Vince Passaro

Basquiat: Poignant My Ass

19 May 2017*

When the world of art collectors creates a price of $110 million for a Basquiat painting, something he’d just as soon have painted on a broken wall, it deforms the meaning of what a painter does, why he does it, how he does it. (Or she, yes, but not in this case; and indeed are any of the $50+ million painters women?**) In the end the underlying, unconscious impulse is to subdue art, to disempower it, to turn Aphrodite into a gaudy hooker. I’m sure the collectors believe they love art but what they love are themselves owning art, and their money alters everyone’s relationship to art, in the largest sense of that word. Thus you go to the Metropolitan Museum, already something of a robber baron mausoleum, and wander in the modern painting sections, from one room to the next, each named after some thuggish billionaire and his wife, truly awful humans: it poisons you to see their names and to some detectable degree it poisons for you every work in the space. Art has always had rich patrons, yes; and the artists that the rich patrons chose to support delivered not merely artistic talent but social cachet. The ones that didn’t have that cachet to deliver tended to suffer, underfed and under recognized  — in this context I think of Andrea del Sarto, in Browning’s poem of that name, whence comes the line, ‘less is more’. Less is never more for these guys, only more is more. Rich patronage is one thing; one hundred million dollars is something else altogether, enough money that the earnings on it as an investment alone could feed the poor of a small country for years and years, theoretically forever. Basquiat sold the painting in ’84 for $19,000; that’s rich patronage. One hundred million is an assault. Satan comes to a fasting, delirious Jesus, takes him to a mountaintop and shows him the glories and riches of the world, sweetness, comfort and beauty: all this is yours, Satan says, if you but bow down and worship me. Would Basquiat bow? Would Van Gogh? Cezanne? (Picasso, you never know: he might just do it for the laugh.) Of course it doesn’t take long to figure out what Satan does when you bend over. The NY Times reports today that Basquiat’s price “perhaps poignantly” exceeds the highest price paid for an Andy Warhol’s work (only $105 million don’t you know) . Poignant my ass. I think of Basquiat, whose work I loved when I began seeing it on those broken walls downtown, and I think of the kind of angry drive to express, in terms native to the downtown New York City streets of the late 70s and early 80s, expressions that even in their anger frequently evoked certain deep traditions, particularly of classical sub-Saharan African art — the masks, the heads, warding off evil while depicting it. The Japanese billionaire who bragged out his buy, on Instagram, minutes after completing it, plans to house the painting in a museum he’s building for his collection, in Chiba. He should call the place Ozymandias House.**

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*The painting shown here is “Dustheads”, 1982. It is not the untitled head that brought $110 million last night. I couldn’t bear to add to its newly-acquired, falsely iconic status by reproducing it here but you can find it all over the ‘net.  Indeed, currently, if you google “Basquiat”, that’s what shows in the images. The photograph of the two figures are from Malawi, this century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo by moi.

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**Answer: no. Not by a long shot. As you’d expect.  Since the whole enterprise is about commodity and not art, of course the men are worth ten times more. See https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-highest-price-ever-paid-for-a-work-of-art-by-a-woman-artist . As of 2013, says that  site, it was Berthe Morisot’s Aprés le déjeuner, 1881, which at $10.9 million was top among women painters, followed by Natalia Goncharova (Les fleurs, 1912).  Louise Bourgeois was very close to Morisot, also over $10 million, but for a large iron sculpture. I’d pay a lot more for the huge spider than for the picture of the window and flowerbox and l’ingénue insipide digesting her café au lait et croissant avec confiture de fraise, but that’s just me.

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***Just for fun, the Shelly poem, thanks to the Poetry Foundation website:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Gertrude Stein Teaches Alice Toklas to Type

