First of the Month A website of the radical imagination. 2014-06-05T16:55:24-05:00 Democracy Now This Sunday the New York Times Book Review will publish Michael Kinsley’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place To Hide. The review has been available on line since May 22nd, where it immediately provoked confidently scornful replies—“rebuttals” doesn’t really capture the intellectual content of this genre—from a number of people, many of them journalists, along with a striking amount of vitriol. Nothing much new here, except that one of the first responders was Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ Public Editor, who commented on Kinsley’s review on May 27th, i.e. almost two weeks before the Book Review would publish Kinsley. Pretty remarkably, Sullivan strongly implied that the Times should not have published Kinsley:

...the review, which was not only negative about the book but also expressed a belief that many journalists find appalling: that news organizations should simply defer to the government when it comes to deciding what the public has a right to know about its secret activities. I asked the Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, why Mr. Kinsley was chosen to review the book…Here’s my take: Book reviews are opinion pieces and—thanks to the principles of the First Amendment—Mr. Kinsley is certainly entitled to freely air his views. But there’s a lot about this piece that is unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards, the sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald, for example; he is called a “go-between” instead of a journalist and is described as a “self-righteous sourpuss"...But worse, Mr. Kinsley’s central argument ignores important tenets of American governance. There clearly is a special role for the press in America’s democracy; the Founders explicitly intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government, and the United States courts have consistently backed up that role. It’s wrong to deny that role, and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand. Mr. Kinsley’s argument is particularly strange to see advanced in the paper that heroically published the Pentagon Papers, and many of the Snowden revelations as well. What if his views were taken to their logical conclusion? Picture Daniel Ellsberg and perhaps the Times reporter Neil Sheehan in jail; and think of all that Americans would still be in the dark about—from the C.I.A.’s black sites to the abuses of the Vietnam War to the conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the widespread spying on ordinary Americans.

Yes, as Ms. Paul rightly noted to me, it’s true that a book review is not an editorial, and the two shouldn’t be confused. And she told me that she doesn’t believe that editing should ever change a reviewer’s point of view. But surely editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument, remove ad hominem language and question unfair characterizations; that didn’t happen here.

A Times review ought to be a fair, accurate and well-argued consideration of the merits of a book. Mr. Kinsley’s piece didn’t meet that bar.

These assertions deserve a bit of scrutiny. First, Kinsley does not say that “that news organizations should simply defer to the government when it comes to deciding what the public has a right to know about its secret activities.” He seems to think that there is little that is simple about this question, and says rather that “that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.”

I can find few if any gaping holes in this part of Kinsley’s argument, or in any other. As for this part, the courts have not consistently backed up anything like the role Greenwald, Sullivan and a number of other journalists make for the press’s privileges, which on their account (as Kinsley notes) includes a right to publish any government secret without any legal reprisal. On this remarkable claim, the laws allowing the government to classify information can be safely ignored on every occasion by every reporter, although laws constrain the rest of us, most notably the executive branch—Greenwald is sure that President Obama should be held accountable for breaking the law. But no right to publish without any possible legal consequences does not mean that the press must simply defer: when it thinks something outrageous has happened, it can always choose to break the law and trust to juries, courts and, in the longer run, Congress. The courts did all right in the case of the Pentagon Papers, a jury did all right in the case of Zenger, and did it in a culture much less committed to liberty of discussion than our current culture clearly is, and Congress does not seem too happy about the recent activities of the NSA.

So there may be a special role for the press in American democracy, one envisioned by the Founders, but the contours of that role are unclear and its nature has been regularly disputed. The fact that some of the Founders envisioned something is not always the decisive point, for as it happens the Founders also envisioned a special role for slave owners, gun owners and white male citizens, and Jefferson, among others, envisioned libel laws that would make Ms. Sullivan’s hair stand on end. The Founders also envisioned a special role for the Federal government—they thought some branches of it had the right, within certain limits, to make, and others, to enforce our laws. One of more obvious distinctions between journalists and the government is that we’ve elected the government, and can throw the rascals out, whereas freedom of the press belongs, as A.J. Liebling observed and Greenwald seems to agree, to the man who owns one. The press, when it has appealed to the courts on these and related points, has won some and lost some, but the Greenwaldian-Sullivanian elements within the press sometimes seems strangely forgetful of the cases the press has lost, and weirdly forgetful of the unique legitimacy possessed by an elected government.

Also, can it possibly be true that Greenwald, or any other journalist, is the one who gets to decide what can be printed in the United States? What if a reporter published the names of American agents inside Iran, or within a foreign or domestic terrorist group, or within a foreign and hostile government? As it happens, some fairly recent leaks are said to have revealed some such names, or at least made their discovery possible. It seems absurd to claim that reporters can do this with impunity. If the reader thinks that our recent wars have been so unjust that anyone aiding us deserves whatever happens to her—and such claims were made about such leaks—what if an early-‘60s Mississippi segregationist newspaper had revealed the names of informers within the Klan, which had been leaked by an FBI sympathizer? What if those informers had then been murdered? On Greenwaldian-Sullivanian theory the FBI man might be guilty of a crime, but the paper publishing the names could not have been lawfully constrained, and a reporter who refused to identify the FBI source could not be held in contempt. As it happens, the Supreme Court suggested the fatuity of claims to that last “right” just yesterday.

The absence of so extravagant a view of reportorial privilege does not mean that there aren't some government secrets we ought to hope are leaked, along with some we ought to dread seeing revealed. Two anecdotes with opposite lessons are instructive, and both involve the same man. Here is Wikipedia’s account of a famous leak:

In the Pacific, Japanese depth charge attacks initially proved fairly unsuccessful against U.S. and British submarines. Unless caught in shallow water, a submarine could dive below the Japanese depth charge attack.

The deficiencies of Japanese depth-charge tactics were revealed in a press conference held by U.S. Congressman Andrew J. May, a member of the House Military Affairs Committee who had visited the Pacific theater and received many intelligence and operational briefings. Incredibly, May mentioned the highly sensitive fact that American submarines had a high survivability rate because Japanese depth charges were fuzed to explode at too shallow a depth.

Various press associations sent this leaked news story over their wires, compounding the danger, and many newspapers (including one in Honolulu, Hawaii) published it. Soon, Japanese forces were resetting their depth charges to explode at a more effective average depth of 75 m (250 feet), to the detriment of American submariners. Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, commander of the U.S. submarine fleet in the Pacific, later estimated that May's revelation cost the United States Navy as many as ten submarines and 800 seamen killed in action.[16]

While I have seen revisionist arguments claiming that the Japanese decision to reset their depth charges was not a direct response to the accounts idiotically published in the American press, there is no reason to assume that the conventional wisdom had to be wrong—after all, some foreign governments famously read as many of their enemies’ newspapers as they can get their hands on. In this case, there was no bad intention, but there may have been a catastrophic effect. Had the newspapers known that this information was classified, should the government really have no power to punish its publication?

Lockwood was the hero of another case, one in which there was no leak. Again, an excerpt from an admirable Wikipedia account:

The Mark 14 was central to the torpedo scandal of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Submarine Force during World War II. Due to inadequate Depression-era peacetime testing of both the torpedo and its exploder, the defects tended to mask each other...These defects, in the course of fully twenty months of war, were exposed, as torpedo after torpedo either missed, prematurely exploded, or struck targets (sometimes with an audible clang) and failed to explode.

Responsibility lies with the BuOrd, which specified an unrealistically rigid magnetic exploder sensitivity setting and oversaw the feeble testing program. Additional responsibility must be assigned to the United States Congress...Against orders, some submariners disabled the magnetic influence feature of the Mark VI exploder, suspecting it was fault...newly minted Rear Admiral[41] Lockwood ordered a historic net test...on 20 June 1942.[42] Eight hundred torpedoes had already been fired in combat…After twenty-one months of war, the three major defects of the Mark 14 torpedo had at last been isolated. ...Each defect had been discovered and fixed in the field—always over the stubborn opposition of the Bureau of Ordnance."[43]

Suppose that someone—Admiral Lockwood or one of the other naval officers who had realized what was wrong—had leaked the superabundant evidence to a newspaper? Suppose that such a leak was published promptly—for example, on Christmas Day of 1941, one day after one Commander Tyrell D. Jacobs of Sargo had a sufficiently wretched experience to suspect that something was very wrong indeed (and within a few days, and more bitter experience, was sure of it). A leak would very likely have cut short BuOrd’s refusal to address the disastrous problems with American torpedoes, in which case we can be pretty confident that many fewer people would have died in the Pacific theater of the Second World War.

So clearly we want some leaks to happen, and do not want others to happen. Who should decide? The Greenwaldian-Sullivanian theory is wonderfully clear: reporters should decide. But as the case of the depth charges make clears, the judgment of the reporters is no more infallible than the judgment of the government, as was displayed in the case of the torpedoes. The two cases both involved risks to American lives and security, just as recent leaks, and as yet unknown regrettable non-leaks, may both have posed. Sullivan, Greenwald et al. think it is very simple. Kinsley thinks it isn’t, which is usually the safer bet, but that in the last analysis elected governments get to decide on the law, while reporters get to decide whether to take their chances with a jury of their fellow citizens. This ought to be uncontroversial, but has in fact provoked not so much a controversy as an amazing campaign of vilification against Kinsley, George Packer and anyone else who doubts the absolute wisdom of Greenwald and Snowden. The Greenwaldians, who have managed to persuade a Times editor to announce that her paper behaved very badly in even publishing Kinsley, claim that their views face constant oppression and near-total exclusion from the public realm and the pages of the press, although presumably not on those occasions when Greenwald receives a Pulitzer, is offered powerful jobs in new media companies, and wanders freely across the land still in possession of stolen and highly (and in some cases, perhaps, wisely) classified information.

Now, on that dreadful “sneering tone”, which doesn’t in fact exist: Kinsley’s tone is rather genial contempt, with geniality the more striking portion of the mix, given the mixture of intellectual absurdity and venom that marks any effusion from the ubiquitous Greenwald. Kinsley doesn’t actually term Greenwald a self-righteous sourpuss, he rather notes that “Maybe he’s charming and generous in real life. But in No Place to Hide, Greenwald seems like a self-righteous sourpuss...” Now if Greenwald isn’t self-righteous, the word has no meaning. As for “sourpuss”, widely mischaracterized as outrageously ad hominem, it is surely mere meiosis, the trope of understatement. Where another critic might describe Greenwald as say, a preening colostomy bag, Kinsley achieves his desired effect by writing the rhetorical equivalent of “Caligula was a naughty fellow”. “Sourpuss” is rhetoric, and rhetoric of a controlled, mild and very effective kind. It has not, alas, set the rhetorical tone for what has followed.

nation Fredric Smoler 2014-06-05T16:55:24-05:00
"Family Properties" (& Buying the Farm) The NBA playoffs—from the high drama of the early series to divine low-downs of Charles Barkley—show what happens when African Americans get to compete on equal terms. But the sweetness of their play shouldn't be an excuse for the treacle of that State Farm ad set in the 1920s(?) where Chris Paul’s proprietorial “twin” pitches an umbrella to rain-pure white businessmen in bowler hats. Corporate America has long been locked on fantasies of blacks and whites hanging tight (and slipping the wealth gap, the reality of re-segregation of schools/housing etc.). Such images represent a kind of progress—we’ve moved on from eras when black folks were whited out or spat on in American media. But that State Farm ad’s aspirational upside costs too much. It's not just a bit of wishful fluff about our time; it’s a li'l Big Lie about a past that's not past. At a moment when wind done gone out of soft takes on slavery days, the ad reminds you Americans still tend to be clueless about the centrality of white supremacy in the last American century.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ case for reparations in The Atlantic is a gift to anyone willing to consider lessons of that century before TV and advertising erase them completely. Coates underscores the consequences of affirmative action for white people in the post-New Deal era. His argument is all about racist continuities in American history but I’m guessing he knows the news that will stay news in his piece are revelations of more recent crimes against African Americans committed by a private/public partnership of white real estate speculators and government officials. Citations for slavery, Jim Crow, and separate but equal get larger fonts on the The Atlantic’s cover than the tagline: “35 Years of state-sanctioned redlining,” but that’s where the fire is this time.

Coates has done his own “intellectual autopsy” of his piece at his blog. And over the years he’s been working on it, he’s provided the “horde” who read him with numberless links to works by historians and sociologists whose shoulders he’s standing on. I’ve been struck, lately, by his steer to a graph in a book by an NYU prof that indicates black families earning 100K a year are more likely to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods (with “concentrated poverty”) than white families making 30K a year. And then there was that link a couple weeks ago to an article on George Romney’s honorable failure to get the Nixon Administration to promote open housing. Coates’ most galvanizing find (by far), though, was Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America. (Coates cites Satter’s work in his piece, and her Chicago trip informs his reporting from that city.) Satter’s amazing book gets to the root of Chicago’s slums and the ruin of urban neighborhoods throughout the country. She explains that devastation was/is due not to “white flight” or a black “culture of poverty” but to a widespread system of legal and financial exploitation. That system was founded on redlining—the refusal to loan money to people in neighborhoods with anything more than a sprinkling of black people. It’s important to underscore, as Satter and Coates do, redlining was not just a matter of business lore or unspoken prejudice. It was Federal policy. At a time when the Federal Housing Administration (created in 1934) was enabling masses of white Americans to buy homes that provided a basis for post-Depression financial security, it was trashing hopes of black people like the couple who came to Satter’s lawyer-father back in 1957...

Albert and Sallie Bolton...were being evicted from their home and they wanted him to delay the proceedings. My father agreed to look into the matter. He asked what they had paid for their property. When they told him, he was astounded. They had paid the enormous sum of $13,900 for a cramped, one-hundred-year-old wood-frame house…[T]he white real estate agent, Jay Goran, who had sold the cottage to the Boltons in the fall of 1955, had himself purchased the building only the week before—for $4,300. Clearly my father’s clients had been given a raw deal. But the scam went deeper than that. Goran never told the Boltons that he was the building’s owner. He convinced them to make their down payment and to sign some complicated documents that stipulated that the building would remain the legal property of its current owner until they had entirely paid off the property’s cost, plus 6 percent interest, through high monthly installments. The contract they signed left the Boltons in a horribly vulnerable position.

Due to redlining, the Boltons couldn’t do what most whites would have done: “obtain a mortgage loan and use it to pay for their property in full...”

Their only option was to buy “on contract.”...If the contract seller happened to be a speculator who charged a wildly inflated price for the building, then a missed payment—and subsequent quick eviction and resale for profit—was practically guaranteed.

This is what happened to the Boltons. After a year of prompt payments, they had missed one installment and were now threatened with the loss of their entire investment—the down payment, plus all that they’d paid in monthly contract payments, and for repairs, insurance, interest and maintenance. And they were not the only ones. My father found that the speculator who sold the Boltons their home had recently filed repossession claims on over twenty properties. Another speculator working nearby had filed for sixty-nine repossessions in 1956 and an additional fifty-nine repossessions in the first half of 1957. And these were only two of at least a dozen major operators pursuing similar activities.

By the 1950s, contract selling was common in many American cities where the black population had skyrocketed as a result of post-World War II migration from the South. In Chicago, my father estimated that 85 percent of the properties purchased by blacks were sold on contract. He calculated that by selling buildings to housing-starved African Americans on such exploitative terms, speculators were robbing Chicago’s black population of one million dollars a day.

I’m sure that line from back in the day helped impel Coates to revisit the case for reparations.

The Chicago cabal that Satter's father took on did more than enrich themselves and rip off individuals and families:

[T]heir harsh terms and inflated prices destroyed whole communities. Because black contract buyers knew how easily they could lose their homes, they struggled to make inflated monthly payments. Husbands and wives both worked double shifts. They neglected basic maintenance. They subdivided apartments, crammed in extra tenants...Indeed the genius of this system was that it forced black contract buyers to be their own exploiters. As my father explained it, the black contract buyer was forced to “defraud his own people in order feed the hungry mouth of the speculator.”

Satter is fully alive to the currency of her story: “Contract selling was another version of a condition that has victimized African Americans from the sharecropping era to our current subprime mortgage crisis—namely the lack of equal access to credit.”

Family Properties “is so packed with the horrors visited upon black families in Chicago from the 1940s through the 1970s that you will want to walk outside every 15 pages or so and simply scream in outrage” as Dwight Garner wrote in his Times review. But, as Garner realized, Satter’s book is not just a catalogue of evils. It’s a profound work of social analysis, a family memoir, and a civil rights history that’s been called “the most important work yet written on the black freedom struggle in the urban north.” I’m reminded just now too of Coates’ comment that Family Properties was the best book he’d “ever read about the relationship between blacks and Jews.” The complexities of all that are hinted at in an anecdote from the book that Garner may have tip-toed around. As Satter’s father lay dying in a hospital bed—having given his life in struggle against his white professional colleagues who were impoverishing African-Americans—this Jewish attorney’s spirits got a lift when he was celebrated as “The Clarence Darrow of the Bankrupt.” Garner quotes that line of praise, attributing it to a “Chicago newspaper.” He doesn’t mention that paper was the Nation of Islam’s Muhammad Speaks.

In Coates’ account of how he came to write his Atlantic piece, he notes he once assumed the case for reparations was vaguely disreputable—a tale of the Out and Gone that belonged on the margin of intellectual discourse. But, as the proud son of a race man, I bet he’s known what his piece proves somewhere in his head all along: the margin is the center.

nation Benj DeMott 2014-06-05T15:09:02-05:00
Rank Culture toxic.


not a “oh I’m so surprised this toxic thing exists” wtf
but a “we might have to barf forever” wtf

I feel like everything is starting to collapse. And I can’t believe only 4 out of 40 people on this dumb list are women.

OOOOOOHHHHMYGODDDDD YOU GUYS. THE WORLD. Culture is such a complete joke. We’re starting to run out of it because we’re using it up so fast. Remember when people had to paint because they couldn’t take photographs or watch Netflix??

If calculus is part of evolution, is this gross, viral ArtRank algorithm—and my compulsion to spread it—just part of evolution, too? What is the driving value system? The people who will be using this website already have an excess or survival. Seriously, if anyone knows what evolutionary biologists have to say about capitalism, point me to a book.

My initial reaction to ArtRank was one of disgust—An every-day, 2k14 kind of disgust that also gets called forth when I see the ungodly short shorts of teenagers today, which are as discomfiting as they are fascinating when you think about the exact point at which an ass becomes a leg.

It seems every generation finds there’s always more cheek to show, and ArtRank reveals not only one of the big narratives in contemporary art, but also the reality of our economy, and how the relationship between the two gets totally jacked up (or should I say hiked up) with the trend metrics made available by the internet.

ArtRank is a stock ticker for contemporary art. It claims it “identifies prime emerging artists based on qualitatively-weighted metrics including web presence (verified social media counts, inbound links), studio capacity and output, market maker contracts and acquisitions, major collector and museum support, gallery representation and auction results.”

Yeah, you can throw up with me, too. Try to get some in my mouth so I can throw up again.

My first reaction to ArtRank was to its language: how it names abstract quantities with parsable words, while keeping the concrete meaning of such phrases a little out of reach. It is the language of expertise. It is the language of getting money. It is the language of getting pay back the school that taught me those big words.

The way this particular language sounds reminds me so much of art language. Go to any gallery show, any museum show, or any student show, and you will find everyone trying to do the same expert song and dance with their words, speaking and writing with an air of distinction, though the vocabulary comes from the same pulp-intellect generator. You will find what’s said on the page is not what you see happening on the wall. At a time when most artists, art writers, curators, and historians have fallen victim to an alienating mode of art discourse, most of the general population have been taught that this disparity between what they read and what they see is simply the result of being uneducated or “not getting it.” Coupled with the myth of the artist constantly working to “carefully construct,” this is the biggest lie of the art-institutional complex. Everyone is entitled to their own experience of and opinion of art. Everyone can think and talk about art.

But this language issue goes beyond the art world. You find it in artisanal cheese shops in gentrified neighborhoods; in the precise and vague descriptions of craft beer ad campaigns; in pop-up clothing boutiques with “curated seasonal collections” and factory-direct retail websites that boast production with “radical transparency." It’s the language that makes online articles on race, gender, and violence viral one day and forgotten the next.

Just as with the language and concept of ArtRank, our passionate reaction to almost all “content” comes just as quickly as our dismissal of it. Why? Because, (not even that) deep down, we know that 2k14 Content is flat and empty. Content: a noun that once implied something to be found inside now takes its form as an adjective to describe the complacency we have with empty information today.

The rapid flattening of our culture is evidenced in our online-optimized language—in its consistency across industries, its camera-ready tone, its shallowness of meaning, and rapid refresh rate. If the language is the means, what is the end?

1. To make an idea/brand/person/image more popular, as our current currency is hits, clicks, and likes
2. To give the illusion of choice, resistance to the mainstream, and inherent value.

The Language of Today isn’t propaganda, though; for there appears to be no agenda. If there was, that might mean the bulk of the literate population was up for thinking and therefore a viable target for persuasion. But the style of webby expertise doesn’t suggest a need to overcome anyone’s resistance. Rather, it’s simply how we operate today: sophisticated means with blind ends.

That’s the template for ArtRank, which claims to use a powerful algorithm to predict the future of the market. But without much transparency, or a competitor, there’s no difference between ArtRank and a crystal ball. If everyone follows its directives, of course its predictions will be right.

