Thursday, July 26, 2012

Let's Read: Pierre arrangements

So there's some folks wanna read Herman Melville's Pierre with me. Cool.

So how are we gonna do this?

First: the book. There's an online version here if you're into that sorta thing, but for our purposes the standard version published under Penguin or in the Library of America collection will do quite well. The slimmed-down "kraken" version mentioned in the previous post is of limited availability and prohibitively expensive, and its editorial "restoration" is explained thusly:

This Kraken Edition of Pierre, or the Ambiguities is a reconstruction of the text that Melville delivered to Harper & Brothers early in January 1852, just as some of the most devastating reviews of Moby-Dick were appearing. The Harper brothers apparently decided that Pierre was even more outrageous than Moby-Dick and tried to avoid publishing it by offering Melville less than half the royalties they paid for his previous books. Accepting the humiliating contract, Melville took a self-destructive revenge. After Book XVI, he interpolated a new section on "Young America in Literature," in which he arbitrarily announced that his hero, Pierre, had been a juvenile author. Melville proceeded to add an intrusive "Pierre as author" subplot, disparaging American literary life and the world of publishing, which he left unassimilated into the book he had first completed.

I don't know about you, but in this case I'd prefer to read the version that the author "ruined" out of spite. (Loosely pertinent: I suddenly recall being struck by Miro's burnt canvases. Although, really, the two separate acts by the two separate artists are hardly parallel: one "ruins" through addition, the other augments through destruction, etc. etc. We're careening, though.)

Anyway. Let's see here. Pierre has twenty-six "books" amounting to about (in my version) 400 pages. The first question becomes: how many pages are we willing to read in a week? Related: how many weeks are we willing to keep reading and checking in? Would it be better to do 100 pages a week and finish in one month, or to read 50 a week and finish in two? I haven't decided! Weigh in!

In any event, we'll divide the book up into blocks of chapters assigned to consecutive weeks. Every Sunday I'll start things off with a post that will (hopefully!) generate some discussion, and then we can take it to the comments page from there. I don't want this to feel like a forced Blackboard discussion: you can say as little or as much as you want. (I'd prefer you say something, though -- even "it's good!" or "it sucks!" will suffice. You're not being graded or judged.)

Would Sunday, August 12 be a good time to begin reading? (This would make August 19 the day we first start typing at each other about it.) Too close? Too far off? Let me know, dammit!

Mr. Vuela noticed the last post and writes:

Fantastic! You probably don't remember, but I think it was you that suggested I read it about two years ago from this point (gosh how time flies). Well, I did eventually pick it up, and after three months of slugging through the thing, I can definitely say it's worth a read. I will say that for better or for worse, depending on how you look at it, the whole thing feels a bit exaggerated and drastic, and while it may have been satirizing the extravagance of other novels of that time period (or maybe even paying homage to classic tragedies), today it just comes across as Melville writing gorgeous, flowing and wandering prose. If you do happen to read it in book club style format, I'd definitely be up for giving it a second run, although I don't think I'd really be able to add anything significant to any discussions.

But, yeah. I really liked it and I know you'll get a good kick out of it too.

You stoked? I'm stoked.

Three months? Hmm. What would that be -- thirty-three pages a week?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Let's Read: Pierre, Or the Ambiguities

I know I'm still on holiday from blogging, but I've got an idea.

Just this afternoon I finally finished a nonfiction cinderblock called A Consumer's Republic. It was smashingly astute, it should be required reading for Americans (or pretty much anyone brought up or embedded in a consumer culture), and you can look forward to lengthy excerpts posted here sometime next month.

But after reading nothing but nonfiction, poetry, and short story collections for four months, I'm feeling spiritually anemic. It is time I read a novel. A good novel.

It is time I read another Melville novel.

I've never read Pierre. I know nothing about it other than that it was written and published after Moby Dick and is deeply tinged with Melville's bitterness at the poor reception of his magnum opus. Most critics of the day hated Pierre (as they had Moby Dick) and, in addition to denouncing the novel, took the liberty of diagnosing its author with insanity.

The top-rated Amazon review reads:

Pierre is perhaps the strangest novel of all time: bizarre, to say the least, but brilliant in its extravagence. At a minimum, it is one of Melville's central novels that deconstructs the entire myth of pre-war American society in its explorations of incest, patricide and psychosis. It is almost inconceivable that Melville really believed that it would be popular (which he did), for it shows the impossibility of writing as an American author, the impossibility of originality, and the impossibility of self-reliance. Beware: it is not for the faint of heart. It is demanding, relentlessly challenging, and very rewarding. 

Some months ago, a reader suggested I use this blog to pull together a reading group. Today the call goes out: who wants to read Pierre with me?

We can determine procedures and schedules later on. (We might also have to make sure we're all reading the same version -- apparently Melville adding a bunch of padding at the demands of his publishers, which some subsequent editors have removed from the text.) For now I'm just trying to gauge interest. Post a comment if you think this might be something you're willing to do!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Definite Hiatus

I'm taking the rest of July off.

When I started this blog and was writing more substantial posts more frequently, I wasn't working as many hours or juggling as many different projects as I've been lately. For the sake of my health and sanity -- to say nothing of the quality of my work -- I'm going to slow down for a few minutes.

With any luck, I'll be laid off after August and have plenty of time on my hands.

But between now and then I'll still be updating my comics page. Why not hang out there in the meantime?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ponies, Plato, Plutocracies

Not much prepped this week. I've been too busy drawing ponies.

Also, I've recently started posting comics again.

I've got a bunch of stuff backlogged and will be posting a new one every ten days (roughly), which will amount to about four months of regular updates. If I'm able to draw more comics between now and then (these things are never certain), we'll keep running. If not, we'll just wait another six months, eight months, or however long it takes to build up another queue.

