Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category
A Tale of Two Modernisms – 2/27/07
Notes for presentation at Norman Mailer Society convention October 2007, Provincetown, MA
During the mid- eighties, after a run of several years, the television sitcom “Happy Days” starring the greaser “The Fonz” took a downturn. It became clear that the writers for the show had run out of ideas when they developed a weird and non-sensical story line that had The Fonz jumping his motorcycle over a tank of sharks a la Evil Kneivel. Since this episode, the term “Jumping the Shark” has meant the point where any endeavor takes a turn toward its eventual demise.
Kodalith photography paper divides the gray scale in half turning all shades deeper than 50% gray into black, washing out all shades lighter than 50% gray into white. It is time to examine the zeitgeist of Western Civilization in these severe terms in order to clearly identify the antipodes of our politics, architecture, music, literature, physics, dance, and methods of scientific pursuit in order that the moiling mush of the center, the soft, gooey, contradictory, ambiguous, and uncertain center might realize some definition by default from clearly conceived extremes.
We live in the epoch of two modernisms: the Citra and the Ultra, the black and the white, the lateral and the linear, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the left and the right, the liberal and the conservative, the right brain and the left brain, the intuitive and the analytical. This is not a news- flash, we have lived with this schizoid intra-cultural convection, this upwelling, since the dawn. The schiz is our engine, our driving force, our built-in, guaranteed turmoil. The universe delivered mankind two brain types as a cleansing mechanism. The pendulum swings. There have been epochs when Citra is center stage (pre-history, Medieval, Twenty-first Century), There have been epochs when Ultra is center stage (Ancient Greece, The Renaissance epoch of the descended grid (1412-1912). The Twentieth Century was the period of great chaos that occurs between epochal paradigm shifts. Two Modernisms at war with each other. The phenomenon of the domination of a hemisphere of thought (right / left brain) in a society is as inevitable as gravity or cold dark matter. If you have one hundred people and all of them are pinned, gridded, left-brained Apollonian rationalists you live in an Ultra culture. If sixty of those people are pinned / gridded and the remaining population of the one hundred are unpinned, off-grid, right-brain Dionysian creatives then you still live in an Ultra culture but it has a powerful overtone of the Citra. Most people struggle to contain both types simultaneously. For many, it is our All-American, cold, wet washrag to infant genitals that sends the Citra into remote fastnesses of our consciousness prior to ripening. Our culture guarantees schizophrenia and a thriving pharmaceutical industry. It is no small irony that our present, fiercely accelerated Ultra culture has produced a hyper-grid computer technology and the internet that has given a growing voice and gravity to the non-white, non-industrialized people of the world and has bred a CitraDemocratic global ethos in the youth of the West. The Grid eats itself! The late Twentieth Century fever of rationalism is the fiery blast of a supernova prior to collapse. Our public schools with their six daily periods of preparation / brain-washing for the disappearing jobs of the grid have become the ten percent who never got the word. The Enlightenment Project with its worship of rationalism jumped the shark by the end of World War I. The Fonz fades. The George Bush phenomenon with his stunt in Iraq book-ending Teddy Roosevelt’s snatching of a little bit of Columbia, is proof, that the Titanic has sunk, the smart rats, having leapt from the yardarms, are swimming either to shore or to oblivion.
During the Dark Ages from 300 to 1400 AD Apollonian rationality in the West was buried. After a six hundred year run, we are now in an age of exhausted Apollonian UltraModernism colored now by the burgeoning vitality of a maturing CitraModernism. The third world has reared its head with its aching presence of population, disease and devastation of nature. The Earth continues to be dominated and abused by the UltraModern industrial ethos, tortured offspring of the Enlightenment Experiment . It spreads through China, India, Indonesia Eastern Europe and Russia. The Earth is in open rebellion – the ice caps are melting.
