Overweening Generalist


Friday, February 20, 2015

Marina Abramovic's The Artist Is Present (Thoughts on "Performance Art")

Streaming on Netflix as I write this, this documentary about Abramovic's 90 days of sitting in a chair silent at NY's MOMA in 2010. The film also covers parts of her long career as a performance artist. I loved the film.

                          Marina Abramovic: Balkan Baroque: Dozing Consciousness (1997)

Definition of "Performance Art": Dicey at Best
The definition of "performance art" is famously contentious, and when I read the Wiki on it one of the further links is to an article "Classificatory Disputes About Art," and this very nebulousness is one of the things I most like about performance art. Read a few textbook-like articles that explain what performance art "is" and you will very likely run into a sentence or two that could easily apply to why people use psychedelic drugs. Some people really don't like the effects of performance art; it wigs them out. I'll return to this subject below.

(I wish the filmmakers in the Abramovic doc would've gotten responses from some of the people who were caught looking on quizzically and then turning away with a semi-disgusted look as Abramovic sat still and gazed into the eyes of fellow museum-goers, but maybe that's just me.) The eminent art critic Arthur Danto sees Abramovic's sitting a New Thing in the history of art, because it's well-known that most museum-goers spend about 30 seconds in front of the Mona Lisa, while lo!: they sit or stand all day watching Abramovic sit and gaze. Taking in The Artist Is Present makes Waiting For Godot look like a Jet Li flick...or Cirque du Soleil. (Only if you feel like it, no pressure: think about that?)

I found Abramovic's family background edifying vis a vis what she ended up doing with her life. Some writing on her suggests that performance art was a big deal in the Eastern Bloc because of its transitory nature, which makes sense to me.

One thing I think of immediately when someone says "performance art" is "nude bodies?" Indeed, there is a lot of Marina and others nude in the documentary. And in performance art in general. Why? Well, how else to make claims for a relatively new form of art? Shock people. How? Nudity, violence, blood, gross-outs, and outrageous speech acts, for starters. In my personal aesthetics, shock is rock-solid legit in Art. I want more shock from Art. (But is it all tapped out by now? As one young Abramovic-watcher at MOMA says, "Pretty soon you'll see someone shoot someone else in the face and they'll call it art." I paraphrase from memory. Let's hope Art doesn't go there. But: it has come pretty close.)

You Say All Performance Art Is Bullshit?
How close? In an early performance in Belgrade, 1974, Abramovic decks out tables with all sorts of implements, tools, gadgets. 72 items. The audience can do whatever they want with her. The audience can walk up to her and pick anything from the table and apply it to her body. She has her clothes ripped off rather quickly. Among the 72 items: feather duster, olive oil, whatever. Some cut her body with sharp instruments Abramovic has supplied. Someone else drinks some blood from her neck. She just takes it. The kicker: the audience is informed the pistol over there on the table is loaded. Someone puts it to her head but doesn't pull the trigger. Someone else pushed rose thorns into her stomach. There was always the chance some suitably deranged individual could have shot her. But they didn't. Many did do vicious things to her. She was tearful but elated (and laughs!) after the six hour piece because she wasn't shot or mutilated beyond repair, and she got her point across: a group of people can take on a nasty tone and do some fairly heinous acts to someone else's body, just because it seems it they have carte blanche to do so. I know people who think performance art is bullshit, but you have to admit: this seems compelling.

William S. Burroughs, in one of his apocalyptic moods, wrote about Art spilling off the pages, escaping the frames and filling the streets, becoming Writ Large. In a way, certain performance art is a step towards this, but it is still "framed" by the various notices and literature that performance art will take place at a certain venue, a certain time, admission is $16, parking can be found in a number of lots nearby at $20 for three hours and the subway is just around the block, etc.

As I write, Marina Abramovic has just arrived in Australia and is "like the Beatles," as a promoter waxes hyperbolic.

Zen Shit
But let's not be cynical. I love her work. But I also laugh at almost all of it, because she's able to carry it off. Someone once said that "Art is what you can get away with," and I have to agree. Abramovic also seems genuine to me. She's 68 as of last November and in the documentary, in an interview at age 63 she states her age and - yes, she's in makeup for the interview - but she's astonishingly gorgeous at 63. Now here's some cynicism on my part: would she have attracted as many followers if she didn't look like a Slavic Goddess archetype? (Maybe...)

Abramovic has done a few pieces in which nothing happens; she just sits there. One of the main reasons for doing this is to test the limits of her body. Indeed, much of it seems brutal, grueling. But she also hints there's a political component to these pieces: in the West, it's anathema to Do Nothing. Just sit there; it's provocative!

To prepare for these works, she does "zen shit." There's a sequence in the documentary where she takes thirty or so young artist-recruits to her house in upstate NewYork, where they prepare mentally and physically to perform some of Abramovic's past pieces at MOMA, along with performance pieces by other artists. It all looks like very zen-retreat-ish with a dash of surrealism to me. (Yea, maybe you wanna see the film.)

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson
Not long ago I read this novel and let me just say that if you're a performance art junkie who also likes to read novels, you might want to look into this one, which addresses serious items about the possible damages parents may cause their children, if the parent-artists take this sort of art too seriously. And I found it quite hilarious and entertaining too.

One of the ideas highlighted in this book is this: if you live with these sorts of artists - or actively seek out that which constantly challenges your ideas about what's "real" and who or what to trust, etc - often the most mundane situations you find yourself in can be fraught with High Weirdness. 'Cuz now you're on your toes, more than most people. About the whoopee cushions of "reality."

Toward a Taxonomy of Performance Art
Is a Marilyn Manson show "performance art"? I leave it to you. What about Christo's various monumental environmental installations? What about pranks? Guerrilla ontology? Hoaxes? Art "Actions"? Flash mobs? Fluxus performances? Interventions? Happenings? Neo-Dada? "Manouevres"? Circus freak shows? Yes, I take your point that hoaxes seem to be done for gain, and that generally the hope is that no one will catch on. And all of these things might fall under "guerrilla ontology" in that they hope to make the audience re-think what they thought was "real." Must the Work have an intended agenda or message? When, if ever, is a well-thought-out prank not performance art? (There are certain performance art aficionados who will not allow pranks in their club.) Sometimes those who take part don't know they're part of the Thing. To what degree is the audience necessary or complicit in the art-form? "Happenings" in the sense of Allan Kaprow's works seem to begin with a few parameters and then, like a scientific experiment, wonder how it will all turn out. In this sense they remind me of magickal workings. Does ceremonial magick belong somewhere in this taxonomy? Must there always be disruption? The possibility of danger? An overtly (or semi- ) political statement? Nudity? Profanity? (One would hope so for those last two...) One of the most pervasive ingredients in these things seem to be Indeterminacy, which has me buying it if only for that, because, ya know, life's too short.

Some of this stuff seems mostly to want to delight or entertain certain types of cognoscenti, and to piss off the philistines, which is all good to me. I've yet to see a very convincing taxonomy. Anyone got one?

In an ideal world, children and other innocents would be spared exposure to violent ruptures in "reality" but we all know a few hearty kids who thrive on this material from the get-go. Clearly there were children entranced by Abramovic just sitting there. There were adults who looked outraged that this was A Thing. At some point in our lives, we can go on enjoying the shock or the surrealities of these things; others shut down. It's genes plus environment plus memory and experience plus a few other things I can't remember just now. Which brings me to...

Drugs and Performance Art
Abramovic is against drug use, and claims to have smoked a cigarette in the 1970s, because it was supposed to be cool. I think her work is about zen, the body, endurance, and facing fear and overcoming it. (Much of her earlier work with her lover Ulay seemed to be about incommensurability between men and women, too.) I see her work as having a drug-like effect. It works this way for me; it may not for you. What I want from any altered state is a novel perspective on some phenomena. I look at all art as a chance to enter into what the phenomenological sociologist Peter Berger calls a "finite province of meaning." I exercise a lot and enter a non-ordinary state. I meditate, smoke cannabis, read Finnegans Wake, listen to Bach/Stockhausen/Coltrane/Sun Ra/Vilayat Khan/Balinese Monkey Music/Pink Floyd, have sex, do math or logic puzzles, eat very spicy foods, sit in a hot bath in the dark with earplugs and eyeshades on, engage with sophisticated technology, watch films: voila!: non-ordinary states. I think this came with the Instruction Manual for the owner of a Mind. Many seem to have displaced their manual. Personally, I model all of these wonderful gimmicks as sorts of things and of a piece with the practice of magick. Your Mileage May Vary. To me, it's all Drugs. Try to stop me from doing my bathtub routine, DEA!

