Thursday, August 17, 2017

A note on symphonic form in fiction

While listening to Beethoven's seventh symphony on NPR, I wondered about the feasibility of a symphonic formal paradigm in novelistic fiction. I imagined a four-part form, each part both a complete artwork in itself and integrated thematically into a whole greater than the individual parts... But before I became too excited by the possibility, I realized that it was not a terribly original idea. Broch did it in The Death of Virgil; Burgess explicitly did it in Napoleon Symphony; Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is symphonically structured; as are, it suddenly occurred to me, W. G. Sebald's four-part inventions, Vertigo and The Emigrants. Strange that I hadn't previously noticed the symphonic formal analogy in Sebald, which may well be a direct influence from Broch's Virgil. I presume a Central European critic, from a culture more attuned to symphonic music, would have noticed it immediately... And from this thought arose the idea that the young Irish tenor James Joyce, writing in obscurity in Trieste, deliberately arranged his story collection Dubliners in the form of a symphonic novel. Dubliners is a grand, Beethovenesque Irish symphony in four movements, each movement focused upon a different stage of an (even more ghostly) underlying biographical narrative line. The first three stories--"The Sisters," "An Encounter," "Araby"--comprise a movement we might title Youth. The next four--"Eveline," "After the Race," "Two Gallants," "The Boarding House"--fall together into an Early Adulthood movement. A third movement that we might call Maturity consists of "A Little Cloud," "Counterparts," "Clay," and "A Painful Case." Finally, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," "A Mother," "Grace," and "The Dead" constitute a Public Life movement that culminates in the grand finale of that final novella-length story--Joyce's self-consciously Romantic (and ironic) answer to the "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's Ninth. Also, the style and pacing of individual stories might be identified as largo or grave ("Eveline"), molto allegro ("After the Race"), and so forth. In Dubliners Joyce seems to be using the 19th-century symphony to fill the role that Homer's Odyssey will play in Ulysses and Vico's New Science in Finnegans Wake. (Like most of my ideas about Joyce, this is probably something Hugh Kenner said many decades ago.... Well, if so, it bears repeating.)

Hemingway's Pick

As quoted in Papa Hemingway by his nerdy, worshipful Eckermann, A. E. Hotchner, Ernest Hemingway considered John Horne Burns' The Gallery "the only truly good novel, maybe great, to come out of World War Two." Hemingway was speaking in 1954, so his elevation of this now almost forgotten novel and writer is simultaneously a harsh criticism of The Naked and the Dead, The Young Lions, From Here to Eternity, and every other product of the first wave of WWII fiction. Hemingway didn't live long enough to read the second, darkly comic wave defined by Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five and, ultimately, Gravity's Rainbow, but chances are Hem would've despised Heller, Vonnegut and Pynchon even more than he hated James Jones. (It's an interesting thought experiment to imagine what a 75 year-old Hemingway might have made of Pynchon's druggy, porny, supersurreal magnum opus. His thoughts might have run along the lines of, "Gertrude would've loved this shit--that bitch!") Anyone wishing to test Hemingway's judgment of the Burns book can take advantage of the fact that the wonderful NYRB Classics imprint has brought it back into print. Grab a copy and read it for yourself.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Calling a Fascist a Fascist

One small way each of us can help slam the brakes on Trumpite fascism's high-speed degradation of American political discourse is to cease referring to America's fringe-right lunatics by their self-coined self-designations, "alt-right" and "white nationalist." In no other realm of American life do we unquestioningly accept the self-descriptions of the idiotic and/or insane. When a drunkenly swaying boozehound approaches us on the sidewalk and announces that he's the Emperor Napoleon XV, we do not immediately drop to our knees and respectfully request that he confer upon us the crown of Flanders. Similarly, when a shaven-headed white loser crawls out of his mom's basement, sieg heils everyone he meets, and proclaims himself a "white nationalist" member of the "alt-right," we should first ask ourselves whether these labels have any real meaning.


And the short answer to this not-exactly-difficult question is: they don't. Of course they don't. "Alt-right" and "white nationalist" are empty branding strategies adopted by fascists who realize, somewhere in their cobwebby unconsciouses, that calling oneself a 'fascist' or a 'Nazi' in America is not a great way to win friends--except, perhaps, in prison. Just as 'graphic novel' is a marketing strategy designed to sell comic books to people far too highbrow to read comic books, and 'erotica' is porn for people offended by the word 'pornography,' the phrases "alt-right" and "white nationalist" are marketing-friendly weasel words used by fascists too cowardly to call themselves fascists.


The 'alt-right' can only be considered 'alt' if the prefix is understood as the German word for 'old', because these are the same old fringe racist groups that have been parasitizing the right ass-cheek of American politics for generations. And as for 'white nationalism'... well, sorry to hafta tell ya this, Ricky the Racist, but there's no such thing. The first requirement for any nationalism is that it be focused upon some nation--no nation, no nationalism. And since there has never been nor will there ever be a 'white' nation--even the racists' beloved Confederacy was a site of rampant miscegenation--any such 'nationalism' is a logical absurdity. It's a racist concept built upon an unrealizable fantasy of past and/or future racial purity. (In order not to kill a fly with a howitzer, I'm purposely not mentioning the scientific discrediting of the whole notion of 'race'.) So let's stop pretending that these pathetic drunks are Napoleons; let's stop referring to lunatics by their preferred nicknames. From now on, let's call a fascist a fascist.

The I-Told-You-So Variations

In this 2010 photo, the late neurologist Oliver Sacks holds the brain of Donald Trump. The organ was donated by the Trump Organization for tax purposes in fiscal year 1991.


We can thank Donald Trump for one thing. He has finally put to rest the 80-year thought experiment in which Americans have tried to imagine what fascism would look like if and when it triumphed in America. Franklin Roosevelt imagined this country's first fascist president as a folksy populist demagogue in the mold of Huey P. Long (memorably melodramatized by Robert Penn Warren in All The King's Men). John F. Kennedy reportedly believed fascism would come to America wearing stars on its shoulders and fruit salad on its chest. Kennedy's friend Gore Vidal once remarked that if Americans ever elected a dictator they would call him "Coach." We can now sound the game show buzzer on all three prophecies and ask our distinguished dead panel, "Would you like to try again?" For in this seventh month of the Trump administration, we can now definitively state that America's first fascist president is a bloated, cynical, pathologically lying, bottomlessly narcissistic, repeatedly bankrupt self-promotion tycoon, trash TV personality and diploma mill confidence man with the clownishly effeminate physical demeanor of a drag queen who has gone seriously to seed and lost all sense of style. (It is especially telling that Trump's first sally against sexual minorities was directed at trans people. His anti-trans tweets were a classic case of a homophobe lashing out at the sexuality he fears is within him.)

