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An apocalypse is not so much the total destruction of the world, as it is the unveiling of God’s immanence within the world, and the consequent destruction of illusion. Tadeusz Konwicki’s “A Minor Apocalypse” would have to be taken, then, to be a personal revelation, the simultaneous destruction of the little world of the narrator and the revelation of the God immanent within it. “A Minor Apocalypse” is known for being a satirical, bitter look at the degrading effects of totalitarianism on the individual and society.

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Konwicki

“I who am the statistical average in the Great Accounting.”
A disillusioned Polish novelist named Konwicki is ordered to immolate himself outside the Party Central Committee building. Two fellow graying oppositionist writers, Hubert and Rysio visit Konwicki to deliver the order. During their visit, Konwicki recalls a hilarious story about the passionate young Rysio, whom one drunken night attempted to sleep with a girl but instead accidentally made love to the pocket of Konwicki’s coat, “with a fierce and youthful fervor, perhaps even the first of his life.” He concludes, “Now Rysio wrote unpunctuated, amorphous prose, played adjunct to Hubert, and was a venerable figure in the literary world.”

When the discussion devolves into a quibble over the impact of his death, the latent tension between Rysio and Konwicki surfaces:

“Don’t make things more difficult, old man,” Rysio interjected.

“Don’t talk to me like you’re just one of the guys when you don’t use fucking commas and periods when you write.”

At a loss, Rysio began retreating toward the door. “The lack of periods bothers you?” he said uncertainly.

“If you used punctuation, then maybe we wouldn’t need show deaths in this country.”

Nonetheless, he tentatively accepts, and the reader accompanies him on his journey toward his final sacrificial act. He is also trailed by a foppish, young admirer from the country who hopes to immortalize his final hours before death, a stray dog, the lovestruck illegitimate granddaughter of Lenin, and the worn, world weary, Halina, whose role it is to acquire the Swedish matches and the can of gasoline for his “show death.”

All the while, confronted with the sins of his past, he struggles with a splitting headache, the result of drinking potato vodka, but also a semi-mystical vision of the end of the world:

“Sin has assumed the form of virtue…Amorality rules us using morality’s laws, it uses moral nomenclature, it constructs its own positive systems, it re wards saintliness and hurls the damned in to hell. Evil has tapped into our ethical code and turned itself into good. A fatal, cancerous good.”

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Mica Apocalipsa

Poland and the “Polish Complex”
Tadeusz Konwicki wrote “A Minor Apocalypse” during the post-Stalinist/pre-fall of communism era of the mid-seventies. Konwicki began his career as a card carrying Party member and an advocate of Social Realist art, but grew increasingly discontented until he was thrown out of the Party.

By the time he wrote “A Minor Apocalypse,” Konwicki was deeply familiar with the daily workings of the Polish culture industry and its collusion with the government. This shows in the novel’s bald treatment of various Polish artists and intellectuals; but you don’t need to know the details to appreciate the types of people he identifies.

A particularly cutting scene involves an art show by a retired minister of culture who had, “spent his entire professional life making artists rot in jail…now that he was retired, he had suddenly begun to envy his victims and had taken up painting himself…On every canvas there was a young naked woman with her pussy prudishly painted out.”

“His guests were also men of distinction- generals from the security police, governors, high officials from the Censorship, vice ministers. They too had become part of the artistic elite. They were writing memoirs and sensationalistic novels, carving tree roots, composing hit tunes, and sculpting busts of their colleagues who had passed away. Any of their children who did not wish a career in politics were placed in art schools. And so now the regime had its own art. The regime is self-sufficient. It creates reality and mirrors it in art.”

“But” as his translator, Richard Lourie notes, “that is local gossip, incidental. More important is Konwicki’s examination of the tensions, both tragic and comic, generated by a situation where conscience demands sacrifice and reality offers no hope that the sacrifice will be of any value or significance.”

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Uses of Allusion
Writers, filmmakers, and intellectuals, both disenfranchised and co-opted, crowd the margins of the story. He has repeated run-ins with fellow oppositionist writers and artists, and members of the government cultural apparatus, including Rysio’s twin, the Docent of Allusion.

The Docent works for the Censorship, who has formed “an independent department for allusions.”

“I have created a theory of how allusions function in a socialist society…The tension caused by the hunger for truth…those dangerous tensions are artificially eliminated by a skillfully employed allusion…after a certain amount of time, people will prefer an allusion to the truth itself.”

He concludes by noting, “Our system is an intellectual system, born of intellectuals.”

Allusion is used to veil the truth. Allusion becomes another form of oppression where the symbols are used to obscure the truth. Konwicki uses irony to demonstrate the subversive power of allusion and to point towards the underlying truths beneath the propaganda of life. Interrupting him mid-coitus with Lenin’s granddaughter, Halina calls to ask:

“What color gas can do you want? There’s a choice. Red, yellow, or blue?”

“Light blue, the color of innocence.” Because he reasons, “innocence is inconspicuous.”

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A Minor Literature
As the loose story coheres, it begins to resemble a parodic Stations of the Cross, the narrator making his way towards his own Golgotha. Whether any sincerity can be imbued in his sacrifice anymore, it is hard to say. Yet having enumerated the absurdity and decay of Polish society during this time, he feels a real utopian longing for a vital world. The messianic mission of his work feels authentic right to the end.

Warsaw, a small universe unto itself, is crumbling around them from indifference and neglect. More than once, he makes allusion, not merely to decay, but to the fin de siecle Decadence. Here, he seems to be saying, is what socialist Decadence looks like; apathy, disillusionment, self-disgust. “Decadence. The end that comes before an unknown beginning.” In one scene, a bridge collapses during a parade from sheer neglect, and the response of the people is largely boredom.

On the other hand, in an interview for the “Review of Contemporary Fiction,” he warned against looking for a singular point of view in his work:

Konwicki: It is characteristic of my style to charm, chat, contradict, leap, question, speak with self-irony, and just to make it look nice, I couch it in a literary-historical thesis. It doesn’t pay off to make much of my stories… I am very convincing even when I pull your leg.

 

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Quirk, Wonder, the Middle Mind, Generation Q; there has been an identifiable backlash against the ascendant social aesthetic in American culture as of late. In the pages of the Atlantic, the New York Times, and other places, the graying Boomers especially are asking, what is wrong with the kids today? What is going on in American society? Michael Hirschorn in the Atlantic announces like a ship steward on the Titanic, “We are drowning in quirk.”
Hirschorn’s “Quirked Around” in The Atlantic


Generational Quirks

More often than not, I found myself agreeing with Hirschorn and his self-selected allies in piecemeal, but rarely can I stand behind their awkward, fusty umbrella terms. Note my use of “fusty,” because that’s exactly how fusty some of them write, like old men with cane in hand and hair up ass about the kids and their damn quirk!

Many complaints have been, at root, generational. Some of the arguments smell of Boomer cluelessness and others stink of Boomer resentment. If I have a generational theory, it is this. Currently, Boomers top the triangle, running the government, the economy, what your Marxist teacher derided as, “the base.” Generation X is ascendant in cultural production, advertising, marketing, music, and TV, while Generation Y is the consumer generation. Each generation, obviously shares aspects of the others, but each as a whole, fulfills their own broad social role.

If this is even remotely true, it is easy to see that Boomers are reacting against the fact that Generation Xers, the cool, older brothers with kids who still smoke dope, the Jon Stewarts of the world, have so much influence on their kids, the Gen Yers. This has led various columnists to fulminate and promulgate labels, such as Friedman’s latest, Generation Q for quiet.

But does Generation Quiet have anything to do with Hirschorn’s quirk?

Quirky Alone
Many of the quirky things Hirschorn takes aim at are, I agree, annoying. Zach Braff’s crappy Garden State to Napoleon Dynamite’s almost criminal popularity; at the risk of sounding like an elitist, I agree. And I’ll go further and say, in this polluted cultural environment, it is vital to be able to sniff out poisonous pretenders. I, like many, have grown tired of cheap quirk, though I often still occasionally give it a longingly, nostalgic over the shoulder glance the way one might an old girlfriend you spot during last call.

Those are his softball targets. His real goal is a fastball special at Ira Glass and This American Life. I could care less about this show, though I think he’s fundamentally correct that it enforces its own narrative closure and meaning, rendering it insincere, artistically amoral, and just clueless.

