Overweening Generalist

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Two Ways Novelists Can View Criticism

But before I get to that, a smattering of critical takes on ideas about criticism that are by and about and surround some of my favorite artists: Ezra Pound, Mezz Mezzrow, Marshall McLuhan,William S. Burroughs, and George Carlin:

Ol' Ez had a gazillion things to say about criticism, and often it was aimed at some sort of mass pedagogy for the "man" who still wants to learn; a "man" who has found himself alienated from the Bewildered Herd and would like some guidance from a no-nonsense tough-guy aesthete. Pound was happy to play the part. Here's some advice from Pound to one of these "men":

"All the 'critic' can do for him to is knock him out of his habitual associations, to 'show him the thing in a new light' or better, put it in some place he hadn't expected to find it." - from Machine Art & Other Writings: The Lost Thought of the Italian Years, p.83

It seems there are many cognate quotes like this from Pound in his voluminous oeuvre; I liked this one because it seems to capture the experimental Pound: a writer who tried to find structures and forms that worked on the mind of the Reader on more than a few levels. A critic can break habitual associations in the reader only with some sort of ju-ju that approaches a magickal operation, it seems to me. A simple way to unpack this: when Harold Bloom used the term "strong poetry" he meant someone (scientists and political revolutionaries included) who could use metaphors so well that they make the reader see the world in a new way. No mean feat; no small shakes, that.

Any criticism that accomplished this level must, it seems to me, attain to something like "literature" itself?

                                       Mezz: not the greatest player ever, but good enough,
                                    and he loved playing stoned. His book Really The Blues
                                    was influential in many ways.

Mezz Mezzrow
"Suppose you're the critical and analytical type, always ripping things to pieces, tearing the covers off and being disgusted by what you find under the sheet. Well, under the influence of muta you don't lose your surgical touch exactly, but you don't come up evil and grimy about it. You still see what you saw before but in a different, more tolerant way." - from Really The Blues, pagination lost in my notes because I was probably stoned?

No comment here; Mezz's observations about "muta" (cannabis) seem self-evident to me.

Woody Allen is a big fan of Mezz's book.

                                                  Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible

McLuhan on Burroughs
The New York intellectual Alfred Kazin had quasi-dismissed Burroughs's writings as a "private movie theatre." Here's McLuhan:

"It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home." - originally from "Notes on Burroughs," The Nation, December 28, 1964; collected in William S. Burroughs At The Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

Let me just say that the current way I see McLoon's meaning here is that we ought to look first at the performativity of Burroughs's bits, the way he tries to accomplish whatever he's trying for (saving Western civ), and not so much the garish content of his visuals alone.

Professor Carlin: On Film Criticism
"I'm never critical or judgmental about whether or not a movie is any good. The way I look at it, if several hundred people got together every day for a year or so - a number of them willing to put on heavy makeup, wear clothes that weren't their own and pretend to be people other than themselves - and their whole purpose for doing this was to entertain me, then I'm not gonna start worrying about whether or not they did a good job. The effort alone was enough to make me happy." - from When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?, p.106

                            Bobby Campbell's portrait of RAW and burger. Campbell is easily 
                           the best artist who has ever tired to capture Wilson's vibe: he's
                           steeped in RAW's work and has a mesmerizing, psychedelic style
                                 that fits RAW's work isomorphically. When I look at this 
                          piece, I think of the Discordian admonition: "Don't just eat a 
                          hamburger...eat THE HELL out of it!"

Two Writers: Very Different Takes on Criticism
First up, my favorite writer, Robert Anton Wilson, interviewed at his home overlooking the campus at Berkeley, possibly Spring of 1981, by Dr. Jeffrey M. Eliot:

Eliot: Are you affected by the critics? Do their opinions concern you?

RAW: As William Butler Yeats said, "Was there ever a dog that loved its fleas?" Critics have been very kind to me, personally. Of all the reviews of my published books, something like 90 percent have been highly favorable, so I have no personal grudge against critics. On the other hand, in an impersonal
way, I have a strong moral objection to critics. Whenever I see a critic tearing a writer or actor or any artist to shreds in print, I feel a sense of revulsion. I write a lot of criticism myself, but I only review things I like. I don't admire the desire to tear other people apart. I can think of two unfavorable reviews I've written in my whole life, and I regret them. One was about a book in which a woman gets raped and is said to enjoy it; the other was a review of a very dogmatic book on UFOs, in which the author described those who disagreed with him as neurotics. People who like to write witty, nasty
things about other people are not generous or charitable, to put it mildly. We should all try to give out as much good energy to other human beings as we possibly can. I honestly believe that every bit of bad energy we put out has adverse effects that go on forever. This is the Buddhist doctrine of karma. The
Buddhists believe that every bit of anger, resentment, hate and so on that goes out passes from one person to another, without stopping. The same is true of good energy: every bit of good energy one puts out makes someone else feel a little bit better. I think if people were really conscious of this
psychological fact, they would try to put out nothing but good energy, no matter what happened to them. They would certainly not be so casual about passing on bad energy. All the bad energy in the world builds up like a giant snowfall, until we have a huge war. Nowadays, it can mean total nuclear
Armageddon. This is traditional Buddhism, as I say, but I think it's materialistic common sense, too. One only needs to study human behavior to realize it. I regard those people who make a career out of being nasty as emotional plague carriers.
-from an interview in Literary Voices #1, p.54