Some people do not like many (or all) of these sorts of things, and they should not be forced to engage with it, much less endure it. As with Timothy Leary's Two Commandments:

1.) Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow men.
2.) Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow men from altering their own consciousness.

With the First Commandment and taking into consideration the somewhat fugitive nature of much of "performance art" in the wider senses of the term, sometimes we cannot help it. It could be the Times we're living in?

Other Perf-or-mances/Other Arty Mental States
A lot of the enjoyment of this - if enjoyed at all - seems idiosyncratic, a matter of taste. I have gotten my rocks off watching sword swallowers and gorgeous mostly-nude babes walking barefoot on a bed of broken glass at freak shows like the CIA in North Hollywood. Then again, I would return again and again to David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology because I was never sure what was a put-on or what was legit, and it was all so incredibly well-done. (And I liked not knowing for sure what was a put-on or fancy; I love the indeterminacy.)

If extremes with the body is the subject, many artists come to mind. Like Bob Flanagan. Or Martha Graham stuff I've seen. Ever heard of Fakir Musafar? His stuff set a mind a-wonderin', aye.

Some of the best altered states I've been in were when I flew to Tokyo or London or Amsterdam or Lisbon or Kathmandu...and jet-lagged, I got out and walked aimlessly around those metropolises. This is not art, but it does seem linked to Abramovic's body-based work. Yet no one else can enjoy it but myself. And then I get back to my hotel room and collapse from sleepiness and the dreams extend that overall weirdness. The worst part of this is the actual flying part, hands down. What, in these scenarios, is the Art? I say to you: the cities and their inhabitants. It's yoga, a connection: my blitzed nervous system and the new city's overwhelming info-density and novelty.

I remember getting high off the hijinks of Andy Kaufman. I could rely on Andy to knock me into the finite province of wonder. There's a funny put-on/performance artist alive today (not saying you're not still alive, Andy!) named "Hennessy Youngman" who cracks me up. He seems like Sacha Baron Cohen ratcheted up a notch, and he makes Modern Art seem a lot more fun than some overly serious staid lecturer at Uni. I've seen lots of video of the robot anarchy from Survival Research Labs that really blew my balls to the far side of Eris. I recall when, around age 20, I read and delved like a madman into John Cage and Lamont Young, and felt a quite visceral thrill when I read that one of Nam June Paik's "serious" music performances consisted of coming out to applause, and, instead of sitting down at the piano, he took an axe and a chainsaw and cut the piano in half. Because...it had yet to be done?

As far as pranks go as a possible subset of performance art, here's one of my all-time favorites:
If you aren't familiar with this prank, please READ HERE. Effing genius.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Robert Anton Wilson: Missing Books

I've just finished reading Patton Oswalt's book Silver Screen Fiend:Learning About Life From An Addiction To Film (2015) and it was of course very hilarious and entertaining: it's Patton Freaking Oswalt. But I had had no idea he'd haunted the New Beverly Cinema as I had. LA's greatest revival house for film, it had and has a cult following of film freaks and the book is dedicated to Sherman Torgan, who ran the place while Oswalt saw gawd only knows: probably 400 films there over a four year period, 1995-1999. The Appendix (pp.189-222) lists all the films, so I guess I could count but I'm too lazy... Yea: Patton Oswalt saw hundreds of films in movie theaters in those four years, he lists them all: date/film(s)/venue, and it's a lot like my own lists, only his manic phase of crashing the canons of film seemed deeper and more intense than mine. Torgan's programming easily convinced me he knew what films were worth seeing. I knew that if the New Bev was showing it it was probably worth seeing, it didn't matter if I hadn't heard of the film, or if it was from a genre I don't strongly gravitate toward (musicals and gorefest, anything with Doris Day in it). There's a hilarious chapter where he details the unhinged drive to see 12 Hammer Horror films in two days, and eventually, from sleep deprivation and insane film gluttony, the Hammer films begin to run together in his mind with other classic Hollywood films he'd seen recently...he's having a bad hallucination trip while awake, hilariously described, like something out of Alexander Trocchi, while in the theatre supposedly watching another film. A fellow film weirdo asks him if he's okay. Yea. (Noooo.)

I think I started driving from San Pedro up the Harbor Freeway (to the 10) to that predominately orthodox Jewish neighborhood of LA (near the corner of La Brea and Beverly Blvd) around 1996. I drove that stretch a lot. From one corner of the metropolis to another. I think I was aware of Oswalt as a stand-up comedian, and I may have seen him there, but I saw a lot of familiar screen faces there. I remember one night I took a seat in the dark moments before a double feature of Jeunet et Caro: Delicatessen (one of my all-time favorite films), and City of Lost Children. When the delicatessen owner asks "Have I got something right here?" the crowd erupts in laughter (as it should: one of the great anarchic comic moments in cinema history), and I look over at a guy cracking up and note I'm sitting next to Doogie Howser's, best-friend Max Casella.

I remember dragging my wife to see a John Frankenheimer double feature, because Seconds was the second film. Seconds totally slays me. Always. It was a Friday night - date night, when young, well-educated hipsters invaded the New Bev, usually to see the first film, then leave for - their actual lives. They all saw the admittedly great and famous 1962 Manchurian Candidate then left, despite my leaning into the aisle and telling twentysomething strangers filing out: "If you thought that was good, wait till you see Seconds," and no one would even make eye contact with the Scary Old Guy.

                                       a bit from Seconds (1966): Rock Hudson rocks!

Anyway...After Sherman Torgan's death (and Quentin Tarantino publicly standing up for film freaks all over LA by saying "As long as I draw breath, the New Beverly will remain open"), Oswalt attends a "sloppy, spontaneously organized 'wake'" inside the not-too-far-away Egyptian Theatre. (Everyone agreed it wouldn't be right to do it inside the New Bev). Oswalt tells the anecdote about the night Lawrence Tierney walked into the middle of Citizen Kane and sat behind Oswalt and started talking out loud to the screen for about 15 minutes before his handler finds him and ushers him out. Tierney had never seen the film, but the stuff he says, like the best DVD commentary ever - as remembered by Oswalt, coupled with what we know about Tierney's history and that voice - a shimmering anecdote in a book filled with them. (see pp.94-98) (I wonder how many RAWphiles that know of Tierney and his work think of him as a classic 2nd Circuit type as I do.)

After the wake, Oswalt programmed an entire month of fantastic, non-existent films for the New Beverly in Heaven, just for Sherman. Oswalt writes that he got the idea from Neil Gaiman's storyline in  The Sandman books, of "Brief Lives," where there's a "dream library" of books that famous authors never got around to writing, like Raymond Chandler's Love Can Be Murder, or Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures on the Moon. I for one would drop everything going on in my life to go see every one of these dream films, which includes Orson Welles's 1942 Heart of Darkness and Orson's 1944 Batman: Riddle of the Ghoul, starring Gary Cooper as Bruce Wayne/Batman. "And leave it to Welles to populate his movie with six of Batman's cast of villains: Lee Marvin as Two-Face, Edward G. Robinson as the Penguin, Ella Raines as Catwoman, Dwight Frye as the Riddler, Everett Sloane as the Scarecrow and, towering imperiously over the whole mad feast, Welles himself as Ra's al Ghul. The Richard Widmark cameo, at the end, as the newly scarred Joker, leaping toward the screen from the smoking ruins of the chemical plant, still makes people scream. The costumes that longtime fans wear to midnight showings only add to the chiaroscuro carnival." (p.174) I see the great RKO noir Director of Photography, Nicholas Musuraca, doing the lights and camera here, with Orson, of course.

