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victorian-mother-of-pearl-button-stud-cufflinks-640Matthew Thomas, Kyoto 

This post originally published at classicalsympathies.com

Raymond Carver is not one of my very favorite writers, but his work is full of resonant nuggets of greatness that linger long after one puts him down. Fires, contains four essays, a number of poems and half a dozen or so stories. Carver has useful things to say about using common language in writing, although he arguably makes a fetish of it. The best things in the book are a handful of poems, and the one standout work seems to be “The Baker.” Other excellent poems include: “Iowa Summer,” “For Serma with Martial Vigor,” “Looking for Work,” “Cheers.” Fires also includes a lengthy poem on Bukowski where Carver appears to be recounting an evening’s worth of Bukowski’s conversation. Good stuff, but not of overwhelming interest except to Bukowski fanatics.

The essays, on his father, on writing, are very sharp. Carver’s prose, as he himself admits, tends to be lean, approaching flat, but accumulates force on that account: “If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some reason-if the words are in any way blurred-the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved” (“On Writing”). This is fundamentally true and great–the statement has a corollary, if the words are just right, the reader’s eyes will stick, and come back to them for a second look, even though they were taken in the first time.

Little things register. From the title story: “On the other end of the line was the voice of a man who was obviously a black man, someone asking for a party named Nelson. It was the wrong number and I said so and hung up.” Here, decisiveness of language (“and I said so”) fused with perfect choice of noun phrase “a party named Nelson” achieve a remarkable force. Sometime his terms are loaded with meaning because Carver’s paragraphs tend to close where other writer’s would just be beginning: (his motto: “Don’t explain. Don’t complain.”): “I really don’t feel that anything happened in my life until I was twenty and married and had the kids. Then things started to happen.” Fin. What does he mean? does he mean happen, like, “that’s really happening man,” or just happen, as in, flatly events transpired. We are left to guess; the paragraph ends.

Here is “The Baker”:

Then Pancho Villa come to town,
hanged the mayor
and summoned the old and infirm
Count Vronsky to supper.
Pancho introduced his new girl friend,
along with her husband in his white apron,
showed Vronsky his pistol,
then asked the Count to tell him
about his unhappy exile in Mexico.
Later, the talk was of women and horses.
Both were experts.
The girl friend giggles
and fussed with the pearl button
on Pancho’s shirt until,
promptly at midnight, Pancho went to sleep
with his head on the table.
The husband crossed himself
and left the house holding his boots
without so much as a sign
to his wife or Vronsky.
That anonymous husband, barefooted,
humiliated, trying to save his life, he
is the hero of this poem.

A great poem, I think, nearly perfect. The one line that may have been implicit, and didn’t need explication is “both were experts.” Cut it, and see how it reads. Also, the “promptly” is questionable. The action verbs, “hanged,” “summoned,” “showed” establish Pancho beautifully. “Showed Vronsky his pistol”-does Carver mean he showed it off, or showed it to him as a threat? The line works both ways.  He doesn’t let the husband off the hook either; the “humiliated,” at once celebrates his pragmatism and signals his cowardice. Finally, in the second to last line, the additional, grammatically unnecessary, “he” cements the husband as a man, even if a emasculated one. The poem ends unresolved; the husband is “trying” to save his life. We don’t know whether he succeeds.  Carver doesn’t explain.

debord-guide1Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at classicalsympathies.com

In the comments section for my earlier post “On Staying in Business Hotels II: A Ballardian Perspective,” Mr. Andrew Inch introduces the concept of “psychogeography” in relation to Ballard: “His vision of the ignored edges of urban life, and the sinister presences that inhabit these spaces seems to reveal a deep engagement with the psychic impacts, and psychotic tendencies of late modern capitalism. Business hotels certainly fit squarely within the Ballardian imagination.”  Andrew points out that psychogeography is also a fitting description for Walter Benjamin’s method, if it could be called that, and indeed Benjamin’s rambling and unstructured yet somehow systematic exploration of European cities, Paris, Naples, Marseilles, will be the subject of a future series of posts.

