Friday, March 22, 2013

Walker Percy's Lost In The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

I understand, I think, the adoration some readers have for Walker Percy's Lost In The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. But while I might garner an aloof admiration for Percy's project, I can't generate much love for it. This is partially because Percy worked hard to keep the book “cool” (in the McLuhan sense of the word), and thus difficult to love (surely a “hot” response). It's also partially because I kept getting the sense that even Percy was having trouble whipping up affection for the work.

The ubiquity of television seems to have rattled some writers the way the internet does writers today. In 1980, three years before Lost In The Cosmos was published, George W.S. Trow released a shrapnel-grenade of ironic observations entitled Within The Context Of No Context. Trow saw television's accommodation of the immediate and argued that this speed-of-light process of adoption and abandonment created an entirely new context for the viewer: that of no context whatsoever. By essay's end, the only whimper Trow could muster was, “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned — not out of any wish of mine but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me.” Trow's final refuge was a nostalgia for the era and mores of his parents (which he indulged to squirm-inducing effect in his final publications).

Percy's observations are somewhat similar, occasionally even in tone:

The salvation of art derives in the best of modern times from a celebration of the triumph of the autonomous self — as in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony — and in the worst of times from naming the unspeakable: the strange and feckless movements of the self trying to escape itself.

If Kafka's Metamorphosis is presently a more accurate account of the self than Beethoven's Ninth, it is the more exhilarating for being so . . .

Further down the same page:

Unlike the scientist, the artist has reentry problems that are frequent and catastrophic.

And, if the reader needs any help visualizing the problem, Percy offers this cheeky illustration:

Percy sees television, and particularly Phil Donahue (the ur-Oprah), as the final embodiment of both expressions — the Celebration of the Unspeakable, you might say (“Man-Turned-Cockroach Marries Childhood Sweetheart: Exclusive Footage — Next!”). Throw in Percy's steely adherence to an all-but-extinct pre-Nietzschean classicism, the absurdity of which he wearily acknowledges, and what's not to love about this blunderbuss of eccentricity?

Well, there is the insistence on thought experiments as a genre, some of which fall with an undeniable thud. Witness this bit from “The Last Donahue Show”:

DONAHUE: C'mon, Allen. What are ya handing me? What d'ya mean you're happily married? You mean you're happy.

ALLEN: No, no. Vera's happy, too.

AUDIENCE (mostly women, groaning): Noooooooo.

DONAHUE: Okay-okay, ladies, hold it a second. What do you mean, Vera's happy? I mean, how do you manage — help me out, I'm about to get in trouble — hold the letters, folks —

Etc, etc. Scenes of this nature tend to generate unintended thought experiments of my own. To wit: Reader rolls eyes, sighs loudly and says, “Yes, yes, Doctor Percy: we get it.

Part of this frustration is generated by a frustration I sense (help me out, I'm about to get in trouble) from the author himself. Here's a passage preceding the one I just quoted, from ALLEN'S Point-Of-View:

I'm a good person, I think. I work hard, am happily married, love my wife and family, also support United Way, served in the army. I drink very little, don't do drugs, have never been to a porn movie. My idea of R & R — maybe I got it in the army — is to meet an attractive woman. What a delight it is, to see a handsome mature woman, maybe in the secretarial pool, maybe in a bar, restaurant, anywhere, exchange eye contact, speak to her in a nice way, respect her as a person, invite her to join me for lunch . . . what a joy to go with her up in the elevator of the downtown Holiday Inn, both of you silent, relaxed, smiling, anticipating . . . .

Here we have a voice that Percy's readers know intimately: that of a self-satisfied roué who has mastered the ability to overlook the considerable impediments of his own character. It is also jarringly out-of-character with the piece that contains it, the bulk of which reads like an awkward parody of a show that could — within the context of no context — already be seen as self-parody.

This bit leaves me wondering if Percy didn't originally attempt to place his larger concerns within the context of a novelist — said novelist having already exploited the many suspensions of disbelief a movie-goer permits himself. Reading on, I have to wonder if Percy didn't also attempt the essayist's context, before giving up on that, as well. Lost In The Cosmos is a strange enough book that it might finally have revealed its relatively unique format to Percy by happy(ish) accident. Whatever the case, there are enough uneven (I'd go so far as to say, “indulgent”) passages to prevent the most trenchant of the book's insights from hitting with the force of authority Percy struggled to muster.

