Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Barbarian Inside

“What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”

“When some men suffer unjustly, it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it.”

During a tumultuous period in the history of apartheid, the government in Pretoria, morally isolated by the international community, committed some of the worst excesses of violence against the native tribes whom it had subjugated and humiliated for more than two centuries. In the midst of this bloodletting, J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians was published in 1980. The novel clearly indicts the apartheid government for crimes against humanity, though Coetzee was clever enough to set his story in the horse-and-wagon days in a frontier, far away, long ago. Also, intelligently, Pretoria, South Africa, even the Magistrate of this frontier town are never outright named, so that the injustice it dramatizes could be anywhere in the world. Technology might evolve, but Man's abominations only change form or flags or color.

Our narrator, the Magistrate, does not rule nor think like a despot, but trusts in the Law, even when he doesn't agree with it (as he explains to a young deserter he is sentencing, “All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade.”). His days progress uneventfully with dull bureaucratic work, he hunts (but sometimes lacks the nerve to kill his prey), reads the classics, visits the outpost's demimonde once a week, and collects artifacts of the desert from past civilizations. He has “not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.”

This tranquility is disturbed by a Colonel Joll, a man who hides his eyes behind dark glasses and is investigating a “disturbance” caused by some barbarians. There are two prisoners, a boy and his grandfather, hardly “terrorist” types, but without due process and under the duress of torture (in which the old man dies) the boy, traumatized and scarred, concedes a barbarian plot in the works. The Magistrate, who loathes the Colonel's methods, nevertheless rubber-stamps a reconnaissance expedition into the countryside. A week later, prisoners are sent back, aboriginal fisherfolk, arrested for simply existing. After Joll returns to the capital the Magistrate has the prisoners released to return to their land.

But one young woman doesn't leave. Her father had been killed in Joll's interrogations and she has had her ankles broken and her corneas burned so that she can only see penumbra forms. She is begging for food, and the Magistrate taking pity on her, invites her to work in the kitchen, and she becomes something of a concubine. But he doesn't sleep with her-- he washes and dresses her wounds and caresses her body, but doesn't go any further. The actions of the Magistrate seem to embody liberal guilt: the white man feels bad about the unfairness of the power structure, but as he yet benefits from such relationships, hesitates to go any further than cosmetic aid. Eventually, accompanied by a guide and two soldiers, the Magistrate undertakes a harrowing journey to return the woman (she, too, never named) to her people.

When he returns, he finds a charged atmosphere in his sleepy outpost. The Magistrate-- accused of conspiring with the enemy regarding the government's intended campaign-- is stripped of authority and imprisoned, while Joll assumes despotic rule. In the process of losing everything: his authority, his reputation, his comfortable life, the Magistrate moves beyond pity and compassion into outrage and rather than apologize he determines to protest and provoke the Colonel, until he is then stripped of his last vestige, his dignity, when severely tortured: “They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself.”

The Magistrate is so humiliated authorities don't even bother locking him up anymore. He is allowed to roam the yard like an animal, begging for scraps, his self-respect annihilated. For all his concepts of social justice, he is no revolutionary; he merely wants to survive, even “to be fat again.” The crisis for the Magistrate comes when he cannot offer a credible alternative between Joll's fascist maneuvers and the only truly righteous scenario: “Justice: once that word is uttered, where will it all end? Easier to shout No! Easier to be beaten and made a martyr. Easier to lay my head on a block than to defend the cause of justice for the barbarians: for where can that argument lead but to laying down our arms and opening the gates of the town to the people whose land we have raped?”

Through it all, the Colonel doubles down on the settlers' worst fears regarding their “enemy.” He is invisible, just outside the walls, lurking: “There is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians carousing in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters.” The soldiers, drunken, carousing parasites on the town, are thus bandied as the last defense against the much ballyhooed “barbarians.” Never mind that many of the settlers have never encountered or been directly threatened by this invoked Boogeyman. Their emotions are merely fomented by the most obvious physical differences in “us-and-them” adversarial relations. And it can be hopeless talking them out of their fears and prejudices: “How do you eradicate contempt, especially when the contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid?” Of course, it doesn't take much effort to realize that the titular barbarians we await are not necessarily the "other," but a kind of monster within, surfacing when we give in to our prejudices, self-interest, and fear of the unknown. 

The writer, J. M. Coetzee

Before his fall from power, the Magistrate is queried by a military officer as to the intentions of the barbarians. The answer is simple, but actualization seemingly impossible. “They want an end to the spread of settlements across their land. They want their land back, finally. They want to be free to move about with their flocks from pasture to pasture as they used to.” We could be talking Tibetans, Palestinians, and the Aboriginals, to name but a few indigenous peoples whose lives were uprooted, reconstituted in poverty and neglect, and sentenced to live a second-class existence. That is the most poignant reaction to Coetzee's novel-- that he has dramatized the violence of power structures, to guide our outrage and compassion, reminding us of the complex bravery choosing to stand for social justice, all the while being faithful to universal truths in beautiful, clear prose. It is not every day that a reader discovers an overlooked masterpiece.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Renaissance Man, Narcissist, Psychopath: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

“Though I know the angry words that passed between them I shall not report them, as I am not meant to be writing history. I shall concern myself only with my own affairs.”
--Benvenuto Cellini

“He's the greatest man his profession has ever known.”
Pope Clement VII on Cellini (allegedly)

One of the great godfathers of the memoir genre is arguably Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine polymath of the High Renaissance, who penned his life story over five years between 1558 and 1563 when the sculptor was in his early sixties. No doubt one of the inspirations for the autobiography was to present his side of the story, a defense of lifestyle anticipating whatever disagreeable remembrances his many enemies (legion in numbers) might put down in writing. Though Cellini does his very best to portray himself as, at best, a respected genius, and at worst, a wronged innocent, he does admit to various offenses, most especially cold-blooded murder and hot-blooded sodomy. He is alternately lucid, pious, vain, psychotic, pretentious, delusional, and self-pitying. Somehow he is consistently charming despite being a prodigious name-dropper, an untiring braggart, and a master of invective and disrespect. But mostly his story regards the life of the artist and how, just as in the present day, it was incredibly difficult to be fairly compensated for commissioned work, even when your patrons were popes, kings, and dukes.

