Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Defense of Self-Centered Young Men

The title of the first chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, warns the reader that our hero might be a real-deal momma’s boy. It’s called, “Amory, Son of Beatrice,” and deals with Amory Blaine’s delicate childhood and ends with him enrolled in a prestigious prep school, precociously formulating a “sort of aristocratic egotism,” that would enable him to “‘pass’ as many boys as possible and get to a vague top of the world…” Well, even for geniuses this road is never easy and you’ve got to take a few spills before anyone is going to say you've made it.

This novel— an episodic mélange of prose, stream of consciousness, poetry, correspondence, and theatrical dialogue— is about one man’s quest for identity by means of love, work, and philosophy. This patchwork technique Fitzgerald employs is called “modernistic” by its defenders since it defies accepted conventions of structure. But it is because of careful structuring that we become emotionally involved in fiction; otherwise we forget the point of the reading and in this day of diminished attention spans, language alone may not be enough to guarantee the commitment of the reader. Thus, the precarious existence of This Side of Paradise today: it is famous for making Fitzgerald famous rather than for the work itself.

Interestingly enough, rather than feeling it was written by Fitzgerald it has the atmosphere of several writers—the writing has Wilde’s pithy wittiness, Waugh’s schoolboy sentimentalism, Joyce’s philosophical diatribes, even Sinclair Lewis’s radicalism, held together by Fitzgerald’s mischievous turn of phrase.

The story hinges on a hypothesis posited to Amory at a young and impressionable age. Every apprentice philosopher has his mentor and Amory’s is in the Catholic Church, described thus:

“Monsignor was 44 then, and bustling— a trifle too stout for symmetry… When he came into a room clad in his full purple regalia he resembled a Turner sunset and attracted both admiration and attention… He was intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be a celibate, and rather liked his neighbor.”

Although he doesn’t share his faith in the Church, The Monsignor is Amory’s intellectual hero. He is put to quest, Candidelike, when the Monsignor describes the difference between a personality and a personage and why the latter is most preferable:

“Personality is a physical matter almost entirely; it lowers the people it acts on—Now a personage, on the other hand, gathers. He is never apart from what he’s done… When you feel that your garnered prestige and talents and all that are hung out, you need not bother about anybody.”

It’s rather pretty, delicate, and incoherent but enough for Fitzgerald, at least, to build a novel on. The idea is put to the test at Princeton among the co-eds where Amory encounters a variety of “personalities,” that Fitzgerald doesn’t develop well enough to constitute a “personage.” In the case of Amory Blaine, his own lack of something substantial beyond the realm of ideas fails him at work, play, and love.

When a crisis is absent in a novel, it’s critical that we sympathize with the character. It’s not always easy getting along with Amory Blaine. He’s middle class middle American trying to make it in Princeton and New York in the late teens, early 1920s, a time just after what was then known as The Great War, when opportunities were opening up for ambitious young men. He runs with a literary set in college, writes poetry, falls in love. He is a thoroughly self-conscious individual, sensitive to class and caste and as his fortunes fail, feels acutely dissatisfied that he should be so powerless in spite of his rhetorical flair.

Never is this clearer than when he loses his love interest, Rosalind. Although this young debutante loves Amory’s wit and her chemistry with him is superb to all suitors she cannot commit to some advertising copywriter earning just $35 a week no matter how much potential there is in his pipe dreams. In other words, she willfully chooses money over love. Fitzgerald is at his most delightful when describing his characters and he has fun detailing Rosalind:

“She is quite unprincipled; her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez-faire for others. She loves shocking stories: she has that coarse streak that usually goes with natures that are both fine and big. She wants people to like her but if they do not it never worries or changes her.”

This is beautiful stuff. He may as well be describing America itself but it’s supposedly based on Zelda Sayre, the Zelda, famous of all flappers, from which Fitzgerald was drawing inspiration. This Side of Paradise was cobbled together with an earlier draft of a novel called The Romantic Egotist, as well as unpublished poetry and scraps of prose diary entries—his and Zelda’s— in order to compose a salable novel that might win her favor. It’s no wonder that this was the same guy who could come up with Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, and the fashionable parties of West Egg.

