Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Stray Thoughts: Serious and Light

Senator Ted Kennedy has died, and is being saluted as an effective liberal politician, someone who achieved a lot of good legislation and embodied significant public values, as a man who had personal flaws but faced and grew beyond them.

There has been another recent report about the murder of an investigative Russian journalist: some people still believe you can kill the truth, or kill knowledge, by killing a person.

The spirit-killers are evil but think they are good. The spirit-killers are ignorant and worse but think they are wise. The spirit-killers act out of hatred, selfishness, stupidity, but imagine themselves heroic, pious, sacrificing. The spirit killers want us to give up art for mundane duties, to give up brave fellowship for prejudice, to give up individuality for witless conformity. The spirit-killers speak words of poison and call that concern, duty, pride. The spirit-killers may be male or female, of any skin color, religion, or class. The spirit-killers may seem young but they are old, as putrid as death. The spirit-killers- destroy but cannot create. The spirit-killers’ true energies are envy and resentment—and time reveals their evil.

With the recent economic turmoil in the United States, there has been severe criticism of capitalists and capitalism to an extent that would have been suspect years ago, in better times (methods and morals have been questioned). It makes you wonder, Why wasn’t honest criticism of the financial system tolerated before its recent crisis? Why didn’t the financial press do its job? (I did some work for a financial news service years ago—and met incompetent and immature people there, so probably should not bother with that last question.) Why is it that when people steal out of want, out of sheer greed, they are not despised, but when people steal out of need, out of a desperate attempt to survive, they are despised?

A lot of people are chauvinists of one kind or another, but I have been struck again by the chauvinism of certain black male intellectuals: they define themselves in ways that suggest racial, gender, and sexual prejudices, ways so deeply rooted that those ways seem to be beyond the criticism if not awareness of those intellectuals. Some have commented on the president as if he were an ordinary street fighter (not understanding why he doesn’t talk tough and use power, instead of collaboration and diplomacy, to get his means). They judge other artists and intellectuals similarly: not understanding the complex goal, the subtle strategy.

I have been enjoying pianist and singer Judy Carmichael’s NPR radio program “Jazz Inspired,” in which she talks to creative people about their work: she asks terrific questions, full of importance and insight. (Sometimes I have liked Herman Fuselier’s radio program on zydeco music on KRVS as well.)

Streisand has a new album (scheduled for September 2009 release: Love is the Answer); and she is being featured in Parade magazine, the article available online.

I have received and have begun to “look at” Marc Robinson’s study of American theatre, The American Play (Yale, 2009). In recent days, I have read two novels, Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence and Roberto Bolano’s The Skating Rink. (I am thinking of developing a web log devoted principally to the reading of, and commenting on, literature: the Garrett Reader.)

Bliss, a Turkish film I saw last year at a special screening in Manhattan and raved about, has been playing in the city again as part of a regular screening and getting good reviews!

Failures of Love

My mother (a unique combination of intelligence and ignorance, love and hatred) had two daughters: one is dead and one lives; and the first I grew up with and the second, much younger than me, I did not. I was living in New York when my sister died and things were such in my life that I did not travel south for the funeral, but as part of my commemoration of that death I did write poetry and fiction. (If you want to know what is important to a writer, look at what he writes and how.) I have not ever felt entirely comfortable or safe in Louisiana: not in the past, not now—and I felt many things upon my return last year and being in social situations was not one of my goals, for various reasons. Thinking, writing, cultivating some sense of a career in a difficult time have been primary. (One writes to stay sane, not only for money in the present or future.) Not long after my return to the south, there was a memorial church service for people who had died, including for my deceased sister and, as I am an atheist and I felt too raw about my own life circumstances, I chose not to attend: that choice was hard for some to understand, though not much was said about it. That decision has been characteristic of my decisions here: individualistic, regardless of the responses of others. After a few brief attempts, I have not established a relationship with the surviving sister, though for years in the north I would send her notes and things I had written and sometimes books by others that I thought would be helpful (my mother did say a few months ago that this sister felt that I hadn’t been there for her: I wonder who she imagines has been there for me?). Here, I have not been inclined to cultivate relationships old or new—which makes me an impossible person. I have not been enthusiastic about presenting myself in situations in which I might feel vulnerable. How do you give an account of yourself when your most important investments have not proved sustaining in a way that anyone recognizes? How do you justify yourself? The awful thing is that I recall several adults who behaved when I was growing up as I do now (independent and self-protective or distant, selfish, hostile) and I was either not fond of them or I was critical of them—and it is a terrible irony to do things that you feel compelled to do (or more precisely: fail to do things) that constitute choices that you yourself would not have liked or understood in times past. I am in the place in which I was born: but I am not home.

