Monday, October 17, 2016

"The advent of modernity lies in this above all."

Ever since transcribing and posting William Carlos Williams' "The Descent of Winter" a couple of years ago, I've been fondly interested in Cubist and modernist art—particularly the work of Picasso, Klee, Delaunay, Braque, Metzinger, and Léger.

I had a really uncanny moment last year when I turned a corner unawares in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and kerplunk, there it was, Léger's epochal masterpiece The City! HOLY SHIT, I said, making myself the object of several security guards' and Chinese tourists' attention.

Fernand Léger, La Ville (1919)
(The canvas is nearly eight feet tall!)

I'm fascinated by the visual artists of the modernist era for the same reason I'm enamored of their contemporaries in the poetic sphere: their work is a reaction to a sea change in society. In the aftermath of the industrial revolution and World War I, and in the midst of accelerating globalization and consumerism, the complexion of human life was qualitatively changing. The old stylistic perspectives of arts and letters, predicated on bourgeois sensibilities crystallized during the century of Napoleon, Queen Victoria, the steam engine, and The White Man's Burden, had become outmoded; the mirror they held to humanity no longer reflected a recognizable face. The flourish of modernist art was a series of experiments not only toward devising ways of depicting the new human reality, but to understand its inner workings and foresee the costs/benefits of social and technological progress.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

on the planetarization of consciousness, fandom (part 1)

My perverse insistence on burning only Satya Sai Baba nag champa incense periodically brings me through the door of New Age tchotchke shops, where I'll sometimes, just for kicks, browse the bookshelves in the back, trying to muffle my condescending and pompous giggling at the selection of titles like Reincarnate Yourself Thin, Crystal Healing Something Something Quantum Physics, and Deepak Chopra's Buzzwords Put Together Randomly in Sentences. But during my most recent visit to the local metaphysical swag shop, it was probably my ongoing preoccupation with Marshall McLuhan and his concept of the electronic global village/tribe that prompted me to reach for Dane Rudhyar's The Planetarization of Consciousness (1970), and the praise from Henry Miller printed on the back cover certainly had a hand in nudging me towards the front counter with the book in tow.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from Rudhyar, and that was part of his allure—sometimes it does the dour materialist good to hear out the exultant spiritualist, if only to argue with him in the margins of his book. And overall I found Planetarization an edifying and even inspiring read, though I take issue with many of Rudhyar's propositions on general principles. But for all his New Age babble about "soul fields," "Pleorma-consciousness," "cyclosmic existence," and the occasional suggestion that aliens have shown or will show humanity the way, Rudhyar frequently puts forth statements I can't but underline in enthusiastic agreement:
In the Western World, particularly in the United States, we feel very proud of living in a democracy in which every man is theoretically free and responsible ... But no one seems to tell us what these freedoms are FOR. What should one work for? What should one perform any social activity for? ....

Marketplace democracy sees the free individual as a competitive entity, indeed as an aggressive ego whose purpose in living is to dominate others——and often to trick them——in order to accumulate wealth, power, possessions. The purpose of society is to produce more and more goods, even if if means forcing people by all means, fair or foul, to consume often far more than they need or even want, thus becoming ever more enslaved to their appetites and their craving for physical comfort——and more dependent on psychoanalysis or psychiatry. ....

Democracy, parliamentarianism, majority rule and free enterprise——these really mean nothing definite and nothing concrete unless one specifies (1) the character of the human units in such a quantitative system of social organization, (2) the quality of the relationship between these units, and (3) the human, spiritual and metaphysical purpose, and the expected results, of the social system.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Cages, binaries, toxic masculinity

Last month I found a cardboard box full of old books down by the loading dock at work, bound for the dumpster. Most were eroded hardcover pictorials about furniture and fashion circa 1970; one was a novel. That novel was one Cages (1971) by one Paul Covert. I'd never heard of the book nor its author.

Judging from the front cover, which does its damnedest to convey a youth culture/Beat vibe, and the back cover, whose copy does describes the teenage protagonist's "world of psuedo-Hemingway fantasies and ingenuous adolescent sex," and speciously characterizes the young Covert as a kind of postwar Thoreau/Papa successor, Cages sure looks like a mediocre freshman novel whose publishers tried way too hard to pimp. The novel's sink into obscurity would appear to verify the impression: Cages has only one review on Goodreads and none on Amazon, Paul Covert appears to have vanished from literary history, and a search for "liveright new writers" on Google Books mostly yields publishing catalogues from 1970–1974.

In spite of this, I decided to snag Cages and give it a read anyway. For obvious reasons, I can't help sympathizing with a forgotten novelist who once stepped up to the plate and swung the bat, even if it never landed him in the big leagues. Selfishly, and probably self-delusionally, I entertain the conceit that by reading a forty-five-year-old novel I haphazardly found in the dustbin, I create a statistical precedent for someone doing the same with a corroded copy of The Zeroes they find in a recycling bin circa 2050.