But then here am I, struggling to muster a little authority of my own. Whatever you do, don't give me the final word — sharper people than I (Tom Bartlett and Alan Jacobs, for starters) think this book is a terrific read. Get a copy and decide for yourself. I'll be returning to The Moviegoer and Lancelot for what I consider to be the deeper and more disturbing insights Percy has to offer.

"Say, I'm pretty LOST too, y'all. Get it?
Do ya? I'm
LOST, I'm LOST, I'm ...
Never mind."

Friday, March 15, 2013

Wisdom Literature, And The Fuck-Ups Who Write It

Wisdom Literature is a genre I've precious little appetite for. I've read the stuff in the Bible, committed some of it to memory — usually to be recited in an ironic context. I don't voluntarily return to it, though.

Some — maybe even most — people seem to find it super-important. Recognizing that, I've taken a stab at reading varieties of Wisdom Lit: the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Koran, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius, Rumi, Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet. Couldn't finish any of 'em.

Back when I worked the bookstore Khalil Gibran's The Prophet also caught my eye. Try as we might, we could not keep enough copies of that homely-looking book in stock. At some point we finally caught up on our back-orders and I took a copy home to see what all the fuss was about. I could have read it in an evening, but didn't. Sleep overtook me, and the book was back on the store's shelf the next morning.

Gibran retains his popular appeal, though, so he's an inviting subject for critic-journalists keen for a peek-behind-the-curtain, like John Dodge, who riffs off Joan Accocella's in turn. Reading those pieces this week put me in a funk, for reasons I've had trouble identifying. I have no investment in Gibran's strain of wisdom, so a writer might reasonably expect a reader like me to indulge in a little schadenfreude. But I find the death of an alcoholic just plain sad, and Gibran's is no exception.

My responsive glumness is also the residual effect of reading Listening For Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L'Engle In Many Voices (A). Leonard S. Marcus does a fine job of pulling together recollections of the woman from friends, writers and book-biz types, and others who naturally had dealings with L'Engle. What emerges is pretty much the expected picture: L'Engle as grand dame who, while fully in touch with her formidable charisma, very pointedly cultivated an air of approachability.

Marcus' conversations contain few surprises, and those are rather gentle. This is chiefly because it is Cynthia Zarin who first encountered and, in this NewYorker piece, exposed all the astonishments. Many of Marcus' interviews feel compelled to comment on Zarin — not on the revelations per se, of course, but on the spirit in which they were presented. Marcus, in turn, concludes by interviewing Zarin, commendably giving her the last word on the matter.

From my first reading to the present, Zarin's piece never struck me as sensationalist or exploitative or vituperative (in fact, I wish it was included in Marcus' book). Nor were her revelations a source of disappointment — sadness on behalf of someone encountered in the printed word, but not disappointment. L'Engle wrote frequently and forcefully on the subject of, for instance, marital fidelity, but there were also frequent (occasionally cloaked) asides that suggested these utterances had some unspoken history behind them. Her marriage to an actor from a popular soap came of age during the 60s and 70s. The marriage ideal might well be a two-part invention, but presuming strict fidelity on the part of two public “superstars” in the environment of that era requires a third party: the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.

Readers gave it, though — and still do. That's some sweet-tasting punch to be had, and no-one appreciates the suggestion it has been in any way tainted. So it is also no surprise if friends and colleagues subtly (or not so) cast aspersions on Zarin's character. Thomas Cahill, however, surprises me when he says,

The profile of Madeleine that appeared in The New Yorker really shocked me. What shocked me was not whether this or that detail was true. What was said about Bion,* for example, sounded more or less accurate. It would have been fine to say those things once she was gone. What shocked me was that Madeleine's family had talked about her in that way while Madeleine was still reading.

Emphasis is mine. Cahill seems to imply he'd be okay with reading this stuff after she'd died, and not a moment before.

I have to say I have considerably greater sympathy for L'Engle's children. The maintenance of a publicly revered parent is also a three-part invention, requiring the often reluctant participation of the children. Consider how, as L'Engle's physical and mental state was deteriorating, her public persona grew increasingly saintly. As the family casualties mounted, and the matriarch required ever more intimate care, receiving adulatory mail from strangers who presumed a deep connection with this person (“Madeleine was the mother I wish I had” is a common sentiment) must have become a staggering burden, especially if it appears that hagiography is nearly inevitable. Before Crosswicks becomes a tourist destination, and busloads of earnest believers spill out to tell you, ad nauseum, what a truly wonderful person your mother was, you might want to preemptively let a little air out of the tires.

