Thursday, March 29, 2012

Social Justice

Who publishes novels about social justice?

I know they’re being written, by Tony Christini and others like him. Do the bigs ever touch them?

My new novel will have a chapter or two devoted to social justice. The book’s theme is character. It’s centered on a single personality. A subsidiary theme is revolution, but that’s a plot motif. A reason for plot activity.

By social justice, I don’t mean work like Franzen’s “Freedom,” which is a diatribe against freedom and against poor people.

I get the sense that in this country, those who control publishing and media tolerate only those books and ideas which conform to their pre-formed beliefs. Work that fits with the assumptions of their class. Don’t kid yourself. Intellectual and cultural thought in America is dominated by a single social class. A solitary mindset. Nothing allowed which they might possibly disagree with. That’s certainly been my history. But I wonder if the thinking has changed. If they’ll someday reverse the blackballing. My new novel is very, very good, and I’d like people to read it.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

What Literature Is Missing

First, let's get away from the notion that the contemporary world is too crazy and complex for novelists to compete with and write about. That's a defeatist attitude. The historical chaos of the French Revolution and resulting Napoleonic Era didn't hinder the creation of some very great novels about that greatness and tumult. The years from 1938 to 1945 were filled with a couple centuries worth of history, war, drama, madness, tragedy and pathos. This was an invitation to the novelist. Our own time is tame and comprehensible by comparison.

What American literature is missing:

1.) ARTISTIC AMBITION. The ambition to portray, interpret, and explain our world. Fantasy, sorry, is a copout. Even magical realism. It's an attempt at a shortcut that I take as an insult to the reader's intelligence. It's an admission of failure-- the failure of the novelist to make the natural world seem magical and fantastic.

2.) INTELLIGENCE. All the great novelists were not only artistically ambitious, they were highly intelligent. They had large, comprehensive intelligence, of a kind that comes with a great deal of experience in the world, and being challenged, hurt, even terrifed by that awful and awe-inspiring world.

3.) CHARISMA. I don't know what fields the great minds of this society are going into. Likely there aren't any such minds. We know the great, larger-than-life personalities over the last several decades have been joining rock bands. Are there any in literature? The most we get from today's approved writers is cuteness and glibness. Superficial wit. Most of them walk around with negative charisma. Walking voids. Black holes emitting no energy, and when they read from their books, suck all energy from a room.

4.) PERSPECTIVE. What the entire intellectual establishment lacks is perspective and distance about their ideas and these times. There's no sense of the millennia of great minds who've preceded them-- they, in their unknowing smugness, are superior to the intelligence of the past. Even the recent past. There's also no sense of the future, of how more wise and more human intellligences in the future might judge our worlds of art, literature, and culture, those messy swamps of now.

Zen Tebow

Football authorities like John Elway are leery of Tim Tebow because of his unorthodox style of throwing and playing. Tebow doesn't look like a quarterback is supposed to look. The experts are locked in to an orthodoxy mindset.

The styles of Tebow and his replacement, Peyton Manning, couldn't be more different. Manning comes to the playing field with a tops-down attitude, seeking to impose his intelligence and will upon the game. Very western. Tim Tebow, by contrast, has a zen way of playing football. He becomes one with the flow of the game and the playing field, instinctively more than consciously.

Some quarterbacks are hybrids. The early Tom Brady wasn't a stats guy. He relied on instincts as much as knowledge. Nowadays he's clearly playing in the Peyton Manning style.

Peyton Manning is great at acquiring numbers, accumulating data. Yet, in both college and the pros he's had difficulty closing the deal and winning the number of championships he's supposed to win.

Could there be attributes to Tim Tebow's game the experts are missing?

Monday, March 19, 2012

They Did Me a Favor

It's occurred to me that thanks to the reluctant writers of the ULA, who balked at my style of doing things, I've been forced to pick up my game as a writer, having no one but myself now to promote. I spent ten years neglecting my own writing, cranking out the occasional poem or zeen but not taking it seriously. I had all these "stars," you see.

