At Slate, Amanda Hess reviews the N+1 pamphlet No Regrets on how some women have responded to reading “midcentury misogynists”—you know, the work of guys like Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Philip Roth, John Updike, et al. Hess:
The result is a fascinating exploration of the development of female readers, from their disillusionment with manly canonical works to their discovery of books that speak to a female experience and toward a complicated understanding of how both sexist and feminist works have influenced their view of the world.
What’s so “fascinating” and “complicated,” at least according to Hess? Well, first, readers get angry because these writers are so sexist:
For many of these women, the reading experience begins from a place of seething rage. Take Sara Marcus’ initial impression of Jack Kerouac: “I remember putting On the Road down the first time a woman was mentioned. I was just like: ‘F***. You.’ I was probably 15 or 16. And over the coming years I realized that it was this canonical work, so I tried to return to it, but every time I was just like, ‘F*** you.’”
Then they get worried because there are all of these men reading these novels and acting out exactly what they read because that’s how reading works:
This isn’t just about the books. When young women read the hypermasculine literary canon—what Emily Gould calls the “midcentury misogynists,” staffed with the likes of Roth, Mailer, and Miller—their discomfort is punctuated by the knowledge that their male peers are reading these books, identifying with them, and acting out their perspectives and narratives.
(Good thing Crime and Punishment isn’t read much these days or middle-aged female pawnbrokers and their angelic sisters would be in for a world of hurt.)
But some—a select few, I guess—pressed on and managed to learn something from these ole bigots. Take Kristin Dombek for example. She couldn’t finish Hemingway because (again) he made her “so angry.” But: “years later, I read Hemingway and wished I could have read him earlier. Because I might have learned to write f****** short sentences, which would’ve been really good.”
Two quick thoughts: First, readers are free to like or dislike whatever they want for whatever reason, and there are a fair number of novels that are not worth the time. I am not a huge fan of Bukowski, and I disliked Nabokov’s Lolita because I couldn’t stomach it. But I wouldn’t pretend (I hope) to have any great insight regarding Lolita simply because of my revulsion, and I don’t see much insight or complication or much that is “fascinating” here, at least in Hess’s telling, other than the somewhat self-important dismissal of a bunch of novels.
Second, readers can and should make moral judgments about books. That’s a central part of reading. But good readers should allow books to judge them, too. Otherwise, why bother reading? Of course, if you are offended at the smallest divergence from your own habits of thought and rather narrow worldview, it is going to be tough going. But the good news is that there is more to Hemingway than short sentences.
The apparent banality of these responses to Hemingway and Roth and others may be due to Hess’s selection, but it doesn’t seem so. Reviewing the same volume in The New Republic, Julia Fisher writes: “If you don’t buy the premise that men and women require different books, or at least tend to read the same books differently, too bad. The panelists seem unmoved by the notion that the aim of reading is to transcend one’s narrow perch in the world, not to seek others whose perches are similar—and similarly narrow.”
I have been reading the poetry of Tamura Ryuichi (1923-1998) recently, and it is a delight. It oscillates between surprisingly dark aphorisms and light, conversational maliciousness like this:
I read a boy’s poem called
“Every Morning after Killing Thousands of Angels”
I forget the poem, but the title won’t leave me
I drink some coffee
read a paper read by millions
all the misery
all the destruction in the world
herded into headlines and catch phrases
the only part I trust
is the financial page
a completely blank space governed
by the mechanics of capital and pure speculation
Ryuichi is no apologist of modern money markets, and he regularly needles modern consumerism, but it is those “catch phrases” that, well, really rub him the wrong way.