If you wish to be a good typist you must type this. First there was a fox and how quick her step and how pricking sharp her teeth when she bit which each day she did to live. And there was a dog thought by many to be a good dog as it was from a good family with a large house and property and the family loved the dog but the dog was not of the family for it was a dog which could not talk or be at table or greet guests nor could it make tea or dust or neaten but instead could only spend the day asleep or licking its dog parts in the parlor or dining room without regard to modesty or taste. Sometimes in the warm kitchen in winter it would do this but in summer it would not because the kitchen was too warm.  This story is in summer which is well known as a time of much activity for foxes. The family was not occupied in these months nor in many others and often came together and was the kind of family which was all talk and accustomed to the dog lying there among them. And that is our story which is a story of the dog lying one day some would say in the yard but the family did not say yard preferring instead to say the garden despite there being but a small portion of the considerable lawns devoted to what you or I or anyone who understands a garden would properly call a garden. This was not the property before the large house or leading up to it which the family called the grounds and the dog did not lie anywhere about the grounds for such was unseemly and not permitted. In the rear behind the house or in the garden he did lie however with little attention for his surroundings.  The dog was not a protecting dog and did not much protect the plants or flowers or grass or various items for lounging or most particularly the brood of hens in the henhouse whence came the family eggs and several times each winter a stringy chicken. Instead of protecting on behalf of the family these various signals of ownership or the hens and the eggs which signaled sustenance the dog of this story which is a famous story lay there half-dozing in the summer’s dust not far from the henhouse and indeed you would say near the henhouse and while lying there the dog considered licking its parts but did not have an opportunity to lick its parts for out from amid the squawking hens in the rackety henhouse quickly bolted the fox for she was a quick fox and she leapt like turkey or peacock or some larger bird in the half-flight that is not full flight but the almost-flight of these heavier birds. And reminding one of that kind of large bird the fox almost flew directly over the dog which was a trusted dog and a beloved dog if not a useful dog indeed let us admit it he was a lazy dog for that is what he was and the fox leapt directly over him wantonly with small jowls dripping egg and a diminutive and doubtless stringy hen dead between its little sharp teeth. And so on that day a war began between the quick fox and the lazy dog and when the war was over some were gone and would not come back and some who had gone did come back but were not the same and the ones who stayed were also not the same for none was the same and nothing was the same after this war of fox and dog. Both fox and dog were gone and did not come back. The fox was said to have been a brown fox by which color must have been meant the reddish side of brown typical of the fox similar to the yellowreds and redbrowns of the bricks formed from the orange ochre clay of the undulant fields and the long turning road which leads up the hill to Pienza. You can remember the depth of its color not early but late in the day when the sun lowered and lent some shadow to relieve the appalling light and you could see the sloping fields and wide-turning road in pale yellowred and redbrown clay, not yellow and red and brown apart but red and yellow and brown together, the color of a fox.  Almost orange if not for brown.  If Braque painted the fox it would be too brown and if Cezanne it would be gray. Matisse perhaps could have gotten the color of the fox. Picasso could get the color of the fox because Picasso could do anything but it goes nearly without saying except for this story where it need be said that Picasso would not do it for it would not interest him that being the kind of artist he was especially after Paris in the south when he was rich and did nothing but what he most cared to do. The dog’s color we do not know but this story is why we have the saying which typists learn to type and you now can type regarding the quick brown fox and the lazy dog and the jumping over the dog which the fox undertook heedless of the consequences.

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In the Rare Case…

In bed, on a Sunday afternoon in late summer, a man and woman, each divorced and twenty years past young, or so one would say if young now didn’t last so long: they were kissing a little, touching a little, the walls around them magic-lanterned with shadows and jumpy dots of sunlight, which passed through the leaves swaying protectively over the woman’s open window. He and she had arrived at the relationship, romantically speaking, empty-handed: harrowed and childless, on guard but well-intentioned.Their expectations had been kept forcibly muted for enough years to make muted their primary setting and, so far, these echoing conditions had worked out for them: the sex was good, compatible, unstrained, often physically intense.As for the rest, it might be too much to say they enjoyed each other’s company (often they did, of course), but more important, at their age, they didn’t at all mind each other’s company.

It’s been two hours and forty minutes, she said. Her fingers were gently touching and letting go of his exceedingly erect penis. Bits of a breeze slipped over them, tinged with the first hints of autumn.

Don’t be a clock-watcher, he said. Or a cock-watcher.

I’m concerned, she said.

Let’s not get neurotic about it. I’m sure it won’t fall off.

They kissed and began to press harder against each other, kissed more, and then he slid an arm under one of her legs and turned her, willing, onto her stomach. Pressed down hard against the bed she made deep noises and she had a way of curving herself back up to take him that inspired him to a certain athleticism and fierceness. It made him wonder at the beauty of the human spine.

It was the usual thing, they had met on the Internet, in chilly March. The first time she’d taken him in her hand, she’d whispered a delightfully filthy exclamation of her desire, which he remembered now every time she touched him and every time he entered her. On other fronts, they had moved slowly—like the infirm. Each had a jagged life history, sharp enough to draw blood; they had not yet attempted to bring these unfinished pieces together—had plainly avoided it, in fact—to see if any of the edges fit.Their relationship, an evening or two during the week, Saturday nights leading to Sunday afternoons such as this one, felt less like integral moments in the histories of their lives than like unique respites from those histories. He had been married for twelve years, and only after it was over was he able to acknowledge that throughout those years, even during the engagement, he had been hoping for (and endlessly planning) his escape. His wife had smelled this on him as if it were another woman, and it had driven her into ever more prolonged periods of estrangement and rage. He spent a year sleeping on the couch before she finally threw him out; he had gotten what he wanted without having to say the words his own father had delivered to his mother: I’m leaving you. It required no genius to see that this victory had not been worth the years required to achieve it.Yet for a time—he was trying to break the pattern—he had continued to relate to women in this way, attracting them and seducing them and then, almost systematically, making them furious.A woman he’d been seeing a few years earlier, a psychologist, had called him one day after they’d been together for a couple of months: Look, she’d said. Let’s end this before it gets toxic.

