Wednesday, August 30, 2017

THE CONFIDENCE MAN by Herman Melville

On the title page of my Penguin Classics edition of The Confidence Man, an earlier reader, who might not have been myself at the time, has scrawled in near-microscopic hand ('Trumpplate,' some pseudonymous Ishmael instructs us to call it) a solid inky block of textual commentary that I, humble profit, with judicious application of urim and thummim (on generous loan from the estates of, respectively, Leon Uris and Ingrid Thulin) have transcribed thus:

Any attentive reader will fast feel the impulse to debark from Melville's faithless Fidele before the whole hole-y hulk descends into the excremental brownness of a Mississippi mud even Bing Crosby wouldn't serenade. The narrator (Melville's masquer's mask) is the novel's ultimate confidence man. His voice, from the very first sentence with its simile as outlandish as Manco Capac on the St. Louis docks, is obviously not to be believed; it's deliberately artificial, funnily far-fetching, a Barnum sideshow fake. But if we are actually to read this novel and not jump ship at the fifth comma, we must grant the voice some measure of, yes, confidence. We irrationally acquiesce in exchange for the dubious pleasures of Melville's text, a text that often works overtime to frustrate any easily acquired readerly pleasure. Melville's 'long con' on the reader in this farewell to fiction (save Billy Budd, that way-gay 'figure in the carpet' gambit the customs man kept safely in his drawers) is a reductio ad absurdum of the con game played by all novelists, from the sublimely brilliant to the ridiculously untalented (e.g., in our contemporary context, from Antonio Lobo Antunes to Dan Brown), all highly proficient at gulling readers into believing, if only for the duration of a sentence or a paragraph, in the validity of their fictional worlds. Their untruths capture our consciousness and we become their willing confederates. But Herman in 1857 has already taken up arms against this confederacy, and there will be no mercy at Appomattox. His march down the Mississippi from St. Louis to the sea leaves ravaged the customary contract between writer and reader. And after such knowledge, what Typees? And a non-rhetorical question: Where did this novel come from? The literary mind grasps at European precursors--Swift's tubtale, Diderot's fatal Jacques, shambolic Shandy, Sancho and the Don--but my weirder mind wants to leap forward in time and make uncanny, even impossible connections. For in The Confidence Man, as in Moby Dick and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," Melville vaults over Modernism to write a book that anyone who did serious time in a late 20th-century American university English department can't keep himself from describing as a postmodern anti-novel of philosophical anti-foundationalism, illegitimacy in interpretation, and the deconstruction of the subject. (Breath.) It reads like a novel by a writer who has carefully read Derrida's Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology, De Man's Blindness and Insight, some of Richard Rorty's essays, and a decent primer like Madan Sarup's Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. Which is not to say it seems anything like a David Foster Wallace book. No, it's closer to the work of a Colson Whitehead who has been transported back to the very, very bad old days with his 21st-century literary consciousness magically intact. In reality (if such a thing exists outside bindings and blips), the wordy web Herman weaved must have captured Colson, as it captured Junot Diaz when he imagined Oscar Wao and the horrors of Fuku americanus, and as it surely captured Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man transmogrifies The Confidence Man's early "black guinea" penny-pitching scene into an electrified carpet covered with coins.

