OBSCENE IT ALL

obscene it all

I have written elsewhere that  “Raising a child is like a game of golf in which the first eighteen holes are played with an egg instead of a golf ball”  but let’s extend that metaphor. Having hit 40 long ago and living well beyond that cut-off point (the tweaker-mechanism of Evolution only concerning itself with what one was capable of up until, and in order to achieve, the DNA-perpetuating goal of mating; most mating, for Human History, occurring between hominids in their early-teens) means we are all, all of us, the late Boomers, wandering the weird terrain of a foggy twilight Golf Course of x-number of holes (many of them in moving targets)  and no balls. And what’s this we’ve been given for a club… ?  Sturdy, yes. But far from elegant.

Today (at 9:30 am)  I turned 62, an age I’ve been sort of thinking (and saying) I am for roughly six months, now, rendering the actual milestone anticlimactic: I suppose I’ll be referring to myself as “63” in a month or two. I feel every bit as healthy/ energetic/ priapic/ engaged/ intermittently pissed off/ abidingly smug/ bemused as I felt the day I turned 60. My 60s are, thus far, not easily distinguishable from my 40s, beyond the fact that I now have a 15-year-old Daughter and a 16-year-old marriage and a really good drum machine. I’ve been given to saying that my “secret” is down to avoiding high fructose corn syrup, avoiding fluoridation,  easy on the bread and pasta, no alcohol or smoking, access to cold pressed virgin olive oil and animal fats (esp. salmon, mackerel and some cow and even pig every week)… but it hit me recently that one of the biggies (beyond being descended, in part, from slaves bred for centuries to be supermen/ superwomen) is the fact that I haven’t been to a doctor (except for one minor glitch, 8 years ago) since I was twelve years old. One visit in 50 years. No medicine (not even aspirin). Think on that. I can’t calculate the ill-advisedness of letting the Public (or Private) Health be administered on a for-profit basis.  An insanely bad idea with obvious consequences. As bad an idea as making Food, Education and Shelter available on a strictly for-profit basis, too.

No?

For my 62nd birthday I offer you, as a courtesy in gratitude for your visit, two little pieces of Casual Cultural Criticism*. The first veers mystically between being callously tongue-in-cheek and … subliminally insightful? The second is from a letter to an acquaintance written earlier this, my birthday, month.

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1 Z v P

“I slowly walked over to the bed. I looked down at him, the crumpled pillows stuck behind his head, one arm tucked back under the pillows, all six feet of him radiating an attitude of sensual arrogance undercut by a marked awareness.”-Nigey Lennon

If one reads the sentence  “Mustached  guitar-slinger running mercilessly-rehearsed, technically-proficient bands with an iron fist,”  the image most likely conjured will depend, largely, on one’s age, gender and reading habits. If you’re a male of a certain age with fairly fancy reading habits and some technical training, perhaps, you will see a hologram of Frank Zappa as a result of reading that description. If you are a tad younger, prefer romance novels of one sort or another (“romance novels” being capacious enough a term to include CinderellaSleeping Beauty, Goldilocks,  Moses, and Little Red Riding Hood narratives) and identify as female or “hip,”  you probably see Prince.  The two cultural producers are also two symbols, separated neatly by a generation: the 1960s’ flirtation with (or teasing of) Surrealist Anarchy versus the 1980s’ uninhibited romance with Materialism.  For a very long time I dismissed much of Prince’s brand as “State Fair Funk” (the feeling-tone of the music’s aura remained incredibly Upper Midwestern until the end, like a casino in Vegas designed to attract Wisconsinites) but it was in listening through a bootleg of  Zappa’s Läther project, one recent night, and comparing the weakest passages in “Läther”   to the strongest (the sublime “Re-Gyptian Strut” and the canonical “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary”),  that it hit me that Prince and Zappa are eerily entangled. As though the one were the direct and explicit response to the other or worse;  as though the one were a cultural assassin designed to eliminate or marginalize the cultural influence of the radical other, called forth as an avenging hero by the most genteelly Philistine  side of the culture’s collective unconscious. 