Oh yea: how perfect is this?: In some alternate universe/Torgan's Heaven that Hal Ashby directed A Confederacy of Dunces? John Belushi played Ignatius in a miraculous performance without ever having read John Kennedy Toole's novel. With Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. Oswalt goes on with this, an invention of 29 films. Hey! I just noticed the blogpost that forms this chapter of "dream films" is HERE! (<----In the blog there, you only get the names of the nonexistent films; you have to get hold of Oswalt's book to read the synopses.)
Reading this bit from Patton Oswalt's film addiction book reminded me of the Books Missing From Robert Anton Wilson's Oeuvre. Many of us have discussed what RAW's Tale of the Tribe would have been, but he died before he could write it. We got a precis, tantalizing to the utmost, at the end of TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution, pp.203-213. If we could pool the no-doubt thousands of pages of notes from RAWphiles on what RAW was hinting at, we might be able to cobble something together. But it wouldn't be RAW.

Now please bear with me: I've gotten hold of some...well...let''s just say I've gotten lucky and was able to obtain a hot underground tryptamine drug made by the Disciples Of Shulgin (DOS). Psychonauts have been reporting that at the half gram dosage level, they've had very pleasant glimpses of other possible worlds, but only those worlds the person had been daydreaming or thinking about in their ordinary, non-stoned lives. I took some after thinking of RAW's books and, for whatever it's worth, here's what I've come back with:

The Shea Correspondence Course: Letters Between Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea (2017): RAW finally collected the vast trove of letters received from his friend Robert Shea, and via excessive volunteer wrangling by RAWphiles, found well over 40 long type-written letters he'd sent to Shea. All of the letters from both men had been dispersed, scattered among numerous friends and collectors of literary ephemera. Interviewed by NPR about the 423 page tome, RAW says from his home in Capitola that he was surprised how much he'd forgotten about how Illuminatus! eventually coalesced, but was grateful such a large number of the letters had shown up after an Internet call-to-arms from his fanatic readers. NPR seemed most interested in the fervor of glee among the cultish readers of Wilson over the publication, long awaited and thought at one time impossible. Why the word "course" in the title, NPR asks? Wilson said his friend Robert Shea was the sort of person whose anarchic intelligence always made him think, and re-reading their letters before publication he realized how much he'd learned. Shea died in 1994. Reviewed at BoingBoing: "I've never seen a correspondence that was so funny and at the same time brimming with endless ideas. Even when they seem to have a simmering feud over some idea or another, you can always tell they loved each other."

Hollywood Notes (2012?): The long-awaited chronicles of RAW's first-hand experiences seeing his books Masks of the Illuminati, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, and the midnight movie Reality Is What You Can Get Away With made into films and the sausage-factory behind the scenes. RAW agrees with Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald: if they want to pay you for the rights, best to just take the money and leave Hollywood. But RAW's too interested in the machinations of filmmaking and while he has grave problems with the liberties directors, editors and script "doctors" took with his material, he seems pleased by the results, all in all. My favorite part of the book is RAW's anecdotes about the film community party scenes in the hills above Hollywood.

Heretic: How Timothy Leary Foresaw the "New Teleology"(2025): This short tome is a surprise hit with academics who had been trying to forge the "New Synthesis" sometimes called the "New Teleology," since the rise in prominence of Sheldrake, epigenetics, CRISPR techniques that helped to rapidly cure most diseases and food shortages. Other texts had emphasized the rapid falling out of favor of "selfish gene" ideas as the main motors of evolution. RAW traces the history of self-organizing life to cosmic panspermia notions and the long list of scientific "heretics" who emphasized latent "systems" inherent in the human nervous system. This book argues that Leary's ideas about the brain and evolution were far ahead of his time (Leary died in 1996), that Neo-Darwinism was always a big chunk of the puzzle, but that scientific visionaries - once marginalized as "crackpots" or "mystics" such as Bruno, Reich, Lamarck, Sheldrake and Leary - are now seen, retrospectively, as victims of a sort of mass hubris and "Mind-Forged Manacles" of working prole scientists/old paradigm adherents (RAW loves to quote the poet Blake). It was said that the philosopher Thomas Nagel was a fan of this book, but this can not be substantiated at the moment you're reading this. At 225 pages and good humor, this one's on many a college syllabus and wins RAW a National Book Award for Non-Fiction.

New Age Sewage (2016): RAW seems to be channeling George Carlin here in his non-fiction satire on anti-vaxxers, Randroids, supply-siders (these last two not New Age per se, merely bad ideas), New Earthers, "race-ists," orthorexics, those fearful of taboo words, and fundamentalists of all sorts. Perhaps surprisingly, the book receives very good reviews from those Skeptics that RAW lampooned in many works. RAW at his most polemical, this book is at least the equal in tone and logical vigor as The New Inquisition and Natural Law.

Life Plus 3000 (2030): RAW's immortality book, which in the Preface he says he'd radically revised at minimum 32 times because of the "Jumping Jesus Phenomenon." A very old version had a working title Death Shall Have No Dominion. I found it most impressive that RAW doesn't gloat here: he'd been writing about longevity and immortality since the 1970s and was scoffed at by New York intellectuals. When the worm began to turn most decisively around 2023 he decided to wrap it up. Now he's been proven "correct" for the most part, but rather than name his fairly "wrong" (and mostly forgotten) detractors, he seems more in awe of Nature than ever.

Collected Writings on Joyce (2014): Joyce scholar Fritz Senn was the impetus behind this. He thought young European readers needed an introduction to Joyce by an intellectual non-academic Joycean. I had no idea RAW had written this much, in such detail, on Joyce. Lovers of RAW's book Coincidance will want to graduate to this text, many of the ideas of which were once too "far out" but have now made it inside mainstream Joyce scholarship.

Robert Anton Wilson's Book of Black Magic and Curses (2007): A rollicking book of humor about domesticated primate hypnosis and words, psychoneuroimmunology, the omnipresence of metaphor, a vindication of Vico and Korzybski, and "How To Tell Your Friends From the Other Apes." One reviewer blurbs on the back cover: "A linguistics book sui generis if I ever saw one. Highly recommended." RAW scholars can now see what Playboy's Book of Forbidden Words was supposed to be, before the editors took out all the most interesting parts. Or, as RAW put it, "The editors at Playboy Press, like most editors, want to pee in the soup before they let go of someone else's work."

Bride of Illuminatus! (2019) Long-awaited. Carries his (and Shea's) saga of certain families and ideas through the Age of Surveillance. The plotlines developed with Edward Snowden vs. Dick Cheney (under disguised names, for this is one long True Shaggy Dog Story) makes this Trip worth reading over and over.

Babylon L-5 (2021) One of the best of the sixty-some-odd books preparing humanity for space colonization. Said to have cheered Elon Musk, who, after reading it, redoubled his efforts to get LaGrange point communities going for industrial production in zero-gravity, followed by his (and others') move to make Project Exurb a reality. Meanwhile, space travel impact on human physiological systems are being solved almost weekly. RAW keeps up on this stuff.

Untitled Epic Poem on Evolution: So far: no publisher. He's said to still be working on it, although over 100 chapters exist in the version that passed through my hands. Seemingly influenced by both Pound's Cantos and Joyce's Finnegans Wake as well as the wildest, most outre ideas about baby universes, brane theory, black holes, and self-organizing Taoist cybernetic feedback loops within loops, the loose-leaf copy I had was over 1700 pages of "holographic poetry" and seemed to fuse in equal measure hardcore-scientific, poetic and mystical ideas. The work functions as an encyclopedia of history and hard science, while reading as poetry. One strain of poetic rumination, about a divine feminine and repressed aspect of history, coupled with - believe it or not - the history of economics (!) makes a bracing case for universal liberation and "true freedom" for all "sentient beings" and a freedom from fear, want, and State and other Gangster coercion, based on communication, humor and massive cybernetic feedback loops of information so dense...well, I just want you all to be able to get hold of a copy some day, as this is a true Terran Archive and "Blueprint For Humanity" (<-----the name of one of the poems.) There were references and allusions enough to support the argument that this might truly constitute RAW's Tale of the Tribe. Difficult and psychedelic. Readers new to Wilson are advised to study his works from 1959-2005 first. Another helpful idea, until the work is finished and published: RAW includes an annotated bibliography that in itself was over 200 pages and quite cosmically hilarious, I thought.

That's all I can remember until I take that particular tryptamine again. If any of you have similar access and find something out about RAW's nonexistent-in-this-world oeuvre, please report back here in the comments!