Born in Tokyo, Ryuichi served in World War II as an artillery gunman northwest of Kyoto but didn’t see combat. Influenced by the poetry of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden and by his experience of propaganda during and after the war, Ryuichi came to understand poetry, against ideology, as a temporal expression of the passions and will of individuals in concrete and evocative language. In “The House of Man,” he writes that he longs for the “verbs” of the “present” instead of the “frothing language, information from the language, information from the information” of the public square:
adjectives: every possible empty adjective
adverbs: coarse and unsightly adverbs
nouns: boring boring nouns are in abundance but
there are no verbs whichever way I turn
all I want is verbs
I am sick and tired of a society made solely of future and past tenses
what I want is the present tense
Ideology pre-packages life in super-imposed concepts (“concepts,” Ryuichi writes, “make people need forks and chopsticks”), but poetry—real poetry—touches our present lives, raises the dead. “Perhaps a great poem,” Ryuichi writes,
travels faster than the speed of light
to invade the present from the future
and the past from the present—
a dead man steps out of the ground,
returns to the hands of those who buried him,
then, moving backwards, continues on
to the flesh-colored ark that bore him,
the original birthing spring
Of course, Ryuichi is aware that poems, like ideologies, are abstracted from particular experiences and events and can be just as deadly to the things we associate with life. In “Water,” he writes that “poetry is in essence a fixed form,” and in “Four Thousand Days and Nights,” one of Ryuichi’s most famous poems, he writes:
In order for a poem to be born
we must kill
we must kill many
we shoot down, assassinate, poison many we love
* * *
In order to give birth to a poem
we must kill those we love
that is the only way to resurrect the dead
it is the path we must take
In other words, poets use experience and memories to build poems, transforming those experiences into something else and, therefore, though I am not sure I entirely agree with Ryuichi on this, killing the original significance.
The difference between the language of poetry and the language of ideology, at least in principle, is found in poetry’s commitment to the passions, the hungers, the pain and suffering, the real nitty-gritty details of life first rather than beginning with an idea, a “concept,” and applying that one idea to all phenomena, which is the way of ideologies. In “The Thin Line,” for example, Ryuichi imagines the poet as a blind but starving hunter who tries “to close in on a single heart,” and in a poem on the day he met Auden, “The Day the Mercury Sank,” he writes, perhaps thinking of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “A deer at bay will fall from the cliff, / but for a human being to fall, / there has to be a poem.”
There’s death in art but also life, while in ideology there is just death and sex, “destruction and reproduction”:
The path of death and sex
path of small animals and insects
a band of bees bends and breaks away
thousands of needles lying in ambush
path without judgments and counter-judgments
without the meaning of meaning
without judgments of judgments
path without empty structures, minor desires
without metaphors, symbols, all imagination
only destruction and reproduction
In short, ideology transforms us into animals—never completely, of course, because we remain human despite everything—by making our thinking, our moral reasoning and our imagination superfluous.
Here are your top five links from Prufrock for the week. Enjoy!
3. Alan Jacobs reviews Unapologetic
4. What did Pontius Pilate think of Jesus? A classical perspective.
Zoltan Istvan connects the dots for us…sort of: If you are an atheist, you must also be a transhumanist:
Sometime in the next decade, the number of worldwide godless people — atheists, agnostics, and those unaffiliated with religion — is likely to break through the billion-person mark. Many in this massive group already champion reason, defend science, welcome radical technologies, and implicitly trust and embrace modern medicine. They are, indeed, already transhumanists. Yet many of them don’t know it because they haven’t thought much about it. However, that is about to change. A transformative cultural storm comprised of radical life improving technologies is set to blow in soon.
There’s nothing like asserting a point instead of proving it. A bit more from Mr. Istvan: “The core of transhumanist thought is two-sided.” (That’s right, a two-sided core! Amazing!)
It begins with discontent about the humdrum status quo of human life and our frail, terminal human bodies. It is followed by an awe-inspiring vision of what can be done to improve both — of how dramatically the world and our species can be transformed via science and technology. Transhumanists want more guarantees than just death, consumerism, and offspring. Much more. They want to be better, smarter, stronger — perhaps even perfect and immortal if science can make them that way. Most transhumanists believe it can.
Sounds like a perfectly horrifying fantasy. I just hope that in addition to perfecting human nature, transhumanists also learn a thing or two about metaphors along the way. Otherwise, this new world is going to be positively teaming with rainbow-jumping unicorns at loggerheads. To wit: “The transhumanism movement is quickly growing. Actually, it’s exploding. Last year, press coverage on the subject soared…The roots of atheism, agnosticism, and the nonreligious go back many centuries. But its foothold became pronounced in the 20th Century…These atheist voices and their writings have paved the way for us, and now the 21st Century will bring the age of transhumanism to the forefront of society.” And so forth, and so forth.
Paintings by an 11 year-old boy are apparently creating a bit of buzz at an art fair near Art Basel in Miami:
Wealthy collectors and famous international artists are descending on the Miami Beach convention center this week for the Art Basel show; but a young, largely unknown artist from Woodland Hills is kicking up some dust of his own nearby, in the city’s Wynwood Art District.