Contrast and compare:  the satirical chaos of  the choreography of Zappa’s  large band’s absurdist antics onstage vs Prince’s band’s tightly-choreographed (and very banal:  anyone can make these moves: step step turn, step step slide, kick) dancing. Though Zappa and Prince were both given to A) sexually explicit content and B) playing  guitar solos without their shirts on and C) public stances against drug-use and D) idiosyncratic use of language:  ie Zappa’s forays into Robert Benchley-like over-elaboration vs Prince’s schoolgirlish tendency to use homonymic  numbers and letters to stand in for words (eg  “4”  for “for” and “2” for “two” or “to” and “U” for “you”). To quote Zappa’s Benchleyesque lyrics for the song “Muffin Man”:

he poots forth a quarter-ounce green rosette/  near the summit of a dense but radiant muffin of his own design

To quote Prince:

“i would die 4 U”.

Comparing the strongest material embedded in Zappa’s Läther project to its silliest, weakest, most throw-away-able (and why were they even included?) gags appears to expose a schism in Zappa’s avowedly angry desire to be “taken seriously” by, say, The Classical Music Establishment.  Was Zappa self-sabotaging to propitiate the gods (lest he be judged guilty of Hubris) or was he stuck with all the debris from the earliest form of his canon, shackled to this junk by the questionable taste of his Fans? “Re-Gyptian Strut” strikes such an exquisite balance between the queer and majestic, torturing clichés until they bleed inspiring lights, embodying the era of the New Frontier by burlesquing its vapors through a Weimar-era hookah… the tension between this high achievement and the avoidably-included gunk it rubs up against (the “silliest, weakest, most throw-away-able” stuff) becomes a Freudian detective story. Or a pointer to a tipping point in the spiritual history of popular music. Does the self-doubt, or self-disgust, of Genius give rise to lesser forms and weaker movements? Are Mediocrity and Travesty, in the Arts, opportunistic infections?

In writing  “silliest, weakest, most throw-away-able” I do not, by any means, refer to the material that is most dissonant or absurd on Läther: I mean the “rock stuff,”  the material featuring the most gratuitously “shredding” guitar riffs and the most hackneyed chord progressions. George Martin (quite foolishly, if you ask me) once declared that the White Album should have been pared down to a single album of higher quality, and Paul McCartney and Martin both testified that Lennon’s avant audio-collage “Revolution #9” should have been left off the album entirely.  Both opinions highlight the aesthetic question “What is an album: a collection or a journey?” and the latter opinion betrays the bourgeois/ reactionary limits on both Martin’s and McCartney’s imaginations.  So I here very much take pains to distance my view of Zappa’s self-undermined quadruple-album,  Läther, the near-masterpiece,  from the spirit of Martin’s suggestion that The White Album (which couldn’t have been  ‘The White Album’ in a chopped-down form)  had too many songs (and, by extension, notes) on it. My argument here is that the flimsiest crap on the otherwise important Läther album… which being the rock clichés and gratuitously naughty middlebrow pseudo-porn… seems to have leaked off the album to become a shorter, cornier, more materialistic and schoolgirl-pleasing version of a less-inspired-guitar-playing  Zappa called Prince.

Mature Work in the canon:

@2:20 in the following video: is this an early prototype for Prince’s Delirious? (facetious sneer)

2 ROTH AGAINST YOUR FATHERS: AMERICAN PASTORAL, A HERMENEUTICS OF

“Jehovah was wroth against your fathers — wrath!”

-Zechariah 1:2-4

“You’re not God but you’re the next closest thing to him.”

-Sabbath’s Theater

Before we look at the particulars of American Pastoral, we have to remember that Literary Modernism, as Philip Roth performed it,  was a Sex-mad Existentialism (maybe that’s redundant: The Existentialists were an extremely horny bunch) that was very cool, very nonchalant, in its embrace of the concept of the Non-Existence of God: Roth’s Modernism** took a Godless Universe as a shruggably obvious, sophomore-reading-assignment given. The bulk of the history of the Western Novel,  as we usually think of it (an extension of the KJV  in its didactic moral purpose)  wouldn’t have known what to do with the freedom that Modernism gave Philip Roth to punish his characters without recourse to God/ Karma/ Providence or any of that. Roth was doing Greek Theater without the Gods; Hubris in Roth is always punished but not because some Deity’s System requires balance or jealous justice. Roth seems always fascinated with the A) meaninglessness of it All and B) the Uncontrollability of Real Things (aka the Gang Aft Agley principle).