                                           graphic art by Bob Campbell

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz (2007)

I finished reading this novel a week ago, and it's haunting me. It was Diaz's first novel and he won the Pulitzer for it, now teaches at M.I.T. Won a MacArthur "Genius" award. Deserved it. I arrived eight years late, but I'm glad I came. (Just why I'm glad I came seems roughly the same answer you'd get when someone says she "enjoyed" Hamlet. q.v. the following.)

Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, but moved to New Jersey as a youngster. His prose dazzles and reminded me of David Foster Wallace: not so much the style or voice or syntactical ju-ju, but overall Brilliant Mind, mixing a staggering number of allusions to history, pop kulch, esp. science fiction, gaming, and movies.  The anthropological intricacies of ideas and language involved with how Hispanics and Latinos from one society think about Hispanics and Latinos based on their relative degrees of melanin turned up my sociology nobs to 11. (I'm not saying I think this is the major criterion for snap-judgements or valuations, but it seems far more complex than my white-boy milieux, from one who grew up in the Los Angeles 'burbs.) I  also think Diaz writes on the subjects of desire, beauty and sex in particularly compelling ways.

Oscar is that fat, hopeless kid in school who gets picked on by everyone, and worries about ever getting laid. He loves women, but he's a Dominican non-macho gargantuan nerd. As a freshman in college, he's described as "307 pounds." It's some dark stuff. In college he constantly fools himself that finally some girl will love him. He attempts suicide. Still, a lot of him is in many of us, even us skinny folk. I'm haunted by Oscar, because we know this guy. And we wish we'd been nicer to him. And sometimes we were, but...and we sorta "get" why he speaks "like a Star Trek computer" and is so profoundly nerdy and clueless about social interactions, especially with the opposite sex. And still we wonder: is there more to why he's like this? The novel's - Diaz's main posit? - the family is under a curse: the fuku. 

Diaz woke up the Joyce (or, Pynchon)-reader in me in that many of his sentences are larded with references to obscure-to-me fantasy characters and there are citations to Dominican and other Hispanic and Latino histories and figures, Japanese pop culture, nerd culture, more than enough obscurities to delight my inner Wao, etc. The difficulties mount: Diaz writes in Spanglish, including many varieties of Spanish idioms and slang, and my copy was not an annotated version, so dictionaries helped, and so did the Net, of course. Finally, by page 40 or so, I stumbled onto one person's online annotations, which are a work-in-progress and "Kim" of San Francisco is crowdsourcing it. (Or is it sorta Wiki-ish?)

Diaz plays it coy with who the narrator of the story is, but eventually gives it away about halfway through. It wasn't who I thought it was...because I found I'd been prejudiced and didn't think the character in novel could be as thoughtful and compassionate as he had been drawn...but drawn by...who? Ahh, the pomo jukes of Diaz!

                             One of my favorite artists, Bob Campbell, did this for me as a 
                             surprise gift. Check him out!

Okay, the novel's about the story of Oscar's family as lived in the 20th century, mostly in the Dominican Republic. I confess that I'd heard this was a tremendous literary work, but someone in my book group picked it (egged on by me), even though I didn't know anything about what goes on in the book. Immediately we are informed about the Dominican Republic, a place I'd read a bit about, and it was all horrifying. I had read enough about Trujillo (dictator from 1930-61) that I hoped the novel wouldn't stay on the subject. It didn't. It went on and on about Oscar and his sexy feminist sister, and his workaholic, cancerous, and psychologically traumatized mother. There are no cardboard characters in the book. It's compelling on every goddamned page.

I said it didn't stay on Trujillo. But then He came back. And that's what's stayed with me.

Brief sort-of tangent: On at least three occasions I've had talks with friends about the old TV show The Twilight Zone. Usually someone brings up an episode and then we all chime in, then mention another episode and talk about our impressions and ideas about that one, usw. The show had me in a sort of Oscar Wao-ish way between the ages of 13 and 20. I was a total geek for that show, and watched some episodes over and over. I studied Marc Scott Zicree's book on the show. My favorite Twilight Zone episode is called "Walking Distance" but that has nothing to do with this. Another episode, "It's A Good Life," , which features a King-Ubu/Kim-Jong-il-like monstrous little boy with supernatural powers, has everything to do with Diaz's novel, so I'll return and try to get to the crux...

In going back to the life and times of Oscar's grandfather Abelard,  the accomplished medical doctor and center of intellectual activity in the DR, a man I'd have liked to have known, it's bluntly stated that living in the DR under Trujillo was like living in "It's A Good Life" (see p.224, ff forward and backward), which I have always thought was one of the most horrifying stories I'd ever seen. It continues to creep me out, after (easily) more than ten viewings. (See above link.)

Combine that with the most brutal banana republic fascist regime - where about half the population is a snitch or a cop or part of the secret police and the dictator doesn't wish you into the cornfield, but has goons waylay you in city traffic, kidnap you, then beat you with rifle butts until you're almost dead, then leave your body in the sugar cane fields. There's the wealthy class on the island, who own everything, there's the dictator and his goons, who can take that away from you and literally erase everything about your existence, even your signature. And then pretty much everyone else is in squalor and lives in a state of constant anxiety. And oh yea: the dictator has his goons monitor the populace for every beautiful girl, apparently the younger the better, and he gets to fuck her, or your family is ruined. No daddy can say no to Trujillo, or not for long. Torture of the Gitmo variety was commonplace. ("At least he was anticommunist!" - Unistat)

Just one of many delights from the Trujillo regime: when the price of sugar dropped - he'd stolen 80% of the sugar plantations for himself - he blamed the Haitian slaves who worked those fields, and had 20,000 of them massacred.

Unistat backed Trujillo for a long time, simply because he was anti-Communist. Eventually the CIA saw for themselves what a horror show the entire island was, and were vexed: yea, but he's anti-Commie! What do we do? JFK-lovers need to read up on his way of handling it. (This story will have to be told later. Or better yet: check into it fer yer own self?)

Throughout the book and the footnotes, Diaz sticks with the fuku narrative about why such horrific things happened to Oscar and his family and ancestors. In interviews he talks about Trujillo and how his family reacted when he brought up the topic. It's completely repressed.

So, the haunting has to do with my own silly neuroses about vast income inequality and the militarization of the police, a massive surveillance State, and sham political elections. Because I've read about these histories throughout my life. Because, when I read Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism and he showed that fascistic configurations of political life has been the default mode throughout most of what we call "history," it made sense to me, I hate to say. And because Reich and Orwell and other writers have suggested the psychological horrors of brutal regimes can last for generations.

And Oscar wanted to live in Akira. Or Middle-Earth. He just wanted a kiss from a beautiful girl and to fondle a breast, maybe even get laid.

I get it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Garrison State: POTUS's SOTU Speech and the Semantic Unconscious

Around a minute into Obama's 2015 State of the Union speech we heard these words:

"Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe. We are humbled and grateful for your service.
America, for all that we've endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this:
The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong."

Yeaaa...Nope. Unistat is strung out on policing the world on behalf of its owners and the other wealthy states in the world. It's pretty much Our Thing.

Get a load of what Nick Turse has say about what ZERO of our "news" outlets has mentioned, then feel free to tell us why "the shadow of crisis has passed and the State of the Union is strong."
Here's my favorite neologism - hey, 'tis new to me! - in 2015: "surrealpolitick"

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Swift/Marx/Wilson: Ironies, Paradoxes, and Satires Mordant: Some Faves

De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess it's just one of those things, but I marvel at certain stylistic flair in satire. I think a struggling composer must feel similar things when listening to Bartok or Beethoven, or a young would-be Serious Novelist when reading Joyce or Pynchon.

                                               Jonathan Swift                        

Swift (1729)
My first example is Swift's A Modest Proposal. I dig the rhythm, the build-up before the modest proposal. There certainly were major problems with poverty/overpopulation among the poor in Ireland around 1729, no doubt. And the tone is exemplary of the "can-do" spirit among the well-fed. One of my favorite devices: Swift bolsters his rhetoric with statistics, the subtext being that we're reading a rational man here. And, from the first paragraph, we know we're in the midst of a writer filled with compassion and empathy, with a foolproof appeal to the heartbreaking difficulties of Motherhood. (If you haven't read the piece, it's very short, and I know you'll read it all "eventually" but for now click on the link above and read the first paragraph, so we can all be on the same page. Thanks.)