****

Normal breath was returning; they lay facing each other again, exploratory fingers interlacing and trailing along the other’s palms. Suddenly she pulled her hand away, fell onto her back, and said, Now it’s like three hours.When do we call the EMS people?

I can’t stand it if you’re going to do this, he said. Why did you take that thing!

I’m fifty-three, he said. Men my age tend to over-insure. Next year I’ll wear white shoes.

But now look, she cried. How much did you take?

Twenty milligrams, he said.

That’s the biggest dose!

Self-confidence is everything, he said. And the pill was shaped like a rugby ball, and it was blue, a nice shade of blue, like the pineapple candies my grandmother gave me. Except more opaque.

That’s not all that’s blue, she said.Your grandmother. Jesus . . . She sat up. I want some tea, she said.You?

Frankly, you know, we need to deal with this, he said. Before we can think tea or a snack or whatever.

She said,We dealt with it already. More than once. I mean it was great, but I’m done.

It never was completely dealt with, he said. He tried to present this in a relaxed and cheerful tone, wanting to find what he knew to be caring and concerned in her, rather than this, which was closer to unnerved and horrified. He said, I mean, it never, you know . . .

Came? she said. Is that the word you’re grasping for? It wasn’t for lack of chances, I just want that on the record.

There is no record, he said.

There is always a record, she said.

We need to deal with it just one more time, he said. It won’t take long. I can tell.

Listen, she said, I just want to hand it over to medical science at this point.

She rose then and, in a short off-white silk robe and bare feet, left the room to make the tea. He was always amazed at how a woman can get up from such fucking and appear so unaltered—undisturbed—by it. This was true all through the animal kingdom, he’d noticed. Chased, captured, held down, ravaged. He’d seen it with cats, ducks, geese. Afterward, they give a shake and walk away. He watched her through the door, watched her ass move in the robe and her foot’s strong tread on the wood floor. She could fuck all day, it wouldn’t faze her. Her floors were very clean. She lived neatly, frugally, and on schedule. It was a little foreign to him, a little frightening. She wrote everything down, kept lists, rose early. But after two glasses of wine she was a different soul, a mischievous flirt. If a bunch of people stripped and jumped in the pool, or the ocean or the lake, she’d invariably be one of them.At such moments she looked a good bit younger than her age. Someday he’d like really to set her loose, he imagined at a fashionable party of some kind, leave her there and wait to see what she would bring home.

Restless, he reached down, grasped the offending member, and found that even he wasn’t interested.And it was sore.What a lifetime of trouble you’ve caused, he muttered. He didn’t mean it. He liked his penis, as most men do, he approved of its doings, when it worked. He got up, put on his underwear and an open shirt, and wandered out of the bedroom.When he found her, she was at her desk opposite the dining table, online and tea-less. She had not made it to the kitchen. One of her cats, still as an Egyptian statue, sat on the desk beside the laptop, its eyes watching her fingers flit on the keypad.

I looked it up, she said. I’m finding a lot of humor and porn of course, and blog commentary, but not much by way of solid medi- cal information. I mean what exactly is the problem if it makes the leap from three-hours-fifty to, like, four hours and ten minutes? I’m assuming the concerns are cardiovascular.

Such ad hoc health research was her forte. She was a fan of all ailments and, figuratively speaking, she kept near to hand an exten- sive set of deadly diseases with which she was conversant. She feared them on an as-needed basis. In the narrative arts, she tended to reject tragedy, which, he wanted to tell her, was something she might work on a little.Tragedy can perform the same psychic cleansing functions as hypochondria but without the nutty doctor bills.

The cat lifted its hindquarters, turned, arched and stretched, and jumped off the desk. With a muffled peh-dump, its soft feet hit the wood floor.

I have years of experience with the penis, he said.The concerns are gonna be with the brain.

She looked up at him, standing there.You should button those boxers, she said.