You might also, consciously or no, want to prep her for deathbed conversation. It's debatable just how necessary it is to actually have these conversations, but one way or another, before or after death, a kid has to “say” “You fucked up. Not only that, you fucked me up. But I forgive you. I love you. And I will miss you so much more than I can say.”

Our parents, with all their flaws, try to pass on what wisdom they glean during their own lives. Beyond that, any Wisdom Literature we adopt we then endow with parental authority. It only stands to reason that this, then, is a conversation we readers ought to “have” with the writers of our Wisdom Literature.

Writing Wisdom Literature was a gig Madeleine took to, with obvious pleasure. In fact you could argue, as she elliptically did, that it is every writer's gig, whether they acknowledge it or not. Speaking with some personal experience, forgiving an author for his or her personal shortcomings can have a surprisingly freeing effect on the words they wrote. It may be that the only truly Sacred Literature we get in this life is written by people we have learned to forgive.

*If you haven't yet read Zarin's piece, Bion is presented as the golden-haired child who drank himself into an early grave. Sensing a theme, yet?

**This is the last time I link to Larkin's This Be The Verse. Now here's a link to his second most-discussed poem.

Friday, March 08, 2013

KISS-oterica: KISS In The Comics

But enough with Anabaptist esoterica, and its tightly constrained, faintly occult pleasures. If Mennonites make for vexatious company when they're alive, devoting further time to them after they've been dead a few centuries only ups the irritation factor. There remains more pleasurable esoterica to be explored, starting with the shared texts inspired by KISS.

One of Allan Bloom's frequent gripes — or laments, if you prefer — was that the Rock 'n' Roll generation had sacrificed preceding generations' depth of insight and character for the immediate, relatively trifling purview of sexual gratification. In aid of his argument Bloom would reach for lyrics from popular songs, and dryly recite them from the podium. By Bloom's reckoning, the orgasmic juddering of “Louie, Louie” was a very distant, inbred cousin to, say, Cole Porter's subtle wordplay (to say nothing of the bard responsible for The Song of Solomon), and Boomers were the worse for it.

Reducing rock's appeal solely to its copulatory evocations is easy, and (if what remains of radio is any indication) getting easier by the year. But it clumsily sidesteps the appeal of a band like KISS. If all we had to go by was their collected lyrics, and the various band members' accounts of bacchanalian excess, then, sure, it's all about the juddering. But as Gene Simmons, the band's self-designated spokesman has repeatedly made plain, KISS is a Brand before it is a band.

“KISS as Brand” is 21st Century marketing ontology being applied to what essentially remains a Carter-era super-phenom, but as retrospective analysis it works quite well. For a band with such plain-spoken lyrics and blunt musical delivery, KISS inspired within the collective imagination of its fans — and detractors — a nearly limitless volume of speculation.

Buying and listening to an album was just the smallest tip of the iceberg. There was the album art, a distant but stunningly potent evocation of the concert experience. Then there was the concert experience. What was with the pyrotechnics, the flying, the blood-spitting, the fire-breathing — the makeup? Fifteen-year-olds and their parents might wonder what it all meant (Knights In Satan's Service? Kings?!?), and 21-year-olds might dismiss the entire carnival out of hand for its lack of signifiers. But 12-year-olds didn't wonder — they wanted more.

Enter MARVEL comics: Stan Lee took note of (or, more likely, had it pointed out to him) the insatiable fans who, despite the predictable rotation of stock photos, bought every pulp magazine churned out in devotion to the band's never-ending concert circuit. All this ardour needed, perhaps, was a quick application of the “Stan Lee” template to the four figures papering the bedrooms of adolescent America, and ka-ching!

Et voila:

Here we have a ploy typical of 70s comic book covers: a fantastical illustration that bears only a metaphorical relation to the story within. The narrative mechanics are stock-and-trade “Stan Lee”: take your average 12-year-old wisenheimer out of the classroom, give him the power of the gods, and then pit him against a smarmy, entitled goon who needs to be put in his place. Multiply it by four, make them trade quips with the Avengers . . .

. . . and, for marketing purposes, go out on a limb and do something slightly creepy but not altogether out of sync with the Brand mystique — like adding the band's blood to the ink.

It's this stunt, duly photographed by some hack with a 35mm camera and flash, which almost undoes the conceit. Here we have four performers in costume, submitting backstage to the arena sawbones whose usual job is to administer ice-packs to concussed rodeo wrestlers. If it weren't for “Lee's” celebrated “pandemonious puffery” the effect of the pictures alone would be rather deflating. The figures are recognizably human, having their blood drawn by a side-burned schmuck in a smock. Revealing the band's humanity was a card eventually played to buy the band a few fleeting minutes' reprieve from diminishing public interest, but at this point in KISS-story it's best the KISS Army not associate these figures with mortality.