Cellini was born in Florence in 1500. Establishing his reputation early on as a talented goldsmith, he had ambitions for Rome, but a scandal involving the murder of an adversary expedited his departure from his native city. Cellini came of age when the Medicis of Florence were the most powerful family in Italy, and one of their own was Pope Clement VII. He gushed over Cellini's work and trusted him with his jewels and the defense of Rome when Spanish Imperialists sacked the city in 1527. Cellini turned out to be a talented soldier, as he has us believe he single-handedly saved the city from greater ruin by killing both The Duke of Bourbon and the Prince of Orange with his sharpshooting. Later, under a new papal chief, Pope Paul III, he would be imprisoned, but manage to escape in spectacular fashion. Leaving Rome persona non grata, his talents would flourish in the court of Fontainebleu under the patronage of King Francis I. His self-destructive tendencies never waning, Cellini was eventually chased out of Paris in a cloud of intrigue. Returning home, he worked for Cosimo I de Medici, the Duke of Florence, where he thrived and struggled, and less than a decade after completing his autobiography, died of pleurisy at the age of 71.

Cosimo de Medici, autocrat, Cellini's great patron in Florence in his later years

Cellini's prose style is jocular and conversational, almost as if he had dictated his life story to a scribe while busy designing the duke's profile on a silver coin. Of course, this being an autobiography, Cellini freely edits the story due the priorities of self-aggrandizement. Despite this, the narrative flows rather well, though unpleasant episodes are left out (most conspicuously absent were his imprisonments in his fifties for assault and sodomy). But Cellini is selling us an archetype of an artist (that when circumstances necessitate, makes both love and war), who doesn't trifle with (in his estimation) trivial details: “There was a suitable opportunity for me to speak of my daughter here, and I did so in order not to distract from other, more important matters. I shall say nothing more of her till the proper time.” In the instance when Cellini's parents die of the plague he doesn't remark or mourn their passing. Nevertheless, he waxes poetically on the mutual admiration he and his contemporary Michelangelo share, indulges us in his experiments in black magic with a necromancer, and describes in detail both times he was poisoned by his adversaries. And then there is his time in prison, where like so many before and after him, he finds salvation in God, and discovers in himself a halo of beatification: “From the time I had my vision till now, a light-- a brilliant splendor-- has rested above my head, and has been clearly seen by those very few men I have wanted to show it to.” And from finding and loving God, he then makes his famous prison break, the narrative never missing a beat.

What makes Cellini's prose such a delightful read are his prejudices, his asides, his brusqueness. He is a first-rate raconteur in the Italian tradition. Cellini on his courtship of a lady: “We had a very agreeable talk together, and it wasn't about things you can buy in a shop.” Cellini stereotyping: “I left Naples at night, with the money on my person, in case I fell victim to the usual Neapolitan custom and was attacked and murdered.” Cellini hot-tempered: “I was advised to seek redress by legal means, though my immediate impulse was to cut his arm off.” Cellini quoting the King of France: “I am certain that such beautiful work was never known to the ancients: I well remember having seen all the best works done by the finest craftsmen of all Italy, but I never saw any that moved me more than this.” Cellini traveling in the countryside: “It was an enjoyable journey, save for an incident near La Palice, when a band of robbers, the Adventurers, tried to murder us. But we fought them off boldly, and pushed on to Paris. We arrived there safely, singing and laughing all the way and not meeting the slightest accident.” Cellini describing a ploy of his French enemies: “They planned to have their revenge on me and they consulted a Norman lawyer, who advised them that she should say I had used her in the Italian fashion, that is to say, unnaturally, like a sodomite.” And Cellini insulting a rival artist and his rendition of a model of Hercules: “ can't be sure whether his face is that of a man or a cross between a lion and an ox; that it's not looking the right way; and that it's badly joined to the neck, so clumsily and unskillfully that nothing worse has ever been seen; and that his ugly shoulders are like the two pommels of an ass's pack-saddle; that his breasts and the rest of his muscles aren't based on a man's but are copied from a great sack full of melons...”

One of Cellini's great works, Perseus holding the head of Medusa

Taking offense at another sculptor's grandstanding, Cellini quipped, “Outstanding artists act as such, and brilliant men who create good and beautiful works of art are shown in a much better light when others praise them than when they praise themselves so confidently.” Very agreeable but a bit rich, of course, when the speaker seems to embellish his received accolades. But this is Cellini's story and so we should take him at his word because to repudiate the lavish praise is to doubt all the strange and horrible misadventures too. In the end, he is clearly a narcissistic psychopath, but a charming one, and so with the blood spilled long since washed away, we mostly forgive him. While mostly overlooked as one of the great Renaissance sculptors, Cellini's autobiography, almost five centuries later, remains a literary classic. No doubt his ghost, whether it be in heaven, hell, or lurking somewhere in the halls of Florence's splendid palace museums, is not displeased with this good turn in posterity.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Plague on All the Houses

“The truth must be told: the plague had taken away from all of them the power of love or even of friendship, for love demands some future, and for us there was only the here and now.”