This blog has been silent for the past few months because, in this time so shockingly similar to the decade in which Thomas Mann remarked that "the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms," anything I might have written would have been merely a series of variations on "I told you so." Everything about this Trumped-out half-year has been depressingly, drearily predictable. Every. Single. Thing. From his shambolic incompetence to his nonstop, effortless production of falsehoods; from his bended-knee coddling of the right-Stalinist Putin regime to his outrageous attempt to obstruct justice by firing James Comey; from his bizarre hiring of the Junior Varsity Wall Street clown Anthony Scaramucci to his pathetically weak-willed firings of First Puppies Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer; from his racist, family-destroying immigration crackdown to the recent revelation that the administration's real goal is to melt down the Statue of Liberty and scrap it to China (pronounced like the last two syllables of 'vagina') by placing un-American restrictions upon legal immigration; from his mainstreaming of paranoid internet ravings and fascist talking points to his repeated, petty, childish, cowardly Twitter attacks on anyone whom he even perceives to have slighted him (Our Miss Trump is a real tough guy when s/he hides behind her iPhone and sends out mean girl tweets); from his murderously botched first military operation (that already-forgotten fiasco in Yemen) to his world-destroyingly reckless toying with the prospect of nuclear war over the insane rhetoric of a North Korean regime ruled by a dictator who looks and acts like Trump reflected in a funhouse mirror; from his ridiculously, transparently mendacious campaign promises ("Mexico will pay for it...") to his sub-Dubya oratorical style, best described as a never-ending stump speech; from his demonization of the legitimate media as 'fake news' to his valorization of fascist propaganda as 'real news'; from his beyond-Orwellian degradation of the English language (Trump's 'discourse' is postmodern in the most vulgar sense: he vomits forth strings of signifiers completely divorced from meaning) to the certainty that he will leave the American presidency as indelibly stained as those now-notorious Moscow hotel bedsheets; from his bigoted, moronic, and internationally counterproductive 'Muslim ban' to his forcing of Americans to pay the salary of fascist entrepreneur Steve Bannon; from the bizarre, Stalinist spectacle of that First Full Cabinet Meeting, when his appointees took turns sucking the First Dick in what was surely the first televised blowbang in White House history, to his Latin American strongman-style Executive Order signing ceremonies conducted at a miniature desk that seems chosen to make Trump's hands look larger on TV; from his incessant, obsessive, perhaps delusionally psychotic attempts to rewrite current events by insisting that he won a "great, great victory" in the election he lost by over three million votes to his attempt to turn the Boy Scout Jamboree into a Hitler Youth rally--all of this, all of it, is drearily, depressingly predictable.

And last weekend, predictably, there was blood in the streets. Trump's fascist followers came to Charlottesville to do what fascists do. They marched by torchlight while chanting "Blood and Soil!" and "Jews will not replace us!" (You can bet on that last one: not many Jews will be taking part in Nuremberg nostalgia rallies.) They incited hatred and fear and tried to provoke counter-violence so they could break heads while claiming self-defense. They whiningly assumed a victim role when the violence they wished and worked for finally occurred. They killed and wounded innocent people in an act of terroristic violence. Yes, even the murder of Heather Heyer and the wounding of 19 other anti-fascist protesters was almost as predictable as sunrise and sunset. Emboldened by a triumphalist fascist president, and with fascist fuckfriends like Bannon slithering into high places, it was only a matter of time before a member of the new Trump Generation of American fascists tried his hand at mass murder. Mass murder, after all, is what fascists, historically, have done best.

And the fascist president's numb-brained responses to this act of fascist terrorism were also--predictably--sickeningly predictable. After the Nazi-heartening equivocations of his Saturday statement and the obviously forced, hostage video-like "condemnation" on Monday, the unelected president's unhinged performance amidst the operatic gaudiness of Trump Tower was nothing less than the dropping of the final veil. Like three hundred pounds of beef gone reekingly rancid in summer heat, our aged, flabby Salome now stands naked before us, singing a fascist aria to ex-puppy Reince's head on a gold-painted platter. Yesterday, a president of the United States parroted the party line of American fascism, offered an apologia for its violence, and insinuated that the dead and wounded antifascists got what they deserved. And in the interstices of this verbal shitstorm, he argued that the torch-wielding chanters of Nazi slogans were "good people" peacefully demonstrating to preserve symbols of American history. Reality, of course, tells a different story, but the hate-fueled, violent reality of that evening, recorded in photographs and videos, means less than nothing to the Drumpfenfuhrer. There is but one reality, one fact, that Don the Dipshit Dictator truly respects: If he wants to be re-elected, he must not alienate two groups that enabled his electoral college victory, namely Russian intelligence agencies and American fascists. So no one should be surprised when Trump bends himself backwards like a horseshoe to suck their balls... That's an entirely appropriate image for the American presidency in August 2017, pornographic enough to fit the pussygrabber, ugly enough to work better than Ipecac. This is what American fascism looks like, and no one except David Duke and his anti-American ilk thinks it's a pretty picture. 

My arms are figuratively black and blue from all the times I've been driven to pinch myself over the past half-year, trying to snap my mind out of this fascist nightmare. It's no use. We are trapped inside a bad road company production of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, and this one won't have a happy ending after a few hundred pages. Barring impeachment (highly unlikely as long as the Republicans control Congress) or 25th Amendment removal (highly unlikely, period), we are not even close to the bottom of the Trump years. The next 3 1/2 to 7 !/2 years will likely be even worse than the past seven months. With an institutionally powerless Democratic Party and a Republican Party so thoroughly fascisized that it has no problem selling its country to a Fifth Avenue Hitler in exchange for a tax cut--I picture Paul Ryan avidly fingering his thirty pieces of silver embossed with David Koch's profile--our best hope for at least the next year and a half may lie in Trump's abysmal ignorance and incomparable incompetence. If he continues to flail and fail for the next 18 months--and he probably will, given that he believes himself perfect and omniscient and thus takes no one's advice--his own natural shambolia might mitigate the damage he would otherwise do were he a competent fascist president. And then by 2019 (which seems a century away right now, but it'll arrive sooner than we think), the Democrats might be able to place him in check. Until then, and until this gold-plated fascist ass tumor is excised from our body politic, and until the discredited anti-American Republican Party has been eliminated as an electoral force in American life, the only thing we can do is resist.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Shakespeare contra Trump

As we embark on week two of this bizarre, pseudo-North Korean political experiment, with our maximally moronic Maximum Leader (call him Kim Jong Don) governing by Orwellian lies, psychotic delusions, and diktat-signing photo-ops, with a Constitution-shredding de facto 'Muslim ban' already being enforced at our airports, with the ridiculously hypocritical 'conservatives' of the now thoroughly fascisized Republican Party donning MAGA hats and goose-stepping into a Busby Berkley chorus line behind the Mustard-Headed One...in the midst of all this insanity, it's a kind of comfort to discover that we need not compose an angry-eloquent protest letter to the Trump Administration, for William Shakespeare wrote an incomparable one four hundred and some years ago.
Here's Ian McKellen introducing and reading Thomas More's speech to an anti-immigrant mob, from Shakespeare's contribution to the Sir Thomas More manuscript. (Transcript below.)
 

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silenced by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another...
                                 ...O, desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,
That you like rebels lift against the peace,
Lift up for peace, and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven...
                             ...You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lion
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case,
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
--William Shakespeare, et al., Sir Thomas More, Act 2, Scene 4, (extracted from a manuscript in the British Library)

Copyright © 2016 by PlayShakespeare.com.
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Copyright © 2016 by PlayShakespeare.com.
Visit http://www.playshakespeare.com/license for details.


Copyright © 2016 by PlayShakespeare.com.
Visit http://www.playshakespeare.com/license for details.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

An Epitome of Cultural Elitism

In a footnote at the back of his Oxford World's Classics edition of Walter Pater's The Renaissance (one of my personal holy books), Adam Phillips unearths a quote from French Renaissance poet Joachim du Bellay that I consider an epitome of the cultural elitist position. In the preface to his book l'Olive, du Bellay writes:


As for those people who will not welcome this kind of writing, which they call obscure because it is beyond their understanding, I leave them with those who, after the invention of wheat, still want to live on acorns.