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I am more interested in the larger cultural diagnosis, the cry for help of the drowning man adrift without a life preserver in a sea of quirk. Quirk has obscured something, which I guess is the trouble; it is hard to name. Like Surrealism or Dada, 80s/90s countercultural American quirk is no longer vital or transgressive it has been co-opted; not a harmless adoption either, but one that allows the tentacles of the mainstream Moloch to toss opposition into its slathering maw. I have what I consider a more enlightened, more nuanced view of media, but I still insist some meaningful countercultural notion persists, though it is drowning and voiceless in the current environment. Proof that culture is not synonymous with media!

 

Quirk History
Hirschorn claims quirk is traceable back to David Byrne, and that may be true, although I doubt it; nonetheless, Byrne’s quirky vision has become the norm. Watch his movie, True Stories, sometime and tell me you don’t see the germ of everything from “Arrested Development” to “Flight of the Conchords” in it.

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What is it, is it the hat?

In defense of Byrne and similar artists, his quirk began as gentle irony, or the appearance of gentle irony; a disguise meant to disarm his audience. The implicit critique of True Stories remains every bit as true and uncompromising.


The Trouble with Quirk

Quirk used to come packaged in small doses or remained festering in the underground. It typically had a point of view and an ambition, like Byrne in True Stories. Without a point of view, without something to contrast against, quirk becomes tiresome, and is too often, too easily, used to coat an utterly bland, utterly conventional story.

 

Quirks are by definition, meaningless. They are impairments, not powers, but they aren’t disabilities either. Self, once a reflexive interiority, once a historical actor, once a moral agent, is now an individual quirk. Quirks avoid meaning at all cost. Quirks occasionally rise to the level, almost, of significance, or more rightly, occasionally your quirks are validated alongside the quirks of others, in a dance of quirks.

 

The real danger in quirk, which seems by definition so declawed, so harmless, if overly cute and annoying, is that it actually drains meaning out of life, is ahistorical, and fundamentally an ideology of no ideology.

Quirk does not lay naked and bare the absurd human condition in its vanity to discover meaning in the universe ala Beckett; quirk is fuzzy, suburban, and nihilistic, in that it suggests any attempt to produce meaning is futile.

Gross Anatomy

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A precursor to Hirschorn’s takedown of Ira Glass is Curtis White’s less-read “The Middle Mind.” According to White, the right-left cultural debate in America disguises a greater consensus, that of the Middle Mind.

White sees, Terry Gross’s Fresh Air on NPR as emblematic of this Middle Mind, in all its “charm and banality.” http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no9/white.html

“The Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather, it asserts its right to speak for high culture indifferent to both the traditionalist Right and the academic Left.” Which doesn’t sound so bad (proving it really is a cultural zeitgeist) until one absorbs the breath of its “pornographic” vapidity.

White’s point is that the Middle Mind simulates intellectual content without discrimination or taste. He points to Gross’s indecent interests in an author’s biography more than their books. He gives the example of a woman who wrote a book in which a woman wishes her husband dead and he dies, then, sometime later her own husband dies. Terry asks:

“What did it feel like to suspect you’d killed your own husband with your art?”

Fresh Air?” he retorts, “ How about Lurid Speculations? It’s like Dr. Laura for people with bachelor degrees.”

White then attacks Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse:

In the first thirty-five pages of this novel its heroine is in a convent, falls in love with Chopin while playing his music at the piano, moves in with a rugged but tender farmer, has torrid (and tormented) sex with same, is kidnapped by a bank robber, is shot in the hip (by the Sheriff!) and witnesses the death of her-lover-the-farmer, shot by the bank robber, but not before he gouges out the robber’s eyes with his thumbs and buries him with the sheer force of his own dying body weight in soggy prairie loam.

According to White, Gross,and her brethren in the Middle Mind cultural engine room, can’t and don’t distinguish between genre fiction disguising itself as serious fiction, and serious fiction. They can’t. Furthermore, she does not distinguish real questions about art from trivia. It is a middlebrow simulation. I should say here, I like plenty of genre fiction, and I feel that genre fiction can aspire to serious fiction, but it does so not by aping forms, but through engagement with what it means to be alive.


Wonderbar!

Shortly thereafter, novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet wrote “Wonderbread,” for The American Scholar as a diagnosis of what he calls Brooklyn Books of Wonder, or BBoW. Putting aside the clumsiness of this term, nevermind its inaccuracy, let’s look beyond his obvious artistic ressentiment, (raise your hand if you’ve heard of him or read his books before) at his argument, because several points are solid, if poorly clothed.
http://www.theamericanscholar.org/au07/wonder-bukiet.html

 

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Bukiet is NOT a Morlock.

Essentially, Bukiet takes issue with the kitsch rampant in the writing of many leading American writers. He identifies their spiritual home in Brooklyn, a place he characterizes as a Neverland for would-be Pan’s who can’t hack reality or rents in the adult world of Manhattan. This is probably Bukiet at his least sympathetic and least persuasive. He sounds ugly. And he sounds old. In Bukiet’s fantasy, Brooklyners sport goatees and ponytails! Not since, maybe 1993, though the goatee is still alive in the Midwest, it hasn’t been a signifier for hipsters in Brooklyn in a long time, if ever. Now, if only he’d said something about ironic mustaches and dancepants….

Scratch Brooklyn off, and you’re left with Books of Wonder, still hardly catchy. I assume Bukiet was inspired in part by Michael Chabon’s first novel, Wonder Boys, and I think this idea of forced, unearned, dishonest, premature, overeager, breathless Wonderment, at the heart of his argument is strong and recognizable by anyone with good sense.

So why not call them Wonderbooks! Or BoyWonderBooks! Or really anything, but Brooklyn Books of Wonder.

Bukiet is right, however, about one thing: McSweeney’s, Believer, N+1, et al. are formulating a new generation of literary culture that is fundamentally dishonest and cheap. At all levels, we are a culture of unearned optimism; one in which anything less is actually punishable.

He relies on Kundera for authority, a risky, unhip idea. Kundera is not a wonderboy, he is a curmudgeon. However, like it or not, Kundera is also a smart guy. ‘Kitsch” according to Kundera is “the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling [that] moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.”

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Kitschen Konfidential

Let’s unpack Kundera and by extension Bukiet’s use of kitsch. It may confuse many that kitsch is even used as an insult. Isn’t kitsch, like, trashy fun, isn’t that shop full of kitsch accoutrements funny? Camp and kitsch, though tightly bound together are two different things. Camp is, as Susan Sontag defines it, “the failed attempt at seriousness.” It is also camp to recognize kitsch as kitsch, but to be kitsch is to obscure rather then reveal the contradictions and complexities of life, so it is more than a case of bad taste, it a case of immorally bad taste; and is often allied with repressive societies and cultural values for that very reason.

To tie this discussion back into that of quirk. Quirk initially began as a genuine element of legitimate artistic projects; now quirkiness has been co-opted by kitsch, much as Surrealism, or Dada, like any other process or technique. Quirk, like kitsch before it, sections off the complications and complexities of real-life beneath a gauzy haze of meaningless, trivial quirk. Bukiet’s complaint about wonder, regarding its kitschiness, apply equally to quirk. Together, quirk and wonder, the inverts of shock and awe, form two guiding lode stars in a grand constellation of 21st century kitsch.

So, we have a series of cultural diagnoses, having to do with quirk, the middle mind, and cheap wonderment, is there some common equation? Yes. These articles all suffer from an obsession with buzzworthy phrases, without quite understanding how buzzwords work. All the same, yes, we really are drowning in quirk.

I’m not punker than thou, but I’m punker than most

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Okay, not half as punk as this shit.

 

A Loose, Baggy Conclusion
Born in 1977, recently 30; I am either the lead edge of Y or the long tail of X. People my age fall into this narrow, but deep crack between the two. A netherworld of mixed allegiances.

I think much of the generational griping is a ruse. I think Boomers fail to understand the level of either: A. indifference that protest generates and B. danger serious protesters face (“Don’t Tase Me, Bro!”). The fact is, this is a far more competitive and unstable world than the Boomers grew up in. There are no guarantees and class anxiety is rampant. Increasingly, nearly everyone at all levels of society finds it appropriate even natural to judge people moral solely on their social success. And they fail to understand their complicity in the repressive society we live in, one that circulates a dizzying proliferation of kitschy, quirky, middle mind, what-have-you ideas.