The American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War had a deep effect upon Europeans. Our revolution of 1776 reified the notion that all men are created equal, spawning the French Revolution. The U.S. Civil War drove this point hard and deep into Western consciousness. The death of 600,000 Americans in the cause of acknowledging the humanity of black people softened France in particular to the idea that non-white, non-industrial cultures are fully human and that their way of life and their artifacts are of interest and of value. Picasso got the message and by his conflation of Sub-Saharan sculpture and Cezanne’s swerves from the pinned station point, he invented Cubism – Cezanne extract. Picasso and Braque along with, Joyce, Mieles, Einstein, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Pound , Diaghalev, and Frank Lloyd Wright, each in his own endeavor, expressed the distillation the emerging unpinned, multi-valent, ambiguous ethos of the CitraModern. Picasso, encouraged by exhibits in the Museum of Anthropology in Paris; Stravinsky, inspired by the primal rituals and rhythms of a pre-modern forest people; and Wright inspired by the poetic/organic Japanese, created the lateral, intuitive, Dionysian CitraModern.
Norman Mailer, America’s philosopher, delivered the CitraModern to a mid-century United States just as Picasso and Braque delivered it to Europe in 1912. With Mailer’s sixty year gift of right-brain, deep intuition and lateral thinking, beginning with his gut-felt novel The Naked and the Dead in which enlightened and well-armed man returns to the jungle, to life immediate, to the stink and sweat and fear of the unknown . Later in 1956, Mailer, in the role invented by Picasso, acknowledges the power of the black gift, the mojo, in his seminal essay “The White Negro”. In this work Mailer discusses a cross-racial transfer of cultural signifiers. The signifier of the anxiety of living life in the moment, the uncertainty of a life of relentless risk and danger, the Hipster ethos embodies the ambiguity of Foucault’s “Other” not only of Other’s existence but his possession of qualities worth emulating, and perfecting: sexual prowess, sexy music, dance, and language, the mano –a- mano dominance rituals steeped in risk of self. Mailer explains Elvis in “the White Negro” and in so doing explains all of rock and roll and so all of the Nineteen-Sixties Boomer counter-culture which was saturated in black music, black dance, black civil rights, the celebration of black heroes in Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, Shaft, Eldridge Cleaver and Martin Luther King. Every white kid with a garage all across America got in touch with the 4/4 beat of his inner black. One half of a generation of negroes white and black goes to war in Vietnam and the blacks re-up for an extra year of jungle firefights to delay their return to the guaranteed daily violence of the inner city with no jungle cover. The UltraModern war machine gets dismantled in the tangled, putrefying foliage that it first encountered in the Phillipines from 1909 to 1924 then again During World War II as recounted in Mailer’s the Naked and the Dead. As the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 symbolizes the jumping of the shark of UltraModernism, the Vietnam War symbolizes its final throes and the Iraq war its twerpish but deadly last gasp. Norman Mailer, the voice of the CitraModern ethos in America for sixty years. Mailer is the chronicler and an accelerating force for the demise of the UltraModern. The Enlightenment Experiment, now tainted by a century of war and holocaust, tucks its tail and slinks to the sidelines of Western Civilization with our daily newspapers in tow. Mailer is a clarion of expanded consciousness – a realization of our connection to a deep, visceral, tribal power. If Norman Vincent Peale was our expositor of the power of positive thinking then Norman Mailer is the Godfather of the power of lateral thinking, of thoughts big and broad, of thinking not just black and white but deep, thinking from the reptilian brain, from the whole body.