He said, Let’s go to the kitchen. Tea sounds good. I can fill you in on the medical perils. Basically, it’s insufficient blood flow northward—he pointed from his boxers toward his head—leading to catastrophic cell loss. Memory and judgment are always the first to go, with the ability to tell right from wrong an invariable early victim. Soon the majority of so-called higher functions are gone. By the second day, all that’s left are addresses and phone numbers from one’s youth. Some odd facts, you know, like CarlYastrzemski won the Triple Crown in 1967. Frank Robinson did it a year before, Mantle ten years before that, but, bizarrely, no one did it again for forty-five years. Four-plus decades. That’s what runs through your head. That and the lyrics to “Close to You” by the Carpenters.

She stood, and he hugged her and hummed the tune into her neck. She put a hand on his chest. Not too close, she said.That thing is still loaded.

In the kitchen, he watched her handle her things, always an insight. She worked with delicate efficiency, filled the kettle, placed it on the stove, reached for the teapot, ran it under hot water, brought out the tea. Gentle movements, no banging and clanging; so much of our lives lived in the interstices of these humble rituals, so much of what we know arrived at in this sacramental way. Small scoops of tea—three—into the pot.The fruit of the vine, the work of human hands. All these gestures of daily life like artful sacrifices. He had few greater pleasures in life than watching other people work: twenty minutes and he felt he knew the person he was watching . . .

Okay, she said, so when you fall into the total vegetative state and they give you the earphones—

All Carpenters, he said. I’ve written it into the living will already. Revive?

Nah.

Feeding tube?

Hmm, he said. Not sure.

A tough one, she said. I’ve thought about this a lot. You don’t want to lie there and starve to death. On the other hand, it’s kind of brutal. It looks like someone’s trying to siphon gasoline from your throat.And there’s the funnel.

God, let me go fast, he said.You know what worries me? People feeling compelled to visit the hospital every day.The times in my life when I’ve had to go to the hospital every day were the most awful imaginable. I’d rather be in the hospital than have to visit it every day.

Not me, she said. I’d rather visit. Bring chocolate, argue with your doctors.

He couldn’t have explained why, but he said,You’re planning to be there at that stage?

She paused—she came to a momentary stop against the countertop, stilled as the cat, mint-leaf-adorned tin of tea in her hand. He felt her consciousness fall, falling, an unexpected tumble into a chasm of thought that began with what he’d just said and deepened and widened quickly into her past, her future . . . He felt the room change. They looked at each other. Her eyes—he had never quite really seen her before, now he was seeing her. God she was beautiful there, in nothing but that little silk robe.Words, sentences started to float into his mind, then he thought, no, stop, just look at her. He thought, just look at her. This required a certain courage. Neither spoke.Then she began to move again—how long had it been, three seconds? He felt a softening, an easing of tension in his shorts—as if this intense small moment had begun to draw all his blood back up toward his skull, passing first of course through the heart: his erection was fading, finally, like a ship going down in a silent, glassy sea.

Just in time, he said, pointing.

And she looked—at his boxers, his groin—and smiled a peculiar small quick smile, warm and a little sad. Yet he, suddenly, felt happy. And lightheaded and flushed—he assumed from the pill. He stepped toward her. On the stove the pressure in the kettle was rising, for the metal pinged like a little bell, a child’s thing, a short note that was delicate and slightly distorted, like the notes on a steel drum. The small sound had been sent, it seemed, to mark the time—four hours!—and he wanted to say, no, it’s alright—it’s alright—the danger has passed.

This story first appeared in AGNI 83. Spring 2016. 

Alas poor Wallace! Infinite Jest approaches 20th anniversary

Tom Bissell has written for the The New York Times Book Review this weekend [ http://nyti.ms/202l8lj ] an appreciation of David Wallace’s Infinite Jest — he’s written, in fact, an introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of the novel, to be published soon, from which introduction this appreciation is taken. It’s a nice piece, a joyous piece. It’s an intelligent and non-cringe-worthy hug. I wrote about the book at the time of its publication for Vogue, not with great insight; I don’t remember what I said except some version of ‘this guy is the most important American writer of his generation’ which he unquestionably was, and remains. The most intelligent (by far) contemporary review that I saw was Walter Kirn‘s. [Which I guess in those days would have been in New York Magazine(?)]. The book was monumental, and still is, but it thrived despite a condition that Norman Mailer smartly (okay, exaggeratedly) saw in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch — that you could excise a hundred pages and the author would be hard pressed to know what they were or what parts of the text might now be missing them. Bissell says, admitting he can’t describe how, that Wallace was a spiritual writer; I’d say he was first and foremost a moralist and like all great moralists he had a vast horizon of spirituality he was seeing and hiking toward. Once the moralist achieves this place, he won’t need to moralize anymore; or not nearly so much. Wallace saw the moral implications of everything: most devastating for him, he saw the moral impurities that went into his own work, and he could not forgive them. Following his battle against irony is like watching a great pianist one by one lopping off his fingers — which are, after all, the source of all his mistakes. I don’t think a satisfying (comprehensive, penetrating) critical appraisal of Wallace’s work has yet been written and I don’t think it will be any time soon, for we do not live in a critical age. We live in a celebrity age, and it’s way too soon to wash the celebrity off of Wallace’s story, his work, and his reputation.