This post, on the other hand, will put a period on Ballardania for the time being by offering a run-down of some of the highlights of Re/Search’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations.”  We will also investigate the intersections between the Ballard material and nuggets from the inimitable 1981 film My Dinner With Andre. For readers who wish to follow up on Ballard, Re/Search has issued a whole book of Ballard quotes.  Also, The Complete Short Stories are available in two volumes, and are the best place to start digging into Ballard.

Re/Search’s 350 page book of Ballard on the phone is, admittedly, for fans only, and in these conversations Ballard runs true to form by going around and around on his pet “obsessions.” Occasionally he falls into outright repetition, but for the most part each conversation sheds new light on already familiar ground. The striking thing about reading Ballard, whether in novel form or here, is the degree to which Ballard’s interests intersect only casually with my own. Running down the list: swimming pools, beach resorts, and gated communities; Ronald Reagan; plastic surgery; the evolution of sexuality through technology; car crashes, airplane crashes; William Burroughs–none of these topics keep me up nights.

World War II; deserts; Miami; obsessed scientists on a futile quest–we’re getting warmer, but still not really where I live. The collaboration and complicity of the individual in the media landscapes and power structures that surround them; turning conspiracy theory inside out to ask not what they do to us but what we allow and even facilitate–this is interesting territory, but the thing is while I have no especial interest in gated communities, in plastic surgery, or in Miami, I like to read Ballard hold forth on all of the above topics and more–not because I am interested in them, but because he is.

Most of the conversations recorded in the book are between Ballard and V.Vale, the publisher of Re/Search books (a U.S. imprint) and apparently Ballard’s biggest fan.  At one point, Vale and Ballard discuss the feedback loop between popular culture images of professions and how members of that profession or group behave in real life:

V. VALE: “I saw a magazine article describing the search and seizure of a Mafia home in which a huge collection of books and videotapes on the Mafia was found.  The final comment of the article was, ‘They’re looking to the movies to learn how to act.'”

BALLARD: “Right; the actual Mafia gangsters are watching the movies to learn how to get ‘in style.’  It’s terribly funny that” (307).

It is, of course, far from surprising that would-be gangsters would model themselves off of The Godfather or The Sopranos; and we have come to almost expect this kind of synergy between image and action where a person’s authenticity is established precisely through the degree to which their behavior corresponds with their fictional counterparts.  But before we conclude that this kind of modeling is confined to those living on the fringes of legality and respectability, we should recall the part in My Dinner With Andre where Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn discuss the redundancy of the theater in an age of constant performance:

ANDRE: “You know, that was one of the reasons that Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well that performance in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way obscene.”

WALLY: “Hum!”

ANDRE: “I mean, isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? I mean, you see a terrorist on television: he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, or single people, or artists, are all trying to live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father, or a single person, or an artist, should look and behave! They all act as if they know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment. And they all seem totally self-confident.”

There is pure gold here, but…what exactly is a doctor supposed to look like?  Do we know a doctor when we see one based on the fact that the doctor’s physical appearance and bearing conforms to a pre-existing “doctor” ideal, or is it more that the setting and trappings of the medical situation–that is, where we encounter a doctor in his or her professional guise–give the man or woman in question a sort of aura of doctorhood which is quite separable from raw physical image?  I think perhaps the latter, which is what Ballard suggests in what is my favorite quotation in the book: “People take you at face value.  Any role that people see you in they will accept, by and large.  That seems to be a rule of life” (127). When we encounter someone who appears to inhabit a certain role by dint of the trappings of that role–uniform, badge, necktie, the contextual paraphernalia that surrounds the person–all of these add up to a kind of fait accompli of identity. Read the rest of this entry »

best00code46Matthew Thomas, Tokyo

Note: This post was originally published at craftfollowsconcept.com

The TV was turned to CNN, which was focused on violence somewhere.  I could not tell where.  The experts in their suits and hairsprayed hair presented the conflict as if conflict was inevitable.  They agreed it was happening now and could be prevented, but at the same time at the conclusion of the piece they smiled politely and signed off as if the violence was also occurring in a land so distant it might as well be the past.