Norman Mailer is fascinated by Picasso. During the nineteen-seventies he examined over 60,000 images of Picasso’s artwork in preparation for a tome. A text emerged, his intense distillation, Picasso as a Young Man. In this work Mailer describes the personal, cultural milieu that super-saturated Picasso, Cubism was distilled, crystallized from a great density of ideas discussed in this book. Picasso locates the deep fear and resonance of tribal existence and gives it expression in painting. Norman Mailer sensing a brotherhood with Picasso defines and conveys this broad avenue back to the surface of the earth in the written word. Mailer’s writing has tribal passion, rooted as much in Africa as in his own dark, ancient forests of Europe. Mailer slipped the stifling conventions of the UltraModern zeitgeist beginning in the 1950’s as he slipped a punch or two from Jose Torres. The UltraModern wants to bury you, dominate and separate you, to mother-smother you and kill you with science, precision and high-fructose corn syrup. The UltraModern is being dismantled now with the passion and precision of art. Norman Mailer is a relentless, powerful and courageous weapon of the CitraModern against a stifling, strangulating grid. Mailer has explained Picasso’s great achievement from so many angles in his sixty years and counting on the American stage. A Cubist onslaught of ideas and language.
If the Civil War introduced the non-industrial people of the world to the industrialized West as fellow humans, Picasso announced their presence in the heart of art, delivered tribal seed into the wilted vagina of high, white art, laid it wide, inseminated and invigorated it with new life. Elvis sings from the shoulders of Picasso as Steven Weinberg postulates from the shoulders of Einstein. Frank Gehry stands on the shoulders of George Braque waiting to fly. Mailer is telling this story. He is our American Picasso. He turns the soil of the life of our time and our mind so that this culture might survive. With his novel The Castle in the Forest, the story of the early life of Hitler, Mailer has once again penetrated into the heart of the matter. It was Hitler who tried to undo the Civil War with 600,000 deaths times 10 but to no avail. There is no turning back, the sterile grid is dead. Lincoln, the enabler, ushered in our new epoch, Picasso distills the epoch with a new language, Hitler the disabler tries to revive the dying UltraModern, Mailer enacts the new CitraModern epoch in a great nation and explains it to us in word and deed in a life that continues to reinforce our founding creed: All men are created equal.
A writer is judged by their ability to tolerate a bliss state in which transcendent thought and spiritual emotion are reified into text. Fitzgerald’s tolerance of this state of mind was far greater than Hemingway’s tolerance of his own bliss. Hemingway may have had grace under pressure but the pressure of grace and its sublimity was too great for his constitution whereas Fitzgerald was a conduit throughout most of Paradise, much of Gatsby and considerable portions of Tender is the Night. Fitz had lost it by Tycoon to that relentless Hemingway popular bandwagon and to alcohol. Protestants fear bliss and transcendence so Catholic Fitzgerald had to be dismissed as second fiddle to solid, stolid, down to earth Ernest.
F.Scott Fitzgerald taught young Americans how to flirt and kiss and play romantic games. Hemingway showed them how to hunt and kill animals and people. Which one of these writers would Americans deify? The killer, of course.
“November rain had perversely stolen the day’s last hour and pawned it with that ancient fence – the night” F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Beautiful and the Damned
“The nighttime wrote a check that daylight couldn’t cash” Thomas McGuane – Panama
After reading three novels by Ernest Hemingway (Sun, Farewell, Belt Holes) and four by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Paradise, Gatsby, Tender, Tycoon) Fitzgerald is stronger, deeper, far more subtle with more color, lyricism ie magic. Hemingway is a plodder in comparison. Hemingway gets boring often, especially in Belt Holes. The Sun Also Rises is the finest of the three. This Side of Paradise is Fitzgerald’s finest.
In The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald is mimicking Hemingway’s terse prose to ill effect. The feminine narrator just doesn’t work.
Gordon Lish was as important to Raymond Carver’s success as Maxwell Perkins was for Thomas Wolfe. Lish was the “Fifth Beatle” for Carver. Would anyone suggest that we return to “Sergeant Pepper” and edit out the George Martin influence?
Carver – Carved up postmodern fiction. I’ve known a LeMessurier who measured, a Kammerer who photographed. Do people’s names sometimes give them career ideas?
Richard Ford crosses rivers of emotion. Mary Karr drives through desperation arriving at redemption. Stephen King rules with benign good humor and humility.