You could also argue, I guess I’m putting forward the possibility, that they are a symptomatic masks used to hide our identity, not from others, but ourselves. The dishonesty of our art, our intellect, and our beliefs is powerful. If the Generation Q feels no particular call to speak out it may be because there is no meaningful references available any longer to speak for or against, no value to uphold, no archetypes to inhabit that have not been disinherited and discredited. Americans grow up essentially as naive and childlike as the upperclass race in Orwell’s Time Machine. The good are fragile and privileged beyond all good.

 

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Last night I saw Bill Callahan, also known as Smog or (Smog), at The Independent in San Francisco. Bill Callahan’s persona welds a curious discontinuity between confessional writing and reserved delivery. His face can be mask-like, a bland West Texan poker face (though he’s from Maryland) that erupts into contorted grimaces when he sings. The discontinuity helps rescue him from the sin of bathos and from accusations of Jandek-ism, i.e. an outsider artist’s naivety about his own material; two spiritual pitfalls which too many of his kin succumb to. This contradictory spirit also induces a mix of respectful distance and a sense of deep intimacy between him and his audience.

To whit, when women shout at him on stage, they still call him “gentleman,” as one did after he made a crack about his “wee Mick guitar.”

Sir Richard Bishop
Sir Richard Bishop, a nimble bluespicker in the John Fahey tradition, opened for Callahan. At times, he played dizzyingly dense chunks of notes. He did a spoken word piece about sex and assassination that was cleverly done if a bit dated topically, the most recent reference being Sirhan Sirhan, or was it an AIDS joke?

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Callahan
Bill Callahan opened with a run of songs from his new album Woke on a Whaleheart; including “Honeymoon Child,” “Sycamore,” and “Diamond Dancer.” The songs seemed both statelier and folksier than on the album, a function of the violin being an equal instrument in the touring band, as well as the absence of Neil Hagerty’s (of Royal Trux) glossy production in the live set.

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His first back catalogue song was a nice surprise, “River Guard” from Knock Knock. It is the song from the album I still listen to the most frequently, about a guard at a prison taking the prisoners out swimming for the day. It is one of those rare Smog song that doesn’t seem as deeply private as some, although the line between the two modes of songwriting is often indistinct.

He played an equal share of songs from his last Smog-monickered album, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, including “Say Valley Maker,” “Rock Bottom Riser,” “Let me See the Colts,” and “I Feel Like the Mother of the World.” The latter, which was a more propulsive song live than on the recording, was made into a great video starring Chloe Sevigny.

“Let Me See The Colts” is one of my favorites from nay Smog album. The allegory of an optimistic gambler in the face of loss, desperate to see the horses of his future is a state of mind I can relate to, despite never having been to the track. He introduced a strange interlude during the song, whether spontaneous or scripted, it was difficult to tell:

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Don’t let them see you crying,” he intoned heavily, and then repeated the line a few times in his unhurried way, before adding:

“Don’t let them see you crying

Laughing and clowning

Laughing and clowning”

Then:

“It was the tears that blinded me.

It was the tears that blinded me.

I must face what is directly in front of me

I wiped the tears from my eyes.”


Close

He closed the show with “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man” and his classic song from Wild Love, “Prince Alone in the Studio,” for which Bill sat at the piano. Before starting, he said, “This next one is a relic. The last relic of the night. It’s our last song actually.” The song, a celebration of crowning artistic onanism, the band captured the rich, triumphant, masturbatory bombast of the original track; a song appropriately studio-tweaked and layered, with surprising ease.

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Prince’s Studio is Lonely


Encore

Callahan returned after briefly leaving the stage to play three more songs, including Cold Blooded Old Times , ending in an extended jam that found him at his most playful duckwalking around the stage on bended knees, even cracking a full unqualified smile. After that he asked the crowd what they wanted to hear as their real last song, “In the Pines,” or “The Well.” For the next minute the hall was an inchoate flood of callouts, so he put it to a vote by raise of hands, but even that proved inconclusive.

He teased the crowd some, flipflopping in his unhurried way hemming and hawing about which fans to please and wish to disappoint before settling on the Well. Even then it wasn’t clear that was the song they’d really play until he intoned, “This ones called The Well,” and its familiar talking blues walking bassline kicked in,

He subtly acted out the tale, keeping the crowd engaged to the very end in the story of a man who discovers a well into which he can yell his feelings out. He also discovers that the blackness of his dark emotions is not an absence, but “all colors at once.” He unfurls a banner of colorful emotions from “red rage” to his “blues” before heading back home; all delivered in his peculiarly deadpan way, even when hooting, even when shouting “fuckall y’all.”

I swear, though, when he turned away from the microphone I saw him hide a satisfied smile.

Bill Callahan has a few more upcoming shows on the west coast, including one tonight at the Mission Theater in Portland, Oregon.

http://www.myspace.com/toomuchtolove

Originally, I planned to make this post about Darwinian and Freudian elements in Cronenberg’s latest movie, “Eastern Promises,” and the one before it, “A History of Violence,” but I’d like to take a moment to deal with a meta-blogging concern, namely my audience and how they come to find Wax Ekphrastic.

WordPress has a feature that tracks the search engine terms that lead people to your page. This is a useful feature because it tells you what interests your audience. For example, writing about music is always going to snag more queries than books. I can then search for my blog using the same term to see where it turns up. If I search for “Animal Collective show review Fillmore,” Wax Ekphrastic is at, or nearly at, the top.

However, since its inception the majority of Wax Ekphrastic’s search engine-driven traffic is the result of people searching for a cluster of related interests. Naturally, I speak of “street bum,” “dirty bum,” and “bum piss.”

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May you find fame and fortune, old friend.

Today alone, Wax Ekphrastic has turned up in 2 queries for “dirty bum” and 1 for “bum piss.” Yesterday there were none, but the day before was “bum,” “dirty bum,” and “bum on street.”

How I came to be one of the leading blogs on the subject of dirty street bum piss, I’ll never know; the irony of the internet is the anonymity of our audiences. Of course, the actual substance of my blog is NOT serving their interests. They come here looking for bum piss, bum shit, dirty bums, and bums on streets, and find one lone post, and it is buried in a story about St. Lawrence and a punk show. So, this particular post is dedicated to all you bum pee fetishists out there. Wax Ekphrastic loves you too:

If you haven’t had the opportunity to consume distilled bum piss spirits, let me assure you they are a fine street wine for any occasion. With the Holidays fast upon us, what better way to share in the Christmas spirit while helping the poor to help themselves in fine Libertarian fashion, than by purchasing a liter of their aged urine?

I recommend you check out www.bumpiss.com.

Bumpiss.com offers personalized bum piss from the dirty street bum of your choice.

Simply, “choose your favorite bum, click send, and we take care of the rest. Are we serious? Of course we are.”

Bumpiss.com takes all the guess work out of buying bum piss, insuring quality and craftsmanship. Their bum piss is fair-trade. Manny, Lou, Jeffery, and Ponytail are well compensated and the piss is fairly priced. A small jar is 20 dollars, American, and a larger honeybear-shaped jar is 30 dollars, also American.

To be honest, I’ve known plenty of bums in my time, and I have plenty of bum stories: Rocker, Cosmo, Doctor Shabubu, Omar, New York, Detroit, Wizard, Vietnam Steve, Charlie Manson Steve, Hateman, Avatar, Exit, Lost, Shaggy, Bigfoot, the list goes on and on. It might be worthwhile to start a series of bum posts, where I wax ekphrastic on the bum aesthetic.

Interestingly enough, if you search for bum piss, BART comes up pretty quickly too.

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I.

Gonzo journalism relied on serendipity, and so it is fitting that serendipity brought me a copy of the new Rolling Stone with a cover story on Hunter S. Thompson, “Growing up Gonzo.” It inexplicably appeared in my mailbox a few days ago, addressed to an alias I’d never actually used, initials J.T. Mindful of the Dr.’s own tuning-fork sensitivity to such cryptic weirdness, I slid the bills out from inside the bent “u” of glossy pages and shut the box without touching the magazine. In the event it was a trap set by agents of Scientology, an amateur counterterrorism expert I met in a chatroom, known to me only as der_hund234, suggested I test the pages for trace amounts of a variety of psychoactive pharmaceuticals, and mercury as well. The magazine came back clean. I grabbed it by Hunter’s face and fled in full retreat; no one from Pitchfork or Fader appearing that doomed day to stop me from reading the foul ink of that dead carcass, Rolling Stone Magazine.