Charles Gitnick, 11, is showing and selling his “3-D gun art” this week at the satellite art event, the Red Dot Art Fair. Gitnick’s Jackson Pollock-inspired abstracts, which feature embedded plastic guns camouflaged by brightly colored paint, have sold over the past few years in L.A. and New York for anywhere from $100 to $2,500 apiece.
But the sixth-grader says it’s not the money that’s important to him, but the message — that gun violence is terrifying to him and he wishes guns would remain in art galleries alone rather than on the streets.
He’s been approached this week by gallerists in Miami, New York and Los Angeles to develop upcoming shows, he says.
The boy’s dad tells us how serious his son’s work is: “My child is sort of screaming through his art the fear about being a child in our society…We need to watch the art of our youth and see what it tells us about the world we are giving them to grow up in. I think his message is you’re scaring me.”
(Pictures of paintings and artist’s statement here.)
Am I the only one who finds it incredibly sad that a father would allow his son to use his innocence mixed with gimmick and politics–and let’s be honest here, it is because these works are by a child and about gun violence that folks are paying thousands of dollars for them, not because of the craft or skill involved–to make money or to advance a political cause?
I’m all for parents supporting their children in their passions, but this smells more like opportunism than support. Or am I missing something?
Based on Google search hits, we seem to be more interested in the morality of art than real crimes or tragedies. So writes Benjamin Pearson in an interesting piece for Tiny Mix Tapes, who confesses that he spent the year preoccupied with questions like:
Is that one Robin Thicke song rapey? Should white girls like Miley Cyrus be allowed to twerk? Should Lily Allen be allowed to make a video commenting on said white girls who twerk? What is thin privilege, and how can we reconcile it with the fact that most obesity worldwide is in rich countries? Speaking of thin privilege, does Lena Dunham hate black people because there aren’t any in her show? Also, do the lyrics to the new Kanye West album mean that he hates women? And just how, exactly, is Kanye West’s fist like a civil rights sign, and wouldn’t that give some awful splinters?
Pearson suggests that maybe “this imbalance of attention [is] more a product of displacement than disinterest”:
After all, our interest in media seemed to revolve more around finding offense than it did finding refuge (thankfully, since “having fun” and “escapism” are #privileged, #thingswhitepeoplelike, #firstworldproblems). Gracias a sites like Flavorwire, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, The Atlantic, Salon, and Upworthy (and our devoted patronage of them), the bulk of our discussion about songs, music videos, TV shows, and films — many of which most of us otherwise wouldn’t have even seen — was limited to their ability to be offensive in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.
This hasn’t necessarily been bad for our understanding of race or sexuality, Pearson writes, but it has been bad for art and art criticism: “Miley Cyrus’s twerking probably didn’t hurt race relations in the US, but the endless ‘offense criticism’ it inspired did hurt our relationship with art.”
Pearson goes on to compare Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Cyrus’s twerking, which is a stretch, to say the least. (Just because both performances offended their respective audiences does not mean that they are equally valuable artistically.) But he does point to a difference in how these pieces were viewed:
[U]nlike the audience in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées — who heard about the ballet beforehand, made the journey to the theater, paid for tickets, and waited in line with anticipation — most of us actually have no investment at all in the art that pisses us off.
And neither do critics. Stravinsky’s naysayers were ballet and classical music aficionados, near-comedically well-versed in and obsessed with the minutiae of the form’s history and technical elements. But I’d hazard a guess that most of Cyrus’s internet critics didn’t even know what key her song was in, or otherwise care about her music
Why does this matter? “Without curiosity about, or investment in, what makes art tick,” he writes, “what’s left to say besides surface-level critiques about how art illustrates, or even causes, our most ubiquitous social ills?”
In short, politics has replaced art (with the help, he notes, of slipshod liberal arts courses at American colleges that have long since ceased to study actual works of art and literature in any detail). Abstractions, ready-made (often politically-correct) categories have replaced actual thinking and concrete criticism. This is secular Puritanism at work, and it’s bad for art. Pearson is absolutely right.
At the same time, he goes too far, it seems to me, in divorcing art from morality, and employs a bit of ready-made, deconstructivist mumbo-jumbo himself. The moral outrage approach to art, he writes,
risks reducing audiences’ own interpretive possibilities. If some fans understand Miley Cyrus’s recent output as having a liberating feminist message, who are critics—especially ones who don’t even like Cyrus much anyway—to say they’re wrong? Instead of being suspicious of (and therefore, it’s implied, intellectually superior to) everyday audiences and their tastes, why not start by trying to understand why people like stuff and what it means to them? Sure, art has some meaning contained within it, but even more important is the meaning we construct for it, the way it interacts with the specific contexts of the lives of people who use it.
