Wednesday, November 18, 2015

For My 500th post...a comic credo

"There is a god and his name is Aristophanes." -- Heinrich Heine

Heine's line recurs to me on this raincloudy gray November day, and for my 500th post here at Mindful Pleasures, with a mind to the horrors that are being unleashed around the world in the names of gods, I want to expand upon Heine and state my own little comic credo, my modest ejaculation on the side of life, and let it stand as a Lenny Brucean "unfuck you" to everyone and everything on the side of death in this sometimes terrible sometimes wonderful world. Pardon my parataxis:

Oard's Credo:
There is no god but Aristophanes and Petronius and Boccaccio and Chaucer and Rabelais and Cervantes and Shakespeare and Congreve and Moliere and Swift and Pope and Fielding and Sterne and Diderot and Voltaire and Carroll and Wilde and Joyce and Kafka and Bulgakov and Beckett and Nabokov and West and Heller and Grass and Vonnegut and Irving and Pynchon and Barthelme and Rushdie and Roth and Vidal and Jong and Wallace and Amis the father and Amis the son and that holy goat Anthony Burgess--and Henry Miller is His profane prophet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Quite Possibly the Funniest Commercial Ever Made

This commercial for Squatty Potty is sheer comic genius. It's Rabelais meets Don Draper on a jolly Sgt. Pepper-era acid trip through Samuel Delany's The Mad Man.  Mindful Pleasures doesn't endorse this product (yet), but the ad is the funniest thing I've seen in months. You'll laugh until soft serve ice cream slides out of your butt.

Literary Readings and Conversations: Thirteen Valuable Recordings

In this interview from the early 1970s, Katherine Anne Porter speaks in a voice that is half Irish-American and half an approximation of what Marilyn Monroe's voice might have sounded like had she lived into her eighties:

Here are Norman Rush and his wife and muse Elsa at a reading and interview moderated by Mona Simpson

Here's a link to a 97-minute interview with the great Portuguese novelist Antonio Lobo Antunes. It took place in 2008 at the New York Public Library. Lobo Antunes is a laconic, difficult interview subject here, but that's probably because he's uncomfortable speaking in English.

In 1975, 60 Minutes featured a dual profile of Henry Miller and Erica Jong. Yes, Mike Wallace really interviews Henry Miller in his bed. Miller is wonderful, as always, and Jong looks poignantly young.

One night in 1981, Dick Cavett conducted a dual interview of John Cheever and John Updike. That's right, it's a Dick and two Johns. Updike and Cheever spend the half-hour complimenting each other--and they're meta enough to joke about the fact.

Here's an audio recording of Paul Celan reading his best-known poem, "Todesfuge" (Death Fugue):

Here's W.G. Sebald reading and speaking in an October 2001 appearance with Susan Sontag at the 92nd Street Y in New York:

And here's an hour-long audio recording of Vladimir Nabokov reading at the same locale almost 40 years earlier:

Junot Diaz gives good interview, and this discussion with Hilton Als at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan is an especially good example of the Dominican-American whirlwind in performance mode:

A Canadian surrealist and a literary talkshow host walk into a bar... Here's a video of a very interesting conversation between KCRW Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt and Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. America's best literary interviewer talks with North America's most engagingly original film artist. (The introduction is long, but (unlike most such intros) quite interesting. Don't skip it.)

Here are Silverblatt and William Gass talking about and around Gass's massive magnum opus, The Tunnel, and his later Cartesian Sonata:

In 2002, Silverblatt traveled to John Berger's farmhouse in rural France and recorded this two-part conversation with the great British writer.

Finally, here's the raw unedited recording of a 2003 German TV interview with David Foster Wallace. The interviewer isn't miked, so it's necessary to adjust the volume whenever she speaks. The great thing about this interview is that Wallace knows "90% of this is going to be cut anyway;" he thus speaks more naturally, more haltingly, more intimately than he ever did on Charlie Rose, for example.