I thought it would be fun to roll out this shindig with a couple of 8 Easy Bits strips, just for old times' sake. I don't know why I figured the Author should have discovered the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic phenomenon since we last saw him; but from there it does seem more predictably within his character that he should be inordinately inspired by his arrival at this brave new continent in his (severely skewed) intellectual world and determine to make it the subject of his latest opus.

I rather like how the scruff (a touch originally added by Mr. Wolff in one of the later strips) and unkempt hair has increasingly become the norm for the character. I like how the bastard is still evolving, even though he's still far from ever getting his shit together. (I think he's somehow becoming even crazier.) And I really like how he's still interesting (at least to me, anyway) even when the subject of his escapades isn't the fact that he inhabits a world where human beings and video game characters rub elbows on the sidewalks and supermarkets.

So yeah, the pony comic took much longer to make than I'll ever admit, and I have nothing but my own OCD to blame for it. The lessons here are that I should a.) estimate realistically how long a project should take, b.) making sure to account for my being batshit crazy about details. (I can point to more than a dozen things about the strip that I don't like, but for the sake of my own sanity I'm letting them be.)

Confession time: Greekdropping gennaion psuedos wasn't actually spontaneous, and was preceded by a Google search for "plato republic lie" and a click on the Wikipedia entry for "Noble Lie." I recalled the basic concept from an early book in the Republic, but needed a memory refresher. The Republic is a pretty dense slab of text, after all.

In the smallest of nutshells: having already established that his ideal state would need to have three basic classes of citizens (rulers, warriors, artisans), Plato (speaking through Socrates) says it will be necessary to foster upon the state's children the idea that, although the Earth fashioned them all, it mixed some of the clay with gold, some with silver, and some with bronze, corresponding to which of the three social strata they are more or less destined to inhabit. It's ordained, it's out of everyone's hands, and each citizen will have to accept his lot in life. It's not true (obviously), but Plato nonetheless asserts that this one "noble lie" will be necessary to preserve the state's cohesion.

A reader has already joked about the bluntness of the strip's "message," and I guess that's fair -- but really, I was less interested in making a point than in taking something absolutely innocent and delightful and warping it into something joyless and awful ("for the lulz," as they say). If I was really serious about preaching, I wouldn't have ended the thing with a sharp veer into a gag about horse assholes.

But yeah, sure -- I did a little thinking about noble lies while shopping the thing, and wondered if it mightn't be the case that every society is constructed atop one fundamental fib or another. So -- what about the United States?

The big American lie (or one of the big ones) is the one about Freedom. America is a free country. Americans are free people. Americans are freer than other people because America is the most free country of all countries. George W. Bush's and the Tea Pary's rhetoric could be pared down to FREEDOM FREEDOM FREEDOM MURICKA and lose little in the abridging. Americans scream and shout and beat their breasts and rub dust in their hair whenever they perceive some politician, law, or court ruling as "threatening our freedom."

First of all: the very concept of freedom is probably bullshit.

Second: off the cuff, I'd say that yes, United States citizens do have fewer sanctions on speaking and expressing themselves in ways that could be construed as offensive, controversial, unpatriotic, etc. than those of many other nations. This is an excellent thing. We are permitted to talk the talk. But many, many citizens are severely constrained to the extent to which they can walk the walk.

We're all of us placed inside the labyrinth of our civilization, and some people are immensely better-equipped to navigate it than others. When the structure of the labyrinth is determined mostly by economic forces, citizens in stronger economic positions can move about it more easily. Perhaps the more accurate metaphor would be to say that these people are capable of walking over or just passing through the same walls restricting the movements of their neighbors.

But I feel this analogy is hackneyed and you already know where we're going. But why not: when you have more money, you have more "freedom." People born into wealth are more likely to retain wealth. Those with a lot of wealth are more likely to acquire more wealth. Those born into poverty are more likely to remain in poverty. The nation's wealth is increasingly concentrating in the upper stratum; the wide majority of citizens is finding more and more walls shooting up out of the ground to block their progress.

Even if we imagine that freedom isn't a fallacy, the American version of it doesn't sound very much like freedom at all. Not when citizens' actions are restricted by their personal wealth; especially not when that factor is usually dependent simply on the economic circumstances into which they were born. But the noble lie of the Land of the Free is accepted as fact, and people in the lower classes rage against legislation that would likely benefit them on the grounds that "it hurts our freedom."

Incidentally, I just read an excellent GQ piece in which the author reports his investigative comparison between six Americans, each representing one of six basic economic blocs (from someone who lives on $200 a week to someone who lives on $625,000 a week). On the fifth rung of six he meets a man named Nick Hanauer, an early investor in whose taxable income is now $10 million on a bad year. Mr. Hanauer speaks of his own conception of the American noble lie:

There's something unusual about Nick. For a multimillionaire, he doesn't have your average multimillionaire view. In fact, he's come to believe that the system he benefits so richly from is built on nonsense — specifically, the idea that "the markets are perfectly efficient and allocate benefits and burdens perfectly efficiently, based on talent and merit. So by that definition, the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. We believe this because we have an almost insanely powerful need to self-justify."

And the biggest nonsense of all, he says, "is the idea that because the rich are the smartest, and because we're the job creators, the richer we get, the better it is for everyone. So taxes on the rich should be very, very low because we're essentially the center of the economic universe, the font of productivity." Nick pauses. "If there were a shred of truth to the claim that the rich are our nation's job creators, then given how rich the rich have gotten, America should be drowning in jobs!"


To conclude on a cheerier note, my friend Jason is fiercely lobbying to have this made into a T-shirt:

Any creative ponypeople want to give her a name?

EDIT: Spyda K might have nailed it with "Nickie Fits."