Without knowing how many people use or look at ArtRank, it’s impossible to speculate about its relevancy. ArtRank may just be fodder for me to write about a host of other things–and isn’t that the beauty of this interconnected world? That from even the driest site I can extrapolate so much information about our cultural climate.

ArtRank isn’t lame mainly because it makes a clear connection between money, popularity, and cultural value: those are pre-existing and necessary relationships that ArtRank merely illustrates in their current state of evolution. Art Rank is lame because it’s an ungenerous platform that devalues the work of artists. To any user who takes this website seriously, it says that the value of artworks is purely transactional. Regardless of the quality of work being produced by the hottie hot artists on that hot list, ArtRank sets up a system in which quality doesn’t matter—for better or for worse.

The real disappointment about ArtRank is that it would actually be fun, compelling, and terrifying if it laid bare all of its privileged information in a more dynamic format. Unfortunately, it’s basically a static list of names. I requested membership, but was never approved. Pity, because I have some things I could tell them (but wouldn’t), and therein lies another flaw: the data is not comprehensive.

It’s also depressing to read the horizontal, and presumably successive progression of categories within the emerging artist fish pool, as if those are the only things that happen in the life of a successful artist:

BUY NOW <$10,000;
BUY NOW <$30,000;
BUY NOW <$100,000;
SELL NOW (peaking);

These nodes are what are being presented to new collectors, with considerable amounts of disposable capital, who are looking to become invested in art. Here’s a better set of categories:


What’s most troubling—and messed up—about the idea of ArtRank is the prospect that the lives and careers of artists on its list might be greatly affected by obscure data points. There are no protections for artists: we aren’t unionized, or given million-dollar contracts like NFL players. We aren’t corporations with share-holders (although that might be where the real money is leading to).

If this site’s advice turns out to matter, not only could it precipitate the downturn of an artist’s livelihood and opportunities, but it could also endow certain artists with canonical importance based solely on their number of instagram followers. This would not all be ArtRank’s doing—as it is a truth of the moment—but it will become a problem if museums and other institutions say these same artists matter not because they had a huge social media following—thanks in part to hype on websites such as ArtRank—but for reasons that continue to rehash the same one-dimensional narrative of the Artist.

On its own, I don’t think ArtRank poses a heavy threat. I think it is probably a flash in the pan and will have no lasting impact (at least not until its “anonymous” creators age beyond their mid-20s).

Art, money, and media are deeply intertwined, and there’s neither any denying it, nor anything intrinsically “wrong” with that. Something ugly may come, though, if financiers completely take on the role of historians, without any respect for history, and everyone is too dumb to tell the difference or the truth. If people in powerful positions make decisions based on speculation and hype, without an eye for sustainability or quality control, the art world will render itself even more incestuous, inaccessible and opaque than it is already. Art becomes unhealthy when the sheep follow the sheep following the sheep, into a dizzying spiral of immaterial and impermanent transactional value: a fluff economy.

Let’s just hope that ArtRank is everything I’ve dismissed it as, and nothing that it could be. Let’s hope it is just another page on the Internet. Just another teenager in short shorts in the great, forgettable mass.


culturewatch Lex Brown 2014-06-05T09:33:12-05:00
Star Time Occupational Therapy

I coffee-stain my pages now
learned how in O.T.
crazy maybe but nothing gonna come between
decoupage and me

ceramic fisherman
christmas trees
half of us high on Jesus
the other half on our knees

vance killed himself
before his project was through
I went in with glue and popsicle sticks
to see what I could do

patients assembling and resembling
figures of clay
statutes of policemen
that put us away

vance would've said something funny
were he here today
he got freedom the hard way
some people say

matchstick fortresses
in a house of cards
some of us speechless
some of us barreds

I coffee-stain my pages now
decoupage got nothing on me
I'll never forget the ceramic relationships
I built in O.T.

Thinking About You

got a crush on you
the size of the moon
it'll crush me too
if I don't see you soon (Refrain)

I've counted from 100 backwards
like zero knows what to do
I'll bet someone created the world
just to stop thinking about you

you've opened up a tunnel in me
I've never made it through
I'll bet some genius built New York City
just to stop thinking about you

I'm sort of becoming a puzzle
held together without glue
but even I've considered exercise
just to stop thinking about you

I don't know my history
only what I'm going through
but I'll bet Columbus went looking for America
just to stop thinking about you

Holier Than Thou

sometimes I do things that
make me feel dirty inside
I look up at God and wonder
if I even tried

got a tattoo of a vagina
on my penis
an item I'd like you
to keep between us

the natives know better than to trade it for the Brooklyn Bridge
no one wants a magnet of it clinging to their fridge
I wouldn't mind it so much if I could just move it over a smidge
it's supposed to be all-powerful but I can't stand the privilege

got a tattoo of a driveway on my penis
where I wish you'd come park your car
we could sit out on the hood all night long
making love between the stars

sometimes I imagine things
that make me feel warm inside
got a tattoo of the hole in my credit
and I wonder if I ever even tried

Snow Job

(for Heather McHugh)

I bought another poetry anthology
got about halfway through
then I rushed to the index
cause the only I trusted is you

poetry anthology
hefty tome
lofty in case you've got
low ceilings at home

one wheel drive
twentieth century mud
minds spew all over the place
but I'm still stuck

learned that verse this winter
off the height of a storm
I'd submit it as poetry
but I don't have the form

museum of death
precious words run deep
solitary writers who no longer have any say
in the company they keep

there's no room in this compendium
for the effervescence
it packs more punch per page
than even adolescence

poetry anthology
force-fed tome
ironic in case you've got
things a little too easy at home

another volume of poetry
without any laughs
if you're not gonna brighten my day
just stick with paragraphs

acquired me a century of poetry
made it halfway through
before I ran to the index screaming
'cause the only one I trust is you

Apologies to the Editor (Or, The Ace Up My Sleeve Is Self-Doubt)

I mean no harm toward The 20th Century Anthology of Poetry, edited by Rita Dove. She was a teacher to me and I admire her a lot. I have personal quirks with reading poetry that bear no reflection on this anthology.

The reason I bought it was every time I opened it I came upon Gwendolyn Brooks' poem about the Society Charity Ladies. I looked around a lot for this poem, and the fact it was in this collection resonated with me.

I would venture to say it's one of the most inclusive and honest poetry anthologies I've ever come across. This is a wisely assembled book.

I wrote a rave-up (see above) about the anthology to Heather McHugh, a personal favorite of mine. I wouldn't have done that had she not been in the anthology.

Forgive me for not pointing this out before I sent the rave-up to Ms. McHugh.


Carmelita Estrellita

Carmelita Estrellita 2014-06-04T19:03:42-05:00
Women's Studies Reeva Steenkamp

Cameras adore him —
that chiseled face, all
angle and shadow,
bright with tears. He sobs
about waking from nightmares,
won’t look at the picture
of what used to be my head.
His beauty blazes from each
newspaper and magazine
as they sell his
cripple to hero myth.
Me they confuse with Nicole
Brown, Bonnie Bakley, Natalie Wood.
Only my mother, granite-faced
in the front row, knows
my nickname, my favorite food.
He swears when I went
to bed that night, I felt loved.
Whether the judge buys it or not,
he’ll make the history books. I’m just
the dead girl, forgettable,
common as a shoe.


This is for all the gifted girls
forced to hide
because our power threatens.
Guilty, hidden, numb, so lonely
we’ll try anything —
conceal, don’t feel — the soul-
dulling mantra that promises
a place at the dance.

Let us take off our gloves.
Conjure stairs, then climb them,
making palaces and monsters
rise. Let our secrets sculpt
themselves from ice as weak
men cower and each flagrant note
of Now they know soars
from out open throats.

Let us be cold
as we need to be.
Suss the pretty prince
for what he is.
Whip up storms and skating rinks.
When our sisters stumble,
let us take their hands
and guide them into glide.


A giant spider crouches by the door.
Moans grow louder
in the darkness, one green
glowing finger reaches out. The other mom
and I shriek, recoil from a doll
mummified in toilet paper, red
paint in teacups, plates of river rocks
meant to be bones.
Were you scared? For real? my daughter asks,
giggling with her friend, both girls
paint-smeared and shining, unaware
this morning a politician said
women who earn as much as men
will have trouble finding husbands.
I want to chain them here, safe
among monsters of their own making,
before lipstick and self-loathing and silence.
Above them, a vampire her older brother
built spreads his wings.

Alison Stone 2014-06-04T14:09:43-05:00
Lineages of the Absolutist State ...nil nisi bonum. —The Seven Sages

Got it! Alexander Cockburn died two years ago. And that, one would've thought, was that. But earlier this year, Perry Anderson decided to pick at the scab. His gassy, 19-page elegy for Cockburn ( is, of course, not worth reading; worse, I found it the entry point to the tour of a witless horizon. "With the posthumous publication of A Colossal Wreck, the triptych for which Alexander Cockburn will be remembered is complete," reads the first sentence. It seems unlikely. Cockburn made a career of quick bursts of venom. Even in small doses, his writing was toxic. For Anderson to declare that it is for this that someone will be remembered, or even whether someone will be remembered at all shows that he hasn't learned much from his many years. The "triptych" is a nice touch, though, very much in the tradition of Leonid Brezhnev's Trilogy, which gathered dust in Russian bookstores during the Soviet Union's last years, which Cockburn described as a Golden Age for the Soviet working class. Anderson devotes first few pages to a long appreciation of Claud Cockburn, the noted Stalinist wit and father of Alexander. Alexander was a good family man. But he was, foremost, a writer. Anderson praises him—sounding like a character in a David Lynch movie—for his "incomparable zing." After Cockburn published something, "The response was electric." He writes that "Alexander gave Reagan no mercy, in one blistering entry after another." If Monty Python's Black Knight ever needs a squire, now Cockburn's gone, Perry Anderson's still around. There are pages of blather about the man behind the turgid prose, with loopy phrases like "his debonair swathe" and "his feeling for l’Amérique profonde." In fact, there was one interesting thing about Cockburn. It is possible to find ardent latter-day Stalinists, who affect a style, particularly sartorially, that announces their revolutionary purity. Cockburn captured the authentic 30's manner: the bon vivant revolutionary. Perry Anderson is reliably oblivious. He writes about Cockburn's collection of classic cars, an odd hobby for an arch-radical. For Anderson, it's just more proof of Cockburn's largeness of spirit. He tells us that, "His only close friends in New York were marginal to it: Edward Said, Palestinian in a fastness of Zionism; Andy Kopkind, gay out of New England; Ben Sonnenberg, cripple amid a forest of gyms." Marginal? Said was probably the most celebrated academic in New York and an enormous cultural presence beyond the academy. New York is a magnet for both gay men and people from elsewhere in the country. And gimps are all over New York, if this deucey could be bothered to look. If you asked Perry Anderson what day it is, would he know?

If you asked him what was wrong with Cockburn, he wouldn't know, and wouldn't say. Over 30 years ago, I had my own moment with Cockburn's writing. In 1981, I came across two old Cockburn columns. One was his last column before the 1980 election. He talked about how interesting a Reagan presidency might have been. Jimmy Carter's re-election was a foregone conclusion. He called the election wrong. So did lots of people. But Cockburn's sheer certitude was a thing apart. And being so wrong gave the lie to Cockburn's pose; the truth-teller immune to ideology and bourgeois mystification. Cockburn proved to be some hybrid of David Gergen and an alley cat.

The other column picked up on a statement Brezhnev released in fall of 1979. He announced that he was, in the interest of peace, reducing the number of Soviet troops in East Berlin, and invited NATO to reciprocate. Cockburn applauded the statement and lambasted the American press for failing to trumpet Brezhnev's statement. When, weeks later, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, Cockburn declared that Afghanistan deserved to be raped. From Brezhnev to Milosevic to various Arab bully-boys, Cockburn had a soft spot for tyranny and genocide.

A squalid career. He disserved human liberty.

In the May 23-25, 2014 edition of CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names, Cockburn's last great project, we find, to take one example at random—I swear—a piece by John V. Walsh, "The Faux Cry for Democracy," subtitled "Why are Russia and China (and Iran) Paramount Enemies For the U.S. Ruling Elite?"
( It is a spirited defense of all three regimes. "Does it not seem strange," he begins, "that, with the Cold War long over, the Paramount Enemies of the United States remain Russia and China?" Actually, it's the stilted language that seems strange. Why "Paramount Enemies" with capitals? And what sense does the word "remain" make? Boris Yeltsin's Russia was not considered any type of opponent. The managed democracy of Vladimir Putin, the proud Chekist, who has publicly expressed his nostalgia for the glory days of Lenin and Stalin, was never likely to be a friend. And China does not fit comfortably within the Cold War context. The risk of an actual war was always between the US and the USSR. In the last years of the Cold War, the US and China were often on the same side, China the more hawkishly and single-mindedly anti-Soviet. The supposed End of History was the moment the Wall came down in Berlin—while the rulers remained firmly, and bloodily, in power in Beijing. Relations with China have had their seasons, but they have hardly remained one thing. Among the three powers there has been rivalry, opposition, hostility, but Paramount Enemies is either Walsh's fantasy or Google Translate.

He goes on: "And there is no doubt that Russia and China hold this pariah status in the eyes of the U.S. imperial elite." No doubt! Does he understand the word "pariah?" The American embassies in Moscow and Beijing are major diplomatic postings. The American presence in Afghanistan and in space depend on Russian co-operation. China, as creditor and exporter of consumer goods has become integral to the American economy. The word "imperial" is unsurprising in this context, and untrue. "Elite" is odd. Is there a single elite, and who comprises it? There are corporate interests, for instance, that are distinguishable from those who hold political power, and there are fluctuations among the political class, from one administration to another. And is it strictly the elite that feels some antipathy toward Russia, China, and Iran? You are unlikely to find a portrait of Putin or Khamenei on the wall in a honky-tonk. Back when Iran was threatening to kill American diplomatic personnel, it was pretty common to see Fuck Iran as graffiti or on t-shirts, yet Cyrus Vance never once included the phrase in any official statement. "In the last months we have watched the U.S. try to push Russia East[sic] and tear it apart." Please: enjoy the moment. "In fact it is striking that the U.S. has allied itself with neo-Nazism in Ukraine and Japanese militarism on the other side of Asia." If any of it were true, it would, in fact, be striking. Neo-Nazi opinion—far more a specter than a force—leans heavily in favor of Putin, the most ruthless, powerful, unapologetically white political figure in the world. And Brother Walsh might want to look up the term red-brown alliance sometime. And Japanese "militarism" ("on the other side of Asia", opposite Ukraine, that mysterious Asiatic Shangri-la) is another bogeyman. If Japan re-arms, it will not be bombing Hawaii,

"The riddle finds its answer," he tells us, in the struggle against neo-colonialism. He asks, "How do Russia and China fit into this sweep of history?" (And I ask, Where is the Sandman when you need him?) Then comes the history lesson. "That inter-imperial war [World War I] precipitated the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, with the simple call for 'Bread, land, and peace.'" World War I, which was an inter-imperial war only inter alia, led rather to the February Revolution. It was only after the Kaiser's Abwehr had sent V. I. Ulyanov to Russia that he was able to marshal his minority faction of the Social Democratic Party and stage a coup, at gunpoint, in November. The new regime withdrew from the war, entirely on the terms set by Germany. Money well spent. (The—perfunctory—American intervention is, predictably, invoked.) The "simple call" grew up to be a slogan. The reality was famine, expropriations from the peasantry (followed not long after by the effective re-imposition of serfdom), and civil war.

"The Bolsheviks were deadly serious." True. "They took Russia and then the rest of the USSR out of the Western orbit, out of the ambit of the Western colonial powers, and they brought industrial development to their backward land." The bland "then the rest of the USSR" is an evasion. With the fall of the Tsar, the non-Russian parts of the Empire were freed to go their own way. As soon as the Soviet state had the military power, it reconquered the old Empire (except for Poland, where after a campaign of total war against the civilian population, Russian forces were militarily defeated). There was never any "Western orbit" to be taken out of, only Great Russian domination. Russia became more industrialized—no surprise—in the Twentieth Century. But the rate of industrial growth was greater before 1914 (just as agricultural productivity has never come close to pre-war levels). And the industrial growth achieved by the Soviet state was at the cost of exactions more savage than anything in Victorian capitalism. And Brother Walsh, model anti-imperialist that he is, might want to be a little careful with a phrase like "backward land." That gun is loaded.

More: "In the end Russia became a great power and it remained out of the orbit of the West for over 70 years." Over a hundred years before the "Bolshevik Revolution," Napoleon led an international force against the Prisonhouse of Nations. Images of his army, frozen and defeated in the vastness of Russia, are familiar. Less familiar are images of the Tsar's triumphal entry into Paris. One reads Walsh's foolishness and wonders, wasn't there an editor, who would...SLAP!. This is Alexander Cockburn's paper.

Okay, a little more. I can stop anytime, I promise. "Socialism and Communism were not achieved...And that is a thing that disturbs most Left wing or 'progressive' [the square quotes here for all the wrong reasons] to this day, most notably the Trotskyites [impeccable Stalinist usage: check] and their ideological fellow travelers mired in the past [Uh...]." And then: "A proud independence, an escape from poverty and a severing of almost all institutional and economic ties with the West became accomplished facts in Russia. There were no old school ties between the two." Even so. They ordered these things better in Democratic Kampuchea.

Anyway, that's what discourse on the left is looking like this week.

Anderson's penultimate paragraph sums up Cockburn "as an individual." He lays it on with a trowel: "grace and elan, a revolutionary sprezzatura all his own," "a three-dimensional materialism come to life." It goes on. There's a scene in Carlos that shows Carlos, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, in his Orson Welles phase, partying hard with a roomful of grotesques in Khartoum. The scene is based on actual footage. There (it's a DVD extra), what Carlos is getting down to is the Lambada. In one tribute to Cockburn, there's a reminiscence of Cockburn at a party in New York. He whispers something in Noam Chomsky's ear, which elicits a belly laugh from Chomsky. Savor the picture: two gargoyles. For Perry Anderson, Alexander Cockburn was the New Man. "Exceptional temperaments like his are beyond imitation." We can be happy that Perry Anderson's political hopes have always come, will always come, to nothing.

We must be unsurprised that he doesn't know it. His last paragraph is his cheery wave farewell. What put that silly grin on his face are three newish magazines; n+1, Jacobin, and Endnotes.

It's better to be gentle with n+1. They've stated an ambition to be a contemporary Partisan Review (a questionable, if understandable, goal). As a political journal, though, it seems unlikely to work. The writers associated with Partisan Review, and the New York Intellectuals more broadly, could be generally classified as literary intellectuals, but very few were creative writers themselves. n+1 is largely a literary magazine that dabbles in politics. It would be ridiculous to describe the Partisan Review writers as forged in struggle—but it is not quite untrue. They had most of them been active in politics, often as members of one small group or another, and they had formed in a cultural context where the CPUSA was a daunting presence.

Looking to n+1 for guidance would be...premature.

It's not just Anderson. The Times has talked Jacobin up. The dead generations weigh like an Alp on the brains of the living, according to The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon; and the publishers of Jacobin seem to have been affected, too The website is snazzy. Let's look at a random article.

A Corey Robin, at, begins his critique of pro-war intellectuals by quoting a letter written by Arnold Schoenberg that is quoted in a book by Alex Ross. If Mr. Robin detects any dissonance here—immersion in the New Yorker culture pages, the scaffold dripping gore—he keeps mum. But really, he starts his blog post with these words: "On the recommendation of my colleague Shang Ha..." If Mr. Robin ever gets a tattoo, he will leave room for acknowledgments. He goes on to describe a debate between Michael Ignatieff and Jonathan Schell. There was "a wonderful moment in the run-up [that annoying Britishism] to the Iraq War." In the typescript of The Waste Land, Vivienne Eliot wrote in the margin of some hellish passage, "Wonderful!" This "wonderful moment" isn't as spooky. It is fun, though. "Ignatieff," he says, "was being especially nasty mocking Schell for saying something like 'the peoples of the earth' had said no to war." Isn't mockery superfluous? "Which, given the international character of the protests of 15 February [another Britishism] 2003 wasn't wide of the mark." See a discussion of this issue in a review of Afflicted Powers [] published in this paper: yes, way wide. "But then Schell gave it right back to Ignatieff." More nastiness? Wait for it. Schell said, A state goes to war for its reasons. Von Moltke famously almost said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Political aims, a state's reasons, do, but not by much. Schell's argument is untrue because undialectical, and undialectical, as it happens, because untrue.

Mr. Robin's other posts are no better. There is a rote invocation of "mass murder." Not every killing is a murder. Trotting out the label is less than an argument. Better to avoid the word, unless moral preening is your only concern. Here, one gathers, if an American soldier kills someone in combat, that's murder. If A Ba'thi kills a civilian, well, if you can't shrug your shoulders, what are they there for? In another post, he lauds George Steiner, singling out an essay titled, "To Civilize Our Gentlemen." Funnily enough, in the very first issue of First of the Month, a recent book by Steiner was reviewed. The reviewer there also singled out that very essay, commenting that the title inspired "a smile and the thought of a rope." I think that reviewer has the better of the argument. The smile lingers, the thought endures.

