Pow-Wow Centennial, Philadelphia, 1926
. . .

The Birth and Death of a Critic

"If one were to allow a character into life without a ticket, so to speak, if one were to give the bookcase key and the right to knock on existence's door, then that character would be forced during his sojourn among us about this there can be no doubt to devote himself to criticism, and criticism alone. Why? Simply because he of us all is the one most concerned with his own fate, because he must hide his nonexistence, a nonexistence that, you must agree, is more inconvenient even than being of noble birth. And so a creature less real than the ink with which he writes takes up self-criticism in a desperate attempt to prove his alibi with respect to the book: I was never there, he says, I was an artistic failure, the author couldn't make readers believe in me as a type in there, in the book, because I'm not a type and not in the book, rather I, like all of you, dear readers, am out here among you, this side of the bookcase door, and I write books myself, real books, like a real person. True, when the critic is making a fair copy of this tirade, he always changes 'I' to 'we' ('As we wrote in our article' 'We are glad to report'): all this is perfectly natural and explainable a creature with a poor sense of identity had best avoid the first-person singular.... What I'm trying to say," Straight went on excitedly (the critic couldn't get a word in), "is that not all characters turn into critics (if that were to happen, we'd all be done for!). No, the ones who become critics are the ones who deny their author's existence they're the book's atheists."

- from "Someone Else's Theme" by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy,
tr. Joanne Turnbull

The Wind that blows between the worlds, it cut him like a knife,
And Tomlinson took up his tale and spoke of his good in life.
“This I have read in a book,” he said, “and that was told to me,
“And this I have thought that another man thought of a Prince in Muscovy.”
The good souls flocked like homing doves and bade him clear the path,
And Peter twirled the jangling keys in weariness and wrath.
“Ye have read, ye have heard, ye have thought,” he said, “and the tale is yet to run:
“By the worth of the body that once ye had, give answer what ha’ ye done?”
Then Tomlinson looked back and forth, and little good it bore,
For the Darkness stayed at his shoulder-blade and Heaven’s Gate before:—
“O this I have felt, and this I have guessed, and this I have heard men say,
“And this they wrote that another man wrote of a carl in Norroway.”
“Ye have read, ye have felt, ye have guessed, good lack! Ye have hampered Heaven’s Gate;
“There’s little room between the stars in idleness to prate!”
[ ... ]
The Wind that blows between the worlds, it cut him like a knife,
And Tomlinson took up the tale and spoke of his sin in life:—
“Once I ha’ laughed at the power of Love and twice at the grip of the Grave,
“And thrice I ha’ patted my God on the head that men might call me brave.”
The Devil he blew on a brandered soul and set it aside to cool:—
“Do ye think I would waste my good pit-coal on the hide of a brain-sick fool?
“I see no worth in the hobnailed mirth or the jolthead jest ye did
“That I should waken my gentlemen that are sleeping three on a grid.”
Then Tomlinson looked back and forth, and there was little grace,
For Hell-Gate filled the houseless Soul with the Fear of Naked Space.
“Nay, this I ha’ heard,” quo’ Tomlinson, “and this was noised abroad,
“And this I ha’ got from a Belgian book on the word of a dead French lord.”
—“Ye ha’ heard, ye ha’ read, ye ha’ got, good lack! and the tale begins afresh
“Have ye sinned one sin for the pride o’ the eye or the sinful lust of the flesh?”
Then Tomlinson he gripped the bars and yammered, “Let me in
“For I mind that I borrowed my neighbour’s wife to sin the deadly sin.”
The Devil he grinned behind the bars, and banked the fires high:
“Did ye read of that sin in a book?” said he; and Tomlinson said, “Ay!”

- from “Tomlinson” by Rudyard Kipling

. . .

Like if pre-LiveJournal Kate Beaton had been in The New World

I really only enjoy Heidegger when he's being disrupted by a smart woman's goofball improvised commentary.

I kind of suspected that before, but now I really know it.

. . .

Mardi Time-Slip

Yesterday was unsettling. From early start to early finish, I would try to respond to something and after my response was done realize I had responded to something else entirely, some phantom stimulus. It was like enthusiastically greeting a stranger by the wrong name, except all day long. True, at the best of times I digress and disrupt, my relation to words being that of a meager dogwalker to a pack of Great Danes. But this became oppressive.

