Overweening Generalist

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Disparate Remarks on Writers and Other Artists and Their Audience(s)

Walter Benjamin
While recently re-reading Walter Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translator" ("An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens") - I was reminded of Benjamin's counterintuitive idea that Art only confirms our spiritual and physical existence, but doesn't care about its audience. "Even the concept of an 'ideal' receiver is detrimental to the theoretical consideration of art..." This seems to fly in the face of an age-old discourse about writers assuming certain types of readers, and at least two main types: 1.) The "average" reader, who the author can't expect to really get through to; and 2.) The "ideal" reader, who, it has often been expressed, the writer has most in mind when she writes.

But I think here Benjamin is thinking of a third type of mind: the translator, who ought to try to communicate the essence of the piece in a new language, to a new audience. "Any translation which attempts to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information - hence, something inessential." Such an odd idea of the role of the translator! And odd ideas about information, essences, and audiences. I find Benjamin wrong here, but he's one of a small handful of writers who are more interesting to me even when I find them wrong. I am part of Benjamin's audience; when he wrote the aforementioned essay he supposedly did not have me in mind. I think that's about correct.

There are those writers - usually my kind - who develop their private vocabularies, which can scare off ordinary readers, but if the vocabularies contain metaphors poetic and potent enough, they spill out of the private life of the writer and into his more-or-less "ideal" readers' minds...and then they infiltrate the larger society. And change it. 

                                                      Tom Robbins

In Conversations With Tom Robbins he said he can't think of his audience when he writes, that he needs to concentrate, "like a Wallenda."

Glenn Gould, Roman Polanski, Orson Welles
Gould stopped performing live concerts at age 32, saying, "I detest audiences...they are a force of evil." This always has me wondering: how can a nervous system perform so transcendently well, all the while detesting its audience? Clearly, Gould was wired differently than most of us. For every Gould there are a hundred musicians who remark how difficult it is to record in the studio: there is no audience, no mass of Dionysian energy reflecting back from the crowd. No love-radiation from the adoring audience. I wonder how many solo performers have an active dislike for those paying, braying idiots who peer out there beyond the stage lights? Perhaps it's not as rare as I thought; I have heard of some performers who say they get an edge by working up a distaste for those who deign to sit in judgment of their performance, simply because they managed to scrape up the price of a ticket. But few dare to state their feelings so baldly as Gould did.

                                                      Glenn Gould, an enigma

I caught this line from Roman Polanski, one of my favorite directors: "I aim for the public at large, including children, and I'll target the children inside us until the day I die."

Wait, wait, wait: I know what you're thinking, and for today I'll pass on the easy jokes here; that underaged gal has said publicly she didn't want Polanski persecuted by the system as he had been. 

Now, a good lot of Polanski's films are pretty bleak. I just watched Cul de Sac. It's absurd, dark, violent, and oddly funny. But for children? Double that for Knife In The Water, which, like Cul de Sac, presents humans as predatory upon each other, which we as a species seem in active denial about; Polanski's pointing to the primate status-seeking and one-upping that seems built into our characters, unless we try to actively root most of it out. Both of those films present male outsiders competing in some primal way for the attention of a woman. For children, Roman? Maybe Polanski was being sardonic in that quote; I have it in my notes and didn't note the context. But I don't think he meant it sardonically. The quote was made before he did his take on Oliver Twist. It certainly can't have anything to do with Chinatown, can it? 

It's an odd quote, taken from p.123 of Roman Polanski: Interviews. I can't see how Rosemary's Baby, Tess, The Ghostwriter, and especially Repulsion have anything to say to the "children inside us," unless it's that the world can be a terrible and brutal place to be a child. But I can see this quote relating very strongly to The Pianist, because it has so much to do with Polanski's hellish childhood...which seems a terrible and brutish place to be a child. Maybe Roman was high at the moment he uttered that statement, who knows. Still, this is an enigmatic quote for me, and I often think of it. 