 

Sept 3, Waiting for Sleep, Thinking of Brodkey, Lish, and Towers

Up tonight, knee shaking, foot shaking. I think Trader Joe spiked my decaf. So it’s 1:00 a.m. when I start thinking about Harold Brodkey — does anyone think about Harold Brodkey anymore? All artistic talent of the first order is incomprehensible but certain talents strike us as more familiar and approachable than others. George Orwell, for instance, whose prose’s muscle and clarity — clarity above all — affected me strongly, does not mystify me. I have a solid sense of where he came from, where his language came from, his general mode of thinking.  Brodkey’s particular genius remains ungraspable. The language is Jewish, it’s American, it’s baroque, it’s beautiful and divine. Divine I mean as in suffused with a spiritual force and a spiritual necessity above that mustered by mere mortals.  It is miraculous and harrowing: to look into his work is like watching a great surgeon, a world class surgeon, magically operate on himself, remove his own organs, examine them in bloodied hands, drop them in a pan.

The reason I’m thinking of Brodkey is first because of Gordon Lish, whom I have wanted to write more about. I said in an earlier post that I think he is the most influential editor of his time and perhaps the most influential literary figure of his time in the United States. He came into my mind because I could suddenly hear him say Brodkey’s name. Never Harold Brodkey, just Brodkey.  As  a teacher Lish held Brodkey up always as the pinnacle of what you as a writer could achieve if you stopped fucking around and fooling yourself that what you’re doing now mattered in the least or displayed a shred of real talent… if you essentially got your ass up off the planet and into the heavens where it belongs.  Lish reacted to words, to writing, and to writers in an unmistakably erotic way: he was then and I imagine still is a literary creature full of worship and desire. He moved hard toward what he liked, or he moved not at all. He was notoriously heterosexual, at least as far as all the rumors went, and there were many. Yet with certain male writers, as he evoked them, you could hear an erotic love, an erotic pleasure: Brodkey, Hannah, DeLillo. There were many other males writers who, as he worked with them, became part of the incantations: Anderson Farrell and Tom Spanbauer come to mind.

What needs to be looked at, carefully, and I don’t have them and I don’t have the time to go find them and read them, are all the issues of The Quarterly that he published from the mid-80s to… when? The early 90s? The work that I will forever most associate with The Quarterly are the drawings of a particular artist featured in every issue, whose name I cannot remember, and the poetry of Jack Gilbert — Lish’s dedication to publishing Gilbert somehow cements the sense that what he treasures most in literature is the language of revealed secrets. Gilbert’s poems always seem to me to have the effect of a door opening and throwing a lovely golden light into a darkened hallway. Illumination and revelation. Art as a moral act and an erotic act: the connection of one being to another.

But — after all this passes through my mind —  I realize why I am actually thinking of Brodkey: because it is PatriciaTowers’s birthday today. She was born on September 3.  What year that was is a deep secret, which only the obituary editor at The New York Times might know, and certain agencies of government; putting my hope in the Times I intend to outlive her just so I can find out. She too, like Lish, has been one of the great and important editors of her time: but utterly different. (They are both retired now.) They both want the writer to seduce, but Pat wants to end up in love. It is a sensuous love, certainly: she worked on ideas and on texts somehow in the manner of a Buddhist forever engaged in the arrangement of stones in a Japanese garden. Everything — what was a good word, a good sentence, a good idea for an article at this time in this place — seemed to be decided by feel: a feel informed by sympathies that radiated outward from the stones, ceaselessly radiated, and took in the world and the air in which the stones must rest, all with the aim of making sure that they were properly — elegantly, correctly, beautifully — situated there. Her work was as close as a busy editor’s work can ever be to flawless, something Gordon Lish would never dare claim for himself.