Sorry.

Only two years after his death and Hunter is already fading into history. Gonzo is so much a part of our society that his brand of journalism no longer requires a modifier to separate it out from ordinary journalism. Hunter became famous writing for Rolling Stone, so they have a certain proprietary concern with keeping his legacy alive. It reminds readers that RS didn’t always spend all its time reporting on Paris Hilton, but occasionally asked real questions,- about race, politics, culture, etc,- with real sentences, not just extended captions. The authors are RS founder, Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour, a former RS staffer, so it is an in-house job. The article itself is actually the first chapter from their forthcoming book, “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.”

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II.
It functions less as an article than a collage of memories from various persons who knew Hunter throughout his life, from childhood friends to Hell’s Angels to writers to ex-wives, which explains the subtitle ‘oral history.’ Noticeably absent from the teaser are his celebrity friends, – Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, and Bill Murray, all who presumably appear in later chapters. As an introduction to Hunter, it is fascinating. Many of the interviewees are surprisingly candid and insightful about him, and speculate intelligently on the significance of his persona, his writing, and his place in history.

As an early childhood friend, Porter Bibb described him:

“I was always amazed at Hunter’s networking ability. He was solidly middle-class, yet he was hanging out with some multi-millionaire families. Hunter had friends in both high and low society…People gave him, when he was growing up, a huge amount of latitude…”

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III.

Hunter started his journalism career in the Air Force where he wrote press releases that showcase his early talent for embellishment and hyperbole. It may be here that he first repurposed reportage writing for viscerally powerful fictional works that both mimicked and mocked the voice of authority.

Gene McGarr: “The last thing he did, in November 1957, was to write up a press release describing a riot that took place at Elgin when the enlisted men attacked the women’s quarters and the officer’s mess — stole all the booze, got drunk as shit, attacked the women, beat up two officers. It was a very funny and colorful story — completely fictional, of course — and he sent a copy of it to the AP and to UPI, left a copy on his captain’s desk, then drove like a son of a bitch for the gate.”

Hunter was only interested in fiction in so far as he could blend it with truth; only interested in the two in so far as he could, like twins, dress them alike and confuse them with each other. He forced the reader to scrutinize their assumptions about “the facts,” until the line between fiction and truth, fact and lie, history and invention became so suspicious, so drunkenly blurred that abandoning the distinction altogether became the only reasonable way to live, the only responsible thing to do. A personal vice became a political tool and gave birth to a writing style, Gonzo Journalism.

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IV.

William Kennedy calls Hunter’s writing, a “mutation of the fictional form (90).” It is also a mutation of the True Crime Novel genre, established by Truman Capote with In Cold Blood. Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing are the dark doubles, the Mr. Hydes, of the genre. Told from the outlaw’s perspective, the narratively tidy needs of procedural reconstruction and detached analysis give way to loose associative rebellion and war reporting from within an America he saw as at the brink of a second civil war.

One of the best passages from the article is his ex-wife’s account of a party Hunter organized with Ken Kesey to bring together the Hell’s Angels, the Merry Pranksters, and counterculture luminaries like Allen Ginsberg. It is the sort of truth that sounds much harder to swallow than the myth it hides behind. Thompson drove his wife and their infant son to the party. When they arrived, narcotics officers were hiding in the hills and there was a banner stretched across the road welcoming the Hell’s Angels:

Neal Cassady was there, and Allen Ginsberg. Kesey played this four-hour documentary about the Magic Bus… Kesey’s children, who were maybe five or seven, were there – they had taken acid too, though Hunter didn’t. At some point we jumped in a car with Ginsberg to go get some booze. We got stopped by the police, and they asked us who we were. All Ginsberg would say was, “I’m a poet…I’m a poet,” which Hunter and I thought was funny (89).

This incident is starkly contrasted with the revelation that the Angels had gangbanged a girl in a cabin next to Kesey’s home. She describes Hunter’s guilt because he felt, “at fault for bringing them all together, and he felt sick (89).”

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Someday I will write a comparison of Kierkegaard and Hunter S. Thompson.

V.
Politically, Hunter believed in leftist libertarian politics, but in his heart was too anarchic to belong to any sincere political movement, much less the Democratic Party. Hunter was somehow at once a unique individual and a cipher for all these heterogeneous voices that were mounting an insurgency against the dominant monoculture of the time. He wasn’t a socialist, or a redneck, despite getting along with them too, and he wasn’t a hippie or a biker, though he championed their causes. And though he hated and derided Nixon (calling him, “a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad), he also held him in a strangely high regard. Hunter Thompson’s ambition was to swallow the whole era like a handful of pills. America had become a nation of outlaws and villains, he realized, – be they bikers, hippies, rednecks, or Nixon. To write about them, he engulfed their contradictions, and let them go to work on his insides, his brain, his liver, his heart, his guts.

President of the Oakland Hell’s Angels, Sonny Barger, said of Hunter: “He didn’t belittle us…He made us even more of a myth than we were at the time (89).”

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The novel takes its name from a mathematical category, the remainder. A remainder is what’s left over. Typically, we think of a remainder as waste, as unused excess. Unwanted books, clothes, and CDs go in a remainder bin. We treat remainders as nullities, as zeros, but this leftover quantity is never zero; it always remains, positive or negative, and must be considered when accounting for the sum.

In Remainder, the victim of an accident, an unnamed 30 year old man, receives an enormous settlement and uses it to create spaces and events from his imagination that feel realer, that have a stronger emotional resonance, than the life he led before the accident.

Amnesia Fiction
At first he suffers from amnesia. When his memories do return, it is without emotional attachment, they are like “installments of a soap opera.” The literary subtexts of amnesia are all handled by McCarthy in a perfunctory manner; the traumatic event, the quest for recovery, the fragility of self, and the fantasy of escape all become self-reflexive literary elements in the narrator’s story. Estrangement from reality is the starting point for his active identification with his artificial creations. His singular obsession, to create a seamless fictional reality and then occupy the sole autonomous space within it, fills the bulk of the novel.

Tom McCarthy

Though he is British, Tom McCarthy’s first novel is very French, or more specifically, Remainder belongs to the lineage of French novels embraced by America. Every review notes his debt to the young Sartre of Nausea, but the novel is steeped in the whole literary tradition of France.

Previously, McCarthy worked with the archly-ironic avant-garde group, International Necronautical Society. The INS shares Remainder’s preoccupation with using artificial space to realize abstract, immanent realities, and with the amoral, fascistic, and murderous aspects of extreme aestheticism.

The first INS manifesto declares:

1. That death is a type of space, which we intend to map, colonise and, eventually, inhabit.

2. That there is no beauty without death, its immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty; that is beauty.

Beneath this pastiche (blank parody) of Breton (“Beauty will be convulsive or not at all”), Marinetti (“War, the worlds only hygiene,” “Poetry must be a violent assault against the unknown forces in order to overcome them and prostrate them before men.”), and other leaders of the historical avant-garde, is a sincere program that aims at the redefinition of space, of what constitutes, “a space” as an analogy for experience.

Consistent with this objective is a phenomenological question about the self’s relationship to a virtualized, monetized world of objects and people that can be assigned flat, Brechtian roles. By flattening the other to pure two-dimensionality, the narrator’s experiments with imaginary fully-aestheticized spaces are acts of self-recognition. This is signaled by the curious tingling sensations that surge through him when fully immersed in his constructs.

The novel begins:

“About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.”

(The first chapter of Remainder is available online at NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/books/chapters/0225-1st-mcca.html)

A psychiatrist would say his voice has low affect, a symptom of some form of disassociative disorder. He shows no attachment to his past, no emotional connection to the people around him, just a singular obsession with staging elaborate scenes, with constructing new space, and molding individuals into flat masks to serve his roles.

Neo-Sartrean Hero
The only emotion he grabs onto or experiences with any vividness is his reaction at certain moments to certain details of his stagings. This is a familiar borrowing from Nausea, but whereas nausea is the Sartrean response to contact with “complete” objects, things in-themselves, McCarthy’s hero feels a curious tingling elation while scrutinizing details of his creations. Functionally, it appears to invert Sartre’s formula, while still working within its confine.