Failures of Fact

Before arriving south, I transmitted a great amount of queries regarding work in different areas, hoping that would make finding opportunities easier: but the economy here is smaller than that in the north and some publishers have experienced the same problems being felt elsewhere (thanks to the competition of new media and the loss of advertising). I did speak with an editor of a small paper, and researched several stories, none of which ended in published articles (in more than one case, a subject did not want to be interviewed on record or there was not enough information to go on):

One proposed subject for an article was the development of a boat-for-hire project along the Bayou Teche. That involved the water’s dams and locks: with the federal government likely to give over to the parish control of the locks, there was new opportunity. One of the locals, someone who had been successful in the funeral industry, had an idea for a luxury boat service, something that might appeal to vacationers, and he was aware of a second Louisiana citizen who was living in Idaho but who had an idea for offering boats for hire as exists in Europe. The first person, the funeral industry mogul, had undertaken a project years ago in which a nice boat and food and fishing had been offered for rent (I spoke with him: he had a highly rated boating crew and chefs and the possibility of fishing and golfing as part of the package: but, the high cost for using the boat, about $1800 a day, and the limited, mostly local, advertising that he did, and the fact there the boat was only used for about three or four trips a year, made it a very ambitious, interesting, but not sustainable enterprise, which had been written about by local papers when it was in service years before). He gave me the contact information for the second person, the Idaho woman; and she said she didn’t want to go public yet, explaining, “I have a dream to one day offer people this type of waterway experience. The business plan proposal is in the rough stages.”

Another subject had to do with homebuilding: in 2007, a company had planned to build three energy efficient homes a day, offering about 1,000 jobs to the local area. Needless to say, it did not reach that goal then or now; and the executives involved refused to be interviewed (they would not take or return phone calls or e-mails)—so it is not clear if the area could not sustain such plans or if the American economy, with the much-publicized problems in the home sales and mortgage industries, could not sustain that.

One local (St. Martinville) high school has two prom activities, one for whites, one for blacks; and it has been that way for years. (The actor Morgan Freeman knew of a similar situation in his native southern town, and offered to pay for a single prom, was refused years ago, but recently the town accepted and, apparently, the students enjoyed the single, shared prom.) I left messages for several people involved with prom planning at the local school under consideration and none returned my call but I did speak with the principal (he’s been principal for 8 years), and he told me that only one event is recognized by the school (the prom principally attended by blacks) and that the other (for whites) is a private party; and that prom planning begins the previous year (there are about 100 student attendees, plus guests; and no alcohol is served and students are required to stay until the end—to eliminate possibilities for trouble). Of course, he said he never heard any complaints regarding the existence of these two events. (Did the other people not return my many calls because they did not have his permission; or because they were too busy?) I felt as if the principal was just trying to put the best face on the situation, trying to discourage attention, but I did speak to a black student who said the white prom event is sponsored by the parents of involved students and is more expensive. She said the students there can wear what they want but at the official event dress is more monitored. She said she didn’t see why there couldn’t be just one prom but guessed that it was just tradition; and she thought that black and white students got along well at the school in St. Martinville.

During the last year , I have written articles on film and music and books that have appeared or are scheduled to appear in print and online, none of them local Louisiana publications.

Encore: Criticism, As Companion to Art; and As An Establishment Tool

On the web pages of City and Country, Boy and Man, “Criticism, As Companion to Art” appeared previously on April 21, 2009; and “Criticism, As An Estatablishment Tool” appeared April 27, 2009.

Criticism, As Companion to Art

I have thought of art as a necessity; and I have thought of criticism as a companion to art, and it has become a necessity as well.

I see a film and read a review of it--before seeing or after; and sometimes, if I find the film interesting enough I write a review of it. I listen to music and try to imagine how I would describe it to a friend or a disinterested acquaintance. The content I discover in a work of art or entertainment, and the pleasure I find, is deepened and extended by a review--or a bunch of reviews.

Criticism is the recovery, in language and thought, of objects from the near and distant past; and it provides context, an explanation of genre, and a disclosure of artistic strategies that are social as much as they are aesthetic. Critics can help us to understand the current work of an artist in light of standards established by the artist's own work as well as the tradition or traditions to which he or she belongs; and criticism can celebrate the highest manifestations of craft, as it introduces us to new talent or reminds us of the existence of neglected or obscure artists: describing the rare qualities of each artist.