The past year I've focused on my own work-- and on pushing my abilities. I don't know how good my work ultimately is, or will be, but it's significantly better than it was. My soon-enough-to-be-released novel isn't perfect-- nothing is-- but it contains some very good things.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

St. Paddy's Aftermath

This morning the streets of Philadelphia are filled with wrecked cars and the sidewalks are covered in vomit.

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's Jackie Wilson!

Elvis Presley could sing in any style and genre-- gospel, country, pop, r&b, rock, even mock-opera. His voice had great range. Yet the one rock n' roll singer Elvis was in awe of was Jackie Wilson. Hear a number of his recordings and you see that only a few others even come close. I put Presley at #2, the fabulous Roy Orbison #3.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Best Rock Singer?

Who's the best rock/rock n' roll singer of all time? I've thought about this question for a long time and have finally settled on a definitive answer. We're talking rock, or a variation therein, not straight pop. Whitney doesn't qualify. We're also talking singer, not star, dancer, persona. So, no, it's not Elvis Presley, though he's probably Top Three.

Is it: Jim Morrison? Bruce Springsteen? James Brown? Mick Jagger? Bob Dylan? Bono? Prince? Sting? Buddy Holly? Otis Redding? Cher? Blondie? Siouxsie Sioux? Del Shannon? Little Richard? Roger Daltrey? Marvin Gaye? David Lee Roth? Robert Plant? Freddie Mercury? Ray Charles? Johnny Cash? Aretha Franklin? Van Morrison? Sam Cooke? Cheryl Crow? Courtney Love? Jerry Lee Lewis? Fats Domino? Chubby Checker? Tommy James? Etta James? Axl Rose? Rod Stewart? David Bowie? Iggy Pop? Janis Joplin? Grace Slick? Kurt Cobain? Chrissie Hynde? Eric Burdon? Bjork? Pat Benatar? Tom Petty? Who am I missing?

Is it a contemporary artist? Does Adele qualify?

Stay tuned.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Peyton and Tiger


Those football teams looking to gamble on quarterback Peyton Manning's return to health should look at the example of golf's Tiger Woods, who after an injury a few years ago has yet to regain his championship form.

Destroying Our Roots

I note that last week the New York Times carried a huge ad attacking the Catholic Church. The ad was paid for by the Freedom From Religion organization.

Can there be a freedom from anything? The only way to have freedom from something is to wipe it out.

If you're really going to have freedom from Christianity, say, you'd have to destroy western civilization itself. There's no end of writers and artists you'd have to toss out of the canon, Tolstoy and Milton and Rembrandt, Dostoevsky and Dante and Michaelangelo only among the very most prominent of them. For 2,000 years, most of the intellectual progress in the west, for all the missteps and conflicts, was spawned by Christianity and Christians, including the preservation and renewal of classical thought.

In this country, most of today's bastions of secular intellectual thought, such as Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, were established by believing Christians. Do their graduates know this? The two great social justice movements of American history, the Abolitionist movement in the 19th century and the Civil Rights movement in the 20th, were initiated and led by Christians putting Christian ideals into practice.

Many Americans aren't believing Christians. Many like myself aren't very active or practicing. But most of us are cultural and historical Christians. I was raised in a Roman Catholic milieu. I can no more take that tremendous heritage out of my being than I can freely cut off my right arm. Neither can we remove the Christian heritage from our civilization without greatly altering that civilization, taking a giant leap of faith-- a gamble that by killing all trace of God and the church all will proceed as before.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lacan and Writers

I've been trying to grasp the ideas of Jacques Lacan, which I find intriguing. I'm using the filter of Slavoj Zizek, who's a more readable writer than Lacan himself, whose prose, like that of so many French philosophers, is deathly boring.

I take Lacan's core idea that of the divide between conscious and unconscious which leads to paradox. For instance, the most upstanding man in church, the model of uprightness, might on Saturday night be the biggest sinner in the community-- or even a serial killer. On the other hand, the athiest who publicly rejects God in fact internalizes him, and may be more rigidly obsessed with rules than the believer. I'm not sure Lacan's notions are often true, but they're at least sometimes true.

