. . . Self-expression

. . .

Artists who complain that the creator must by definition understand the "intent" of their works more than anyone else don't understand that we don't mean our disagreement as an insult. On the contrary: that's precisely the difference between "art" and "self-expression," that the artifact can't be reduced to the formula used by the creator. Who cares if Jackson Pollock's works' value as ornamentation (e.g., its use in Vogue) seems to conflict with the rhetoric used by him and some of his supporters? The work is ornamental, and thus proves itself to be more than rhetoric.

. . .

Oh great (by way of Robot Wisdom). I just recently got over the appearance about five years ago of a "historical novel but it's really the truth, it's just that I don't want to be bothered with proving any of my ridiculous delusions" dedicated to the theory that Henry Adams killed his wife, Clover Hooper Adams, during her oh-so-convenient suicidal depression. And now there's another one, this time dedicated to the theory that Charlotte Brontë was a criminal mastermind who successfully poisoned Emily Brontë, Anne Brontë, and Branwell Brontë, only to be poisoned in turn by her new husband.

Probably because Charlotte Brontë revealed herself in her writing (unlike Emily Brontë) with a singularly honest viciousness (unlike Anne Brontë), she's often been targeted by simpleminded vulgarizers. In Hollywood's Devotion, Charlotte the flighty fluffy flirt (!) was contrasted unfavorably to the Sensible Sister, Emily (!), played sensibly well by Ida Lupino. In her group biography of the Brontë family, Juliet Barker almost managed to obscure the wonderful thoroughness of her research by the equally wonderful anti-Charlotte chip on her shoulder, going so far as to bury pro-Charlotte evidence in the footnotes.

Was Charlotte Brontë a nice person? She'd be the first to describe in exacting detail why she wasn't. On the other hand, it's hard to find any contemporary reactions worse than bemused acknowledgment that she was too hard on others and still harder on herself.

I don't know who makes a sillier murderer, Charlotte Brontë, whose most unlikable trait was her stranglehold on moral superiority, or husband Whatsisname, whose only noticeable humor was phlegm. I do know that the silliest aspect of the whole business is the BBC reporter's swallowing this Yorkshire pudding whole. Let it be a warning to all of us: self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, at least when combined with self-expression.

. . .

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.

. . .

Simcoe, among other eminent weblogs, has pointed to one of those attacks on the fraudulence of Modern Art that crop up about as often as my gout. This one drags out dusty whipping-boy Mapplethorpe, but distinguishes itself by spending more time on the blandly corporate-friendly Gilbert-and-George, who apparently once managed to outrage someone. Probably the same guy who wanted to ban the Pet Shop Boys.

Yeah, so the art world of teachers, curators, critics, trust funders, and investors is absurdly indiscriminate. So journalist pundits aren't? We're given a choice of blindnesses -- are you philistine or are you gullible? -- that assume homogeneity among objects made and displayed by people and homogeneity among the people who look or prod at the objects.

As a gullible philistine, I apply the same pair of criteria to all art whether Ancient or Modern: Is it pretty? And is it funny?

Caravaggio and Botticelli and Pollock and Jess are in their different ways all very pretty and very funny. Piero della Francesca isn't exactly funny but he gives me a funny feeling, which is extra points. Duchamp is King of Comedy. Mapplethorpe is always pretty but only funny once in a while; I mostly think of him as a society portraitist, like Annie Leibovitz except prettier. "Piss Christ" was astonishingly pretty, which made up for the dopiness of the joke. On the other hand, the Koonses and Kellys remind me of those "Far Side" rip-offs in the paper: slick and inept at the same time. For sheer entertainment value, you're unlikely to find anything in the local art collections that'll compare to George Herriman. But that would've been at least as true 100, 200, or 300 years ago.

Art critics should explain why they think a particular piece of art is pretty or funny. Art teachers should explain how to make particular pieces of art prettier or funnier. Otherwise they're just being blowhards and they're well on the way to a successful career. And why all this fuss about the stuffed horse? I bet there are stuffed animals in plenty of English museums. Not to mention the House of Lords.

. . .