Jazz Age Cats

Its flaws aside, This Side of Paradise, can be enjoyed for the insight it yields into a great American writer. Rosalind could be describing the Fitzgeralds’ untold future when she laments, “I suppose all great happiness is a little sad. Beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses.” Amory goes on a self-destructive two-week alcoholic binge once she breaks things off for good, an incoherent, solipsistic misadventure; the kind that Fitzgerald would become notorious for. “To hold a man a woman has to appeal to the worst in him,” Amory muses on the Atlantic City boardwalk, a line of thought that excuses our worst excesses in the name of love.

In a series of reversals, both self-inflicted and the fated kind, Amory has received his comeuppance, but in becoming a wandering, lovelorn derelict, he discovers his artistic sensibility and what it means not only to be a man, but a personage: "He found something that he wanted, had always wanted and always would want— not to be admired, as he had feared; not to be loved, as he had made himself believe; but to be necessary to people, to be indispensable.”

As a truism to live by, it’s as good as any, but worth the effort of the modern reader when there is so much tempting us? This Side of Paradise is too episodic to be a great novel; and any book that climaxes with a debate regarding the merits of socialism betrays its literary value as well as its narrative truancy. But there are many fashions in which to consider art. It must have been exciting when this declaration of intent was published with its pretensions towards power, greatness and wealth, signed by ambition. This Side of Paradise sold through its first printing quickly, earned the praise of H. L. Mencken, and put F. Scott on the map for good. And though his more famous novels are associated with the Jazz Age, it's this early effort that more clearly attempts to speak for his generation’s dissatisfaction with contemporary American life as they were finding it and ready-set to change it. It begins with recognition from within: “I know myself… But that is all,” so goes the novel’s famous last words and they tell all.

If it took writing the novel to get the girl, getting the girl meant, eventually, The Great Gatsby. As far as very public love letters and tell-all memoirs disguised as literature, this means the whole damn enterprise was well worth it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Darger and the Artist's Ego

If it is important for an artist and his work to demonstrate the unknowable to us, what are the lessons we can learn from the life of Henry Darger?

For those unfamiliar with Darger, he lived most of his eighty-plus years in Chicago, a friendless, anonymous man who did custodial work for a Catholic hospital. In his spare time, he created a complex parallel universe consumed by an epic conflict known to him as the Glandeco-Angelinian War, in which child slaves known as the Vivian Girls rebelled against their masters, fierce soldiers resembling Dixie grey coats in uniform and run by John Manley, a school bully Darger once had to contend with as a boy, now infamously immortalized for his tyranny. The story, a magnum opus if there ever was such a contender for the term, runs over fifteen volumes, totaling 15,145 pages, alternately typed and drawn, traced, painted, or collaged together, creating a dreamlike effect aesthetically unique: the vivian girls are androgynous creatures marked by lovely girlishness and small penises. They are violently tortured by their captors in explicit detail, often utilizing christian symbology, especially tragic martyrdom.

The work is beautiful, bizarre, and incredibly idiosyncratic, yet there are many such works of art that convey the wondrous details of the imagination not quite so universally celebrated. Darger may be the greatest embodiment of art brut--a movement describing artists who work outside institutions such as museums and galleries and have learned their craft independent of any apprentice work or university system-- but today he is anything but an outsider. Very few modern artists have bigger household name value.

Is it simply the beauty of the work itself that makes Darger so beloved? Or rather is it the purity of his intentions, his championing of innocence and childhood? Or perhaps it's the single-mindedness of his vision, that a whole life should be committed to a single project? Or is it possibly that Henry Darger, lonely and emotionally isolated, composed his epic narrative because he had to-- out of love, passion, or catharsis-- and its acceptance by the general public had nothing to do with it?