Novelist Thomas McGuane got caught in the crossfire of the New Yorker turf war between Roger Angel and Gordon Lish. Up until the late seventies McGuane’s novels “The Sporting Club” and “Bushwhacked Piano” had created a sensation. McGuane captured a counterculture zeitgeist tapped by Donald Barthelme and Sam Shepard. McGuane was reviewed everywhere as the next big thing of American letters. Praise was showered on his work from the most prestigious publications – dozens of excellent reviews then the big shift at The New Yorker from Donald Barthelme’s epiphanies of the absurd to stark minimal realism and WHAM! McGuane’s next novel, Panama, the finest of all of his novels and perhaps THE great American novel, gets thrashed. He is knocked from his high wire by the spreading New Yorker chill that set the realist / minimalist tune across the American literary landscape.
Raymond Carver was used as a weapon by Gish who was battling Angel in the captain’s tower. Any one of a dozen writers may have served his purpose. Carver’s shyness and drinking problem must have made him appear pliable. Annoying to see a great writer like Thomas McGuane get burned in the chaos of this New York paradigm juke.
Roger Angel anoints Donald Barthelme as the reigning fiction- meister of The new Yorker in the late sixties and American literature swerves toward a surreal, soulful preciousness. Risk-taking abounds. In 1980 The New Yorker swerves again, more like a stylistic spin-out when Gordon Lish edits Raymond Carver setting off a stampede of literary After forty five years with the New Yorker beginning with Updike’s Pigeon Feather’s pieces in the early sixties, I’m leaning toward the Texas Monthly.
Donald Barthelme and Matisse were both caught in the intellectual / emotional gravitational field of a true believer. It was Paul Signac with Matisse and Donald senior for Barthelme. There is only one way to reach escape velocity from a true believer and that is to become the avante- garde. One must trump the reigning spokesman or the most recent purveyor of the big thing to gamble on being the next big thing yourself. This is an existential great leap. Both Donald Barthelme and Henri Matisse were successful in their leaping by any measure.
Hemingway’s Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a knight errant of sorts wandering Spain for adventures and serving his maiden Maria who lived in her castle (cave). Hemingway and Fitzgerald leaned heavily on Don Quixote, getting their literary ticket punched so that academic recognition could be achieved i.e. proof that they were on the “main line” of western literary tradition, good boys not strays. F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beautiful and the Damned , models Gloria after Marcela in the tale within a tale from Don Quixote of “Grisostomo” the lovelorn, scholarly “goatherd” The great beauty parades herself among the lads but is unavailable for commitment or consummation driving the lads crazy with unrequited love and jealousy, lust and suicide.
ps: Why does Hemingway refer to Robert Jordan as Robert Jordan ten thousand times throughout “For Whom the Bell Tolls” when we knew Robert’s last name was Jordan after the first page? At this point Hemingway could have called him Robert only or Bob or Hey you.
Don Quixote has committed enough unwarranted assaults by chapter three to land in prison for years. He is a violent psychopath. He has ruined the health and perhaps the lives of many innocent men. Why is this funny, charming, endearing, acceptable? Because Don Quixote is landed gentry, a nobleman, though penurious. Nobles get away with mayhem, even today. We are entertained by their violent misdeeds if they are witty, insouciant, outrageous, literate. As Nietzsche points out in his essay, “The Meaning of ascetic Ideals,” violence had an entirely different meaning in society during previous centuries that we have no machinery for understanding.
Thomas Mc Guane borrows from Cervantes the notion that his protagonist is a “gentleman”, a member of a minor industrial aristocracy, read business owner or scion of an industrial family preferably in an early rebellious phase sowing lots of oats and raising hell before settling down to make headlight rims in Toledo. The understanding is that readers will forgive the violent trespass of the upper crust and find them amusing where they would want to see a middle or lower class person nabbed by the law, punished or undone with guilt, if they wanted to read about him at all. Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair celebrates a specimen of the misbehaving upper class each month as a regular feature.