"She has a book on the subject of Fear in her hand" -- "Celebrity Art Party", The Embarrassment

Dr. Justine Larbalestier says I remind her of Casper the Friendly Ghost, and so it's entirely appropriate that my first movie should premiere at an art show titled "Facing Fear."

Besides being my first movie, this was my first opening, and, although no one threw a glass of wine in my face, on the whole it made me realize why my collaborator Christina hates 'em so much. It's like if I hung around a bookstore waiting for someone to pick up an anthology I was in and then waited for them to look at my story and then waited to see how far they read and what their reaction was. It's much nicer to have everyone remain anonymous unless they really don't want to be.

Also, it seemed too noisy for anyone to hear our fabulously detailed soundtrack through those dorky Walkman foam headphones. I'd sorta pictured big black hoods over all the TV sets, where you'd have to get under the hood to hear and see what was going on, but the curators didn't ask for installation advice. (One of them did ask for my theory of fear, though, and I apparently was quite the voluble informant. The combination of free drinks and serious attention is so heady.)

But as we left I saw a nice lady laughing out loud at our monitor, so that was OK.

. . .

All identities are appropriated. Its just that some are readymades and some are fixer-upper-opportunities.

. . .

Self-expression: It's clear to the most casual reader of his books that Fr. Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo) was always his own hero. But since it's also clear that he was a raving loon, his attempts at self-portraiture convey nothing of what he was actually like. Thus my delight in The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons, which proves again that Venice is, in so many ways, the perfect place for a sponge.

My Penguin edition changes the subtitle to "Genius or charlatan?", but that's a stupid question when you're talking about a fiction writer. Symons's is more accurate: this biography is emphatically experimental in ways that gain Cholly's full approval:

1. Primacy of primary sources

Rather than going omniscient on us, Symons makes room for quoted documents and testimony (with the first-person account of his own research as a bridge), preserving subjectivity and increasing the odds that the reader will actually learn something.

As a leeching paranoid, Rolfe/Corvo thoughtfully minimized the formal difficulties of implementing this approach, dividing his life neatly into sausage-shaped episodes wrapped around one (and usually only one) acquaintance who was first obsessively latched onto and later obsessively tied off.

2. Sympathy for the subject

Most biographers suffer from wildly inappropriate self-righteousness, and Rolfe/Corvo, who wears his faults not just on his sleeve but all over like a paisley three-piece suit, has been a particularly efficient self-righteousness vector: none of the books I've found by him have escaped a mean-spirited introduction. But Symons, bless 'im, bears in mind, through all storms of icky gossip, the gratitude befitting anyone who's been successfully intrigued by another human being.

Symons bends over backwards to interpret the life's events as Rolfe/Corvo might have, and, on top of that, as his first-person sources might have. And if his Unified Corvo Theory (all the Baron's problems stemmed from being born gay into an intolerant world) seems excruciatingly naive (I'm pretty sure Symons had plenty of gay acquaintances who didn't act like Rolfe/Corvo), at least it's helped bring other sympathetic readers into the fold.

Speaking of bending over backwards, Symons may be explicitly experimental, but that's the only way he's explicit. And I'd go so far as to call him a downright little tease when it comes to Rolfe/Corvo's final literary remains, a bundle of pornographic letters. On the Web, we can at least learn the name of the letters' recipient (Henry Scott Tuke's "most intimate friend, the pederast Charles Masson Fox") and their motive (to entice a new source of funds to Venice). But as for their contents -- and as for the Rolfian novels I've not yet found -- well, Symons may be able to conclude his book by saying that his Quest for Corvo has been satisfied, but I'm stuck with legendary-Bomp-recording-artist Professor Anonymous:
You know, it's been said many times:
Seek and ye shall find.
Well, I have sought,
And yet I'm still searching for the one.
And you know?
I guess my search has just begun....

. . .

Self-expression: Yes I believe the messages I've paid to have my computer display to me yes I said I do Yes oops go away now (via Beth Rust)

. . .

There aren't many things I've been overly optimistic about, but one of 'em was that we'd have a lot more websites like Ian McKellen's by now. Intelligent celebrities have even more reason to be wary of journalists than big business monkeys are, and taking charge of your own quotes is pretty much the same idea as a company's publishing its press releases on the web, except more entertaining:

[Christopher Lee] loves stories about actors and I amused him last week with one he didn't know, which I was told by Brian Bedford: "Noël Coward reads a poster: Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde in The Sea Shall Not Have Them! 'I don't see why not -- everyone else has.'"