And her relation to Brodkey? Among other things, my own meager career, such as it’s been. In 1988 she left Vanity Fair, where she’d been one of the founding editors, and done some amazing things unimaginable now, in today’s over-processed publishing landscape (such as, I remember, two simultaneous pieces on Glenn Gould, who had died a year or two prior, one by Tim Page and one by Edward Said, that ran stacked one atop the other splitting the pages they appeared on). She left VF to work on a start up magazine, a New York City magazine, called 7 Days. I had just finished my half-assed MFA thesis in fiction at Columbia, studying under Pat’s husband, the novelist, critic and teacher Robert Towers. He had mentioned me to her as someone who might possibly be able to review a book, and I wrote to her a few months after graduating asking if she had any work. This is the kind of inspired editor Pat always was: she did have a book, she decided, for someone who’d never written for hire or reviewed anything at all: the most long-awaited work of the year, by one of the most controversial writers on the New York scene. She decided I should review Harold Brodkey’s Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, his first book in almost 30 years. My status as neophyte had a certain appeal, she told me: everyone else she could think of already had an opinion about Brodkey. This was, I would come to understand, a loaded remark. His charms, which were considerable, were often overtaken by other more difficult aspects of his personality: he wasn’t merely an acquired taste, he often made himself into a lost taste. As it happened I had met Brodkey, he’d done a four-day Master Class that spring at Columbia, during which he’d looked at me in my plaid shirt and unwashed jeans and ten-year-old hiking boots which — God knows what i was thinking — I had planted up on the conference table, and he said, “You must have a great deal of self-confidence to sit there like that.”  I was so naive Ithought it was a compliment.

So sometime before 2 a.m. I go looking for a copy of this, my first non-fiction publication, my review of Brodkey written for Pat, and find many other interesting things in 30 years worth of files, until finally, around 3, in the bottom drawer rear, in the last file, at the back of the file, I find it.  It’s not a bad piece, though slightly repetitive; like everything else I write, too long; I tried to do justice to how daring the work is, what a psychological high-wire act Brodkey performed. The parts of him that were overbearing were crucial to his art: his art was overbearing as part of its design. More than any other writer I know of, he wrote in order to be loved, and so as painful as writing is for all of us who do it, it was more painful for him.

After the Brodkey piece ran in the fall of 1988 I went on to write many many pieces under Pat’s guiding hands, each, because of her, a stone of unique shape and color. She will be annoyed, superficially only, I hope, to be written about, but it’s just my as-usual-long-winded way of saying: Happy Birthday, Pat. I’m feeling a little sleepy now….

Good night and good luck to Jon Stewart

A few words on Jon Stewart: there is at the core of his career on The Daily Show  one governing, for me, fact; This man, during the spiritual and financial destruction of our country, stood for year after year after year as the only mainstream voice of criticism and skepticism and howling grief-stricken opposition available to the nation at large. I don’t mean to denigrate journals and journalists associated with such as Harper’s Magazine​, Mother Jones, The Nation, etc. But they speak to relatively small (albeit sometimes influential) audiences who already, for the most part, agree with them. Stewart had sponsors like Hot Pockets and Coors. He was talking to, among others, frat boy nation. And at this level, he was alone. The entire corporate media complex after 9/11 just caved in like a Pennsylvania glade burning from below. He yanked them up from their smoky cave prisons and shone a light on them for us all to see, every night. He did the same to our government, as best he could. He taught an entire generation not to trust what these people are peddling and how to see through the most obvious of their lies, and the political ramifications of that achievement won’t be  known for some years yet. He spoke truth to power and proved that if you will only display the requisite courage and wit to do it well and forcefully, you can thrive  He was almost flawlessly funny, which was what he always meant to be, and how he always identified himself, in terms of his comedy. The show was in my experience simply never bad. We cannot yet appreciate the scope of his impact and his success; for now I can only say out loud, as it were, how much I admire him, and wish him well, and thank him.

Orwell: the luminous fierceness or the fierce luminosity?

A few days ago I was plowing disheartened through the NYTimes 100 Notable Books of 2014 when I felt compelled to tweet my opinion that the two words now guaranteeing a review is bullshit are “luminous”  and “fierce.”  I was joking around, sort of. Many comments were exchanged. And then today — several days late, yes — I open the FT weekend arts email that I get every Friday night, and I find this: George Orwell’s luminous truths — The English writer is revealed in all his fierce integrity in a new collection of journalism.

It is particularly sad to see this coming from a British publication.  The British should understand Orwell’s adamant lack of luminosity; you can’t read him without feeling the English cold and damp, and really sitting with him, like ploughing with pleasure through the four volumes of his essays, reviews, and letters, as I once did, could actually give you a nasty head cold — the phrase “snot rag” is never far from one’s mind. To call him “luminous” is to sound, among other suspect conditions in an Orwell review, quite American. The Brits are not supposed to be so dimwitted: what have we done to them?

