ancestor geban 'to give'. The rest is separate development through many centuries. The word for 'to poison' used to be 'vergeben'', but it went out of use because of its homophone meaning 'to forgive', and became 'vergiften'.]

It's a gift a present rather than a presentation because, like it or not, no matter how loudly we protest our detachment, in a (falsely?) friendly act the giver is there, is implicated. The detective calls his suspects to dismiss them: the victim was poisoned by herself, in a single dose from a table service blunder, or absorbed over a lifetime of serial killing.

Speaking of etymology:

[< Anglo-Norman poisoun, Anglo-Norman and Old French poisun, puisun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French poison, puison, puisson, Old French poisson, pouson, Middle French poyson (French poison) drink, draught (end of the 11th cent.), poisonous drink (1155), potion, medicinal drink (c1165), poisonous substance (1342) < classical Latin potion-, potio (see POTION n.). Compare Old Occitan, Occitan poison drink, draught (c1150), potion (c1200), poison (early 13th cent.).]

So maybe "Name your poison" isn't such an impressive joke either.

SCOTTIE: "Here, Judy. Drink this straight down, just like medicine."
JUDY: "Why are you doing this? What good will it do?"
SCOTTIE: "I don't know. No good, I guess. I don't know."

Responses

you sayin it ought to be the gifted Mr Ripley?

Now there was an artist without regrets!

Jonathan Mayhew kindly writes:

I love that idea that "art-making is certainly more universal than the justifiications for art-making." That encapsulates something I've been trying to get my head around for awhile.

. . .

Our Motto

Typically of Pavese, he seeks to recover self-esteem through the exercise of writerly control, fielding more and more succinct, aphoristic analyses that aim to combine the darkest pessimism with the greatest aplomb.
- "Stop It and Act" by Tim Parks

I can't resist also quoting Parks's translation of Pavese's suicide note

I ask forgiveness and forgive you all. OK? Keep the gossip brief.

not because I feel unusually suicidal but because I'm still irked by not having found a way to fit the word forgiveness into the text of my "Gift" post. I wouldn't have published it at all if I hadn't been able to squeeze in marriage.

Not everyone writes prose this way, I know. In 1993, during a close-reading critique by Kate Wilhelm, I explained that removing a particular bit of dialogue meant finding some other way to deploy the idiom "of two minds" or "half a mind to" and from across the room came the alarming wheeze of ancient laughter, and Damon Knight, sunk in a corner armchair, caught his breath, rubbed his eyes, and said, "I'm sorry. I just... I never saw one quite like you before." (That and the note under a mediocre grade from M. Dufaux "A+ pour la beauté de tes idées; C- pour la grammaire et le vocabulaire" are among the proudest moments of my life. Sad, isn't it?) Although my accent may be that of the undisciplined American autodidact, my most distinguished critic correctly noted that my elliptical logic and micro-verbal fetishism (and, although he couldn't know this, my editor-exasperating tendency to rewrite proofsheets) are pure Walter Pater.

Of course it's as ultimately destructive for a writer to seek le mot juste as for a technophile to seek efficiency. By these repeated swellings and collapses, we hope to mimic the layered texture of puff pastry and only achieve its indigestibility. But if, as Peli Grietzer claims, it's a question of who is to be master, I'm afraid the contest was decided long ago. Words are older than me, outlive me, and take my memories down when they go. They own my ass. My ass has become mostly comfortable with that.

Responses

I mean this as a compliment and hope you can take it as such; I think I see your critical approach as an unholy cross of Guy Davenport and Alastair Fowler.

Anyone who wouldn't take that as a compliment is not someone I'd want to talk to except to find out what the hell was wrong with them. I especially appreciate the use of "unholy" as a euphemism for "undereducated." Thank you!

. . .

Movie Comment: The Philadelphia Story

Philip Barry didn't lack for pretenses, and the pretense of his Story is that Tracy Lord's disapproval of alcoholism was responsible for her ex-husband's alcoholism as we know, unconditional forgiveness is the only cure and Tracy Lord's disapproval of fucking around on her mother was responsible for her father fucking around on her mother. This menace must be humbled!