First of all, the meaning we “construct” from art is not “more important” than the meaning contained in the art—in fact, I am not even sure I know what he means by “more important.” More important for whom? College students construct all sorts of meanings from poems and novels that have little to do with the actual poem or novel, and that meaning is not that important for them, for me, or anyone else.
Second, how is Pearson’s constructivist hermeneutics any more about art—the formal characteristics of the notes, the words, and the movements of particular pieces—than the political approach he rightly calls to task? Maybe I am misunderstanding him, but it’s as if in rightly rejecting a merely political approach to art he espouses one that is merely personal.
He’s right that critics “should ditch their hermeneutics of suspicion about popular art,” but they shouldn’t be too trusting either.
(HT: Jordan Bloom)
Far be it from me to defend the books section of The New York Times, but this complaint from Tim Graham misses the mark:
This week’s list of New York Times best-selling books proves as usual that the Times doesn’t review conservative best-sellers. The nonfiction list was topped by “Things That Matter,” a collection of columns by Charles Krauthammer and then by “Killing Jesus” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. The children’s middle-grade list is led by Rush Limbaugh’s “Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.” There has been no Times review of these books.
The Times can review whatever it pleases, and there is nothing odd in it ignoring run-of-the-mill books by conservative personalities like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. After all, even The Wall Street Journal’s somewhat more conservative (and excellent!) review section ignored Palin and Limbaugh, and rightly so.
It is a little odd, however, that The Times mostly ignores interesting books by serious conservative writers—books like Mary Eberstadt’s How the West Really Lost God, Roger Kimball’s The Fortunes of Permanence, or Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Race, to give a few recent examples—simply because reviews of these kinds of books almost always make for good copy, whether praised or criticized. Kay S. Hymowitz’s review of Robert P. George’s Conscience and Its Enemies in The Times this summer is a case in point—engaging, and informed, Hymowitz (who, it should be noted, works for the conservative Manhattan Institute) avoids the predictable tub-thumping that can mar pieces on divisive issues. It’s a great review.
Even if The Times has dropped the pose of being unbiased, such reviews keep readers from dying of boredom, which should probably be a priority for newspaper editors these days.
The New York Magazine recently announced that, beginning March 3, 2014, it will go from a weekly to a biweekly publication schedule. While the cut in production will be accompanied by an expansion in cultural coverage, a new section or two, new online hires, an Instagram channel, and so forth, most people see the move as a harbinger of the end of the weekly magazine in general. If New York can’t make it as a weekly, who can?
At The Dish, Andrew Sullivan worries about what this means for how we read:
I’ve long believed that the survivors of this mass media death will be monthlies (and yet The Atlantic seems much more focused on digital than print and Harpers is as willfully obscure as ever) or a few weeklies like The Economist or The New Yorker. But I’m beginning to wonder how a handful of magazines can really sustain an ecology of reading habits alone. At some point the landscape they make sense in evaporates. They become a novelty rather than a central part of a reading public’s life.
I don’t find that satisfying. I find it terribly worrying if we care about sustaining the kind of informed discourse a democracy needs (and, sorry, but listicles and copy-writing disguised as journalism doesn’t count). Hence our attempt to build out and up from a blog and its readership. Will it work in the end? I don’t know. All I know is that it’s a duty to try. And try. And try again. And it’s good to know that as we struggle and improvise in the coming months and years, Adam Moss will be the proof of principle if print can survive at all.
Sullivan is right that weekly magazines nourish certain readerly habits and that those habits cannot be sustained–at least on a wide scale–by a handful of publications.
At the same time, I am not as worried as Sullivan about the future of reading and discourse because, it seems to me, there are certain natural characteristics to the ways we read that are difficult to change. Ways of reading are plastic, but not completely plastic. Our memories are limited, we become bored by repetition and over-stimulation, we value variety and complexity, our eyes need rest, our minds need quiet. And if this is true, I wonder if it makes sense to think of weekly magazines as responding to ways of reading as well as nourishing them.