In Orson Welles: Interviews there is the idea from Welles that, when he made a film he had no audience in mind (similar to Benjamin's idea?), but when he put on a play the audience was in the forefront of his mind. Orson conceptualized the person watching action on the screen as in a different semiotic world than those watching live humans, without all the tricks that filmmakers have at their disposal. This seems at least part of what he meant.

Gurus and Cult Leaders and Their Audiences
I do not see these cases - gurus and cult leaders and their followers - as all that different from, say, the artists/performers Taylor Swift, Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, Lebron James, and the magician David Copperfield and their relationships to their fan(atic)s. The small difference seems to make enough of a difference though: all of them can go "on" do their Thing, and then be done with their act and move on, as some sort of "entertainer"or gadfly, whathaveyou. Their public acts have a long-time legacy of social authorization and have been thoroughly legitimated by enough of the population that they are taken-for-granted "reality."

In Price and Stevens's provocative book Prophets, Cults and Madness, they take a page from Anthony Storr's 1996 Feet of Clay regarding "gurus," who are "people who believe they have been granted some sort of special life-transforming insight, which typically follows a period of mental or physical illness (which has variously been described as a 'mid-life crisis,' a 'creative illness' or a 'dark night of the soul'). This eureka experience may emerge gradually or come like a thunderbolt out of the sky, in the manner of religious conversion, a scientific discovery, or an intact delusional system of the type that occurs in schizophrenia. As a result, the guru becomes convinced that he has discovered 'the truth,' and his conviction, as well as the passion which he proclaims, gives him the charisma which marks him attractive to potential followers." 

This reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson's take on Timothy Leary's "metaprogramming circuit." Historically, certain odd types have accidentally activated this metaphorical neurological circuit, and fell so in love with the "new" program, new way of looking at the world, that their charisma, infectious enthusiasm, or whatever we wish to label this phenomena as: it becomes a cult, then maybe a religion, with official dogma and official enemies. The same old story from here to eternity, as Burroughs said. Wilson saw the main problem with these types as not noticing that it was their own nervous system that "selected" this vision of the world; they mistook it for a message from "out there," when it was actually from within. And there being a Seeker born every minute, they will have followers. Let's just hope it doesn't get out of hand and that someone develops a healthy sense of humor around this "special" vision of "reality." Wilson says gurus and cult leaders get "stuck" here: too much power too soon, and they don't seem to notice that, if they did it once, they can do it again: some other visions of "reality."That first one was just too awesome, too vivid and such a blast. 

On that note, from Plato's (supposedly he wrote it): Seventh Letter: "For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like lightning flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightaway nourishes itself." 

Now: Plato is saying this happens in a dialectic; it is not Saul's falling off his ass. But it does make me wonder regarding the sulfurous proselytizers. 

                                                    Fran Lebowitz

When Your Audience Dies
Martin Scorsese made a documentary a couple years ago about the hilarious, strident lesbian humorist Fran Lebowitz, and there was a section in which she talked about the cultural aristocracy and connoisseurship of gay men who were her biggest fans in the mid-late 1970s and early 1980s. And then they started dying overnight and it harmed her art, her will to produce sank, her audience dead, and all sorts of 3rd, 4th and 5th raters rose to prominence. While she said all this with a straight face, I do believe she was in earnest...and at the same time the audacity was epic. She'd had a long writer's block. What a grandiose way to explain it! And I still felt very sympathetic to her. I also thought she was basically right: AIDS did take a major toll on the Arts. And I also felt sort of oddly honored: as a hetero male, I loved her two books, Social Studies and Metropolitan Life, as soon as they came out. I knew no other person who even liked her, in suburban Los Angeles. My ego mentally lumped myself in with the gays who survived.

Lebowitz often made me think of her as a reincarnation of Oscar Wilde, who once said that the opening night for his new play didn't go so well because "the audience flopped."


I can't escape the idea that "meaning" in Modern poetry derives in a considerable part from good will on the part of the Readers.