And as a bonus, here's a 1995 recording of an unknown young author named Barack Obama reading from his first book and taking audience questions. Oh, for a time machine, so I could travel back to this small room in Cambridge, Mass., and inform the audience that in 13 years, the skinny Harvard grad at the podium would be President of the United States. Check out, at 44:48, young Obama's cheeky remark about Cornel West: "Cornel West has to go back to his Bible. You gotta have faith."


Allow me to underline what John Oliver said (click the link at top of YouTube screen below to watch the clip at their site):

Yes, you sick suicidal motherfuckers, I will see your vile misinterpretation of the Koran and raise it the collected works of Voltaire, Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Zola, Huysmans, Proust, Cocteau, Breton, Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Robbe Grillet, Duras, Yourcenar, Simon, and even Jacques fucking Derrida....You galactic arseholes just attacked a country where the national anthem boasts about French soldiers watering their fields with the blood of their enemies:

Aux armes, citoyens!           To arms, citizens!
Formez vos battaillons!        Form your battalions!
Marchons, Marchons,           March, march
Qu'un sang impur                Until the [enemy's] impure blood
abreuve nos sillons              Waters the furrows of our fields

(National anthems tend toward jingoistic militarism, but La Marseillaise is especially over the top; it's almost as though it were ghostwritten by the Marquis de Sade.)

I love Paris. In a sense that goes far beyond accidents of birth and residency, Paris is my place, my city, my home. It's the only place in the world where I've ever felt that heimlich emotion of existential belonging. One evening in late April of 2002, while marching in an anti-fascist demonstration at the Place de la Bastille, I looked at all the Parisians marching around me--men and women, young and old, black and white and brown, European, African, Asian, suited straights and leather-clad gays, yuppies, hippies, the works--and I, the foreigner, the American in their midst, was overcome by the certainty that there was no place on Earth where I would rather be, should rather be, than here on this boulevard teeming with Parisians, all chanting over and over in one voice into the chill night air, "Nous sommes tous des enfants d'immigres!". This was my home. J'aime Paris.

And last Friday those unspeakable motherfuckers tried to kill the place I love. Look at their targets and you will know their deepest motive, deeper than religion, deeper than politics. They attacked a soccer stadium, a bistro, a concert hall--places where people have fun, places of pleasure. They could have attacked any number of places and inflicted the same amount of pain--the Metro at rush hour, a crowded funeral at a Parisian church--but they chose to murder people who were enjoying themselves. If puritanism can be defined as the overpowering fear that someone, somewhere, at this very moment, is having a good time, then the attacks of 11/13 can be understood as manifestations of a murderous, religion- and resentment-fueled puritanism. A puritanism pushed beyond the point of obscenity, a puritanism in league with death, that's what attacked Paris last week. We can neither pretend nor attempt to imagine the pain those sons of bitches inflicted before they blew themselves to bits. Their deepest desire was that the orgy of suffering they unleashed would be the only thing to outlive them. Fuck them. Fuck them...  Today I look at the crowds and candles on Place de la Republique and I think: The assholes have already lost. Paris is alive. Paris is life. Paris, je t'aime.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Adversaria 2015: Randoom Ruemynations of a Joycean Materialist

In the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 'adversaria' (from the Latin adversaria scripta, 'things written on the side') is defined as "Miscellaneous collections of notes. The kind of things that most writers accumulate in a notebook, day book, journal or diary." As a Joycean materialist who enjoys focusing on the material components of art--the Van Gogh brushstrokes, the Wake-ish weltwords--I'm drawn to the look of the word 'adversaria,' the way it begins like an advertisement then metamorphoses like Mad Men into an aria of aversion, twisting and turning on its sinuous little s, the sibilant snake in this word's garden... It's a word with a rattle on its tail and poison in its teeth, and that's why it makes me think of the South Dakota afternoon when I stepped out of my car at Badlands National Park and heard a rattlesnake in the nearby brush and thought, "That sounds just like a rattler on a movie soundtrack; now I know I'm in the West."