Like Sullivan, I enjoy weeklies and will be sorry to see them go–if they do go. But I don’t think the loss would be catastrophic for certain kinds of reading or for public discourse. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think other kinds of publications, or kinds or uses of technology, will respond to the sort of demand that led to weeklies–other uses of technology like Sullivan’s own pioneering use of the blog.
And will Sullivan’s use of the blog be successful? Maybe so, maybe not. I hope it will be. But if not, I think something or someone else will be.
Thomas Kidd: “stop idolizing the Pilgrims.”
Four things you should know about the Pilgrims.
Thanksgiving at the White House and the Establishment Clause: “Strict separation of church and state would require us to throw out Thanksgiving as a religious holiday proclaimed by the president. Instead, we should embrace Thanksgiving and throw out strict separationism as a misguided interpretation of the Constitution.”
How the Thanksgiving meal has changed over the past 150 years.
“You hold giblets and you are made of China with a platinum rim and you are a gravy boat!”
In last weekend’s Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed passes on a bit of liberal lore. John F. Kennedy, he writes, was our nation’s “arts patron in chief”:
“American artists have for three years looked to the White House with unaccustomed confidence and warmth,” Bernstein said that day. “We loved him for the honor in which he held art, in which he held every creative impulse of the human mind, whether it was expressed in words, or notes, or paints, or mathematical symbols.”
Taking advantage of artists to inspire national optimism, the Kennedy White House made art glamorous. In return, art became a crucial factor in the new Camelot.
But it is hardly surprising that this aspect of the Kennedy administration is being overlooked.
Despite an unprecedented explosion of the arts in America over the last half-century, artists have never again been afforded such national prominence.
* * *
Art was there from the beginning for the Kennedy administration. The great, barrier-breaking, African American contralto Marian Anderson sang at the inauguration. My favorite photo of the Kennedy era is a picture of Bernstein and Frank Sinatra backstage at an inaugural ball as they waited to go on, each trying to appear cooler than the other and each looking like he had just been given the keys to the country.
John Steinbeck, W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell were on hand. In all, the president — no doubt at the urging of the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy — invited 50 writers and artists and musicians to the inauguration.
Except he wasn’t. There’s no doubt Kennedy invited a lot of artists to the White House and pretended to be interested in contemporary painting and music, but as David A. Smith notes in his excellent Money for Art, Kennedy (unlike his wife) cared little for the arts and did nothing in terms of policy other than follow the example of Theodore Roosevelt in creating an arts council by executive order:
Appearances notwithstanding, the Kennedy administration provided only marginal support and official encouragement for the growing movement to put the power of the government to work for American artists. Over the next two years and ten months, the administration introduced no new legislation, nor did it take any bold or novel steps, to invigorate the nation’s cultural life. In fact, throughout his administration President Kennedy came under fire from some in Congress for doing nothing to further the arts beyond hosting great artists at the White House.
And regarding Kennedy’s personal attitude towards the arts, Smith notes:
In matters of private preferences and artistic tastes, Kennedy had much more in common with his predecessor [Eisenhower] than most people would ever have imagined. One writer who spent time close to the president recorded that, White House performances notwithstanding, JFK was ambivalent at best toward “serious music.” He had no personal interest in opera, was bored by the ballet, and had even been known to doze off at symphony concerts. “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” was his favorite song. His taste in movies ran to Casablanca, Spartacus, or The Guns of Navarone rather than anything “too arty or actionless.” Like Ike, he also preferred paintings of Western scenes, several of which he hung in the White House living quarters, to anything remotely modern or abstract. Also like Eisenhower, Kennedy enjoyed action-packed bedside reading, though he chose the James Bond adventures of Ian Fleming over the Old West tales of Zane Grey.
So who was our “arts patron in chief” if it wasn’t Kennedy? Well, if you go by funding, it was Richard Nixon. That’s right.
After he was elected, Nixon met with Nancy Hanks, who was to head up the young National Endowment for the Arts. Nixon told her, as Smith notes, that “one of the important goals of my administration is the further advance in the cultural development of our nation.” He put his budget where his mouth was, overseeing the largest expansion of the National Endowment for the Arts in its short history, and the largest percentage increase over a period of four years to date. When Nixon took office in January 1969, funding for the NEA was at a little over $8 million. When he left office in 1974, its budget was over $60 million. If Nixon had not supported the NEA in the way that he did, the small, fledgling agency may have easily disappeared.
But, as they say, great myths die hard.