Mr. Robin also has some posts in praise of Cockburn. He calls one Cockburn article "hilarious." Do people really think things are hilarious? The word, in practice, means labored, gesturing at cleverness, not remotely funny. It does suit Cockburn.

Mr. Robin, at one point, concedes that Cockburn's remarks about rape and Afghanistan are "unconscionable." Words mean something, they say; people might not.

Who killed cock robin? Nobody, yet.

Readers can judge Endnotes for themselves. Compared to the other two magazines, it is quite serious—more: deadly earnest.

Anderson's last paragraph also contains a critique of Obama. Jacobin, he complains, "managed [!] to inconspicuous summons to its readers to vote for Obama." They would; you'd expect that. They were mistaken; you'd expect that. Anderson is dead time; you'd expect that. He also complains that n+1 "curtsied bashfully to the Lord of the Drones." Whatever criticisms, and there are plenty, might be made of Obama and the drone war, no good ones will come from Perry Anderson. Instead, he will offer phrases like Lord of the Drones: bad prose, dishonesty, non-thought. He knows his audience. But no useful criticism will be had from Anderson.

Worse than Obama himself has been his reception, an ardent embrace of unfreedom. The early talk of healing planets and who you been waiting for is long gone. But the delusion has modulated, not disappeared. Today, debates are over and claim is laid to the "right side of history"—implicitly, an assertion that one know the future, and for that matter, which end is up. The fact that an American president—or any GAO number—can, without being shouted down, say publicly, "The future [sic] must [sic] not belong [sic] to those who slander [sic] the prophet [sic] of Islam" speaks poorly of our time. In 2009, Rocco Landesman declared triumphantly that "Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar." But Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, by way of counter-example, were all published authors, and each was far more powerful than any Chief Executive of the United States. There was a time in American history when the memory of Brutus was honored. To compare an American President to Julius Caesar would have been taken as an incitement to violence. Caesar, it will be recalled, destroyed the Roman republic. Even earlier, Cato the Lesser advocated turning him over to the Gauls to answer not for his crimes against Rome, but for his genocidal wars against Rome's neighbors. And Caesar, the writer, has lived on as easy classroom Latin, Cicero for Dummies. Today, though, he's a pure positive. Glamour and power are their own justification.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it exactly as they wish. No, in the current climate, they make it as they are directed. Two photos nicely capture our moment. One was taken in the Oval Office and purports to show the moment when the "historic" deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran was signed. Obama is on the phone, two jubilant courtiers in suits pump their fists in the air. The fact that the arrangement is a sure loser is almost the least of it. That Iran's rulers live, that they have lived for thirty-five years is a loss to the world. Anything that they can accept ought to pain us. Another feature of the photo is the certainty that it was staged.

The other photo is last year's Pajamas Boy ad. The text reads, "Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance." That the ad relies on irony—if it even does—is dispiriting enough. But the role of the citizen, a people's forging of its own destiny, has been reduced to trooping to a polling location on Election Day, and logging on to a website when and as instructed. Wi mekkin histri. Not quite. A birthright has been traded not even for a mess of pottage, but a cup of cocoa. Left iconography has in the past shown a figure with an arm raised, with gun in hand, or Molotov cocktail, even just a fist. Today, pajamas and a children's drink are considered sufficient.

Well. A world to win, Alexander Cockburn liked to say. Not so quick. First, a world to be taken apart, piece by piece. Then we can talk.

world Charles O'Brien 2014-06-03T22:33:53-05:00
Mumblecrit “I don’t care what any of these snobs say!” said my freshman-year Postmodern Lit instructor, not bothering to identify the snobs. “Titanic is a damn good movie, and ‘My Heart Will Go On’ makes me cry!” His line of thought, though tangential to the class discussion that day, didn’t come from out of nowhere, as it was early 1998, well within the James Cameron blockbuster’s imperial moment in global pop culture. Apparently, enough backlash had built up by then to provoke my instructor’s gratuitous but highly revealing outburst.

You could think of it as an issue of what we would now call work/life balance: As a dutiful Ph.D.-seeking PoMo theorist-in-the-making (and in all seriousness, a very good teacher to boot), he was defending his right to relax his intellect in his off-hours, just like the less expensively educated. A young academic outside campus, we can extrapolate, being no more or less than another species of tired businessman seeking distraction. It takes more than a master’s degree to dispel the particularly American sentimentality that hangs around the word “entertainment.”

Even as contemporary cultural criticism (particularly on the internet) grows more superficially political–forever holding this or that popcult phenomenon up to the light and peering at it from different angles to determine which side of history to place it on–the reign of “entertainment” remains unthreatened. All this political clickbait crit has about it a sense of neurotic yearning, a desire to give into “entertainment”’s apolitical thrall, if only one could be sure it was real this time–that the taint of sexism, elitism, racism–well, history, really–had been scrubbed away for good. Then finally, like the rest of America, one could gorge on good clean fun.

So cultural criticism, rather than an art form, has become a repository for an elite class’s motley hang-ups. Snobbery, jealousy, and a genuine, endearing desire for democratic communion manage to just barely co-exist, but cannot acknowledge one another. If they did have to account for one another’s presence, the social persona would disintegrate.


Not completely unlike my NYU instructor in ’98, pop critic Carl Wilson wants to make us think twice about Celine Dion. His book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste –originally published in 2007 and recently re-released in an expanded edition including response essays from the likes of former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and movie star James Franco–investigates Dion’s formidable appeal and why music critics have historically been so stubbornly, snipingly immune to it.

I don’t want to waste too much time praising Wilson’s accomplishment. The strengths of this book have been detailed elsewhere, perhaps best in novelist Mary Gaitskill’s response in the new edition:

I had come to like and admire Wilson for his empathic and imaginative willingness to pick his way through the dark maze of signifiers and referents in order to see past his own received ideas...Wilson has slowly and patiently found and come to respect one human soul, regardless of his cherished “likes”...

Suffice it to say, the book’s not a total time-suck. At bottom, Let’s Talk About Love is less about Dion than Wilson’s attempts to find a new approach to pop criticism, an aesthetic brave enough to flirt with the uncool in order to unearth something “too human to be dismissed” in pop culture. He’s also smart enough to know that in this book he hasn’t gotten all the way there but only taken a few intrepid steps–yet that still puts him way ahead of most of his contemporaries.

“Too human to be dismissed” is Wilson quoting the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith’s takeaway from a pre-performance backstage encounter with Dion at the 1998 Oscars, where the megastar helped steady stage-shy Smith with a warm hug. This close encounter, Wilson reports, flipped Smith’s attitude toward Dion from disdain to chivalrous defense; afterwards, he never let anyone dis her in his presence. Wilson uses this story as a jumping-off point for his analysis, and in a recent WNYC interview he expanded on what the anecdote means to him: “The humanity of these people [i.e., popstars] does defeat the roles we cast them in symbolically in culture.”

Don’t roll your eyes just yet. Let’s Talk About Love wouldn’t be much good if the author believed pop’s contradictions could be resolved so simply. Even after the 160 pages that constitute LTAL’s original version, the triumph of humanity is not a fait accompli in Wilson’s book; his thought experiments are a style of grasping towards it. Even so, however, he believes in it as a perpetual possibility. And here, I posit, is where we brush against the next barrier that needs to fall.

In my view, in order to be considered truly democratic, an aesthetic must assimilate the failure of democracy. This is, perhaps, the final test of its seriousness. If you’ll permit a quantum leap into a tragic example from today’s headlines: Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger, obsessed with his “symbolic cultural roles” to the point of misogyny, fascism, and finally murder exemplifies the reverse of Wilson’s test case. Dehumanization wins by a (body) count of seven (including the perp, courtesy of a self-inflicted gunshot wound) to zip. On YouTube, you can see Rodger’s pathology drawing energy from our culture’s. Guiding his psychosis down a culturally approved channel, he more or less knowingly styled himself a modish anti-hero. His monologues are punctuated by dribs of Joker-like “evil laughter” he considered appropriate to the occasion. It’s not the attempts at laughter that chill in retrospect but the mirthless theatricality behind them: Unlike money-grubbing Hollywood, Rodger’s dead serious.

Now, what can critics find to say about, and to, the culture that gave Rodger his cues?

Let’s Talk About Love is weakest when Wilson tries to analyze how people draw on symbols and signs in pop culture. He pores over market-research stats and informs us Dion fans are “less likely to live on the coasts than in the ‘red’ or ‘fly-over’ states.” But when he interviews a cross-section of her fan base–among them a drag queen, a Cambodian émigré, and a young intellectual whose fandom is semi-ironic–politics never come into it. This can’t be a mere slip; Wilson’s too smart for that. He probably thought introducing political differences (Canadian-born Wilson makes his leftist leanings clear throughout the book) would uncover too many potential points of polarization, which would compromise his search for understanding. Fair enough, except this circumspection renders his interviews insubstantial. They are conducted under a weight of what’s not said. Wilson accepts on its own terms pop’s escapist ideology–“escapism” being nearly as beloved a word as “entertainment” (if a little too close to the bone to be used ubiquitously)—which prizes the apolitical “happy ending” as compensation, purgation, and panacea. But that’s a pop critic’s undoing. Escapism cannot apprehend escapism.

Am I being unfair? Consider this well-known (for all the wrong reasons) Pauline Kael quote from 1972: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” To this day, reactionaries repeat these words, divorced from context and often disfigured beyond recognition, as proof of leftist insularity, but Kael meant the exact opposite. Her “I can feel them” is democracy extended all the way to the nerve endings. Without self-abnegation or fear of contamination, she gave soul-access to the American Other. Does Wilson “feel” the Celine Dion fans he interviewed? There’s no evidence either way, but he clearly wants to, tries to.

It is perhaps telling that the years Wilson wrote and researched the original version of Let’s Talk About Love roughly coincided with the mayfly heyday of mumblecore, the indie-film subgenre best known for launching Greta Gerwig’s career and providing inspiration for the TV show Girls. Mumblecore thrilled the critics of the time as perhaps no film movement had before. If, as I argue above, critics despair of ever finding mainstream culture clean enough to love, here was a proudly marginal movement that everywhere bore the scars of the scouring brush. For critics, its aesthetic deficiencies (e.g., sound that would on another set be considered unusable, hence ‘mumblecore’) dovetailed in some obscure but intensely pleasing way with the diminished view of life it presented. Mumblecore’s “awkward” 20-something introverts didn’t fit in anywhere (ANYWHERE!), thus could not be viewed as either social types or political beings. Despite emerging at Bush-bashing’s peak moment of virulence, mumblecore was mum on how the Gen-Y hipsters it depicted intended to participate politically. Despite frequently featuring full nudity and sex scenes, mumblecore movies were never disreputable. This was porno for Puritans.

Just as mumblecore’s choicest bits were promptly swallowed up by Hollywood, today’s “political” pop critics are mostly striking poses, not posing the threats they intend. If not on the same page, they and corporate America are tweeting the same hashtags. Carl Wilson obviously sensed it was time for something different, and he’s to be commended for writing a good book in consequence. If more of his colleagues would follow his example and surpass it by taking inspiration from the cultural air at its most foreign and strange-smelling—as even an emotional cripple like Elliot Rodger knew how to do—critics might be artists again.

Contact Ben Kessler at His Twitter handle is @koolfresh.

culturewatch Ben Kessler 2014-06-03T17:25:44-05:00
An Opening of the Field Exploring the art and coteries of the artist Jess (1923–2004) and the poet Robert Duncan (1919–1988), An Opening of the Field celebrates the vibrant household of two extraordinary men who lived together as lovers and collaborators at the epicenter of the San Francisco Bay Area’s glory years of artistic ferment. For Jess and Duncan, the term "household," consciously cultivated, represented a thriving, sociable locus in which to create art and nourish friendships—a demarcated world where the daily act of making things could be at once ordinary and magical. In such a household, all objects were of interest, from Duncan's hand-drawn wallpaper to Jess's paste-up "No Smoking" signs and their vast collection of art and books, upon which this show draws.

Jess was a painter and collagist who, from the early 1950s until his death in 2004, created works of vertiginous complexity and joyous wit. Among his contemporaries, painters such as Jasper Johns, David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj were longstanding devotees; of subsequent generations, artists as dissimilar as Martha Rosler, Sherrie Levine and Jane Hammond have also been admirers. A Californian native raised by Theosophist parents, Robert Duncan was a leading poet and theorist of the "New American Poetry" and an unabashed advocate of the Romantic tradition, who found his closest colleagues in the poets Jack Spicer, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson—whose “composition by field” he developed in the 1960 volume from which An Opening of the Field takes its title.

To orient Jess and Duncan by the arts for which they are best known seems almost clumsy in the light of this superb show, however, for the couple shared the pleasures of painting and writing with an ease that was remote from career strictures, and both built up substantial visual and literary oeuvres. (In fact, for sheer syntactic adventurousness, Jess as a word artist was frequently bolder than Duncan, as his famous collage comics such as Tricky Cad testify.) This rare ease with all forms of making naturally attracted a lively milieu, including Bay Area figurative and abstract painters such as Edward Corbett, Hassel Smith and David Park; Black Mountain abstractionists and poets such as Tom Field, Paul Alexander, and the aforementioned Olson and Creeley; the San Francisco Renaissance poets Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser; Californian assemblagists Wallace Berman, George Herms and Bruce Conner; and filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, Larry Jordan and James Broughton. Works by these diverse artists adorned the walls and shelves of Jess and Duncan's household, which provided an oasis of sanity for their circle.

Implicated in this ideal of the household is a set of artistic values that is rarely stated overtly, although a small hand-lettered placard in Jess's studio is suggestive: "The Seven Deadly Virtues of Contemporary Art: Originality, Spontaneity, Simplicity, Intensity, Immediacy, Impenetrability, Shock.” From this credo, one can infer a quietly defiant preference—shared by many of Jess and Duncan's Bay Area contemporaries—for charm over swagger, intimacy over epic scale, abundance over austerity and delight over angst. Every step in the house at 3267 Twentieth St, where the couple spent most of their life together, proffered instances of this stance, from the living room, where—across from the "George Herms Corner"—a jigsaw was often underway, to the kitchen where one might encounter a stained glass window by Duncan or a revelatory abstraction by Edward Corbett.

For this viewer, the most dazzling works in the show were paintings, and special mention must be made of those by Virginia Admiral, Lyn Brockway (particularly her Vuillardesque "Breakfast in a Paris Lodging"), Nemi Frost and Edward Corbett. Corbett is represented by two wonderful abstractions—a large slate-grey oil painting that once hung in the kitchen stairwell to the basement, and a more evanescent charcoal and pastel drawing that inevitably conjures the fog rolling into the Bay Area from the Pacific. Jess’s early paintings, closely informed by Corbett, synthesize these qualities with the mythic themes that also saturated the household he built with Duncan (“you can’t take a piss in this house without getting hit with a myth,” Duncan once told an interviewer).

Curators Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff have created a thrilling, inspiring portrait of an era with An Opening of the Field—both the show and the catalogue, which includes a "Photo Album" appendix with images of the couple, their friends and the homes they shared over the course of their 38 years together. Throughout, there is palpable evidence of lives led and work made at a deliberate critical remove from the cultural machinations with which art-making is now almost identical.

culturewatch Thomas Evans 2014-06-03T16:39:30-05:00
Love Generation: Virginia Admiral Remembers Robert Duncan There's a lot to delight in “The Opening of the Field”—the exhibition on the art of Jess, Robert Duncan and their circle now at American University in D.C. after a run at NYU's Grey Art Gallery. Thomas Evans's review here offers a pro's eye on the show. A painting by Jess of Pauline Kael and her daughter in a greeny everyday Eden “a mile from the bus” jumped out at this amateur. As did a gay Medieval-ish triptych by Jess, which shows a naked sinner bowing down to give head to his lover. The splashiest wall in the Grey Gallery, though, was one where a wild piece of kiddie/id-y wallpaper crayoned by Duncan was placed next to two ravishing interiors with Matisse-like colors by painter Virginia Admiral. Ms. Admiral is known now for being actor Robert DeNiro’s mother. But as an artist, Ms. Admiral lived up to her name: she was a commander. Her son has recently produced a documentary about his father—painter Robert DeNiro Sr. But his mother’s work seems more than worthy of rediscovery too. There’s material on her life available already, though images of her paintings are hard to find. (Warning: the colors in the virtual version of her "The Red Table" on our homepage now seem washed out next to the real thing.) First contributor Aram Saroyan has written a fond remembrance of Ms. Admiral that focuses on her days as publisher/nurturer of the New American Poetry which will soon be published in Convolutions magazine. And curator Christopher Wagstaff steered First to Ms. Admiral’s own remembrance of her glorious student days with Duncan whom she met in Berkeley in 1938. Back then, Admiral, Duncan and their buddies were practicing a politics of culture that had more in common with Beats and Hippies and the New Left of the Sixties “than the Old Left of the Thirties." Admiral remembers how her friends were disdained by campus Stalinists and elder Trots who regarded them as too dirty, arty and gay. Admiral is not a showy writer, but you can feel the shape of fun to come in this account of her crew’s artful good times (which was originally published in Wagstaff’s 1992 catalogue, Robert Duncan: Drawings and Decorated Books). B.D.

I met Robert sometime in February 1938. I had noticed Robert, Mary and Lili Fabilli, and Cecily Kramer earlier having a wonderful time dancing into and out of the small record concerts on the Berkeley campus, laughing hysterically, Lili with sandals and a flower in her hair (she was the original Flower Child). So when I saw my landlady turn Lili away from my rooming house on Bancroft Way I invited her to share my room. Soon after, she took that room and I moved back to the top floor, a sort of garret with huge dormer windows, which Mary shared with me.

My first memory of Robert—who was called "Symmes" most of the time—is of him sitting on one of the beds up there reading a long poem, probably his "Ritual." Robert wore horn-rimmed glasses, and one eye turned out a little which gave him an earnest, almost owlish look when he was reading his poetry. He had an apartment on the other side of the campus, but we never went there. From time to time, he would mention affairs he was having, but they were episodic except for an instructor named Ned, and, in fact, he spent all of his time with us.

The atmosphere of the campus was heavily political. The Spanish Civil War had just ended, and World War II was about to begin. My friends were Trotskyites. The Berkeley Young People's Socialist League (YPSL) amounted to seven to ten persons that year and was a voice crying in the wilderness, for the campus was almost entirely Stalinist. The Young Communist League (YCL) had been instructed not to speak to the YPSL. The YCL was to eschew all political deviation including homosexuality, and YCL women were to wear high heels and silk stockings.

The YPSL mimeograph machine was in the middle of our garret room. There were always a few people around, and Robert had a built-in audience. He was writing a great deal and read it all to us immediately. Sometimes we would go over a poem line by line, and I would ask him to explain every word. That spring Robert was reading Gertrude Stein (often aloud), St.-John Perse, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, and, I think, some Freud. I remember that then, or a little later, he was talking about Melanie Klein and the fact that so few children committed suicide. He mentioned shamans quite a lot but said little of his parents' involvement with the occult.

I think we were all English majors, but I don't remember kind words said about any instructors or professors except Ray Boynton in the Art Department. He had put some of Mary Fabrilli's drawings up in the hall of the Department, initially telling his colleagues that they were Matisse's. I remember his describing one way of drawing as looking awayt from the paper and drawing an arabesque. This was a revelation; the next was Robert's describing and advocating the automoatic drawing (and writing) of the Surrealists.

Robert and Mary were dissatisfied with the campus literary magazine, the Occident, so we decided to put out our own, having the mimeograph machine right there. Robert and I were both good typists and we did all the work. He wanted to call it Ritual; I wanted to call it Epitaph. I won. There were no other disagreements. We had no trouble getting it out, also doing whatever political leaflets were necessary. Robert and I took a few magazines with us on campus to sell, but I don't recall that we gave any to stores to carry.

The university was much smaller then. There was no housing shortage and we had few possessions so we moved like gypsies. In that year and and a half, from February 1938 to November 1939, I lived in, I think ten different places. I can't sort out all the sequences. And Robert visited Ned twice at Annapolis. Sometime that summer Mary and I both got on the Federal Art Project in Oakland, and with Lili we sublet Ida Bear's garden cottage below the campus at 2012 Durant Avenue. This began an idyllic period. Robert and Lili loved to cook. We listened to Robert's records: Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bach cantatas, Edith Sitwell, T.S. Eliot. In the evening Mary and I would be doing watercolors or drawing, and Lili had developed a way making crayon designs on cloth, then fixing them with a hot iron. Robert would be typing, listening to music, talking, none of it interfering with the poem he was working on. And Robert was very companionable, fantastically witty and, as someone once said about someone else, a Constant Entertainment. I don't remember any frenetic political activity during this period. It was a like a surcease, a very happy time. When my mother, a teacher of English and Latin, came to visit she was struck by our enthusiasm for one another. "What you have here," she said, "is a mutual admiration society." As if there were something wrong with that. But as time went on she became absolutely enchanted by Robert and Lili.

Sometime that next school year we met Pauline Kael and Ham Tyler. At one point, Robert, Lili and I took a garden cottage east of Telegraph Avenue. It was a real house with a large kitchen and four fireplaces, a yard and a basement. Robert was the only one with any furniture, so he moved in his couch, phonograph, and records and books. We had benches and a long table built for dining and working. The War was much closer now, and we were having meetings, going to demonstrations, handing out leaflets, selling literature. Although we were ready to overthrow the government, we wouldn't have dreamed of crossing the line at Sather Gate, of carrying a demonstration onto the campus.