. . .


Before us webloggers got going -- even before Dave Winer -- when readers wanted to watch pompous asses unknowingly humiliate themselves in public, they turned to Charles Pooter's The Diary of a Nobody (ed. and ill. by George and Weedon Grossmith).

Warning: Apparently this was before Jakob Nielsen, too; Pooter's home page is one big hunk of text over 200k long! So download it and look at it offline at your leisure. Since it can also function as a learn-by-example instruction manual on how to maintain self-esteem when you're a clumsy snob with a boring job and friends who you don't like and who don't like you, I found it a great commute read: empowering!

I'm sorry to say that, aside from that 200k+ of bare words, the Web hasn't been particularly forthcoming about the Diary. Virtually every search result I got was just another legal or pirated copy of the Gutenberg text, complete with the obvious OCR typo on the first page ("my clear wife," which makes it sound like a Tom Cruise interview or something). Topics for future research include:

Mr. Pooter
Artist's conception

  1. Weedon Grossmith got full collaborative credit for his illustrations ("AS ORIGINALLY SEEN IN PUNCH!"), but no one's been nice enough to scan any in. The nearest I've found is a hideous still from Ken Russell's TV adaptation.

  2. Although the prose is certainly varnished differently, a lot of the Diary couldn't help but remind me of Ulysses's Bloom episodes. And it was a big bestseller during James Joyce's childhood.... The Grossmiths aren't mentioned in Ellman's Joyce biography, but a link might be documented elsewhere.
To be continued after I get to a university library....

. . .

at the center...
"At the center, there is a perilous act, which is of the nature of thought itself." -- Robin Blaser
There's something that's always made me feel sick at writers conferences and exclusive parties and awards and academic intros -- and probably would at trade shows too if I gave a shit about my trade -- something about missing the point with so much fervor, and all of us participants cheering the process on....

Thus this Word of the Day is dedicated to the genuinely welcome return of Metascene:


derives from hypokrisis, "playact"...

which derives from hypokri, "explain"

The biggest problem with this roving critic shtick is the encouragement to play the smart guy. When what I like -- what I'm looking for when I find the stuff I like to write about -- is to not feel so smart: to be taken by surprise, to be changed.... That's why I hate teaching: no matter how self-deprecating you play it, you're still the guy in front of the class and therefore you're still the smart guy. Best you can do in those circumstances is keep the classes small and take lots of time off.

You may be sharp enough to play pure naif gorgeously, but only by losing the flexibility to say anything outside the role you've chosen. A role no closer to the naif-playactor than the smart-guy role is to me.

That's what's interesting about Metascene: a naif voice risking complicated subjects. Like any voice, it has constrictions which must be painful at times. (Thus the sabbatical?) But as constrictions go, I dig 'em.

If Metascene was speaking as a critic, I'd have to argue with him when he insists he's a bad writer. Instead he's trying to convey a mood, and the mood is perfectly expressed by his insistence....

... there is a perilous act

. . .

Talking to yourself in a public place (prompts via NQPAOFU and Alamut and David Auerbach)

Insider Art is art produced to fit the particular marketplace in which it's exhibited. Outsider Art fetishizes the disconnect between the artist's assumed goals and the audience's assumed attitude.

Of course, most inedible artifacts have at least some chance of outliving or being shipped outside their original context. Which is to say that, just like all writing eventually becomes readable as Literature, all art eventually becomes viewable as Outsider Art. But that's in the long run, which is notoriously hard to plan for.

In the short run of our lives as producers and consumers, what we'd like -- what we turn to these models of artmaking for -- are rules that will guarantee success and relief. Unfortunately, neither model guarantees anything but occasional outbursts of wistfulness or petulance: industry pressure usually leads to disappointing results and, in contrast, purely personal initiative almost always leads to disappointing results. Back-and-forth-ing between "insular self-absorption" and "meeting expectations" is what most artists seem to compromise on, but, as critic Nora Charles concluded in her exhaustive genre investigation, "it's all pretty unsatisfactory."