There is little more valuable culturally than the reinterpretation of misunderstood or maligned artists, sometimes offering retrospective summaries of artists' careers: that reinterpretation can tell us as much about ourselves, our society, and our values as anything, illuminating the politics of art.

We can learn about the nature of experimental art (what is to be gleaned from it); and about false radicalism, when experiment exists merely to impress and not to express or teach. We can be reminded that art has a spirituality, that it is infused, always, with the human spirit. We can learn about each other--through folk art, international art, expanding knowledge. Criticism can help us to understand how artists express themselves in ancillary words (in books, speeches, interviews) and how that complements or contradicts their works? And criticism can help us to appreciate, to sympathize with, to tolerate, how practical matters--money and power--affect the artistic world. Criticism can be a companion to art, to us.

Criticism, As An Establishment Tool

It may be less so today than it is has been in the past, thanks to the social changes of the 1960s and 1970s and the cultural and theoretical leaps of the 1970s and 1980s, but criticism can be an establishment tool: a way to reaffirm conservative traditions and values. Criticism can be a way of solidifying the status quo, of policing works, things, and people who are different. Sometimes those people who are different are people who belong to traditional minorities--but sometimes they are people whose cultural interests are different: people who prefer Rembrandt to installation art or video; people who prefer European classical music and jazz to indie rock and hip-hop. Criticism can be used to mock, to shame. It can be used to disseminate prejudice. It can express malice and resentment toward figures of mastery, toward what is perceived as safety and security in a society that is impressed by hedonism and riot. Criticism can be a way for the mediocre to join together against excellence. It can be a form of laziness, a rebellion against having to recognize the abundant, diverse talent in the world. It can be an establishment tool simply by encouraging things as they are, the prevalence of the lowest common denominator in much of popular culture.

Encore: A Glossary of Values

Writer’s Note: “A Glossary of Values” was begun several years ago, circa 2002-2003, and this version was completed in October 2008, and appeared on the pages of the web log City and Country, Boy and Man October 22, 2008.


Art – work created and crafted for aesthetic pleasure; work of beauty, depth, energy, insight, intelligence, relevance, and truth

Beauty – fineness of form; an attractive, suggestive wholeness, having physical and spiritual appeal; affectingly sensuous

Civility – a sensitive or intelligent regard for others that shapes manners and relationships; the desire and habit of avoiding injury to others; and avoidance of vulgarity and cruelty

Common Sense – assumptions based on experience; intuition; ordinary logic

Compromise – resolution of conflict or disagreement; settling for less than one’s original intention or goal in order to maintain cordiality, peace, or another important aspect of a relationship

Context – the preceding and/or surrounding history, ideas, and relationships; environment

Contradictions – conflicting ideas and feelings; the discordance between ideas and reality

Democracy - civic participation; sharing of responsibility in government, in public representation and activity

Economics – wealth generation and distribution; financial relations in a society; the system—the laws, rules, practices, and beliefs—involving money in a community, city, state, or nation

Evidence – observed fact; books and documents; trial and testing; expert testimony

Fairness – balanced or objective treatment; justice; a valuation rooted in established criteria

Form – structure; organization

Generosity – the act of giving out of choice, instinct, bounty, uncompelled giving; an open way of being, and a special sympathy of insight

Honesty – adhering to facts, intention; candor, clarity, directness; truth

Imagination – creativity, dream, invention; an ability to give vision to what does not yet exist or to see the connections between what does exist

Innovation – new forms of thought or product; experiment; changes in received orders

Intelligence – thinking ability; criticality; the capacity to weigh experience, analysis, observation, intuition, and other sources of information

Integrity – being true to the best, deepest, highest aspects of one’s character, discipline, philosophy, and character; dependable, recognizable quality;

Intellectual Rigor – thorough criticality of both details and overall structure and content

Intergenerational – the relationship between differing age groups; the potential of recognizing or responding to ideas, events, facts regardless of age

Justice - fundamental fairness, in interpretation and treatment, and regarding rewards and punishments

Knowledge - fact, truth, propositions for which there is proof; a body of evidence and insight; a tradition of knowing, speaking, and writing.