The first ten or twenty times I watched the movie, such clamshell packaging was easily discarded in favor of the good stuff. But by the eleventh or twenty-first time, the good stuff has spent decades in mental rotation, available for instant play at any moment. And so what attracts attention when re-watching the artifact itself is the garbage: while moments-as-recalled maintain their on-call identity, movie-as-experienced becomes a jabbing skeleton of patriarchal hysteria.

Neatly enough, the comedy of re-marriage relies on the opposite mechanism: its protagonists have dwelt so persistently, so tediously, on aversive memories that their ex-partner's in-the-flesh attractions strike with renewed, or even intensified, force. (Which bodes ill for the couple after movie's end, but most comedies don't go there.) What I feel instead is the alienation of reunion.

Which lends me hope that if I write this complaint and stew over it for a while, The Philadelphia Story will again become a guilty pleasure or, more succinctly, a pleasure.

. . .

The View Down Eccles St.

Soundtrack by The Navarros

The Dubliners flinch at the moment a camera snaps them into paralysis. Portrait's wins are serially deceiving, each end-of-play a bump to the next game level. Exiles is interminable. All the suggested stories of Finnegans Wake collapse in a bright overnight eruption of slime mold. And all the episodes and parallels of Ulysses try closure on for fit and discard it.

It's fun to imagine an offended Mrs. Bloom fetching a badly cooked egg to a puzzled Mr. Bloom. Even if that scene did take (some other) place on the morning of June 17, though, it would hardly be the start of a second honeymoon, and, given the unlikelihood of separation, homicide, or suicide, their marriage was never in real danger of ending. It would continue as it had continued if it had ever continued. Some days will be better; some days will be almost as bad; one day all days will be unreachable.

For years Mr. Bloom's chief emotional support has been his daughter. Her absence pointedly suspends in working holiday.

The most stinging loss is the fate of Stephen Dedalus. Insofar as a nice normal high-mainstream storyline can be extracted from Ulysses, it must lead to Stephen's rest chez cher Bloom. And Joyce explicitly refuses both rest and explication. With nowhere left to go, to where does Stephen go? Does he hop a steamer, stoke his way to London, bed H. G. Wells and Henry James, invent a time machine, and return as the Man in the Macintosh? Does some unforeseeable encounter guide the fictional character onto a fictional path in which he'll someday write a fictional version of the book we've just read? Or have universes diverged too far to ever rejoin? Maria Tymoczko justly compares his exit to that of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The only thing we know's that Stephen Dedalus has left the house of fiction, and good riddance.

+ + +

The View U. P.

Courtesy of that evil plunderer of dead authors' royalties
"One Squire Mornington's, they told me; and somebody said they supposed it would be all u—p, up. Well, it will make him know what it is to be a poor man, for once in his life."
"If so, it's all U—P, up, adjective, not down, as the worthy Mr. Squeers said."
"Then," growled Goldsmith, with a note of desperation in his deep-sea bass, "it's h, a, double h'ell h'all, u, p h'up, h'all h'up, bullies."
'Never mind, Dick, old man,' said Harry kindly; 'it's all U. P.'

'All up,' cried Dick.

. . .

W. lived in a small ugly city whose night life was distinguished by the emptying of a nearby insane asylum. He prepared cuisine classique a few times a year but otherwise subsisted on fast food followed by scotch and a cigar. Once, when I'd been totting up the come-hithers and stay-thences of a mutual friend, W. told me, "Just fuck her." It remains the only time I've heard the word hissed.

My problem was lack of faith, W. told me in spring of 1991. I still thought I might find a way to be happier. I had not fully learned my place. We are miserable and meant to be, said W.

We stopped speaking after I moved to California. It was one of those close friendships which last only until someone does something.