For completely other reasons, a correspondent directed me this morning to the critical work of Gerald Burns, but, coincidentally, the only online piece I can find by him is this truly horrid poem addressed to his old Harvard classmate the Unabomber:

Just yesterday a young maybe gifted writer said he'd write a poem
about Nabisco executive offers, sock it to 'em. I told him Socrates said
a cobbler has two jobs, making shoes and persuading people to buy them.
"Writing is the easy part." Buried in a mimeo'd magazing isn't an action,
and told him at least you had distribution. He liked the wit of that.

. . .
Why'd you do it isn't interesting. I know why you did,
pretty much. It's much the reason I write poems in sections.
Paleface Potter

So why I don't want to persuade people to buy my shoes must be much the reason I don't send letter bombs...? Insular self-absorption looks better all the time.

. . .

To unclench our previous entry on the transformation of Insider Art to Outsider Art....

The process can always be side-stepped by looking at artifacts as History: History, like Cheese, is capable of digesting all. But inasmuch as we try to keep our receptiveness aesthetic instead of historical -- focused on surface pleasure rather than background book-larnin' -- when faced with an artifact imported from outside our assumed position, narrative impulse veers us towards seeing the alien context as the alienated individual and the artist as Outsider (rather than ourselves as Importer).

Some examples:

To be fair, one reason Spicer's group allegiance doesn't stick to his reputation is that his group was so dismal. Which brings up the biggest problem with deciding that you're not going to rest easy with being a solitary crackpot: who you end up with. I mean, the insular self-absorption of an attic painter or bedroom songwriter at least tends to make a talentless crank more affable. The real problem is when talentless cranks band into an insular group, cheering on each other's mediocrity and adding an ugly self-righteous odor to their formerly fairly innocuous waste product.

And unless you're talking bestsellers and movie deals and posters on bathroom walls, it's awfully hard to be sure you've made it off an insular group and onto the mainland. "Professional" or not, in my cartography, the arts and book reviewers of the semi-major media look just as self-congratulatory and determinedly deluded as any communal gallery, small press magazine, indie rock scene, little theater group, or crosslinking weblog....

. . .

Another letter excerpt that I don't mind you guys seeing

I doubt that any attempt to mythologize "the old, accessible Hotsy Totsy Club" is going to succeed, but you did surprise me.

Communication Is Hard Oh, I've done super-impacted-babble before and I have every intention of doing it again. See, I have a problem with connectives and transitions. The problem is I hate them. I think in smaller units that, true, often go roughly in some sort of progression. But having to weave those small units into normal academically-acceptable debate-winning discursive prose always seems like an ugly chore -- an attitude that's pretty apparent in the awkwardness, artificiality, and lazy tic-iness of my connectives and transitions (beautifully caught by Geegaw's parody). My most satisfying fictional prose tended to be dialog or in-the-character's-voice subjectivity, and the critical prose I've been most satisfied with uses spatial positioning more than sensible argument.

It's like, there are proofs as written, and then there are proofs delivered by a lecturer, and the latter's sub-Platonic "and so we see"s and "therefore it is obvious is it not?"s just seem like padding. (One of my math professors dealt with the problem by feigning wide-eyed wonder and horror at each new step -- "Oh my gosh! Then that means..." and "But then look -- oh no!" -- which at least has novelty on its side.)

What I'd rather avoid in the future is doing it two days in a row. That was an unfortunate by-product of my "put the draft up and revise as needed" approach to Hotsy Totsy. After the first draft was posted, I wanted to add something to it. But these amoeba-like units tend to split once they've grown past a certain point, and this one split. I didn't feel right about separating the sibling parent-and-child so soon, and so I gave you a double dose. There was where I made my mistake. You shouldn't be sentimental about an amoeba.

Was ist der audience?

This reminds me of when Denis Leary riled Space Ghost:

SPACE GHOST: I know one or two guys who might disagree with you.
DENIS LEARY: Oh yeah? Like who?
DENIS LEARY: Okay, who else on the list?
I think I'll stick with that as an answer.

. . .

I'm a house divided against itself and I can't stand up!