I was pleased and surprised when Cages turned out to be much more interesting than its packaging would have me believe. Despite Liveright's attempts to sell it through a fabricated tie to Hemingway, Cages is much more like Catcher in the Rye than The Sun Also Rises, and bears thematic and stylistic similarities to middle school reading list mainstays A Separate Peace and The Pigman. Actually, I'd be very tempted to label Cages a young adult book, were it not for all the misogyny, profanity, homoeroticism, homophobia, teenage sex and alleged rape, liberal use of the word "fag," and the unresolved and unanswerable questions the reader is left with after reaching the end.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

(swamps &)soma, pt. 2

Last week I was in Jersey on the pretense of running an errand, but hell—I really just wanted an excuse to visit the Garden State. It's a fine place to sojourn, especially when it's BALLS HOT in Philadelphia and your bedroom isn't air conditioned.

I stopped by Boonton (pronounced boo'n; the "nto" is treated as a glottal stop) to visit the tract of marshland in Tourne Park (which I believe we've looked at before).

via the crappy camera on my crappy phone
This must have been the first time I've made the trek in August; I've never seen the vegetation so dense before, the annual weeds and herbaceous perennials having had all spring and summer to grow and bloom in the exceedingly nutrient-rich of the marsh soil. I was only able to make inroads of about twenty feet from the edge of the forest before calling it quits, and it took several minutes and much more effort than I expected. It also required closed-toe shoes, which I wasn't wearing, and so all afternoon I was pulling fine spines out of my feet and ankles, left by some mean gang of thorny weeds I'm unable to identify. (Whatever they are, I'm still happier running afoul of them than of their West Indian friends.) And many of the non-biting weeds were five or six feet tall, and putting out flowers up and down their stems. You know who likes flowers? Honeybees. Whole humming congregations of them, orbiting every stalk. I'm that guy who will bust your balls for blanching and quailing just because a solitary bee happened to land on your pantleg (quelle horreur!), but there was such a profusion of stingers to make me a bit nervous—enough that while making my way back I warily circumvented a buzzing tangle of purple loosestrife with a route through the water and mud, nearly losing both my shoes and ensuring that for the rest of the afternoon my extremities would smell as those of my mucksavage forebears did in days long past.

On the plus side, my beloved odonata made an admirable showing, and I spotted a species of damselfly I'd never seen before: the fragile forktail. It was well worth the mosquito bites.

After returning to Philadelphia that evening, I met up with my friend/coworker Jess at Ray's Happy Birthday Bar.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Soma, pt. 1

Sticker on a fence by the Acme supermarket in South Philly. Made a point of snapping it because it is so god damned perfect.

Whenever the topic comes up, I'm reminded of something I read in a middlebrow thinkpiece about the internet and entertainment circa 2008. (I don't recall the source.) Its author copypasted an excerpt from Neil Postman's 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I guess I should actually read eventually) about the difference between the prognostic nightmares of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
Let's back up. Postman is referring to the LeBron James and Stephen Curry of English-language dystopian novels: George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Postman notes elsewhere that, between the two novels, it was Orwell's magnum opus that most quickened the imagination of the late twentieth century. This is obvious: even if you've never read 1984, you know about Big Brother and you're aware he's watching. Even today it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation about NSA surveillance programs, the militarization of United States police departments, and certain consequences of Apple's and Amazon's copyright protection enforcement bots without invoking Orwell—and with very good reason.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

about words: the sympathizer

A few months ago I was prompted to pick up Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel The Sympathizer after listening to a fascinating interview with Nguyen on Fresh Air. I finished reading the book a while back, and I've been remiss in not sharing a few excepts sooner.

First: context. Let's begin with the opening sentences:
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.
If you're from the United States and this doesn't remind you of the opening lines of another novel, then Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man still isn't required reading, which would be an unforgivable failure of the education system.

At any rate, that book begins:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids——and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
The Sympathizer is steeped in an Ellisonian influence, which not not surprising: Nguyen is an Invisible Man superfan, having apparently gone so far as to name his son after its author.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ten songs (top perhaps?)

Lately I've been working on editing a pile of short stories and prepping them to be thrown at (and probably rejected by) literary magazines, and assembling something that I hope will become novel #3. The upshot of this is that I don't have much available RAM to update this thing with anything very substantial or thoughtful.

So, let's have some filler: something not very substantial and not requiring too much thought on my part. Everyone likes top ten lists. Everyone likes music. Okay, let's call this my ten favorite songs. Or ten songs that are among my favorites. Or just ten songs. Let's cap it off by throwing in some spontaneously selected images that may (or may not) evoke the texture or flavor of these songs, and then let's call it a day. I've got stuff to do.