Near the end of his life, RAW saw fit to re-publish snippets of various interviews he'd given over the years in his book Email To The Universe. The above was included in that 2005 book (albeit RAW edited it using E-Prime), see p.216. RAW wrote that his wife Arlen read the interview and she guessed he was stoned at the time. On p.216 of Email, which includes this bit on Buddhism and criticism, RAW included a footnote which reads: "Yeah, Arlen got it right: I must have toked a bunch o' weed before delivering myself of that sermon."

Aside from RAW's take on criticism here, his overall view on the subject was far more complex (he was not able to remain emotionally distant from unfriendly reviews), and someday I will try to flesh it all out a bit. Moving on...

Nonetheless: let us take Robert Anton Wilson(1981) as one view of critics. I would like to contrast this with Lawrence Grobel's interview with James Ellroy, who once described himself as the "demon dog" of literature.

Grobel asks Ellroy in 1998:

LG: Kirkus Reviews called you the comic-book Dos Passos of our time.

Ellroy: I never read Dos Passos. Kirkus can suck my dick. Fuck them up the ass with a faggot pit bull with an 18-inch dick and shoot a big load of syphilitic jism up Kirkus's ass.
-from Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives

Here's Ellroy on Brit TV from not long ago. He's always creeped me out in an entertaining way. If you ever get a chance to see him do a reading, even if you're not into his stuff, CANCEL everything else and see him read. Trust me on this. Also, as disparate from Robert Anton Wilson as I find Ellroy's bearing and attitude towards...life, note they have one musical love in common. This will take about 2 minutes of your space-time:


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

It looks like I'll have to read a James Ellroy book to see if he can live up to his self-description!

As it happens, I've been listening to a huge amount of Beethoven recently and he is probably my favorite composer, although I know that you, Michael, are holding out for Bach.

I guess I covered negative reviews when I commented on your previous entry.

michael said...

I do hold out for Papa Bach, but Beethoven will easily do.

Ellroy has a cult following. Living in LA, I was thrilled to read his amphetamine prose, and know those neighborhoods he was writing about. He's not my favorite LA writer, but I don't find him boring at all.

His physical presence and speaking voice: Big T artiste-madman, slightly dangerous, articulate and when he knows something, he knows it. He will not pretend to know things outside his bailiwick. His candor about his upbringing, his mother's haunting disappearance, etc: really gripping stuff. He's a Damaged Person, he's open about it, and I appreciate him for that.

But I doubt he and I could be friends in a way I doubted Bukowski and I could be friends.

Getting back to music: the other day, on a whim, I checked out a Wagner CD from the library: all overtures, and listened to it while driving in heavy traffic for an hour from Berkeley to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. I should say I TRIED to listen to it: the dynamics of Wagner's music make listening in the car a big mistake.

What's this? I can barely hear it...better turn the volume up...louder...louder...whoa! WAY too loud! Turn it down...down...ahhh....oops now I can't hear a thing, better turn it up...up...WHOA! too loud!...down...down.

At least with Bach I get good ol' baroque Terraced Dynamics.

Lesson: some composers are not for the car. especially if it's 90 degrees and you want to roll the windows down, no AC.

Eric Wagner said...

Great stuff as always.

I have Wagner playing right now, "Pasifal," which Crowley often mentioned.

I heard Glenn Gould on the radio the other day talking about McLuhan, which I found very interesting. Gould said he felt glad he lived in the 20th century so he could listen to music all the time. Now whenever Handel comes on the radio (as it often does), I wonder what Beethoven would think about listening to it for three reasons:
He loved Handel,
He would love to hear again &
I imagine the radio would fascinate him.

michael said...

I read your comment early in my day, then went to my doctor's appointment, and brought along a book of poems by Stanley Plumly, who I think of as a modern Romantic and Ohio-poet. And I happened on a short poem called "Glenn Gould." Plumly had seen Gould play in 1960:

Gould did not so much play as address
the piano from a height of inches,
as if he were trying to slow the music
by holding each note separately.