The philosopher prince and enfant terrible, Albert Camus, did not much like the Algerian city of Oran, which is now and forever associated with his most famous novel, The Plague, a story part parable, part metaphor about the catastrophe of pestilence. One can read into its subtext the trials of the French Resistance, from which its ideas and arguments were drawn and of which Camus was a reluctant hero, though he would later disavow all accolades. Rather, he identified with his altar ego from the novel, Dr. Rieux, a physician making the rounds of the city's sick, risking infection on 20-hour shifts day in day out for months, never knowing when the plague might end, and worst of all, completely unable to heal the dying, stuck with the unenviable task of validating death sentences and arranging victims' families to be quarantined. That Dr. Rieux fulfills his role with good temper, in Camus' view, does not make him a hero, but a man.

The book begins when all the city's rats wander into the living rooms to die. Shortly thereafter the first men and women begin to convulse violently with high fever, swollen lymphs, and coughing blood, the Bubonic Plague redux. When the number of deaths begin to escalate no one wants to mention the unmentionable due the inevitable economic and social disruption: “Dr. Rieux was unprepared, as were the rest of the townspeople, and this is how one should understand his reluctance to believe. One should also understand that he was divided between anxiety and confidence. When war breaks out people say: 'It won't last, it's too stupid.' And war is certainly too stupid but that doesn't prevent it from lasting.” But the epidemic does not just last but thrives and Oran has to shut its gates to prevent the spread of contamination, isolating the city from the rest of the world. “Thus the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow-citizens was exile... we accepted our status as prisoners; we were reduced to our past alone and even if a few people were tempted to live in the future, they quickly gave up.”

In such a climate only those with something, or more importantly, someone to love for, were not overwhelmed by the collective despair: “The egotism of love protected them in the midst of the general distress and, if they did think about the plague, it was always and only to the extent that it risked making their separation eternal.” The visiting journalist, Rambert, exemplifies this condition of exile, scheming to escape but prevented from doing so for many months. When he finally has an opportunity to leave he instead chooses to stay and continue his work on the health teams. Why do so when he has no vested interest in the city of Oran and he can be reunited with his sweetheart? Because even if he were to succeed and achieve this vision of happiness, it would be a “happiness in solitude,” understanding that this was a crisis and that he had chosen to flee rather than aid his fellow men. Even though his friends, Dr. Rieux and Tarrou, encourage him to escape, he knows he wouldn't be able to live with himself had he abandoned the city in its time of desperate need.

The Plague is about how men and women respond to crises when their lives and livelihoods are threatened. And while some men will exploit a calamity for their own gain (such as the criminal Cottard profiteering off the black market) Camus, via Dr. Rieux, takes the optimistic view that most men are good, not because they have religious or spiritual motivations but on behalf of utterly humanistic impulses. Tarrou, a drifter who organizes health teams to combat the epidemic, asks Dr. Rieux, “Can one be a saint without God: that is the only concrete question that I know today.” In fact, the religious authorities are a complete failure in the face of the plague, the city's spiritual leader, Father Paneloux, even condoning the suffering and deaths of children as a test of the believers' faith, describing the choice as a zero-sum game: one either loves and accepts God (the horrors being part of his Plan) or one denies his existence. Delivered in such all-or-nothing stakes, the realists dealing with the plague firsthand mostly ignore this ridiculous proposition.

The Rebel

As Camus' narrator says, “The trouble is, there is nothing less spectacular than a pestilence and, if only because they last so long, great misfortunes are monotonous.” At times, so is the novel, especially such a conceptual one with philosophical points supplementing nearly every development. And though the circumstances of such a disease can be tedious-- time literally standing still for one to survive or perish in the epidemic's steady method of attrition-- the conclusions Camus reaches are instructive and for the most part true. We are each independent persons with unique and special pursuits and most of the time, hopefully for all of our lives, this is fine and good. But there comes a moment for some of us when such living is no longer morally tenable and hard choices need to be made. Importantly, doing the right thing does not necessarily promise heroism, but does guarantee membership in the human race.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Earth is Watching

Shibuya, Tokyo June 25th, 5am

Four years ago on a humid early summer morning I woke up about 4am and checked the World Cup scores, reading that Japan had defeated Denmark to advance to the next round. I got on my bicycle and rode down to Shibuya to explore the reaction. You would have thought by the celebration that they'd won the World Cup itself, or that a cure for cancer had been discovered, or that everyone had discovered true love finally and were dancing in the street. But it was a mere soccer victory against an average opponent in the first round. And yet it was absolute bedlam.

Absolutely, I understand that being proud of your country is important, but nevertheless I've always found it extraordinarily silly to associate your country's greatness via a group of overpaid athletes outperforming another country's group of overpaid athletes. I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, which was a very good decade to be a sports fan, the Lakers, Dodgers, and Raiders taking home multiple championships. Los Angeles even held the Olympics in 1984. But these victories did not make me proud of my hometown so much. However glorious the Lakers dynasty was it did nothing for the city's congestion, crime, drug abuse, unequal housing, spiraling education costs, discrimination, police brutality, civic corruption or anything else that makes a city safe, livable, and respectable.

The World Cup, like the Olympics, channels its citizens' nationalism into something less dangerous than militant activism. Nevertheless, the competition reduces our emotions to "us" vs. "them," victory at any cost so that in our zeal to win we often fail to appreciate the athletic finesse of the the oppositional team. And Japan defeating Denmark has nothing to do with Japan being better than Denmark. It's a game, nothing more, and no one else involved cares.