In the fall of 2006 Norman Mailer invited me to visit him at his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts . We had been corresponding for nine years at the time, exchanging a few letters each year. Our friendship began in 1997 when I wrote him a letter about his new book Picasso as a Young Man, my letter was quite long. In it I discussed many aspects of Picasso’s life as written in Norman’s book and concluded with a discussion of Cubism, a topic on which I had lectured at Harvard, USC, and many other places. To my amazement, Norman wrote back, a two page, single-spaced typed letter, in which he said my criticism of his book was the finest he received from any publication in the country and he appreciated it very much and….if I was such an expert on Cubism that I should write a book on it. This was a challenge too potent to deny and I proceeded to write this book, Station Point, Two Steps Publishing Co. 1998, Norman coached me on the text at a few milestones and helped greatly with his editing suggestions. On the weekend of my visit, I flew into Boston, spent the night at the Harvard Faculty Club and on the following day I rented a car and made the four hour drive out to P-town. I arrived in the late afternoon and appeared at the door of Norman’s beautiful brick house (mansion – a former nunnery). His gorgeous wife Norris (former couture model, author of Windchill Summer – a superb novel) answered the door, invited me in and informed Norman of my arrival. I busted out in a massive grin and overcame my nervousness at being in the presence of my favorite writer, philosopher, American public figure .
I began reading Norman’s work as a nineteen year old and felt he was the only writer who understood and wrote so clearly about the passionate chaos of my childhood family life. His writing was a bright light in the emotional/intellectual turbulence. Norman had a great big smile himself and welcomed me in, Norris left us and Norman invited me into his den with a big row of picture windows that looked out on Boston Harbor. Norman asked my what drink I preferred and upon hearing scotch, he opened a new bottle of a great single malt, 25 year old Balvenie, We began a conversation about writers and critics and art and after finishing our drinks, Norman mentioned that he made a reservation for dinner at Provincetown’s finest restaurant for us. Norris was working on her next novel, Cheap Diamonds, and bowed out of joining us. It was fun to walk into a public place with a big celebrity and sense the heads turning and the whispering. Norman was greeted by the hostess as a distinguished local citizen rather than a big star. Our dinner lasted for four hours, we shut the place down. Once the conversation began it just stormed like a hurricane over a hundred different subjects. Norman recounted his experience as a movie director (four films) and likened it to being a general in the Army. He savored the total command of organizing a movie production, opposed to his status as a private in the real Army during WW II. We discussed Muhammad Ali, Ryan O’Neil, Isabella Rossellini, both of whom appeared in one of Norman’s movies. Norman was surprised to hear that my father had been married two more times than himself, five for Norman, seven for my dad-ouch! Who were those women? Maaaa – meatloaf ma! My mother (my father’s first wife – fifteen years) was only married three times. We talked about going to school at Harvard. We talked about the Kennedys who Norman was close to when Jack Kennedy was running for president. My Kennedy experience was limited to passing Caroline on a very long snowy path across some Harvard real estate over a winter break. Here comes someone on the narrow path through the snow, off in the distance, it’s a woman, the path isn’t wide enough for both of us, she’s getting closer, she’s wearing a long black overcoat. I’m going to have to turn sideways at some point to let this woman brush past, It’s Caroline Kennedy! We smiled at each other, passed and continued on our way. One morning at Elsie’s Café I was sitting at the counter eating breakfast after running my daily thirty flights of stairs at Harvard stadium. Joe Kennedy and his entourage walk in. I’m facing a large African-American waitress whose face lights up like she’s staring at Jesus himself – I turn around and there stands a smiling, laser blue-eyed Kennedy. It was wild to see the effect on the staff – the place went electric. The only other time I’d seen cosmic scale charisma like that was the night Rick Derringer and his entourage crowded to the front of a line at a Dave Brubeck concert in Cleveland the night before they opened for Aerosmith at a local arena. During our conversation, I told Norman a story about an Army experience of mine and he laughed, said it was a classic and insisted that I write it. Here is that story.
