Something which annoys me about the mangled Left/Right quagmire of debate vis. the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and we all know it’s got very little to do with ideology and the bickering of Western politicos searching for the best way to frame the invasion and occupation in media-friendly terms, and all the pro- and con-advocates on both sides who do the thinking footwork for them in the media (Hitchens etc), is that when it comes down to it, the resistance to occupation has nothing to do with Lefty support for the underdog struggling with imperialism and everything to do with the Sunni extremists who want their power back. They’re the ones trained in combat, harassment and terrorism/kidnapping, and I’m pretty convinced that they’re responsible for most of the current violence. Criticising the quagmire is to miss the tribal/hegemonic reality of the struggle in Iraq. Criticising the occupation is not to side with terrrrsm. It’s really the old pro-Saddam Sunni minority team who had it good and want their power back, who could benefit most directly from destabilisation. Over the Shiites, the Kurds, the yanks. Whomever.
I was reading a profile of New Yorker profiler John Lahr (who’s profiled Roseanne, Mike Nichols, Sontag, Spielberg et al, to drop names). Lahr habitually spends several months shadowing a subject in building up his piece. And I mean closely — he follows them down, follows them out amongst friends and colleagues, on the crapper and off — which I think is totally admirable and warranted when it comes do doing the groundwork for a biographical portrait, as any portrait is complex and broad. The qualities or essences of a person come across slowly and indirectly, in a long and gradual conversation of interaction, a collaborative relation, where a mere allocated hour is never enough. Fair nuff. As a journalist, this lends credence to Lahr’s opinion and weight in other fields of comment. And Lahr is also masterful at reducing or effacing his own presence from the profile.
But I’d be interested in reading a profile of an artist (preferably a helpfully reclusive one) where the writer consciously and unhesitatingly announces his profile an appreciation of identity by exegesis of the works alone. Which embraces fully the nearness to fiction in characterisation at the same time as its distance from the subject, from the possibility of rendering identity completely and honestly. A biographical judgement based purely on the works, an hermeneutic biography.
From Neu! notes:
...Music is transportation after all, and this little window of German instrumental music has the wide open road at its heart. Nothing else sounds so much like driving, like the passage of blurred or streaming vistas seen through fast moving windows. A synergy of blur and crisp crystalline perfection in sound.
Because not much is happening besides rhythm and the ambience of rhythm, Neu!’s music is suggestive of so much at once: a drive through endless and symmetric urban landscapes, or a discussion about the clean lines of modern German architecture (‘Ziss building is like ze autobahn, ja?’) or a tonal lens with which to view the strange times we live in, for a poetics of mobility.
Forgot to mention viewing Under the Sand (see IMDb), Ozon's precursor to Swimming Pool. Charlotte Rampling carries the role, of course; fascinating to watch someone who can modulate her French to suit the film. In this it's excellent, professional; in Swimming Pool, deliberately O-level English. Inaresting study of loss from the unaccepting POV. Great image-continuity throughout, quiet and well paced. Pure story-oriented direction. Charlotte should indeed play more V. Woolf roles. Never clichéd. And of course I love bilingualism in any film.
I think it rather misses the working-in-and-thru bland language to make something more character-residual-wise, preferring to think of all DFW-writing as a lame postmodern comment about how bland and uniform (monotone) our culture is, like duh, critic. Poole is of course right, from a particular point of view, but I think from the broader angle, and the train course of modern lit has to partly inform this, he must consider more than this. Bland language, when handled well and with precision, can shift the focus on beauty (prose-beauty) elsewhere. It is one of the few antidotes to PoMo literary navel-gazing. It still takes much talent to draw sympathetic characters and conscious-interactivity in this medium, as DFW does; the challenge is of course for Mr Poole to attempt something similar in fiction and see how easy it is for hisself.
And yet Wallace can be very funny. Owing to the relentless maximalism of his writing, he is bound to write a good line here and there, simply according to the law of averages. But the amount of jokes in Oblivion cannot justly be attributed to mere statistical inevitability.
Not sure if that statistical reference-joke was intended. Or maybe something stayed with him.
Ah, Oblivion. Escapades in the modern adventure of breakdown, trauma, disasters personal and public, statistics and America. In brief:
• Oblivion: An acute rendering of familial and relationship barbs and double repressions/undercurrents emerging. Nightmaric statisticians’ language.
• Another Pioneer: not as effective, but nonetheless an inaresting variant of the meta-story — using the academic jargon of narrative theory to convey a very simple mythic/folkloric story.
• Good Old Neon: already commented on at length. Still one of the stronger pieces.
• The Soul is Not a Smithy: near-perfect DFW short story form and theme. Restrained, precise (geometrically and language-wise), multi-POV/media discursive. An acute yet distanced (in the sense of character abstraction) view of breakdown.
• Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: great, near-farce/empathy comedy. Strange lead persona with lethal spider expertise, vis. Squishy’s home poison brewer. Intrusions/undercurrents of crime.
• The Suffering Channel: novella. The novelist in DFW is still kicking, if dormant. Again multi-POV/media. Large ensemble. A large woman (collection-trope, cf Lurch in Mr Squishy); dry humour (restrained), explicit previsions of 9/11, stories about shit (though never using the words ‘void’ or ‘evacuation’, to my remembrance). Immersion in the jargon and discourse of Human Interest stories/journalists/editorial departments. The interns and their clothes, down to the label, and effectiveness of combination. Super-precise language: always the right, non-clichéd choice (would score high on the Amis scale); for instance, using ‘institutional’ politics when he’s clearly talking about Office politics. Near-novelistic (near because not central) attempt at big meaning/theme (the big frame): celebrity/media vis. TV and reality programming drawn to a logical extreme (celebrity shitting). Quote:
The paradoxical intercourse of audience and celebrity. The suppressed awareness that the whole reason ordinary people found celebrity fascinating was that they were not, themselves, celebrities. That wasn’t quite it… It was more the deeper, more tragic and universal of which the celebrity paradox was a part. The conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus the awareness of its objective insignificance… The management of insignificance. It was the great syncretic bond of US monoculture. (p284 US edition)
Note thematic and structural nearness to Infinite jest. So there is hope that a novel will one day come again. But the range of Oblivion is still fascinating. Immersion in varieties of discourse (esp. statistics, marketing, medico-insurance related). On the whole: satisfying, but left hungry for more comedy and scope/inclusiveness/precise-epics.
Also, interesting to read David Byrne’s tour-log: Inaresting quote:
Sign on a [Russian] restaurant toilet: "Don't Put Anything In Here You Haven't Already Eaten"
Also, been getting much satisfaction from Neil Young’s Decade collection. Especially Sugar Mountain. And Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. And Milt Jackson’s Reverence and Compassion. And Ornette’s Complete Science Fiction Sessions. And Sinatra Live in Paris with Sextet. And Sigur Ros, occasionally. And some Boards of Canada. And Brian Blade’s Perceptual.
New creative guideline/motto/watermark for self: The genius of Godard; the power & virtuosity of Hendrix; the bite of Bill Hicks and the precision of David Foster Wallace.
In many regards (plural because his style is a facet) I am a fan of the Dennett project: to marry the rigour and range of the modern sciences with our use and conception of traditional philosophical concepts like Will, the Self and the supposed Cartesian Theatre where they reside. On the one hand debunking, but on the other building on the soundest possible foundations and ever-willing to reconceive, reconsider their structure when significant progress is made elsewhere in related fields.
Like much of science writing, this is a concerted review of the sidereal literature related to the evolution of freedom as condition and modern value, scientifically interpreted. Since DCD has a peculiar weight in pop-science/philosophy, a very ‘pugnacious’ weight considering his style and humour, this allows him to solidify the strains of reason and researchers he considers most relevant to the DCD project. Like any father-figure discourse-setter. And yet he also quotes himself extensively.
The neatest summary of the book comes near the end:
Human freedom is real — as real as language, music and money — so it can be studied objectively from a no-nonsense point of view. But like language, music, money, and other products of society, its persistence is affected by what we believe about it. So it is not surprising that our attempts to study it dispassionately are distorted by anxiety that we will clumsily kill the specimen under the microscope. (p 305)
That specimen being freedom, free will. So DCD, using his bio-friendly Determinism (at any one precise moment, only one future can follow) fleshes a nicely Darwinian account of the tangled will-complexity of the (moral) decision faculty. Arguing that it’s just as evolved as our other faculties. That by becoming moral agents we take on reflective responsibility, by virtue of language, education and the memes that form our culture/society. [To be honest here, I hadn’t fully considered the thought-power of a Darwinian reading of memes in culture.] The stress falls on language and reflection as the cornerstones of consciousness, and hence responsibility.
What you are is that agent whose life you can tell about. You can tell us, and you can tell yourself. The process of self-description begins in earliest childhood, and involves a good deal of fantasy from the outset. (p 255)
Which I think ties in neatly with what artists have been banging on about (and self-promoting) for years. [Bellow: ‘The challenge of modern freedom… is to make yourself up.’ — which, although this ain’t Modern, is nonetheless timeless]. Self-creation is the truth of self.
In terms of method, the book progresses nicely from the fine cellular-automata scale where Determinism (or Naturalism) can be rendered most acutely, like in the basic-rule complexity of the Game of Life, to the broader design level where we as conscious animals tend to operate, think and make moral decisions. Gradual deductive arguments; good science. Thought experiments and strategies abound, ranging from the action and speed of decision-making and the lag of consciousness, the significance of faking it, the castration of paedophiles and more. Inevitably, it all points to some emerging congruence of science and ethics, the gradual discussion of values about the world we choose to live in (which fine ethics DCD wisely avoids).