It can be fun subsuming your individuality within a larger group, at least for 90 minutes. So long as you remember that the World Cup is fun but that we're all in it together, humanity on earth, and that many of us are famished, without electricity, and hundreds of millions of us are under duress from the dramatic consequences of global warming. Collaborating on these crises successfully would be the greater miracle than your favorite underdog winning it all on the soccer green.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Teenage Suicide Was Never So Beautiful

“They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers as they surfaced to drink from garden hoses; they had killed themselves at the sight of of used tires stacked higher than pyramids; they had killed themselves over the failure to find a love none of us ever could be. In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”

In Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, the reader knows how the story ends not just from the first page, but from the tell-all nature of the novel's title itself. Five teenage sisters, the Lisbon daughters, Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia, successfully kill themselves, the youngest, Cecilia, inaugurating this disastrous turn of events when she leaps out of her bedroom window during a rare open-house soiree, impaling herself on an iron fence post. Within a year the others would follow en-masse, devastating a suburban community near Detroit, Michigan. Their accursed fate is meticulously analyzed by an anonymous narrator looking back nostalgically and with bittersweetness (cleverly utilizing the collective “we” rather than the singular “I” pronoun, so that the deaths of the Lisbon girls is meant to affect us all.)

What matters to us not so much is that the girls committed suicide, but why? The Virgin Suicides is set in the early 1970s, a notable moment in American history because it was then that American political and economic hegemony had begun to wane (the recession and energy crisis caused by the oil shock, the costs and shame of the Vietnam War, Watergate, urban decay, etcetera). As our anonymous narrator explains,Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls. Our parents thought it had to do with our godlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex we hadn't even had.” The Detroit area and its automative industry had already begun its precipitous decline into what has become its symbolic cautionary status as a failed metropolis. The little things, unfinished or handled incompetently, added up to a state of attrition: “It had to do with the way the mail wasn't delivered on time, and how potholes never got fixed, or the thievery at City Hall, or the race riots...” The suicide of the Lisbon daughters then is how a small community explains its own decline in parable form. Their deaths can clearly demarcate the way it was to the way it is, one side of time's spectrum, beautiful, sunny, optimistic, the present one of deteriorating opportunity and declining faith in future returns.

But for all the darkness and symbolism, this is not a depressing novel, but one that gets it so right in capturing adolescence in its absolute innocence, imagination, awkwardness, and butterflies in the stomach teenage boldness. Eugenides has a gift for nailing the small details, adding them up, and composing a scene so evocative and true he nearly universalizes the coming-of-age experience. And it is because his narrator and team of obsessive Lisbonphiles are such average, yet sympathetic boys that we, the readers, understand implicitly own own clumsiness and that while it might have felt unbearable at the time, there is indeed something romantic in growing up in America, or at least this feels true in the novel's resonance. One of the best examples is when our narrators describe the school heartthrob, Trip, and his courtship of the sultriest of the sisters, Lux Lisbon:

     “Trip had never even had to dial a girl's phone number. It was all new to him: the memorization of        strategic speeches, the trial runs of possible conversations, the yogic deep breathing, all leading up to      the blind, headlong dive into the staticky sea of telephone lines. He hadn't suffered the eternity of the      ring about to be picked up, didn't know the heart rush of hearing that incomparable voice suddenly        linked with his own, the sense it gave of being too close to even see her, of being actually inside her      ear.”

Whether describing the watershed moments in a teenager's life, like the Homecoming dance or a first kiss or the more prosaic but nevertheless dramatic and agonizing business of calling a girl you love but who doesn't love you back, the novel reads like a prose poem, so delicate and pure its writing, but never precious, sentimental, or cloying.

Sofia Coppola did a terrific adaptation, 
really nailing the spirit of the book, especially this scene

While the The Virgin Suicides implies small-scale tragedies might have large-scale implications, this is a very intimate story about a family's failure to adjust with loss. Following the shock of Cecilia's suicide, the Lisbons never quite recover, especially the parents, who not only enact a draconian set of rules on the daughters' behavior (isolating them from the world and teenage protocols), but lose altogether their zest for living so that perhaps, as negative examples, the Lisbon girls saw no reason they should not join their sister. Small tasks, like cooking meals, washing dishes, and dusting tabletops fall by the wayside. A retainer left by a boy in the Lisbons' bathroom is tossed into the toilet whereas a quick phone call would have returned the mouthpiece to its owner. “Acts like these-- simple, humane, conscientious, forgiving-- held life together.” But even Mr. Lisbon fails in his failure to fulfill his responsibility: “The retainer, jostled in the surge, disappeared down the porcelain throat, and when waters abated, floated triumphantly, mockingly, out.” It is the small details, that signify not only winning or losing, but the beauty of a good story well told.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Smells Like Human Spirit

“Or why should earth, landscape, air-- each filled at every step and every breath with with yet another odor and thus animated with another identity-- still be designated by just those three coarse words?”

Ask almost anyone which of their five senses are expendable and they would almost to a man say, with little deliberation, they would forego their sense of smell. An underused sensory perception, the word “smell” generally has a negative connotation-- if we say something “smells” it is not a generous observation, but one that implies rottenness, decay, or corporeal fumes. But to even describe a disagreeable smell exposes the paucity of our language to describe that odor precisely. In any case, modern life has managed to suppress the stench of living with good sewage treatment, sanitization, hot water showers, and a multiplicity of helpful, pleasant scents (although new unpleasant chemical-based ones have evolved with our technology as well). Few things in this world seduce our noses with their divine essence, and even when they do, not many of us have the time to stop and (ahem) “smell the roses.” 

The German writer Patrick Suskind's Perfume, is one of the only novels I know of that concerns our underutilized nasal appendages. The novel, set in pre-revolutionary 18th century France, concerns a certain Jean-Baptise Grenouille, “one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.” He is born in Paris in a wretched fishmongers' marketplace, abandoned by a useless mother, unwanted and unloved in various homes, becoming a child laborer in a tannery. All the while he is aware of the potency of his nose to pinpoint various odors good and bad and these only had any meaning to him: “It was as if he were an autodidact possessed of a huge vocabulary of odors that enabled him to form at will great numbers of smelled sentences.”