Swift has given this a lot of thought. He wants to alleviate misery. He's a practical man, too.  He's considered others' attempts at solving the problem and thinks he has a better solution. And so, before he tells us he's going to enumerate many reasons why the poor should sell off their children to be fattened and eaten by more wealthy gentry-types, he soberly writes, "I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection." He then follows with this sentence:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

He just wants to "ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance." Let's face it: a lot of these kids were born out of wedlock anyway. And you know what's really terrible? Many of these desperately poor kids are hired on as cheap labor, which, being so poor, they hardly have the strength to carry out. Eating these kids has so many advantages that Swift's argument is a slam-dunk. (To the madman who would take this seriously and not see that the real problem is vast income inequality and oppression of the church, state, and landlords...Are there such madmen amongst us? I mean besides Dick Cheney...)

Some of the benefits of this idea:

-Nine months after Lent, Catholics give birth at an inflated rate; eating their babies will lessen the number or papists in our midst.

-When the poor sell their babies for food, at least they'll have a slightly easier time paying off their landlords. The landlords have already (figuratively) devoured the parents.

-Butchers will do a bang-up biz. A kid can fatten up to 28 pounds after a year: delicious!

(As Swift cites esteemed, virtuous patriots who care about the dignity of humans, and while he keeps citing stats to bolster his claims...)

-A colleague - the same unnamed "American" who we find got his ideas from "the famous Psalmanazar"  - noted the problem of stores of venison being depleted too soon, so maybe we could eat boys and girls who have reached the age of 12 but not older than 14?: Swift is discerning: no, he's heard the boy-meat is "tough and lean" while you may as well let the girls live on, because they're almost of the age to produce more succulent meat from their own bodies. Point well-taken!

-Despite the practical reasons for not eating young teenage girls, as cited above, Psalmanazar's story about criminality - such as trying to poison the rich and powerful - should be considered if plump female teens commit such heinous crimes. Hey, it worked in Formosa...

-The argument against Swift - that he's not considered the aged, maimed, and diseased? Ah, but take this into consideration: they're already, every day, "dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can reasonably be expected." Objections overruled. Swift wins this one, too. And besides, who cares really? Those losers aren't working anymore, anyway. Practicality, people!

-This new source of succulent, tender meat, will provide for a "refinement of taste" for "gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom." Who in their right mind can argue with this?

-Poor people will have a few less mouths to feed. Swift cares. He really does. Bless him!

-This whole scheme will be an economic boost to taverns, where gentlemen who "justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating" will gladly pay whatever is asked for that sweet sweet kid-meat.

-It will enhance the quality of marriage, something every state wants. Why? Well, for one thing, fathers will attend with much more loving care their wives who are pregnant with the cargo that will help them pay the rent in a few month's time. Wife-beatings among the poor will diminish. And who can quarrel with that?

-We all like the fruits of pig-meat: bacon, pork, etc, but let's admit it: things can get a bit dull eating pork chops and bacon day after day. And no pig is "comparable in taste or magnificence to a well-grown, fat, yearling child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at lord mayor's feast or any other public entertainment." Such refinement!

To sum up, Swift can see no objection to his proposal. I mean, think of the beauty of it: it provides for the poor while also relieving them. It also gives "some pleasure to the rich."

I've read this piece maybe 15 or 20 times in my life, and it's never lost its power over me. I think what I admire most is the way Swift, whose voice here seems to emanate from a completely insane man, at the same time has us on his side, because this mode of rhetoric - satire of the highest level - is perhaps the fullest response to poverty and suffering when one feels angry that we can do better. The requisite distance between the rhetoric and the suffering of humans is enough that no one can take this seriously, even if the tone and "rational" argument implore us to consider such a ghastly idea.

The Irish government made lame attempts to silence him, but his character and esteem were of such elevation that Swift continued to publish whatever he pleased.

                                                       Karl Marx

Marx (1862/63)
In the so-called fourth volume of Das Kapital, "Theories of Surplus Value," Marx discusses previous economist's ideas about people who provide productive labor versus those who provide "unproductive" labor. Adam Smith (who Marx greatly admired) thought that the unproductive were, among others: "churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc." When Smith wrote men of letters and musicians, it frankly stung the OG. But "buffoons"? That one was like a punch to the gut. Anyway...All these lay-abouts were parasitical upon the labors of people who actually did real, honest work. But Marx, who knew his Swift (and everyone who ever wrote anything of interest, it seems), disagreed with the greatest classical economist of all time:

A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor books and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between the latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable book in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as "commodities"...

Think how much of our precarious economy owes to criminals! Where would judges or bailiffs or courthouse builders be without them? How about those fine men we call "police"? Jailers, makers of iron bars, gas chambers, badges and truncheons, guns, handcuffs? What about John Grisham and Perry Mason and Sherlock Holmes and The Sopranos? They'd be nowhere without the productions of criminals. Marx reminds us of all the improved and applied science that went into torture devices, and just think how good locks have become because of criminals. In Unistat, the gun trade is booming (sorry); the criminal's at times murderous contributions seems most essential to our very way of life!

The value of crime upon the way we think about morality is endlessly productive, and furthermore, as Francis Wheen writes, "The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of bourgeois life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would get blunted..." (p.78, Marx's Das Kapital)

Here's more of Marx on the subject:

Would the making of banknotes have reached its present perfection had there been no forgers?...And if ones leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world-market ever have come into being but for national crime? Indeed, would even the nations have arisen? And hasn't the Tree of Sin been at the same time the Tree of Knowledge ever since the time of Adam?

To those of my Dear Readers who find themselves unemployed, I offer Marx's riffs on productive labor here as merely a suggestion that perhaps we may frame our problems in different ways...

Wheen's slender book is one I found a delight, and he made me go back to reading Marx anew. There's a considerable take on Marx as a literary figure. Marx certainly wanted to produce something thoroughly along the lines of a literary masterpiece, but I personally would direct the reader to something like Dickens's Hard Times instead.

That said, Wheen covers the reception and attempts at categorizing Marx's sprawling work: "The book can be read as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created ('Capital which comes into the world soiled with gore top to toe and oozing blood from every pore')." Stanley Edgar Hyman saw the book as a Victorian melodrama: "The Mortgage on Labour-Power Foreclosed." The book can be seen as a black comedy, with a debunking of the "'phantom-like objectivity' of the commodity to expose the difference between heroic appearance and inglorious reality." (Wheen, p.75)

Wheen notes the critic C. Frankel saw Kapital as like a Greek tragedy: fate, tragic blindness, fixated ideas, seeing the truth too late, etc. In To The Finland Station, Edmund Wilson saw Marx as the greatest ironist since Swift, as a supreme parody of classical economics texts, and that, having read Kapital, the classical economists "never seem the same to us again; we can always see through their arguments and figures the realities of the crude human relations which it is their purpose or effect to mask."

I can see you now, Dear Reader: you've gathered your family and closest friends in one room for an announcement. Everyone is whispering what it could be. Tension in the room is palpable. Finally, you enter through the very large main door into the parlor. Everyone becomes silent. All eyes are trained on your every move. You let the drama build, then finally, get down to brass tacks: "Friends, my most beloved family members...this has been a difficult period in my life, as you all know, but I've done a lot of thinking - soul-searching, if you will - and I've made a decision about what to do, and I hope you will all help me in my new endeavor as best you can."

"Well? What is it?!?!," your father shouts, not with a small note of anxiety in his voice.

"I've...decided to enter a life of crime."

                                                 Robert Anton Wilson

Robert Anton Wilson (c. 1975?)
If Unistatians follow politics to any appreciable level, you will note that our "leaders" tell us that many things must be done in the name of "national security." The very phrase has proven to carry a mass hypnotic effect of considerable heft. "We cannot tell you anything about why we might be doing something that would make Al Capone look like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Trust us: it's about national security." And that is usually that. Oh, some Nosy Parker journalists will look behind the curtain and then report what vast cool and unsympathetic beastly doings are going on in our name, but who the fuck READS anymore?

Much less: who actually cares?

And maybe it doesn't matter at all. Why? Well, maybe we've had it all wrong in the first place. And I mean all wrong: it could be that "national security is the chief cause of national insecurity." This is the "First Law" of Hagbard Celine, a real character who uses the words of his author, Robert Anton Wilson.