Robert and Lili were doing the cooking again, but so many people were eating with us that we started charging everybody a quarter. My mother stopped eating with us because Robert used too much curry in everything, and my sister, who was visiting, disapproved of the whole scene. Robert's mother, too, came briefly at another point and asked me why Robert had to write about chancres when he could be writing about roses. I think she was referring to a poem that had received a very cool reception when he earlier applied for admission to Black Mountain College. I think he was reading Gide's journal at the time

The Trotskyites had become the Socialist Workers Party. The adults in Oakland called a meeting with the youth group at which time it was said that the Berkely YPSLs were "poets and dilettantes, not fit to form underground cadres." There had been a lot of joking about "philosophical anarchism," but the fact is that the Berkeley group was more like the New Left of the Sixties than the Old Left of the Thirties. There was also a great kindred feeling, even content, between Ginsberg's "Howl" and the wild satiric performances Robert and visiting YPSLs like Myra Tanner would improvise after dinners that summer at 1931 Hearst.

In November 1939 I left Berkeley hoping to become a waitress in Greenwich Village and go to the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts. This plan worried my mother who made me promise to live at International House, go to Teacher's College, Columbia, and get a master's degree in art education. For this she borrowed the money from my grandfather. When the first semester was over I visited Robert in Woodstock where he was working on an old Franklin hand press with J. P. Cooney, putting out Phoenix and Experimental Review. My grandfather's money was long gone, and I had no cigarettes. Robert was quite self-righteous about buying me cigarettes which he thought were not a necessity. He more or less gave in, but it was one of our first serious misunderstandings. Then I went to Maine for six weeks to teach in a summer camp.

When I came back I found a studio at 30 East 14th St. with huge front windows overlooking Union Square. It had been Kuniyoshi's, and the one below Kenneth Hayes Miller's, but it cost $30 a month which meant I had to get two friends to share it. Robert was basically living in Woodstock, crashing wherever he could when he came to New York. I persuaded Marjorie McKee and another friend to share the place. They were not too enthusiastic since it had no bathroom.

Meantime I had decided to forget the master's degree, and Hoffman had given me a monitorship. Robert bought a membership in The Museum of Modern Art, and we spent a lot of time in the library there. We saw "Harvest," "The Baker's Wife," "The Informer," and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" at least six times each. And we listened to records a lot in booths of the record stores and went to parties and openings. On Saturday afternoons everyone went to galleries on 57th St. The Pierre Matisse Gallery was usually our first stop. Along with Matisse and Miro, he showed a lot of Matta and the European Surrealists. European artists were beginning to arrive fleeing the Nazis, and soon there was a proliferation of galleries.

As far as I know, Robert's contacts with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown and New York in 1941 and 1942 amounted to being at times in the same room. I don't think there any conversations between them. Hofmann's crayons those summers were, as I recall, brilliant in color and explosive in feeling, many radiating out from a center. Robert's crayon techniques had been developed with Lili in Berkeley. These designs were often down on wood furniture, like waxing raw wood. They developed contiguously, each area growing out of the one next to it. He worked at these assiduously and deliberately, but they were totally unplanned. In color, he was probably influenced by Matisse and Bonnard, and as M. McKee said, "he used every color in the box. " To me, it was interesting that the way Robert did visual art, at least at that time, was without hesitation, self-doubt, theorizing, speculating, or calling it art. He seemed to believe that it was the thing to do and that he had every right to do it. "Delight" describes his attitude, and he was not critical of the result. Unlike poetry, he never revised or edited.

culturewatch Virginia Admiral 2014-06-02T23:00:56-05:00
Notes on Chilean Literature (Or Those Queer Birds Disturbing the Necrophilic Silence of the Barrio Alto) Perhaps then it would be easier to go, to leave behind a small puddle of tears, a tiny well of watery sadness that no secret police agent would ever be able to identify. Because a fairy’s tears have no color, no identification, no taste; they have never watered any garden of illusion. The tears of a poor, abandoned fairy like her would never see the light of day, would never be the humid worlds that absorbent handkerchiefs would blot off the pages of literature. The tears of a faggot always seem fake: utilitarian tears, clown tears, kinky tears, a cosmetic enhancement to eccentric emotions. –Pedro Lemebel (“cross-dresser, militant, third-world champion, anarchist, Mapuche indian by adoption...possessor of a painfully long memory...the best poet of my generation, though he doesn’t write poetry” –Roberto Bolaño)

Pinochet’s success in transforming the Chilean economy (I recall interviewing his youthful “Chicago Boys” and being struck by the intensity of their drive to privatize and modernize) provided the basis for export growth, free trade, an independent central bank and a limited state sector—achievements a democratic Chile has been able to build on to become the most prosperous country in the region. Nothing can excuse what Pinochet did.—Roger Cohen (columnist for The New York Times, amateur author of victor’s history, occasional interviewer of torture victims, possibly a nightmarish embryo in the brain of Walter Benjamin who will be born in a graveyard in a distant century: more degenerate than Ross Douthat, less well-read than David Brooks, decidedly less read than Thomas Friedman).

1. The Last Rites of a Chilean Poet

I thought I’d been to every bookstore in Santiago (and visited every book-peddler and attended every literary festival, not just the state-sponsored festivals but the anarchist festivals and the Palestina libre festivals and even one festival devoted entirely to the Austrian School, which was a macabre affair, presided over by zombies or melancholy cannibals). As it turned out, I let four months pass before I stumbled into the best bookstore in Santiago, which is called Metales Pesados (heavy metals) and which happens to be just down the street from my apartment. Metales Pesados is owned by the Chilean poet, or former Chilean poet, Sergio Parra. I say former Chilean poet because, according to Parra, on his fortieth birthday he stopped writing. Supposedly, he looked out the window of his bookshop that morning and realized that everything around him had changed, everything bored him now, let others write, he only wanted to sell books and devote himself to his bachelorhood. Gone forever, according to Parra, were the halcyon days of the military dictatorship when any poor kid could show up to the capital and become a poet or a painter or start a band, provided that he know how to drink, provided that he was an obsessive, provided that he knew who the cuicos (the bastards, the pigs, the cops, etc.) were, provided that he was filled with contempt and a love for life on the margins, provided that he was gay or if he wasn’t gay that fucking was his singular passion (next to drinking, behind art), provided that he knew how to work, provided that the streets were his true homeland, provided that he had inherited nothing.

For thirty years, Parra has worn the same outfit every day: immaculately ironed white shirts, black suit jacket and pants, and black patent leather shoes. From eight to ten every evening, even back when he was drinking, he ironed his shirts without fail, and everyone knew not to disturb him during these hours, which were sacred hours for his thinking, for his loneliness, hours without which he never could have been a poet. An interviewer once asked Parra if he was gay. Parra responded that, although many people think he’s gay, he’s not, because if he were gay he would be the first to found an ultra-sectarian group of gay extremists, just as when he decided to become a poet he became an extremist poet, and when he decided to become an alcoholic he became an extremist alcoholic. Through discipline, through obsession, he arrived at the very end of his life, at the very end of his poetry, at the very end of his drinking. Now he no longer drinks or writes poetry, but he considers himself a retired poet and a retired alcoholic, because one never stops being either, alcoholism and poetry are two chronic illnesses one lives with and lives through to the very end.

Parra likes writers who write from their own biography, who have gone without bread, who don’t bitch or use rhetoric, who started with nothing: the autodidacts, the nymphos for the written word, the cocksuckers for the spoken word. If he were told that he had six months to live, he would spend his final two hours cleaning the grave of Céline (he doesn’t say what he would do for the other six months minus two hours, but those things are hard to determine). The grave of Céline: that’s a fanatical religion, a fanatical last rite. And I like Céline. Sometimes Parra strikes me as the kind of guy who would prefer Trifles for a Massacre, the craziest book Céline ever wrote, the book where Céline succumbed to his Jew-madness, where he called Cézanne a Jew and Racine a Jew, the book that made the Nazi censors blush, that even Brasillach said was a buffoonish (but spiritually great) book, to Journey to the End of the Night or Death on the Installment Plan. And after he cleans Céline’s grave? Then he’ll install himself in a chair, lean back, and die. And if whoever is responsible for burying him doesn’t dress him to the nines, he’ll come back from the dead and drag the guy down to hell with him.

2. Cases of Mistaken Identity

But luckily, Chilean poetry soldiers on. The last time I was in Parra’s bookstore, I decided to buy a collection of essays by Pedro Lemebel. Isn’t Lemebel dead?, my girlfriend asked. Seated about ten feet away from us were Parra and a man who appeared to be very ill and spoke with an electrolarynx. They talked about the situation in Venezuela and about each other’s health. They seemed like they had been friends for a long time. I paid for the book and left.

I have the Spanish literary critic Ignacio Echevarria to thank for my epiphany, which in some ways resembled nausea. In the very first paragraph of Echevarria’s introduction, he talks (obviously but effectively) about Lemebel’s laryngeal cancer, about the cruel irony of a disease that has robbed Lemebel of his voice, Lemebel who wages a guerilla campaign on the field of the written word, but who is a partisan of the choked and throttled and dispossessed voice, for whom the written word is a graveyard (a graveyard for the murderers and a graveyard for the victims, but in different ways) on the edge of the illiterate abyss of sounds.

Echevarria was a good friend of Roberto Bolaño, and is now Bolaño’s literary executor. In the Chilean media, he is famous for contributing to the ongoing soap opera about Bolaño’s conjugal life, or Bolaño’s sex life. In doing so, he comes off as somewhat of a jerk-off (but only somewhat, because he can be witty, too) with his chauvinistic chatter about the vampiric-bourgeois woman who wants to exploit genius for her own ends (that would be Carolina Lopez, Bolaño’s widow). My advice is that they continue this tawdry plotline by either fucking or killing one another, which either way will put an end to the sordid affair and allow us to read Bolaño in peace.

Incidentally, according to a Chilean friend of mine who has never read Bolaño, when Bolaño died many people in Chile confused him with the Mexican television actor Roberto Bolaños and were in fact quite distressed by this piece of news (even though Bolaños, as opposed to Bolaño when he died, is an old man). Their distress was compounded by confusion. Why does everyone keep saying he’s Chilean? Why is everyone acting as if a national treasure has died? When they were informed of who Bolaño was, and why many people were grieving, they were still confused. Okay, so he was a good writer, but you said he lived in Spain and grew up in Mexico. What makes him Chilean? (This is both a genuine aporia and a faintly xenophobic dog-whistle, because the question of Chilean expatriates is a painful and socio-politically complicated one: expats are still seen as faggots and communists, or traitors which is to say the same thing, by the Right, and often as privileged opportunists by the poor and middle class: of course, there was hardly a better dissector and mocker of the Chilean expat community than Bolaño himself: Bolaño always refused to believe in the sanctity of exile: after all exile is better than winding up dead, and as for artists, the Irish petty bourgeoisie at the time probably couldn’t have cared less whether James Joyce became a priest or killed himself). Still, now that she knows who Bolaño is and was, my friend likes to ask me to say his nationality as if it were a tongue-twister, a matryoshka doll, or a binomial equation. The Tijuana poet-blogger Heriberto Yepez says, “Bolaño is a Chilean-Mexican-Spanish (atrocious ménage) adaptation of intellectual table talk and paper arrogance.” And Yepez likes Bolaño.

At an Irish bar of all places (owned by the biggest bigot expat in Santiago, in the seventies DINA would have had to rein him in, maybe he would have ended up in the fascist cellar of Patria y Libertad), I almost got in a fight with a couple of Chilean poets because I told them I preferred Bolaño’s novels to his poetry. Now I regret that things turned hostile, because the owner has all but banned Chileans from coming to his bar, and I’ll probably never see them again.

The owner of the Irish bar has a saying about police brutality in Chile (which amounts to an epidemic). One roto in the cemetery is one less roto on the street, he says. (A roto is a national nickname for a Chilean man. He’s a sad and stoic drunk with a heart of gold).

3. The Unfathomable Idiocies of Roger Cohen

On September 7th 1986, when “Gen. Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile with an iron fist” (it’s like the beginning of a fairy tale, a fucked up fairy tale without a moral, or with a strange and inscrutable moral, a fairy tale in which the evil Prince of right-wing dictatorship is replaced by the true Prince of the Neoliberal State), Roger Cohen was in Valparaiso having “a fish lunch washed down with Sauvignon Blanc” (note that he wasn’t having Allende’s red wine and empanadas). For no reason at all, except that the sun is shining (which makes the story seem falsified), they joke that Pinochet would choose that day to get assassinated. Of course, that was the day that the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (no need to mention the name of the group, or inform the reader of who Manuel Rodríguez was, probably just another one of those Che Guevara wannabes) chose to launch a bold attack on the presidential motorcade that came just short of killing Pinochet, who, as one of Lemebel’s characters in the novel My Tender Matador speculates, must have been in league with the devil to survive (the others object: we already knew he was in league with the devil). Roger Cohen still seems, in the year 2014, a little peeved that he had to interrupt his “boozy afternoon” and rush back to Santiago (but one should never underestimate the preternatural and synesthesic memory of a glutton). Some bad things happened at the hands of the State (what do you expect? Our Third World mercenaries are so temperamental!). Now, in the present (the eternal and homogenous and benevolent present), Roger Cohen returns to Chile to discover a truly astonishing cornucopia of shit: “”the global wrap, the global muffin, the global high-rise, the global Irish Pub, global sushi, global malls, global brands, global coffee shops and global ATM” [emphasis added]. He goes on to reflect on the passage of time, which heals all wounds, and to compose a truly bafflingly and disgustingly inane sentence, even by his standards: “The tides of social change are unimaginably slow beneath the rat-tat-tat of connectivity.” A few thoughts on Russian neo-Tsardom and the Ukraine follow. Lastly, he commends the possible merits of Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi (possible, only if he emulates the model of Pinochet), who is the only hope for the Middle East. But “judgment will have to wait until about 2040,” says the daring prognosticator Roger Cohen, who will thankfully (hopefully) be dead in the year 2040. Though I should say, cheaply perhaps, that he will get to live a lot longer than most of his collaterally damaged human beings, whom Lemebel calls the pile of dreams and bones at the bottom of the neoliberal pyramid.

(I’m not a pugilist or an economist, nor do I want to stoop to their level, but everyone knows the so-called Chilean Miracle was a sham).

4. The Irrepressible Birds of Pedro Lemebel

Lemebel’s Tengo miedo torero [My Tender Matador] takes place in the weeks leading up to, on the same day of, and during the aftermath of, Cohen’s chronicle. And yet the difference between them is the difference between Ulysses and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (at least on a literary, if not an ethical, level). And Lemebel does for The Queen of the Corner what Joyce does for Leopold Bloom: redeems her in the realms of language, silence, and desire (which for Lemebel is a negotiation between the first two terms, or is the true language of both language and silence). The three principal characters are, in the fairy tale tradition, the Queen, her young revolutionary Prince (who loves but cannot love her), and the evil Dictator, who emerges as far more human with his uxorious whines, his memories of an unhappy and sadistic boyhood, his utterly and inversely queered perspective on birds, literature, warfare, politics, and the Chilean countryside, than he does in Cohen’s account, in which Pinochet is nothing but a syphilitic sore on the virtuous, teleological cock of the Chicago boys.

5. Homophobia and the Left

The Left, naturally, has exploited, abused, and persecuted homosexuals. Lemebel became famous for a speech he called Manifesto (I’m speaking about my difference), which he delivered at a political gathering of Chilean leftists in 1986. The poem/manifesto begins, I am not Pasolini asking for explanations/I am not Ginsberg expelled from Cuba and goes on as a cri de coeur against leftist hypocrisy (He’s a faggot but he writes well/He’s a faggot but he’s a good friend), totalitarianism (Does there still exist a Siberian train of reactionary propaganda/That train that passes by your pupils/When my voice becomes too sweet), puritanism (Although later you hate me/For corrupting your revolutionary morality), and lovelessness and paranoia (I’m not talking about fucking and being fucked/And being fucked and fucking/I’m talking about tenderness, comrade). But Lemebel, who is after all a “man of the Left,” who calls himself more radical than all of you, refuses to let his accusation become one of identity politics grievance-mongering and entrenchment (as does Jaime Parada, a Chilean politician and writer who authored a book with the Cartesian title, Yo gay). Haven’t homosexuals been exploiters, as well?, he asks. Not just in the obvious sense, in the sense of the right-wing queen who talks about how much she loves the military dictatorship, not only for its fascistically macho qualities but for its immiseration of poor men: With all this fear and terror, the poor men are all the hornier. But in a more cryptic way, in the way the Queen of the Corner allows herself to be exploited, in the way that all love is exploitation. If anything, for Lemebel, those who can’t be forgiven, those whom it is impossible to forgive, are those who forego the erotics of exploitation: the empty-headed and empty-hearted bourgeoisie. Like Genet, but more humanely, Lemebel draws an absolute and annihilating metaphysical line: the ones who love and are capable of being loved, and those who don’t and aren’t.

Like every metaphysics, the metaphysics of love and hate (which are the same thing for Lemebel) has its limitations. Because a writing like Lemebel’s, a writing so steeped in conviction, can get carried away on the current of its own emotion and forget that there are people (the majority, perhaps) that don’t give a shit whether they’re loved or hated or not.

6. Metaphysics

Better a leftist metaphysics of love (and hate) than a leftist metaphysics of apology for crimes that haven’t been committed (we’re not like the Chavistas) or crimes that never could have been committed (the chimerical concentration camps that Allende would have set up had he been given the chance: here, as always when the subject of Allende comes up, Bolaño gets carried away: he imagines himself and a young MIRista in a concentration camp, him for being a counterrevolutionary, her for suffering from infantile leftist disorder). Better a leftist metaphysics that doesn’t forgive (Lemebel to Bolaño on the telephone: They can’t forgive me for having a voice…They can’t forgive me for remembering all the things they did…But you want to know what they really can’t forgive…? They can’t forgive me for not forgiving them) than a leftist metaphysics that bows and scrapes and begs forgiveness.

There’s an official hagiography of Allende in Chile, but his grave at the Cementerio General is deserted, while the wall commemorating the young people who died in September 1973 is overwhelmed with flowers, and even the mausoleum of a former head coach of Colo-Colo attracts more attention. Which isn’t to say exactly that Allende should have shut down the bourgeois insurrectionist parliament and armed his supporters, but isn’t to say the opposite, either.

7. Tertulia of Torturers

What does Bolaño have against me? –Mariana Callejas (Chilean short-story writer, ex-DINA agent, husband of the ineffable Michael Townley, arch-villain in Lemebel’s short story, Las orchídeas negras de Mariana Callejas, and Bolaño’s novel, Nocturno de Chile, which she read for the first and last time (only the passages concerning her person) while serving a prison sentence for the assassination of Carlos Prats, Allende’s commander-in-chief, in Buenos Aires)

8. The Infinite Cleanliness of Reformism

The new (and former) center-left president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, has promised, in her fifty reforms in one hundred days pledge, to give free dental care to working class women with bad teeth. Which sums up the kind of cheap populism and cosmetic reformism the so-called Chilean Left trades in.

Of course, in Chile it is shameful to be a poor woman and a virtual crime to be a poor woman with bad teeth.

9. The Specter Haunting Macho Countries

Camila was born in La Florida, a commune in the southeast of Santiago, in 1987, just before the fall of Pinochet and the Berlin Wall. But history, as Walter Benjamin tells us, is a single catastrophe, and Camila's life was like a continuous vertigo, a nightmare blown through the millennium by a gentle, paradisiacal breeze (perhaps, she thought sometimes in moments of extreme nostalgia or extreme unhappiness, it would have been better if actually existing socialism and actually existing military dictatorship had formed a pact against time, had agreed to remain like two mirrors or two Mayan stellae grimacing at one another and contemplating one another in an absolutely false eternity). Camila's parents were communists who had made their way, through silence and amnesia, into the ranks of the middle class, or what passed for the middle class in a poor country at the end of the Earth. When Camila was four, her younger brother choked to death while she was alone in a room with him, and if this wasn't her first memory, it was her most radioactive memory, the event that stood for memory itself. One night, when she was eight, she was raped by a man who was a guest at her grandfather's house. Two years later, she and her younger sister became gravely ill on the same day. They spent a week in bed wasting away with a high fever and excruciating nausea. The doctors who examined them were stumped, but they all agreed that the two little girls didn't have long to live. Camila's grandmother, who lived in Chiloé and whom Camila's family, in spite of their communism, always believed to be a witch with miraculous powers, came to Santiago to heal them. According to Camila, she sat by their bed for two days and two nights, administering vile and unfathomable potions, herbs, lustrations of water and blood and animal viscera, and most of all prayer, a wild lunatic prayer that left Camila's sister in stitches but struck Camila herself as diabolical. When these measures failed and the girls continued to get sicker, the old woman decided to perform an exorcism. Camila always swore that she saw demons departing her body (through her mouth, her eye sockets, her chest, her vagina) in gusts of noxious black smoke, and that one of the demons had the face of her rapist, another that of Pinochet, a third, mysteriously, that of her dead brother. Her sister claimed to have seen nothing at all. Whenever Camila would bring it up, she would laugh and say, You're as crazy as that old witch, Camila. When they were grown up, she stopped laughing about it and told her sister never to mention the subject of the exorcism ever again. Still, the fact remains that the girls got better, and that Camila saw what she saw.