Darger did nothing in his lifetime to publicize his creations nor to advocate himself as an artist, a quality of indifference very unique among creative people. Most need to show their work and be congratulated for it. Because of the internet, today's artists are not so dependent on the fickleness of gallery owners in order to get their work out. In spite of its intangibility and inherent limitations, the internet means "space" can exist anywhere, in any room in the world and can exist there indefinitely. Nevertheless, with the creation of counters for plays or views, our egos are more than ever intertwined with being seen, heard, noticed. Most of us are all too human and attach self-worth to the attention, accolades or value our work receives. The unknown artist can only google his or her name with extreme caution. This is because for most of us, our work cannot exist on its own merits. Satisfaction is contingent on recognition from an audience. Is this a very human quality, the need to be appreciated? It's a matter of love, isn't it? We need it and the fact that Darger could be so creative for so many years while keeping such a marvelous work to himself must seem incomprehensible to the Myspace generation. In this sense, he was operating like an immortal, beyond the realms of the real, someone whose superhuman discipline, patience, dedication, fanatical detail, talent, and self-assurance is something worth our admiration.

Although his childhood was particularly Dickensian, his methodic channeling of sadness and the themes he explored therein were particularly American. Poverty-stricken and orphaned at a young age, he never quite got over his unhappy childhood and was perhaps trying to resolve that dilemma with this mammoth effort, drawing from ideas of war, christianity, and most especially the battle between good and evil. Though childless and too destitute to qualify as a candidate with adoption agencies, Darger followed the travails of children in his imagination, the only place in his life where he had absolute control. Many of us Americans suffer various maladies of Peter Pan syndrome in our own childish ways-- we don't want responsibilities, we want to look, feel, stay young-- yet if only more of us could so selflessly express these anxieties in art and be happy for the effort, we might be so much better off.

When Henry Darger died in a hospice in 1973, his life's work was discovered by his landlords, Nathan Lerner and his wife, Kiyoko. Lerner, an accomplished photojournalist, recognized immediately the value of Darger's vision and took careful measures to ensure it was preserved and shared with the world. Likely, there are many landlords who would have tossed out the entire shebang and thus today we wouldn't have the amazing paintings composing In the Realms of the Unreal.

If you want to go back further, if Darger had had a happy childhood, maybe he wouldn't have been inspired to create what he had.

Everything, it seems, then, exists as a trick of fate and we should be thankful for what we've got. What we've lost--through the failure to acknowledge or preserve the work of artists who had no name or reputation to speak of-- is something that we will never quite comprehend.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Fine Easy Peace

Before Jack Nicholson became a caricature of himself as the irrepressible bachelor-- grouchy, creepy, unserious, baffled, flippant-- he had a dazzling run deconstructing the modern everyman into a moral situationist. This was the early 1970s, the age of Vietnam and Watergate, when the template for role models had been tweaked by war and social upheaval. No longer was it clear what constituted the ideals of a hero-- hell, it was hard enough to say what made a man a man. Thus Hollywood, in an era of permissive genius, played the dialectical game with the society at large, attempting to answer the unanswerable, and speaking for the cause of elusive heroism, among many great actors of that time, was Mr. Nicholson.

The character Nicholson plays in Five Easy Pieces, Bobby Eroica Dupea, is not easy to love. Bobby is a blue collar oil rig worker who drinks beer, goes bowling, and screws around on his needy girl, Rayette (a bizarre, yet likable performance by Easy Rider muse Karen Black), basically leading the kind of life today's Brooklyn hipsters stylize in pretense. Bobby's not faking it, of course; he just doesn't seem to know what else to do with his life and has accepted that work is something that funds the good times, which for Bobby have a generally masculine, if not anti-intellectual flavor. To the "carpe diem" type, it does seem a meaningless life, measured in sexual encounters and poker winnings. But as we observe the pleasure principle failing him, we discover that his appetites stem from a reaction to the sterile background from which he sprang.