The Reader would do well to consult the primary text, in The Illuminati Papers, pp.118-122. Wilson's virtuoso satirical chops are on display here, but like Swift and Marx - whose writings RAW knew well - it's only because he's at pains to convey the many invasions of our "privacies" that we find ourselves in. And I assert RAW was not drilling in a dry hole, but has shown that, in this First Law ("National security is the chief cause of national insecurity") he has, as of 2013, proven to be a Prophet. RAW made this observation around 40 years ago - probably after citizens broke into the FBI office in Media, PA in 1971 - and the essay was written (possibly) around the time Watergate became a news item, and (possibly) close to the summer of 1975 Church Committee hearings that "damaged" the CIA...at any rate, COINTELPRO was at work and possibly known, this was all well before Internet and the massive We Make the East German Stasi Look Like Pikers-era of Total Information Awareness by the NSA, FBI, CIA, local police, nefarious hackers, Wall Street, Facebook, Google, the TSA...et.al

RAW's main rhetorical ploy there was one he played with verve and aplomb like Bach played the organ: the reductio ad absurdum. That is, if we took the claims of "national security" seriously in the early 1970s, it meant that  the watchers must have watchers, because who can place total trust in the first group of watchers over our security and movements? But that second group can't be entirely trusted - something corrupt might happen - so we need another "security group" to watch the second group. And while they're at it, they should probably try to watch the first, initial group of security-providers. You can see where this went. For RAW, it was satire, but with a point. For us in 2014, it's something like Nightmare Prophecy come true: the (near) total Surveillance State.

Most of you are way ahead of me, so I'll just pick one story that I've mentioned with my friends that seems to have slipped through the cracks: NSA intercepts shipments of laptops purchased online and installs malware in them.  I'm sure you guys have a "favorite" that's "better" than this one. Have at it in the comments!

O! To be able to write satire with the panache of Swift, Marx, Wilson!

Monday, July 21, 2014

On Archives: Personal and Public; Powerful and Perilous

"One's file, you know, is never quite complete; a case is never really closed, even after a century, when all the participants are dead." - Graham Greene, The Third Man

I've just finished reading a piece about how Stanley Kubrick amassed a personal archive - now housed in a climate-controlled wing of the University of Arts London - but intrepid journalist Jon Ronson somehow managed to peruse the extremely well-labeled and organized boxes upon boxes when they were still at Childwick Green, where Kubrick had lived in a rambling house in which Ronson had to drive past at least three electric gates to get to.

"There are boxes everywhere - shelves of boxes in the stable block, rooms full of boxes in the main house. In the fields, where racehorses once stood and grazed, are half a dozen Portakabins, each packed with boxes. I notice that many of the boxes are sealed. Some have, in fact, remained unopened for decades." There are letters to and from Nabokov. There are fan letters from all over the world, filed by city of origin. There's an entire room devoted to Napoleon, with seemingly every book ever written about him, and 25,000 3x5 library cards filled with notes on Napoleon compiled by Kubrick and some assistants.

About the Napoleon note cards:

"How long did it take?" I ask.

"Years," says Tony. "The late sixties."

The Kubrick Napoleon film was never made. He ended up making A Clockwork Orange instead. (Napoleon will show up later, below, in the case of Giordano Bruno.)

It's a typically fine journalistic piece by Ronson, and it fed into my lifelong fascination with personal archives, and what they mean, or might mean, both to the collector and to others. To State power.
(see Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, pp.149-172, "Stanley Kubrick's Boxes")

Nowadays famous writers see bidding wars for their Nachlass, and it's made some writers ponder what their lives would be like once they sold their personal archives to an institution. Does it make you act "nicer" in all your emails? (The deal is: you get a sizeable sum, but must keep every scrap of writing from then on for the Institution.) What about love letters or writing that might hurt someone you love? How about what one might find embarrassing? If you opened a separate, secret email account, you are cheating the Institution and violating your agreement. You think to yourself, "Damn them! I have a life. And what sort of creep would want to go over my grocery lists?" Aye, but the Institution is backing you now; it's in their interests to play up how great you are...

Most of us who keep files about subjects we're interested in, or have built small personal libraries will not have to worry about this. Sometimes accidents happen. I remember when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's house in the hills of Los Angeles burnt down. He had built a famously large jazz record collection: all gone. He also lost priceless Korans, Asian and Middle Eastern rugs. A gentle giant of intellectual bend and perhaps the greatest NBA player ever, he always felt misunderstood and that fans loved him for helping the Lakers win games, but they thought he was a freak. The story of his house was all over the news, and for years afterwards strangers came up to him to give him rare jazz albums, which surprised him and altered his emotional assumptions about some "fans."

But Kareem's lost archives couldn't represent a threat to the State or other vested interests.

Some Countercultural Losses
I'd become aware of Terence McKenna's stupendously cool book collection. He seemed to be interested in everything that I was, but he knew more and could talk about what he knew in a way I could never dream. I thought how great it would be to meet him and be allowed to go through his library. But an accident happened at a Quizno's sandwich shop in Monterey, California, and all his rare books and personal notes were burned.

Aldous Huxley's incredible book collection, his letters, notes...all burned in the famous 1961 Bel-Air fire near Los Angeles. I've read various versions of this. Seared into memory: local TV news people were on the scene and found the Famous Man and asked him how he felt. Aldous said he felt "remarkably clean." I've yet to see if anyone had catalogued what was lost; I doubt if there was even a decent bibliography of what he'd had. Somewhat oddly, Huxley had published a piece in Vogue in 1947: "If My Library Burned Tonight." A passage: "To enter the shell of a well-loved room and to find it empty except for a thick carpet of ashes that were once one's favorite literature - the very thought of it is depressing."

Dr. Andrew Weil, involved with Dr. Timothy Leary at Harvard, lost a large collection of "books, records, papers and other items" in the flooding of his Arizona house in 2006.

Peter Dale Scott, UC Berkeley professor emeritus, poet and originator of the concept of "deep politics," which I take to be conspiracy research by people with PhDs or people who are intellectuals of some sort who question power, had all his books and notes and research burned in the famous 1991 Berkeley-Oakland Hills fire:

Now my best files from two decades
are ashes on a hillside.
-Minding The Darkness p.15

I can feel no loss
that my best political files
have all burned
if their message is too complex
even for close Harvard-educated
friends with PhDs
Minding, p.8

In 1990 Genesis P-Orridge was in Kathmandu when right wing xtians raided his house in England and stole two tons of his personal belongings, convinced he was one of Satan's great minions and out to harm children, etc. Of course Genesis is something of a magickian and musician, and very weird and very intelligent, but would never harm anyone. The police and the yellow British press had a field day with this supposed satanic cult leader. As Genesis told Richard Metzger:

And it was a Right Wing, Christian lawyer who accessed the illegal files. But they never printed an apology, they never gave me back my archive, and in that archive are many hours of Brion Gysin being interviewed, talking about his notebooks, showing things, paintings, drawings, explaining all kinds of incredible things. He's dead now. That's gone. There was a movie that Derek Jarman made when we brought William Burroughs to London. Derek filmed William all the time, went around with me and filmed everything. There was only one print of that movie and it's gone. There are Throbbing Gristle concerts that there were only one master of, gone. Just incredible stuff. All the photo albums of the children, growing up, gone. A stuffed dolphin toy, gone. The girls' Carebears videos, gone...I mean it's just incredible and it's still missing. The department of Scotland Yard was disbanded not long after, two of the detectives died within a year and now it's just impossible to find anyone who says they know anything about where everything is. Of course, we were never charged with anything, because we hadn't done anything. - see pp. 162-166 of Disinformation: The Interviews, R. Metzger. Genesis has a lot to say about personal archives.

Ed Sanders - poet-historian, disciple of Charles Olson and one of my favorite living archivists - famously did exhaustive research on the Manson murders, attending the trials, etc. He interviewed E.J. Gold, who was calling himself Morloch the Warlock in Los Angeles, August, 1970. A note from Sanders on E.J. Gold: "He speaks well, although too didactically. He is wonderful." Anyway, Gold told Sanders that some weirdos at a commune in Indio, California, where a 6 year old boy had burned down a house that "destroyed priceless unpublished Crowley manuscripts that the commune had ripped off from Israel Regardie, a well-known publisher, occultist, and Crowley scholar. He said that his group was recently robbed; among the magical addiddimenta ripped off was a polished copper mirror once belonging to Aleister Crowley." - p. 409, The Family

A word about this last: E.J. Gold was something of a prankster and may have taken Sanders for a ride here. Does anyone know more about this supposedly missing Crowleyania?