Sartre divides Being into, “in-itself,” “for-itself,” and “for-others.” Human beings are fundamentally being “for-itself;” but can be lured into behaving in bad faith, as being “in-itself” or “for others.” Individuals who do not embrace freedom seek to be “for others;” that is, an object of another’s subjectivity. McCarthy’s hero takes Sartre’s distinction in a Nietzschean direction. His protagonist actually seems to abhor the presence of individuals not playing roles for him.

Huysmans and Decadence

 

McCarthy also owes a debt to Huysmans’s decadent masterpiece, A Rebours (translated alternately as, “Against Nature,” or “Against the Grain”). Like Remainder, A Rebours focuses on an aesthete with inherited wealth but no one to inherit it who retreats into a private aesthetic world that transgresses accepted morality as well as humanity. The story culminates in the decadent hero’s complete inversion of biological processes, by ingesting food through his anus and voiding the waste through his mouth. At the time, Huysmans wrote his novel, Western Europe was undergoing dramatic transformations. The fin de siecle era, which he wrote during, depicted a culture in decay.

McCarthy’s aesthetic project is both a retreat and an insurgency; a portrait that captures the schizoidal malaise of contemporary westerners. Our uniqueness must be as overvalued by others as it is by ourselves, an experience we can purchase in small doses. Freed from economic and empathic restrictions, McCarthy’s neo-Sartrean figure carries this to its logical, mathematical extreme.

Inequality satisfies the uniqueness of the remainder.

 

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Mindy and I went to see L.A. fuzz-punk dyad No Age at Bottom of the Hill the other night. If you don’t know who No Age are or what they are about, Randy Randall and Dean Spunt started out as two-thirds of Wives before splitting to form this truly awesome band. They released five excellent EPs in short order, and then culled the best tracks for their first full-length, Weirdo Rippers. Recently, they were signed to Sub Pop and are at work on a new album.

Video for “Boy Void”

Mi Ami and KIT
We missed the first band, Party Fowl, but caught local S.F. band, Mi Ami, who played shortly after we arrived. The rhythm section was tight and reminded me of the Minutemen, both in terms of sound and talent, but also, spookily, appearance. The bassist looked like a young Mike Watt in flannel and beard. He locked in tightly with the drummer and I really enjoyed watching him play. Too often, bassists just bump along, proving the equivalent of sonic filler, so it is always nice to see one who is a musician in his own right. The drummer played in a frantic, muscular style that reminded me of George Hurley, down to the way he flipped his mop of hair in his face. I’m not sure if this is an analogy that stands up to scrutiny, but it felt right to me at the time, and I’m sticking to it. The front man was extremely dynamic. He played guitar, twisted knobs, screeched and vamped, rang a splintered cowbell; whatever the song required, even if it was just offering attentive enthusiasm for the beat. They were Mindy’s favorite band of the night and reminded her of other locals, Lemonade.

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I swear. Dude, I swear.

Their next show is October 1st at The Knockout with Always (Australia) and 3leafs.
Check them out on MySpace:
http://www.myspace.com/miamiamiami

KIT
Next up was East Bay’s KIT. KIT are one those great bands where all the members are monstrously talented, but play like a group of drunken friends goofing around. The rest of the band thrashed along while guitarist, George Chen, teased the crowd with mock-epic metal guitar riffs. Here are pictures from flickr:

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KIT on MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/vvkitvv

NO AGE
No Age took the stage just after 11 and played a solid forty minute set that included almost every song off Weirdo Rippers. Songs included, “Neck Escaper,” “Boy Void,” “Loosen this Job,” “My Life’s Alright Without You,” and “Every Artist Needs a Tragedy.” They also played two new ones, presumably from the forthcoming SubPop album, which were overall speedier and cleaner sounding than Weirdo Rippers, but still instantly recognizable as No Age songs.

“Neck Escaper” is my favorite song by them and I was glad to see it done justice at the show, but the highlight was “Everybody’s Down.” Guitarist, Randy Randall, immersed himself in the crowd, a look of total delight on his face, as he played the catchy melody over and over. Dean Spunt came out from behind his drum kit to sing at the mike stand. This went on for several minutes; the tension in the room building. Dean sat back down at his kit, unhurriedly, deliberately, channeling- I think- an innerfury for the inevitable assault. Sensing this, the kids piled around Randy readied themselves to unleash their pent up energy. All they needed was the spark of a stick pounding a drum to ignite the fire. From the first hit, they went completely berserk, and didn’t let up until the final note of the last song.

Here is a good clip of No Age playing “Everybody’s Down” live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn back in April by Poker Chris:

The guys in No Age were clearly having a great time. Randy kept repeating how psyched they were to play SF, how many friends they had here, how much they liked the other bands, and the city in general; all stage cliches, I know, the cynic inside me said, but the believer believed. What can I say? At one point Randy gushed so enthusiastically that Dean gently mocked him, saying “This is like MySpace in real life.”

http://www.myspace.com/nonoage

They have a few more live dates across the country before heading off to Europe next month.

Sep 20 2007 Backspace PDX, Oregon

Sep 21 2007 Vera Project Seattle, Washington

Sep 22 2007 Pats Pub Vancouver, BC

Sep 23 2007 house party Olympia, Washington

Sep 25 2007 Delta of Venus Davis, California

Sep 27 2007 Drunken Unicorn w/ Deerhunter Atlanta, Georgia

Sep 28 2007 Mercy Lounge w/ Deerhunter Nashville, Tennessee

Sep 29 2007 Empty Bottle w/ Deerhunter Chicago, Illinois

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Animal Collective played the Fillmore last night in support of their new album, Strawberry Jam. Though still sonically rich, Strawberry Jam is a tighter, more focused, and structurally predicable album than Animal Collective has ever delivered. The Fillmore is a decent mid-size venue for a band like Animal Collective whose audience has grown considerably over the last two years.

When Tuffy and I arrived, opener, Wizard Prison, was playing. Wizard Prison, a gimmicky, electronica act with metal guitars and spooky atmospherics, didn’t do it for me, so rather than rush headlong into the crush of kids, we waited patiently by the bar. Sophia said that recent Animal Collective shows consisted of unreleased post-SJ material for a new album that was heavily influenced by dance music. I’d read something similar online. As Wizard Prison finished their set, we moved into the crowd, found a spot and waited beer in hand, while the Fillmore blasted us with dub and reggae through heavily taxed, and possibly blown, speakers. At one point, a video screen slid down on the wall to play an ad for a Yerba Matte drink. Skinny, hairless, pimply boys jittered nervously while their girlfriends texted each other from across the room.

At 10, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist took the stage, but Deakin never appeared. Panda Bear, ensconced behind his organs for most of the songs with only his pale face in view, framed by his shaggy, Prince Valiant hair, reminded me of a choirboy, down to his often churchly castrato singing voice. Geologist was the frenetic, unkempt, laser-eyed Cyclops he always transforms into on stage. Avey Tare possessed the center, both literally and figuratively, of the night’s performance; moving between several musical stations, synthesizers, drumkits, and guitar, while singing and emoting with his body.

Unfortunately, the sound system was terrible, overdriven and badly mixed. I couldn’t tell if the band realized this or not, but it ruined the show for me and possibly many others. Absent were hits from Feels or most anything from earlier albums, like Sung Tongs or Here Comes the Indians. The set was almost entirely made up of songs from an album of unreleased material. Judging by the new material, Animal Collective is already in the process of abandoning the Pavement-style American Indie sound they’ve been inching towards album-by-album, instead embracing European electronic music, dub, dancehall, and even early 90s House music.

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In total, they played four songs from the new album, “Peacebone,” “Derek,” “Unsolved Mysteries,” and “Fireworks.” Of them, only the last one came off with the power and enthusiasm of the recordings. “Peacebone” and “Unsolved Mysteries” were okay, but “Derek,” one of the best songs on the new album, due in large part to the bombastic snare drums and Panda Bear’s cacophonous crooning, felt flat, utterly ruined by the sound system and the lack of live percussion.

The band and the crowd maintained an awkward, uneasy relationship throughout. The crowd went berserk for anything from the newest album, but the band seemed reluctant to deliver; almost sullen. The crowd, mostly young suburban kids, seemed confused by the new material. They often fell into a profound listlessness broken only occasionally by hysterical cheers at the rare appearance of a song from Feels or Strawberry Jam.