A 'Joycean materialist'? Yes. That's the label I just invented on the fly to signify an angle of vision that privileges the material (i.e., historical, empirical) causes and components of phenomena ranging from Ulysses and  Voyna i mir to the human species and the rock it rose upon. Call it philosophical materialism with a sense of humor and beauty. Call it the intellectual carnivalesque. Call it Ishmael if you're into seafood. Just don't call it a hermeneutic, a word that always makes me think of the censoriously neutered herms of ancient Greece.

While 'intellectual' and 'ineffectual' will always rhyme, there's no need to make them synonymous.

A thought on the progression of James Joyce's art: if Dubliners was conceived and composed at the level of the story, each tale a discrete and complete act of creation, then we can say that the Portrait is composed at the level of the paragraph, Ulysses at the level of the sentence, and Finnegans Wake at the level of the word. Joyce's career can be likened to a microscope that discovers increasing complexity in progressively smaller objects. His oeuvre has a kind of fractal structure.

Malcolm Lowry, sober perhaps and speaking somewhere of Under the Volcano (that beautiful, doomy, sugar skull of a book), quoted Edmund Wilson's description of Gogol as an artist of "the forces in man which cause him to be terrified of himself." I find this fragment haunting, profoundly haunting.

On possessions and personality: The discourses of consumer capitalism address an ontological emptiness at the core of the capitalist self and offer to heal this wound by filling it with commodities. (And what is religion but another commodity? Give me ten percent of your income and I'll get you out of Hell.) New Age types used to tell people, "You are not what you own." But of course, as the statement implies (for otherwise it need not be spoken), we are the things we own. That's why we bought them. Our impossible consumerist mission is to magic ourselves into the lives of the implied owners of our stuff. We want to be the things we own--or more precisely, we want to be the kinds of people we believe would own these things.

Official American Literature, the effluent of the MFA programs, stands stubbornly stuck in the sole-sucking muck of the damned dead twentieth century. (I like that sentence; I'll leave it unelaborated.)

Literary arguments--genre vs. literary fiction, modernism vs. postmodernism, realism vs. fantasy, moralism vs. play--all seem increasingly like so many Bartleby-esque dead letters in this era of technotriumph where we find it difficult even to imagine a life without screens before our faces and phones clipped to our hips. Whither War and Peace in a world where a 140-character tweet is considered a composition?

The dirty realists of the 1980s--epigones all, to some extent, of the great prose poet Raymond Carver--composed polite, digestible fictions of impolite people and things for a polite, upper middle-class audience. These stories and novels allowed Upper West Siders to feel fine about blinding themselves to the homeless guy pushing a shopping cart along their sidewalks because they had already experienced revelatory transports of sympathy for imaginary lower-class characters in a Carver story. Dirty realism let its readers be altruistic in their minds instead of their lives--a much more cost-effective proposition than actual charity.

One must not live a stupid life. Avoid at all cost the typical, thoughtless, merely nominal existence of those who confuse breathing with living. The things that individualize you, that set you apart, that make you different, these are the things that--to the extent that they are not gratuitously harmful to self or others--you should allow yourself to love about yourself. This is my ethics, briefer than Aristotle's.

The form of adherence that vulgar American religiosity calls 'faith' is often nothing of the sort. American religion values not faith but certainty--certainty of sin, certainty of salvation, certainty that anybody who doesn't love Jesus can go to hell. And certainty, this fanatical fundamentalist certainty that brooks no doubt, is the very annihilation of faith. The certain have no need of faith; they know--or think they do, in their overwhelming pride. True faith, as a self-evident matter of logic, can only exist in the context of true doubt. Doubt is the classic Cartesian matrix from which intelligent, authentic religious belief is born and in which it lives. This type of faith is probably as rare as an existentially authentic self.

Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil calls for a "new species of philosopher" to synthesize the sentimental antitheses of traditional moral philosophy, knitting truth to deception, altruism to selfishness, etc. He calls these transgressive thinkers "philosophers of the dangerous 'perhaps'." (He is, rather obviously, calling forth himself, as Christ presumably did in the tomb.) We could use such philosophers today. Our conformist world needs more imaginists of the dangerous 'perhaps.'