Take a gander: HERE's a Wiki for famous destroyed libraries, some done in the name of "cultural cleansing." As a pre-teen holed up in a library, I first read about deliberate burning of libraries in H.G. Wells's Outline of History, which I read all the way through three times before age 20. The case was the first one mentioned in the chart in the linked Wiki page:

While Alexander was overrunning Western Asia, China, under the last priest-emperors of the Chow Dynasty, was sinking into a state of great disorder. Each province clung to its separate nationality and traditions, and the Huns spread from province to province. The King of T'sin (who lived about eighty years before Alexander the Great), impressed by the mischief tradition was doing in the land, resolved to destroy the entire Chinese literature, and his son, Shi-Hwang-ti, the "first universal Emperor," made a strenuous attempt to seek out and destroy the existing classics. They vanished while he ruled, and he ruled without tradition, and welded China into a unity that endured for some centuries; but when he had passed, the hidden books crept in again. - p.182 of volume 1 in the 2-volume set.

A more recent take is HERE.

In the Afterlife, I imagine Plato coming up to the Emperor, now known in the West as "Qin Shi Huang," and saying, "Jeez man! I thought maybe I had some extreme ideas about controlling thought in my Republic, but you? You didn't even blink an eye, did you?"

These book-burners and book-haters and knowledge deniers are my mortal enemies yet I know they will always be with us. One wonders what a Ted Cruz/Sarah Palin Administration has in store for us. Just a couple weeks ago: "Singapore Library Will Destroy LGBT-Friendly Kids' Books at Behest of Bigot".

"Who Firebombed London's Oldest Anarchist Book Shop?"
"City Settles Lawsuit Over the Destruction of the Occupy Wall Street Library"

And so it goes...

Brief Idiosyncratic History of Authority/The Fearful vs. Mind and Books
The story of the Nag Hammadi Library is, for my purposes, the Ur-story. The Gnostic texts were ruthlessly hunted down and burned; the Church wouldn't allow any deviations from its carefully-assembled God Story. But someone collected as many of those texts as she/he could find and buried them...until they were found in Egypt in 1945. I love reading my copy of The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson. It's amazing how many xtians I've met who 1.) have not heard of the gnostic texts; 2.) heard of 'em but ain't never read a one of 'em and won't be lookin' out fer 'em; or 3.) haven't heard of the texts but assume I've been duped by Satan.

We jump to the 1500s, conveniently for moi. From John Higgs's book on Timothy Leary, I Have America Surrounded: John Dee's library:

Dr. Dee was one of the leading scholars of his day, and a man who played a leading role in the development of the science of navigation. He was also court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, and he used her horoscope to choose the day of her coronation in 1558. He possessed what was believed to be the largest library in Britain, until the local townsfolk, believing him to be an evil sorcerer, burned it down. He was also a spy for the Crown, and was sent on intelligence missions in various other European countries. It seems fitting, therefore, that he used to sign his documents with the code "007."

1600: The Venetian Inquisition confiscated the great Renaissance mystic, humanist, magician-scholar Giordano Bruno's works. He was ratted out as a heretic. The Vatican bureaucracy compiled a large processo arguing for a mass of evidence that Bruno was a dangerous heretic. There were eight heretical propositions taken from Bruno's works that he needed to recant in order to save his neck. One of them may have been his wild idea that there may be an infinity of other worlds in the universe. (We now know this is virtually true.) Bruno at first said he'd retract his wild statements, but then changed his mind, "obstinately maintaining that he had never written or said anything heretical and that the minsters of the Holy Office had wrongly interpreted his views. He was therefore sentenced as an impenitent heretic and handed over to the secular arm for punishment. He was burned alive on the Campo de' Fiori in Rome on February 17th, 1600." Bruno's works and the Inquistion's case against him were "lost forever, having formed part of a mass of archives which were transported to Paris by the order of Napoleon, where they were eventually sold as pulp to a cardboard factory." - both quoted passages from p.349 of Frances Yates's Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

1786: Filippo Michele Buonarruti, a most interesting figure, possibly aligned with the Bavarian Illuminati, which had been recently forced underground. Some sources refer to him as the "first professional revoutionary." Florentine police raided his library and confiscated all of his Masonic and anticlerical books. (see Music of Pythagoras, Ferguson, p.287) In the same year, in the Bavarian town of Landshut, police raided Xavier Zwack's house and a "considerable number of books and papers were discovered, the latter containing more than two hundred letters that had passed between Weishaupt and the Areopagites, dealing with the most intimate affairs of the order, together with tables containing the secret symbols, calendar, and geographical terms belonging to the system, imprints of its insignia, a partial roster of its membership, the statutes, instruction for recruiters, the primary ceremony of initiation, etc." (see The Bavarian Illuminati In America: The New England Conspiracy Scare, 1798, Stauffer, pp.180-182; 211)

1917: The Unistat government seized five tons of written material by the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World/IWW) on September 5th. A Grand Jury indicted 161 IWW leaders "for conspiracy to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes."

1975: Michael Horowitz, keeper of Timothy Leary's archives, on the "Archival Catastrophe of 1975."
Once again, this blog spew has run overtime, and if I started in on the Leary case I'd go on for another 2000 words, so maybe another day.

Final Word for Archivists
Your work has consequences. After Ellsberg, the COINTELPRO findings, continued revelations about Hoover's FBI, Assange and Snowden, do we need more proof that there will always be certain elements of the State apparatus who see free thinkers as a threat? Your work is not "neutral." It cannot be: knowledge has a social origin with social uses. There is more than enough kowtowing for The State and monied interests. Howard Zinn, who shares my fascination with Karl Mannheim's book Ideology and Utopia - the grounding text in the sociology of knowledge - says that knowledge:

Comes out of a divided, embattled world, and is poured into such a world. It is not neutral either in origin or effect. It reflects the biases of a diverse social order, but with one important qualification: that those with the most power and wealth in society will dominate the field of knowledge, so that it serves their interests. The scholar may swear to his neutrality on the job, but whether he be physicist, historian, or archivist, his work will tend, in this theory, to maintain the existing social order by perpetuating its values, by justifying its wars, perpetuating its prejudices, contributing to its xenophobia, and apologizing for its class order. Thus Aristotle, behind that enormous body of philosophical wisdom, justifies slavery, and Plato, underneath that dazzling set of dialogues, justifies obedience to the state, and Machiavelli, respected as one of the great intellectual figures of history, urges our concentration on means rather than ends. -p. 520, The Zinn Reader, "Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest," originally a talk given in 1970.

So: you collectors of weird books, file-stuffer of articles on Those Things That Few Seem To Notice, those modern-day Thomas Paines out there, you who care about injustice of a thousand stripes: carry on! Your work matters and has consequences, as we have seen. It's possibly powerful. I have touched on perhaps 1/30th of the "archives in trouble" notes from my own archives/research/files. I'd like to read your notes on the subject, if'n ya got any.

Other Articles and Books Consulted
"My Life, Their Archive," by Tim Parks
"In the Sontag Archives"
"Timbuktu Libraries in Exile"
Buckminster Fuller: Anthology For a New Millenium: pp.319-325, "The R. Buckminster Fuller Archives"
Huxley In Hollywood, by David King Dunaway
Investigative Poetry, by Ed Sanders
Harvard Psychedelic Club, by Don Lattin
Wilhelm Reich In Hell, by Robert Anton Wilson
My Life In Garbology, by A.J. Weberman (too many JFK assassination researchers/archivists to mention here, but sources on Mae Brussell's files and a few others are mindblowing)
Wobblies!, ed. by Paul Buhl
-at minimum five books about Philip K. Dick: theories about the break-in of his house.
The New Inquisition, by Robert Anton Wilson: see pp.83-84, about Jacques Vallee's records of UFO sightings destroyed
The Cultural Cold War, by Frances Stonor Saunders
Birth of a Psychedelic Culture, ed by Bravo: Allen Ginsberg's files on the CIA, drug busts, and sexual persecution
-at minimum four sources on how James Jesus Angleton of the CIA got hold of Mary Pinchot Meyer's diary immediately after she was murdered
Double Fold, by Nicholson Baker, a secret history of microfilm lobbyists, "former" CIA agents, and warehouses where priceless archives were destroyed

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reading David Foster Wallace and Tom Robbins Concurrently: Utter Incommensurability For Me

As a temporary detour from one of my reading projects - the entire Tom Robbins oeuvre, chronologically - I went back and read a bunch of sections from David Foster Wallace's works, because  I'd recently had a conversation about DFW's suicide in 2008, and it occurred to me that Tom Robbins - as "passe" as some readers feel his work now ( I certainly do not feel he's passe), "knew" something about life that DFW didn't.