How do Lacan's ideas apply to writers? I think of two instances where they might.

I remember in 2006 when the ULA protested a "Howl" celebration at Columbia University for its phoniness. When Jellyboy the Clown and I entered Miller Hall, where the "celebration" was taking place, it was like walking into a morgue. These upscale folks honoring the Beats were the most unalive uncelebratory unBeat rigidly constipated people I'd ever seen. They listened to a creaky recording of "Beat"-- not a lively version-- and you could hear absolutely nothing else. We'd entered a church service, and not a very lively one at that. High Mass at its most stifling. The Beats? Wild men? Joy? There was none of this. The Beats were treated by the unBeat audience as dead mummies to be silently worshipped, but dare not one behave in any manner resembling the actual Beats! It was a Lacanian paradox. Those who'd ostensibly rejected all rules had imposed upon themselves their own-- or really, brought the same rules and uptight behavior that the Beats thought they'd destroyed, back.

A second example might be the 3,000 or 30,000-- by now it might be 3 million-- system writers who signed a public petition proclaiming their support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The petition, of course, asks them to do nothing. There's no commitment, and since everyone is signing it, including literature's One Percent, there's absolutely no risk. Most if not all of these writers gave no support to the Underground Literary Alliance when it was around making noise last decade. Some of them were actively hostile to it. The ULA was a very Occupy-like organization ten years ahead of the fact, with the difference that we wanted to apply our ideas of democracy to the literary realm itself. (And of course found, "You can't do that!")

What's a Lacanian analysis of the current petition? Mine is that by signing it, the writers publicly demonstrate their commitment to abstract concepts of concern and change-- without having to actually change anything. It's like walking around with a badge or sign on themselves that says, "I Care." Now designated publicly as virtuous, they're absolved from being so in reality. The Lacanian paradox is that those writers on the list are least likely to put Occupy ideas into action; to try to make them, in their own field-- where they wield actual influence-- a reality. They don't have to make them a reality! After all, they're on the list.

I'd look then, to find establishment writers of character, honesty, and integrity, for those names not on the list. Those not playing the phony game. I've spotted two surprising names not on the list, who you'd think would automatically be on there. I think I may have misjudged those fellows-- they may have more honor than I thought-- and wonder if I owe them an apology.

Friday, March 09, 2012

False Narratives

I empathize with Sarah Palin regarding the endless cultural destruction campaign on her character and personality which-- don't kid yourself on this-- is a sophisticated destruction of American democracy.

On a vastly, vastly smaller scale, this is what happened to myself and the Underground Literary Alliance. A distorted image of the target was created, one with just enough of a tangential connection to reality to make it believable. I was portrayed as a semi-rational megalomaniacal dictator to enough extent that as I tried to keep the team moving, some members believed the portrayal. By the ULA's end, major ULA figures believed I was the campaign's major problem. When I finally had enough and stopped pulling the wagon, the campaign stopped moving. I'm sure those ULAers who bought the portrayal are still standing with mouth agape, wondering, unknowingly, what happened to the ULA.

The ULA itself was characterized by established lit's hatchetmen as "terrorists" and Stalinists. Also, a favorite trick was used, one I've seen used again and again in different places and situations. That's to turn the marginalized voice into a threat able to marginalize the dominant mindset. The ultimate absurdity for us was The Believer's false 2003 claim that we wanted to-- or ever could-- shut out a writer like Jeffrey Eugenides. In 2007 this was still being thrown up to me, such as in a radio interview with a local PBS station. It's as if, once it was printed in The Believer, it became reality.

What was the truth? Does anyone care about the truth? The truth is that Jeffrey Eugenides continues to be published and win Pulitzer Prizes, while ULA writers are blackballed, nonpersons for eternity.