And of course fierce is not at all correct either. Neither for his mind nor his “integrity”. His integrity was the result of an intellect and a sensibility pulled together by deep and reliable sensitivities to literature and to politics. Integrity — oneness — is never really fierce. It is unassailable, impenetrable, unbreakable, unyielding.  But really they’re not talking about his integrity when they throw “fierce” out there like dead fish parts in the chum. What they mean is the quality of his mind: which is coherent and incisive, keen; perhaps at times lethally sharp. His  prose relied for its power not merely on its accuracy and intensity but its elegance, which was sturdy and unerring. Orwell moves on the page in the manner of a man whom you’d not expect to be a good dancer but who is.

Put another way, and the right way for Orwell: if you neither see nor feel the knife going in, your murder has not been fierce; it has been deft.

Screed (II): What blackness would you add to this blackness?

Icon - Ferguson MO Nov 28 2014

President Obama this afternoon made some remarks on the why-am-I-not-surprised-failure by the Staten Island grand jury investigating the chokehold death of Eric Garner to indict the police officer who killed him. On videotape. There were several striking features of Obama’s remarks: he refused to say, either in reference to the Staten Island case or to the Ferguson case, which he brought up several times, that anyone actually died. Was dead. Was not merely pining for the fjords. In the Staten Island case we got this: “a grand jury’s decision not to indict police officers [sic] who had interacted with an individual named Eric Garner in New York City.” They interacted indeed, and lo! Garner was dead on the ground. Of perhaps too much interacting.

The President expressed his concern for the decades-long problem faced by “minority communities that feel that bias is taking place.”  Further on the President referred to the “concern that many minor communities have that law enforcement is not working with them, dealing with them in a fair way.”

Oh, and I almost forgot, as will so many: there’s a Task Force. Those folks, as the President would call them, if they’d been tortured in US custody, are working on it. They’re going to report to him directly.

Such language of course is meant to, and does, drain these events of meaning, of color, of actual existence on the planet. Dead young men become a matter of feelings, of concerns, of fairness, the work of a task force. He concluded with his strongest remarks: “This is not a black problem, this is not a brown problem, this is not a Native American problem, this is an American problem, when anyone is not treated with equality under the law…”  That indeed was the clip circulating in my own social media circles, with words appended, such as “Thank you.”

Cut to Marilyn Monroe sewn into a dress and singing “Happy Birthday”.

This last “equality under the law” reference is perhaps most pernicious of all: it sounds good, it sounds resolute, it sounds wise and fair, but it denies (as Obama has over and over denied, for reasons both political and personal, I suspect) the specifically racial nature of the problem before us. Minority communities don’t “feel” there’s bias: they know there’s bias and they fear for their lives, most especially for the lives of their sons, a full quarter of whom are at any one moment in some form of contact with the criminal justice system, each one able to count himself lucky not to be dead.  Because such homicides as we’ve seen in Ferguson and on Staten Island  are not merely problems to be addressed under the 14th amendment’s stricture that everyone must be treated with equality under the law — a joke if you know anything of our state and federal justice systems — but a very specific problem seen all over the United States not of misapplied justice but of killing, with impunity, unarmed black men.  Killing. Dead. If equality under the law were the problem in these cases then all we’d have to do is instruct the cops to be sure to kill, with impunity, a comparable number of white people.

What Obama once knew but refuses to know any longer is that this country is built on intractable and quite vicious forms of racial inequality, institutionally begotten and institutionally enforced — all of it oriented toward the protection of privilege, wealth and power. The problem at hand in these cases is a racism so thorough and so intricately woven into daily experience we — meaning white people — hardly see it anymore, until someone captures on video a cop killing a black man who’d been selling cigarettes.

Loosies, they’re called, the cigarettes Garner was accused of peddling (he had done so before but it’s not clear he was actually doing so the day he died). Loosies at the bodegas, loosies on the street, because who in a poor community can afford a whole pack? Of course Barack would tell them: best if you quit smoking. He claims he did. The Obamas have an organic garden. They make their own ale. They have a task force.

american flag 2014 from twitterfeed of puchi at machucartier

A note on copyright of images: the two images accompanying this blog post were circulating on social media and were unattributed. I admire both and am not only willing but eager to credit them properly or, if requested, remove them. I’d much prefer the former…..

Screed (I): The Totally Fucked.

