Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon consider their betters
. . .

candour and verisimilitude

- for David Collard, with gratitude

"W. N. P. Barbellion" claimed instant fellowship with (what he lived long enough to read of) James Joyce. They shared pride and poverty, compulsive truth-telling, retreats into silence, and a sense of exile.

More particularly they were prettily pickled as intellectually ambitious provincials stuck on the periphery of longue durée cultural shifts.

Bruce Cummings was a born naturalist in the grand old tradition, devoting his passions and skills to the present-to-hand reality of plants, beasts, and earth on the ground. He should've sailed on the Beagle or explicated the ecology of the English countryside, but such escapades had already become a gentleman-scholar's game and would soon become the niche of pop-science writers like Barbellion's champion H. G. Wells. "Real" working-class science instead took place in urban offices and urban labs for the greater profit of industry or government.

Although I can sense a leap in energy and happiness whenever Cummings returned to the countryside, he never himself described that dichotomy in so many words. Instead, like other brilliant articulate failures, he redirected himself from his first vocation to literature. He would still observe, analyze, and describe, but specimens would be human and he would be first on the dissection table.

James Joyce faced similar blockages but his vocations were spiritual and literary from the start, and due to whatever combination of history, capability, and opportunity Joyce became more explicitly aware of his dilemma, formed vaster ambitions, and lived to fulfill them.

We have no way to know where Cummings would've gone next, or if he would have been able to publish even one book without the sales hook of his early death. On the other hand, would Joyce be remembered if he'd died at Cummings's age, with only Chamber Music to his name? At the very least, Cummings's publications provide a unique testament of Dedalus-in-progress, drowned before flight, as I reckon most members of the extended Dedalus clan have been.

* * *

More particularly still, they share a certain attitude.

Embodied/embedded/naturalist philosophers and scientists, much as I love 'em, often speak of human experience in ways which would (thoughtlessly for the most part, sincerely for the horrifying part) dismiss the blind, the deaf, the pained, the frail, the immobilized, the illiterate, or the starving as not-really-human. (Other philosophers seem willing to dismiss any non-philosopher, no matter what shape they're in, as subhuman, so it may just come with the territory.) Those philosophers, theologians, and mystics who do admit the existence of suffering also tend to deny the existence of anything else, with sweet nothing our only transcendence.

In literature there's a minor muscular-secular-hedonist tradition, viz. that hearty medico buck Oliver Gogarty, but from Rochester through Zola, what gets called Naturalism leans grim and nihilist. Early critics received Joyce's first books (and Barbellion's Journal) accordingly, sometimes awarding them extra-naturalistic points for having come straight from the whoreson's mouth of a native informant. (Richard Wright's helpfully named Native Son would be a later example of such critical reception.) And it's true that Joyce and Cummings, like Flaubert and Ibsen, were to varying extents out for revenge.

They were not, however, out for nothingness, and desperate though their circumstances might be, their works were above all else lively: liveliness was their chief defense. Flaubert and Ibsen had violently and despairingly alternated between Romantic/Naturalist inflationary/deflationary antitheses; learning from their examples, Joyce achieved a bizarrely cheering synthesis, and reconstructed the incarnate spirituality of the Church as inspirited carnality.

As for Barbellion, titling his posthumous-to-be collection Enjoying Life exhibited a sense of humor, but not sarcasm. He did "enjoy life," and dutifully recording his own disgust, pain, and hopelessness was another method of enjoyment.

* * *

Most particularly they were drawn to a certain technique whereby enforced isolation, quotidian (if not downright disgusting) realism, and defiant vibrancy might merge.

Barbellion on Joyce's Portrait: "He gives the flow of the boy's consciousness rather the trickle of one thing after another.... It is difficult to do. I've tried it in this Journal and failed."

Deliberate production of personality-tinted-or-tainted discourse is at least as old as classical rhetoric. "Stream of consciousness" is only its most recent technique, and in a way the most limited.

As Barbellion noticed, it's also misnamed. What we're given isn't a stream, or even consciousness, and definitely not silently meditative abstraction staring into an abyss of unframed dust-free mirror, but an inner monologue. Where William James wanted to stress continuity, a linear voice is forced to present one damned blessed word after another. Memories can't be conveyed without hints of obsession; nonverbal perceptions can't be conveyed without a hint of focus.

Most of all, an inner monologue can only take place in solitude, when the only thing hopping is our antsy brain. Like poetry, it makes nothing happen. Engaging in dialogue with company or trying to learn a novel practice or becoming absorbed in almost anything other than our unlovely self forces (and allows) us to drop the burden of our inner chatter. That doesn't mean our book has to stop: although the only time you talk to yourself is while you're not talking to anyone else, the only time you reveal yourself is always. When the "stream" is interrupted, we can simply flip to free indirect discourse (personality-tinctured third-person-limited) or drama (a report of direct speech) or narrative with a heavy tincture of narrator (that tried-and-true device common to Swift's satires, nineteenth-century dialect comedy, and the "Nausicaa" and "Eumaeus" episodes of Ulysses).