When she was twelve, Camila's grandfather died (not the husband of the witch, but her father's father). At his funeral, Camila saw the man who had raped her four years earlier. He was very old and very weak, and the one time he looked at her he didn't seem to know who she was.

At the age of fourteen, Camila tried but failed to sleep with her boyfriend. The idea of it disgusted her. A month later she told her friends and her family that she was gay. Her father gave her mother an ultimatum: Either the marica goes, or I go. When Camila's mother chose her over her father, her father left the family. When the administrators at her Catholic school found out, they tried to expel her. Camila's mother spent days on the phone with the administration, threatening an implacable vengeance if they dared to kick her daughter out of school. The school dropped the matter, but Camila's classmates tormented her. Through all of this, Camila remained like Benjamin's angel, or like Klee's angel: sweet, mournful, open-eyed.

Camila was a hardworking student and when she was eighteen she started studying economics at a university in Santiago. At the same time, her sister got pregnant and married her boyfriend, who liked drugs, soccer, and fucking around, in that order. Camila also had a much younger brother, who was born just before her father took off. After Camila's sister left, it was just the three of them in the house in La Florida. When Camila graduated, she got a consulting job at a firm that did a lot of work with German companies, so she had to be in the office by 6 AM every morning. Camila's sister's husband refused to work, so she had to set aside some of her income every month for her niece's education. Meanwhile, her younger brother stopped going to school and had run-ins with the police.

A year after she started working at the firm, Camila fell in love with a girl at the office, and the two of them started dating. Camila thought she was the most beautiful girl she had ever met. She was also from a right-wing military family who lived in Las Condes and she refused to be seen with Camila. Eventually she agreed they could go out in public together on the condition that they behaved platonically. Camila learned to accept this omerta, but it always pained her, particularly because she loved to dance and would have given anything to have been able to show her girlfriend off at a nightclub. She became very close with her girlfriend's family, although they always considered her their daughter's close friend. Sometimes her girlfriend would tell her, One day I'm going to leave you and marry a man and start a family. Sometimes her girlfriend would slap her, or pull her hair, or throw hot coffee in her face. Once she shoved her down a flight of stairs. You know why I'm going to leave you?, she said on that occasion. It's not just because you're a dyke, she said. It's because you come from a family of communist dogs. Even if you were a man, I wouldn't marry you. But she could be kind, too, and Camila always ended up forgiving her.

When Camila was twenty-six, and her mother was forty-one, a doctor found a tumor the size of a tennis ball in her mother's stomach. They were sitting together at the breakfast table when her mother told her that she only had six months to live. They cried together and agreed not to tell Camila's brother. Then Camila went to work. Camila told her girlfriend and two days later her girlfriend broke up with her. She told her father on the phone (she hadn't spoken to him in nearly a decade) and her father started to sob, a soft harsh static sound that could have been choking or coughing if she didn't know better, and he begged her forgiveness for leaving them, which of course she gave him. Then she got back with her girlfriend. She thought about what she would do when her mother died and about how she would support her brother. In February she had her two weeks of vacation, which she spent with her mother baking and watching television. Her girlfriend said that they should get a place together, and although this is what she always wanted, she had to stay with her mother through her illness. Maybe you can move in when she dies?, she said. What about your brother?, her girlfriend said. And Camila had to admit that she hadn't been thinking of her brother, that she had allowed herself to get carried away.

Camila's mother had a series of operations but she kept getting worse. After her third operation, she decided she couldn't take a fourth. Around the same time, Camila found out that a friend of hers from high school, the only other gay girl in her class, had been raped, tortured, and murdered by a gang of fascists, or at least that was the word that came to mind, but in reality they weren't fascists, they were just disturbed kids, kids in the grip of pure evil, and Camila cried for them as much as for her dead friend.

10. On the Ambiguity of So-Called Emotions

I was fully prepared to hate Camila’s girlfriend after hearing this (overdone but nonetheless true) story, but that turned out to be impossible. I’m sure if I met her Allendeist father, I’d like him, too.

I even liked the young lawyers who, after drunkenly hymning the praises of the Colo-Colo soccer team (one guy), Pinochet (the second), and the pragmatic development policies of the new Right (the third guy), took me to a strip club. The first two guys went off to have sex with the strippers while the third, who was the son of an ambassador with definitely dirty hands, got teary-eyed about the fate of his country’s poor (naturally he didn’t say proletariat). These poor women, he said, are being exploited by my friends. They could be secretaries, he said. (The spectacle of a masochistically impotent scion of the Chilean oligarchy acting like a cross between Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Paul Ryan is probably worth seeing once before death).

Anyway, Chilean stories are full of holes and hypocrisy. Worse yet are the stories told about Chileans by gringos.

11. The Insomnia of Eavesdroppers

Two cartoonishly robust, extravagantly blond gringos walk into a bar. They exchange the obligatory commiserating comments about how hungover they are (Chileans, it’s worth noting, never get hungover). Then one of them starts bitching about an assignment he’s been given. He works for one of the innumerable multinationals that is predatorily buying up land (or outright stealing land) throughout Chile, particularly mining in the north, forestry and agriculture in the south. The gringo wants to buy land from an old Mapuche Indian who’s dying of cancer. His extended family doesn’t want him to sell. Before he can buy the land from the old Mapuche, he has to get around a flimsy bureaucratic injunction against the sale of land on sacred burial grounds. So this gringo was forced into the utterly unnatural and humiliating role of a freelance anthropologist. As far as I can tell, he says, it was just a mass grave from a smallpox epidemic back in the nineteenth century. His friend (who appears to be an expert on this topic): Nah, man, shouldn’t be a problem.

12. Beyond the Margins

Lemebel’s essay, El abismo iletrado de unos sonidos (The Illiterate Abyss of Some Sounds), about his visit to the ruins of Chan Chan, near the city of Trujillo in Peru, reaches more profoundly into the defeated depths of history and issues a more urgently messianic and revolutionary cry than anything written by Walter Benjamin, although of course it couldn’t have been written without Benjamin.

Anyone who has read Lemebel and does not identify immediately with the Emperor Atahualpa, who mistook, or pretended to mistake, the Bible for a seashell and heard nothing but an abyss of silence in it, although perhaps the abyss was a premonition of genocide, which itself became silence, and threw the Bible to the ground in disgust (the subsequent pretext for the Spanish slaughter), should probably read someone or something else.

Borges, perhaps.

Lucia Hiriart (Pinochet’s wife) in My Tender Matador: You see, I wasn’t wrong when I told you not to let that whole gang of Marxist intellectuals come home. So different from Jorge Luis Borges, who is such a gentleman, who was so honored when you awarded him the Cruz de Mérito. And they say he lost the Nobel Prize because he said good things about you. Those Swedes simply turned a blind eye to that blind old man. They say his books are very interesting, but to tell you the truth, Augusto, I didn’t understand a thing when I tried to read The Ole, The Haley, The Aleph, whatever it was called…

13. The Last Hurrah of the Unidad Popular

It is New Year’s Eve 1973 and all the queens in Santiago are happy, happy but nervous (they understand nothing about politics, for the most part, but they know the bourgeois ladies aren’t happy with their impertinences and that the workers are feeling friendlier these days). The Queen la Palma, the true queen, the old and matronly faggot, decides to throw a New Year’s party in Recoleta, which used to be a kind of profane paradise for Chilean homosexuals, and now it still has a lot of homosexuals, but it’s not a paradise. Allende has said that even the poor are going to eat turkey this New Year’s and so la Palma vows to buy twenty turkeys for all the locas, all the queers, of Santiago to stuff themselves on. Every loca is invited.

The problems start when the upper-class queens, led by the Queen Pilola Alessandri (an American might as well translate her name as the Little Bitch Roosevelt), show up. They’re disgusted by the food, the surroundings, the political climate of the country, the act of sticking a Chilean flag on the turkey carcass (don’t you care what those soldiers have sacrificed for us?). La Palma tries to apologize, but the party roars on unabated. Eventually, when the upper-class queens want to leave, they start shrieking about their mink coats. Where are they?, they ask. Pilola Alessandri threatens to call her uncle, who’s a high-level military officer. But the other guests think that’s a ridiculous threat (after all, why would she want to bring shame to her family? And why are you wearing mink coats in the summer?). The upper-class queens leave and the music continues to play. Then the stolen mink coats appear.

Time passes. There is the coup, of course, and the queens don’t exactly go underground, but they never recuperate the joy of New Year’s 1973. A single photograph exists of that night. As Lemebel says, anaphorically, it’s not a good photograph.

One by one, the faces in the photograph disappear. Sarcomas blot them out. They grow thinner. They fade into one another, despite the fact that each has a singular death.

La Palma dies after returning from Brazil, inviolably and without regrets (they listen to samba on her deathbed). Pilola Alessandri, glamorous as ever, was on the vanguard of the AIDS virus (“the latest gay fashion in death”) and caught or “bought” it in New York. She died looking like a New York model (later, Lemebel says, at the turn of the millennium, every gay man in Chile looks like a white body-builder from New York, as if they were just in Chile as tourists but couldn’t leave because of their thirst for Chilean blood). La Chumilou, the most beautiful of all the Queens, who could attract any man she wanted, dies out of the logic of her own invulnerability. She pays for her mother’s dental surgery (before Bachelet’s reforms). She gets bundles of American dollars. She always makes her men wear a condom, except one day she forgets to put one in her purse, and her gringo love begs her, Just this one time…She dies on the day democracy returns to Chile, after Pinochet’s defeat in the 1988 plebiscite.

It’s important to distinguish between the way Lemebel looks at that photograph, with the determinism of the disgraced and despised victim (of course it was inevitable that those faces disappear in the plague, of course the smiles are homages to life, to utopia, but also sorrowful valedictory gestures, the theatrical leave-taking wave of a handkerchief) and the way Roger Cohen looks at his own mental photographs, with the determinism of the victor. Metaphysically, they have nothing in common. The victor suffers from prosopagnosia and his determinism takes the form of narrative. The victim’s determinism has been bludgeoned into his head and seared onto his flesh and still she doesn’t believe it happened, or can’t fully believe it happened, or, knowing that it will happen again, screams out against it and condemns it. Although it’s doubtful if the necessary people are listening.

And if they’re listening (I mean those who are resistant to the prose of Pedro Lemebel), they’re probably seething with contempt or convulsing with the worst kind of laughter.

world David Golding 2014-05-30T09:13:56-05:00
The Question of Taste: Bill Berkson Bill Berkson is a poet (originally associated with the New York School) and critic who's been writing about art since the 60s. His books include The Sweet Singer of Modernism and other Art Writings, which Dave Hickey called “an indispensable text for anyone interested in late-twentieth-century culture.” In a Brooklyn Rail interview from a few years back, Berkson dug into the democratic roots of his own taste:

When people like you and I were growing up we were immersed in what is often considered low culture, but one cultivated specific habits, tastes, within what was generally available. In high school I began to meet people who hated modern life and the culture that went with it. They wanted to live in the Renaissance; everything had been downhill for them since 1700 or whenever. They wanted no part of our modern vulgarity, whereas I was so deeply immersed in it I came to fine literature quite late. I read comic books and pulp novels if I read anything at all, and whatever was required for book reports, you know, and I watched endless movies, and it’s like what Creeley says in that lovely poem: I did, maybe still do, have “a small boy’s sense of doing good,” and “ride that margin of the lake.” A small boy’s notion is that of a knight on horseback by the sparkling water—in Idylls of the King perhaps, but no, it’s Robert Taylor in love with Elizabeth Taylor in a Technicolor Ivanhoe. To disdain such a homegrown culture would be untrue; instead you develop a taste for what’s great within it, according to what you really know and go for.

What follows is a slightly adapted version of an interview with Berkson originally published in Talking Cure.

Jarrett Earnest: To begin, what interests you about taste?

Bill Berkson: That the word goes in so many directions. It breaks down according to what experience is at hand. If it’s food, you say, “This hamburger doesn’t taste right,” “This pineapple tastes too sour”—so it’s not to your “taste.” And that seems categorical—if you say “This pineapple is definitely too sour, it may be over-ripe,” or it’s “too sour for me,” that’s categorical. So much for food. To take another instance, a friend of mine has a country house, it’s really for his wife and their children, he doesn’t go there very much, but he says about the house, its location and furnishings: “My wife has excellent taste.” Those considerations seem quite distant from taste in art, because when you raise the question of taste in art the term spins off wildly in many directions, many of them contradictory. For instance when I was, so to speak, growing up in the New York art world, and New York art was paramount, with a self-proclaiming dominance, a work might be dismissed as being “tasteful.” In Art News reviews in the ’50s, a typical short short review might read in its entirety: “X shows tasteful watercolors of summers in Maine.” That’s all you need to know about what X has been doing lately. Of course, someone reading this might think, “I love tasteful watercolors of summers in Maine!” and go and buy some and have a bunch of them over the toilet in the bathroom. 1950s contemporary French art was dismissed as “all cuisine,” which meant “tasteful.” Certain artists—Motherwell was one—were suspect to their colleagues in the New York School as being too tasteful. Or else, Thomas Hess writing of either deKooning or Hofmann—I forget which, but remember this wonderful phrase—“He has the bad taste of genius.”

If you get the full painting education at the San Francisco Art Institute, most of your professors are going to criticize what you’re doing at one time or another as “too decorative.” Those people are eighth-generation Clyfford Still-type artists. We all grew up in this ethos of toughness, whether it was conceptual art or painting or theatre, that art had to be tough, challenging, not decorative, not over the couch—which brought any assertion of taste or “tastefulness” into question. Clement Greenberg did a very odd thing: his sense of aesthetics was that the “good” work hits you in your gut and that establishes its quality and accordingly its importance. For Greenberg, the job of the critic is to rationalize that involuntary gut feeling. I guess you can say that is a kind of taste, the taste of gut feeling. But then that is your hidden taste, or latent or even “deep” taste, which is other than your conscious or declared taste. On another occasion, Greenberg spoke to the effect that bad art tends to “meet your taste more than half way.” If your taste is easily satisfied, it probably verges on “easy,” academic in its own terms. That’s a funny number.

JE: Art that looks like Art!

BB: Yeah, so that, historically, this distasteful quality became a sign—a veritable touchstone, in fact—of Modern Art. Gertrude Stein said that things that are truly modern and important appear ugly at first. It may even have been true of Giotto, Masaccio and other innovators, but their violations of common taste were ultimately theological. The Baroque—the term itself indicates unease where taste is concerned. When Poussin, who wants to hold to traditional values, says of Caravaggio that he meant to kill painting, he means that Caravaggio is jettisoning classical taste. Then Manet, the “ugliness” of Olympia is a hallmark, a typical Modern gesture. I find it very irritating in a way because it’s become such a routine. I was on a critics panel in New York and Vincent Fecteau’s recent exhibition was up for discussion. Robert Morgan said that he saw Fecteau’s sculpture as “symptomatic but not significant” and I sort of exploded; I mean, what if it is beautiful, you get pleasure from it, and it is neither symptomatic or significant, but just that. In fact, a week or so before the panel Roberta Smith had written a piece for the New York Times that said pretty much what I was feeling: she was baffled by the work but found it intensely pleasurable—a rare admission on Roberta’s part. But in some ways these perfectly simple terms are not even part of the conversation, so the moderator just sped on to the next topic. Pleasure is still a conversation stopper—a crazy state of affairs to me. On the other hand, I wouldn’t make a general principle of pleasure as significance, either. People are too principled when it comes to evaluating art. There’s a rush to judgment every time. It’s interesting when something comes along that violates and proves more interesting, more provocative and generative than anyone’s principles. I suppose that is close to what Greenberg had in mind, although he kept drawing lines in the sand, a whole desert’s worth of scorecards!

JE: I'm interested in the way something that is categorically bad taste for the “mass” is totally converted into good taste, and what that means as a gain or a loss in the encounter of a work of art.

BB: Well, what Stein followed up with is that after a while this great Modern Thing isn't so ugly. It risks domestication, I suppose, right there on Gertrude’s salon wall. A little earlier all those Monets, Manets, Pissarros had become comfortable household objects, especially in the happy homes of American financiers. Then the double irony of T. J. Clark’s turning one’s view of the Manet so that it shows all these terrible things that capitalism is doing to the countryside—you thought it was all about pleasure but it was really about alienation! (Laughs) All of sudden, Manet is telling, say, Mrs. Havemeyer the same thing Picasso said to the German officer when he asked about Guernica, Did you do this? and Picasso said, No, you did.

JE: I almost feel like that about Andy Warhol—when I see some little fashion student walking around with a Warhol tote bag—I'm sure he would have liked it though.

BB: Yes and no. It’s not exactly like Monet painting his own heaven, making a heaven for himself, which is what he did, turning his back literally on what fascinated Manet in the modern world. Andy saying, “Pop Art is about liking things.” Pittsburgh, PA, Byzantine immigrant working-class taste—why should Andy or anyone from such circumstances have anything else? He saw then that America was leveling out, which is not true, but believed that everyone was going to have Campbell soup. He didn't foresee Whole Foods, or that, thanks to his pal Ronald Reagan, there would be a wider than ever disparity between the rich and poor and that Campbell's soup was going to get worse rather than better and Democracy less democratic. I don't know if you mean the images of the car crashes or the death of Marilyn Monroe. Yeah, but that’s Mad American Catholicism for you—ceremonial, rapturous, renegade, and very perverse. Everyone has to understand that about Andy.

JE: When did we start talking about the difference between good versus bad taste? Because even around Andy Warhol, I feel that some reasons for liking Andy are "Good Taste" and some reasons are "Bad Taste".

BB: (laughing) You know the term I used to hear, that in a certain way sustained the dream of democracy, now gone—the term is “educated taste.” To a certain extent we all have educated taste. Ours is not educated in the way Thomas Jefferson, or our teachers, probably intended, because most of us educated our own taste. The idea of education used to be that you come in with no taste and instructors show you the way. The museum was a corrective device for the mob chaos of democracy. One selling point for the National Gallery in England as opposed to the Victoria and Albert, and for the National Gallery in Washington and eventually the Met, too, was that people who come into this Temple of Art will be elevated to essentially “our” higher level of taste and therefore will rise to become functional citizens of the Republic, e.g., they’ll vote the ticket. It’s a terribly perverse argument for critical method. Because the terror of democracy has always been that those people will be making decisions en masse. Better bring them along! A very interesting thing because you have to look very hard at the five foot shelf, what is being taught in the Great Books curriculum, what Johnny needs to know to be a good citizen. Well, Champ, what is civics? Interestingly, I doubt there’s a civics class in the land that includes a rundown of how the banking system works. You just might like to know what pays your tuition; start with the check ready for deposit and work backward.

JE: With educated taste isn’t there this lurking specter of philistinism—someone who is using culture to elevate themselves socially?

BB: That’s a different type. Ivanka hires you to take her around the museum. Next stop, Geoffrey Beene. I don't know if this happens anymore, but what does happen is, people get taken around by art consultants who virtually tell them what and why to buy. Aggressive. Later at dinner those same people, having learned to talk the talk, tell you at length what everything is about.

JE: I guess the question is that given the differences in the art world even 50 years ago and now, does "taste" exist, or what is in its place. I don't think one could say: "This is bad taste" and get away with it in relationship to a work of art now.

BB: I don't hear it. I think the operative term, and what became a sort of escape hatch, is the word "interesting." Most of the art that new collectors have—types of big installation art, which actually can be accommodated in the happy home, or in the country, around the swimming pool—once they're there, they're conversation pieces. Much of this art exists functionally as an aid for expenditures, a demonstration of wealth, power and to some extent, being “with it.” Of course you can say that’s true to a certain extent of a lot of art through the ages. It’s just that lately the cover has blown away—there’s no pretense at religious, mythic purpose or simple grandeur, or entertainment or even fun. It’s raw power showing you what it’s got. There’s a whole discourse around this conundrum of meaning and placement.

The weird thing that occurred with abstract art, which was sort of the culmination of the modern taste for suggestibility—for the suggestion as the presentiment of meaning—if you look at a Barnett Newman, or Ellsworth Kelly, or Ryman, there may be a kind of program that goes with it, like with Mondrian, supposedly, but finally you are left flat footed facing this thing. If you look close enough, openly to what is happening to your senses, the synaptic events, there was a spark of possible meaning you could talk about endlessly because it was all unplanned and uncertain, no matter how intelligently worked. And this other thing—the way that conceptual art, if that is what it is, has come to be, is that the terms, the conversational terms about it are already set—there in the wall notes: "X is exploring the price of bananas in Honduras today." OK, I get it. There’s nothing more. Dennis Oppenheim said that the crisis for the original conceptual artists two or three years into it in the 1970s was the realization that what they were doing was, as Oppenheim put it, devoid of visual interest. For years, most video was void in that department due to a lack of care for the image, even to the point of allowing these shoddy projections of low-resolution DVD matter where you can barely make up anything but the subtitles. It’s gotten better, though, in both image and projection.

JE: I'm struck by—when we went to the Yvonne Rainer lecture and she began by making the point that "expressivity is in the eyes of the beholder,” and yet she is now producing this highly aesthetic work that fits within very narrow disciplinary boundaries and was really unwilling to address that.