Joshua ben Joseph of Nazareth, the Palestinian rabbi vulgarly known as Jesus Christ, expressed a similar sentiment using the cruder imagery of pearls and swine. While I harbor grave reservations about Josh's Mountainous Sermon, I find du Bellay's sentence and sentiment entirely admirable. His staunch refusal to dumb himself down, his requirement that readers rise to his level, his wild, Wildean self-assurance--add to these an aristocratic hauteur that makes Nabokov sound like Dr. Seuss and an enlightened, humanistic freedom from the stink of sanctimony, and we have in these 40 words a near-perfect example of the most valuable and necessary kind of elitism.

Friday, January 20, 2017

And so it begins... : Some Thoughts upon the Inauguration of America's Most Egregious Jackass

Breaking news from the hippest part of the afterlife: saxophonist Lester Young has just requested a new nickname.


I told myself I wasn't going to watch any of the Trump inauguration, that I have better things to do than feast on fascism, that I'm not going to permit the mustard-haired shitemonster to colonize my mind, but I couldn't resist clicking on the TV at noon, apparently just after Don the Dildo took his oath, and watching that ridiculous excuse for a speech. Most of it sounded cut and pasted from his RNC address. (Less than five minutes into his presidency and the bastard's self-plagiarizing already!) Any passages not from his convention speech were cribbed from ca.1940 Charles Lindbergh. To paraphrase the last words of a great American our unelected 'like smart' prez has never heard of: So here it is at last, the undistinguished thing.

And so it begins...
Over the next six months, Paul Ryan will lead his long-envisioned all-out assault on the liberal state (i.e., everything the U.S. government does that actually helps its citizens: ACA, welfare, medicaid, medicare, social security, etc., all those programs that our political culture demagogically labels 'entitlements'). The Republican Party has long been an open conspiracy to destroy our government and replace it with a corporatist kleptocracy, and now's the time for the Goofball Oligarchic Party to take a big shit on the National Mall and switch on the world's biggest fan. The only cause for leftist optimism, at the moment, is the fact that their Brainless Billsigner is entering office with historically low popularity numbers. Trump is beginning his administration with Dubya-level approval ratings, and after the sadism of the Republican agenda becomes apparent, those numbers will likely slide from Dubya to Dick. Trump's next 'historic first' may be "first president with a single-digit approval rating." The ferocious unpopularity of the unelected Chump has already translated into large, national anti-Trump rallies and demonstrations, and those must continue. Although the Republicans have captured power federally and in many states, the majority of our population, like the majority of voters in the past election, fundamentally disagree with the Republican agenda. We are many, they are few. When I consider how effectively the Republicans, with a minority of Americans behind them, blocked and stonewalled the Obama administration--even to the outrageous, Constitution-combusting point of denying him the right to appoint a Supreme Court justice--and then think about the possible legislative logjamming powers of even a Democratic senatorial minority with a vast majority of the populace behind them, well, let's say that left-liberal hope isn't exactly Obamianly audacious right now. In fact, it's kind of obvious. Things might turn out better than we think. Provided we liberals and leftists fight for America, vote for America (especially in off-year and midterm elections) and remember that we are America (and they, the Trumpites, are the deluded or cynical followers of a Euro-fascist), then we might emerge from the Trump years with a place we can still call America.

Personally, I intend to resist Trump, Trumpism and all forms of Trumpery by doing all of those things and by remaining a defiantly highbrow, unabashed and unapologetic cultural elitist. (There's no contradiction between this and a left-liberal political worldview; the cultural/artistic elite is radically open to all who possess the talent and intelligence to join or enjoy it.) The Obama years have been pretty good for American culture. They gave us Miranda's Hamilton (probably the quintessential American artwork of the time), Bechdel's Fun Home (my nominee for runner-up in  the Broadway musical category), Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize and the official release (finally) of the complete Basement Tapes, presidential medals hung around the necks of Philip Roth, Sonny Rollins, Donald Hall, M. H. Abrams, Toni Morrison, and many others; of equal importance, in Obama we had a president who read books and wrote them (with admirable talent and skill), who possessed oratorical chops more impressive than those of any president of the past 50 years, who was in fact only the third bona fide intellectual to sit behind the presidential desk (after Jefferson and Wilson--and one of them owned slaves and the other thought Griffith's Birth of a Nation was good history, so B. O. pretty much towers in that trio). By contrast, the lumpy pile of shoe-scraped catshit who now wears the nuclear codes in his breast pocket is already promising a cultural wasteland for the next four to eight years. The Republicans have revived their old art-hating wet dreams of abolishing the NEA and NEH and destroying public television--and they may suck-ceed this time, because the Democrats won't be able to fight everything and the new president is a guy who thinks The Art of the Deal is a literary masterpiece and his gaudy, gold-plated Goldfinger apartment an apex of American architecture. And as the journalist Joe Conason observed more than a decade ago, during the administration of a Republican president who, compared to Trump, seems like a Rhodes Scholar, "People who read and think often arouse suspicion on the far right." Under Trump the arts will suffer like a cancer patient who loses his health insurance halfway through chemo, so its up to those of us who care about art to become a cultural resistance. This doesn't mean we should make propaganda, weave Fuck Trump tapestries, or write leftwing agitprop plays (but if those are your things, go right ahead). Rather, this is a time in which Americans who care about art and freedom and individual expression must work to keep American art alive during the coming dark days. Under Trump, the mere act of making art is an act of resistance. The cultural is the political, inevitably. As William Carlos Williams (another name that would ring no bell in dumb-dumb Donald's hollow dome) once wrote: "beauty is / a defiance of authority." Let's make some beautiful noise.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

When Guston Painted Gass...

I don't think William H. Gass has ever written about the day in 1969 when painter Philip Guston used his body as a canvas, painting a windowed cityscape across the avant-garde writer's chest and abdomen, a trompe l'oeil nail spearing his breastbone, a big eerie surrealist eye on his shoulder, and a brick-walled clock on his back. I wish Gass would write about it, if he still remembers the day. (It was the sixties and he was there, so he may not.) There must be a good story--maybe more than one--behind these photographs:




Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama and America in The Atlantic

The current Atlantic features a very good, must-read cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama, race and the rise of Trumpism. It offers a powerful and necessary, clear-eyed examination of the role of white racism in the Trump (non-)victory. (The "(non)" is necessary because amnesiac America needs constant reminding that Hillary Clinton won the election by almost three million votes while Trump weaseled into the presidency through the Electoral College loophole--an anti-democratic rat-hole that can be easily closed with a single-sentence amendment to the Constitution... and that will probably happen simultaneous with the release of Trump's tax returns and the premiere of The Other Side of the Wind.) Here's a very brief taste of the Coates article:


Historians will spend the next century analyzing how a country with such allegedly grand democratic traditions was, so swiftly and so easily, brought to the brink of fascism. But one needn’t stretch too far to conclude that an eight-year campaign of consistent and open racism aimed at the leader of the free world helped clear the way.