Like that of Hester Lynch Thrale and Frances Burney: my fellow blitherer Thrale, raised as a child star and hoping to raise child stars, very much the little boy's dog sitting up and begging to divert a company, compulsively open and rawly needy, trapped in a world without Facebook

and Burney, a born writer: the "little dolt" of the family, slow to speak, slow to read, kept at home; flattened between the good-cop of her conniving father and bad-cop of her bristling stepmother; shy, prudish refusing to open anything titled Les liaisons dangereuses, dropping Werther when she discerned its "evident tendency," shuddering at the touch of her disgraced stepsister clueless and scarily observant:

He was frightened out of his Wits, at me, he said, lest he should do any thing improper! [...] This always much vexes me, but I know not how to conquer so unfair a prejudice, while I never can get sight of these folks, except through an opera-Glass!—In which way they most assiduously view me in return, whenever I am in Mrs. Fitzgerald's Box.

In 1781 Thrale predicted "we will be Friends these forty Years." In retrospect they look doomed from the start (but what doesn't?). Freed from a loveless marriage which had surrounded her with loveless children, facing the first mutual attraction of her life, Thrale very naturally threw herself in, even if poor Signor Piozzi might as well have been Mount Stromboli so far as friends, family, and press were concerned.

Burney's disapproval did more harm to herself than to its target. Hester Lynch Thrale had been her closest female friend and her first female mentor. Samuel Crisp, her emotional support since childhood, died the year before Mrs. Thrale's re-marriage; Samuel Johnson died five months after. Aside from an increasingly preoccupied sister, Burney was left only the ultra-respectable role model of her post-Cecilia acquaintance Mary Delany. Through her, and to the gratification of her father's snobbery, Burney was locked into the anti-intellectual isolation ward of George III's court for six years. When Burney made her own completely unsuitable marriage to a penniless Catholic, Mrs. Thrale was a decade in the past.

What interests me most about the story, though, isn't in the story. It's in the way the story's source material stays not-a-story. The living friendship was face-to-face; we can't share its excitement or comfort. But Thraliana and Burney's letters convey its death more vividly than any novel or biography could: a slog through hints, asides, petty annoyances and vehement pledges, apologies and ambiguous backchat and tiresome melodrama and well-meant betrayals and unexplained gaps, and a trailing train of increasingly relaxed wish-her-wells...

In the presence of a narrator, that sort of pacing would seem undisciplined and pointlessly arbitrary. Endurance tests like La maman et la putain come close, but the experience is best communicated through remnants of the process itself.

. . .

The Monkey Puzzle by Veronica Hull

I draw most of my reading from a decades-old compost pile of decontextualized recommendations. But shuffle play establishes its own narratives, and somehow Eddie Campbell's lifework was followed with a series of forgotten books by great wasters.

First came Saturnine by Rayner Heppenstall, precious documentation of bad behavior in England's finest hour. Then The Crust on Its Uppers by Derek Raymond (all flash and no trousers), La Fanfarlo by Charles Baudelaire (sad stuff), An Anecdoted Topography of Chance by Daniel Spoerri (a less plot-driven Robbe-Grillet), and Minutes of the Last Meeting by Gene Fowler, purportedly a mean-spirited biography of a grotesque old fart once justly loathed by Whitman and Debussy, but more sincerely a shelf of humble-brags honoring the author's parasitism during John Barrymore's and W. C. Fields's terminal declines.

(That last formed a twofer posthumous-character-assassination setlist of its own with Nollekens & his Times by John Thomas "Antiquity" Smith, projected as friendly tribute but executed as vengeance for Nollekens's will.)

Then The Bohemians by Anne-Gédéon Lafitte, Marquis de Pelleport, a 1790 proto-novel formally closer to Thomas Nashe than to Ann Radcliffe. And now The Monkey Puzzle by Veronica Hull a female waster at last!— and, in a way, probably that very way, my favorite of the lot.

* * *

What with The Golden Notebook and The Bell Jar and so on, and between Piper Laurie and Julie Harris and Liza Minnelli and so on, the post-Home-Front pre-feminist era seems like a bloody golden age of feminine breakdowns, bottoming out alongside the post-feminist pre-suffragette era of Alice James and Clover Hooper Adams.