BB: Well, the films take some big risks, I mean, it’s just that at that moment, the moment of so much focus on the phenomenology of everyday life, so much opened up, but whether by the artists or their critics, the categories got more refined. Merce Cunningham called it "movement" instead of dance, and Rainer might have done so, too. Now the dances are on stage that used to be in the round at the Judson Church and in the lofts. Luckily no one resorted to calling it "freedom.” There’s just so much you can do—you can include in the dance vocabulary walking across a floor with a mattress on your shoulders, and that’s not Swan Lake. If you’re worried about it’s being dance, call it movement.

The same thing happened in music. It was like the game was up the minute all these people started howling about “freedom,” trying to align it with civil rights, especially Coltrane, and all it showed was that if you’re going to call it music, and Cage never pretended otherwise—“organized sound,” he said—still there’s only so much you can do under that rubric. Free jazz—what it always does is get faster and louder and then it quiets down for a while, injects some lyric passages and then builds back up to more mayhem. It actually gets more limited than Duke Ellington or Dixieland, the more it pretended to be really free, the more limited it seemed. The one thing it did shake loose of, it didn't dawn on me till much later, was that what they wanted to do, just like Yvonne wanted to do, to get off point and get away from Martha Graham-style, expressivity, symbolism, mythology and so forth. Jazz needed at that point to free itself of standards—meaning, not taste or quality, but “standards” in the sense of the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley tunes the players had been ringing their changes on. With Yvonne it was also the proscenium. The White Oaks Project preserves what was done at Judson and what is still done at St. Marks Danspace or in Douglas Dunn’s studio, but on an elevated stage. For people who were there in the ’60s it is sad to see it elevated this way because it used to be just here, people running just past you—and now it has a museological distance.

JE: The same thing happens in performance art. I'm totally horrified by Marina Abramovic, who had this wonderful body of work and then for the past ten years seems absolutely hell bent on destroying everything that was respectable or interesting about her. Culminating in this ridiculous reenactment.

BB: I don't understand what she's doing. I mean up to the live-in-the-gallery project, the only time I ever saw her live was in Venice where she did her piece about Kosovo, sitting there washing a heap of blood-caked bones, and it was really marvelous, powerful. But this remake business sounds awful, and it also sounds as though everyone has slammed her for it. The response hasn't been good.

JE: But what is the disconnect, between these big corporate museums, which basically are what museums are––corporations that need to turn a profit?

BB: Well, they have to break even, anyway. They have to pay excessive salaries, insurance, shipping charges, world-class architects and all that and then somehow or other break even.

JE: But is there a disconnect between museums now and what their “role” is suppose to be as a historical entity. And that has to do with taste, because they hold the DNA of culture, which future artists have to deal with.

BB: The trouble is, it’s not about taste anymore. If you’re at the Met or the Frick or the Morgan Library you’re still charged with exercising some taste and presumed to have some to exercise. But if you’re at the Modern in either town, New York or here, it just doesn't have to do with that. You have a sense of history and significance and you may be held to that. And all of these places, including the Met, are deep into marketing, which isn't about anything but bringing people in. And for no ostensible purpose, just to bring them in, just to keep the institution going. The public justification for probably the last 20 years or more has been that, in order to have public funding, museums adorn themselves with an educational mission. Now we have the museum as combination arts institution and community center with atriums about as friendly as the interiors of your average big banks. It figures because the money now is CEO money of the kind that defines the institution as a business to be run accordingly to measurable standards—membership and ticket and gift shop sales in this case. I’m struck by the fact that if I go to SFMoMA or the Legion of Honor, either way, if you’re dealing with contemporary, modern art or old masters, there just isn't any operative taste. We have this thing called "museum quality" art. The Rothko now at SFMoMA was six million dollars, it’s the non-identical twin to the picture in Berkeley. Before it arrived, I asked a dealer friend, what about this Rothko we're getting? "Well it’s a museum quality Rothko," he said. And I thought, "Museum quality—what is that?" It’s like the FDA—the art has an institutional stamp of approval, it’s certifiably a Rothko, albeit of a certain size, period and provenance, and as a painting it’s OK. Sometime after it arrived, I went and sat with it for an hour. I got up and looked closely at how it was made. That is how the sublimity of a Rothko often gets to you—you look at how the thing is painted and while you’re inspecting the brushstrokes and the weave, the hairs on the back of your neck begin to tingle. Before I left, I addressed this work as if to say, “You are a very well-painted picture, but I do not love you.” There’s a difference; the one in Berkeley has the edge.

But if you go around the country and go to museums, as I have had the opportunity to do over the past year doing readings in places like Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Louis, Boston, etc, and you go to these places, especially the contemporary and modern museums, their collections consist mainly of “examples.” Examples are not a matter of taste. It’s just a fucking “Rothko.” There was a curator at the Fine Arts Museums some years ago who told me “There are still some things we would like for the collection.” “Like what?” I asked. “Well, we'd like to have a Poussin.” Well, who wouldn’t, but what does that mean, “a Poussin”? It implies that any Poussin that comes down the pike would do. No master, old or new, is that faultless. The topic of taste is very interesting in that way, but what if there isn't any, and what if nobody cares? And in the museum world that used to be the criterion, that a curator has "distinctive" if not "superior" taste.

JE: Does that have to do with a loss of history, or a loss of broader cross-disciplinary knowledge?

BB: It has to do with the absence of poetry. I maintain that people of the art world read only trash. They read Eurotrash theoretical literature, hastily and probably sloppily translated and middlebrow fiction, and probably no poetry and no serious philosophy, either. There are few exceptions to this loss of general culture and its concomitant, easy brassbound sense of history. Very weird business, because on the one hand there is the belief that the developmental progressive view of history that culminated in Modern Art ended. Once that game is up—a strange game anyhow, created within the academy to rationalize what had happened—and if that’s rejected we are left, happily, I think, with a kind of delta that just spreads out into a field called “art” where different things happen, different modes appear and circulate, in no demonstrable sequence. Someone at San Diego State University in the back of the room asked "How did 9/11 effect your poetry"––a very interesting question, to which I had next to no answer. But the weird thing is that the people who believe there was a culmination in history keep insisting on next year's product. Been there/done that––where do we go now, as if there’s still some kind of progression. All it is really is good old modern boredom, the Inertia of the New.

JE: For me the most significant show, that deeply troubles me, is the New Museum, triennial “The Generational: Younger than Jesus.”

BB: There you have it. Such tasteless trash! (Laughs) I mean "tasteless” and “trash" in quotes but not sneer quotes. My feeling was that the curators made the show look the way it did and probably some of the artists are perfectly OK, although it was a cumulative trash scene, going mostly for this pervasive tone of resentment. There was nothing even of the Beautiful Loser ethos—no Chris Johannson or Alicia McCarthy, none of that. There was nothing of Beautiful Loser “heart,” or anyone that was interested in going for anything that could be called beautiful or communicative, like say, Colter Jacobsen or Fecteaux. But I've talked to people who enjoyed it. I never found out why. Then you could say, as I have been saying with alarming frequency of late, "It’s not for me". That’s an older guy’s taste limitation, but it also indicates a point at which what is for me is based on need rather than developing a taste for more cultural whatnots.

Revised by BB, May 4, 2014

culturewatch Bill Berkson & Jarrett Earnest 2014-05-29T09:33:20-05:00
Institutional Memories Honorable Discharges at the Dementia Center

don't part your lips on the dementia ward
unless you want to be crammed full of puree
you're in the company of mostly angels
who've already made it past their judgment day

don't open your mouth on the memory unit
unless you've got nothing to say
you're in the presence of people
who never imagined they'd be this way

between the two of us
only one of us knows who we are
my money's on you but I'll bet your money's on me too
until I don't think it matters anymore

one of us is here
one of us is gone
both of us are at a distance
barren and long

don't stop along the highway
you'll miss the light in her eyes
put your own concerns away for a while
and prepare to be surprised

don't open your kisser on the nutjob wing
if you don't expect to be stuffed
don't open your piehole don't open your bible don't think about survival
in a dining room full of people who've officially had enough

(I've Got You) Under My Tongue

there's a patient population
tranquilized and stunned
waiting for you to discover us
keep it under your tongue

sometimes when my daddy comes
it's almost worth every pill
he wouldn't ever come to see me at all
if he didn't think I was mentally ill

sometimes when a new inmate arrives
they last a while before the drugs kick (them) in
the rest of us know it's a losing battle
but it doesn't stop us from pulling for him or her to win

there's a geriatric dumping ground
I've seen where it is
old people mumbling with food on their faces
hurting to live

I've been over to the big barber shop
in the basement of building five
my daddy likes to see me with a buzzcut
so he knows I'm not alive

I'm good friends with slow learners
we're all prisoners here
sharing what's left of us among each other's
the only way to make the bars on the windows disappear

I've been workshopped
I've been bled
force-fed psychotropic injections
for disease I've never had

I've been diagnosed
to be put through
paying for being outnumbered
by the likes of you

they took my ward mate down to the shock shop
executed him one weakness at a time
first he didn't know who I was then he didn't who he was
and at fourteen he was soon to be past his prime

(share our defeat later while you can
right now I want to see you fly
as far away as you can get from here
behind your eyes

smile while you can still mean it
laugh out loud
celebrate life one last time
because in here it's not allowed)

they're taking my ward mate down to the morgue
boy he looks so small
his face all melted onto the front of his mind
in his eyes no one at all

more pills for the rest of us
but tonight I'm going out over the hill
I get to still believe in miracles
on account of I'm mentally ill

sometimes when my daddy comes
I can't get my fill
and he wouldn't come to see me at all
if he didn't think I was mentally ill

Carmelita Estrellita 2014-04-08T04:18:54-05:00
The Anti-War of Harvey Kurtzman In the early 1950s, Entertaining Comics was king of the ten-cent jungle. EC invented the horror comic (Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear). It issued the first "scientific" science-fiction (Weird Science, Weird Fantasy). It re-invigorated the crime comic (Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories), with a social conscience. And with the blessing of its owner, William M. Gaines, it packaged them with an unprecedented—and splendiferous—amount of sex and gore. Unfortunately, when a public outcry linking comics to juvenile delinquency—to the outraged, befuddled sputterings of Gaines and avid pre-teen readers, like myself—it was an antipathy toward and a ban on just such content that forced him to gut his line.

EC had employed the finest artists and writers in its field, and, of these, Harvey Kurtzman became the most revered. Kurtzman was the first EC alum inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame. He alone had an industry-wide award of excellence (The Harveys) named for him. (He has also been called the father of underground comics, though when told of this honor, Kurtzman demanded a blood test.)

Kurtzman stood somewhat apart at EC. He considered horror comics "immoral." (What he thought about the others was probably not much more positive.) His reputation today primarily rests upon his having created, edited and written the first twenty-four issues of the satiric humor comic MAD, whose impact on a generation used to the cozy cliches and platitudes of the Eisenhower Age was immeasurable. (After leaving EC, Kurtzman launched three unsuccessful humor mags, Trump, Humbug, and Help, before settling in at Playboy, where he created and wrote "Little Annie Fanny" for twenty-one years, providing stimulation of a different sort.) But before any of this, at EC, Kurtzman produced what have been recognized as the first "anti-war" war comics. With them, the novelist/ newspaper columnist Pete Hamill once wrote, Kurtzman "revolutionized the form...(His) combat stories were hard, bleak, free of rah-rah patriotism. They were about men, not costumed superheroes."

The recent publication of Corpse on the Imjin! (Fantagraphics. 2012), reprinting, in black and white, twenty-five of Kurtzman’s war stories, and reproducing each of his color covers, made it seem a good time for me to look back at this phase of Kurtzman’s career, especially since, throughout the years I and my EC-devotee pals were cramming his inclinations into our skulls, we were also avidly assaulting alleys, storming porches, playing war.


Kurtzman was born October 3, 1924, in Brooklyn. As a kid, he drew cartoons in chalk on sidewalks. As a teen, he assisted the staff cartoonist at The Daily Worker. Kurtzman graduated New York’s High School of Art and Music and, after a brief stint at Cooper Union, was drafted. He was still stateside when Japan surrendered. Following his discharge, he kicked around the lower tiers of the comic book industry, most notably turning out about 150 idiosyncratic, one-page gag strips, "Hey Look!", for Marvel.

In 1949 Kurtzman brought his portfolio to EC, hoping for work in its tonier non-fiction books like Picture Stories From the Bible or Picture Stories From American History. But Gaines was about to end these and launch his self-proclaimed "New Trend." Gaines hooked Kurtzman into a one-shot warning about the dangers of VD and then plugged him into other books, where his new hire fit uneasily.

The following year, Gaines agreed to Kurtzman’s idea for an adventure comic, Two-Fisted Tales, and, after several issues, named him editor. It did well enough that, in 1951, Gaines put him in charge of a new war comic, Frontline Combat. With the public becoming absorbed in the Korean conflict, war became the focus of both. Kurtzman edited fourteen issues of TFT and fifteen of FC. He wrote all but one of the stories these issues contained, drew nearly three-quarters of their eye-catching covers, and illustrated over a dozen of the tales to which they opened. But with the armistice of 1953, war book sales declined. Since Kurtzman was by now thoroughly involved with MAD, Gaines killed the other two titles.


Before Kurtzman, war comics, wrote William W. Savage, in Comic Books in America 1945-1954, confined themselves to expressing "the virtue of the American cause and the sterling qualities of the American fighting men...(T)hey questioned nothing; and they dealt almost exclusively in happy...endings." Kurtzman conveyed his counter-message by exercising a degree of control over his books that made him an auteur before Francoise Truffaut let anyone know such a thing existed.

Kurtzman began with a story idea, whose "twisteroo" ending would deliver a moral lesson. He would write a one-paragraph summary, which he would flesh out to fill the six-to-eight pages allotted it within the comic for which it was intended and tailor for the style of the artist to whom he would assign it. While other editors punched stories out daily, Kurtzman could spend weeks on one of his.

Most comic editors gave artists pages whose panels were blank, except for lettered captions and word balloons. But Kurtzman gave them tracing paper sketches of what he wanted, close-up or long shot, darkness or light, minute detail and angle of viewing. He often acted out scenes to be drawn for artists, changing his voice, facial expression and posture to capture characters’ emotions. He presented "absolute, complete layouts," John Severin, one EC artist, said. "He knew exactly what he wanted," said Jack Davis, another. "All you had to do was pencil and render his sketches." And if you didn’t, you got no further work.

Besides his control, Kurtzman was known for his research. He was driven, he said in a Comics Journal interview, to imbue his depictions of war with "precision... accuracy... authenticity." He scoured library archives. He interviewed veterans, historians, members of foreign consulates. He visited army camps and airplane factories. He or staff members went up in planes, down in subs, off in tanks, or into armories to guarantee his stories resonated as genuine. He peppered readers Spanish, German and Korean phrases. He taught them how to stop a bleeding jugular vein under combat conditions. Kurtzman’s comics were right about everything, from the geography of Iwo Jima to the color of buttons on Civil War tunics. His approach, said his long-time associate, Will Elder, was "meticulous."

Kurtzman considered war "the ugliest disease... men were cursed with." He believed that if he showed this ugliness to a younger generation, it might find another way to solve its problems. But that turned out to require more than maps and buttons.


Kurtzman’s objection to war seems to have been that it killed people. "Thou shalt not kill," he reminded readers (TFT 23). "Life is our most precious possession," he instructed (TFT 25). "Each and every life... is important," he reiterated (TFT 28). "What good is revolution," he asked, "when everything you love is dead?" (TFT 22).

But on the other hand, as one Kurtzman soldier told a buddy, "(T)here are times you have to fight... To some degree we have an obligation to support war." (TFT 24). "We kill... because we gotta," said another. "It’s a dirty job we have to do." (TFT 19). "Why are we dying?" a Seabee asked himself. His answer, two pages later, was to save his brother. (FC 7). "No man is an island," was the message of FC 1. We are "all in war together, soldier and civilian," was that of TFT 30. "A good American is one who has been loyal to his country," stated FC 5. By FC 12, Kurtzman was urging us to join the Ground Observation Corps to spot approaching enemy bombers.

Was it any wonder a concerned but confused ten-to-twelve-year old might be unwilling to commit to the Ghandian way?

The problem we presented Kurtzman was that we were already well acquainted with fictionalized death. Even in other war comics, as Savage unceremoniously noted, "American boys dropped like flies." And in the war movies of our Saturday matinees, supporting actors, whether fuzz-faced recruits mooning over photos of their gals back home or grizzled vets one mission short of returning to the wife and kids, fell with regularity. Even stars didn’t always survive until the final credits. Robert Mitchum went in G.I. Joe. So did the usually indestructible John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima. Death, we knew, came to the best of us. But it didn’t irrevocably follow that put us personally at risk.

Given our hard-heartedness, Kurtzman’s de-glamorization did not go far enough to disturb us. His American soldiers did not butcher prisoners of war. They gang-raped no women. They did not live in fox holes amidst their own bodily filth. Their wounds lacked even the gore of EC’s horror books. Because his stories were short, he could not develop his characters sufficiently for us to empathize with them. No sickening slaughters, occasioned by the madness or stupidities or geo-political greed of leaders, were exposed to overwhelm us. We flipped his pages and skipped on.

Even more problematically, Kurtzman was a patriot. This is not surprising, since he wrote in the glow that followed World War II. (He also considered Korea "justifiable.") He seemed to have believed, like most of the country in these days before Bob Dylan twisted the phrase with irreversible irony that God truly was on our side. "As long as believe in GOOD, we can’t go wrong," he wrote in FC 2. In TFT 24, one fighter at Bunker Hill reassured another that, despite being out-numbered and under-weaponed, they would prevail. "We have something to fight for. We have a cause!" When conceding that Americans might have committed atrocities, in answer to a reader’s letter (TFT 28), he argued that, unlike other countries "our government and constitution condemn such practices." He seemed blind to the reality that both sides always have "a cause" and one fellow’s atrocity may be another’s patriotic act. As Max Hastings points out in Inferno: The World at War, 1939 - 1945, "It was only because many young men of many nations shared... (a) dogged commitment to do ‘the right thing,’ as each belligerent society defined it, that the war could be carried on."

For someone with Daily Worker roots, Kurtzman was a surprisingly timid political thinker. He could write about the Spanish-American war without mentioning imperialism. He could omit specific reference to the Holocaust from his stories of World War II. He repeatedly stressed his neutrality in depicting the Civil War. (Slavery, he wrote, was just one of its several causes, and his readers never saw a Negro whipped or sold.) The only behavior for which Kurtzman criticized the government was its treatment of Native Americans. There, he decried the breaking of treaties and killing of women and children. But when he addressed the bombing of Nagasaki, the lesson Kurtzman drew from this arguably unnecessary killing of 30,000 was: "HOPE was not destroyed... Life... bloom(ed) again." With a message like that, anything short of turning the planet over to cockroaches seemed to warrant parades and marching bands. Kurtzman’s war comics were not without value. His depictions of ordinary soldiers were relatively nuanced, humanizing and admirable. George Evans’s lovingly rendered bi-planes, Alex Toth’s immaculate jets poised against blank space, and Jack Davis’s muddy, sweaty, stubble-faced G.I.s were wonderful examples of illustrative art. And Kurtzman’s own pages were superb. Sometimes they filled with anguished faces. Sometimes they emptied of all but a "RROWAR," extending across several panels, letters rising or falling in size, darkening or lightening in tone to express volume and intensity. Often his prose trooped across his panels, landing heavily like boots or a tank’s tread as it pounded on. Kurtzman’s bullets unfailingly left visible paths, reinforcing their constant presence and the fate they foreshadowed. And his corpses lay, twisted distorted, in Guernica-like grotesqueness.

But this phase of Kurtzman’s career falls short of greatness. Certainly it did not achieve the goal he set for it. As Savage concluded "it is questionable that (the stories)...had much effect on the children who happened to read them...(in achieving a) lessening of enthusiasm" for war.

This is not, after all, surprising. If comics, as Bill Gaines and I agreed, could not turn me and my fellows into switchblade wielders, why should one expect them to set us burning draft cards? The deeper, more intriguing question though is, if they couldn’t, were we equally immune to the influence of, say, the Bible, Aesop and fairy tales?

For lessons were installed in us somehow. I doubt we emerged from the womb with more than a desire for food and warmth. Yet we acquired beliefs; we accepted truths; we obeyed rules, not always because we feared spankings or after school detentions if we didn’t. Neuroscientists and psychoanalysts may have more evolved explanations, but my sense is a portion was inborn, waiting to be tapped, and the rest laid upon us, drop-by-drop, by parents and teachers and the remainder of the larger, more powerful world of our surround. Slowly society shaped us into how it wanted us to be. But simultaneously, within each of us, lurked an individualized "I," fighting toward light and for space so it could grow.

There was a reason EC’s Picture Stories flopped and MAD and Vault of Horror didn’t. Kids weren’t looking to comics for instruction. Kurtzman’s war books, for the most part, missed the point that, of this, we’d had our fill. So when he told me double-crossers would be punished, and heroes could be scared, and blacks and whites should pull together, I nodded and snoozed. But one early story jolted me awake—and its concluding images stayed with me for sixty years.