“They rode the tiger. And now the tiger is eating them,” David Axelrod, speaking of the Republican Party, told me. That was in October. His words proved too optimistic. The tiger would devour us all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Donald's Danaes and the Shower of Gold (definitely not the next Harry Potter book)

However, there were other aspects to Trump's engagement with the Russian authorities. One which had borne fruit for them was to exploit Trump's personal obsessions and sexual perversions in order to obtain suitable 'kompromat'  (compromising material) on him. According to Source D, where s/he had been present, Trump's (perverted) conduct in Moscow included hiring the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where he knew President and Mrs. Obama (whom he hated) had stayed on one of their official trips to Russia, and defiling the bed where they had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a 'golden showers' (urination) show in front of him. The hotel was known to be under FSB control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to. -- from a widely circulated raw intelligence dossier on Donald Trump compiled by a former member of British Intelligence


Titian, Danae (detail), 1544, Capodimonte Museum, Naples


According to my sources O (also known as Ovid) and T (aka Titian), Zeus seduced Danae--thus fathering the hero Perseus--by concealing himself in a shower of gold, a scene richly imagined by the Renaissance master as a waterfall of Trump-friendly doubloons. Alas, the pile of half-sentient cowflop that will raise its hand (while defiling Lincoln's Bible with the other) at the Capitol on Friday likely had no classical allusions in mind when he took himself in hand and stroked the soon-to-be First Member while watching 'a number' (two? five? thirty-six?) of Putin's Finest micturating for his erotic edification. I knew Trump was going to be a piss-poor president, but even I didn't expect him to be a piss-porn one. If such a story had circulated concerning President Obama, it would've been dismissed out of hand as disinformation, another product of the right-wing hate machine; with Trump, however, piss like this seems completely in character. And the dude's press conference defense ("I'm a germophobe.") marks the Piss-Prez as the kind of perp police detectives love to encounter in the interrogation room: the kind who volunteers incriminating information because he's so ignorant he thinks it's exculpatory. A germophobe is exactly the sort of person most turned on by scat porn, because it activates his deepest taboos; for Trump, piss is the ultimate forbidden fruit juice.

All of which leads me back to Philip Roth's 50+ year-old line about American reality beggaring the imaginations of its novelists. In our present Trumptime, Roth's argument sounds rather quaintly understated. Trumpian reality exceeds even the weirdest and most excessive of novels. His administration is going to be like Gravity's Rainbow rewritten by a committee of schlockmeisters--imagine Trump as Brigadier Pudding celebrating his inauguration by hiring two DC crack whores for a golden shower show in the Lincoln bedroom; worse, Trumperika might be a fascist synthesis of 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale, with Don the Con as our gaslighting Big Bro, holding massive rallies to convince his followers that slavery is freedom (an easy job, since few Americans have any idea what freedom means; we ain't no intellecshul country; we ain't readin' no Gene Pool Sartrees), while fruity, loopy Mike Pence, Indiana's fetal funeral fanatic, sets himself up as America's Ceausescu. (Check out Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's excellent film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days for a glimpse of what Pence's ideal America might look like.) The high point of Friday's inaugural festivities might come when the newly sworn-in Trumpenfuhrer (Can we, just this once, swear the bastard in with actual swear words? I intend to.) orders the Rockettes to piss all over the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The 4-8 year Trump Urine Stream will all run downhill from there.

Enjoy the last two days of the Obama administration, because after Friday at noon (a blood meridian indeed) we'll be living inside a Chinese curse: interesting times.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

RESIST! : Some Thoughts at the End of a Terrible Week

"And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of weapons with menacing points,
And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces"
                          --Walt Whitman, "Starting From Paumanok"


"I've seen the future, baby: / It is murder."
                                  --Leonard Cohen*, "The Future"


On the night of November 8, 2016, I sat in my living room and watched the fascist takeover of my country on MSNBC.


Read the above sentence again, let its absurdity sink in, and then remind yourself that it's not the first line of a work of fiction.


After my sleepless election night, Wednesday seemed even more unreal, sleep deprivation giving my perceptions a mildly hallucinatory spin, akin to toking a stick of mellow weed. (Legal in California soon; in one of the few bright spots in this electoral catastrophe, we can now honor democracy in America by changing San Francisco's name to "Da Tokeville.") I wandered around all day half-convinced that I was trapped inside a ridiculous nightmare and that any minute now my alarm would jolt me awake and I would get up, shower, dress, drive to my polling place, cast my vote for Hillary Clinton, and spend the rest of the day chuckling to myself about that Kafkaesque dream in which a billionaire bozo who dyes his hair with French's mustard, insults most of the country, brags about his prowess as a sexual assaulter, and functions as a Russian dictator's hand puppet somehow becomes our president-elect. What a sad, sick dream...


It's Friday afternoon now, and the Trump victory nightmare is still going strong. This is our generation's version of the Joycean collective nightmare of history, and America and the world will not awaken from it for the next 4-8 years. Four to eight. That's the fascist prison sentence America's white racists have handed us all for the crime of twice electing a black man to the presidency. We can safely ignore all the commentators who blame Clinton's defeat (which wasn't one; she won the election by around 200,000 votes, only to lose the presidency due to our constitution's anti-democratic Electoral College) on millennials or globalization or Wall Street or Bernie Sanders or J. Edgar Comey's egregiously disruptive act of bureaucratic ass-covering. The real reason Donald Jackass Trump will be raising his right hand at the Capitol next January can be summed up in a single sentence slightly altered from the original 1992 Clinton campaign's unofficial slogan: It's the racism, stupid. Trump won an Electoral College victory by running a campaign so despicable that he attracted and enthused millions of rural white racists for whom Mitt Romney and John McCain were simply too liberal--and too invested in such unpatriotic, 'politically correct' ideas as decency, civility and pluralism.


Not that those previous Republican campaigns failed for lack of trying. The 2012 Romney/Ryan campaign barnstormed my part of the country (rural western Ohio) to get out the braindead white racist vote, but their approach was far too urbane, relying on code words and dogwhistles (welfare, food stamps, entitlements). Trump can be accused of many things, but he's no dogwhistler. He's the Ethel Merman of bigotry, opening his rancid pie hole and letting it all spew out. We've all seen the evidence too many times: President Obama is the Kenyan-born founder of ISIS; Mexicans are rapists and murderers; an Indiana-born judge is a 'Mexican' and therefore biased; a Gold Star Mother overcome with grief is insulted on the basis of her religion; a disabled man is mocked to the delighted laughter of a Trump-loving crowd; and so on, and so on. Trump has sung so many off-key arias of bigotry that the KKK's enthusiastic endorsement, the Trump Organization's well-documented history of racial discrimination in renting, and even the "Grab 'em by the pussy" tape seem more like confirmations than revelations.


The standard postmortem line taken by commentators since the election is that Trump voters supported him despite his outrageous performances of bigotry, his pathological lying, his incessant vulgarity. The darker truth is that many Trump supporters, many millions perhaps, are devoted to him because of these things, especially the public, unapologetic racism. They love Trump not despite his racism but because of it. The white rural racists who put Trump over the top in Pennsylvania and Ohio, those voters Trump addressed with the Hitlerian rhetoric of "the forgotten man"--a phrase now, predictably, adopted uncritically by the media--are the people to whom he spoke directly at the Republican Convention when he proclaimed, "I will be your voice." That line sent an almost literal chill down my spine while I watched the speech, probably because it adhered so closely to Walter Benjamin's description of fascist political strategy in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction":


Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.