At the start of every song, the kid behind me would say to his girlfriend either, “I’m totally lost,” or “I know this one; you’ll like it.” The best, most revealing moment came early on, after “Peacebone.” He turned to her and said, “They just played one of the three songs I know.”

High above in the balconies, the local music press-erati watched the kids sway awkwardly amidst a dense aural smog, battered by mega-watt multi-colored stagelights and smoke machines. The balcony seats were filled by fashionable, well-dressed early thirty-somethings, while the floor was overwhelmingly gangly adolescents and post-adolescents, dressed in bad, awkward wannabe-hipster attire; big hair and skinny ties from Urban Outfitters. A wretched bricolage of identities that, in retrospect fit the mutating hybridity of Animal Collective’s new sounds better than I would like. And the press-erati, with their undergraduate musings on art, assessing and repackaging new sounds into consumable commodities, belonged in their balcony seats above the assembled crowd too. But what about Animal Collective?

During a rare moment when Avey addressed the audience, he unconvincingly mumbled how happy Animal Collective were to be there. Watching them on stage, I detected a hint of ambivalence, and wasn’t sure I should believe him. Maybe it was the bad sound system, maybe I was tired and too old for the kids, but judging from the show at the Fillmore last night, I think Animal Collective may be feeling the stress of so many changes; to their sound, their audience, and their identities. Maybe they aren’t so sure they want to be just another music commodity.

 

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Several excellent side and solo projects have been issued by members of Animal Collective since their rightly lauded Feels in 2005, most notably from Panda Bear and Avey Tare, but if fears that the group, legendarily loose, might find its sound scattered and its members sonically isolated, fear not:

Strawberry Jam is the tightest and most self-assured album from Animal Collective yet.

Though Avery Tare’s voice is all over the disc, Panda Bear’s private aesthetic, matured on his excellent recent solo album, Person Pitch, informs their new style, a density of overlapping textures and fuzz-pop melodies. As much as I loved Feels and think Sung Tongs is brilliant, I can understand the critics who felt they were occasionally slack and meandering. At the same time, I valued the sonic adventures for themselves, and if they stalled out or wound themselves into a cul-de-sac, I accepted it as a consequence of their aesthetic. By contrast, the songs on Strawberry Jam shimmer with exploratory details that support and expand the heart of every track.

From opener, “Peacebone” onward, you can sense the seachange, familiar but also new. The sounds are distinct, and the samples and sonic details are all organic to the song which is kept focused by a throbbing bassline and Avey Tare’s vocals and lyrics. My favorite line from “Peacebone” is, “But the monster was happy when we made him a maze/ Cause he don’t understand intentions he just looks at your face.”

“For Reverend Green,” begins with a very catchy opening, reminiscent of “Turn Into Something” from Feels, and includes the first true shout-along of the album:

Now I think it’s alright we’re together
Now I think that’s alright yeah
Now I think it’s the best you’ve ever played it
Now I think that’s alright yeah
Now I think it’s alright to feel inhuman
Now I think that’s alright yeah
Now I think it’s alright to sing together
Now I think that’s alright yeah

Listening to the chorus, every time Avey gets to the part where he shouts, “Now I think it’s alright to feel inhuman/Now,” I beam inside-out. Whether this is animal pleasure or not, I don’t know, but the proximity between human/inhuman and the animal/man appears in many of the album’s lyrics. (I could speculate on this theme and the prevalence of food imagery and their relationship as part of the same motif, but this isn’t school).

“Cuckoo Cuckoo” and “Derek,” the last two tracks, are good examples of how Animal Collective makes brilliant use of percussive sounds. Even the vocal element sounds percussive on “Cuckoo Cuckoo.” The final song, “Derek” comes across the most like an outtake from Panda Bear’s last album. When the marching drums kick in at the song’s midpoint the sheer excitement, the pent up intensity of the album seems to find a natural culmination without exhausting the listener, so that when the familiar hum of “Peacebone” begins, I am ready to begin the whole listening experience over without pausing for an aural breath.

Animal Collective tour dates are listed below. I’ll be at the Fillmore show in San Francisco tonight with Tuffy and will write a review of the show and any drunken lunacy that may ensue.

Upcoming Shows

( view all )

Sep 17 2007

8:00P

 

the Fillmore

San Francisco, California

Sep 18 2007

8:00P

 

Henry Fonda Theater

Los Angeles

Sep 20 2007

8:00P

 

the Rialto Theater

Tuscon, Arizona

Sep 21 2007

8:00P

 

club 101

EL PASO, Texas

Sep 22 2007

8:00P

 

Emos

Austin, Texas

Sep 23 2007

8:00P

 

Bricktown Ballroom

Norman, Oklahoma

Sep 24 2007

8:00P

 

Gargoyle Club

St. Louis, Missouri

Sep 25 2007

8:00P

 

Cannery Ballroom

Nashville, Tennessee

Sep 26 2007

8:00P

 

Variety Playhouse

Atlanta, Georgia

Sep 27 2007

8:00P

 

Cat’s Cradle

Carrboro, North Carolina

Sep 28 2007

8:00P

 

9:30 Club

Washington, Washington DC

Sep 29 2007

8:00P

 

Starlight Ballroom

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sep 30 2007

8:00P

 

Webster Hall

New York, New York

Oct 1 2007

8:00P

 

Webster Hall

New York, New York

 

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”- Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

 

Hidden in the Business section of the September 15th issue of the New York Times is an article, “The Literature of Capitalism,” about a book, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Harriet Rubin’s angle seems to be that Atlas Shrugged, approaching its 50th anniversary, continues to be one of the most influential works of literature in America, particularly among moguls, CEOs, and tycoons. In the post-Enron era, CEOs look to Rand’s magnum opus for confirmation of their oppressed status. A USA Today article from a few years ago on the resurgent interest in Atlas Shrugged among CEOs and execs included the following:

 

“Business is an available scapegoat,” says Frank Bond, founder of Holiday Health Spas, now Bally’s, and a developer and manager of real estate, an industry that he says is overtaxed and “regulated to death.”

“If you want to attack a group of people and still be politically correct, executives are about your last available target, says Bond, who has read the book twice.”

Mogul Lit

‘Mogul Lit’ must be a new subgenre. It would include such narrative stunners as Who Moved My Cheese?, What Color is my Parachute? (Interrogative titles are good), and the Suze Orman oeuvre. Comparatively, Ayn Rand is a master storyteller, but compared to a storyteller?

…not so much.

Look at what Hank says to Dagny after they sleep together for the first time:

“What I feel for you is contempt. But it’s nothing, compared to the contempt I feel for myself. I don’t love you. I’ve never loved anyone. I wanted you from the first moment I saw you. I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose. I spent two years damning myself, because I thought you were above a desire of this kind…”

Actually, this may be exactly how yuppie businessmen talk to their paramours. The article reveals, with testimony upon testimony- including from one-time disciple Alan Greenspan, that the successful businessmen of America draw inspiration from her worldview. John A. Allison, chief executive of one of the largest banks in the United States reveals,

“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas.”

Summarizing the books enduring appeal for the ambitious, he adds,

“It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete.”

What do these “complete” principles look like?

“When I die, I hope to go to heaven – whatever the hell that is – and I want to be able to afford the price of admission”

“Virtue is the price of admission.”

“That’s what I mean, James. So I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of them all – that I was a man who made money.” (94) – Francisco and James Taggart.

Perfect Capitalism

In the same USA Today article, Nicolas Boillot, president of ad agency Hart-Boillot dissents, “Perfect capitalism is as attractive and impossible as perfect communism. The greedy and lazy will ruin either system for the rest.” And Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, CEO of the Leadership Institute at Yale University, said executives who take refuge in the capitalist utopia of Atlas Shrugged are “reading themselves into a trance of defensive self-delusion.”

Atlas Shrugged and its slender older sister, The Fountainhead are two of the most influential, most widely read books in America, even though they and the theory of Objectivism that informs them, are critically reviled and professionally repudiated by both writers and philosophers. Whenever I see someone with either one of these books, I want to smack it out of their hands. Atlas Shrugged is Objectivism’s Battlefield Earth; both are read with astonishing allegorical generosity and fervent religious literalism. Both are sloppy, adolescent genre writing elevated among its proselytizing devotees, but while Scientology appeals to celebrities, Objectivism has its fascist nerds turned CEOs.

“Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.”