Hull's "Catherine" hits familiar marks, even including an old-school try at governessing: a questing young woman isolated in an aggressively male academic environment (here, the philosophy department of University College London); emotional collapse followed by traumatic institutionalization; substance abuse; joyless sleeping around; unplanned pregnancy; unsupportive marriage; fag-haggery; and a first experience of political demonstrations, teaching her the first lessons taught by all political demonstrations in every time and place:

‘But what I don’t understand,’ said Catherine, rubbing her head and feeling a bit better for the whisky, the crisis extravagance was still on, ‘is why. Why they charged us. What were we doing?’

‘Existing dear,’ said John, ‘if there are too many people existing in the same place at the same time they have to be removed. On a big scale it’s done by war. On a small scale by the police.’ [...]

‘I find it so extraordinary, when all one’s doing is trying to stop war, and people spit at you.’

What distinguishes The Monkey Puzzle from title onwards is its classically waster attitude, as if the whole mess is redeemed by providing so many told-on-oneself bar stories and flaring bar rants. It's the Paula Prentiss of young-woman-goes-insane novels.

* * *

Veronica Hull's recoverable literary career consists of a few months in 1958, during which she provided four (unsigned) reviews for the TLS:

The publishers have spared no pains to produce a book that is easy on the eye and has every appearance of scholarship. The writing is often good. But it is as if an intelligent, expert artist were commissioned to paint the portrait of an eminent but stupid general. Unable, for fear of hurting his sitter's feelings, to reproduce the complete vacuity of expression, the artist has instead concentrated on other aspects. The portrait that emerges is a curious one. The man has no face; but on his ample chest is a row of medals depicted, down to the last tedious detail, with the utmost care and accuracy.

This association ended around the time Hull's own book was blasted by (unsigned) Peter Myers in a group review:

Mrs. Hull, however, has succeeded only in being cynical in a juvenile way; she is inclined to rely too much on the merely crude (the dust-jacket delicately describes it as 'outrageous') to create an effect, and the reader, having been suitably shocked, as intended, in the first thirty pages or so, will find the repetition wearisome as he works his way towards the end. The story is told jerkily, in one sudden gush of effusiveness, and this style does not make the heroine's chaotic happenings any easier to follow. Characters are unpleasant and unsympathetic (doubtless they are meant to be) while the occasional flashes of mature wit do little to relieve these loosely packed trivia of an unattractive adolescence.

Mr. Richard Charles, in his enchanting novel, A Pride of Relations, has succeeded in full measure. He writes with real humour of three Great-Aunts, Betty, Frances and Jessica, of Grandfather Quincey Charles, and especially of Great-Uncle Justly....

Others provided kinder blurbs: Time and Tide with "the most promising first novel from a new English writer that I have read since the night I stayed up reading Iris Murdoch's Under the Net," Angus Wilson with "remarkably amusing, frightening, and intelligent," and young V. S. Naipaul with "shrewd, barbed, lit up with delicious perceptions" (albeit including reservations about her punctuation).

The book was not reprinted, however, nor published overseas, and its title lived on only among analytic philosophers. With the "rightly confident" blinkeredness so characteristic of the breed, Lord Quinton even declared her "a pseudonym."

It always puzzled Catherine that they should be able to indulge in this mysterious study of the meta without any reference to the science in question. She supposed she would understand one day, in the meantime the whole business seemed unimportant.

The final word I've found on her (or her editor-bookseller husband Tristram) was dropped in a boast by the aforementioned trouserless fellow.

Responses

UPDATE, December 28 2015: Last year I was completely at a loss as to how to find the novel's current rightsholder. Almost exactly one year later, Richard Hull, Veronica Hull's son, sent a very kind email mentioning his hope to find a house who will finally give The Monkey Puzzle the second (and longer-lived) edition it deserves. Go to, publishers!

. . .

Tender and Private
from the back cover

as stuffer or stuffing

The Lovely Horrible Stuff
by Eddie Campbell

Everything goes from grand to paltry. Given long enough the human being can destroy anything, even the planet he lives on. Destroying a system of equitable exchange is child's play.
- Eddie Campbell

The Lovely Horrible Stuff was published in 2012. Following on the full-color mysteries of The Fate of the Artist and the house-museum of Alec: The Years Have Pants, odd looking and oddly structured, marketed as a book "about money" but disconcertingly apolitical, it was, to reappropriate Jonathan Lethem's phrase, "very quietly received."