With very mixed feelings we learn that use of the editorial we (aka the royal we, the political we, the manifestive we, the prophetic we, the mock-gossip-column we -- let's just call it the bullshitting we, shall we?) is associated with a long and happy life, for ourselves if not for our relatives, lovers, and readers. The next question to research is: Is a long life really that attractive if we have to live it as Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Or would we and the world be better off restricting ourselves to a briefer but less obnoxious existence as a mere Ferlinghetto?

Fortunately, hiding ourselves within a pundit's bulk isn't the only way to avoid the death-dealing first person singular, as demonstrated by such unpolled poets as Hannah Weiner....

. . .

Confession as avoidance technique

I found this much more interesting than that same Comics Journal's recent group interview with the worshipful wives (and girlfriend) of some young indie hetero male cartoonists:

"I have very little respect for him but I can't say that I hate his work as much as I used to."

. . .

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?

. . .

Instructions to a Painter, first

Marcel Duchamp to Jean Crotti, 17 August 1952 (iffily translated from French):

  You were asking my opinion on your work, my dear Jean. It's very hard to say in just a few words, especially for me as I have no faith -- religious sort -- in artistic activity as a social value.
Artists of all eras are like Monte Carlo gamblers and the blind lottery sends some on their way and ruins others. To my mind, neither winners nor losers are worth bothering over. It's business, good for the winner and bad for the loser.
I don't believe in painting in itself. Every painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favors; in other words, no painter understands himself or knows what he does -- there's no outward sign to explain why a Fra Angelico and a Leonardo are equally "recognized."
It all happens through our little friend luck. Artists who, during their life, have managed to get people to value their junk are excellent traveling salesmen, but nothing guarantees immortality to their work. And even posterity is a pretty slut who retracts some, resuscitates others (El Greco), and remains free to change her mind in 50 years.
This long preamble to tell you not to judge your own work as you are the last person to see it (with true eyes). What you see there isn't what makes merit or shame. All words used to explain or praise it are false translations of what takes place past the sensations.
You are, like all of us, obsessed with the accumulation of principles or anti-principles which generally cloud your mind with their terminology and, without knowing it, you are a prisoner of what you think a liberated education.
In your particular case you are certainly the victim of the "School of Paris," that good joke which has lasted for 60 years (the students awarding themselves prizes, in cash).
To my mind there's no safety but in esotericism. But for 60 years we've attended the public exhibition of our balls and multiple hard-ons. The Lyons grocer speaks in enlightened terms and buys modern painting.
American museums want at any price to teach modern art to young students who believe in the "chemical formula."
All this breeds only vulgarization and complete dissipation of the original fragrance.
This doesn't cancel what I said above, because I believe in the original fragrance but like any fragrance it evaporates very quickly (a few weeks, a few years at most); what's left is a dried nut classified by the historians in the chapter "History of Art."
So if I tell you that your paintings have nothing in common with what we see generally classified and accepted, that you've always produced things entirely your own, as I truly believe, that's not to say that you have the right to be seated next to Michelangelo.
What's more, this originality is suicidal, in the sense that it distances you from a "clientele" used to the "copies of copyists" that are usually called "tradition."
Another thing, your technique is not the "expected" technique. It is your technique, you own borrowed from no one -- there again, the clientele isn't attracted.
Obviously if you'd applied your Monte Carlo system to your painting, all these difficulties would have changed to victories. You could even have started a new school of technique and originality.
I won't speak of your sincerity because that's the commonplace most widely spread and least valid. All liars, all bandits are sincere. Insincerity doesn't exist. The malign are sincere and succeed by their malice but their being is made of malicious sincerity.
In 2 words do less self-analysis and work with pleasure without worrying about opinions, yours and those of others.



. . .

Instructions to a Painter, second

Henry Adams to Mabel Hooper, 21 June 1895:

  Your pictures adorn my wall, so that I look them all over every morning while I meditate on getting up. Don't be disturbed if you occasionally feel a disgust for paint and drawing. You would feel the same for the limitations of sculpture or architecture, or poetry or prose, if you tried as hard to express anything in them. There is nothing new to say -- at least in our formulas. Everything has been said many -- many -- many times. The pleasure is in saying it over to ourselves, in a whisper, so that nobody will hear, and so that neither vanity nor money can get in so much as a lisp. I admit that this unfits one for one's time and life, but one must make some sort of running arrangement on every railroad and even in every school; and if you are to stop five minutes for refreshments in the Art Station, you must have those five minutes clear, as much as though you were a Botticelli. I should say the same of Religion, or Poetry, or any other imaginative and emotional expression.  