What puzzles me is the outsider’s tone adopted by those arguably in control of society. This pose has been struck by the Neo-Con and Libertarian wings of the Right since the Reagan Revolution to great success until now. And Objectivism’s callous attitude towards the persons upon whose backs the great build their pyramids is contiguous with their politics. More likely though, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Libertarian/Neo-Con/Evangelical political conglomerate under George W. Bush, callow, rich people are in search of a new demagoguery. Ayn Rand may be in for a popular resurgence as an intellectual guiding light for the re-organizing Right.

August 12th was the Night of St. Lawrence’s Tears. St. Lawrence, a deacon of the early Roman Church put to death in 258 by the Roman Emperor Valerian (“episcopi et presbyteriet diacones incontinenti animadvertantur”), is the Saint of Librarians. Lawrence was grilled to death on a grid iron. Supposedly, he was so tough that instead of betraying the Church he said, “I am already roasted on one side and, if thou wouldst have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other.” August really is the best time to barbecue.

The night of his roasting, there was a meteor shower which Christians took to be a sign that the Heavens cried at his death. This meteor shower reoccurs every year, “The Night of St. Lawrence’s Tears.” History Lesson Over!

Well, on the Night of Saint Lawrence’s Tears 2007, I went to see Mika Miko at 21 Grand with Mindy. When we got there, Sophia was already trashed, dancing feverishly next to the guitarist in Mikaela’s Fiend, dressed for the beach in Miami; wearing a tiny top, smaller shorts, and flat sandals; her body bronzed from a recent trip to Raging Waters and glistening with sweat. When I mentioned the outfit, she said she’d been wearing something even skankier but her friends wouldn’t let her leave the house until she changed.

She dragged me outside for a cigarette and at one point she laid across the hood of a car on her back smoking a cigarette and drinking a Tecate. When a group of guys looked over at her, she said, is this your car? They all chimed in, no. It’s all good then, she said, reclined on the windshield and flicked her ash.

It was kind of like this:

Margo showed up right before Twin’s set. She had her hair down in soft waves and spiraling curls framed her face. She was wearing a light summer top with a t-shirt and jeans underneath and black flats. She glowed just like the Lady of Guadalupe:


Sweet Hope in the Midst of the Bitterness of Life

Mindy left to get food at this point, but texted after only a few minutes to say that the Taco Bell/KFC would not serve her as a pedestrian in the drive-through. When she finally did show she had a bag of fries she bought at the burger place nearby. She said the guy behind the counter felt bad for her and sold her the bag for only a dollar, but then the other guy working (manager, maybe) stepped in and charged her an additional 65 cents. The first guy said, mysteriously, “Metal shouldn’t be taking it out on Flowers.”

Metal shouldn’t be taking it out on Flowers?

I Googled this phrase and turned up nothing. Is the next Mallarmé working at Giant Burger in Oakland? Perhaps, perhaps…

“While that heart no tooth of any crime
Can wound lives in your breast of stone,
Frightened of dying while I sleep alone.” -Stephen Mallarme

When Mika Miko were about to play, I went up front with Sophia and her friend, Andreas. Andreas said Mika Miko do this amazing cover of The Misfits song, Attitude.

They’ve been trying to remove it from their set but Andreas says he gets them to play it everytime he sees them. Just watch, he says. Sure enough, between every song he yelled in an incredibly high-pitched voice, “Attitude. Play It. Just play attituuuude!” They were like, we don’t play that song anymore, but then at the end of the set, sure enough they rocked the song and it ruled.

Good job, Andreas!

Afterwards, we gave Mindy a ride to her car, and then Margo realized she’d lost her phone. At first she thought she left it at the show, then she realized she left it at the church on Broadway Auto Row when she’d stopped there to use the bathroom (why, I don’t know).


No, Not God’s Gym

This is where it gets gross.

When we got there though, the church door was locked. This despite the fact that Margo insisted ALL churches are ALWAYS open. Not in Oakland they are not!

I called her phone and we heard it ringing, not inside the church, but in the yard out front, behind a tree in a dark little nook. She said she was nowhere near that tree or that nook, meaning someone picked it up and put it there. We searched for it in the dark and found it, but it was all wet and smelled bad. A bum had peed on it! She ran out into the street, screaming, grabbed some leaves and tried to dry it off. Meanwhile, I’m standing there behind the tree and I realize I smell something horrible. I look down and to my unending horror I discover: I AM STANDING IN BUM SHIT! I ran out to the street and, mimicking behavior I observed in Margo, grabbed a handful of leaves and used them to clean off my shoes.

Basically, we found ourselves outside a church in the middle of the street on Broadway at 1 AM, making horrible retching sounds, cleaning shit and piss from shoes and cellphone with leaves as best we could on the Night of St. Lawrence’s Tears, like tool-using animals!

We had planned to watch the meteor shower, but decided we’d both cried enough for one night, so we just went home.

It is worth noting the event that led directly to St. Lawrence’s martyrdom. The prefect of Rome demanded he turn over the Church’s wealth. He asked for three days. He gathered up the poor, crippled, sick, blind, and most wretched benefactors of the Church, and presented them to the prefect. Here is the wealth of the Church, he said, so they cooked him.

The next day, Margo sent the following message:

“something on my person smells like a dirty, sleeping squirrel but i can’t figure out what…”

“Next to the originator of a great sentence is the first quoter of it.
Said Emerson.” p.12

With only twenty pages left to go in this slender but not slight novel, I was sure I knew what was going to happen. It wasn’t hard to guess that the narrator, Novelist, was likely to commit suicide by leaping from the roof of his apartment building. Figuring out the why wasn’t difficult either. He is, as he reminds us more than once, “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.” Most of the novel, some may balk at even calling it a novel, is taken up by quotes and anecdotes about various artists and creators that Novelist has culled from his long life of reading and writing. Mostly he fixates on the lives of great artists who like him have ended up “Old. Sick. Tired. Alone. Broke,” or have committed suicide as he is clearly contemplating.

A coworker walking by my desk was attracted to the graphic design of the cover, on which a blank book is open with the title and author names floating over the page. I explained the book to him and he looked skeptical, as if to say, that can’t be a book. He picked it up, and flipped through a few pages and said first, “there is a lot of white space,” and then secondly, “how do you know what’s going on?”

The Last Novel is, aside from a meditation on death, a meditation on what minimally constitutes the category of Novel. Largely a collection of anecdotes pasted together, one is forced to read Novelist’s character and story through the filter of these references, making him and the story itself almost pure reference and allusion.

The anecdotes move from the mundane to the comical to the tragic to the enigmatic to the gnomic. Some of them worth sampling include:

A man standing up to his neck in a cesspool- and adding to its contents.
Carlyle called Swineburne.
127

Life is a long process of getting tired.
Say Samuel Butler’s Notebooks.
125

Artists are the monks of the bourgeois state.
Said Cesare Pavese.
123

Jean Genet was arrested for the first time- for theft- at the age of ten.
38.

The reader discovers the Novelists other preoccupations and tantalizing hints of his life through his selection of anecdotes and quotations. The literary relationship, with all its codependency, camaraderie, jealousy, and antagonisms, is one of the key themes:

“I am not an orphan on this earth, so long as this man lives on it. Said Gorky re Tolstoy.”

Markson follows immediately with an entry from Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia’s diary to undercut Gorky.

“He doesn’t have a drop of love for his children, for me, or for anyone but himself.”
8-9.

So is critical reception:

“Venomously malignant. Noxious. Blasphemous. Grotesque. Disgusting. Repulsive. Entirely bestial. Indecent.
Being among the critical greetings for leaves of Grass.
Not to omit ithyphallic audacity.
Plus garbage.”
5.

On page 79, Novelist reveals this rare, personal detail, “Old enough to have started coming upon likenesses on postage stamps of other writers he had known personally or had at least met in passing.” At times, the line between a literary anecdote and potential gossip from his own life becomes blurred, a technique that speaks directly to the question of how the stuff of small lives, of petty people becomes Art with a capital A. Markson chooses to dig at this question in a funny way, by illustrating the all-too-human, petty vices and jealousies and injustices that plague all artists. Novelist, like all artists, “the monks of the bourgeois state,” want to be rescued from a human fate, from pettiness, from injustice, ignominy, and death. Markson’s gives us a portrait of the artist as an old man. “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.” Everything else disappears into the Art.