                                                 David Foster Wallace

But this may be too facile: my diagnosis, after reading a couple of books of interviews with DFW and a terrific piece by Maria Bustillos, is that DFW may have been doomed from childhood: too much genius, too much self-consciousness and depression. In the last year of his life he tried to get off Nardil, which he'd been on since a suicide attempt, around 20 years before. Nothing else worked, he spiraled down, even with the resumption of Nardil and 12 rounds of electroconvulsive "therapy," and hung himself in Claremont, California, September 12, 2008.

In one interview he said he did LSD and "a fair amount of psilocybin in college," and smoked pot from age 15 or 16 until he got out of grad school. Why did he stop smoking pot? "I just, it wasn't shutting the system down anymore. It was just making the system, it was just making the system more unpleasant to be part of. My own system." (See Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, pp.137-139.) Wallace also had had a major alcohol problem, but "I was a sort of joyless drinker..." (op.cit, 142, and italics in original)

I cannot relate to the idea of smoking pot or drinking as a way to "shut down" my "system." I am nothing if not a joyful drinker. DFW is such a compelling figure to me that I will always know that there are people far smarter than me who are nonetheless haunted, and nothing from Big Pharma will allow them to feel unalloyed joy in simple things.

One of the many things I grapple with when I think of DFW is this feeling of the insistent, constantly surging intelligence coupled with what seems to me a horrifying level of self-doubt. I heartily refrain from armchair dipshit psychoanalysis here; in other words: I won't speculate further on the deepest levels of the source of DFW's misery.

Both DFW and Tom Robbins will be found in fat books that talk about "postmodern" American writers. Both used surrealist elements in their prose to engage their readers. Robbins was born 30 years before DFW, and perhaps many of you know about DFW's "puritan" backlash regarding Irony in our culture. (The seminal statement is probably his essay on TV, "E Unibus Plurum," collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.) Although I don't see TR as an ironically-minded writer, I do see him as a psychedelic writer. DFW too, oddly, for reasons touched on above.

DFW thought irony had become toxic to our culture, but while it had been an effective mode of rhetoric for authors from the 1960s in their attacks on post-WW2 assumptions about social relations, class, conformity, and "reality," by the early 1990s it was so pervasive that it was like the old fish-don't-know-they're-in-water thing: the educated young were so ironic and hip and miserable they couldn't even see that in their constant resorting to irony, they were crying out, in effect, "I'm trapped! Help me out! This is miserable!" (5 Second clip from The Simpsons for the win!)

I consider both DFW and Tom Robbins (TR) as novelists of ideas. TR imagined a character who was so well-defined as a mouthpiece for radical environmentalism and the dangers of rampant technology that the FBI questioned him in the Unabomber case before the G-Men caught up to Ted. DFW dreamed up a character that ran an academy for tennis-playing excellence, and he was a fascist. The character jumped off the page and ran around my house, in one ear, out the other.

TR put in with unalloyed Tibetan-tinged "crazy wisdom" long ago, even before he met Joseph Campbell and toured Mexico and Central America and later even more far-flung regions of the globe. He still celebrates July 26, 1963 - the day he first did LSD - as the most important day of his life, so much so that it actuated him to quit his job by "calling in well" and saying he was staying home, and that prior to that day he had been ill.

I am holding back on willy-nilly speculations about naivete, "belief" and especially, the albatross of Ego...

I'm not sure if DFW ever got out of the country, much less his own head. And yet: he seemed to believe some of his characters had come alive and spoken to him. I believe he had tremendous capacity for empathy. Certainly DFW's forays into psychedelics did not bring about any sort of psychic "breakthrough" that they had for TR, whose overall prose style seems to represent a form of mimesis of the mind on psychedelics.

While a recurring line in TR, "The world situation was dire, as usual" doesn't indicate a non-engagement with world politics, TR still seems one of the foremost exponents of change-yourself-first in order to change the world. I see his novels as literary LSD. The difficulty, the incommensurability of this is: I see DFW's novels (and much of his non-fiction) as psychedelic too. This may have to do with the sheer burst of information-per-page encountered in DFW, and let us recall Aldous Huxley's image of "normal consciousness" as a firehose with a crink in it, so water only comes out in dribs and drabs, while on psychedelics, the crink is undone and the brain is flooded by the hose, gushing full-on, overwhelming, consciousness-expanding.

Meanwhile, DFW thought something like Freud's Pleasure Principle was a threat to Unistat minds. TV and other media and "low art" were so effective and polished and easy - giving us a constant stream of comfortable, predictable shows that didn't challenge us but still felt really good that we've become divorced from "reality" and are setting ourselves up for fascism. He was saying this in the early 1990s. In the mid 1990s he predicted ever-better viewing situations, ever-better shows - by then he'd said the commercials were better than the shows, as far as sophistication of knowing the viewers' desires - and he predicted something like Netflix. In his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, there's a film that's so entertaining - called "Infinite Jest" - that people literally cannot stop watching it, and they become comatose, and figuratively lobotomized. And Quebecois terrorists want the film to use as a terror device, but I digress...

DFW could be hilarious. TR makes me laugh out loud, too. Their innate temperaments, or dispositions, or the happy and sad exigencies of their lives larded on top of those predispositions...makes me feel the personalities of the two seem quite far apart. I find I love both men's writing, and have an idealized picture of how each guy "really is" (or was) and that I like both personalities quite a lot. I don't expect to get to know TR, who is 82 this year; I never knew DFW. I know I cannot read DFW without knowing he was always in pain, and that he killed himself at age 46. Suicide haunts the background of every reading of DFW for me. This just makes me sad.

I may be pissing some DFW fans off here, but I assert that, while he considered himself a sort of avant-garde fiction writer (who wished to redeem avant-garde too-cool-fer-skool exercises with a sort of earnest and non-ironic spiritus) first, and a writer of non-fiction pieces second, he was a better non-fiction writer. And his fiction is marvelous. NB: while he was in grad school he was smoking pot, watching tons of TV, and doing psychedelics, all the while producing his first novel, The Broom of the System, and a Philosophy thesis that had to do with Wittgensteinian ideas titled "Richard Taylor's Fatalism and the Semantics of Physical Modality." What a freaky, wonderful, genius (MacArthur "Genius" Award 1997)! What a loss!

TR thought a good TV show would be "Queer Eye For the Fungi":

DFW thought the logical endpoint of our involvement with "reality" TV shows would be something called "Celebrity Autopsy," where we watch a coroner eviscerate an actual celebrity who died, while above his/her friends and family talk about the kind of person the celebrity really was.

I end this ramble - and let's face it: it's one - with a restatement: the goofy-wise joy behind TR is infectious and makes me love life. And academia pretends he's not serious. DFW did...all that (I did not mention he wrote a math book on Cantor's transfinite sets, which led to Godel...) In premature death, young academia acted like their own Kurt Cobain figure died, and maybe that's an apt analogy. But I do think the overall worldview and tone and sentences and ideas of TR deserve more nuanced reading in this, our year of the NSA 2014CE. But they won't. And so: why? Perhaps the serious Mind of our Academy considers a brilliant, "absurdly educated" (DFW's phrase) as one of their own; TR's offerings of ways Out still just seem silly, outre, irresponsible?

It could be that something in TR's overall project may be something like the "redemption" that DFW was looking for, for us. Or not. Or...sorta? (Maybe?)

Incommensurability. I'm not sure if DFW and TR would've liked each other. I like to daydream that they would hit it off.