Emily Maloney

The post below is based on my own experiences staying in a variety of hotels while on business throughout 2008, and takes up the effect of CNN International on the psyche of the business traveler as well as providing a sort of psychograph of the business hotel experience.

Three features of business hotels that bear mention:

i) Like airports, all business hotels share a single ethos, an un-pindownable character that feels, wherever one happens to be geographically speaking, of a piece.

ii) The effect of the television offerings, in particular CNN International, on the business traveler, is one of overwhelming relaxation, bordering on complacency and even numbness.

iii) As a corollary to i), it is far easier to enumerate how business hotels resemble one another than to lay out any salient differences. Oddly, minor local variations only seem to further reinforce a central sameness.

Checking into an 11th floor room at a classic example of the species, for instance the Numzau Tokyu Hotel, half an hour south of Tokyo, Japan, one is affected at once by that strangely pleasant fugue state, a state of mind almost exactly halfway between bliss and malaise, attendant on “business” hotels. Once inside of a business hotel, especially those neither top-of-the-line nor down-and-out, one is confronted with a kind of disembodied space which seems at once connected to a global network of similar hotels–this accomplished largely through the simultaneously soothing and hypnotizing effect of CNN International–and disconnected from the local environment–one feels sucked in to global weirdness through a combination of the flat, post-political window of CNN International, the persistent low hum of the air conditioner, and the anodyne staleness, almost spartan, quality of the decor. Oddly, any “artwork” or decorative flourishes that a hotel room may have only serve to further this sense of featurelessness; the art in question being almost exclusively of the most banal nature–bland seascapes, abstracts denuded of all edge or verve, and those odd non-paintings that, try as you might, you forget the very subject seconds after exiting your room.

One has to remind oneself that being on a business trip means that there is work to be done–the TV, the slight high, which even the most weary traveler may not be entirely immune from, which results from contact with the bowing attendants, the men in black, the cute, blushing young lady who carries your bag, the knowledge that your company is footing the bill–all this lulls you into a kind of sleep of the spirit. Turning on the TV, you feels that you could spend years, lifetimes staring at CNN’s Larry King Live, their post-racial female anchors who bring that special Code 46 feel of the non-overt future, and the exquisitely paralyzing “World Weather,” before awakening in another age, the Rip Van Winkle of the travel world. When CNN finally wears out its welcome, my choices of pay channels open up the fascinating worlds of…Golf (the Golf Channel), silicone starlets (the Playboy Channel), intimate acts in close-up (the “adult channel”), and, most fittingly, drama set in outer space (the Battlstar Galatica channel). This profile of options, Golf, softcore, hardcore, and outer space, the result, presumably, of reams of data on the tastes of business travelers like me, the mobile working male, I want to find depressing, but the menu has something beautifully efficient about it. Not wanting to get sucked into the anesthesizing vortex of any of these choices, I have to force myself to rise from the supine contemplation of the only-vaguely Chinese news anchor to pick up Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality.

My senses are momentarily quickened by report of an attack on a hotel in Pakistan: a horrific assault which has taken place at a Marriott in Islamabad. Oddly, the reality of this event quickly fades, and what Richard Todd calls the “non-ness” of the Marriott up the road (“The Thing Itself, 101), strangely, becomes the non-ness of violence–the attack in Islamabad conveys, through the lens of the CNN International, not exactly shock, but a continuing and deepening sense of global weirdness only slightly tinged by fear resting on the realization that as a business traveler in exactly this kind of hotel, I am the target. Oddly, this realization is not as disturbing as it ought to be: the fugue state is such that I am more in, more of, Islamabad than Numazu, but not wholly there either–I am poised somewhere between Islamabad and Battlestar Galactica, cavorting with post-racial android news anchors who bring me news of a planet this 11th floor, air-conditioned bubble of a non-space has left far behind.

sh-000386Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally written for classicalsympathies.com

This post takes as its source the song “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” by Loudon Wainwright III. Wainwright, in turn, bases the song on the character of Prince Hal in Henry IV.  Let’s dive in. Prince Hal in Shakespeare deliberately consorts with riff-raff and drunks as a young man, so that his later conversion to an upright king may appear all the more sympathetic.  Speaking to Falstaff and assorted drinkers:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
Th unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein I will imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.