Friday, August 25, 2017

THE WHOLE MOTION : COLLECTED POEMS 1945-1992 by James Dickey

James Dickey is passing into the oblivion of the unread. Anthologists seem to treat him as, at best, a 'major minor poet.' So it may surprise some readers of this blog when I call his collected poems a major, essential work in the canon of American poetry, a book as important as Anne Sexton's, Robert Lowell's or Allen Ginsberg's collected poems. The Whole Motion surprised the hell out of me when I picked it up last fall, as Dickey's country and mine careened toward the shoddily-constructed brick wall of Trumpite fascism. I had previously encountered Dickey's poems in anthologies, of course, but his tripartite reputation as an aesthetic conservative, a boorish, self-promoting ass, and the man ultimately responsible for making Ned Beatty squeal like a pig, for years negatively colored my response to his work. By 2016, about two decades after Dickey's death, time had folded the person into the poet, and after a few days in The Whole Motion I could state with confidence that at least the first part of that reputation was dead wrong. Far from being any kind of aesthetic conservative, Dickey in his strongest and most original work is an iconoclastic, avant-garde, Southern Gothic poet--perhaps the only truly great Southern Gothic poet this country has produced, a verse counterpart to William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. Unlike most poetic careers, Dickey's is best read straight through, like a novel. The early WWII poems, many first published here, are nothing less than a revelation. Instead of the usual skippable juvenilia we expect at the opening of a lifetime collection, these works announce an artist who has already achieved poetic maturity in the forcing house of war. Reading on, we detect some repetitions but rarely a misstep, we trace the development of a poetry that draws its energy more from image and narrative than from lyrical musicality; and then come the poems of the 60s and 70s to blow us away. I am especially impressed by "The Firebombing," "Kudzu," "Cherrylog Road," "The Fiend," "A Folk Singer of the Thirties," "The Sheep Child," "Falling," "May Day Sermon," "Slave Quarters," and "The Eye-Beaters." To suggest the excellence of these works, I'll take the last one as typical of his best and remark that it's a Bloomian revision of Yeats's "Among School Children" in which the poet visits a school for the blind where the children repeatedly strike their eyes in a fruitless, self-lacerating attempt to induce vision. The poem is built around the central idea that the Platonic cave of human sight protects us not from any blinding light of Truth but from the horrible mundane truth of the nothingness of reality. Granted, Dickey doesn't always achieve, or even aim for, such heights, and the poems after May Day Sermon evince a slackening of artistic energy--late Dickey is pretty much a letdown. But with heights as high as the peaks I've listed above (among many others), no one need linger over the valleys. Dickey deserves a place alongside Lowell, Sexton, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Plath as one of the greatest poets of American Late Modernism. It's time for a James Dickey revival.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


I reside in the bullseye of the target audience for David Malouf's An Imaginary Life, a historical fantasy about Ovid in Black Sea exile encountering a 'wild child,' so I'm unsurprised by my positive reaction. It's a very good, highly-intelligent, literary novella that's as much about consciousness and language as historical re-creation. In fact, it's so good that I was able to overlook Malouf's attempt to metamorphose Ovid into a kind of proto-Hegelian proto-Christian and focus instead on his dramatization of I-thou versus subject/object consciousness (all very Seventies and Esalen-y in this novel of 1978) and his Derridean-like foregrounding of writing--specifically, the writing of a narrative that privileges speech, thus upping the strictly postmodern irony. The emphasis on writing appropriately falls out when the narrator crosses the Ister--that Holderlinian and Heideggerean river--into a zone of preliterate pastoral. The final pages seem both 'written' and not, akin perhaps to the mystical wordless communication Ovid shares with the child. One might also subject Malouf's novel to a less postmodern, more postcolonial reading that interprets it as depicting an imperial subject's engulfing, consciousness-transforming encounter with a colonial other, a reading that allegorically relates the tale to Malouf's Australia and the centuries-long discourse of European-Aboriginal relations. Throwing light in many directions, inviting views from many slants, An Imaginary Life is a beautiful, multifaceted, intellectual jewel of a book.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Britweird / Ameriweird : A Tale of Two Weirdnesses

Over the past year I've been dipping into Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's massive anthology, The Weird, and finding many wonderful things therein. Among the high-points I've discovered so far in this big black book of "strange and dark stories," I'll mention Brian Evenson's impressive Ballardian--even Kafkaesque--novella The Brotherhood of Mutilation, Thomas Ligotti's even better--and more Kafkaesque--"The Town Manager," Octavia Butler's now widely anthologized "Bloodchild" (a major work of American short fiction in the nightmarish vein of Poe and Paul Bowles), George R. R. Martin's ultraviolent and ultimately anti-militaristic parable "Sandkings," Eric Basso's little-known but marvelously eerie novella The Beak Doctor, and William Sansom's high-Kafka torture tale "The Long Sheet." As I read through the editors' impressively international selection of tales and novellas, it struck me that weird fiction in English--the British and American divisions, anyway--displays a distinct but under-recognized transatlantic bifurcation. While the British stuff, from Mary Shelley through China Mieville, tends to express itself in 19th-century Romantic terms (magic, medievalism, quest narratives, Faustian overreaching, labyrinths literal and figurative, revolutionary politics), American weird writers tend to imagine a more Gothic world (madness, murder, rape, haunted houses, sewer monsters, the Kingly carnival of horrors, the many shades of darkness on the edge of town). This distinction might rest its tangled roots in the historical coincidence that the United States and the Gothic novel are both 18th-century creations. Whereas the Britweird baby first finds it footing and begins to howl amidst the slippery, blood-red ruins of Coleridgean and Byronic Romanticism ("Christabel," Frankenstein), the Ameriweird breathes its first awkweird gasps as a dialectical product of the Voltairean-Rousseauist Enlightenment. Like the Original Gothic ("O.G.") novels of Walpole, Radcliffe and Lewis, the American Weird deliberately spotlights everything the Enlightenment disavows. It is a fever chart of the American unconscious, an art that lingers in the darkest shadows cast by that blinding rational light. When American reason tumbles creatively to sleep (and it's impossible to ignore the fact that, as I write, America's first fascist president is doing his damnedest to dull it into anti-creative stupor and catatonia), it dreams the Goyaesque monsters of Poe, Lovecraft, Butler, King, Ligotti. Being an American, said that sometimes very weird writer Henry James (see "The Jolly Corner" and The Turn of the Screw), is a complex fate. Indeed, it's so complex that even at our most aesthetically unreasonable, we remain the inheritors of reason.