Of course I waste my time just typing this. It does no good to correct the false narrative if you don't control the culture or media. As with Sarah Palin, the narrative has become the reality. Truth shredded. Our establishment doesn't need Putin-like strong arm tactics. So primitive! Our subtle authoritarian anti-democrats are exponentially more sophisticated. There's also no Masha Gessens anyplace to investigate, to examine credibly such things as a Harvard versus Harvard presidential election choice-- for that would be to investigate themselves, those who are consciously or subconsciously doing the selecting and the distorting.

Or, to make counterarguments, to bring up facts afterward doesn't matter. The victimizers never apologize.

(p.s. And Julianne Moore, please stop the endless rationalizing. You've participated in a nasty smear project. In doing so you've besmirched yourself as much as Sarah Palin.)

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Dilemmas of Leadership

The dilemma of leadership in “Westward the Women” for the trail boss, Buck, is that he’s had to turn his personality into a harsh, unforgiving one in order to accomplish his job of getting wagon trains to the west. Which includes dominating a contingent of tough men.

As the wagon train sets out from St. Louis, his usual challenges have multiplied. He and the hired men are escorting 140 single women. Disallowing fraternization between the hired men and the women appears impossible—yet the women are promised for the Whitman community 1500 miles or more away. An added problem is that Buck himself has been wandering the west to get away from women. As the Robert Vaughn character says in a different western movie, “The Magnificent Seven,” he is “trying to hide—in the middle of a battlefield.”

Forget the idea that a strong leader isn’t required—that naive idea. Until the community finds its legs, order is maintained, in this circumstance, only through Buck, who has to be an alpha-male to maintain it.

We see quickly into the St. Louis meeting-with-the-cowboys scene that there’s a rival alpha male around. He’s a bad alpha male. He couldn’t care less about community, about anything but his own selfish desires. We know instinctively that Buck will have to eventually deal with him.

There also turns out to be three alphas among the females. Two of them fully support Buck and the mission. One, of course, is gigantic and world-wise Patience, widow of a sea captain. The other is the sharpshooter, who does indeed save Buck’s ass at crunch time. The third is Fifi, who has the strongest personality of anyone on the wagon train—at least the most charismatic-- and as the journey progresses shows evident physical strength as well. Buck doesn’t know where she stands. He assumes, because of her background, that she’s a troublemaker. This provides a major strand of uncertainty and conflict within the story.

In other words, the major plot complications are numerous (there are also subplots, like Mrs. Moroni, and Rose, the schoolteacher-with-a-secret). The plot threads and dynamics are so well integrated into the fast-moving story we don’t even see them, but they’re there. The movie is a master class at plot, especially when you consider that by the end of the journey, and the end of the film, the plot complications will all be resolved. The movie is in perfect balance from start to finish.

Why Do They Hate Sarah Palin?

Why does the cultural establishment and the intellectual elite continue to hate, and hate on, Sarah Palin? It’s a question  I continue to ask myself. The latest example is the HBO movie “Game Change,” which by all accounts is yet another vicious hatchet job on the former politician. The TV movie is based on  a book which included many other plot lines, from the John Edwards scandal to the Hillary versus Barack contest. Yet Sarah Palin  is singled out. Give it up already! She’s not even in office and right now isn’t running for office.

There’s something going on beyond a mere difference in issues, or stated questions about her fitness for an office she’s not running for; questions which can be raised about any candidate or prospective candidate. No, the constantly expressed hatred, manifested the moment Palin appeared on the scene, goes much deeper. It’s emotional: visceral.