That doesn't mean it didn't land an impact here and there. It just meant landing in a soft place.

And now aw shit.

* * *

I have a similar soft spot for 1993's Graffiti Kitchen. After a decade of charming groove, Graffiti Kitchen was a "departure," as the critics say. The King Canute Crowd's scrappy Zip-a-Tone vanished along with grins, pratfalls, and pubbish inconsequence. Instead, Campbell scratched the page till it bled.

The departure was permanent. Starting with his next personal work, Campbell changed "Alec"'s genre, marital status, profession, homeland, and (before long) name. That new groove spooled over the next two decades and there at the end of the spool lies The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

* * *

On the explicit face-and-title-page of it, "Lovely Horrible Stuff" refers to money, but most readers easily spot family squirming under that label, too. Either way,whether enthusiastic or not-so-much, whether amateur or professional, reviewers saw the book as another slice of a familiar cranked sausage. A plurality of Campbell's post-Canute work depicts the unresolvable conflict between

  1. a professional livelihood which can only be sustained by vigilant hunting, scavenging, and hoarding
  2. and

  3. a professional practice which can only be sustained by free-floating reverie and temporary delusions of omnipotent control,
and since at least The Dance of Lifey Death the conflict's been iconized as an obscuring thought balloon. Domestic squabbles and worse, in the grand tradition of newspaper comics and stand-up comedy, were there from the start of "Alec"/"Campbell"'s marriage. Furious dunning letters had been a mainstay gag since Shakespeare started penning them in 1992's The Cheque Mate. Campbell's discursive impulse had already digressed into informal research and documentary across a multitude of single-pagers and one-offs over the years. So, not much new.

In particular, The Lovely Horrible Stuff clearly "builds on" seems inappropriate; let's say led from the gorgeous full-color artwork and interstitial fumetti of The Fate of the Artist. Most bizarrely, Fate's metafictional TV adaptation became a metafactual attempt at something like "My World and Welcome to It" with James Thurber playing the role of William Windom.

The one novelty everyone noted was that Fate's photography and hand-crafting had digitally merged into something well, reactions ranged from masterful to amateurish. My own was, if I had to pick a word, "worrisome." Not the failed reassurance of CGI's uncanny valley; not with that Photoshop-airbrush applied like mascara in a Kuchar movie. Something sadder, more Cronenbergian....

In other ways, too, Stuff seemed to me like a business-as-usual brim shading some sort of breakout, or breakthrough, or breakdown.... Yes, "Campbell" had dunned before, but never so close to home:

Jack, my father-in-law, one of the six or seven truly marvellous individuals I have met in my life
Jack vs. balloons in 1988, The Dead Muse
You have given no thought to our interests in this matter so obsessed are you with
... & in The Lovely Horrible Stuff

Even when The Fate of the Artist's domestic violence drew blood, it was more or less successfully played for laffs. But the staging went awry this time round: Stuff's most physical conflict lacked any hint of slapstick, and Campbell's dash towards the safety of a gag pointedly flopped. The closest thing to nuptial comfort is confined to one page of such nakedly intense nostalgia that I avert my eyes whenever I reach it.

Despite its egocentrism (in the sense of heliocentrism), frets, and blunders, the Alec series never seemed neurotic or despairing. Even at the end of one's rope, you (almost) always reached stabilizing humor. The previous first-person installment kicked that stool aside. In Stuff, it's liable to tip over, and the failures convey self-loathing with more conviction than anything R. Crumb or Joe Matt ever mustered: as comics characters, at least, "Matt" and "Crumb" are mercifully numb to personal responsibility, much less responsibility for three children.

Structurally, The Lovely Horrible Stuff is an odd book out as well, almost two books, scored down the middle for easy snapping:

First a pacing round "Campbell"'s loathings, delusions, and losses, punctuated by brief vocational escapes into Cloudintellectualpropertyland. In this half of the book, we don't see his memorable fancies for ourselves; they're drawn as simple icons or fogbanks. "Campbell" has left the building, and like other characters we're stuck with his blind and deaf husk.