[sidebar: It’s interesting that the very-Catholic Flannery O’Connor was obsessed with Hubris, too. They probably shared some guilt about being among the first college-educated kids in their lower-middle-class households…? Because in Flannery’s stuff, the snotty college kids run neck and neck with house-proud biddies when it comes to the cruelly-satisfying comeuppance…! But I digress…]

So Roth knows his Greek drama but he doesn’t believe in God/ The Gods or the Fates… though you’d probably have to forgive his characters for feeling otherwise. Coleman Silk, the character in The Human Stain, a classics professor, gets punished for his Hubris in spades (no pun intended): he spends his adult life “passing” (an Octoroon pretending to be Jewish), destroys his birth-family, alienates his kids… the eldest of whom somehow picks up  on the vibe of the racial duplicity and “inexplicably” hates his father Coleman… his beloved wife dies… he has an affair with much-younger “white trash”  and dies, with her, at the hands of her estranged white-trash ex. JHVH, KRSNA or ZEUS could not do a better job of bringing Roth’s sinners to grief.

One wouldn’t want to ignore the possibility that beyond Roth’s ongoing fascination with the Uncontrollability of Real Things, The “Swede’s” spoiled daughter Merry is a pot shot at Claire Bloom’s spoiled daughter Anna. The book came out in ’97 and Clair Bloom’s book came out in ’96 and there were some heated years of overlap before that. On the other hand, I think, one of the insights of the novel is that Merry was not a monster but a kid who got caught up in the Militancy Fad of the ’60s and made a stupid and terrible mistake the repercussions of which forced her to continue to make mistakes, each mistake a reaction to or compensation for the mistake previous… until her life was disfigured beyond repair. That’s Tragedy in the Greek sense: an inexorable mechanism that, once activated, will not, cannot, stop until it’s run the full course.

The “Swede” enjoys his blessed youth as a golden athlete who could “pass” for a golden Goy but none of that saves him from the pain/ humiliation/ destruction to come. Roth writes, on page one: “… through the Swede, the neighborhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world, the fantasy of sports fans everywhere: almost like Gentiles (as they imagined Gentiles), our families could forget the way things actually work and make an athletic performance the repository of all their hopes.” And then the book goes on to display how “things actually work”: equal parts random and inexorable.

Thus far we have established the A) meaninglessness of it All and B)  Uncontrollability of Real Things  and now we add C) The Absolute Unknowability of People. About a sixth of the way into the book, Roth has Zuckerman imagining  The “Swede’s” brother telling him,  Zuckerman, who has set out to tell the Swede’s story, how “off” he is:

“After I’d already written about his brother–which is what I would do in the months to come: think about the Swede for six, eight, sometimes ten hours at a stretch, exchange my solitude for his, inhabit this person least like myself, disappear into him, day and night try to take the measure of a person of apparent blankness and innocence and simplicity, chart his collapse, make of him, as time wore on, the most important figure of my life–just before I set about to alter names and disguise the most glaring marks of identification, I had the amateur’s impulse to send Jerry a copy of the manuscript to ask what he thought. It was an impulse I quashed: I hadn’t been writing and publishing for nearly forty years not to know by now to quash it. “That’s not my brother,” he’d tell me, “not in any way. You’ve misrepresented him. My brother couldn’t think like that, didn’t talk like that,” etc.

Yes, by this time Jerry might well have recovered the objectivity that had deserted him directly after the funeral, and with it the old resentment that helped make him the doctor at the hospital every-
body was afraid to talk to because he was never wrong. Also, unlike most people whose dear one winds up as a model for the life-drawing class, Jerry Levov would probably be amused rather than outraged by my failure to grasp the Swede’s tragedy the way he did. A strong possibility: Jerry’s flipping derisively through my pages and giving me, item by item, the bad news. “The wife was nothing like this, the kid was nothing like this–got even my father wrong. I won’t talk about what you do with me. But missing my father, man, that’s missing the side of a barn. Lou Levov was a brute, man. This guy is a pushover. He’s charming. He’s conciliatory. No, we had something over us light-years away from that. We had a sword. Dad on the rampage–laid down the law and that was it. No, nothing bears the slightest resemblance to … here, for instance, giving my brother a mind, awareness. This guy responds with consciousness to his loss. But my brother is a guy who had cognitive problems– this is nowhere like the mind he had. This is the mind he didn’t have. Christ, you even give him a mistress. Perfectly misjudged, Zuck. Absolutely off. How could a big man like you fuck up like this?”

Well, Jerry wouldn’t have gotten much of an argument from me had that turned out to be his reaction.”

*** ******* ***

You can’t help feeling that Roth has had that kind of thing thrown at him more than once and that it has become one of the running Existential hazards of Novel Writing as a Public Figure. But, considering the question more carefully: Everybody of any importance in Philip Roth’s books is Largely Unknowable to Themselves and therefore Absolutely Unknowable to Others.