The reduction of literary fiction to the status of contemporary poetry--an academic avocation, something professors write in their spare time--would be a disaster for our cultural imagination. The impulse that pushes punkish life back into letters, if it is to come, must come from outside the academic echo chamber. New voices, genuinely new ones, won't twist their mouths to the received ideas of corporate prose (for academicization is, alas, corporatization). Self-made selves (and what could be more traditionally American than that?) will inevitably have their own ideas. That's the trouble, from a corporate viewpoint, with authenticity; that's why it must be pressed to death under the double doors of poverty and oblivion. The new is always the strange, the weird, the uncanny. Originality is a country without maps; it's a county in the High Plains depicted as blank white space by Rand McNally but in fact a site of sublime desolation, way out, out there in the vastness. It's hard to see the new, literally impossible to re-cognize it. Our difficulty in describing it arises from the dearth of consensus clichés. When new things stare us in the face, we often fail to see them.

Something different, something new.... The new is a wound in the fabric of reality. It is a passage, a door. The new is an event, a bonfire of the mediocrities. True artists warm themselves there and wander home in the crazy shadows cast by its light.

Language is the instrument; prose is the music.

I just stumbled upon my favorite goofy-nihilistic Derridean title: "The Almost-Nothing of the Unrepresentable." Apparently it's an old interview with Derrida (new ones would be seances), but it could've been the subtitle of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. Or most of Beckett, I suppose.

David Foster Wallace was doomed to write late 20th-century academic fiction; that is, he wrote the fiction one would expect from a talented artist enclosed from birth in an academic environment and intellectually formed by the critical theory-delimited world of the 1980s American English department. Infinite Jest is as much an endless riff on Lacan as on Pynchon or DeLillo. It may well be the most Lacanian novel ever written. Wallace tried to break out of the box in his final decade, but his best-known fiction is written from and to an academic trend (postmodernism) that now sometimes seems as quaint and antiquated as a dance card from a widow's hope chest.

John Cheever, in his journal, writing of the men's room at Grand Central Station and its homosexual temptations: "The sensible thing is to stay out of such places." ... The sensible thing is a bore. No one wants to read a novel about people who do sensible things. We want Raskolnikovs and Mickey Sabbaths, vile underground men ranting in Gassean tunnels, murderers, punks, pimps and whores--the whole Ringling Brothers-Jean Genet Circus. We want Nabokovian madmen gunning their doubles down. We want Hazel Motes in his glare-blue suit riding into yet another town. We want William Burroughs probing for a vein, Henry Miller risking clap in a low-rent brothel. To hell with the sensible thing.

Authenticity means living the self you freely create, not fitting your life and mind into the hand-me-down personality that was forced upon you before you had the power to resist.

Comedy is the juice, the electricity, the soulsap, the Sun. It's a shard-sharp counterpoint to tragedy's doomtone, that music of death, Wagnerian and gloomysweet. Comedy is the psychedelic popsong of life, the Joycean cacophony, the blab of Whitman's pave. It's the white noise of blazing static, too many stations and too much information, rock and roll...

In an interview, Jonathan Lethem lists Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, James Baldwin's Another Country, Anthony Powell's massive A Dance to the Music of Time, and Samuel Delany's endless, enigmatic Dhalgren as novels that exhibit a "sprawling, shaggy lifelike-ness...They spill and swell and stagger...They're shaped like bags, which take the form of what's contained" (Conversations with Jonathan Lethem, 44).