Hal continues:

So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better that my word I am,
By so much I shall falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’re my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Paraphrased, Hal is saying: “I’ll drink and cavort with you lowlifes for a time, but only in pursuit of a larger goal, namely to be seen as redeemed and reformed when I renounce this current lifestyle and my present crowd, and take up the crown.”  Hal, in other words, is a political animal who uses Falstaff and his friends in low places as a stepping stone to the throne.

Loudon Wainwright takes up this unlikely hero in his song “Prince Hal’s Dirge.” A cult figure, Wainwright is still best known, if at all, to my parents’ generation for the joke song “Dead Skunk.”  But, Wainwright has produced over the years an output worth exploring in depth, and “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” originally on the album “T-Shirt,” but reprised on “BBC Sessions,” is one of his masterworks.  The song opens with Hal fully immersed in debauchery:

Give me a capon
And some roguish companion,
A wench and a bottle of sack.
Take me to the ale house
Take me to the whorehouse.
If I vomit, keep me off of my back

Wainwright sets Hal here fully in the demimode of debauchery–there is no suggestion of baser political motives as Hal calls for food (a capon, apparently, is a chicken), wine, and women.  But the next verse establishes Hal as having an inner core of confidence. This is my favorite verse in Wainwright’s repertoire, and one of my favorite sections of any song ever written:

My father, he thinks, I’m a good for nothing
that I won’t amount to much.
But he’s not aware of my secret weapon.
I can count on myself in the clutch.

Here, the eloquent, but rather base author of “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill/ Redeeming time when men think least I will” is transformed into an altogether different creature–the overlooked son of an overbearing father, who nonetheless is able to draw upon an inner core of self-confidence in order to master any situation, including the elevation to being king.  In Wainwright’s version, Hal is not so much using his barfly friends as a base from which to pivot off of in order to be king as he is biding his time until that day when he sheds his drunkard’s skin and emerges as a leader and a man of courage and distinction.  But, Wainwright’s Hal at the same time doth protest too much when he launches into a variation of the classic theme of the drunk when he lays out what he will, in future, accomplish:

Show me a breach,
I’ll once more unto it
I’ll be ready for action any day.
I’ll straighten up, and fly most righteous.
In a fracas, I’ll be right in the fray.
I can drink you under 25 tables,
Fight and be a ladies man.
But all this will change,
When I’m good and ready,
To become the king of this land.

Moved as we are by the line “In a fracas, I’ll be right in the fray,” the giveaway here seems to me to be the phrase “any day.” Any day, as Wainwright, an experienced observer of the alcoholic, fully realizes, can suggest, without actually meaning, tomorrow–that is the immediacy implied by the phrase quickly fades into the wishful thinking of “someday.”
In the end, “Prince Hal’s Dirge” presents us with a more sympathetic, arguably less effective, Prince Hal than does Henry IV.  But the appeal of Wainwright’s Hal is the same as Shakespeare’s Hal–both draw on an inner confidence to support their sense of self-worth, their egotism, and hence their political effectiveness.  Singing “Prince Hal’s Dirge” in the shower before work, I realize the importance of having a sealed off, all but untouchable inner core of confidence that, while benefiting from self-reflection, cannot be derailed, damaged, or even scuffed by external negativity or negation.

imgresMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally written for classicalsympathies.com

J.M. Coetzee’s “Inner Workings,” collects some of the South African novelist’s recent criticism. Coetzee is a generous and sympathetic reader, which, in the end, is what one wants from a reviewer.  This post deals with Coetzee’s essay on Italo Svevo.  Like Tom Townsand in Metropolitan, I am sometimes content to get my literary opinions second hand.  Previously, I began Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno (Zeno’s Conscience), and liked very much what I read.  But, I set it aside at some point.  Coetzee is a fine reviewer; the quality of his work demonstrated by his ability to be fully satisfying on authors about whom one’s own knowledge is thin.