The fiftieth anniversary of On the Road is being celebrated or eulogized in many corners with the publication of the original scroll of paper Kerouac banged out his crank-fueled prose on in a single drooling strand so thick you’d think it hung from the lip of a salivating dog. I say eulogized because I think we can all agree that it is an entombed corpse, a monument to an era so removed from our own that to call it thrice dead is to forget what we did with the inner organs after we removed them to begin the mummification process. The book itself was a eulogy for a by-gone boyhood era that somehow was transmogrified by Boomers into a zeitgeisty bible for their adolescence. In turn it has become THE book of American male adolescence, repackaged and made timeless for consumption by each succeeding generation.

On the Road isn’t the beatnik call to arms. That’s Ginsberg’s Howl. On the Road is a protest against Cold War conformity, the suburbanization of American space, the rationalization of the American male psyche and libido.

On the Road, as everyone knows, is an aimless travel story that zips meaninglessly back and forth across the landscape of America. This ability to ricochet across the landscape was new in the 40s and provides the core of the books appeal to Boomers and newly liberated adolescents. The point Kerouac is making with this ricochet trajectory is deeper than such aimless travel suggests. Previously, geographical space meant something. For America in particular, it meant this wild real unknown interior space contained by the abstract domesticated America. Even as they discover this real America, Dean and Sal are destroying it by the meaninglessness of their movements. Once, every inch of ground gained was fought for, recovered, or tamed; every inch of it held meaning in a national mythology. Dean and Sal bounce between the coasts striking cities along the way haphazardly. They are also retracing. They are retracing those first meaningful steps and in the retracing sanctifying it, mummifying the myth; completing it without truly participating in it. It is a form of nostalgia.

Richard Brautigan’s first novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, published 1964, captures this nostalgia perfectly. The main characters, an introspective Sal-like Brautigan-double and Lee Mellon, the eponymous general and 60s hippie re-incarnation of the beatnik Dean Moriarty camp out at Big Sur, which feels more and more like the very razor’s edge of knowable space in America, and try desperately to bring the wonder of the frontier of the American myth back to life by, basically, playing pretend. It seems that with the frontier gone, one finally has to travel inward and smallward to find those spaces, which is a maturing of the American character. But staying out at the frontier’s edge long past the end, furiously, masturbatorily trying to reanimate the irretrievable past is indicative of a state of arrested development. Similarly, Dean dances thumbless at the end. Sal has grown inwardly, and like all grown men, looks back at his adolescent yearnings in the shape of his jigging compatriot, wistfully, but also ruefully.

I, too, read On the Road in high school and misunderstood it as a directive to rocket into unexplored territories, but by 1995 there weren’t as many of those as there once had been, so instead I ended up with a plane ticket to San Francisco. It wasn’t longer than the first or second day before I found myself inside Mecca (City Lights Books), staring at racks of uncreased Beat novels, a whole row devoted to a thick stack of On the Roads.

When do we discard our heroes? For Sal it seems to be when he fully immerses in the life of the simple tenement farmers, picking cotton and raising children. Their final trip to Mexico is the sort of desperate adventure men make to relive their glory days. The last time he sees Dean he doesn’t see him the same way because Sal has irrevocably grown older. Years after I’d abandoned Kerouac to the remainder pile of adolescence along with Brautigan and Bukowski and Existentialism, I took a course on the American Novel, and there smack in the middle of the syllabus were the kooky adventures of Sal and Dean. First, I rolled my eyes so hard I thought I might go blind (a real danger for some eye-rolling cynics I know), then I approached the book with embarrassed trepidation, before finally treating it as a archeological dig; so what if I was digging up the skeletal remains of my own adolescence along with it? Between these pages was the terminally juvenile marrow of the 20th century American male.

What I found was a deeper book than the one I’d read at 16, a subtler book than I’d wanted back then. Beneath its crackling kinetic sentences and antic storytelling, a soft, pulsing mournful moan could be heard. Is it a flawed book; dated, aimless, and sloppy? Sure, but it is also careful in ways and surprisingly well-structured. The growth of Sal’s perception shapes the book. His subterranean journey from innocence to experienced parallels the national evolution from a naïve adventurer into a self-aware player on the world stage in the Cold War era. In some sense then, On the Road does belong to the 60s; Moriarty and Neal Cassady belong there too.

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Falling Man

By co-incidence I was leaving New York for Oakland the day DeLillo’s 9-11 novel, Falling Man was released. I picked up a new copy at St. Mark’s before heading to the airport and read it cover to cover in transit, finishing the final pages on BART. He takes the image of an unknown man falling from the North Tower as his central motif though his main character is a survivor, one of those soot coated businessmen that escaped eerily unscathed. It has been said that the image itself, of the waiter from the Windows on the World plunging in a dive, has been curiously omitted from the public imagination of that day and, knowing DeLillo, I can see his interest in returning that bit of repressed collective memory to the raw center of the event where it belongs.

The Falling Man of his fictional world is a mysterious performance artist who sets up in various locales around New York and recreates the image, but to me, the real Falling Man of DeLillo’s novel is the survivor, the one who escaped unscathed. Surviving seems to place the individual in a strange category, yet many more survived that day than died. Discussing the book, a coworker related the story of his friend who was inside one of the towers and was even soaked in jet fuel from one of the planes as it crashed through the building- and he survived. Surviving, for DeLillo’s protagonist, is less satisfying than the tidiness of death and the satisfaction of the instinct towards death (DeLillo once said, “All plots move deathwards”). He remains suspended mid-fall, mid-flight. Similarly, I think our national response to the historical moment is trapped in the amber of the mediation of September 11th.

By now, a variety of novels and films have addressed themselves to the events of six years ago. In a few years, it went from verboten to obligatorily, still, the responses are all, even when affecting a grotesque sentimentality, curiously restrained. To see what I mean, consider the harshness of the image of the falling man. I’ll admit the sight of it makes me squirm. Even DeLillo’s novel suffers partly from this curious constraint, despite its greater willingness to evoke rather than sentimentalize.

Kitsch

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The only appropriate art is pious art. Piety should be performed with moral seriousness but without sentimentality otherwise it veers into kitsch. Consider the images of eagles crying or conversely the defiantly absurd, ‘America is open for shopping’ signs; the Janus-face of kitsch in the days after the events. The art world and intelligentsia have been no less immune to tacky responses. Three words: Jonathan Safran-Foer.

(For a right on evisceration of Foer, read the review, “EXTREMELY CLOYING & INCREDIBLY FALSE,” by Harry Siegel for New York Press. http://www.nypress.com/18/15/news&columns/harrysiegel.cfm)

 

Photo-evidence.
By far the most fascinating photo from six years ago is not the Falling Man, nothing from the WTC, but a powerful amateur photo snapped from the porch of a semi-rural Pennsylvania home with a digital camera. Yesterday, the NYT had an article about this photo, the only one taken of the crash of United 93 in Pennsylvania.

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The photos is arresting because, rather than in spite, of its kitschy, sentimental qualities; its supersaturated coloration and American “heartland” pastoral tropes are rendered unreal next to the black plume of smoke from the crash. No wonder so many see the photo as a staged fake. It feels too real to be real. Interesting too, was the story of the woman who took it. She has been relentlessly harassed by 9-11 conspiracists in print, on the internet, and at her home.

Whuz Really Real?
The impact of the picture comes from the appeal of the “story” of that day viewed from the vantage it suggests, not the hoary spectacle of the newscycle, not the insider’s story from New York, not the conspiracy theorists abstractions. It offers access to a singularly naïve window denied to us, or perhaps quickly forgotten in the subsequent overexposure as it passed from current event into modern myth. This is the responsibility of art in such a heavily mediated environment that has largely been shirked but somehow is distilled spontaneously in this picture: to return the spectator to the moment of wondering confusion and fear that is our lot in the face of the raw welter of events.

Though DeLillo’s performance artist seems to have this as his goal, I think if I saw him in life I would feel the same way about him that I do the Lego Twin Towers. Where some have found fault, I would argue this is DeLillo’s intention.In the final scenes of the novel, as those minutes in the Towers wrap around to join the opening scenes in the street below, we see a reality swift, brutal, and humbling in its destructive force. Reality is revealed for what it is, unstable and chaotic. The artist by contrast is static. Any art that seeks to confront tragedy on a mass scale must pierce the veil of mass fabrication and arrive at something personal.