"No, no, nooooo ... !"

What the pancake makeup projects is imminently more interesting than the flesh that wears it — something Todd McFarlane adroitly recognized when he signed the Brand to his upstart Image Comics. By the time McFarlane got to them in the late-90s, both the band and the Brand were flagging. Utilizing the McFarlane hyper-articulate Manga aesthetic, the four kabuki characters received a massive and reverent facelift. More pertinently, writer Brian Holguin took the standing comic book trope of “Humans-Endowed-With-Godlike-Powers” and put it on its head. Gone are all traces of “Gene” “Ace” “Peter” and “Paul” and their lewd, crude, charming/off-putting antics. Now we had four pagan deities, in thrall of a travelling carnival, who begrudgingly restore cosmic balance in concert with the affairs of humanity. KISS's mojo was back.

Holguin's deity characterizations can be faintly Jungian, or stock D&D Handbook, depending on the issue you pick up. Either way, Holguin's demiurges are never boring. While some episodes are hobbled by the missteps that inevitably occur in serial storytelling, the series as a whole is astonishingly strong. In the span of 31 issues, the series launches from an episode-by-episode Outer Limits platform into a massive Competing Realities story-arc that, in its complexity, approaches near-Dickian heights.

The Image years show the Brand at its zenith, comic book wise. This was not an altitude the Brand (nor Image Comics, for that matter) could maintain: when KISS changed houses to Dark Horse Comics, the characterization and story-lines returned to the stock-and-trade model, albeit with greater sobriety and discipline than was demonstrated in the MARVEL years.

All three iterations (plus some lamentable “for the fans” one-offs) can be found in this volume, which, if you purchase it on-line, is probably much larger than you imagine. It's ungainly, but affordable, and contains Holguin's Image arc in its entirety.

These days, as entertainment industries scramble to retain the smallest scrap of their once dominant hold on the public imagination, it all makes for a curiously poignant read. The era when four hungry youths could put on costumes, pick up instruments and mesmerize a nation seems to be over. However, the era of carnivals and other expressions of pagan exuberance — and conflict — is anything but.

Friday, March 01, 2013

"Fools In Old-Style Hats & Coats": A 21st Century Blasphemer Reads Anneken Heyndriks

Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee — Deuteronomy 32:7

We must cling to a God who approves of blasphemy because he hates Jehovah and Nobodaddy and Zeus . . . all the other kings of terrors and tyrants of the soul. To a God who appreciates obscenity because he looks not into the secret of our hearts, but into the hearts of our secrets, and knows that our bloodfilled guts and cocking guts are the real battlefield — Northrop Frye

Some people should die. That's just unconscious knowledge — Jane's Addiction

I have friends — born and raised and baptised Mennonites — who went on to become Catholic. I've also spoken with former Catholics who pointedly embraced Anabaptism so completely that they submitted to a second baptism of conscious consent. I've converted several PCs from Windows to Linux. Maybe the metaphor is too facile to be pertinent, but it seems to me these people have allowed their guiding, religious Operating Systems to be similarly converted.

Some of these conversions provoked considerable consternation among family members. But physical violence? Not really. A parental eye-roll, a noisy sigh of exasperation, occasionally some shouts and unfortunate words. Nothing in league with getting tied to a ladder and dumped into flames.

So my first, unfiltered response to poor Anneken's demise: is there any stupidity more brutal than the attempt to physically exorcise one's religious doubt in the face of another's religious certainty? Funny (o ho-ho — my sides) how religion provides convenient license to execute: if you're a bailiff in 16th Century Amsterdam, a Communist in 20th Century China, an Imam in 21st Century Tehran — or (it could, and probably should, be argued) a drone pilot for present day America. “I'm right. You're wrong. Go to Hell.”

"Here's me under the ladder,
losing my religion..."

The more circumspect side of me wonders what this account is not saying.

Anneken Heyndriks was a relative newcomer to Amsterdam, from Friesland — which even today's Amsterdamers consider a back-water. She couldn't read or write, but (if we take the account at face value) she was no slouch at committing scripture to memory: her response to her underbailiff neighbour's intrusion is remarkably similar to her Savior's, when He was finally approached by the State constabulary. It is this adept knowledge of the Gospels, or at least of their Passion narratives, which she is keen to impress upon her (Christian) captors.