. . .

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must gesticulate wildly

"Wittgenstein left out the philosophy, Richards suggests, but was himself unwillingly left in. His 'torment' of expression spreads empathy, wrapping others in the pathos of his missing meaning....

"The ferocity of Wittgenstein's analyses and the drama of his speech alike perceive in routine words the dignity of potential loss. It is Wittgenstein's peculiar talent to dramatize this potential: language is so gripping because it can always fall short, because someone is always losing a language game."

"Philosophical Self-Denial" by Rei Terada in Common Knowledge 8.3

. . .

Non-anorexics can't always discern the healthy glow to be gained from obsessive-compulsive fasting, scrubbing, and exercise. And to the uninitiated reader, Pound's and Zukofsky's fear of fatty inexactitude didn't produce dignified austerity but new forms of excess. (Lorine Niedecker had too robust an appetite to fully trust that imperative. From a letter: "I know that my cry all these years has been into -- into -- and under -- close your eyes and let the music carry you -- And what have I done? -- cut -- cut -- too many words...")

Working from different notions of sincerity, Pound and Zukofsky carved down to different peculiarities. Pound-pundit's minimalism is as bullying as the maximalism of D. H. Lawrence or Wyndham Lewis: rather than advancing an argument, he bellows a few sacred words and assumes our bellowed "Ditto!", and if we don't supply it, well, fuck us for fuckwits. Whereas Zukofsky never seems comfortable with the idea of self-expression, and, though his passive-aggression might be called cold, he never bullies.

For Zukofsky, the sincere is the objective. Sincerity opposes subjectivity.

But given what's been acceptable poetic message-matter since the mid-nineteenth century, to eliminate self-inflationary rhetoric from one's poetry is to risk eliminating message entirely.

It's a risk Zukofsky took without a second glance. Zukofsky's essentials are the words. The inessential pared from the words is the message.

Which sabotaged any early ambitions as Marxist propagandist or movement leader.

Doubly rejected, and thin-skinned and soft-spoken by nature, after the mid-1930s, Zukofsky famously restricted his polis to the family triangle of father-mother-son. He became celebrant of a closed-system cocoon of irritable praise.

In both parts of his career, the disappointing moments are the uncoded ones. Earlier, the mantis is fine, but the armies of the poor thud: the disjunction between spavined syntax and familiar figure brings the cliche zooming to the foreground. The later valentines, OK, but that "Blest ardent Celia" hoohah creeps me out as much as John Lennon's flat "Yoko and me: that's reality" or Lou Reed's shower-baritone "Syll-ILL-vee-ee-ee-uh!" Keep it in the bedroom, guys.

Zukofsky's music is incomparable: it's the sound of crabbedness folded back into itself so densely as to break through the floorboards into downstairs' lyric ceiling. When not biscotti, it feels undercooked. When not startlingly odd, it feels compromised.

Since Zukofsky was always going to seem excessive, he might as well skim and serve up the pure excess. Clotted cream: a springtime treat.

. . .

Stone Soup Test Kitchen

One of the things that shocked and upset me about the Stanford writing workshop was the way you weren't allowed any errantry of statement, any room for experiment with the poetic persona that you'd initially been admitted for.... -- Cahiers de Corey
A genuinely useful workshopping ethic is one of the supports that's kept literary science fiction (barely) alive. As a Clarion workshopper, your job is not to describe what you wanted from an author's work and how you were disappointed. Your job is to intuit what the author was trying to accomplish and then to attempt to explain (with whatever mix of politesse, wit, and irritability comes naturally to you) where the author's missteps might have been. The author meekly takes notes, allowed only to request elucidation of particular points.

All parties expect your intuitions to be wrong and your explanations to be inapplicable. The assumption is that those mistakes, fully explained, may still be of use to the author -- whose job as an artifact-maker, after all, is largely to be aware of what mistakes will be made by the reader when the author isn't present to clarify them.