One leftist's view of political correctness: Smart conservatives secretly cheer whenever the academic left goes P.C. crazy, because such fads allow them to almost-credibly project their own rightist authoritarianism upon the left. And there's also the not negligible benefit of all that leftist energy expended in ephemeral campus politics while conservatives take over the country--the real country, the one off-campus. As Lafayette remarked when he rode into Paris during the revolution of 1830, I've been here before. The P.C. 2.0 that's currently the bane of American university humanities departments will eventually come to shipwreck, like all illiberal liberalisms, on the rocks of its glaring internal contradictions. This happened to original P.C. back in my day (the early 90s), and I suspect that the current revival of this tiresome, self-defeating claptrap is an ironic result of that most conservative of academic things, tenure. Grad students who conformed to old school P.C. in the 80s and 90s are today mid-career academics moving into leadership roles. They are the bearers of an outdated ideology that exists only on an institutional respirator. Maybe it's time to ask ourselves, What would Dr. Kevorkian do? (This is my first and last statement on P.C., a topic I find approximately as interesting as belly button lint.)

The Frankfurt School and the more mandarin styles of critical theory often exhibit an odd (and sometimes perversely, quirkily appealing) aesthetic masochism. They do not permit themselves to enjoy any cultural artifact that doesn't hurt. Yes, listen to Schoenberg, they tell us, but not the later, beautiful Schoenberg, only the Schoenberg that sounds like 27 cats being electrocuted in a bank vault. This cold Germanic (perhaps, ultimately, Lutheran) anhedonia is the very thing that turns many readers away from Adorno. (For a sharp contemporaneous contrast, consider the Surrealists and their enthusiasm for the Marx Brothers.)

A Twelve-Step Cure for Political Correctness:
  1. The Satyricon by Petronius
  2. The Metamorphoses by Ovid
  3. The Arabian Nights
  4. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia
  5. The London National Gallery's collection of paintings by Titian
  6. Shakespeare's plays and poems
  7. The Dunciad by Alexander Pope
  8. The paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and pottery of Picasso
  9. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  10. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth
  11. The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany
  12. The director's cut of Lars Von Trier's film Nymphomaniac

There's a natural tendency for 'voice novels'--novels written entirely in the highly distinctive voice of the central character (examples: Tropic of CancerPortnoy's Complaint, Money)--to become one-character pieces in which the narrator is permitted to be complex, contradictory, attractive/repulsive, as round as the globe, while the rest of the novel's world is populated by pancake people. Lolita might be an exception to this rule--maybe.

The vast majority of our contemporary American writers are mere technicians. They apply formulae learned by studying genre novels or by paying for MFA programs. (In most cases, the acronym MFA dilates into 'mediocre fucking authors.') They are, at the higher end, ideologues of one or another stripe penning exemplary tales, ideological sermons; at the lower, more generic end, they are pre-programmed entertainers...The point of writing, too often lost in the academic and commercial smog, is to write novels that haven't been written before. It's as simple and as difficult as that... Literary artists, true artists, are as rare today as they have ever been. Artists are the creators who don't come programmed. Artists write their own codes.

Life is a stuttering progress, a choppy montage. Real life never cuts clean--until it does.

Writers of literary criticism should resist the temptation to slip from description into prescription. Likewise, readers of criticism should resist the tendency to interpret description as prescription. Much misunderstanding would be avoided if people would just follow these two simple rules.

Revolutionaries are the traditionalists of transgression.

There is a disturbing tendency among naïve leftists to make a sort of category mistake by which aesthetic conservatism or traditionalism is equated with political reaction. While this connection arguably held until the late 19th century, the birth of the Modernist avant-garde definitively cut the cord. After Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Pollock, artistic tradition is a tradition of radical aesthetic revolution.

Czeslaw Milosz once wrote, "When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished." In a recent New York Times piece ("Minotaur in His Maze," 9/10/15), Michael Chabon adds his own valuable tuppence to the mythology of the writer as family monster: "It is a proven tendency of families to view an incipient writer in their midst as a kind of monster. Whether they have the blessing or disapproval of their families, writers grow up feeling that they do not belong in the house they were born into. Writers are mutants; some crucial part of their existential DNA is unshared with their parents or siblings.... For the family of a writer, as for the royal family of Crete, there will be always a monster in the house, a creature who remembers things nobody else seems to remember, notices things everyone else seems to have missed, wonders things that no one else would ever bother to wonder; a creature who comes to dwell at the heart of a labyrinth of his or her own making — a labyrinth of words."