The Audience for Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land
I've been reading on "reception theory" and wondering about this book, which has captured the imagination of Heinlein's readers in a way that baffled him. His readers "made" their meanings and often the writer was aghast. This fascinates me. I got hold of a bunch of books from the library to try to flesh this out, and stumbled onto Carole Cusack's Invented Religions. Cusack says some critics were "disturbed" that The Church of All Worlds and the Fosterites were meant to symbolize the Dionysian and Apollonian in the public mind, but that "the two churches are almost indistinguishable."

"Critics are also uncertain as to whether Heinlein's positive portrayal of Mike and the CAW is parodic; another possibility is that the novel's elusive genre (variously described as novel, satire, anatomy, myth and parable) means that the meaning of the CAW has to be decided by readers, depending on their assessment of the genre of Stranger." -p.59 

I have only read this book once, but have delved into bits of it at other times. When I read it cover-to-cover I thought it a quasi-Ayn Randian book, but better written. This was at least twenty years ago. I had known that some feminists had applauded Heinlein's depiction of strong, rational, independent  women, but I also thought Jubal was a bit of a blowhard; he just wasn't someone I admired, although clearly I was supposed to. My politics were different then, and I want to re-read the book again this year, if only to notice more clearly this problem of "genre," which fascinates me. Cusack compares Heinlein to Robert Anton Wilson: "Heinlein, like Robert Anton Wilson, was a lifelong agnostic, believing that to affirm that there is no God was a silly and unsupported as to affirm that there was a God." 

This notion of not being able to place a book in a genre immediately draws me to the book. It's one of the main reasons why I became such a devoted reader of Robert Anton Wilson. The mercurial, trans-generic, one-off-ness of his books - as I saw them - was an inherent value to me. 

Speaking of Cusack, who seems to be doing sociology of religion in Sydney, her first chapter in the book is on Discordianism, and her citations include not only Principia Discordia and Thornley's Zenarchy, but Conspiracy Theories in American History (2 vols, I hadn't seen these until today); Adam Gorightly's book on Thornley, The Prankster and the Conspiracy; Alan Watts's Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen; Adler's famous Drawing Down the Moon; and my friend Eric Wagner's An Insider's Guide to Robert Anton Wilson, which she cites five times.

Fran Lebowitz on homosexuality:


Anonymous said...

Lebowitz is priceless.

I was once told by a christer cow-orker ( insert Cheech and Chong vignette) that the second coming will be televised. This led to a series of thoughts revolving around the possibilities of crass commercials degrading such an event.
My laughter didn't seem to well received.

Heinlein however did predict the demise of Khoresh (turkish for shish ke bab I'm told) and the sight of the auto da fe has led me to speculate that maybe we were watching the roasted lamb of god on TV. We're too near such an event to judge what the future will make of it. I think what Bob was after (RAH) in this case was a retelling of the old story of anyone who challenges the culture and seems to have any influence.
He wasn't exactly a counterculture of the overt in your face hippie type but was quite different as a person. Stories like arrows may come down in unexpected places and an author may be less than thrilled to be blamed for what the
ordinary does as a result of reading it. The mentor in Stranger is not supposed to be terribly soft and fuzzy, he's there as a cynical counterpoint to the naked
trusting hero.

Fran is incredibly smart IMHO a good thing.

michael said...

Cusack quotes from Scott MacFarlane's The Hippie Narrative: "It doesn't matter that the author could not foresee the cultural influence of his novel. Once an author creates a text, except for royalties, it belongs to the world."

Then Cusack comments, "Heinlein wrote Stranger In A Strange Land between 1948 and 1961 and the book is saturated with ideas he subscribed to (self-reliance, sexual freedom, an Elect who are destined to lead the masses, intense discussions of art and politics, and more). Heinlein never anticipated the reception that Stranger received, and when groups as varied as the Merry Pranksters, the Manson Family and the Church of All Worlds made use of the text, it ceased to be 'his' and became theirs." (pp.81-82)

RAW had commented a few times that his fans or critics had noted things in his texts that he'd never seen before, but in general he found much validity in what his readers had found.