My life has been stable lately, as lives go. Maybe I'm becoming unable to distinguish events which are, structurally speaking, reoccurrences? Pacing a loop while the world strides towards August?

. . .

Salon of the Living Dead

I'd had a fairly full career as a painter, but I couldn't accept this new stuff. That was the problem. Months would go on, and I couldn't accept it. In the house are hanging some few things I kept, some of these pure abstract things they looked very good. And then in the studio I would do these things, the guys in cars and all that. While I was in the studio, they were done with convictions. That's what I meant. I did them, then I'd come in the house to eat and whatnot, and I'd look at these beautiful things from the past and I'd think, "The hell with that stuff in the studio, that's terrible! I can't really stomach it." I'd get sick, I'd stay up all night. Then I'd run back in the studio, and then the things in the house looked terrible. These three beautiful lines which are so satisfying. So, you can fill between the lines. There was one point in the middle of this stuff, I wanted to roll them all up and hide it, not show it. I mean, you have no idea. They were so worn with pushpin marks. Up would go the pure things. Big sigh of relief. "Whew, I can live there." Come in the next day "I can't stand that, it's got to be dirt." Down they'd come. Up would come the drawing with cars, this stuff, books, shoes, everything, ahh! The only way I could get over that torture, as I was telling Close, was one night, solo drinking, I thought, "There's got to be a solution to this." So, I thought, "Okay, I'm dead. I died." And that idea stuck to me. It started like a playful game, but it became sort of serious. What if I had died? I'm in the history books. What would I paint if I came back?
Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations,
ed. Clark Coolidge

And yes, it's true, they don't look like weekend canvases by Bud Fisher or E. C. Segar. They look like the gifts Bub would carefully, carefully paint for his proud Aunt Alicia.

And since Guston's most passionate and long-lived infatuation was with Piero della Francesca, I'm naturally reminded of the Sansepolcro Resurrection, the most effective religious art I've ever experienced, removing all doubt about the credibility of a slain-and-back-again condemned-and-judging God-and-Human, since the thing's fucking standing right there in front of me. (In my notebook in 1994 I added, "Eyes that go both ways. Him and Elvis look good in pink.")

For us non-deities, though, death puts a real strain on relationships.

And of course my very old and dear friend, Morty Feldman, I'd been telling him about this stuff when I'd come into New York, but he didn't want to come up to see it. Then finally he came up, and he was, I think, pretty upset. So, you lose friends. But I think Baudelaire said, "Second to the pleasure of surprising yourself is the aristocratic pleasure of surprising your friends." And I think I wanted my close friend Feldman to say, "You mean that's you?" He was close to my work for twenty years. And I wanted to feel as if I was saying to him, "You think you know me? You don't know me." It's curious.

. . .

Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word polysyndeton

We were talking last night, as one does, about the most horrifying unintended consequence of the web, to wit that "Beckett" has become a favorite name-drop of the kitten-dangling-from-a-wire motivational set, and we were talking tonight, as one does, about The Tenant, and as one and one does we put two and two together: what Beckett meant by "fail better" was the same thing meant by Trelkovsky when he threw himself out the window, didn't quite die, crawled back into the building, crawled up the stairs, crawled into his apartment, and threw himself out the window again.

. . .

The critic as necrophile

I performed legal services for the Institute for Social Research. At first I was a lawyer and wrote stories. Only afterwards did I concern myself with film. Horkheimer and Adorno did not take me seriously as an author. They said, "He is a first-rate lawyer, we like him and are friendly with him, but he just should not make films, and in no event should he write any stories." After Marcel Proust, one can no longer write stories any more. That was Adorno's opinion. He sent me to Fritz Lang in order to protect me from something worse, so that I wouldn't get the idea to write any books. If I were turned away, then I would ultimately do something more valuable, which was to continue to be legal counsel to the Institute for Social Research.... I handled their reparations claims, among other matters....