One can't guess at an intention without assuming a shared context and one can't anticipate missteps without assuming an audience. In even deader (or, if you prefer, even less commodified) genres like those of poetry or painting, the notion of an audience has largely been lost, and so the imperative to separate artifact from personality and group allegiance and so on may not be felt so strongly. Instead, workshops find use as a means of bolstering personality and enforcing group allegiance.

(Parallels to the weblogging medium are left as an optional exercise.)

. . .

Heil me! How Can We Lose When We're So Sincere?

"If there is a God, then he gives us not only life but also consciousness and awareness. If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith."
-- Adolf Hitler, December 1941

. . .

Comics comment: Acme Novelty Datebook

Nick Lowe summed up a tour with Van Morrison: "He's completely mad. But he sings like a fucking bird."

Robert Crumb draws like a fucking bird sings, and so his sketchbooks tend to contain his best work. The structural labor of comics narrative cramps him; heedless of beak and plumage, he lunges for the easiest way out.

Chris Ware is no fucking bird. Instead, he's driven by structural concepts.

The structural concept of his sketchbook is that he wishes he were more like Robert Crumb.

. . .

I'll wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king

Ron Silliman has been writing again about poetry and politics. And a very sensible job he does; until the Justin Timberlake crack, anyway. (I'll take Atmosphere over Bob Dylan. Over Bob Hass, too.) But the most instructive aspect of his series may be the sidetracking of his comment thread onto the purported snub of one poet's weblog.

That's why, if anything, we need less poetry in politics: it's a bad example. San Francisco is likely to get a rich right-wing mayor because none of the three leading liberal candidates will give up the mic. If CNN thinks of politics as a football game and Fox as pro wrestling, the Greens think of it as a slam. The petulant is the political.

For over a century, English poetry has been marketed as self-expression, a category which comfortably includes the self-congratulation of repeating-what-all-right-people-believe. Silliman's counter-example -- early 1970s lesbian-feminist presses -- confirms poetry's selling-point: the (rarely so politically useful) inflation of the individual ego. So although poetry's political limitations can be glaring, I don't believe it can have any direct political influence.

What happens when poets try?

"Political poetry" wasn't oxymoronic for William Langland, but Langland's readers aren't John Ashbery's. Even the coat-turns of Wordsworth and Southey facilitated little but their own careers and own embarrassments.

Pound's propaganda found its most avid audience in his judges and its most tangible result in his incarceration; maybe Fascist profiteers would've been grateful for the distraction, but I doubt the case was important enough to be brought to their attention.

A political artist is a scapegoat deluded into thinking it's a Judas goat.

Poetry does nothing. (Except kill poets.)

Nobody listens to poetry. (Except in a deposition.)

. . .

"And I just know she's going to take one look at me and think, Par-a-noid..."

. . .

Commencement Address

Along similar lines, in The Comics Journal Special Edition Winter 2002, Roger Langridge gave young writers and artists the most solid career counsel they're ever likely to get:



I love you.

(It's funny, Roger Langridge always has this effect on people.)

. . .

Some come through

For about five years, when I heard or read something about the web's destructive aspects I thought of a shy young self-publishing cartoonist who'd self-censored all her accurately perplexed autobiographical stories after some fool complained that they weren't funny. Of course shy young artists have been self-censoring forever, but the gatekeeper-to-gate ratio crashes "Before the Law" limits if you're tuned to every fool on the internet rather than, say, just the fool who happens to be your father or your graduate advisor.

The medium of comics, like the medium of silent film, naturally drifts between crude farce and complex emotional engagement. Let that child boogie-woogie. It's in her, and it's got to come out.

. . .

Movie Comment : All I Desire (1953)

In a post I persistently remember as "Dawn Powell for President," Roger Gathman noted Hillary Clinton's roots in conservative Chicago and asked, "But how about the Midwesterner who returns from the East Coast?"

For me, the question triggered a resurgence of survivor's guilt, resolving into the usual hysterical paralysis. But even as the Drama Queen express barreled away, another train of thought launched towards Hollywood's most peculiar specialist in Midwestern You-Can't-Go-Home-Again-or-Can-You parts: Brooklyn orphaned-and-abusively-bred Barbara Stanwyck.