Practical nihilism. By this phrase I mean a visceral consciousness of the void of nothingness that underlies all being and underwrites all human freedom. It terrifies us at first, this glimpse of the meaninglessness of human life, the pure contingency of existence. But if we stare long enough into the void, the terror might shift to vertigo--a dizzying, thrilling but still self-destructive impulse--and this might modulate in turn into an exultation at the prospect of freedom, the pure morning and open sea of freedom granted us by this absurd nothingness. Arising out of nothing, possessing no meaningful essence, we bear within ourselves the freedom to create ourselves, to live an authentic life. The fundamental ethical act is to embrace this freedom that nothingness implies. This is the personal heart of my Sartrean existentialism.

This Thing We Do...

It is a truth not widely enough acknowledged that inspiration comes during composition, not before. The way to write is to write. Put words on paper and work them until they strike fire. Recall the Chuck Close quote that Philip Roth references in Everyman: "...Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work." These are some of the wisest words ever spoken on the process of artistic creation; they render superfluous all those dusty, thumb-stained volumes of Paris Review interviews. The wait for inspiration is a "Beast in the Jungle" trip: you John Marcher your life away waiting for the muse's moment, and your dying thought is, Wow, what a great novel this would've made... I think it's probably healthier for a writer to consider herself a craftsperson, one who makes things, a builder in words, than to identify as an "artist" with all the post-Romantic bullshit the A-word still implies (torment, longing, suffering, starvation, alienation--that crazy caricature of 'the artist' that makes conformists feel good in their everyday idiocies). We are craftspeople, after all. We are workers in words, constructors of crazy labyrinths in the fake land of langue. Working with words, we build machines of story, from the exquisite miniatures of Kafka and Borges to the history painting-size grandes machines of Tolstoy, Proust and, yes, George R. R. Martin (not that Ser George rides in the same rank as Count Leo and cher Marcel, but his fantasy Song is indeed impressively gargantuan). This is not to say (needless to say) that all books are created equal. No, they are endowed by their creators with varying degrees of excellence--or its lack. Most novels are formulaic, mass-produced, undistinguished and indistinguishable; they roll off the pseudo-creative assembly line like so many identical Fords. Truly exceptional novels are a different kind of machine, a class of machine about which no further generalizations are possible. Each sits alone, a genre of one. Pynchon builds vast Tinguely machines that exist only to destroy themselves. Cormac McCarthy's books are elaborately trimmed 19th-century locomotives steaming straight to hell. Proust's novel is an imaginary art nouveau Parisian hotel designed by Gaudi and located in the neighborhood of the Arc de Triomphe (a 'machine for living,' indeed). And Joyce? He's a builder of cubistic labyrinths, Danielewski houses made of leaves, Braque studios that accordion inward into unexpected depths. All writers, from Grisham to Vollmann, from King to Proulx, are makers. Our magic lies in the making, in the process of writing, not in the endless Barton Finking of reading, research and preparation by which we avoid the fateful confrontation with the empty page.

And on the other hand (there's always another hand; my ruminations are like Hindu gods), we are artists, and we should embrace that word on our own terms. Toss overboard the ballast of bourgeois bullshit and understand ourselves as prose artists. Writers are artists in prose, poets in paragraphs, sculptors of sentences; architects constructing, chapter by chapter, novels as surprising as the height of a High Gothic ceiling soaring above us as we step from a honking, gassy, sunlit city street into the dark blue air of a cathedral that has stood for centuries. That sharp, shocking shift, like passing through a portal to the past, is very closely analogous to the experience of reading great fiction, wading naked into the rising tide of an amazing novel until its waters close above you and the supposedly 'real' world seems a muffled, wavering, filmy thing, phony as a failed magician's trick, flimsy as a cardboard fortress tornadoed by a gentle summer breeze. Reading the very greatest prose artists--Proust, Woolf, Faulkner, Joyce, Sebald, Borges, Gass, Lobo Antunes (a list betraying my Modernist bias)--can be a most hallucinatory experience, as dis-orienting and re-orienting as a psychedelic trip (a simile betraying my Sixties nostalgia). Of course the authors of such experiences are artists--and so, on the lower frequencies, is every writer who truly is a writer, an artist of prose, and not merely an 'author' of 'titles.'