The second half shows one place he went: a continuously engaged topic-and-travel documentary (as opposed to the memoir documentary of How to Be an Artist). "Campbell" looks happiest here, in the inflated non-ego of not-painstakingly-verified research and formal control, semidetached from the ground while remaining firmly of the world, floating/sinking by his clutch of stone balloons....

* * *

I itched to write about The Lovely Horrible Stuff after my first half-dozen readings or so. But even a childless self-serializing essayist must deal with some family and finance concerns, and you see how things have gone around here.

The artist's own blog froze at March 2012. As years went by with no Campbell news other than reprints, illustrations, and, more recently, a scholarly book, the topic started to feel a bit taboo, as if the book's toxicity had leaked into the environment.

Because, like Graffiti Kitchen, it did taste toxic, or (depending on the taster) bracingly medicinal. Graffiti Kitchen put paid to the King Canute sequence; a new sequence began. Apart from the hero's signature look, what made this second, longer, sequence part of "Alec" was Campbell's faith that a world of omnipotent imagination might be built on the unscrupulous details of the real. Unlikely sounding, maybe, but certainly not unheard of.

Aestheticism-and-reality as vocation, meanness-and-dreaminess as motif, material-and-virtual as technique: three knockabout marriages of stubborn antitheses. If it was true that, after a quarter-century, the series had again scorched its own earth, where would it migrate next?

I'd still be wondering if I'd continued to look for word: the aftermath's been described only in audio. Campbell-the-artist killed his series hero off before The Fate of the Artist began. Having resurrected him in good American comic book fashion, what could the artist do for an encore? The solution was straightforward, if not exactly satisfying.

First, and barely able to get a word in edgewise:

EC: I've kind of put my own voice in storage right now. I'm applying myself as a craftsman to someone else's stories. [...] I was very driven. I felt I'd got hold of something important to say about life
FT: Heh-yes!
EC:And I was driven to
FT: To say it!
EC: ... to get it down on paper, and build
FT: Hmm!
EC: — upon it and investigate it in all its nooks and crannies and facets and variations. And I'm not feeling that at the moment
FT: No. [a spew of fucking twittery]

And then a Comics Journal podcast with room to lay down his weary voice:

Q: What's the closest you've come to quitting cartooning?

A: Recently. What I was talking about before, having lost this context. I've spent three years doing this book about the history of cartooning. But the same time I'm not creating new cartoons myself. There's probably a couple of years there where I just hadn't created any new comics work. The last thing I did was the book I did with Neil Gaiman. [...] Recently I've been drawing myself out of this funk. I've been illustrating illustrating the stories of my wife, Audrey Niffenegger. A quick catch-up there: I got divorced four years ago. And this year I married Audrey Niffenegger, the novelist. And for some time I've been working on a book where I'm illustrating her short stories. [...]

The money book, The Lovely Horrible Stuff I think that book took a lot out of me. I think it left me, I think I wrestled with so much realer stuff in there I kind of dislodged myself out of my comfort zone, [indecipherable]. I kind of left myself stranded on the beach of that sandy island in the South Seas, like O'Keefe in the story. I felt a bit wrecked after that one. In fact it was shortly after that book that I got divorced.

Q: I'm obliged to ask how was the

A: I'm kind of playing out in that book the disintegration of my own family life in a metaphorical way. The whole money arguments were really arguments for a disintegration of a harmony in my life.

Q: Was the creation of the pieces about your stepfather, even at the time of the creation, was that more taxing emotionally than the traditional Alec comics?

A: I didn't think so at the time but I think probably, in retrospect. I think in the end my feeling was that I shouldn't have done a comic about this. I shouldn't be... I think I kind of wrecked my own concept of what I was doing, by thinking "Now, how far can I push that?" Have I pushed this too far? Should I be putting real people in here in such a raw form, where they don't get a chance to give their side of the story? I-I, you know, and so many comics today are maybe going too far and you know Alison Bechdel's another one, Roz Chast's we're treading a fine line of propriety.

Out the window it goes...

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.