Back in 1939, Remember the Night had dragged Stanwyck back to Indiana in the custody of killjoy D.A. Fred MacMurray (but this is a Mitchell Leisen picture so at least he's an attractive killjoy). There she's rejected by a shockingly real representative of the Heartland's evil-hearted 30%, meets warm welcomes from not-so-realistic representatives of the open-hearted 20%, sinks gratefully into the embrace of family and community, and is then rejected by them. Big romantic finish while the Breen Office chants "Lock Her Up!"

In All I Desire, Stanwyck's Naomi returns to Wisconsin under her own steam. This makes for a very different story, directed by a very different storyteller.

For some reason, The Film Dictionary of Received Ideas is considered particularly authoritative on "Sirk, Douglas," but Sirk was not a simplistic thinker. Instead of Sturges's-and-Leisen's rigid segregation of good and evil souls, here they're so thoroughly intermingled with the middling majority that, well, sometimes we almost can't tell them apart.

And embodiments of Naomi's original disgrace continue to walk the mean streets of Riverdale, although they seem to have slipped her mind during her busy years on the road: her extramarital lover remains a pillar of good ol' boy society and has assumed a pointedly paternal role towards her son the family's youngest child, born long after his two sisters and so closely to Naomi's escape that he may have precipitated it.

So Juliet Clark is certainly right to predict that "we can only feel relieved to be on the outside looking in" at this all-American home. But consider (as Stanwyck's character must) the alternative.

After ten years Naomi Murdoch's theatrical career has skidded midway down the music hall bill, with sour prospects ahead. (We'll never know how much talent she started with; she'd already borne three children, so she would have been trying to enter the profession at, let's say, age 28 or so?) Ostensibly, at least, she's seizing an opportunity to give her kid a thrill and pick up a little egoboo by way of a little fraudulence, after which she'll shed the pretense of stardom and return to her grind. But from the moment she struts off the train, she seems, so to speak, at home, which is to say on the stage, facing challenges, hitting her marks, sparking glee at each new win. She may not have been able to conquer Paris and London but this audience she can handle, and she'll surely find more opportunities to recite Shakespeare here than in burlesque.

The hometown hoaxer of Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero is scabied by guilt; for the con-maiden of Sturges's The Lady Eve, the allure of sincerity goes foot-in-hand with the similarly vulnerable intimacy of full-frontal lust. In Riverdale, though, all self-expression is strictly utilitarian (albeit with none-too-well-thought-out motives); Naomi's just best at it.

The unrepentant criminal of Sturges's Remember the Night and the tempted ladies of Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow and All That Heaven Allows gladly lose their burden of selves in Good Clean Fun. But at no moment in All I Desire does Stanwyck convey pleasure untinted by performance. In Double Indemnity, what men mistake for sensuality is simply Mrs. Dietrichson's delight in manipulation; Mrs. Murdoch may have encountered similar confusion and may still.

(A few critics even predict that lechery will send Naomi back to the creep she nearly killed. I can't see it. Stanwyck was a magnificently wide-ranging movie star but one thing she could never play convincingly on-screen was being pushed around. If Naomi strays again, it'll be with someone of more practical use; Colonel Underwood, maybe.)

All I Desire's' "unhappy happy ending" is not all tragic and not all sacrifice. It's the role of a lifetime.

From which I conclude that if the Democratic party had shown the good sense to nominate a HUAC-supporting union-attacking self-martyring workaholic for president and relocated her to Illinois, she might have drawn a plurality of the state's votes.

(On the other hand, the original novel, screenplay, and directorial intent had Naomi opting again for self-exile, possibly after a bridge-burning public self-exposure, presumably to expiate her sins by someday dying in the traditional gutter. So maybe it really is just a crapshoot.)

Naomi's got the situation well in hand


Josh Lukin reflects on 1952:

Your HUAC reference got me thinkin' —the candidate who was uncritical of McCarthy (see Howe, Irving, Steady Work) managed to lose in his native Illinois during the McCarthy era. To be fair, he seems to have lost everywhere except in a handful of states where his running-mate was popular. And thank Heaven he did, 'cause where would we be without the four civil libertarians Ike put on the Court, right?


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