For his mother nothing was enough for him, and she protected him from his father's cheapness. Adorno became a very sensitive man who knew music but couldn't ride alone on a streetcar. He led the impractical life of a very protected child.... When he was waiting for a streetcar, he changed into Franz Kafka and believed that it would never come. His wife always had to drive him around. It was, among other things, because he had to travel, first in England and then later in the United States, that he got married.

... he had no knowledge of the production sphere. He did not deal with it. He was interested in what Marcel Proust did, with what music did. He never really saw a factory, and that is why he sees society as a factory. That is why I never believed Adorno's theories of film. He only knew Hollywood films. He went with Fritz Lang, Brecht, and Eisler together as friends to Hollywood. They offered scripts nobody wanted. Fritz Lang made Hangmen Also Die. He did not need Adorno for such a film.

- "On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere:
An Interview with Alexander Kluge
by Stuart Liebman, October 46 (1988) (via Mubi)

There are two sides stretching from the frozen moment, two fears guttering our desire for the immobile:

The fear of loss, the hoarder's fear that the beloved will be wrested from us before we're done. And by choice we only desire what we can never be done with; anything less would be, what should we call it, a waste of time.

And the horror of process, that the Queen of Brobdingnag eats and Celia shits, that sausages are made even if one isn't completely sure how, that toys don't spring ex nihilo from Mother Christmas's hands.

(I suppose his injunction against new poetry is more quoted than his injunction against new fiction because fewer people want to read new poetry.)


George Clinton kindly writes from 1978:

Lunchmeataphobia: The fear of being eaten by a sandwich.

Josh Lukin kindly writes more recently:

Incidentally, I long associated noticing and critiquing the Horror of Process with radical arguments (Marxist, feminist, Tory, Raydavisian); but now the Oxford Internet Institute has set me straight.

Yorick Wilks, ladies & gents, and who sez they don't make Tories like they used to?

. . .

Hoist with my own rope-a-dope

You know, I saw that fight on TV when I was a teenager, and in my teenage eyes Ali was definitely losing. Then he got lucky. Then he got interviewed. And if you're a clever guy you can explain getting lucky more easily than you can invent a way to win.

That's what you call a life lesson.

. . .

Four Freedoms by John Crowley

Historical fiction with no magical props (and no lack of unlikelihood). Like Buster Keaton entering the Civil War, like Abbott & Costello meeting Frankenstein, the John Crowley Novel transplants to a new setting and thrives.

There's a feckless horndog protagonist, of course, under the entirely characteristic name of Prosper Olander, but here his fecklessness carries an objective correlative: crippled legs in a world without ramps or lifts. The home front compensates him with the sexual access American heterosexuals later came to associate with college, and Prosper may be the least embittered disabled hero ever to visit high-mainstream fiction.

Four Freedoms is a rare bird, a war-industry pastoral, and the task of raising Arcadia from the dry and Dry state of Oklahoma lies far beyond the means of a John Crowley Hero. Playing Prospero is an airplane manufacturer who combines the benign shrewdness of George Arliss, the bulk of Eugene Pallette, and the ideals of Charles Fourier. (I suppose it reflects the prejudices of my own notoriously not-so-great generation that I find this throwback more acceptable than the Superhippie who killed Ægypt's buzz.)

And to end all, an All-American Tempest.... The John Crowley Novel intends (and this time achieves) the effect produced in some by Shakespeare's romances, the effect Pericles had on Louis Zukofsky and The Winter's Tale had on Eric Rohmer. (I'm left untouched by both plays, but not by Rohmer and not by Crowley.) A comic cast in a tragic set-up with a comic resolution, unpleasantries drowned in mellow amber, a happy ending from a lost world. Opened, close, closer, and closed.


Addendum for Joyceans: the fabulous company town is named "Henryville".

The other romance (implicitly stated) that is a huge influence on Crowley: Orlando. It's helpful to me to think of Crowley as an author of "romances" in general, because it's a framework in which he can have emotion be trumped by "magic" in one form or another, a theme which seems universal across his work.

. . .