Donald John Trump, tribune of the racists, voice of the "forgotten man and woman," offered the white American lower classes a louder echo of their own racist thoughts and a chance to express their resentment at the ballot box. Predictably--although no pollster predicted it--they seized the opportunity like so many avid marks in a national confidence game. They were so intent on Trump's conning promises (Make America Great Again!; Take our country back!) that they failed to see that instead of 'taking their country back,' they betrayed their country to an un-American, European-style fascist. This was Don's Big Con. Newman and Redford couldn't have played it better.


Did I say a while back that Trump doesn't indulge in dogwhistles? Well, I was obviously wrong. Both of the just-mentioned rhetorical formulae are prime examples of racist dogwhistling. 'Make American Great Again' implies that American has become somehow degraded (by its first black president, perhaps?) and must be restored by an ignorant white blowhard in a ridiculous advertising cap. 'Take our country back' is even more obvious. This is a what Trump supporters commonly say when explaining their support to reporters: "We're taking our country back." Unfortunately, every reporter I've seen confronted with this question-begging statement has been too polite to challenge the Trumpite. So allow me to bring the dogwhistles down to the audible range. 'We' means white people; 'our country' signifies the white supremacist dogma that America belongs solely to white Christians; and 'back' functions more ambiguously, both denoting the utopian dream of regaining a power the speaker believes has been lost in the recent past and connoting the universal reactionary dream of returning to an imaginary past. They do indeed want to take our country back. Back before the Sixties, before the Brown decision. Back to the days when Emmett Till was lynched for whistling. Back to about 1950. Maybe even further.... Additionally, the statement begs the questions 'From whom are you taking it back?' and 'Who has taken it away from you?' These are never asked in televised interviews because every reporter knows the answers will reveal the interview subject as a braindead racist. Lower-class white racists--a demographic with which I am widely and intimately familiar--cling to a myth of minority dominance. In a weird, Through the Looking Glass caricature of minority consciousness, white racists see the socioeconomic deck stacked against them and in favor of black people, brown people, Asians, Jews, and/or any other Other that crosses their radar screens. They believe that their country has been taken away from them by dark-skinned minorities (who in fact, and by virtually every measure, fare much worse in our society than white people of any class), and they thus see Barack Obama as a reification and verification of this delusion. They are white jihadists taking their country back from a powerful black man. Voting for Trump offered a proxy fulfillment of this deep, irrational fantasy.


So much for the Trumpites. What can we expect from the man they have put into power? A terrible presidency, the worst we have ever experienced, worse than Nixon, worse than Dubya. As Marc Maron said the day after the election, "He's a shitty man and he'll be a shitty president." Any hopes raised in the interval between election and inauguration by an apparent moderation of Trump's campaign persona must be weighed against the fact that Trump was elected as a fascist and must rule as one or face defeat in four years at the hands of disappointed followers. We should heed the poet Andrew Marvell, who lived through his own 'interesting times' and wrote about Oliver Cromwell's rise and governance,


The same arts that did gain
A power, must it maintain.


The actions of a Trump administration are drearily, frighteningly predictable. It's going to be a very, very bad time. Tax cuts for the rich and corporations will widen the income gap while increasing the deficit and necessitating the degradation of money-starved government services, from mining regulation (Tough shit, West Virginians; maybe you shouldn't have voted for the motherfucker.) to food safety, to basic medical and scientific research. Climate change will continue apace under an administration that officially disbelieves in it. Women's rights and reproductive freedom will be under continuous assault by an administration headed by the misogynistic pussy-grabbing Prez and his tight-assed puritanical sidekick, Mike Pence, Indiana's 'funeral for a fetus' fruitcake. America's already over-militarized local police forces will take their natural place as the strong arm of Trump's fascist rule. Immigrant deportations will continue to tear families apart, and a made-for-TV program of swift, massive, telegenic roundups of 'illegals' will inevitably lead to the detention and deportation of innocent American citizens. President Trump's bigotry and scapegoating will continue to validate a culture of ignorance, violence and bullying. Expect more school shootings, mass murders, a spike in suicides. All imaginable forms of bigotry will be encouraged under the banner of 'religious freedom,' which has already been redefined to mean, "The Christian right's freedom to impose its religion on the entire country." Dramatically decreased corporate and environmental regulation will mean more pollution, more respiratory diseases, more spectacular corporate disasters like the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. A return to pre-2008 financial regulations will guarantee a repeat of the 2008 global financial collapse. A far-right majority Supreme Court will send the country's judiciary spiraling back in time to reverse Roe vs. Wade, destroy the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts, and curtail First Amendment freedoms while guaranteeing that even crazy-eyed meth freaks in ISIS banner t-shirts will be able to walk into any American gun shop and legally buy an assault weapon. And if you liked Dubya's wars, you'll love Trump's. How about a US invasion of Iran, as an appetizer? How about an invasion of Libya? How about a full-scale return to the quagmire of Iraq? How about another spectacular terrorist attack on American soil which the Trump administration will exploit the way Hitler exploited the Reichstag fire?


These are all possibilities, some likely, some not. It's difficult to predict the policies of an administration headed by a cynically demagogic, pathologically lying con man, but if we take his statements seriously (as Masha Gessen, in a recent and essential NYR essay, tells us we must), those may be the broad outlines of life under Trump.


After that litany of horrors, readers may be surprised to learn that I am not sunk in a pit of depressive despair. I'm not despairing, I'm determined--determined to oppose this vile sonofabitch in every way I can. When fascism comes to your country, you have three basic choices: bystanding, collaboration, and resistance. Now is the time for all Americans who value such basic and once-uncontroversial concepts as decency, knowledge, truth, ethics, and freedom to move into a position of resistance to Trumpism. Sometimes the dialectic of history moves like a roller coaster, so we shouldn't be surprised that the first stirrings of resistance are already visible on the streets of America's major cities. But street demonstrations, while valuable and necessary as spectacle, are ephemeral events. Power tolerates them because power knows they will be over soon--and if they persist, as in the case of the 2011 Occupy movement, violent police power will soon break them. Resistance requires coordination, organization. (When  an anarchist tells you you need organization, believe him.) Trumpism must be met with a broad, organized resistance that ranges from Senators filibustering reactionary legislation and using parliamentary tactics to monkey wrench the Trump agenda, to liberal media (Mother Jones, The Nation, MSNBC) investigating what will almost certainly be an administration of jaw-dropping corruption, to people from all walks of life in all parts of the country who meet, march, donate, support like-minded candidates, and do whatever they can to hasten the defeat of Trumpite fascism. Veterans of the Clinton and (especially) the Sanders campaigns should be moving directly into active resistance now, in the brief interval of sanity before Trump's inauguration, an event that should be attended by more protesters than supporters, like the white supremacist rally it is destined to be. Donald Trump, an avatar of the worst of America, must be resisted by the best of America. Because he is in fact a comic book caricature of an American fascist, it's perfectly acceptable to view this struggle in Manichaean terms. This is the good America versus the evil America. There is no middle ground, no possibility of common ground. Any calls to 'respect the office of the presidency' or to respect Trump because he has successfully demagogued his way into that office or to 'wait and see' if Trump suddenly pivots into sanity after the election--all these requests can be safely ignored as the empty rhetoric they are, lines read from a cultural script that ceases to be valid when a fascist achieves the presidency. Trump does not deserve any decent human being's respect. He deserves only our resistance. Let us take to heart the words of a long-ago immigrant to these shores:


THESE are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain, too cheap, we esteem too lightly:--'Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to set a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.
        --Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, no.1, 1776


Resist!