Lyricism – musicality of language; elegant and poetic diction

Multicultural – the presence of cultural diversity; an appreciation of artistic and philosophical traditions from different nations

Nuance - complexity, difference, subtlety; variety of experience, perception, and texture

Observation - what can be known through the senses and/or by study

Passion – a great intensity of feeling inspired by an idea, object, or person; an obsessive regard

Pleasure – the act or feeling of being pleased; elation, enjoyment, entertainment; a rise in spirit, a lightness of being

Power – authority, convention, and force; forms of power often work to undermine, deceive, stereotype, embarrass, intimidate, misinform, smash—as power often does whatever it takes to maintain itself

Quality - character, integrity, wholeness

Resources – useful character(s), ideas, artifacts, books, information, and tools; material that can enable one to make desired gains

Security – a belief in or sense of well-being, of necessary resources; the satisfaction of survival needs; ability or facility for self-defense and self-preservationSensuality – appeal to the senses; the facility to have or to provoke pleasant physical sensations

Spirituality – of the spirit; perception of life beyond surfaces; an abstract apprehension of the connection between living things

Subcultures – the shared habits, relationships, rituals, and values among people who aren’t dominant in a civilization or society; minority, rather than majority, culture; and often subcultural energies and forms reinvigorate the dominant culture

Technique – ability to do what is required by a given art or discipline

Tradition – the inherited culture, logic, and philosophy of an art or nation; the ongoing discourse within a discipline, with its own particular grammar and vocabulary and object or objects of concern

Understanding - comprehension; clear, right, judgment

Virtue - evidence or nature of being fine, good, right

Wackiness - eccentricity; an appreciation for, or inclination to, absurdity or wild imagination

Xenial - hospitality

Youth - early life; the spirit of possibility

Zest - energy, enjoyment, pleasure

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ian Mackenzie's novel City of Strangers

City of Strangers by Ian Mackenzie
Penguin, 2009

Can a novel be sustained without an unusual event? Individuality is channeled into different areas, into writing and business, in the fiction City of Strangers, which is set in a New York of both elegance and squalor; and the novel focuses on a writer who is asked to write a book about his father, who was decades ago a Nazi sympathizer, in a post 9/11 world of resurgent racism. The writer, Paul, is newly divorced and has a financial world success of a brother facing corruption questions. The novel City of Strangers, with its depicted street tensions, restaurants, museums, and the rest of it, is written with a language of attention and detail, of breath and muscle, of desire and fear and anger, argument and confession. The central character is a man, Paul, who clings to relationships and emotions that others want to leave behind. Violence enters Paul’s life as we all fear, and he is pushed to defend himself smartly, viciously. What occurs is unusual—and challenges expectation, if not belief.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Howards End by Edward Morgan Forster

E. M. Forster’s Howards End
Penguin Books, 2000

The early twentieth-century novel Howards End is about conflict and resolution as it relates to ideals and reality, nation and society, men and women, art and nature, intellect and impulse, and wealth and poverty. Several families who embody different values and classes meet and are contrasted: friendships, love affairs, and financial relationships evolve and are at stake. The novel Howards End is an honest and imaginative attempt to come to grips with modern English society and what it seemed to be becoming—in terms of the development of capitalism and city life and their impact on individual opportunities and choices. Forster was aware of much and that awareness was invested in his novel—and calls to the reader’s own awareness. Howards End is a genuinely engaging and deeply impressive novel.

The life of the mind that is created for Margaret and her sister Helen, with art and theatre and reading and discussion, comes out of genuine observation, while the money-making, property-hoarding, and status-consciousness of Henry Wilcox and his family is equally believable. The vulnerability of the poor clerk Leonard Bast, who wants to belong to a world of culture, is too recognizable. With these characters the novelist E. M. Forster creates a story of human relationships in which larger forces—not only human psychology but environmental nature and spirituality, as well as social progress—are at work. It is, really, a very large vision, an exacting task: making the novel an aesthetic object, and something of use, a resource for understanding.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Stephen L. Carter's novel Jericho's Fall

Stephen L. Carter, Jericho’s Fall
Knopf, 2009

I liked Stephen Carter’s first three fiction novels, The Emperor of Ocean Park, New England White, and Palace Council, novels that could be considered a trilogy, as they shared some of the same characters, focusing on a segment of educated and wealthy African-Americans we do not see much of in literature. His books are intelligent entertainments and yet what is surprising, thrilling, and troubling is the degree to which conspiracies and conspiracy theories are at the core of these books. That corresponds to the paranoia of a victimized minority as well as the political analysis of certain radicals. Carter’s novel Jericho’s Fall is about an aging, seemingly ill government man, now retired, who threatens to reveal state secrets and financial secrets. His former lover, a young woman, returns to attend his death bed. His daughters are there, one of them very hostile. They are all under surveillance, and in danger. Where is the evidence the great man has and what will he do with it?