The White Sister (1923)

Religious dramas mix the formulas of Gaslight thriller and comedy of remarriage: after a feature's-worth of torment, the victims kiss the rod. (By extension so does the audience, as well we should given the added pleasure of our God's eye view. How can God be everywhere at once? Montage, baby, montage!) Entertainment value is determined largely by attractive victims and arbitrary protraction of the torture, and The White Sister delivers large value. Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman are at peak gorgeousness; gorgeously photographed catastrophes tumble upon them in gorgeous sets and locations at preposterous length.

Most, though, I sing praise of God's chief instrument, dark sister Gail Kane. Kane packed a full Hollywood career into the silent era; this was her next-to-last role, and she's not fucking around. An Eve Arden type condemned to high-gloss melodrama, she steals scenes with thin smiles, thin disapproval, and a wardrobe of outfits tailored for lurking. In an ultimate act of villainy, her extended grimy death relegates the hero to a throwaway. Gail Kane, brothers and sisters, the evilest woman in silent cinema!

. . .

That fellow in the movies, what's his name

Two of Ralph Bellamy's dozen 1933 credits:

Headline Shooter (1933)

A Lee Tracy vehicle with William Gargan pushed unconvincingly behind the wheel. It runs fast and loose regardless, and Frances Dee exhibits a memorably feral enthusiasm for tabloid scoops. But what really makes this INTERESTING? is the debut of what we would come to know as the Ralph Bellamy Character, anticipating the triangle (and a pivotal dialog line) of His Girl Friday, although this initial incarnation poses a more credible threat than poor Bruce Baldwin would: competent, brave, strong, generous, and articulate; completely at one with his community; incapable of distinguishing mores from morality in short, the sort of pillar-o'-society who'd cover up lynchings, vote for segregationists, and decry outside agitators. Watching him flop provides unalloyed pleasure.

(For a neatly contrasting role in an even better newsroom melodrama from 1933, see Picture Snatcher.)

The Narrow Corner (1933)

One of the sleazy-tropical-exile pictures which lost their reason for being after the Code came down. Structurally incoherent and ambitiously talkative (one outlaw translates the Lusiads; another informs the hero that "Life is short, nature is hostile, and humans are ridiculous"), its most remarkable aspect appears when Douglas Fairbanks Jr. rises naked from the sea and finds recently naked Patricia Ellis completely at ease with his nakedness, upon which hunky Dane Ralph Bellamy enters and strips down. Soon the two lads are comparing muscles, wrestling, and making a home and gymnasium together. Through the miracle of bash-it-out studio production, the scum-of-the-earth premise has somehow blended into a Tahitian promise of innocent promiscuity and thence into a Guy-Davenport-ish bisexual utopia.

The tragic or is it happy or what ending makes no sense given what came before it, but we were prepared for that given what came before it.

. . .

Ba-lue Mun-deii Ba-lues-Are : Four Pacifists

"United Nations Air Men"
Charlie & His Orchestra, 1943
Let's go bombing.
Oh, let's go bombing
Like United Nations airmen do.
In the night when peaceful citizens are sleeping,
Far from any AA gunfire we are keeping.

Let's go shelling
Where they're dwelling.
Let's shell churches, women, children, too.

Let us go to it.
Oh, let's do it.
Let's bomb neutrals, too.
Let's go bombing,
It's becoming
Quite the thing to do.

I went out of town on business some years ago. After one of the business meetings, I went to a business dinner.

A fellow diner talked about movies. He listed his favorites. It was a long list, all but one made after 1975.

The exception was Sergeant York.

He warned us that it was old and black and white, and so the acting was terrible and the special effects were terrible. But the story was great.

It's about this guy from the country, very simple and religious. He was a great shot but he was still a conscientious objector. But they finally convince him to join up and all he has to do is defend himself.

But then a bunch of Germans attack his squadron. So to save his buddies he has to go out and he captures a hundred enemy single-handed.

True story. True story.

* * *

A few weeks before, on another trip, I had heard another story.

In the last years of the Vietnam draft, a young college graduate chose the Air Force over the Marines. Instead of rising above the times, he was placed at their foundation, in one of the underground missile launch control centers which assured mutual destruction.

Maintaining a state of constant abstract readiness is a tough job, even in an air conditioned office with comfortable chairs. Drills were frequent. An urgent message would arrive. Then a long list of urgent procedures would be checked off, or almost off, since they were always interrupted well before the end.