Uncertainty is the Intoxicating Secret Sauce of the very Modernist (or PostModernist, as Philip Roth shaded after the early comedies) Art. Certainty is what dooms the pre-Modern, post-Bible Novels of the West to quaintness and Quaint Roth Ain’t. “Certainty” and God are interchangeable and both are Anathema to the Modernist/ (post) Modernist Novel. Isn’t that where DFW got his  demotic  “sort of,” “kind of,”  “approximately,”  “more or less,”  tic? He was practising Uncertainty without wanting to claim (by-then passé) PostModernity. DFW wanted to embrace a “New (same old)” sincerity but sincerity = certainty = God so he couldn’t. Roth was of a generation for which  (post) Modernity was ever fresh and young. He went nuts with the PostModernity stuff in Operation Shylock but the book didn’t do so well so he pulled back with American Pastoral. But not so far that he embraced Certainty / God.

The philosophical “mystery” at the heart of American Pastoral is, in essence, “Why should such a great guy have such bad things happen to him?”  (A little like the question at the heart of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and of Billy Budd). The answer Roth appears to insinuate: “Because there is no God.” But I would argue, conversely, that the baffling trials and tribulations of an apparently decent character have all the earmarks of  supposed “God’s” handiwork. Christians usually ascribe such wildly unfair bad luck to a “test” from the God whose ways are “mysterious” and Karma would have it that the “Swede” did something in a previous life to deserve it. But Roth, I think, is more interested in the three pillars as I’ve set them out above:

The A) Meaninglessness of it All and B)  Uncontrollability of Real Things  and C) Absolute Unknowability of People. That sums up History (large and small) as we know it. Don’t let the Greek shape to the stories throw you! And those tenets, handled carefully, built into Your Lit, will tend to nail life as we know it. “Meaningless” actually means, of course, “you are free to find or fabricate your own MEANING.” Jane Austen was incapable of asserting that. Joyce toyed with the notion. The really hairy postModernists of the ’60’s and ’70s ran with it… whereas, uh… 1980’s MTV and Burger “Have It Your Way” King took it as a Hyper-Consumerist given.

To be clear: the point of the book, I’d have to say, is not to deliver that message or confirm that philosophy… those three tenets seem merely to give Roth’s narratives their psychological shape and (post)Modernist pizazz. The POINT or MESSAGE is, as ever, the WRITING itself and the Style and Characterizations work hand in glove, so to speak, to deliver some state-of-the-Art literary kicks. As in this passage, near the end, that any boy or man who ever loved a girl too much, or missed a child (who has gone away or simply outgrown , poignantly, the beloved childness of childhood) will suffer in recognition:

“Her room had no window, only a narrow transom over the door that opened onto the unlit hallway, a twenty-foot-long urinal whose decaying plaster walls he wanted to smash apart with his fists the moment he entered the house and smelled it. The hallway led out to the street through a door that had neither lock nor handle, nor glass in the double frame. Nowhere in her room could he see a faucet or a radiator. He could not imagine what the toilet was like or where it might be and wondered if the hallway was it for her as well as for the bums who wandered in off the highway or down from Mulberry Street. She would have lived better than this, far better, if she were one of Dawn’s cattle, in the shed where the herd gathered in the worst weather with the proximity of one another’s carcasses to warm them, and the rugged coats they grew in winter, and Merry’s mother, even in the sleet, even on an icy, wintry day, up before six carrying hay bales to feed them. He thought of the cattle not at all unhappy out there in the winter and he thought of those two they called the “derelicts,” Dawn’s retired giant, Count, and the old mare Sally, each of them in human years comparable to seventy or seventy-five, who found each other when they were both over the hill and then became inseparable–one would go and the other would follow, doing all the things together that would keep them well and happy. It was fascinating to watch their routine and the wonderful life they had. Remembering how when it was sunny they would stretch out in the sun to warm their hides, he thought, If only she had become an animal.