A very old friend writes to send me a job listing he’s come upon, director of communications for the Columbia University School of the Arts. It so happens I attended that school; and I’ve served as a director of communications for two universities in the past. So this is sensible and generous of him to do. I write back:

Dear M——-,
Thanks for this. I can’t do this kind of work now, I can’t make the high squeaky noises anymore nor feign the belief that it isn’t a waste of time and resources, i.e., total bullshit. But you were right, it’s exactly in my range of experience on paper and thank you for thinking of me. You’ll know what I mean when you’re turning 58, just biding your time until you’re on Soc Sec and buying cat food for your supper….. or the like. (I actually never understood the cat food trope with the elderly since there are eggs and beans to be had cheap. Plus you’re all decrepit and shit and so you can’t open the cans anymore anyway). 
Were you here in the East for Thanksgiving? I hear from the lads that a great time was had down at A—–‘s. I hope you and yours are well. 
Warm wishes

___________________

This friend is in his mid-40s with two kids and he’s out of work: he left a career in one devastated field, journalism, and went to law school. While he was there the law, once a step ladder for many into lives of modest prosperity, became another devastated field. Another culling of the herd of the upper middle classes.  He replies:

Ha ha. I’m in NYC doing a temporary doc review project. It’s wrapping up, so I’m on hiatus. A—– was a terrific host. Your kids have so much musical talent. I cannot get over how beautifully and quickly P— has learned to be a finger-pickin’ maestro. We brought a bunch of instruments and had fun.

 BTW – I’m not even eligible for that job that I contacted you about because a credit check revealed – surprise, after three years of law school! – that my debt-to-income ratio is too high. Go figure. If I had a job, of course, then that wouldn’t be such an issue….

_____________________

This last bit of news, him being classified ineligible for a job because his debt is high, when, if he got the job, he could and would lower it, set me off. It harmonized with stuff I’d been thinking about obsessively anyway. (For a long, long time, actually: see http://harpers.org/archive/1998/08/wholl-stop-the-drain-reflections-on-the-art-of-going-broke/ ) And it struck me as so plainly an aspect of American life that we no longer have the power to cure, not in my lifetime anyway, that as usually I got angry. At my keyboard. Here’s what I wrote back.

Your debt is high not merely because of your own circumstances but in a larger sense because of the longstanding policies of the same government that won’t hire you because your debt is too high. There is no way to hold down wages as long as we have, and grow as much as we have in terms of consumer spending, without making available a LOT of easy credit. To the point where you’re paying two percent a month to be alive. And now the credit check is the great arbiter of everything — whether you can have a job, get an apartment, etc. Of course it’s an instrument of exclusion and a further wedge between a small portion of the population and the roiling — nay, inert — masses.  A complete system that you can’t escape and that is designed to fuck you over. 

This is the kind of shit I heard about and read about when I was a kid — about the Soviet Union, about Germany before that, other places — the systematic and never-resistible disempowerment of the individual, a wearing down of one’s ability and will to fight back or even to feel autonomous as a human being, with full agency, or even partially immune to the mechanisms of power.  You can’t fight it of course because such would be like fighting with a sheet blowing in a high wind and then another and then another, the wind never relenting, the sheets never running out. The rise of the relentless modern bureaucracy. Kafka predicted it beautifully. 
It occurred to me today that there are essentially three classes of people in the US now: in the bulky middle are those who spend a spirit-crushing amount of time calling their insurance companies, their banks, their credit card companies, their children’s schools, the local officials, the state officials, federal offices, trying to straighten out endless problems, unjust late fees uncredited payments refusals of coverage the discovery that some privilege you know you’d paid for and been told you were paying for now, inexplicably, you are not eligible for — a constant grinding down of your skull by a system of automated directories and inapplicable instructions, phone limbo, shit you realize that the website, after it runs you in a circle a couple of times, doesn’t even hint at how to deal with. How could you possibly feel like a full agent of your own life in such circumstances? Every move against the bureaucracy is a reminder that you have no power. You know, for a fact, that this never happens to the senior executives of Halliburton or Raytheon or to any of the partners at Goldman Sachs. But who exactly you’d call to make sure it never happens to you is a mystery whose power goes if possible beyond even the power of religion. And that is the class above you, a priestly class, essentially: shamans of wealth.  Below you are the desperately poor indeed. They’re up against social welfare offices and the judicial systems, the departments of housing and health and education, they’re not fighting with PayPal or Chase but to keep their children fed and out of jail, housed if God is good, and forget educated. And you know very well that as rarely as you are able to solve a problem with your goddamned health insurance company, they, in fact never win, ever. They are the TF’s, for Totally Fucked. 
Anyway, there — I’m happy to get all THAT out of my system (and, okay, into yours).  I’m so glad about Thanksgiving.  Your [late] mother’s great gift, passed down through her children to her grandchildren, is that capacity for joy, especially in the presence of music. Nobody in my world ever had that and I often feel the lack…. Funny about P—. As a kid he had the least interest in his music lessons, getting him to do anything was like taking a whale for a walk in the park, but somehow over the last few years he’s turned into the most dedicated musician — or musical performer anyway, since J— composes a lot — of them all. I gave him the banjo you know (he bragged, stupidly). Got it offa eBay. 
Take care.