Svevo self-published his work, including Zeno; he was well-off through his wife, and could afford it.  Of Jewish origin, he basically hid this throughout his life.  Though born in Trieste Svevo went to boarding school in Germany, and never learned to write in “literary Italian.” Consequently, his prose has been criticized even by his admirers.  A rough contemporary of Freud, a typical Svevo scene has a man, “Z,” trying to impress four young ladies.  “You find yourself telling risque jokes; your jokes are met with frosty silence {…} You lean nonchalantly on your umbrella; the umbrella snaps in two; everyone laughs” (Coetzee, 1).  This may sound like a fairly normal bad dream, or even a bad day (when my jokes meet with frosty silence I have been known to resort more than once to “that’s funny to me,” which, in turn, is funny to me), but Coetzee sees something else: “Is it possible that both Freud and Svevo belong to an age when pipes and cigars and purses and umbrellas seemed pregnant with secret meaning, whereas to the present age a pipe is just a pipe?” (Coetzee, 2).  The sinuous in-joke here is delicious.

Svevo appears to have been wholly bourgeois, and to have cooperated with the fascist Mussolini government, even to the point of having received a medal from the fascists. After he married, he worked for his wife’s family’s company which was engaged in preventing barnacles from glomming onto ships.  But, he had his own doubts about his middle-class normality, and his first novel was titled in Italian “Un inetto,” which translates to “the ill-adapted one.”  “In Svevo’s eyes, Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to treat those afflicted with the handicap of reflective thought as a separate species, coexisting warily with healthy, unreflective types, who in Darwinian jargon might be called the fit” (Coetzee, 4).  One must admit that this picture, of the ordinary-looking businessman, the bland bourgeois, consumed by a surfeit of reflection, holds a degree of appeal.

Still, Svevo has been called out on his politics by his biographer, John Gatt-Rutter, who charges that Svevo’s support for Mussolini rested on “perfect bad faith” (Coetzee, 9). Interesting, Svevo seems to have recognized his own involvement, his own taintedness, while at the same time not making the effort of will necessary to change his station in life or political orientation.  Coetzee comments thusly: “From Socrates to Freud, Western ethical philosophy has subscribed to the Delphic Know yourself.  But what good does it do to know yourself if, taking your lead from Schopenhauer, you believe that character is founded on a substratum of will, and doubt that the will wants to change?” (Coetzee, 10).  If indeed, character finds its roots in will, at some point the excuses for not making a change begin to run a little thin.  But, of course, those living in glass houses should not throws stones, and I, for one, take no comfort in contemplating how I would have comported myself in 1920’s Italy were I, like Svevo, a relatively comfortable bourgeois working for an anti-barnacle firm.

Zeno, Svevo’s best-known book, came out when he was 62, again self-published.  The main character tries to quit smoking, but fears being creatively crippled if he does so (“Svevo’s corrosive yet curiously gay scepticism about whether we can improve ourselves”) (Coetzee, 11). Little by little, Svevo’s fame spread, in Italy and beyond. Although not fully versed in matters Svevovian, the name plays at least a small part in my own personal mythology.  In Anthony Powell‘s “A Dance to the Music of Time” the main character, Nick Jenkins, makes a faux pas by expressing a lack of sympathy for his commanding general’s favorite writer, Anthony Trollope. The scene unfolds:

“‘You’ve never found Trollope easy to read?’

‘No sir’.

He was clearly unable to credit my words.  This was an unhappy situation.  There was a long pause as he glared at me {…}

‘Whom do you like, if you don’t like Trollope?’

For the moment, I could not remember the name of a single novelist, good or bad, in the whole history of literature.  Who was there?  Then, slowly, a few admired figures came to mind–Choderlos de Laclos–Lermontov–Svevo….Somehow these did not have quite the right sound. The impression given was altogether too recondite, too eclectic” (Powell, The Military Philosophers, 46-47).

Nick ends up going with Balzac.  Were one to bring forth the above names in conversation, today, “recondite” and “eclectic” would be the least of the matter. Pretentious, unutterably highbrow, conversation-ending, these terms come to mind. It is, therefore, to Coetzee’s credit that he opens “Inner Workings” with such a recondite writer.

Image Credit:
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