It was beyond understanding, not only how Merry could be living in this hovel like a pariah, not only how Merry could be a fugitive wanted for murder, but how he and Dawn could have been the source of it all. How could their innocent foibles add up to this human being? Had none of this happened, had she stayed at home, finished high school, gone to college, there would have been problems, of course, big problems; she was precocious in her rebellion and there would have been problems even without a war in Vietnam. She might have wallowed a long while in the pleasures of resistance and the challenge of discovering how unrestrained she could be. But she would have been at home. At home you flip out a little and that’s it. You do not have the pleasure of the unadulterated pleasure, you don’t get to the point where you flip out a little so many times that finally you decide it’s such a great, great kick, why not flip out a lot? At home there is no opportunity to douse yourself in this squalor. At home you can’t live where the disorder is. At home you can’t live where nothing is reined in. At home there is that tremendous discrepancy between the way she imagines the world to be and the way the world is for her. Well, no longer is there that dissonance to disturb her equilibrium. Here are her Rim-rockian fantasies, and the culmination is horrifying.”

Their disaster had been tragically shaped by time–they did not have enough time with her. When she’s your ward, when she’s there, you can do it. If you have contact with your child steadily over time, then the stuff that is off–the mistakes in judgment that are made on both sides–is somehow, through that steady, patient contact, made better and better, until at last, inch by inch, day by day and inch by inch, there is remediation, there are the ordinary satisfactions of parental patience rewarded, of things working out. . . . But this. Where was the remediation for this? Could he bring Dawn here to see her, Dawn in her bright, tight new face and Merry sitting cross-legged on the pallet in her tattered sweatshirt and ill-shapen trousers and black plastic shower clogs, meekly composed behind that nauseating veil? How broad her shoulder bones were. Like his. But hanging off those bones there was nothing. What he saw sitting before him was not a daughter, a woman, or a girl; what he saw, in a scarecrow’s clothes, stick-skinny as a scarecrow, was the scantiest farmyard emblem of life, a travestied mock-up of a human being, so meager a likeness to a Levov it could have fooled only a bird. How could he bring Dawn here? Driving Dawn down McCarter Highway, turning off McCarter and into this street, the warehouses, the rubble, the garbage, the debris … Dawn seeing this room, smelling this room, her hands touching the walls of this room, let alone the unwashed flesh, the brutally cropped, bedraggled hair .. .”

He kneeled down to read the index cards positioned just about where she once used to venerate, over her Old Rimrock bed, magazine photos of Audrey Hepburn.”

I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtile or gross, whether movable or immovable.

I renounce all vices of lying speech arising from anger, or greed, or fear, or mirth.”

I renounce all taking of anything not given, either in a village, or a town, or a wood, either of little or much, or small or great, or living or lifeless things.”

I renounce all sexual pleasures, either with gods, or men, or animals.”

I renounce all attachments, whether little or much, small or great, living or lifeless; neither shall I myself form such attachments, nor cause others to do so, nor consent to their doing so.”

As a businessman the Swede was astute, and if need be, beneath the genial surface of the man’s man–capitalizing on the genial surface–he could be as artfully calculating as the deal required. But he could not see how even the coldest calculation could help him here. Neither could all the fathering talent in the world collected and gathered up and mobilized in one man. He read through her five vows again, considered them as seriously as he could, all the while bewildering himself with the thought, For purity–in the name of purity.”

**** ******* *****

The scientific genius here is that Philip Roth has built an all-too-plausible trap with the odorless, colorless, silent tools of Style… plausible enough that your mind gets working on the problem of how YOU would solve it; how YOU would escape the trap… and Roth merely steeples his fingers and smiles coldly and shakes, very slowly, very slightly, that dewlapped head. “No God, No Redemption, No way out,” is what he means. Tested every possible variation before I handed it over to you.

Or, to switch similes:  Think of the “plot” as the chassis of a race car that is merely a structural excuse (or appliance) to drive very well and fearlessly via. The chassis isn’t the point of the race.

Weeeeeeeeeee!

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*Not forgetting that “In most cases a critic is someone who has a strong opinion about how to do a thing, which they don’t know how to do, much better than a person who knows how to do it,” with special exemptions for Practitioner-Critics, and I am both a musical and literary Practitioner-Critic.

**In contrast to Joyce’s Modernism, which insinuates the aloof and brooding omnipresence of a Primordial NoboDaddy who will not be mocked by human notions of a jealous, needy,  Anthropomorphized Fop slouching on a kitsch-encrusted throne, having fits and tantrums and given to a fishwife’s love of pageantry. Joyce was probably longing for and envious of  the occult certainties of the Bog Men who hunted and fucked a thousand years before the first potbellied old bastard called himself a bishop. Joyce inclined toward The Past and Roth toward a Science-y Future and they indulged in the liberatory essence of (post) Modernism in perfectly opposite directions.

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