*As though this terrible week needed further bad news, word arrives today that Leonard Cohen has died. His voice will be missed--but more importantly, it will be listened to.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dylan Does It! : 25 Essential Songs by our Newest Nobel Laureate

"The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."


With that single sentence, Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy this morning awarded literature's most prestigious prize to the Picasso of popular music, the metamorphic genius who synthesized Beat poetry, folk lyricism and rock n roll rhythms into some of the most intoxicating artworks of the second half of the 20th century. Any doubts that Bob is in fact a poet can be laid to rest by quoting any of the many passages in his works that exhibit a linguistic and imagistic artistry equal to that of the best modern poets in our language:


Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy bench
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

                             --"Mr. Tambourine Man"


 At his best, especially in his works of the mid-1960s, Dylan is a major member of the American tradition of prophetic public poetry that begins with Walt Whitman, continues through Hart Crane, infuses Woody Guthrie, and informs Allen Ginsberg, who bequeathed it directly to Dylan.


In celebration of this year's Nobel, here's my personal playlist (in no particular order) of Bob at his poetic best.


  1. Masters of War
  2. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
  3. My Back Pages
  4. Subterranean Homesick Blues
  5. Mr. Tambourine Man
  6. Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
  7. Visions of Johanna
  8. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
  9. Like a Rolling Stone
  10. Tombstone Blues
  11. Ballad of a Thin Man
  12. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
  13. Desolation Row
  14. Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
  15. Tangled Up In Blue
  16. Hurricane
  17. Blind Willie McTell
  18. Changing of the Guards
  19. Jokerman
  20. Song to Woody
  21. Maggie's Farm
  22. Highlands
  23. All Along the Watchtower
  24. When I Paint My Masterpiece
  25. Chimes of Freedom

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Western Canon: A Beginner's Guide

So you want to read the canon of classic 'Western' literature. Good for you. Reading the canon, voluntarily immersing oneself in its excellence, is an act almost noble in a time and place that bestows the mantle of genius upon Spielberg, Swift and Jobs (Sounds like a really bad law firm, doesn't it? Check out their ad in the yellow pages under S for 'shysters' (then check out the etymology of 'shyster')). But the canon is an enormous, daunting thing, too huge (cue Bernie Sanders: "YUUUUUUGE!") for one lifetime. Even the seemingly exhaustive lists in the back of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (those too-famous lists that Bloom compiled hurriedly off his hyperliterate head's top and has since wearily disowned) aren't quite exhaustive enough, as they omit some obviously canonical writers (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac) and were too early to capture Sebald, Bolano and the great late phase of Philip Roth. A reader beginning her or his exploration of the canon requires something more graspable, more human-sized: a list of, say, about 30 absolutely essential books that will both provide a basic sense of the shape of the whole canon and build a solid foundation for future reading. Here are my suggestions for the cinderblocks in that foundation. You, of course, can and will begin reading anywhere. This is where I would begin.


Homer, The Iliad. Western literature begins in the middle of a war story. Gorier than a Schwarzenegger flick and as sublime as the greatest Rembrandts, the blind bard's warsong begins, as Philip Roth has said, with an argument over a girl, and it doesn't end until we've seen the savagery from both sides and floated godlike above it all on the wings of Homer's song. This shining chant of blood and death, of peace and grief, echoes down the centuries like the siren song of war that still holds us enthralled. The Iliad is the first great statement of that Joycean nightmare from which we have still not awakened.


Homer, The Odyssey. All wars will end, eventually. Even America's current, Homericly murderous, neo-Alexandrian adventures will end, eventually (although the Iraq and Afghan wars have already lasted longer that the Trojan one). And after the war comes the long homecoming. If the Iliad is the foundational bright and shining Apollonian tragedy of European literature, the Odyssey is all Dionysus, a dark chthonic poem of horror and enchantment from  the witchy depths of the pagan imagination. In its pages lie the seeds of multiple genres: romance, fantasy, horror, the picaresque, even the 20th-century avant-garde novel by way of Joyce's Ulysses, the Rosetta Stone of Modernism.


Aristophanes, The Complete Plays. Here is the birth of Western comedy. Aristophanes is outrageous, bawdy, vulgar, rude, crude, lewd, and his characters are often royally screwed. The grandfather of all social satirists, the godfather of all comic novelists, Aristophanes revels and rails and ribaldly delights in the big bag of foibles we call the human race. Begin with Lysistrata, his ever-relevant antiwar comedy, and read your way outward. My favorites are Clouds, Wasps and Birds.


Sophocles, The Complete Plays. Comedy and tragedy were intimately linked in the Greek theater. Every tragic trilogy was epilogued with an outrageously comic, phallic, scatological satyr play (only one of which, Euripides' Cyclops, has survived the censorship of the intervening centuries). One might get the true flavor of Greek performance by reading Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy and then a play by Aristophanes (Philip Roth comically imitates this ancient form in his trilogy and satirical epilogue, Zuckerman Bound). If Aeschylus represents the morning of tragedy and Euripides its decadent early evening, Sophocles is the genre's high noon, its prime, its blood meridian. He's the absolutely essential tragedian.


Plato, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus. Plato wrote many other dialogues, but these six form the core of his thought and contain the best of his art. For Plato was also a great poet and would have banned himself from his ideal state. The first three dialogues narrate the trial and death of Socrates, the Republic is the clearest adumbration of the philosophy we call Platonic, the Symposium is a brilliant Aristophanic discourse on sex and love, and the Phaedrus proves that if we read Plato well enough, Derrida becomes redundant.


Ovid, Metamorphoses. Wild, wise, wonderful Ovid--wilder than wise and more wonderful than either--is one of the half-dozen or so most influential poets in European history, and that greatness rests almost entirely in the Metamorphoses, his epic reimagining of Greek and Roman mythology that formatively influenced Dante, Shakespeare, Titian, Bernini, and countless artists in all media to the present day.


Petronius, The Satyricon. Outrageous, decadent, raunchy, pansexual, and always good dirty fun, this marvel-filled surviving fragment of a much longer comic-satirical picaresque from the reign of Nero can be read today as the first and most influential novel ever written. Like the book of Genesis, it's brief, but it contains the creation of the comic world. The 'Trimalchio's Dinner' episode is unforgettable.


Dante, The Divine Comedy. As a rule, I'm steering clear of translation controversies in this list by not recommending any (you can choose your own), but with Dante I break this rule to recommend Allen Mandelbaum's translation of the three volumes. It's a gorgeous work of English-language poetry, and the Bantam paperback editions print the Italian text on facing pages for those who wish to hear the original music. These three volumes are my candidate for the greatest poem ever written. Follow Dante down into the circles of Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, and into the Heaven of medieval outer space--it's European literature's greatest ride.


Boccaccio, The Decameron. And after the extraterrestrial exaltations of Dantean dreaming, what better corrective than the earthly exaltations of the Boccaccian body? A collection of 100 short stories framed as tales told by refugees from an epidemic, the Decameron is a tour d'horizon of the actual medieval mind--as opposed to the 'Mind' imagined and dubiously embodied by theological philosophers. The stories are fabulously (in every sense of the word) raw, raunchy, and sometimes blindingly funny. If Dante was the aesthetic Plato of the medieval Italian peninsula, Boccaccio was its Petronius.


Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Skipping a couple more centuries, we find ourselves in Renaissance France during the Mannerist 1500s. Here we can lose ourselves inside the seriously twisted comic mind of the bon medicin Francois Rabelais. Written over many years, G and P is an uneven work, and I've always found the first two books superior to the others, but as a foundational work of Western satire, setting the stage for everyone from Swift to Joyce to Calvino and Pynchon and Rushdie, it's a fun and funny, occasionally dazzling must-read.


Montaigne, Essays. Harold Bloom hyperbolically credited Shakespeare with the invention of the human; however, as professor Bloom well knows, Shakespeare's great humanistic teacher was the inventor of the personal essay, Michel de Montaigne. Most readers dip into Montaigne, taking the essays at random (this has been my practice), but it's also possible to read the complete essays as a kind of novel, the narrative of a single man's intellectual journey from classical Stoicism through renaissance Skepticism to the powerful, life-embracing Humanism of the later essays. One might say that Montaigne begins believing that to philosophize is to learn how to die and ends knowing that the true goal of all thinking is to learn how to live.


Shakespeare, The Complete Works. A favorite bit of Shakespeareana: the story goes that a few decades after the Bard's death, a librarian at Oxford casually disposed of the library's copy of the First Folio, reasoning that the Bodleian's limited shelf space should not be cluttered by a big book of trashy playscripts. During the centuries of his life, Shakespeare was not yet Shakespeare; he only started to become Shakespeare about a century after his death, and he didn't become the Shakespeare we worship today until the 19th century. So what was/is so special about Shakespeare? The mind demonstrated in these plays and poems is more capacious, more lively, more witty, broader and deeper than any you will ever meet--in life or on the page. He invents the most amazing metaphors with astonishing facility, and he turns phrases on a mental lathe of absolutely flawless design. If you need a god, worship Shakespeare.


The King James Bible. Yeah, I know, a stone cold atheist like me telling you to read the fucking Bible...WTFIUWT?... Quite a lot, actually. A couple of paragraphs ago I called Rabelais 'uneven.' Well, the Hole-y Bible is uneven to the tenth power. In the language of the English Renaissance translators--which has decisively inflected the styles of artists from William Blake to Walt Whitman to Cormac McCarthy--the Bible contains passages of tremendous artistic power (the creation myth(s), Jacob wrestling with the angel, the Joseph narrative, the prose poetry of Ecclesiastes, some of the psalms, the parables and miracles of Jesus, that surreal kookball magnet the Book of Revelation, etc.), but these are interspersed with the mind-numbing legalism of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the gleeful celebrations of genocide and murder in the truly crazy books of Joshua and Judges; the endless, hectoring, redundant rants of the prophets (like being trapped inside a Trump rally), and much else that is eminently skippable. That said, the best stuff is an essential part of Western literature, and you can't call yourself literate if you haven't read at least the narrative parts of the KJV Bible. If you don't already own a good, readable copy, the recent Oxford World's Classics paperback published under the title The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha has the rare biblical virtues of being both portable and readable. It's this atheist's Bible of choice.


Cervantes, Don Quixote. The 20 years around 1600 were an astonishingly fecund time in European literature. While Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd, Middleton, et al were transforming English theater into a vehicle for poetic virtuosity and psychological penetration, Donne and Jonson were wittily perfecting English lyric poetry; and Shakespeare, in his spare moments, was producing the apotheosis of the English sonnet. At the same time, a team of translators was laboring at what would become the classic English Bible; and not so far away in Spain, which was also undergoing a theatrical renaissance, Miguel de Cervantes was inventing the novel. When the subject is art, sentences of the form "X is the first Y" are almost always highly dubious, but we can state with confidence that Don Quixote is the first modern novel. A brutally ironic, encyclopedic portrait of Cervantes' Spain, the Quixote's comic self-consciousness and critical spirit birthed the long line (and, I have argued, the main line) of the European novel, from Gulliver's Travels to Tristram Shandy to Jacques the Fatalist to Tom Jones to Candide to Carroll's Alice books to Ulysses, The Master and Margarita, Lolita and The Satanic Verses, to Zadie Smith's White Teeth. And let us not forget Jorge Luis Borges, master of the Quixote...


Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings. Look for this Bantam Classics paperback that contains the complete Gulliver and all of the essential Swift. His work will remain relevant as long as human beings remain human. Swift was the first perfector of that quintessential Enlightenment literary form, the universal satire--a single, loose narrative into which the author throws absolutely anything he decides to skewer. Like all the best satirists, Swift had a beef with the entire world, so there was no shortage of material.


Voltaire, Candide. The other great universal satire of the Enlightenment, this one is the shortest and fastest book on my list. Voltaire's pace is so neckbreakingly rapid that you'll feel the g's pulling your cheeks back, and when you finish it, you'll have to read it again to see the things you missed. Bottom line: the world exists to drive us mad.


Goethe, Faust, Parts One and Two. Goethe's career is one of the hinges upon which Enlightenment classicism turns toward Romantic iconoclasm, and there's no more dramatic index of the change than the disjunction between the two parts of Faust. Part One is the classic melodramatic cautionary tale familiar from Marlowe and Gounod and countless mad scientist stories from Mary Shelley to Mel Brooks. But Part Two is something completely different: a Romantic fever dream from Camille Paglia's 'Chthonian swamp.' Faust, Part Two is what happens when a Broadway musical drops a dose of very powerful acid. It's dark and weird and quintessentially Romantic, and once read it will not be forgotten until dementia dims your brain.


Wordsworth, The Prelude. And now we arrive at a moment of textual decision. There are three distinct Preludes: a 30-page poem from 1799 and two book-length versions from 1805 and 1850. All three are in my Norton Critical Edition, but I'm most familiar with the late 1850 Prelude. This is the one I've read and re-read and come to see as a defining moment in the history not just of literature but of the modern self. It is Wordsworth's grand, autobiographical bildungsroman, a High Romantic self-song that sounds the theme of Romantic autobiography that echoes in Joyce and Proust and finds its commercial decadence in the current craze for memoirs. It's also a masterful nature poem and the English politico-philosophical poem par excellence.


Jane Austen, Mansfield Park. Austen brought Samuel Richardson's enormous but simplistic eighteenth-century novels of society and subjectivity into the nineteenth century, adding depth, wit, and a formidable prose voice. In so doing, she established the paradigm for 'serious' English fiction for the next 200 years (George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, Gissing, James, Forster, Waugh, Powell, Murdoch, Byatt, Ishiguro). Mansfield Park is especially interesting for its susceptibility to a deconstructive reading that shows how the story's almost entirely unwritten context--imperialism, colonialism, militarism, slavery--impinge upon Austen's text. (The relevant critical reference here is Edward Said's masterpiece, Culture and Imperialism.)


Charles Dickens, Bleak House. Superficially one of Dickens's 'loose, baggy monsters,' this megalosaurus of a Victorian novel actually has an impressively tight form that can be visualized geometrically. Think of two cones joined at the base to form a continuous diamond shape in three dimensions: from its opening point, the first half of Bleak House steadily expands to define a 19th-century London world populated by characters from all classes; at the midway point, the narrative begins to contract, drawing its various strands together until a series of climactic collisions define its endpoint. Along the way, Dickens invents magic realism, satirizes the legal profession, and writes like the prose master his fans have always known him to be.