Something about her very being, the fact of who she is, rubs the elite intelligentsia the wrong way. It’s partly a regional thing—they hate her pronounced accent—and no doubt partly a class/snobbery issue; that she dared aspire for higher office without having an elite degree from a place like Harvard or Yale. There may be something more—that Sarah Palin in her life and in herself, like the women in the movie I’ve been reviewing, “Westward the Women,” represents a fuller version of feminism, a gun-toting earth mother fertility symbol version, quintessentially American, a rifle on one arm and a baby on the other, than the rather restrictive uptight version which comes from the east coast. Just wondering, yo.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Democracy and Community

In the 1951 film “Westward the Women,” one can see the influence of Frank Capra, who wrote the original story. The idea of bringing everyone into the community exists, though it’s an incomplete idea. The movie contains layers of outsiders, with Ito seemingly the ultimate outsider, until the Indians who attack the wagon train are considered. Of course, the Indians have no intention of joining this particular community, which turns out to be, guns and all, a domesticated community. It will be a community centered, in California, on land, stability and family. At the beginning of the movie, the trail boss, Buck leads an Indian-like nomadic existence, not tied to a spot of land but free to roam anywhere on his horse. Fifi likewise isn’t tied down to the idea of family or domesticity. She’s a very different kind of nomad.

Capra-style inclusive populism is shown by three of the characters frequently speaking their native languages: Fifi (French); Ito (Japanese); and Mrs. Moroni (Italian). Yet all want to be American, to become part of the American idea of community.

The Lacanian-style irony in the film is that community within the wagon train doesn’t occur until after the train has left civilization. It occurs as a natural process, absent any government. By the end of the journey, the women themselves—the community—is in charge of the train. The patriarch is dead. Circumstances, as well as an encounter with Fifi, have demoted Buck from dictatorial leader—though he still serves as a loud voice, a prod, and a guide.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Masha Gessen on CBS Radio

I heard on the radio this morning journalist Masha Gessen say, "The elections are a sham from beginning to end." I thought, Finally! Finally someone speaking the truth about politics in this country. Then I realized she was talking not about the United States, but Russia!

I suggest Ms. Gessen turn her attention to the election circus in the U.S., that she do some investigating so she can please explain how every U.S. President since 1988 has been a graduate of either Yale or Harvard, with the election this year looking to be a contest of Harvard vs. Harvard. Can we seriously claim to have democracy here?

Granted, our system must be less heavy-handed, vastly more sophisticated, than what Mr. Putin accomplishes. But the results seem to be the same. Unraveling our system might take a bit more work. Let's see how skilled an investigator Masha Gessen truly is! (I put my money on big money combined with a superpowerful media being the determining factor.)

The Lovers Part I

“Westward the Women” continued.

The fascinating thing about movies is that the actors bring themselves, their conscious and unconscious selves, to their roles. They can hide under makeup, but subliminally they can’t hide themselves. They’re humans naked in front of the camera. Their personality comes through—which is of course what gives us stars. The actors themselves are a subtext to any movie.

What do Robert Taylor as Buck, and Denise Darcel as Fifi, bring to their parts? Here is where it gets interesting, why this is perfect casting.

Robert Taylor was born Spangler Arlington Brugh. As a young man his goal was to be a concert musician. He later admitted he was a studious introvert. He fell into acting because of his pretty boy looks. His first big role was opposite Greta Garbo in “Camille.” Afterward his studio, MGM, put him on a physical fitness regimen and sent him out hunting to toughen him up, so he’d be suitable as a leading man in other roles. Taylor eagerly adopted the program. By 1951, when “Westward the Women” was made, he’d been playing tough guy roles for ten years. He’s believable in the role—but with him, rather than an oversized John Wayne, it’s to some extent still a role, part bluff, part will, and part intelligence—and it’s only through bluff, will, and intelligence that the character of “Buck” will be able to control his men—and the women—and get the train to California. This makes the situation more of a challenge. Subliminally the audience picks up on that. It also helps explain the character’s extreme “macho” attitude.

What of his opponent/partner in the matter, Denise Darcel? From what we know of her, the young Denise Darcel was the opposite of Robert Taylor. Apparently she was known for accompanying an American pilot in a small observation plane, at the end of the Second World War, buzzing the happy crowds of Paris. Like her character, she worked as a dance hall girl. She was apparently fearless and an extrovert. She brings that to the part, as well as her obvious natural attributes.