What did she do to piss off her neighbour? Sixteenth Century Amsterdam was a city of massive commerce, and a modestly successful diaspora: even Jews — the most obvious, and thus the most frequently persecuted, dissenters to the ruling religion — were tolerated by the authorities. The regents who ran the place clearly had more pressing concerns than hunting down illiterate peasant heretics. Yet something about Anneken prompted Evert to drop the hammer. Perhaps the sound of hymns being furtively sung in the neighbouring barn during the wee small hours of the morning woke him up once too often.

Or perhaps it was something more personal. Listen to her response, preferably in Plaut-Dietsch or German, when he shows up with the rope: “Neighbour Evert, what is your wish? If you seek me, you can easily find me: here I am at your service.”

“Meek spirit,” you say? Riiiiiiight. Listen, I've known a few Heinrichses in my day. If you're in the right frame of mind, they can be a barrel of laughs. If you're not, they're a pain in the ass (a little like some Reimers, maybe). When Anneken spoke, Evert clearly wasn't in a laughing mood — yet.

And she goes on to speak a great deal more, with a liberty perhaps born of the realization she has nothing left to fear or lose. Or maybe she just likes to talk — some Heinrichses are like that. The fact that she, a peckerwood Frieslander, moved to the nation's bustling metropolis — at her advanced age — indicates a remarkably robust spirit (again, another trait common among the Heinrichses). Whatever the case, she does what she can to keep the spotlight trained on her, whether her audience consists of passersby or Pieter the Bailiff or Sir Albert the anointed chaplain of State.

Go on and look at me, an old woman all hog-tied and off to jail. What for, do you think? Prostitution? Robbery? Nope: following Jesus — you know: that guy you stare at every Sunday morning at Cathedral. The one ON A CROSS. Kind of ironic, isn't it? Kind of makes you think, doesn't it? Well if it doesn't, it sure should. Say, He was tried by the religious authorities of His day, too, wasn't he? Sure makes a person think, alright. Hey, good neighbour Evert: you remember that guy Judas, who led the State authorities to Jesus? Jesus died, Judas lived — for a bit longer, anyway — you know the guy I mean. Where's Judas now, do you suppose?

So Anneken, our determined saint, gets the final word; Evert, the last laugh.

"Fools in old-style hats & coats,
who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats."

Philip Larkin

Or does he? Both Anneken and the Mirror's scribe clearly (and quite understandably) expect God's Righteous Judgement to mete out a proper turnabout to underbailiff Evert in the Hereafter. And even if the staunch materialists among us determinedly dismiss this theological phant'sy, a curious historical irony nevertheless takes place.

You see, I happen to know a few Ewerts, also — in fact, it's a fairly common name among Mennonites. They're wickedly intelligent, and possess a weary sort of humour that I deeply enjoy, especially in difficult times. They're also an incredibly supercilious bunch (again, a little like the Reimers). It seems that somewhere in the untold part of this story, family members of the villainous underbailiff were radically converted, and joined the community this man hated with a murderous passion.

So it goes. Perhaps a few 21st Century Ewerts have even returned to Catholicism. And of course there are Heinrichses, Ewerts and Reimers who have committed apostasy — that's inevitable, no matter what your clan or religion. You can be as pious as you like, but walk far enough and you'll eventually cross paths with someone who thinks you're beyond the pale. In my hometown, back in the day, there were elders who considered a zipper on your pants an act of heretical pride.

I gave last week's post to my wife to read. She said, “There's something ghostly about those accounts, isn't there?” There sure is. Read it in its ancient font, with the crude illustrations, inside a 1200-page hardcover too heavy for your coffee table, and that “ghostly” quality is magnified something fierce. But do keep reading it. These people, who were just smart enough to get into the worst kind of trouble, changed the world.

Are you enjoying your religious freedom, the freedom to have no religion at all, the freedom to read whatever you like? You owe it all to the Age of Enlightenment — a tertiary ideological engine set into motion by the Reformation, the wheels of which my people greased with their blood, motherfucker. And you're welcome.

You're even welcome to chuckle at the old fart with the combed beard who tut-tuts the zipper on your pants. Perhaps he knows, like few people do, that in the bloody tide of our species' history your many blasphemies are trivial and banal, enacted to no great effect and easily forgotten.

Further reading: Mennonites, patron saints of mediocrity; awfully full of themselves, but boy, can they sing; and please won't you join my Long Line of Nüscht?