Herman Melville, Moby Dick. One of the two greatest novels ever written by an American (Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is the other). Melville's epistemological adventure story is one of those impossibly rich novels that you could spend your entire life re-reading. The encyclopedic abundance of meaning crammed between Melville's covers resists interpretive capture just as its title character resists human harpoons. And therein might lie a possible interpretive key: the facts and stories we compulsively marshal to interpret a meaningless world combine into their own cacophony of meaninglessness, like the Wagnerian song of the ocean on which we ride until the silence of white death drags us down. Moby Dick is a masterpiece of prose, a great adventure story, a brilliant intellectual novel, and, like America, it's darker than anyone knows.


Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education. Emma Bovary gets all the attention, but I'm forced to agree with Woody Allen's character in Manhattan: Sentimental Education is the Flaubert novel good enough to make life worth living. An unflinching, unforgiving novel of desire and disillusionment--erotic, artistic and political--in mid 19th-century Paris, it is one of the premier jewels of French literature, its multiple facets shimmering with a high aesthetic light. Sentimental Education is the exquisite Musee d'Orsay situated across a generational Seine from Balzac's overflowing Louvre of an oeuvre. It is not to be missed.


Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. A life that does not include a reading of War and Peace is not a life; it is an 80-year mistake. If Walter Scott invented the historical novel at the revolutionary beginning of the bourgeois century, Tolstoy brought it to artistic and intellectual maturity with this novel as enormous as the Eurasian landmass and almost as various--a novel set, incidentally, during the lifetime of Walter Scott. Voyna i Mir, to give it its more euphonious Russian title, is an apotheosis of the nineteenth-century novel, but reading it is less like reading Anna Karenina than like wandering from village to village in Tolstoy's Russia and listening to the tales told by the old. This is not a novel; this is life and death.


Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment. This is the novel Kafka comes from. Franz K.'s Austro-Hungarian birth certificate was a clever forgery (Trump started that rumor; I'm ending it; you know what I mean...); Kafka was in fact the bastard child of Crime and Punishment and the tales of Gogol, born in St. Petersburg and raised by Russian steppenwolves. In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky pushes past the nineteenth-century novel and invents the twentieth, writing a fiction that seems a paranoid hallucination fashioned from fever dreams, a novel that makes Gide at his most extreme seem positively quaint. Dusty Fyodor also here invents the modern criminal anti-hero. He called the character Raskolnikov; Vince Gilligan called him Walter White.


Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories. The Dostoevskian nightmare side of Kafka is best exemplified by his great novels, The Trial and The Castle, but his arguably more influential Gogolian side is found in the tales and parables collected here. For an unadulterated taste of the truly Kafkaesque, go directly to The Metamorphosis, then check out 'The Judgment,' 'In The Penal Colony,' 'The Hunger Artist,' 'The Bucket Rider,' both versions of 'The Hunter Gracchus,' and the very short pieces.


James Joyce, Ulysses. Don't try to read Ulysses 'cold.' First read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to orient yourself in Joyce's world. While first venturing into U., refer to Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses and Gifford and Seidman's Ulysses Annotated for additional tools you might need. I also found Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce (1982 revised edition) very useful when first attempting Ulysses. The novel is difficult because even a century later it's still so shockingly and defiantly new (the same can be said for Cubist painting), but multiple readings lessen the difficulty and increase the pleasure. The more you read Ulysses, the more you will appreciate what an impudent, rowdy, witty, obscene, beautiful, lively, lifelike, fantastical, carnivalistic joy it all is.


Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. I recommend the Modern Library Proust Six-Pack, a six-volume paperback boxed set of A la recherche du temps perdu in the most recent revision of the classic C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation, an appropriately art nouveau masterpiece of English prose. Proust's incomparably beautiful and gargantuan novelistic meditation on time, memory, art, sexuality, obsession, politics, history, philosophy, etc. defies categorization and summary. Its locales range from the country retreats of the monied class to the salons of the aristocaracy to the gardens of the Champs Elysees to a gay brothel catering to decadent aesthetes with a taste for sado-masochism. To call it great is to underestimate it. The Recherche is not a novel you read; it's a work of art you live inside. Proust's time becomes your time, his vision becomes your eyes. Flow with him.


T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems. Directly influenced by Ulysses (which Eliot read chapter by chapter in literary magazines) and edited by a pre-fascist Ezra Pound (who reportedly excised Eliot's most egregiously anti-Semitic passages), The Waste Land is the premier poem of High Modernism. Eliot will show you fear in a handful of dust, hint about the awful daring of a moment's surrender, and bend genders and sexualities past the breaking point, all while winking knowingly at Wagner (speaking of artistic anti-Semites...) and Indian religion and the Fisher King. If you read the entire thing as an erotic poem, you probably won't go wrong.


Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions. The father of Latin American magic realism is the blind librarian of Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges. The  most impressive of Borges' fictions are the earlier ones, the stories from Fictions and The Aleph. Later Borges tends to revisit old obsessions and often turns predictable, but early tales like "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "Death and the Compass," "The Circular Ruins," "The Garden of Forking Paths," "The Aleph," "The Secret Miracle" retain their shocking strangeness even after all these decades.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. William Kennedy, epicist of Albany and all-around kick-ass American writer, called this novel "the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race." Personally, I'd substitute Shakespeare's plays and sonnets for Genesis in that sentence, but Kennedy's sentiment is sound. This is one of those artworks for which the word 'amazing' might have been coined. it's the great Colombian novel, a staggeringly gorgeous political novel (How many times have you heard the word 'gorgeous' and the phrase 'political novel' in the same sentence?), and exhibit A in the argument that one formula for magic realism is an alchemical synthesis of Kafka and Faulkner--preferably performed in a village named Macondo with laboratory equipment purchased from a band of traveling gypsies.


Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses. Now that the fatwa is last century's news, we can return to The Satanic Verses and read it as a funny, highly-literary, comic novel rather than as an exercise of one's moral duty. Midnight's Children collected two Bookers with its irrepressible synthesis of Sterne, Fielding, Dickens and The Tin Drum, but I consider the controversial Verses a greater, riskier (obviously, given the Ultimate Bad Review laid down by an imam who never read it and wouldn't have understood it if he'd tried), and more original novel. Switching precursors from Grass to Bulgakov, Rushdie takes The Master and Margarita and Bloomianly revises it for Thatcher's London, substituting a narrative of the birth of Islam for the Christ narrative in Bulgakov's novel. The result is a rich, contrapuntal, multi-narrative extravaganza that speaks from and of its 1980s moment, but also seems almost prescient about matters of terrorism and religious extremism. And let's not forget that it's a very funny novel, and totally fucking weird.


W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz. We can debate the identity of the first great novelist of the 20th century (Conrad? James? Mann? Joyce?), but there can be little doubt that its last great novelist was W. G. Sebald. An extended and complex artistic meditation on themes from Adorno and Benjamin (a roundabout, critical theorist's way of saying 'themes from 20th-century European history'), Austerlitz is Sebald's most direct treatment of the theme that underlies so much of his work, that haunts that work like a half-remembered nightmare: the systemized murder by the Nazis of millions of Jews, Gypsies, leftists, sexual minorities, and other convenient scapegoats. And more than this, Austerlitz is a novel about the labyrinthine intellectual defenses we construct to protect ourselves from an unbearable reality--and about the necessity of breaking through those fortress walls, if only in imagination, and reading the writing scratched thereon.