The novel moves fast through conversations and acts, featuring intriguing characters, and often there is believable emotional weight as well as interesting political speculations. Carter’s use of language (in narrative and dialogue) is at a high-level with only of few points of stiffness. However, near the story’s end, I found the leading character’s response to a fatal event too lacking in affect—his coolness then is unlikely, not quite human, even for someone whose work has required monstrous calculations. Yet Stephen Carter’s work is engaging for his ability to suggest the kind of characters who can create or earn and hold and handle great wealth and power. The reader does not feel the cheapness or emptiness that can accompany reading such depictions, the exploitative flavor. Carter has a genuine and admirable talent. In the novel, as the great man’s enemies circle, approach, and attempt to do their worst, we read something that allows us to imagine the consequences of certain amoral ways of being in the world.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Philip Roth, The Human Stain
Houghton Mifflin, 2000

The Human Stain considers individuality versus collectivity, secrecy versus disclosure, and social constraints versus freedom, and its author Philip Roth has a sense of invention equal to his ideas: the invention not only illustrates his ideas, it fulfills a view of humanity. Every novel recreates the world, and The Human Stain is a book written out of Philip Roth’s full intelligence, observations, and sympathy, a book, entertaining, rich, wise, that both accepts and protests human society. Philip Roth questions society with a persistence that indicates a genuine radicality. In The Human Stain, Philip Roth depicts the failure of intelligent professionals to use reason and morality when it matters most: in a real situation occurring on campus. A man who has helped to make the reputation of the college in which he works, Coleman Silk, is ruined by an obviously bogus charge of racism. Colman Silk, a professor of the classics, of Greek tragedies, has a life that is both strangely and believably complex (charged with racism, he is actually a light-skinned African-American passing for white; and he is having an affair with a woman half his age, a woman who claims to be illiterate). Coleman’s life demonstrates a variation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, being the life of a man living in the world without full notice. Roth’s novel, as well, uses the Clinton administration and the Monica Lewinsky scandal as one frame, allowing the writer—through that and Coleman’s late life affair—to explore the madness and refreshment of sex. Good fiction always seems to fight the fact that it is fiction, drawing on power from dynamic, real world sources, while taking flight with human imagination, as this one does.

The human stain is blood, semen, skin; it is fundamental fact and what is made of it. I wish James Baldwin were here to read such a book: I imagine he would applaud Roth’s claiming the character, the subject, and showing, once more, how confining and crazy a matter race is, and the resources of American personality—while dynamically dealing with masculinity and sexuality. Depiction of Coleman Silk’s early life presents women who are vivid and embody different aspects of experience, different values, teaching Silk something about himself and the world. So many people’s values and interpretations are less complex than human experience, compelling them to reject what they cannot comprehend (instead of modifying their values and interpretations, they reject experience). Sophistication, like a genuine education, involves mastering many things that are important and difficult because they are real, and not just if and when they please. Faunia, the college custodian and farm worker who becomes Coleman Silk’s last lover, calls the human stain the trace that humans contain and leave behind.

Roth, as a writer, renews his (our) sense of who and where the characters are as the novel continues. Faunia does a dance for her lover and her body is described in terms of what has marked her body (work, lovemaking). She, who has been mistreated in other relationships, requests nothing more than a sexual relationship from Coleman, but she is not simply a body, she is a mind and spirit and she seems to know more than people who are better placed. Faunia thinks of how the charge of racism is not simply an event, but how it works backward to taint an entire career and life. Roth imagines what is beneath the surface of a woman who has been abused and who is often dismissed by others, showing her depth and her limitation. It is Faunia who thinks of the human stain as what the human being contains and leaves behind, the human trace. Both Coleman and Faunia are threatened by her former husband, who is himself traumatized by his experience in the Vietnam war.

Philip Roth seems to want to enrich our sense of the present by increasing our knowledge of the past—the pagan Greek roots of western civilization, the rigorous intelligence too: we must accept complexity, contradiction, multiplicity, plenitude. Roth captures perfectly the petty, imperceptive judgments of the politically correct (such as of feminists who judge without knowing a French woman intellectual, their colleague, a woman whose surface is glamorous and whose exile is profound and whose flaw is dangerous: a woman whose mind is her gift and her trap). Roth allows every character her/his story, with understanding and fulfillment, fulfillment in acceptance of knowledge or ignorance, in acts of love or hate; and he dramatizes demonology, how individuals are interpreted as villains by communities. He is carrying on an American tradition—the critique of American ethical thinking.

The ability to take moral offense is the only power some people have—but they rarely take offense at the workings of institutions or communities that have power over them or in which they participate: rather, they take offense at individuals, often strangers. Their moral sense is rooted in self-interest, and in weakness. I am tempted to call this a bitterly wise book.