I’m not going to go point for point, but I was left a bit quizzical over the ultimate place of determinism in this moral-responsibility sphere. It works superbly as a framework on the smallest scale like computer processors. But DCD’s narrowed causal definition operates on the tightest timeframe, and theories which depend on finely-split time tend to go the way of Zeno’s paradoxes I suppose. Or maybe this is all brass tacks, background stuff unrelated to reflection/education/responsibility and hence unmappable on these plains. Or maybe this is why DCD calls it Naturalism, which sounds more Darwinianly winning. He definitely seems to head to the pragmatism of Rorty.
But at least he’s given the idea of freedom-responsibility a shot in the arm of soundness. And if something is philosophically indefensible, DCD will dismiss it pugnaciously. That’s good labna.
Rather annoyingly, in two respects, I’ve noticed that the UK edition of Oblivionhas a quote-blurb by Zadie Smith plastered on the cover, smack-bang top billing. I mean, talk about getting your literary credentials/seniority ass-backwards. Also, this edition has a bit of cartoonish simplicity about its design, as though designed by the same amateurish team that did White Teeth in paperback. The US edition has a much rawer simplicity of plainest typeset, Obliv/ion in a broken line. Clean and simple, no second-rate guff.
Also, on loan from a German pal: Harmonia 76: Tracks & Traces. Interesting for its personnel and timeperiod: Roedelius, Eno, Moebius and Michael Rother. It seems to drift away from itself on occasion, and ambient is the operative mode, but Eno gets some spare paranoid vocals. Not as consistently sure-fire as Music for Films, say, but an interesting look at simplicity of musical/listener engagement and drum machines and tone. A genuine sense of ‘arty’ that doesn’t yet depend on some wider legitimising context.
Mild if dry run through the Hitchcock mode in Ozon’s Swimming Pool. Good play on cross-channel clichés: the loose French chick and the starchy stuckup English matron. One of the better films about writing and narrative exploitation (vis. twists). The parallelogram of the pool v. the rectangular spread of the laptop keyboard. Nicely paced and pitched.
Also, I have a neat trinity of Neu! records. And a Popmatters column in the works.
Managed to pick up a cheap compilation of New Yorker profiles (secret mission: biography studies), which coincidentally enough featured Capote’s brilliant profiling of Brando: The Duke in his Domain. Great balance of profile detail, characteristic observation and secondary background and foreground. The adolescent voice of Brando, his indecisive ambivalence, his love of eating and the exotic. The nearness to fakery. The disgust with alternately the stage and then Hollywood. The brilliant focus of celebrity and their hangers-on. Of talent and ambivalence, whilst almost brilliantly effacing himself (Capote) from the picture. Great journalism.
Also, on matters Oblivious, David Foster Wallace’s brilliant (I cannot stop using that faceted word) medium-short The Soul is Not a Smithy. Sustained imaginative writing. Precise, wordy, multi-media, rigorously geometric, sympathetic for fathers, absolutely focused in both the smallest and the largest timeframe, and intriguingly sensitive and acute in dealing with trauma and personal catastrophe. Brilliant duality of the child/adult perspective. I can only sigh.
That supremely vulgar Janet Street-Porter (I’m pretty sure it was her) at the BBC gave Oblivion the most irresolute and subjective panning ever heard. Compared it to being left waiting at a bus stop when she wants her writers to ‘take her on a journey’. Said 'Give me Bret Easton Ellis anyday.' (!) Never seen anyone miss the point or the bus so clearly, re great prose, re great perspective. Another panellist correctly said DFW is a writer’s writer. Clear, JSP is not a writer. The kind of critic who’s critical acumen is always presaged by the words ‘I had a problem with…’ Yuck. Ugly. Vulgar. Yawn.
On Popmatters: I love Internet Radio. 'Anything that transcends borders so cheaply has got to be good.'
I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of Yahoo’s Launchcast, with near random access to a host of personal faves, and albums I haven’t heard or would probably have to order just to access. That is, until I reached a certain number of ratings (you rate the music it spits out to you so the player can 'learn' your musical preferences and hates) when it started throwing ads to me. That cooled my deal with the freebie somewhat. Now it’s back to the old MP3s and CDs and random listenings on random stations, waiting for somethings surprising to come along. But a quick list of moments:
Them Dirty Blues Charles Mingus Blues & Roots Ravi Shankar In Celebration The Beta Band Heroes to Zeros Sun Ra The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra Can Tago Mago Milt Jackson the Prophet Speaks
Al Green Tokyo… live Dizzy Gillespie Groovin’ High Ween Paintin’ the Town Brown Big John Patton Along Came John Brad Mehldau Anything Goes Milt Jackson Explosive! Eno/Wobble Spinner
It has taken me a while to get to it. A missed bookclub discussion; a misguided original browse which put me off but now I was ready for it, cued up and motivated.