Friday, August 18, 2017

THE NEON BIBLE by John Kennedy Toole

Clearly, The Neon Bible has its flaws. The prose lacks polish; the eponymous religious advertising sign fails to become a novelistic motif akin to its obvious precursor, the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby; and the ending is whiplash abrupt and largely unsuccessful in its modulation from the novel's heretofore controlled, bitter social satire to full-bore Southern Gothic violence. But even that last criticism, which is strong but fair, seems caddish when directed at a novella written by a 16 year-old. (How many mature, admirably realized books did you write at sixteen, Mr. Tolstoy? And you, Mr. Joyce? Et vous, Monsieur Proust? How many books worth reading--and reading seriously--have ever been written by 16 year-olds? I can think only of Rimbaud's poems and this novella.) The Neon Bible, with all of its flaws, would be a perfectly acceptable first novel from a writer in his late twenties. When I remind myself that Toole was in his mid-teens at the time of writing, my lower mandible strikes the floor with an audible thunk. These pages proclaim a prodigy. It's tragic that no one was listening.

Two Kinds of Puritanism: Dennis Cooper and James Wood

Yes, it's delightfully perverse to think of the outrageously transgressive fictionist Dennis Cooper as any kind of puritan, but my idea is more than a piquantly perverted postmodern play (More pee, Mr. Trump? Say when...) of paradoxical (Ahhhh...) signifiers. As Joyce's Buck Mulligan might've put it, had Our Mister Cooper come traipsing up the Martello stairs in Stephen Dedalus's shabby shoes: Dennis has the cursed puritan strain in him, but it's injected the wrong way. (An appropriate reference and metaphor for Cooper's oeuvre, which frequently dilates upon acts the heterosexist world considers wrong-way injections.) Cooper's strain of puritanism is perhaps most evident in the second novel in his George Miles cycle, Frisk, where sexuality is imagined as a site of unrelieved, murderously Sade-istic grimness. The imagination of eroticism as obscene violence (as in Sade, Bataille, Cooper) rather than obscene joy (as in Catherine Millet, early Erica Jong, and much of Samuel Delany's The Mad Man) is as sure a sign of puritanism as buckled hats or witch-burning. Cotton Mather would certainly have disapproved of everything about Dennis Cooper, but old Cotton might have heard the grimness of Cooper's sexual imagination chiming weirdly in tune with his own.

The American-living BritLitCrit James Wood's puritanism reveals itself most obviously in those passages of his criticism where he writes of 'aestheticism.' By this he means prose that exists primarily as an art object: the kind of prose commonly found in Ruskin, Pater, Proust, Woolf, Faulkner, Hawkes, Gass, Lobo Antunes, Vollmann, and any other writer you've ever heard accused of writing "purple prose." Wood typically treats this style as some kind of fatal, sexually-transmitted disease against which all writers (but especially the talented ones) must encondom themselves. He even goes so far as to congratulate Roberto Bolano's Savage Detectives for the "amazingly unliterary" tone of its prose--as though that were some kind of accomplishment. (What it is, by the way, is an amazingly dimbulbed description of Bolano's multivocal and very literary novel.) First grade primers and cookbooks are also 'amazingly unliterary.' Does Wood consider Betty Crocker the aesthetic equal of Hemingway and Carver? Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway; I say, therefore I am) I reject this Wooden dogma like a knot-holed stick of lumber; I slap it with the back of my baroquely beringed hand. Contra James's condom, I prefer the unapologetic barebacking of an ornate prose style, a style that SCREAMS style. That style-less style of no style, flat as an Iowa cornfield, that ain't my style.

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 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)

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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.