Once while off duty, this young man phoned the center to shoot the breeze with a buddy, but was brusquely cut off.

Later, his buddy told him that Brezhnev had launched a couple of ICBMs without bothering to warn anyone. The crew had been two procedures away from completing the response sequence when it finally became apparent that the missiles would stay within Soviet territory.

Not long afterwards, when the Pope revised his earlier position and indicated that all-out nuclear defense would probably have to be considered a genocidal sin, the young man decided he couldn't continue in his job.

He received an honorable discharge on condition that he never publicize its cause.

Don't let's be beastly to the Germans
When our victory is ultimately won.
It was just those nasty Nazis who persuaded them to fight,
And their Beethoven and Bach are really far worse than their bite.
Let's be meek to them
And turn the other cheek to them
And try to bring out their latent sense of fun.
Let's give them full air parity
And treat the rats with charity,
But don't let's be beastly to the Hun.

We must be kind, and with an open mind
We must endeavor to find a way
To let the Germans know that when the war is over
They are not the ones who have to pay.
We must be sweet
And tactful and discreet,
And when they've suffered defeat we mustn't let them feel upset
Or ever get the feeling that we're cross with them or hate them.
Our future policy must be to reinstate them.

Don't let's be beastly to the Germans
When we've definitely got them on the run.
Let us treat them very kindly, as we would a valued friend.
We might send them out some bishops as a form of Lease and Lend.
Let's be sweet to them
And day by day repeat to them
That sterilization simply isn't done.
Let's help the dirty swine again
To occupy the Rhine again
But don't let's be beastly to the Hun.

We must be just and win their love and trust,
And in addition we must be wise
And ask the conquered lands to join our hands to aid them.
That would be a wonderful surprise!
For many years they've been in floods of tears
Because the poor little dears
Have been so wronged and only longed
To cheat the world, deplete the world, and beat the world to blazes.
This is the moment when we ought to sing their praises.

Don't let's be beastly to the Germans,
For you can't deprive a gangster of his gun.
Though they've been a little naughty to the Czechs and Poles and Dutch,
I can't believe those countries really minded very much.
Let's be free with them
And share the BBC with them.
We mustn't prevent them basking in the sun.
Let's soften their defeat again
And build their blasted fleet again,
But don't let's be beastly to the Hun.

Don't let's be beastly to the Germans
When the age of peace and plenty has begun.
We must send them steel and oil and coal and everything they need,
For their peaceable intentions can be always guaranteed.
Let's employ with them
A sort of Strength Through Joy with them.
They're better than us at honest manly fun.
Let's let them feel as swell again
And bomb us all to hell again,
But don't let's be beastly to the Huns.

. . .
Claire Dodd outfits Richard Barthlemess

Massacre (1934)

Nine years after the mopish Vanishing American and thirty-five years before the mopish Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here came the fast, crass, violent, and distinctly undefeated Massacre.

We figured we were in for something special when the slinky rich gal head-dressed Richard Barthelmess from her folk-art collection to prep for a savaging. We were certain of it when we saw Arthur Hohl cast as a doctor. Massacre was obviously made in the wake of Warner Brothers' other New Deal issue pictures, but this particular issue's long cold storage makes it feel more like a New World gem circa 1973.

Admittedly, 1973 wouldn't have stood for the reassuring ending. But nowadays the idea that the federal government might apply virtuous force against regional corruption counts as thrillingly subversive, so that didn't bother me much. And in fact the Roosevelt administration was in the process of intervening with less blatantly evil motives than earlier interventions. And besides, it could have been worse; the always hateful Hal B. Wallis had suggested, "Don't you think this would be just as good a story if we change the Indians to Jews and laid it in the Ghetto instead of an Indian reservation?"

More troubling than the happy resolution is Massacre's reassurance that the program of respecting human dignity doesn't extend to comic negroes. Again, though, I guess it could be worse. At least Barthelmess's idiot servant is played by Clarence Muse rather than Willie Best. And if anything the hypocrisy adds sting to Muse's remark on entering the reservation: "White folks sho' didn't give Indians much of a break."

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