Essentially, this is a story about family and like all the best stories that deal with the uncomfortable intimacy related to blood relations, Bobby doesn't necessarily get along very well with his kin. Interestingly, it is a clan of musical geniuses, but whose interest and virtuosity lie in classical persuasions, particularly piano greats like Chopin and Bach, indicating their personalities to be anachronistic and eccentric. Bobby's sister, though well-intentioned and kindly, is the spinster type. Bobby's brother--oafish, arrogant, clever-- has embraced the lifestyle as enthusiastically as Bobby has brazenly abandoned it. There is no mother in the picture but the family patriarch has had a stroke and though it's implied Bobby's father never quite forgave his son for walking away from a promising career in music, the prodigal son has come home.

The Dupea family live on a vast and beautiful estate on an idyllic island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. It's an isolated place, funded by old WASP money one supposes, and immune to the cataclysmic forces destabilizing the 1960s individual. In such a place rock and roll simply does not exist, and neither does the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, or the uncertainty of the times. In such an environment there is no counterculture, only culture. Bobby, alone in the family, has put Dr. Pangloss's utopian theory to the test and besides the ephemeral joys of beer, gambling and sex, his wanderings have left him a slightly ruined man. What makes the character so interesting is that he is neither here nor there, a classic outsider, a classless American, who knows too much of either world to fit in properly and to like it. Neither social context works for him, leaving him essentially homeless, alone, and drifting.

And that's precisely why I find Five Easy Pieces to be one of the great archetypal 1960s films although in truth it's one part sex, zero parts drugs and rock and roll. But the 1960s were more than just Andy Warhol and Tim Leary. There was a whole generation of Americans that had nothing to do with Woodstock or Shamanism that found themselves at the end of a postwar boom, divorced, jobless, possibly derelict and if they didn't go for pot or long hair, probably lonely and alienated to boot. Bobby is not some stupid trust fund kid getting off his rocker. He is a strong personality who has found nothing to recommend any system. Too smart for his own good, he lashes out against pretentiousness and ignorance equally, often getting into physical scraps that leave him humbled. He just doesn't seem to have any good fight in him; or perhaps he just doesn't know what he's fighting for.

Bobby Dupea has no great loves or hates; if there is no American Dream, conversely there is no American nightmare. There's just the day-to-day attrition of trying to make an unbearable life bearable. That's where the beer and women come in--they're palliatives, not salvation, which to some temperaments will always remain suspect, and therefore disposable. He loses the one girl who really captivates him (his brother's girlfriend, played by the lovely and mostly forgotten Susan Anspach). She breaks things off because for a woman of expressed passionate views, Bobby's indifference is incomprehensible; there is no real future with him. She believes he is insensitive to beauty in life, but that simply isn't true. The difference between them is that sensitivity has destroyed him. While she loses herself in music, he has lost himself in the world.

In the film's famous monologue, Bobby explains to his ailing father, now mute but perhaps alert yet, "Most of what I do doesn't add up to a way of life that you'd approve of. I move around a lot, not because I'm looking for anything really but because I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay..." It's a sentiment that Bobby lives by to the very end, resulting in a contentious ending that some viewers find quite objectionable. But it's an honest telling and it suggests so much about the uncertainty of that time.

It's not every character that needs to learn right from wrong. Sometimes, they're one of the same thing. And that's that.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Atomic Proportions

Halfway through Jack Arnold's "The Incredible Shrinking Man," it becomes clear how utterly dangerous your average 1950s household really was, Good Housekeeping tips aside. Visualized or at least idealized as hygienic and ordered, your average 1950s home was in actuality a very Darwinian place should you be a man contaminated by radioactive gasses, resulting in your ceaseless shrinking or as I saw it, the atomization of man. Terrorizing house cats, hungry spiders, and the "primeval plain" of the cellar floor tests the ingenuity of Scott Carey, who once enjoyed pie-in-the-sky Life Magazine quintessence-- the beautiful blonde wife, the cushy job, the spacious suburban home-- and in his unenviable condition must now learn to contend with creepy crawlers for breadcrumbs.
Made in 1957, "The Incredible Shrinking Man" is very much a film of its time. It was written by Richard Matheson, a frequent contributor to Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. The actor portraying Scott, Grant Williams, a trained opera singer, has the perfect narrator's voice to build audience empathy and the handsome everyman looks that would lead anybody watching to nod sympathetically, "he's one of us." What seems on surface a popcorn picture is actually a very complex and fascinating examination of the marginalization of the modern man and a bizarre conception of his redemption.