In "Tin Can" (FC 3, art by Davis, regrettably omitted from Imjin!) the primary duty of its central character, the unsubtly named Eddie Yearling (nicknamed in-case-you-missed-it "The Kid") is the cleaning of his destroyer’s lavatory. Yearling doesn’t mind, for he recognizes everyone on board is "part of the big plan," and as long as everyone plays their part their "operation" will succeed. Then his ship hits a mine. To prevent its sinking, the crew seals off the head, realizing too late he is inside. Saving him means losing the vessel. So Kurtzman delivers his biting message. "It’s like you said, Seaman... You’re just a small part of a large operation! Every man counts on the big job, but no man is bigger than the job..." And Yearling is left to drown.

Kurtzman was a young man who experienced a "good" war. He believed war a terrible thing, and he hoped a new generation of young men would find a way to do without it. He seemed not to recognize that wars are the creation of older men and the young only pawns by which they play them. But when he locked Yearling in that lav, his pounding on its door growing weaker and less frequent with each concluding panel, the consequence of accepting one’s self as a cog in someone else’s machine was made manifest.

At a dime-a-pop, comics were the first chance for my friends and I to pick and pocket our own theologies and to pen our own declarations of independence. Al Feldstein, EC’s other great editor, astutely recognized that the company’s great appeal to the young was that, whether "with a laugh...(or) blood" it was engaged with "flaunting...the destruction of...authority." The laughs popped social pomposities and sacred cows. The blood bathed us like Carrie at her prom. EC showed us, when nothing else around us dared to, that defiance was an option. And once constraints were loosened, we could try to figure out what to do, where to go, how not to end up trapped, the waters rising.

This article reviously appeared online at

culturewatch Bob Levin 2014-04-08T03:30:28-05:00
Black Mountains Beyond Mountains By Amiri Baraka, Edward Dorn & Claudia Moreno Pisano

First thanks Claudia Moreno Pisano for enabling us to reprint the following slightly compacted excerpt from Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters, which is edited and annotated by Ms. Pisano. This swatch of the correspondence between Baraka—soon-to-be-magus of Black Arts—and Dorn—Black Mountain poet—gets to the heart of their relationship in the 60s. Their calls and responses here were sparked by a disagreement over Castro’s Cuba that's picked up new resonance since it's easy to hear echoes of the Cold War in our time. What may be most striking now, though, is not the poets’ efforts to go international but their shared clarity about the depth (and width) of white supremacy in America.[1]

Ms. Pisano provides the back story for these letters in the italicized introduction below and offers more commentary later. B.D.

In the spring of 1959, Fidel Castro visited Washington, D.C., on a public relations mission; the United States had become fearful of Castro’s intentions by this time, and Castro was attempting to alleviate these fears. While he was in the United States, the New York Times printed an article about Dr. Olga Herrara Marcos: “A military court sentenced Dr. Olga Herrara Marcos today to death by firing squad. She is believed to be the first woman to be sentenced to death in the history of the republic.” Marcos had been found guilty of being an informant to the Batista regime, giving up the locations of the rebels. Shortly after this announcement, Time magazine ran a picture of Marcos looking terrified and pathetic in the courtroom. The events struck a nerve with Dorn, who wrote a poem about it at the time (“the Herrara poem”), “An Address for the First Woman to Face Death in Havana,” which disparaged the idea of big nations and alternately pitied and excoriated those who got caught in the machinery. He sent it now, in 1961, to Jones, who promised to “answer” it. Jones “disapproved of the poem; ‘counter-revolutionary’ was his phrase” (van Hallberg 56).

[Baraka responds to Dorn’s “Address” is the opening note in this selection from their correspondence. B.D.]

Oct 6, 1961.....Dear Ed,

Here is an item especially for you! I hope you will send them something. The poem you sent me I cd (and have) comment on [...], but not here. I wd even like to publish it, in Bear probably, tho I plan to answer it (like in Communist publications) not w/ poem, or maybe w/ poem. But I have to answer it. A good book for you to read (not to change the subject) wd be The Soul of Man Under Socialism by none other than our good friend, Oscar Wilde. It is really a marvelous book, even if it is couched in what must be the most purple socio-political terms in history. It cd almost be sub-titled Capitalism as a Big Camp.

Thank you for those lovely pictures of Pocatello. It looks mysterious! Anyway, speaking of Mitch Levertov, his wife just took a poem of mine for The Nation. Although we exchanged quite a few notes re/ aesthetics & that horseshit. O.K., I hate writing long hand. David Poole’s Condition of Rational Inquiry wd also stand you in good substance for yr long asceticism. That’s what the west is, ain’t it? Asceticism? I pause, for a reply!

Yaws, Roi

Have you heard of new vol. D. Allen is doing? Send anything?

Oct 10 [1961].....Poky,

Come on, back off. I’m not no fucking counter-anything. I’m as truly gassed as anyone, but much more embarrassed than others, at the poor prospects of fellow poets singing the praises of any thing so venal as a State. I am afraid I am not very interested in the “argument” aspects of a statement like the Herrara poem. It wasn’t written “against” anything, as ascetic, (was that aesthetics) aside, you ought to know the very word Batista makes me puke. The modern state, revolutionary or not, is run like a Grauman’s Chinese opening. Everybody has some scene, a trademark, like a beard, or a fat stomach and bald head, or a wig-type haircut, with big white teeth sticking out of the middle of the smile. Piss on it. The only point I ever had is that when a picture, namely of Mrs. Herrara, Marcos, is printed, showing her puckered up babyface tears, brought forth by the lunatic braggart announcement of her death, it is a matter of public shame. Sides, are a bigassed drag. The biggest small-talk of all, like which one are you on? motherfucker. I think I know what kind of a stupid, scared, caught woman she was. But whatever she did, or what those who murdered her did, or their “reasons,” or her “reasons,” my limited prospect of the thing is completely correct. And satisfying for everyone. Because there is no embarrassment in sympathy. Aside from the fact that “sympathizers” are always assholes.

Thanks too for the titles, I am always glad to hear of books. Altho I don’t plan to use them, ie, in the way you suggest. I don’t see the thing as “rational” at all, and perhaps you’d stick to the view that that’s the trouble. Whatever the Cuban people are doing, god blesses them, and for however long they can make it. A statement in poem such as I sent you is highly accidental, in the same way junk gathering sculpture is, and gratifying accidents are a really bigger part of the West than that asceticism you mention. If I had seen a picture of a Pre-Castro victim of the same system of organized horseshit, approximately the same thing wld have come out. This is one of the famous limitations of occasional writing. Its alignments are like the ligaments of a starved man, very clear. If you feel you have to answer it, please do. But if you plan to take a line like: Exhibit 1—an example of a counter-revolutionary hyena getting his kicks—then I wld rather not have anything to do with it. What I am trying to say is, that if you think the poem is vulnerable to propaganda purposes of your own, then I am not sure I want to meet that kind of test yet. Let the National Review worry about that aspect, if that’s it. The Wieners poem is one of the greatest of his, or almost anyone’s, isn’t it? Ya, wow. By the way did you get to send that Yugen to Raworth?

I was wondering; how does the winter hang there now.

Love, Ed

By the way, I am sending Allen that long poem, part of which, was printed by Bear. Landscapes. If he takes it, which is unlikely, he’ll contact you I assume, abt notices [...] if there are any etc.

Like the more I think abt it, can’t you read? The tone and meaning of that poem are perfectly clear. I don’t mean “just to me”—but wholly. I wish you’d make as clear to me what you mean by counterrevolutionary. The issue is the simple one of machination, but which is no more simple than revolution. The only valid relationship I can see between bigassed nations—Russia & USA—and their more pipsqueak imitators is that the bigasses have what the little asses want too—but with this new tack—they say they need it. Which is only a part truth. Most of what constitutes the “good” life, no one needs. What excitement is there beyond feeding, clothing, and housing anyone? It all ends with the same dull propositions polarized by that big trick “consumption and production.” But “leaders” are all bigassed in their way. What happens to the so called poor fucking people is a residue of cynicism which is made “classic” by every age—Russia & USA are the twin progenitors of those conditions now. A France or a Germany never made it that big. When I hear Cuba si, USA no, I think—fuck both of ’em. They agree with each other so much. USA has a bigger paw on the rope, that’s all.

Oct 11, 1961.....Roi

It gets thick here. Last July my friend Ray Obermayr was having a drink down at a place called the Court Tavern. In walks these performers, part of the company of the Ink Spots who were playing a gig at a place called the Green Lantern. The owners refused to serve them. Ray said, ok, I know a place you can get a drink. He took them over to the Jim Dandy (the JD) which is a colored bar, the only one in Poky. This is a railroad town, you dig, the string runs from Portland to Denver on this particular line, the UP. On that line there’s pot, and the lighter forms of shit. It follows the string. The other night I talked to a shade cat who was busted in Burley, if you can dig that, a place of 5 thousand souls. So they get to the JD and have a drink. The local head of the N double[2] hears abt it by this time, a Mr. Wood, porter I guess, who makes a run from here to Denver. OK. They, He, Ray, and two other cats go back over to the Court to test it. (This year a piece of “liberal” legislation was passed in Idaho saying Negroes cld drink and eat anywhere. You know...makes a fairer state, but don’t use it. In the Court, Wood asked for the test drink and was refused, meanwhile from the bar some cracker cat yells at Ray, are you with these niggers, and Ray says yes, and he hallers niggerlover, then breaks a bottle and comes at all of them. The two other guys cut and that left Ray and Wood. The Cracker cut Wood a big gash on the neck and then the fight was on, with Ray and Wood backed into a narrow corridor going past the bar into the back room.

The only way they survived it was that not more than two or three or four of them murderers cld get to them in that narrow passage. Wood, an old man, handled himself with professional skill, and Ray used to box, and is tough anyway. So in their way they clobber ’em.

Ray tried in the following days to keep his own bit straight by going to the college president and putting it on the line, thinking he wanted to get it out right off, rather than waiting till the middle of the year to be fired, or better, more likely, having it suggested he leave.

He got quite a few threatening calls, I’m gonna get you, you fucking niggalova. OK. He got a couple today. I guess the whole place is threatened, on edge.

The trial has been going on recently, many hearings. There are two cases. One is against the guy who held the broken bottle. Assault. The other is the civil rights case. In both the tavern people stack the case with witnesses who lied their asses off. It looks now like it will be held that the man never held a bottle.

Court room scene. Real suspender flipping lawyer saying to uh Mr. Obermay, that is your name isn’t it, Professsssor Obermayr, uh you do teach at the College don’t you, well, now, isn’t that interesting, a proooffeesssseer. My My. Uh when did you start subscribing to the Daily Worker, oh you never did, well, uh how long have you been a communist. Oh. Uh, professor, uh, what were the people at the bar drinking, you were there weren’t you. Did any of them have Cokes? (the bar was filled etc)

That’s the way it went—also like—Prof Obermayr, uh, what color were the men who entered the Court Tavern on such and such a date. To which Ray answered, one was medium brown, one was dark brown, and one was pink. (him)

At the time it happened the local press gave it rather shitty angling. The AP called a couple of times from Salt Lake and it looked like enough attention would be forthcoming to make the CR part of it stick. But it got silently dropped. The thing Ray felt about it was simple enough—that it was the only time in his life in which, without thinking too much about it, or even at all, he had Fought for better or worse, for something he deeply believed in. No matter how subject that is to analysis, it must be true.

The prosecuting attorney is quite uninterested in pushing the case at all, because he obviously wants to be again. For instance he didn’t intervene once when the defense was putting those questions. The technical evasions are many and standard, some of the people involved in the brawl weren’t picked up because “they couldn’t be found,” and you can guess at the size of Pocatello.

So I guess it cld be said to have gotten out of hand. The threats are strange, like all threats are—one needn’t believe them, pay attention, yet one must. I guess I am worried abt the whole thing. The N double doesn’t seem to have given Wood any help, altho I don’t know what they cld do, I just don’t know. Of course it is up to the state to “prosecute,” and they don’t look willing. At all, man.

OK. Tonight I thot I’d write and tell you abt it...for no immediate reason, just I suppose hoping you’d have something to say abt it, altho God knows I don’t know what, it is just that the whole jig cld be up for him, Ray, you know.

Love, Ed

By the way, I wonder if you know—Bob Creeley’s second oldest daughter, a blueeyed, lovely little girl, was killed in a landslide at Arroyo Embudo a week ago Sunday a week ago Sunday.[3] It is a tragedy I can hardly follow.

Idaho Oct 12 [1961]

LR: That poem. That’s awfully good, isn’t it. That slow, “contemplative” phrase. I don’t “understand it” for anything, but so much is going on, very thickly. I feel I ought to turn around, or something, go out for a walk. I guess I will later. And the surplus verities. They are likewise wild. I don’t know how you get such an abstract thing as “the silence of motives” to mean so much. I guess because it does empty. You will get my letter I mailed to you as I picked this out of the mailbox. Wow. The thing with Leslie, Creeley’s daughter hangs over us. Very much. We knew her it turns out too well. The way you are haunted by a face, transplanted to every context. Same in death or love, twin poles, an express runs like clockwork back and forth between them. Have been moping around with tears always there. Man, at this point I ache with something. Enough. Anxious to hear from you—love Ed

On Wednesday, October 18, 1961, Jones was arrested at his apartment by FBI agents. He was charged with sending obscenity—i.e., issue No. 9 of the Floating Bear—through the mail, much as City Lights publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti had been charged in 1957 for sending Allen Ginsberg’s Howl through the United States Postal Service. Issue No. 9 contained “Roosevelt After Inauguration” by William Burroughs and a short play by Jones from his still in progress The System of Dante’s Hell; the charges stemmed from Burroughs’s political satire and the overt homosexuality in Jones’s play. Though the Floating Bear was not sold publicly, (per Diane DiPrima) “What LeRoi and I had failed to take into account was that at least one of the folks on our mailing list was in prison. Harold Carrington, a Black writer in Rahway, New Jersey, never got his copy of Floating Bear # 9. Instead, a warden who routinely read all the mail, turned it into the postal authorities.” Di Prima herself was also charged, though rather than picking her up at her apartment, they held Jones without setting bail until she turned up so that she would, instead, be forced to turn herself in (di Prima Recollections 270).

In this letter, Jones continues his argument with Dorn about the Herrara poem. His note about “bulgarian hats” is a reference to one of Dorn’s poems, “Prayer for the People of the World” (“Did America say give me your poor? / Yes for poor is the vitamin not stored / it goes out in the urine of all endeavor. / So Poor came in long black flea coats /and bulgarian hats / spies and bombers / and she made five rich while flies covered the rest / who were suppressed or murdered / or out-bred their own demise.”) Jones began articulating here his growing sense that a poem could only function politically and ideologically, where Dorn’s idea in the Herrara poem was about the very specific expression of sentiment involved in this woman’s life. The ideology was “accidental”; the sentiment would have applied, Dorn implied, no matter what political regime caused it.

[1961 October].....Dear Ed,

In all, a terrible week. With the Creeley tragedy at the head of the list, my god, a whole chronicle of uglies in the last week (or news of it). Maya Deren, the filmmaker died at 39...Booker Little, the trumpet player, friday, of leukemia at 23...Basil’s show cancelled by lying gallery owner, DeKooning booked for socking a guy in the bar...& now I add something as you can see from enclosed clipping. Bullshit, all of it. But they want me, I spose, and maybe I just oughta get the fuck out of here??

Your letter stunned me, also aggravated. Idaho too? I didn’t think there was enough coons out there to stir up any trouble. Oh, well, one drop makes you whole, or something. Garvey was right. Back to Africa (i.e., the ofays).

Right now we’ve got to get some kind of civil rights law to handle our case...also round up all literary types to say we’re “serious” or some other bullshit. They also picked up my ole caked up waterpipe and, as the stupid muthafucka grinned at me, “we’re gonna an-o-lize it to see what you smoke in here.” Fuck ’em. He also asked me where I got it, I told him I won it at Coney Island. (1 pt.)

Also, as you can see, the newspapers dragged my poor old bourgeois daddy into it. He’s about as true blue american as they come. I sure hope they don’t bug him too much. Shit, he’s worked for those bastards TWENTY SEVEN years. Oh, well.

Ellie Dorfman asked me to send you 12 copies of the book. They are on their way. Chance it might be reviewed in The Second Coming. Also, I sent it to Denise at The Nation, which might prove something. She just last week reviewed my book, Gil’s and Paul’s. She was enthralled by Gil, respected Paul, and said I was a comer. (had “promise,” as O. Wilde wd say).

If my letter re your poem sounded crusadery and contentious I’m sorry. But I have gone deep, and gotten caught with images of the world, that exists, or that will be here even after WE go. I have not the exquisite objectivity of circumstance. The calm precise mind of Luxury. Only we, on this earth, can talk of material existence as just another philosophical problem. Poets of the middle ages (we go back to St. Hugh, and the number they gave soul and body. Single consciousness, the renaissance...and forget that these people with “bulgarian hats” are a Majority. Your body does not hurt you.) I sit for hours reading books of obscure philosophy, magic formulas for bringing back the dead, &c. & have been hungry for four days to make myself a hero! O.K., we are both good men, but I think, now, that mere goodness is a limitation...just as Christians try to limit Christ to mere Goodness. “Moral earnestness” (if there be such a thing) ought to be transformed into action. (You name it). I know we can think that to write a poem, and be Aristotle’s God is sufficient. But I can’t sleep. And I do not believe in all this relative shit. There is a right and a wrong. A good and a bad. And it’s up to me, you, all of the so called minds, to find out. It is only knowledge of things that will bring this “moral earnestness.” We are pushed around by our inferiors! (But then the “accident” of my birth has pushed me into this impasse, I feel guilty everytime I experience some racial slight or bullshit like that, since I begin to whine inside & mumble things like...but I’m intelligent, and beautiful, and learned & smart & used to...&c. Oh christ fuck shit (as McClure wd say).

The point is that I will not be put in the position of justifying evil. I will not make it relative. I will not allow myself to be used. I am a man, simply. A black man, if you will. And there is a huge monkey of self-hatred goes with that, I don’t need to tell you. I feel I am copping out, letting people down, if I say in the face of this ugliness “I am a poet.”

If you say of the woman in the poem “The first” woman to die in know it is strictly “poetic.” Not at all true. For the same reasons Fidel did. I tell you a maudlin short story...My grandfather, (first man to open a super market in Alabama...but run out with fire when he prospered) came to New Jersey and opened another store...became a big Republican Politician. When he wanted to break with the organization, and run independent for Assemblyman they warned him not to. (A stupid, bullshit job like Assemblyman) O.K., he went ahead and ran...and on the night of the election with him winning, on the way home from his office he was hit in the head with a street lamp! “It just fell on his head and killed him,” they told my grandmother. A Streetlamp! He was over 6 feet and 200 pounds. A huge vital intelligent boot. But when that thing happened, that republican light mashing out his brains, he sat for 5 years in a rocking chair by the stove and spat in a cup, never saying another word. This happened in the 40s. About 3 years ago, the Republicans sent my grandmother 5 Gs for the thing! There is specific evil. With no easy analogies. Eastland is an evil man. I think Castro means to do better. It is some small thing I want. Some goodness I have to see. And these motherfuckers here are going to kill me for it.

Well, Ok I ain’t gonna be the James Baldwin of the Beat Generation. I add only that it is still warm here, my babies cry all the time and thanks for the kind words about the poem.

We here looking forward to Creeley. Wish you cd make it out here again. I ain’t coming to Idaho without my 45 and 17 nubians.

O.K., love to yrs

Oct. 21, [1961].....Dear Roi

You hit me rather hard, I deserved it, and am a little ashamed, more, a lot. I’d thot of this more as a technical problem, ie, if I found myself on the same street with you slugging I’d slug too, I don’t think I really wld ask what you were slugging abt. I wouldn’t, no, never. I never have connected loyalty to anything save love, ideas, never, with them, principles also, I am a renegade, they aren’t worth a shit and you know it. Christ fuck shit is definitely poetic. An internalized diarrhea that never makes it to a hard, holdable ball of shit. People who write of wind, have, simply crossed the barrier, with some courage there, even, I shld think. But in any case it is the final lapse into uselessness. That wasn’t the question. It is emphatically not poetic to say the first woman, the poetic form, has always been, that plural spread, the 20,000ndth. A multitudinous voice. Springs from a rotten center where the world at that you apparently have a keener right to that knowledge than I. I willingly back off from it to some other corner. What I have to say is of course valid. Every man, every woman, who died, dies first, they then are the first ones, one. Any other tack is silly. Unless you of course want to disparage death. The exclusiveness of action is a little difficult to get around. Don’t come to me about relativity, I’ve read Time and Western Man [4] too, or whatever else, and that’s all you know of that abstraction, what you’ve read. In a sighting on right and wrong I am at least as didactic as you.

I get so fucking lonely here, I’d like to tell you this: In NY last spring I thot you the only man who said anything, stood for anything, anything, AND STILL DO, (Allen, the other man there has become so iconoclastic with his “world” I yawn (like my mother used to say of carnivals when I wanted to go to one, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all).

But if you’ve seen one poet you haven’t. Poets are the only fucking people I can stand in this era, everybody else is not worth it.