Man, The Liar

In my younger and more naïve--or was it 'less suspicious'?--days, I tended to assume honesty in all my interlocutors. Why would he/she lie? I would tacitly ask myself, considering the question purely rhetorical. Despite the multitude of mendacious examples that appeared in my life as frequently as Wall Drug billboards along I-90 in South Dakota, I was not yet prepared for the obvious answer. Many years would pass before I began to understand that we lie because we're human, and that lying, like facial cumshots, is something only human beings do. Lying may be our true defining characteristic, the one thing that makes us a species apart. We're not really homo sapiens or homo faber, and not even a megadose of Cialis could turn us back to homo erectus.  No, we are homo duplicitus, man the liar. Some of what we once called 'brute animals' are designed to deceive--chameleons being the most obvious example--but that's the Dennettian 'dumb luck' of evolution, not self-conscious subterfuge. The homo difference seems to relate to the development of self-consciousness, another of those crucial factors that set us apart. We can't really lie unless we know we're lying, unless we've evolved a self-consciousness that crouches in our brains like a tiny Bertrand Russell and applies our every statement to a hair-splitting truth meter. Animals (other animals, I should have said) seem to lack this Bertie-in-the-brain. Eagles don't weasel, foxes don't fudge the facts, wolves are more honest than state legislators any fucking day. But men and women will lie anywhere, anytime, about anything. An example:

"How ya' doin', Frank?"


But of course Frank's not fine. Frankly, Frank's pretty fucking far from fine. Frank has a persistent dull ache in his lumbar region, his coccyx hurts like a cocksucker, his left eye is half-blind and his right flooded with floaters, his asshole bleeds when he shits and itches like hemorrhoids when he can't (twice or thrice per month), his teenage daughter hates his chronically aching guts, his silent son stalks about the house as sullen as a serial killer, his wife has been fucking a neighbor three times a week for seven months (Frank has done the multiplication and calculated the total number of cuckolding copulations), and recently Frank voluntarily taught himself what the barrel of his Glock tastes like. So no, our man is not exactly fine. "None of your business because I doubt if you really give a fuck anyway" would've been a more honest answer to his friend's casual inquiry. But a fine lie is so much more polite.*

*An Aesthetic Footnote: As we are the only creatures who lie, we're also the only ones capable of enjoying a good lie, losing our minds (temporarily, one hopes) in the mazy twists of elaborate fictions, in sprawling cities and countries of narrative, from the London of Bleak House to the Albuquerque of Breaking Bad to the skewed Medieval England of A Song of Ice and Fire. Tell us a story; a good one might hold us for years.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Emily Dickinson on Donald Trump

Everyone knows that Emily Dickinson is the mother of American poetry, birthing the tradition in pharaonic union with her contemporary, opposite and brother, Walt Whitman. Few realize, however, that Dickinson was also a peerless political prophet, as evidenced by this perfect description of Donald Trump:

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face,
A face with which a stone
Would feel as thoroughly at ease
As were they old acquaintances --
First time together thrown.

                                 --Poem 1711 (Johnson edition)

As the politician formerly known as 'The Donald' is a reductio ad absurdum of pretty much everything on the right wing, it's fitting that his rhetoric is also a masterpiece of psychological projection, that favorite defense mechanism of ideologues. (I have long contended that the best way to know what conservatives really believe is to turn back upon them the rhetorical charges they hurl at liberals. For example, liberals don't 'hate America,' but hardline so-called Conservatives seem to, hence their desire to radically change the country.) In Poor Donald's case, the projections appear pathetically personal. Whenever Trump calls an opponent 'weak' or 'a loser,' we should probably hear Trump's father saying to Young Donnie, "You're a weakling, Donald. You're a loser." Today's Trump, all these years later, projects upon his opponents the disavowed parts of his own self-image.