We already know that Robert Taylor was as self-created as Jay Gatsby. The character of Buck, as we’ve said, has to be that. The character of Fifi Danon is a self-creation also. We first see her as a flashy prostitute, ultra-feminine, a caricature of femininity. Fifi and her partner-in-crime Laurie realize the only way they’ll get onto the wagon train is by appearing “normal.” While other hookers are chased out, Fifi and Laurie leave to disguise themselves—or, in effect they drop their disguises. Laurie is able to pass as a normal woman in demure dress and bonnet. Fifi by contrast looks ridiculous in the get-up. Her outsized figure and her outsized personality, and her grotesque accent make her ridiculous, and she knows it. She’s a freak, an outsider. It’s probably what she’s been running from.

A movie screen, by the way, emphasizes Denise Darcel’s build. She comes across as a force of nature, a physical presence, even among a collection of the strongest women MGM could no doubt find, rivaled only by towering Patience, who’s kind of an Ajax with a sense of humor to Fifi Danon’s dynamic Achilles. Since we’re dealing with an epic, filled with heroes, the analogy is apt. Which I guess puts Buck in the role of Agamemnon, with Ito as his advisor Odysseus. (Or if you prefer, Ulysses.)

The patriarch, Roy Whitman, sees right through Fifi and Laurie. He presses Fifi as to why she wants to go to California. She finally admits, in an utterly sad voice, “To change.” Her facade has dropped. She stands exposed before us. What does she mean? What does she want? Likely she doesn’t know herself, only that she’s desperately unhappy in her current role, and hopes that in California she can find a role not available in Chicago. Whitman has been around enough to see this—as Buck surely doesn’t—so he allows them to sign on.

This is the subtext for the dynamic between the two lead characters. Stay tuned, if you’re still reading.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Universities and Indoctrination

Do universities indoctrinate people, as was claimed by one of the presidential candidates? In one sense indoctrinate is too strong a word. In another sense it's not.

Universities are institutions. They're bureaucracies. Any institution imposes its standards, its internal codes, values, ideas, ideology, and message, not upon every member of the institution but upon the successful members of the institution. Or, if you don't accept the values of the institution you're not going to rise through it.

Those who aggressively rise through the military are those who most thoroughly accept, internalize and externalize, the military ethos-- who in their person embody that ethos. More than this, those who rise are those who best accommodate themselves to their superiors.

In a university, the "best" students are those who best give the professors what they want to hear. The best students accommodate themselves to the professors' own assumptions, premises, prejudices, and beliefs. They're the students raising their hands in the front row, eagerly being guided, eagerly providing answers which make the professor happy. They're the students talking up the prof before and after class. Ingratiation is part of the game in every field. I have a quote from a character in my novel-in-progress in which he talks about government, and offers up a favorite slogan from within government: "There's the right way, the wrong way, and the government way. Do things the government way."

I've already shown on this blog how writing programs perpetuate a sameness of writing styles and thinking.

Think of an institution or bureaucracy as a living organism. It will reject disruptive bodies that cause disharmony within the organism. An institution likes harmony and compliance within that institution.

The "Best" students aren't those who question the university or the codes and values of the university. It's those who most thoroughly and successfully buy into them. Is this indoctrination? When the student climbs the ladder through receiving a Masters or Phd, he/she has to give a professor an acceptable plan of work and acceptable thesis. I'm told that professors in these situations have almost total control over what the student is going to write and present. If the thesis presents new ideas, those ideas have to be presented in acceptable ways-- ways that conform, that take place within what are in fact fairly narrow boundaries.

The "best" students are the best in high schools, the most pliable, receiving all A's, and being accepted to the "best" schools which means the Ivy League, and performing "best" there-- then moving on from there and taking jobs at the New York Times! Conform, conform, conform. It's how American literature, once it began relying on schools instead of life to provide its writers, became a hyperregulated swamp of mediocrity.

There's an argument to be made that those who rise to the top via the educational system are the most indoctrinated. The most loyal to the values of the system. It makes sense, whether consciously or unconsciously, from the system's standpoint. It's how any system perpetuates itself.