Like Denise likes Gil because he writes lyrics, and since she can’t write anymore at all, that makes it. But you are a comer. Uh huh. So it is not so simple minded as doing something or anything. Frankly when I got that blurb from the save Cuva committee w/ Elaine DeKooning etc, I was so fucking embarrassed I didn’t know whether or not to sign or not. The fucking stupid lukewarm language, whoever wrote that for all of us liberals was damn near illiterate. Who wants to sign shit like that? But I did because it seemed more the point, your “Fidel’s gonna do ‘better’” than not. But it is a crappy association. That’s indeed the exclusiveness of so called action—you exclude the fire to keep the embers alive. Good God! The laziness of their statement, likewise their action. Those pricks would jump on any ice truck going by. Petty people, like petty rulers, or petty policy makers, piss me off more than big fat billiard heads, I guess.

I guess all I am arguing is that a poet is only ashamed of it if he’d better be something else. That one poor attempt to cut you back, in that poem of mine, The Biggest Killing, is just a prelude to all this I guess. That revolutions are invariably shortsighted enough to determine usefulness, thus starting the assininity of set process all over again. That selfish, exclusive ego again! I don’t find it easy to live in my body either, altho true it is white and shldnt present too great a problem. Your grandfather is not a single instance, no instances are. Color in that sense is ridiculous. I will not hear any of that in the face of the expendability of 40% of the world’s population. Cops even, have this in common with us. When rulers vie in their arrogance for housing and rice and chickens, and nickel, or nylon, at the expense of a mass they know anyway will be automated out very shortly, relativities like “better” become truly time-relative. In that sense the hero is truly dead, in that he is that corrupt, and everybody, deeply and really, is cynical.

But poets are that only outcast force that cannot gain by being chided with plumbing,[5] as I pray John Wieners will not be. It is utterly pointless to think action is a complement to speech. Speech then becomes set and then finally, swallowed. Up. I mean down. Wow, down. And right back out that same plumbing. None of us can help it that this is a sick time. The trouble came about because the mass, a boy with a postmaster father became intelligent, or agent, or agent, so their goddamn means. The time does not flounder for them, they seek uses, their own, only.

It’s like that modern French idea that you can only be a true man if you’ve had an adventure, namely killed someone. And all that complicated horseshit about it ought to be for a “right cause.” I mean in this case of Ray’s, he is that kind of man altho he did it, pasted a white cracker in the choppers and will have his ass burned for it, he doesn’t have any desire to see that bastard go to jail for cutting the coon on the neck. It isn’t that way, I mean simple minded, you understand. It is to Fidel. Operatively, right or wrong, better, right and wrong can be very goddamn convenient hangers for what the hell you feel about something, and that’s back to the World, and only poets know what that’s all about. And if you’re afraid, for whatever embarrassment, to say you’re a poet, then god pity you, you mother, you’ve really copped. In that sense B Russell[6] is better today than anyone else in that he speaks to all, not some duped up ear with a built in trigger spring. And that angry wet chicken look he has at 90, wow, there’s your elegant mind, and man, he hasn’t said for one minute he’s not anything, he’s said on the contrary nothing but fuck you, which is infinitely more readable than Christ fuck shit. But then you wouldn’t put down direct address.

OK. I started out again not to argue because I don’t have any argument with you, at all, as I said. Shit, you must think I’m awfully out of it. But I am the one cat who’s got straight what poetic is, if nothing else. And I haven’t put it down yet. I may, probably will see you in the spring, if they haven’t done you in by that time. I have a reading in Jefferson? Missouri end of April, Lincoln College, that’s a shade school, and then one at a place called Baldwin-Wallace, which is in Ohio! I don’t know how I will make it save by hitch-hike, but I’ll be there like they say. Enclosed is the folder from Lincoln and that’s ma pitcher. I don’t know why I look that way. Habit I guess. The clip you sent w/ yr visage was just as depressing to me as what you said to me because they were both so fucking true. I mean true. Wld it be too naïve to ask is that the end of Bear? Goddamn, and that Burroughs thing was one of the best things you printed, perhaps the. Is there anything at all I cld possibly do to help, way out here. I can’t imagine it but if there is, say. A letter of protest. Ok, that sounds like shit. But I think Raworth might have good loud London contacts, I will send the clip on to him, and if you think so say to me or him. OK.

Look, I don’t want you to think badly of me for all this horseshit I’ve been sending you, I don’t really want to fall out of anything, and besides that, my hangups are not your own. I don’t even know why I say that save that I have such a real and living respect for the tight emotional verity of your last letter. I read it in a bar down in Poca and it set me right off the stool. I don’t know...the point is you are right, and that’s it. I don’t think I’ll let the Marcos poem get out, for all the reasons you enunciate meaning I am too slack at this point to know better. I said some irrelevant things, tho, there, that were true anywhere. But it isn’t that much at any rate. I hate it that I took up your time with ground that you’re possibly not interested in now. Or possibly ever were.

Oct 22 [1961]

Had to go out last night in face of raging snow storm...wood, all that unhappy jazz, I mean when it catches you, but wild beautiful, even if white weather. Got a card from Creeley saying he wouldn’t be getting to Harvard and thus seeing Charles after all, which is sad because he wanted to so much. I keep being brought back to that reality that my body doesn’t hurt, it must be you are right, irresistibly. I get sorry all over again for that poem, and the letter I sent. Shit. I know it isn’t enough for either of us to be “good,” and I ain’t even that, not even that. But there must be times when you are. Jesus that was a beautiful letter. And from it I see more than I ever did, of those things. There must be 2000 or 3000 Negroes in Idaho. Funny thing, I was telling that Englishman, TR,[7] about it, and he said essentially, altho I know he’d know less, the same thing you did, Idaho? I thot that shit was restricted to the deep south, the latter you know better of. I mean than. And your poor goddamn grandfather...that it has to be a colored grandfather is the sadness, because I get sad when you separate me from yourself with that color shit. Which is a “practical” point. I get excluded for some specious detachment. But then you do too, until the stance is innately real, for instance how long wld the Bear be allowed to go in Cuba? You’ve been there and may know better, abt that, but I do wonder.

I don’t know...we may perish here this you may, and admittedly for not half the reason...And if I say I believe you that it is up to you and me, all of the so called minds, to find out, what, I mean you say. Shld I get my ass to the so called city where there is no place at all for me (because I am Not just another poet sitting in Dillon’s). I know it is too true I get sententious where I should make the point. This is an apology.

The snow deep as hell now abt 2 feet, the sun out, too bright to look anywhere. We’re sorta cozy in this little shack, two fires going, plus Coltrane Giant Steps. Be goddamn careful...I don’t suppose I will get a very quick answer from you, naturally, but keep in mind please I am anxious about the scene there and about you especially. Ok, give our love to Hettie and the baby, Lucia has mentioned you and the baby in letters, so I guess everything is going ok?

Love to all of you—Ed


1 Just now, the point counterpoint between Baraka and Dorn throws shadows on a battle in the blogosphere between (the Atlantic’s) Ta-Nehisi Coates and (New Republic’s) Jon Chait. Their recent polemics led to Coates' moving, historically informed takedown of Chait’s case that an autonomous “culture of poverty” is more of a drag on African Americans than the legacy of white supremacy. Coates’ posts were in the tradition of Baraka’s and Dorn’s letters. Chait, OTOH, despite being one of the sharpest young liberal social critics, has still got a racial mountain to climb. Coates has already given him a good reading list, but Baraka’s and Dorn’s letters might provide a little lift too.


3 In New Mexico; the eight-year-old Leslie Creeley was digging a tunnel in the sand when it collapsed onto her.

4 Wyndham Lewis, Time and the Western World, 1927

5 This is a reference to Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, “Song 3,” in which Olson reminisces about his father standing in the doorway of his house where “the plumbing / that it doesn’t work.” The “boy with a postmaster father” in this letter is Olson.

6 Bertrand Russell, British philosopher and historian, 1872-1970.

7 Thomas Raworth, British poet and artist, b. 1938.

Editor’s Note: Ms. Pisano provides more extensive notes to this correspondence in the volume, Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn.

culturewatch Amiri Baraka, Edward Dorn & Claudia Moreno Pisano 2014-04-08T01:21:37-05:00
High Low Country: The Baraka/Dorn Correspondence I’m sure you’re going to somehow manage to say the opposite but mean the same, which we two I like to think always do. It is a good necessity. I just hope we don’t get caught, isolated from each other, across the river, waving.
—Ed Dorn

...[R]isk is something I need…I don’t expect to be right, but it does profit my energies when I am. Moreover it’s the swing itself I dig, if I feel it. Ditto I think you go by that. But I do feel close to you, whatever I say or however.
—Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones

The 60s correspondence between poets Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) and Edward Dorn—collected this year in a vital volume edited by Claudia Moreno Pisano—swings you in and out of what Allen Ginsberg once termed “the era of good feeling.” At the top of the decade, bohemian Baraka’s in thrall to tribunes of the New American Poetry (like Dorn), painters and jazz musicians. But changing times push him away from the Village’s pre-political moveable feast even as he insists: “Against all that other shit kicking around, there’s still that basically human act, the drunken party.” He rustled up more than a few good ones and as you read his letters to Dorn you're there at Creation:

...a wild extraordinary concert last week, with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Wilber Ware. It was really beautiful. No Shit. Cherry played a long slow gorgeous You Don’t Know What Love Is that floored everyone. He has gotten to be too much. Higgins, is about the finest yng drummer on the scene. And you know Wilbur, high as he was, he came on like big time gang busters. Thing went on in a big dirty loft, and we were carrying our own jugs, and the musicians just went as far out as they could, realizing the extreme empathy, &c. of the audience. [1]

Music is often on in the correspondence between Baraka and Dorn who writes a lovely note about listening to Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin way out West: “I still want to scream when I think of it, that death they put her thru…”

It’s very strange Billie singing in these mountains. I sat w/ my chin on the window sill and last night watched a fire started by a bug, across the valley, on the other side of the Portneuf. A nice bright blaze. The poor bastard can’t go much longer, the FBI is after him. This was something like his 7th fire and it finally made it. Beautiful light...At night it gets very cold, we have to pile the blankets on. We can see the whole other wall of the Valley across the way and in the folds of the mountains, where there is more moisture because of a northern exposure where the snow lingers, there are scrub oak, mountain maple, and other shrubs, they are now bright deep rich red, looks like blood running down the cuts of the mountain.

Along with an instinct for straight-no-chaser pathos, the two poets shared an incorrect sense of humor (“Our new little babysitter, who’s about 16...looks like she must shit caramels. Ummm.”) Both were close to Gilbert Sorrentino, who'd go on to be one of American lit’s most slashing satirists. And here’s Baraka’s rapt (if resistant) response to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

It is exactly like the mfing title; incredibly clever. I mean this cat has singlehandedly resurrected the embarrassed ghost of Oscar Daddio Wilde…But when he tried to tell you something you don’t know it’s strictly bush. Like one character walks around saying “truth or illusion.” Yeh. But Uta Hagen (coming out of a Bette Davis bag) is really great. I met Albee during the intermission (one of O’Hara’s friends) and he seems like the kinda cat who’d vomit on you if you punched him...just to get the last word.

Baraka and Dorn weren’t above macho poses, but their tough guy talk tended not to be triumphal. It usually spoke to human vulnerability:

Gild sd something to one of them, like, “You’re a prick,” and baby it was on. There was about 12 of them, and it turned out about 4 or 5 of them were like in another group...they were off-duty cops. Man, they kicked the shit out of us. I mean literally kicked. No fists much. But I backed against the wall street fighting style, and there was a cat on one side kicking me in the shins, I mean calm like he was jerking off.

It was love for poetry—not rage at violent wankers—that first brought city boy Baraka to mountain man Dorn. Their correspondence started in 1959 when Baraka wrote to ask Dorn to contribute poems to the little magazine Yugen, His letter initiated a epistolary tale of artists as young men running into the 60s—a story that makes a case (per Ammiel Alcalay’s Foreword) for putting “aside labels of schools and movements and conventional literary histories, such as exist of that period, and following the person.”

Baraka himself recalled his tight personal connection with Dorn as well as their harmonious aesthetics in a 2009 lecture that serves as a preface to the volume of their letters. Baraka affirmed the “value of what we had discussed and agreed on..."

but it was necessary for me to get away from the Village and the alienation which made me so ashamed as I stood in the Eighth St Book Store when Leroy McLucas (whom Ed collaborated with on a book about Native Americans) ran into the place in the middle of a book party shouting that they had just murdered Malcolm X. I was inconsolable. Ed could understand that but...what could he make of it himself? Was this Liberation which I now shrieked about an exclusive Black province—isn’t there an intellectual and ideological alignment that includes the willing?

Dorn’s will to imagine his buddy’s situation from within shows through in their correspondence. Dorn’s deep digging of DuBois’s Souls of Black Folks hints at why Baraka felt so brotherly toward him[2}:

Dear Roi—Just a note—I wanted to talk to you suddenly, desperately—wow you put me on to Dubois when I read your Tokenism piece—and was sort of thinking to go to the library for something of his but hadn’t until the other day I picked up a paperback The Souls of Black Folks. Reading “of our spiritual strivings” I could hardly finish that 1st chapter—I was crying that much, damn I near couldn’t make my eyes look anymore but got thru it all choked—I tried, in my excitement to read it to Helene but couldn’t do that either.

You’ve probably known the man’s work for a long time—so may not get with my present feeling—of thanks, to you, regret for myself etc. That old Hebrew use, that pull of those most powerful of the nouns we have—like [...]—that pressure of the full emotional sense of the word, like also Dahlberg’s opening paragraphs of his autobiography. Well it isn’t so much the man’s a negro—tho that stuns me too, knowing only Ellison and Baldwin, Wright etc.—Wow shit I wish I hadn’t been so slow—...Oh well, that’s not the point really—I feel I have been gripped where it most belongs by that man, you must be very proud to be of him, no?

Love, Ed

Dorn’s responsiveness moved Baraka to write candidly about rushes of shame, egotism and hubris that marked his own movements of mind early in the 60s. Per this passage from early in their correspondence which also hints at class-based biases that would (forever?) retard Baraka’s spins on the art of politics:

I’m getting to be a bigtime politico. Uptown (harlem) speaking on streets, getting arrested. Even made Senator Eastland’s list, which is some distinction. “Beatnik poet, radical leftist racist agitator,” to quote that dear man. Have a trial coming up next month (after 3 adjournments) for “resisting arrest; inciting to riot; disorderly conduct.” All true as hell. My only bitch is that I only got in one good swing before they popped me (but good). What is it all about? Who knows? It’s just that I’ve got to do something. I donno. I’m picked. What I wanted (& want) was soft music and good stuffy purity (of intent, of purpose) elegance, even (of the mind). And now I’m fighting in the streets and the cops think I’m dangerous. But what is heavy on my head is...Do I owe these people that much? Negroes, I mean. I realize that I am, literally, the only person around who can set them straight. I mean straight...not only as to what their struggle is about, but what form it ought to take! I meet these shabby headed “black nationalists” or quasi intellectual opportunities, who have never read a fucking book that was worth anything in their damned lives...and shudder that any kind of movement, or feeling shd come down to the “people” thru their fingers. Also, these stupid left wing farts whose only claim to goodness is that they know capitalism is bad! Shit. So where does that leave me? Fuck, if I know. I have people, old men, on Harlem streets come up and shake my hand, or old ladies kiss me, and nod “You are a good will help us.” And what? So some foul mouthed prick nationalist gets up on a box and denounces me for having a white wife! Brrr.

Dorn picked up on Baraka’s anxiety about being frozen in or out of the struggle against white supremacy long before the murder of Malcolm X. Their back and forths on this score begin to heat up after Baraka’s radicalizing visit to Cuba in 1961. "Black Mountains Beyond Mountains"—our companion post to this piece—reprints a swatch of letters from that year that amount to a sort of compaction of their entire correspondence. There were other telling exchanges during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Baraka wrote to Dorn in despair:

I don’t know what you’re thinking, but Kennedy’s speech & the last day’s events have frightened me, & mine, out of our wits. Now, the radio says the Russian ships won’t change their course, nor, I suppose, will whatever history has stacked...OH shit, I mean what shit. I mean who the fuck are these bastards to kill all of us? What futile bullshit. For what? And pompous motherfuckers like Kennedy sit & say this shit knowing, I suppose, that it won’t be their kids who get blown up. Goddam. There oughta be or I oughta start a group of terrorists whose only mission will be to bump off all the self-righteous motherfuckers who don’t believe they’re gonna die!

Dorn replied with his own protest against “the very subtle kind of death they had in mind for us all along”: “what was being outlawed was the very possibility of a private dignified death, say vaguely, what Jung talks of as the necessity of the organism, at that crucial point, to know what is happening to it.” Aware, though, of Baraka’s increasing need to act out, Dorn tried to talk him out of extremism:

Your special terrorist group, to bump off the safe ones makes great sense. A lovely idea...Unfortunately perhaps for you and others, your structure is not terrorist. You were born with other things to do, and now, no matter how funny that may seem, it isn’t. You know anyway the degree of preoccupation the terrorist must have, must be inherited. Terrorists are terrorists at birth.

A few weeks on he amped up his No in thunder to Baraka’s guilt “at not having thrown a few bombs at the right places.”

So ok, by birth you are an activist, but culturally you’re not. Now wait a minute boy! Culturally you’re really not. Now I don’t give a shit what color you are you got the same culture I got. I’ve talked to you. You got other things sure, of course that’s true, but we understand each other very well I think, and I think it’s because you came from a lower middle class liberal background and I came from a lower class conservative background. I mean right here that sociological reality, the lines of dispensation of, cutting across the whole middle patch, name your terms and the connections can be come up that sense america is the great leveler, like I know goddamn well you’re too cool to throw yourself on the chest of say Adenauer with a knife in your hands as say he gets out of the lincoln continental on park ave. And you probably aren’t ultimately devious either, which takes care of the hidden aspects of the same act. Perhaps I’m wrong. But I take it your anger, insofar as it can be localized, is poetic, and I am very aware that adjective is in bad odor, but I am pronouncing it here to describe the fact that you ain’t cut out for the shit you are one of the most articulate adumbraters of, and furthermore, you mother, you ought, of all people, to know, throwing oneself against their goddamn walls is one of the most useless USELESS fucking kinds of suicide ever invented by man.

Dorn worried Baraka’s journey into politics would be a doomy trip. Though he got why Baraka would have to kill LeRoi Jones—Prince of Bohemia—to stay sane in America’s “permissive asylum.” Baraka’s letters make it clear he was drinking and drugging dangerously before he broke out of the Village to go “home” to Harlem. (That move uptown may have saved his life even as it brought him near new dangers.) There are harrowing passages in the letters about Baraka’s stay in Bellevue after contracting hepatitis from a dirty needle. (During his convalescence there in the run-up to his blacker-than-thou stage, Baraka locks on the suffering of “poor old city white men":

The all night screamers...Where have these cats been all their lives? In what hopeless furnished room or whatever. A poor Negro or Puerto Rican is one thing. Their culture is reactive, is to a large extent formed, because of the need to exist & grow in such conditions. But the old white poor person is terribly shabby & unnerving.)

Baraka didn’t get hooked on heroin because he had an “automatic thermostat somewhere that gets me very sick when I’ve had what amounts to a habit-beginning portion.” But the lure of smack’s pain reduction was strong. Especially when his partners in high crime were world-class artists.

I was hanging out with Elvin Jones and this nutty painter friend of mine Bob Thompson, which is like, if you listen to Elvin play, hanging out at the Olympics or participating in the motherfuckers. Trane is playing at the Halfnote and after the last set the three of us lit out into the snow with those cats screaming at the tops of their did we love each other that night, I mean completely, and at a real point of ecstasy...we went to Bob’s house and used up all his skag...and that shit always makes me sick, always. But we finally ended up standing on corner, Elvin and I, talking till 8:00 Am, and I was so exhausted and high and drunk by that time I slept till evening. Completely dishonest but wow we got into something other than just standing around being suffering fucking artists. Man those cats suffer on the run, which is what I dig, and take I suppose to be the truest playback of my sensibility. But not that earnest mediocrity...that calmness and stealth. Fuck that.

That passage—and the entire Baraka/Dorn correspondence—amounts to more than a “playback” of these poets' sensibilities. It evokes the 60s livingly—the peaks one step away from the Pit.


1 Baraka goes on: “Also, as some weird added attraction! There was a cat there, from Copenhagen, a Negro cat, who was born in Denmark...can you dig that? Anyway, the cat’s been listening to records, for sho, but he’s into something very personal and very swinging. All came to their feet, after a few seconds hanging to see where the cat was going, he straightened out into this weirdweird sound and metre. Like he was huffing and puffing on an alto. Or like he wasn’t sure whether he was playing Baritone or alto, and dug Harry Carney and Hawk, but really wanted to play like Bird! Can you hear that?? Wow! John Tiinonson I think his name was. I hope sometimes we gets to hear him on some record.” Editor Pisano notes Baraka was referring to Afro-Danish saxophonist and composer, John Tchicai, in one of her many helpful addenda.

2 Hettie Jones reported in her autobiography that in 1964, after dedicating The Dead Lecturer to Dorn, “Roi was to tell me, soon, that Ed Dorn was the only white man that understood him.” (Pace Ms. Pisano.)

culturewatch Benj DeMott 2014-04-07T19:17:25-05:00