In 1971 I was a buck sergeant in the Army, three stripes. Not an insignificant rank in the world of enlisted men. I was twenty years old and in charge of the graphic design office at the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters at Fort Bragg North Carolina. My duties included preparing slide shows for visiting foreign heads of state that instructed them on the features of modern U.S. Army airborne operations. I once walked past Joseph Mobutu, president of Zaire, as he chatted with some generals after one of these presentations. I also drew a cartoon each week for the Fort Bragg newspaper, The Paraglide, I painted large, humorous portraits of retiring colonels that were presented at their banquets and on the side I painted large pictures for top sergeants to hang in their homes and I jumped out of a plane once a month. I had a great stereo hooked up in my office where my hardworking staff of six could listen to the latest Hendrix, Cream, The Who, Ten Years After, Santana, Dylan, Janis, Mike Bloomfield, Joe Cocker, The Band, etc. The walls of this office were covered with my drawings and paintings. This was a command center for the counterculture in the belly of the beast, as the XVIII Airborne Corps is the headquarters group for the 82d Airborne division (known at the time as the “Jumping Junkies). Lots of officers and enlisted men in the headquarters building liked to hang out in my office and during evenings where the lights were on until my hand cramped up from drawing, usually around eleven. I listened to many very wild war stories from Vietnam on some of those nights. None of the high ranking officers in the building seemed to mind the tenor of my office as long as we turned out great slide show material which we did, thanks to Curt Moore, Joe Cusumano and Tommy Budzinski. Ray Higley would stop by from G-2 (Army Intelligence) for advice on his architecture and love poems and Jerome Smith was a regular with tales of growing up in the Cleveland Ghetto and his fifty five victories as a light heavyweight Army boxer. Smitty was a sparring partner of Cassius Clay during preparation for the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
In May of 1971, Army troops from Fort Bragg and Marines from Camp Le Jeune were airlifted to Washington D.C. to subdue student anti-war protesters who threatened to shut down the federal government with a “Mayday ‘71“ event. The protester’s motto: “ If the government won’t stop the war – we’ll stop the government“. Many tens of thousands of protesters were led by Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden , Lee Weiner etc. After we landed at Andrews Air force Base, the troops from the XVIII Airborne Corps rode in trucks to Fort Mc Henry near the capitol. My job was to prepare large battle- maps with many plastic overlays of tactical troop movements that involved countering stated strategies of the protesters to shut down traffic in the city. The protesters printed up a very useful (to the Federal troops) “Tactical Manual” that listed the twenty one key bridges and traffic circles they intended to snarl. Areas that I was working on involved these roadways as well as the Pentagon, The Washington Monument, The Lincoln Memorial and many others. I used colored grease pencil and Chartpak tape to create large red and green arrows indicating troop movements and chopper landing zones just as if we were in a foreign war. After working all day on these maps in the basement of the Fort Mc Henry Command Center, I was hanging around for further instructions in a large day-room where ten or so top Army and Marine generals and colonels who had gathered in a semi-circle on folding chairs to watch the ten o’ clock news on a little black and white television. After watching footage of large masses of students on the streets with thousands getting arrested (13,000 total) the newscaster stood next to Rennie Davis, the chief organizer of the march and its appointed leader. Rennie was a little, frail looking, long-haired, young guy wearing John Lennon glasses. After Rennie spoke, a gruff Marine general sitting near me leaned forward, pulled his cigar out of his mouth and jabbing it at the tv screen said: “You mean to tell me we flew 70,000 troops to Washington D.C. for that skinny little prick!” Norman found this greatly amusing.
See drawing done at 3:00 AM while guarding the Top Secret Library – XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, NC – 1970 (listening to “Truth” album by Jeff Beck at “Artwork” this blog “Kooper Rico Ratso”