I think Roland Barthes has written the most on this idea: that every text's reader creates a new text via interpretation; a theoretical "white writing" was a writing that left zero room for alternate interpretations of a text; this would seem virtually impossible, not to mention boring as hell.

I think we will see a "Man of God" being burned on TV again, perhaps soon.

Bobby Campbell said...

There's a McLuhanism on this topic that I'm particularly fond of: "The user is the content"

Could Joycean media theory suppose any less!?

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Just put "Invented Religions" on hold at the library. The Kindle version is $64, which is absurd.

When you were a guitarist in a rock band, Michael, what did you think of YOUR audience?

michael said...

@Bobby Campbell: I wish I would've gone down the McLuhan road in that post. I missed it. You're right. I do think of myself as being part of the interaction of media, and therefore a large part of what seems phenomenologically, the content.

I also liked McLoon's riffs about "style" as "content." It fits really well with the "medium is the message, " which I always mentally change to "the medium shapes the message to a way that seems largely invisible to the human engaged in the yoking/yoga of media+nervous system."

Good call.

michael said...


I wanted to impress the hell out of the other known guitarists in the audience, and I also had picked out three or four females, and wanted to impress them. I state this candidly and feeling uncomfortably confessional. I never had any animosity towards the audience, so Gould's quote just blows me away, exp 'cuz he's performing in a much finer medium in which the music is fossilized, there's no room for improv, and it's up to the performer to resurrect the living composer's sounds.

I had competing band's members in the audience - guys who had been talking smack about us - and I still just wanted to impress them.

In the flashy rock virtuoso era, which really took off when Edward Van Halen appeared on record in early 1978, guitarists developed a sort of Paganini-like idea of blowing the competition away, even uttering openly statements that they wanted to demoralize the competition.

The other day I was showing a student how to play the solo to "Ice Cream Man" by EVH; there are fingerings in that that are still pretty insane. He said, "How can anyone expect to play..."? And I went into my spiel that guys like this approached their instrument like some Russian kid in the conservatory: practice all day, every day, until "impossible" things are easy. And also:the old blues tradition of being prepared for a head-cuttin;' contest, where you have to show you're the baddest mofo in the area. EVH had all sorts of licks on that debut record that said to other guitarists, "Now you need to try to keep up with ME!" Very masculine, very ego-ish, but nonviolent. I always thought of it as a sort of Renaissance idea of "virtu."

A lot of guys were demoralized by the first Van Halen record. Same with when Yngwie hit the scene. Paul Gilbert I still find really scary. It's an ego test.

I got off that a long time ago. To keep up with that stuff: playing long speed-picked three-octave sequences in 16ths notes at 180 beats per minute, tapping, sweeping, string-skipping, wide intervallic leaps with the left hand, etc: you have to live your life like you're training for an Olympic gold. It's a young man's game. And for a very select audience of freaks who love that style of playing, I might add.

When I hadn't played in front of an audience of more than 50 people for a month or so, I was always very nervous; I went out just hoping to not fuck up..which is not fun. But then you do fuck up and it seems few notice, and you see a couple of cute gals and you have fun. Alas, those days are kaput for me.

Bobby Campbell said...

Re: Dorner

"I think we will see a "Man of God" being burned on TV again, perhaps soon."

Not an exact hit, but jeez louise...

Mister Meta said...

In the same vein as Heinlein and Anton-Wilson, but in a minor key, there is Paul Lutus. Not the arts, but the disdain for cultural systems, and the need for individual transcendence. Worth looking at his website and his views on psychology (fun debate).

michael said...

@ Mister Meta:

I hadn't even known about this guy. I spent a hour perusing his Arachnoid site: very interesting! Thanx for the head's up.