The child gets his big break when he gets a job apprenticing for a déclassé perfumer named Baldini. Once inside a laboratory, with access to all these marvelous ingredients, Jean-Baptise turns out to be a born alchemist in the realms of essences and revives Baldini's business fortunes. But (once more, ahem) the sweet smell of success doesn't mean anything for Jean-Baptise. Now a slight ogre of a man, he recognizes the limits of Baldini's laboratory, wanting to master the arts of distilling purer essences. Moreover, he is exasperated and haunted by the olfactory ravages of Paris, “a mixture of human and animal smells, of water and stone and ashes and leather, of soap and fresh-baked bread and eggs boiled in vinegar, of noodles and smoothly polished brass, of sage and ale and tears, of grease and soggy straw and dry straw.” He packs a few edible items and a letter of introduction and leaves Paris for the countryside.

On the way he discovers the righteousness of what a later Frenchman would say, “Hell is other people” and winds up a hermit in a mountaintop cave. Jean-Baptise's story might have ended there but always there was the problem of his belonging to humanity, for for all his olfactory superpowers, the little man himself has no physical smell whatsoever. The novel posits that body odor, for lack of a more precise choice of words, constitutes our human aura (or literally, an essence). Whether we fall in love, trust a stranger, avoid a creep, and other automatic instinctual reactions might have something to do with the other person's smell, even if we are unconscious of it. Jean-Baptise then feels compelled to find another laboratory where he can experiment with different additives to give himself a smell and thus admission to the human race, to have presence among other men: “There was a basic perfumatory theme to the odor of humanity, a rather simple one, incidentally: a sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, quite richly repulsive basic theme that clung to all humans equally and above which each individual's aura hovered only as a small cloud of more refined particularity.”

18th century stinky metropolis

However, Jean-Baptise is interested in composing a more elusive, ethereal scent that is (unfortunately) derived from human specimens. This is where a good novel becomes great, at the expense of empathy for our hero. Nevertheless, Suskind pulls off a remarkable, if not hysterical climax that, for a novel championing the nose, is as visually surreal as anything I've ever read. No one reading Perfume can ever forget the book's final pages and the strange twisted fate of Jean-Baptise Grenouille. I loved the novel so much that when I finished reading it I opened the book and plunged my face into its pages, inhaling deeply. I wish I could tell describe articulately what they smelled like, for in my own inadequate grasp of nasal intelligence, the pages just smelled like paper to me. That's all I got, that and my own idiosyncratic human sour-sweet smell.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Vincent & His Penpal Theo

“I need not overhurry myself, there is no good in that-- but I must work on in full calmness and  serenity, as regularly and concentratedly as possible, as concisely and economically as possible. The world only concerns me in so far as I feel a certain debt and duty towards it because I have walked that earth for thirty years, and, out of gratitude, want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures-- not made to please a certain cult in art, but to express a sincere human feeling.”

--Vincent Van Gogh

Self portrait with bandaged ear

No one did the starving artist bit more famously than Vincent Van Gogh. After various career stints in a picture gallery and bookshop, later as a schoolteacher and a lay preacher, failing or being forced out of every position he ever endeavored, the troubled Dutchman becomes a full time painter around the age of 27. This same time he becomes completely dependent on his younger brother, Theo, for all his living expenses. Never marrying and alienating nearly everyone whom he comes into contact with, Van Gogh lives a destitute, itinerant existence, unable to settle anywhere very long. He is nearly always malnourished, often lonely, and occasionally suffers debilitating spells of depression that late in life take the form of nervous breakdowns (as in the infamous offering of his ear to a prostitute). The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (edited by Mark Roskill) is a curated epistolary collection of his miseries, epiphanies, and banalities, alternately dull and inspiring, an invaluable record of perhaps the most famous painter of all time, who penniless and institutionalized at the age of 37, commits suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest.

Vincent's correspondence reflects his concerns, worries, and interests, which evolved with his art and descent into madness. Early on, in his preacher days, he examines theological ideas piecemeal until later disillusionment turns him into a full-blown apostate (“I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life-- the power to create.”). In his late twenties, early thirties, he struggles in dead-end relationships, falling for women who either fail to return his affections (his cousin Kee Vos) or women of ill repute from the demimonde (the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik), confessing his amorous confusion to Theo with, “What a mystery life is, and love is a mystery within a mystery.” He adores certain writers, particularly Charles Dickens, with whom he shares his concerns for social justice. (“But one must learn to read, exactly as one must learn to see, and learn to live.”) And later in life, aware of a movement called Impressionism, he ruminates on what painting means in terms of art, truth, beauty: “Tell him that my great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodellings, changes of reality, so that they become, yes, untruth if you like-- but more truth than the literal truth.”

For someone better known for his pictures than his prose Van Gogh's writing is very articulate, often extremely precise in its descriptions. That might have been due to his bibliophilia (not just Dickens, but most of the great writers of the 19th century were favorites, especially Balzac, Zola, and George Eliot) but also to his visual background and sensitive nature. In his correspondence it is all peaks and troughs, but his aesthetic appreciation for beauty is vivid and inevitably colorful: “Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms. Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.” There is a focus to the letters and comparatively little banter. The most banal matters are often due to money. Theo's welfare checks are never enough, as Vincent spends the largess on models, paints, and canvases. Literally, he subsists on stale bread rolls and warm milk (which no doubt had an effect on his physical and mental deterioration, though how much we have no way of really knowing).

An artist of mercurial temperament, nothing quite stays with Van Gogh. He burns bridges with friends and family (his tempestuous relationship with his preacher father is often lamented and Paul Gaughin's famous stay with Van Gogh in Arles had been a disaster). A normal life is impossible due to conflicts of personal views with his various employers (he almost definitely had authority issues) and his ceding of financial independence to his brother (in the arrangement Theo acquired ownership of Vincent's work so that it was more of a payment for services rendered than a support check, though Vincent is always asking for more, swearing on “activity,” insisting that he is not “lazy” or “plodding”). Initially euphoric in new locations, discovering places and subjects to paint, he always becomes disillusioned eventually, save Arles, where its bright, beautiful sunshine inspires him to his most prolific work, though his eccentricities alienates the townfolk and they petition for his removal. The only constant in his life in fact is painting. It is the one thing in life that gives him any joy or confidence, the only way to transcend his miseries, so that Vincent becomes single-mindedly determined “to sacrifice all personal desires, to realize great things, to obtain nobleness of mind, to surpass the vulgarity in which the existence of nearly all individuals is spent.”

The road for Van Gogh was long and treacherous, filled with self-doubt (for no one would buy his paintings) and extreme poverty. But it was worth it because he understood it intrinsically as his life's calling ("Blessed is the man who has found his work."), grasping also that all great loves entail some kind of pain: “By painting, one becomes a painter. If one wants to become a painter, if one delights in it, if one feels what you feel, one can do it, but it is accompanied by trouble, care, disappointment, periods of melancholy, of helplessness...” His letters are often punctuated with dreams of an arts community, a utopian vision of cooperation, collaboration, and collectiveness. It's tempting to wonder how Van Gogh would have handled his passions and pain in contemporary life. Would he have felt less alone had he an online community, a way to share his work? Or would he despair at the humbling stats of his Tumblr account, at the inattention due him, at the sheer, voluminous ubiquity of artists and art? Van Gogh is by no means the only unacknowledged genius-- hundreds of others have toiled in anonymity, most of whom only to be utterly forsaken. At least his brother had been one of the most respected art dealers on the Continent (nevertheless, tragically, Theo would die just months after Vincent).

Reading these letters, which is akin to reading the diary of somebody's innermost thoughts, I couldn't help remembering my own capricious fortunes in my twenties while I learned to be a writer, struggling with confidence and money, sacrificing a normal life, a good career, stable income, watching friends from university establish real careers in their fields while I pattered along with the vain hope of expressing--as Van Gogh described it, “a sincere human feeling.” Every artist's journey is a different in the details but the arcs are generally the same-- some make it, some don't, and then there are the exceptions like Van Gogh (or more recently Henry Darger and the photographer Vivian Maier) who become spectacularly beloved after death. On my worst days I've been paralyzed by my own self-doubts, though I've been luckier than Van Gogh in life, having found a way to live and even thrive. Some artists, particularly the more sincere ones, don't do their trade for the money or even recognition, but for love. Maybe you're born, maybe you're made, but however you get there beauty makes you feel all is right with the universe and this helps smooth the kinks of living on the edge, at least for a brief, blissful moment. And it is not extraordinary to be moved by life; in fact, it is something you might know just by looking. As Van Gogh said looking up at the night sky over the Rhone, hungry yet spiritually sated: “And all the same to feel the stars and the infinite high and clear above you. Then life is after all almost enchanted.”

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Way of the Glass

“Everything everybody does is so-- I don't know-- not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.”

Nowhere near as beloved as J.D. Salinger's most famous novel, Franny and Zooey is nevertheless a fine follow-up to Catcher in the Rye, once you've finished university, talked a good game, enjoyed a few wild streaks, got a good job, and have come to the realization that for all your good fortune, your education, your friendships, and your loves loved and lost, there is yet something amiss, intangibly off, and the anxiety that this might be all there is. Luckily, I have never suffered the nervous breakdown that strikes the titular Franny, who for all her beauty and intelligence has an acute Holdenesque disconnect from the physical world, leading her to chant “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” a mantra she's learned from a story about a Russian peasant seeking God called Way of the Pilgrim, a book handed down from her older brother, Seymour, the famous suicide in Salinger's short story, “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.”

Franny's existential dilemma is the thread between the two stories (originally published within a few years of each other in The New Yorker in the 1950s), the short “Franny” and the novella-length “Zooey.” The former concerns Franny's disastrous date with her long-distance beau, Lane, on the eve of the big football game with Yale, the latter story with her brother Zooey's attempt to prod Franny out of her misery. Both pieces are dialogue-rich and easy to imagine as theatrical productions, especially as both Franny and Zooey are actors and have an air of the performer, charisma, and a genius for wit (the reader senses the impact such a family drama, especially one so connected to disillusionment of the adult world, would have on contemporary artists, most especially the filmmaker Wes Anderson). As much of a legend Holden Caulfield is, Salinger seemed much more interested in the Glass family, its vaudeville parents and seven children, all of whom were once regarded as child prodigies on a radio program called It's a Wise Child.

Lane, over martinis and snails at a lunch date in an upscale bistro, just wants to talk about some “goddamn” paper he wrote about Flaubert. Franny, chain-smoking and not even looking at her chicken sandwich, recognizes in Lane the supercilious mannerisms emblematic of the culture she is from and which she has begun to despise. It leads to several remarkable outbursts, flabbergasting Lane: “I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else's. I'm sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting.” Living on nerves and Marlboros, Franny faints in the ladies' room.

In the follow-up novella, Franny is back at the family loft in Manhattan's Upper East Side, refusing to eat Bessie Glass' chicken soup, smoking cigarettes on the sofa, and mumbling sotto voce the Pilgrim's chant. Zooey, her older brother (the two are the youngest members of the Glass family), is a successful TV actor who knows nevertheless that television is a waste of time (and arguably his talent). Like Franny, he has an overactive bullshit detector and some keen legacy childhood interest in spirituality, courtesy of Seymour and Buddy (the oldest of the Glass children), who had evangelized ideas about Buddha, karma, dharma, and the like to Zooey and Franny when most kids their age were engaged in hide and seek. “We're freaks,” Zooey reminds Franny. He too had had his ordeal when the Jesus prayer had overwhelmed his sense of being and he'd considered abandoning his worldly possessions to live as a wandering mendicant. Even at 25 when you're old enough to know how the game is played and play it well, Zooey can't help calling bullshit on his peers, his friends, and even his mentors: “I make everybody feel that he doesn't really want to do any good work but that he just wants to get work done that will be thought good by everyone he knows-- the critics, the sponsors, the public, even his children's schoolteacher. That's what I do. That's the worst I do.”

J.D. Salinger

Elegantly written, a tad whimsical, and bolstered by strong personalities, Franny and Zooey is not so much about questing for the meaning of life, but a means for getting by spiritually in a secular, consumeristic society. It is well-documented that Salinger himself was exploring oriental philosophies, likely in order to better cope with the horrors he witnessed in Europe during the Second World War. And no doubt it wouldn't have taken very long for someone as sensitive as Salinger to weary of the fame he'd become associated with in Holden. (I wonder if he had a stock answer for when daft strangers queried whether Catcher was autobiographical...) In all likelihood, Salinger had been socially paralyzed by fame and its inevitable protocol, dramatizing an explanation for his own withdrawal from the world. It's possible to conjecture as well that the tepid response to his publications following Catcher caused him to resent the reading public for expecting multiple masterpieces. Or maybe he just didn't really love people. The same loathing of “phonies” found in Catcher is obviously here in Franny and Zooey, only more measured and restrained. No one thinks of Salinger as a people's person, but we don't want to think of him as a misanthrope either; 'troubled genius' is a nifty fit. It will do well to remember that no one is perfect and no one is more aware of that than the sort of mind that might conjure the Glass family and Holden too. Salinger, via Zooey Glass, reminds us (lest we forget): “An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's.” In the end, it's good enough to help Franny get through her funk and sage comfort for the rest of us when, inevitably, into a void, we ask ourselves what are we doing all this for...?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilized forever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.”

I should, I mean, I really, really should like British writer, J.G. Ballard. His stories are based on fascinating premises, narrative hypotheses that tackle the underlying savagery of modern society, particularly, the bourgeois everyman. Nevertheless, I find the dramatization of his dystopian ideas farfetched and silly, wholly unbelievable, and generally perverse without the cold satisfaction of having engaged with something genuinely cathartic. Moreover, his signature prose, celebrated by so many, is clinically detached to a fault, a pallid language bled pale of color or dazzle (all his sentences are competent, occasionally good, but none of them are wonderful). Then there is the trouble with his narrators: careless, diffident, self-absorbed professionals who bed down with numerous attractive women, more than they deserve, considering their absence of beguiling qualities. His most famous novel, Crash, regarding the sexual fetishism of car crash victims, is the ne plus ultra of stylized unpleasant Ballardian narcissism, not very enjoyable but readable as a psychopathic, amateur armchair Freudian excursion.

Crash concerns a certain James Ballard (I'll leave it to the Freudians to handle the author using his real name for his narrator), a successful TV commercial producer living near London's airport in Shepperton (yet another real life connection to Ballard) who suffers a head-on collision, injuring a woman, Helen Remington, and killing her husband. Recovering in the hospital he meets Vaughan, an uber-creepy pathological psycho in a white lab coat and dark sunglasses with a sinewy body and bad complexion. Vaughan introduces Ballard to the underground world of car accident fetishism. Together they steal decent model makes, go joyriding, hire hookers for backseat fellatio, smash fenders while dropping on acid, and fantasize about some ultimate car accident in which Vaughan collides his Lincoln Towncar with Elizabeth Taylor, marrying their flesh with the catastrophic debris of the crash, to wit, “a mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue.” It might sound a bit much, but hey don't you know these are “the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology.”

The somewhat unholy trifecta of sex, violence, and technology is hardly a frontier; rather it is an arrangement long explored by artists, philosophers, and sophists, either intuitively or intellectually, for a long time. Ballard's vision is just an extraordinarily extreme and narrow echo of others' and he can be quite literal about it: “Television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the color TV set in our bedroom as we masturbated each other.” Since Ballard has no heart to wear on his sleeve, the outcome of his explorations is a technocratic orifice to be twaddled by numbed phallic instruments. In other words, there is no meaning, no satori, in all this masturbating over the steering column, or in his words: “a marriage of my penis with all the possibilities of a benevolent technology.”

Our narrator, not a very decent human being, is absolutely prolific in describing his titillations. A peripheral character, Gabrielle, car crash victim-turned-pervert “held the chromium treadles in her strong fingers as if they were extensions of her clitoris.” (have I mentioned that Ballard never met a metaphor he didn't like?) Ballard, our reliable fiend, discovered that “her crippled things and wasted calf muscles were models for fascinating perversities.” But why, Ballard, why? And all right, you might get a hard-on from her crippled thighs, but why should she get off on her mutilated body, a body that can never run, swim, or dance again? Not all your readers are freudian know-it-alls. Is she making lemonade out of lemons or does paraphilia (intense excitement or affection for atypical objects) not need an explanation, existing inexplicably in a vacuum all its own? But it doesn't seem so since for all the actors in this pitiful drama it is the trauma of the automobile accident that activates their bizarre peccadilloes.

James Spader as Ballard-- about to be rear-ended and turned on?

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it's very much a one-note tune (the same is patently true of David Cronenberg's adaptation of the book in 1996, set in Toronto and starring James Spader as Ballard). It's the same carnal obsession, repeated ad infinitium: “The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.” (Does that sentence sound familiar, just slightly reworked and tinkered?) Occasionally, the prose gets out of hand to a level of extreme nuttery (“her swollen breasts spurting liquid feces”) but Crash for all its shocking material and complete lack of morality is actually a boring book, just as fetishism, lacking dynamics, is often just a tool's way of ejaculating his weird energy. The most fascinating aspect of Crash, in fact, is James Ballard's decision to name his doppelganger, James Ballard. Is the novel then some sort of confession (not just of fetishism but what of the story's tremendous homoerotic energy)? It takes tremendous effort to create a novel, even something as one-dimensional as Crash. Why then did Ballard bother to write it? What was he trying to tell us? What exactly did the real-life Mrs. Ballard think of the following sentence, “I visualized my wife injured in a high-impact collision, her mouth and face destroyed, and a new and exciting orifice opened in her perineum by the splintering steering column, neither vagina nor rectum, an orifice we could dress with all our deepest affections.” For that matter, what did Elizabeth Taylor make of being the locus of his vicious starfucking fantasy? What did she ever do to Ballard besides in all probability provoking in him an adolescent hard-on way back when? Ballard's novel is not morally objectionable so much as it is breathtakingly insensitive. The author's absence of human empathy is nothing short of astonishing. A good companion piece to the novel (or Cronenberg's film) is Warner Herzog's public service short  From One Second to the Next, which addresses the dangers of texting while driving by showing very personal stories of both victims and perpetrators of accidents caused by yet another accoutrement of technology. There are no erections or bodily fluid expulsions here, merely heartbreak, tears and regret, and the sadness of what was to what has become.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lady Is a Tramp (of the Traveling Variety)

“I had wanted to know how it felt to be a hobo, a radical, a prostitute, a thief, a reformer, a social worker, and a revolutionist.”
--Bertha Thompson

No doubt the most famous book on American wanderlust was written by Jack Kerouac, who might have had a case of dromomania, that is, a psychological need to wander without real purpose or intention, as in (utilizing the lexicon of the times) “just for kicks.” America has always been a huge land, seemingly endless, and there is nothing more American than reinventing oneself in a new town, either legally or dubiously, and starting over. Dromomania is embedded in American DNA, striking the odd native child and setting him or her on a journey-- all Kerouac did was place our cultural pastime in a mythical, romantic context accessible to any sort of dreamer, the young, the penniless, the damned.

Little known today, Boxcar Bertha is the autobiography of one Bertha Thompson, her life story as told to and recorded by Dr. Ben Reitman. Bertha is a plainspoken narrator with immense curiosity, a terrific sense of adventure, and deep roots in the social justice moments in the first half of the 20th century, involving herself mostly in women's issues and the labor movement. She criss-crossed the country, a la Kerouac, but instead of riding shotgun with a madcap pill-popping drag-racing pothead, did most of her traveling hopping freight cars, sometimes alone, often partnered up with a social agitator beau, or conspiring among other “sisters of the road.” (Last night I watched the Martin Scorsese adaptation of her life's testimony, Boxcar Bertha, from 1972 and starring Barbara Hershey as Bertha-- I was shocked at the fictional liberties the filmmakers pursued, basically ripping off Bonnie and Clyde, turning Bertha into a hayseed moll in a bankrobbing Depression-era gang, ignoring the progressive do-right spirit that marks Bertha as a genuinely selfless champion of workers' and especially women's rights.)

This was in the 1920s and 1930s, a period of labor “agitation,” when workers often martyred themselves against police and a punitive justice system so that future generations might have better contractual rights, fairer pay, insurance benefits, and a decent pension. Bertha participated in these movements firsthand, but her real gift was her engaging, disarming personality, and either with a steeltrap memory or assiduous notetaking, became a reservoir of anecdotal biographies of wandering women from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. The odd (or dangerous) jobs aside, Bertha worked with researchers, incorporating her firsthand knowledge of the hardships of the road and her encounters there, compiling them into an account of anthropological provenance-- a 35-page appendix presents Bertha's findings on the sociological factors inspiring women to live nomadically, among them the specific differentiation between “hoboes” and “bums” (the former looking for work, the latter all-around ne'er-do-wells).

There is no shortage of characters coming into Bertha's life on her travels-- hopheads, murderers, anarchists, lunatics, punks, and wobblies. She wanders from rustic communes to firebrand union halls, runs with a Midwestern gang of thieves and parties with lesbians, poets, and “spittoon philosophers” in Greenwich Village. In New York City she encounters her father, a middle-aged philanderer running an unsuccessful radical bookshop. It is her first time meeting this wayward man, whom she chastises for failing to take on his parental duties. Defending himself, he identifies two different kinds of men, “'the uterine type'... the good father, home lover, monogamist” and the “phallic type” who “needs women. Any women would do.” He goes on: “there are no solutions to the problems of life. There are no goals. You just go on living and loving and doing the best or the worst you can.”

As much as Baby Boomers like to take credit for the sixties-era sexual revolution, all they'd really done is enjoy mainstream social acceptance of a promiscuous lifestyle. And though Bertha enjoyed numerous partners in “free love” hook-ups, she'd learned early on from her mother that the human body was not a vehicle for sin, but an instrument of pleasure, sharing, in fact, sexual liaisons with men who'd loved her mother. But it is one thing to have an open attitude towards sex, a whole other to be pimped out to “Johns,” which is something Bertha does in order to better understand this underground lifestyle. In a Chicago whorehouse, she turns forty tricks a day, seven days a week, sleeping with several thousand men in six weeks. Nearly all her money is confiscated by her “man,” she contracts syphilis and gonorrhea as well as becomes pregnant! She bears this child of an unknowable father, and her wayfaring instinct stronger than her maternal one, she makes the same choice of freedom over duty that her father had, dropping off her newborn daughter with her mother in a Seattle commune and hitting the road: “There's something constantly itching in my soul that only the road and the box cars can satisfy. Jobs, lovers, a child-- don't seem to be able to curb my wanderlust.” The road is a long one, but eventually for nearly all of us, it has a destination, even for a vagabond as mobile as Boxcar Bertha. But that tired platitude about the journey is true: it really does matter how you get there, and it was the lives of women like Bertha Thompson's that, cumulatively, have made the world a better, freer, more compassionate place.