The curious Bellovian deference to characters of greater intelligence (though not of greater art) let’s call it the Humboldt mode. Complex, contradictory intelligence rendered with wholistic care. At a slight or humbling remove, but wholly personally. At times the prose does seem slightly off-target, as though visions left of field cloud his targeting scope, push him sideways and bend the emotional pinpointing of his prose. But ultimately, this is all appropriate creeping, the sideward step or crab-march of death. Not a single sour note in all the distraction.
The dual bio/autobio angle, and the purported indecision of approach only resolved near the end by contact with death. The authorial first principles that are restated from p95: the details, images and memories of childhood, which circularises the focus on death…
The beauty of the Bellovian voice and method; even though it fits in equal parts biography (like any true voice) he renders nobility of character so skilfully, unsentimentally. The whole bag, private metaphysics of character and all, following the structural pacing and tangents of vocal, conversational anecdote, as with Amis’ Experience. But also something close to the true communion of (literary) spirits. Which is the aim of all biography.
Just the right amount of significant characters. The right amount of literariness and bonded repartee. A gentle range of ideas.
The indirect centrality of food and social meals (as well as hospitalisation).
If I had to write a lecture on Bellow, with particular focus on Ravelstein, I’d call it The Novelist’s Eye there’s a feeling in it, whatever ‘numinous’ (Amis) truth there is in it, that it’s Bellow’s gaze, his writerly gaze which precedes or induces his particular conversational magic. An eye particularly suited to physiognomy. A nominal eye.
Only now do I realise how much of Bellow (and of Rav. especially) runs thru Experience, over Nabokov. A direct parallel of method. A similar attempt at reach of character.
Also the whole Symposium angle of a split sexuality, a severed state seeking reunion and its compensatory erotic drive, is a nice if ancient mythic idea. It ties in to the unfulfilled or diffused longing of the heart which I imagine runs thru The Closing of the American Mind, but besides this reference it doesn’t manifest any stronger in Rav. than the craving for luxury goods and fine carpets. Maybe this is the point of Bellow’s perspective on homosexual unfulfilment in Ravelstein. Possible speculation here recedes into standard biological remove.
Some fave quotes:
The challenge of modern freedom, or the combination of isolation and freedom which confronts you, is to make yourself up. The danger is that you may emerge from the process as a not-entirely-human creature. (p 132)
Nothing in the sexual line is prohibited anymore, but the challenge is to hold your own against the general sexual anarchy. (p143)
…Life, that is, what one incessantly saw, the pictures produced by life continued… (p 149)
He loses himself in the sublime music, a music in which ideas are dissolved, reflecting these ideas in the form of feeling. (p 232)
And some related wisdom from Amis’ Experience:
…Of course, even the most precisely recreated character is nonetheless recreated, transfigured; of course, autobiographical fiction is still fiction an autonomous construct… This book is numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation. (p 226)
My organisational principles… derive from an inner urgency, and from the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections. (p 7)
In other news:
The Women’s final at Wimbledon. My viewing of it was strictly book-ended: I saw the warm-up serves, I saw the Russian rushing off for a last pit stop. I saw her take the first few games and thought, hey, it’s already going her way. Then I had to leave for a head massage. When I came back, I saw the matchwinning game. Williams looked absolutely defeated but her thighs were in usual fine form (visually, solidly). Facially she kept an astute dignity, a balance. Pity her game couldn’t keep up with the tall and lanky Russian style. Then the victory slump to the knees, the manic rush thru the audience to find daddy, the delaying calls to mum on the mobile, and the brandishing of the plate.
The demise of Brando. All the stock phrases came out in the obituaries, the dry clichés of a genial actor, a masculine master of his art who nonetheless wasted his immense gifts, who spilled his talents… With all the summary write-offs about raiding freezers in supermarkets and dying on the breadline, his island in the Pacific and lazy obesity and the squaw at the Oscars… What I wanted to know, and it would’ve called for more speculation than mealy-mouthed journalists can muster on a slow news day, is what the hell was going thru the man’s mind in the last days of his life. For someone who could deliver so much inward emotion and suggestive affect, such typically-specifically masculine emotion, he must’ve experienced time with a severe and personal despair. I don’t doubt he was great and flawed in his way, but speculate a line for me on his mind and sensibility and whatever unquiet rage; externalise some of that hearty greatness which probably knew equal suffering. Don’t just wrap him up in a case of brittle tactless words. Give the man more than the modicum of respect he deserves, do the mind justice. Even le Monde headed with ‘Viva Brando … L’acteur mythique’ and three whole pages of real content.