Scott's Lilliputian condition is caused by exposure to radioactive gas while enjoying a lazy summer day on his brother's boat. At the outset, thus, he is prostrate, indulgent, bored, requesting his wife, Louise, go below deck and grab him some beers. It's obvious that he's a made man but nonetheless susceptible to the winds of destruction. The source of these mysterious gases that contaminate Scott are never explained, though its assumed they were leaked by the military, likely through incompetence. In 1957, postwar confidence in American supremacy was waning for the first time. The economy would begin contracting that summer, the Sputnik would be launched into space, and the Russians were on par with the U.S. in the arms race for mutually assured destruction. That our efforts in science might not necessarily protect but threaten us was an idea being explored best in the science fiction, fantasy films and comic books of the time. What afflicts Scott Carey is literal "blowback," a random balancing of karma against our destructive material and militaristic philosophy. Scott is a good American husband, faithful, dutiful, innocent, who has his life inexplicably ruined. The suggestion is explicit: It could happen to you.

The film is composed of two parts, the first half dealing with the social and emotional ramifications of his incessant shrinkage and the latter segment detailing the return of his animal instincts-- the quest for food and self-defense in a primordial universe.

When he is about three feet tall, doctors at a research facility treat him with a serum that interrupts the degenerative process. Having lost his job and needing money, Scott publicizes his story, selling it to a newspaper. The resulting media coverage, even by 1950s standards is humiliating and Scott struggles to rationalize his “freakishness.” He befriends Clarise, a lovely midget of a traveling road show who helps lead him to acceptance of his condition: “The sky is as blue as it is for the giants.” The relationship ends all too soon when the serum fails and Scott continues to atomize.

Having retreated back to the care of his loyal wife and living within a dollhouse in a suicidal condition, the monotony of his declining stature is shattered by the attack of a housecat (the performance of the tabby doing more harm to the reputation of felines than Garfield ever could). Scott survives, only to wind up a prisoner of the basement-- a barren, harsh place typical of fastidious American disposal habits. A leaking water heater is his only water source; stale bread his only resource for carbohydrates; for protein does he dare risk dismemberment and an ignoble death for a piece of old cheese sitting on a classic mousetrap? Luckily, there were no rats to contend with; giant spiders being enough of a nuisance, especially when your only weapon in defense is a threading needle. But this discarded needle (isn't everything stored in our basements one motivated Sunday away from the dumpster?) is the difference for Scott between being prey and predator and just as importantly on an abstract, spiritual level, it connects him to man's warrior heritage. It's not for nothing that the movie climaxes with his slaying of the spider, whom he had tried to defeat with ingenuity but in the end, relies upon instinct and simple strength. His prevailing over the arachnid proves Randy Newman may have been wrong about the little guy. There's one dude in 1950s America who's instincts are working full tilt.

There is no classic happy ending due the travails of our hero. Science changed him and when he needed its help, science failed him. There would be no reversal of fortunes, no more of the good, rich consumeristic life. Instead, the character has managed to recover a humanity lost to his peers, an understanding of the world, one's place in it and ironically enough, a physical presence that he lacked in normal conditions. Is Scott Carey the last warrior or the argonaut into the infinitesimal? It's a question that he answers in full in a monologue closing the film that is as beautiful as any text ever written about spirituality and is worth quoting in full, if only to appreciate the beauty of the language, as well as how it sums up the qualities of a surprisingly poetic film:

"So close the infinitesimal and the infinite... but suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens-- the universe--worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature that existence begins and ends as man's conception, not nature's and I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance, all this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something and then I meant something too-- yes smaller than the smallest, I meant something too-- to God there is no zero. I still existed."