And so a journal or diary is one natural home for inner monologue. Similarly, Ulysses's "stream of consciousness" form is as one with Ulysses's content: the worst day of Stephen's and Bloom's lives to that point. The two male leads are physically or emotionally isolated throughout June 16, 1904, and we're kept away from Molly until she's awake alone in bed.

But given that narrative limitation, the inner monologue has a peculiar strength: it makes nothing happen. In the midst of sweet-fuck-all it spills a past, a present, alertness, misunderstandings, hopes, vexations, half-quotes, dumb jokes, old clothes, an embedded life dragging a world and culture along in its rat's-nest-tangle.

In either fiction or journal, no matter how dismal the life might objectively appear (if there were anything objective about it), it exhibits a liveliness worth living.

. . .

Our Motto

But I never forgot the look of astonishment and bewilderment on the young woman's face when I had finished reading and glanced at her. Her inability to grasp what I had done or was trying to do somehow gratified me. Afterwards whenever I thought of her reaction I smiled happily for some unaccountable reason.
- Black Boy by Richard Wright

. . .

Kakania '70

In the 1970s everybody hated the 1970s. Even people whose careers peaked in the Seventies hated the Seventies. The music, ugh, why didn't someone pull the plug in '67?, and it was the musicians asking that. Movies were grimy and ended badly, even the comedies ended badly; the stars had pores and scars, their abs looked like bellies, they lumbered around like animals. We knew our clothes were unflattering, we were bony or pudgy with or without them, and sex included pubic hair. No matter our age we were all cynical: we all knew this corrupt and cowardly world couldn't last and didn't deserve to, and we wouldn't get anything better because everyone sucked. Governments didn't know what they were doing, unions didn't know what they were doing, revolutionaries didn't know what they were doing, and I sure as shit didn't know what I was doing.

"And such small portions!"

The agents of change weren't hidden Thatcher, Reagan, AIDS, nothing subtle there but it took a few years to collect whatever wits and bearings were left underfoot, and fully understand that yes, things would never be that not-as-bad again, and that precisely what I'd loved most in those despicable years, and loved even in their ever-curdling promises, was their precarity. In '74 Swamp Dogg prophesied that God Ain't Blessing America Until It Gets Its Shit Up Tight, and indeed a loose conglomeration of disputatious groups proved no match for a tight-fisted bundle of platinum logs. God's blessings were reserved for that platinum class and the fasces weren't capable of building anything better, but building something better wasn't the point. The point was winning.

It was during that long epilogue that I first began reading Robert Musil in translation and with delight, and later Joseph Roth, and other accounts of the ever-fraying, ever-compromised Austro-Hungarian sprawl, and I guess I wasn't the only one:

Google ngrams for English mentions of Musil and Roth

The Viennese must have a way to express "Nostalgia for a decade we loathed." O Jonathan Franzen, reveal to us now that word known by Karl Kraus or go home!

. . .

So much lost from 1980s New York but I still have to think about this asshole?

Peli Grietzer put a question to the Twitter floor:

There is no fact of the matter about whether Trump really believes the election was stolen, right? It's some kind of category error to describe him in those terms at all?

Since that seems to me an underdiscussed aspect of our dear Queen's ascent, I succumbed:

Yes, "belief" in the sense of "truth-valued proposition" doesn't fit. He only recognizes performative speech acts. Every impulse, no matter how contradictory, is "right" and anything that thwarts it must be motivated by "wrong."

"Willfully blind faith" comes closer: an evangelical fundamentalist of self. Burdened by a purportedly static gospel-or-whatever-the-market-will-bear, the religious fundamentalist can face accusations of hypocrisy. (Generally charges are dropped once the accused claims a fresh rinse-and-wax by Jesus; still, what a nuisance.) The Trumpian can instead tailor his impulse to context, can at most be accused of lying, and can always deny the accusation sincerely.

That sincerity is key to the sociopath's success. We're predisposed to take certainty as admissible evidence, and social and cultural development depends on an occasional performative delusion: "I am a hunter," "I am a poet," "I can make Americans' lives better," or, as blushing badge of sanity, "I feel like a fraud." A good sociopath will ignore questions of scale or consequence, and exploit any ambiguity.

The extremes are plain enough, though, to anyone willing to forsake the contact high.

* * *

Speaking of the Great White Weight, whoever or whatever still shambles toward Broadway has a treat in store....

In Production: Pal Ubu!

Introducing Miss Betty Hutton as "Ma":

He says Merdre, he says,
    Kicking off the farce.
He says Merdre, he says,
    Talking out his arse.
He says Merdre, he says.
Is that the language of state?

(Tip o'the toilet-lid to that host with the mostest coastes, the pride of Essex and joy to the world, David Collard.)

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .