Aug 31, 2010

Ambivalence about Franzen

Rolling Stone magazine once ran an article on the man with the biggest penis. I really have no idea how they knew he was the man they said he was, but they did a story on him and his life and what it was like to be the Biggest Man in America (or whatever the title they gave him was).

Unfortunately, he was actually pretty sad. He spent most of the article moping and feeling sorry for himself.

The next issue of Rolling Stone ran a letter. It said, "I know somebody has to have the biggest penis, but did it have to be this guy?"

Which is pretty much exactly how I feel about Jonathan Franzen.

Call it conflicted. Or maybe, forcefully ambivalent.

Franzen is a good writer, despite his terribly conservative aesthetics. He writes good sentences and he has a sense of the way people talk and how middle class people live, his characters can be interesting and the scope of his stories are ambitious, even if the novels themselves aren't. The Twenty-Seventh City was terrible but The Corrections really was an important work.

I'm glad it's somebody, too. It didn't have to be. Literature doesn't have to be a part of our national conversation right now and it'd be just as easy for aesthetics debates not to make it's way onto the online pages of Time and the New York Times. The fanfare Franzen's gotten should probably be judged by poet laureate standards: if it promotes literature (of any sort, by any definition) then so much the better. Better this than nothing.

Franzen isn't even the best American novelist writing right now, though. He's not the best of his generation and would even have to fight for the title, I think, of best living writer of his generation.

If someone does gets to have the title, the attention, the experience of being a literary phenomena, I don't even care if it's actually the person who's the greatest or the best. I just wish it were someone who wanted to do something new with the novel, and someone who wanted to push the art at least a little. Someone who would at least try to experiment.

There's a reason Franzen's always getting compared to Dickens and Tolstoy: He's always in this spot where he wants to be literary and he wants to be challenging, but without actually challenging anybody. He is intentionally old fashioned. Even that could be experimentally interesting, but Franzen does it in this way that by design doesn't challenge any assumptions, old or new. And he's always so whiny.

Does it really have to be this guy?



Links:
Freedom released today and The New York Times loves it, the Wall Street Journal was "routinely blown away," the LA Times was moved, NPR said it reads "like smart poetry," and Esquire was very impressed. Reviewers could barely finish a review without alluding to Russians and the great white narcissists. There was kind of a whole Franzenfrenzy, complete with backlash. What do you expect from someone who, both times he's interviewed by Time, talks about birds?

Aug 30, 2010

Justification for mimesis

An odd detail about the John Birch Society: The membership is secret.

Not that you wouldn't know a Bircher if you met one. They tend to be pretty obvious, with their literature and their special editions of The New American, and they tend to be pretty evangelical and freely announce that they're john Birch Society members. Officially, though, the society will never say how many members it has. That's secret.

Practically, this works to protect the organization from being dismissed as inconsequential, and it has also allowed people to sometimes project nightmare fantasies onto the group, imagining it as bigger and more pervasive, more important and more influential than it really is.

What's fascinating about this, though, is how the John Birch Society, by being secret, by being a secret society, is imitating what they imagine to be the worst of what they oppose. Whether the conspiracies of control they imagine actually exist or not, they themselves are examples of what they fear, what they oppose, what they have dedicated themselves to fighting against forever. This is not a simple case of hypocrisy, either, since the shadowy evil of the other is invoked as the reason for their own shadowy behavior.

The structure of this reason -- this displacement, this excuse -- is really interesting. On a certain level it's as simple as a child's excuse, he did it so now I have no choice, and on another level there's classic Girardian mimesis at work. There's a way, too, that the logic works to salve guilt and justify anything and to seal oneself off from any criticism. The move starts with the idea the other people are evil, doing what they do, while you are good. This is taken as an axiom. One's own rightness can't be questioned, since it's the very ground on which one builds. And the structure of this reason reinforces it.

You see this with the Nixonian justifications for dirty tricks. Murray Chotiner, teaching the young future-master-manipulator-of-the-cover-up John Dean the ropes, reportedly said, "If the president wants you to turn the IRS loose [on political opponents], then you turn the IRS loose .... Do you think for a second that Lyndon Johnson was above using the IRS to harass those guys who were giving him a hard time on the war?" That's the logic that gets used everywhere in the buildup to the Watergate burglaries. Nixon and his lackeys justified what they were doing by appealing to the real and imagined evils they imagined FDR, LBJ and JFK had done: "Well, they did that to me," Nixon said. "I really mean it when -- I want to go in and crack that [Watergate] safe."

This is the same logic, the same move, that keeps getting deployed in the political attacks against Islam. All the talk about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" is this mimesis, paranoia acting to justify imitating what has been imagined to be the evil of others. The idea that they're intolerant justifies intolerance. The idea that they hate freedom justifies the abridgement of freedom. The idea that their religion necessitates violent opposition to Christians and Western democracies justifies -- demands -- violent opposition from Christians and Western democracies.

This argument seems to cry for the counter question: Then what makes "us" the good guys?

This argument can't be made, though, without an foundational belief that one side is different than the other. Different in some essential way that has nothing to do with how one acts. This is, of course, the definition of bias, and maybe also it works to explain a little bit what paranoia does, how it functions: It's this mechanism of justification for the imitation of what one fears.

Aug 27, 2010

Anxious yawp

There is a specifically poetic shape to the anxieties visible in Whitman’s poetry. Looking at Whitman’s theory of language and how that theory works out in the poems, the shape of the anxiety becomes apparent.

He had this Transcendentalist idea of language, detailed by Tyler Hoffman in his essay, “Language,” by C. Carroll Hollis in his crucial work, and by Mark Bauerlein in Walt Whiman and the American Idiom. This idea of language is one where “words are emanations of reality and truth” (Hoffman 368), and “language is not just a system of signs we humans have at hand to express ourselves; rather, it stands as a cultural complex, one that registers our deepest beliefs as a people and a nation” (Hoffman 362).

Whitman rejected the empiricists’ claims about the arbitrariness of signs, that language is basically a convention that only happens to have the grammatical structure and phonetic sounds it has, and instead, following Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Prussian language theorist Wilhelm von Humbolt, and American philologist William Swinton (who was Whitman’s friend and for whom, it has been extensively argued, Whitman ghost wrote on the subject of language, cf. Warren's "Whitman as Ghostwriter," Hollis, and Hoffman), embraced the idea that words contain within them the reality of the spirit of the people who use them. As Swinton's book says, in a chapter possibly ghostwritten by Whitman, "Language is not a cunning conventionalism arbitrarily agreed upon; it is an internal necessity. Language is not a fiction, but a truth," and, again, "Speech is no more the dead mechanism it used to be conceived. Each language is a living organism" (qtd. in Warren “Whitman as Ghostwriter” 23).

Words are not mere signs or symbols for representations, but embodied the spirit of those who use them. As Whitman said, in an essay on American slang:


The scope of [Language’s] etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitaliz’d, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation. Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea (“Slang in America”).
If his language theory stopped at this point, and was merely a point about the importance of the life and spiritual reality of words, it wouldn’t necessarily feed any anxiety, but Whitman went further. If he had just believed that this is the way words were, then that wouldn’t have necessitated any internal, poetry-focused worry, but he believed words could, depending on the way they were used, lose the spirit they have. They could be more alive, “vitaliz’d,” or they could die, depending on the poet. He believed words and the things they represented could, if words weren’t used well or if their use was too domesticated, too refined, be separated and disunited, and when that happens, then the words would be just inert symbols on a page, abstract and arbitrary and dead. This was the distinction Whitman made between good and bad poetry, but he also thought of it in terms of life and death. He believed the life that words contain and carry could be killed, could be buried, and there was a need to connect word and thing, and a need to reinvigorate the language (Hoffman 365). Whitman was not being metaphorical when he said that a great poet
“would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, build, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with calvary or infantry, or do anything, that man or women or the natural powers can do” (“American Primer”).
This can be and has been taken as mere inspirational blather – the poet’s equivalent of a poster for a library’s children’s summer reading program with castles and flying horses and faraway lands – but Whitman’s theory of language is that this is what actually happens, this manifestation of life, this invigoration, when words are used well.

To use the structuralist terminology of “sign” and “signified,” Whitman wanted the sign and the signified to be the same thing, to come together and, at the moment of poet’s invocation, be one. He wanted to cross the gap between sign and signified by poetic force. He said:

A perfect user of words uses things—they exude in power and beauty from him—miracles from his hands—miracles from his mouth—lilies, clouds, sunshine, woman, poured copiously—things whirled like chain-shot rocks, defiance, compulsion, horses, iron, locomotives, the oak, the pine, the keen eye, the hairy breast, the Texan ranger, the Boston truckman, the woman that arouses a man, the man that arouses a woman” (“Ameircan Primer”).
He wanted the sign to be more than a sign, more than arbitrary, to really be alive, to be the thing, be filled with the spirit of the thing signified and the spirit of the people using the sign, but he consistently found that he was trapped in the realm of the sign, unable to bridge over to the reality of things, and that poems are made out of words – the vibrant life he wants to yawp is, on the page, only arbitrary symbols. There is, on his pages, throughout his work, a pervading “anxiety about the ability to communicate through inert signs and symbols, about the intermediation of the printed page” (Hoffman 373).

There are moments of panic and places where he is desperate to escape mere words, to sing something untranslatable, something that is not language but just life. Whitman believed his work was worthless unless the words were alive, unless the poem was the same as his body, the same as his life, and he felt himself failing, which might go some way to explaining the constant, life-long revision, and the ongoing innovation, a “pattern of completion and escape” (Warren “Style” 386) that appears almost compulsive. Whitman’s poetry often takes this form of “constantly reinventing itself and thereby eluding the form it had already taken” and he seems to have this “sense of elusive, pervading ‘something’” (Warren “Style” 390) that he cannot grasp, cannot achieve. Indeed, his life work might be better characterized by revision of poems than by actually writing them. One need not do a comparative analysis of the various volumes of poetry to find this anxiety, though. It comes across in the poems in their final, “authorized” form.

This anxiety is evident throughout the work: In his talk about singing birds, with their untranslatable songs that simply express life as the model for poetry, Whitman holds his verse to a standard that he fears he cannot meet; in his three-tiered description of poetry in "Song of Myself," Whitman attempts to establish a taxonomy of poetry, and of the ways of using words, but then it collapses, and he finds his own best version of poetry is always inflicted with the death and artifice of the worst; in his declarations and pronouncements, his illocutionary speech acts, Whitman attempts to push and invoke life, to call it forth and animate the poem (almost, it seems, by force), but the attempts are ridden by their failure, and by an anxiety about poetry.

Because of this theoretical foundation, Whitman’s poetry is full of worries about theory and form, and the yawp so celebrated for its liberating barbarism is an anxious yawp.

Aug 25, 2010


Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"

-- Herman Melville, Moby Dick


And they played lopsided heart and moon over Dog Street
Tattoo lit
James Joyce in Paris
Marmaduke by Kafka
Pencil point sculptures
Talking to Don DeLillo
Del Toro to do Lovecraft
A soldier's last trip home
24 hours in a laundromat
Learn to swear in English
Poland's Pynchon conference
Best magazine articles ever
Looking like Hemmingway
Machines without the awe
Other side of Gil Scott Heron
Einstein as liberal conspiracy
God's Lunatics: an encyclopedia
The disguises of Tom McCarthy's C
On the set of Atlas Shrugged, the movie
Take this question out back and shoot it
Christianity Today interview with Robert Duvall
FBI releases 423 pages on Howard Zinn
The paranoid style in American politics
Warren Jeff's rape conviction overturned
Does the web mean the end of forgetting?
David Foster Wallace's Signifying Rappers
What social science doesn't -- and can't? -- know
Pacific Northwest landscape and Ken Kesey's writing
How I learned to stop worrying and love Frank O'Hara
Talking "new" natural law with Robby George
Mixing up art and copy in the 60s ad agencies
Sincerity in the lesser-know works of David Foster Wallace
Newt: the indispensable Republican
Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley) tries pop
Sufjan Steven's All Delighted People
Vonnegut library set to open in Indy
PD James and liberating conventions
Justice Kennedy's gay rights record
Mormons and freedom of religion now
The heterosexual "marriage ideal"
Gay people and the marriage ideal
Support for marriage equality graph
A win for the Fourth Amendment
50 years of Rastafarian studies
Reasons for artistic repetition
Death of a (Yiddish) bookstore
Alternate history of the novel
The baptist sex abuse scandal
The 675-mile long garage sale
Free the censored 11 cartoons
The design of ordinary places
Washington, we have a problem
How important is Don DeLillo?
James Baldwin on assumptions
Obama: a really lousy Muslim
Censoring the police blotter
Inception's generation gap
A primer on David Markson
Great books, great leaders
Derrida the anti-realist
Valerie Plame, the movie
On craft and repetition
To play Allen Ginsberg
Batman and Dostoevsky
Redesigned book covers
Ira Glass on maps
On not debating
Hillsdale art

Aug 24, 2010

Learning to long

The fear, with advertising, is portrayed as a fear of betrayal. The idea is advertising is decietful, tricks us into trading our deepest longings and values for trinkets and stuff: here, Esau, here's your porraige; here Delaware tribe, here's your beads.

But the more serious fear, more shocking to us than the acknowledged one, is the fear that it's no betrayal at all.

In The Joneses, e.g., the authentic identity, the true, real and also secret identities, are constructed as a shocked reaction against this fear, as a way of recoiling from the idea that this is what you want. The characters all make up a secret, essential "core," discovering it as one's own true being, in part so they can have something which is or has been betrayed. The constructed real self is constructed as a background against which betrayal can happen (the betrayal -- that it is a betrayal -- actually making us feel relieved).

"To secret lives," David Duchovney toasts, in the film. But the secret life isn't necessarily the site of any authentic self that pre-exists and can resist the shiny lures of advertising, but actually a creation of a place "within me," as it were, by advertising. And if it isn't a creation, exactly, the secret life I have I only know I have because advertising (perhaps inadvertantly) taught it to me.

Advertising needs to posit deep, unfulfilled desires -- desires it cannot fulfill. Advertising has to teach one to secretly want, has to give us the idea that this want was already there, exactly so that it can fulfill but leave unsatisfied this ambiguous, amorphous longing for an unnamed something. But -- in teaching one that one has secretly already wanted something, which advertising does with this move of naming an already-existing desire, of telling one that one already wanted this, only secretly, possibly even as a secret from one's self -- there is this idea/framework/construct of layers of secret lives. Of true selves with deep desires.

A desire for things, but also and especially for more.

Look at what happens with Peggy Olson in Mad Men, for example. She's taught to advertise by betraying her deepest desires -- to sell the idea of love, to sell the idea of a longing for love and for a secret which women have which is a longing for something (which is love/which one can fulfill/betray by buying a product) -- but then, in that idea of layers of lives, she learns she has these layers of longings: she doesn't always want, or always know what she wants, but she learns desire.

"I wanted," she says, "other things."

"Those people in Manhattan?" she says. "They are better than us. Because they want what they haven't seen."

It's not that advertising is not or cannot convince one to be betrayed by one's self, but it's also -- and this is worth noting -- a discourse that teaches us that we have longings that can be betrayed. It can and has been a way that we learn longing. It's not or not only deceitful; it's instructive. It's not a bad thing, this fear that advertising is giving us exactly and only what we want: it teaches us to think about what we want and to want more: something, an unnamed something more.

Aug 16, 2010

Topology of a trip home

Off grid.
              the light through the dirty glass
rendered it like a God and the author
closed his eyes.

-- Roberto Bolano, "Soni"

Aug 15, 2010

Short circuiting charity

There used to be an old conservative position -- not so long ago, now, though it feels like a long, long time since then -- that opposed the welfare state and charity programs on the grounds that they perpetuated the problem in the guise of solving certain symptoms. There was a fear that helping, say, a hungry person or a homeless person actually worked like oil in the machine to save and keep smoothly running the system that created as a byproduct the conditions of homelessness and hunger.

There used to be -- I heard this explicitly in a Christian conservative context -- a little metaphor about how helping people who had fallen of a cliff was good, but it's better to build a fence at the top of the cliff.

The problem, pretty obviously, is that this argument can be and can seem like a cover for doing nothing. And anyway politics and political solutions are supposed to be about the art of the possible, and making some movement, and one need not revolutionize, nor is one necessarily paralyzed until the revolution or the kingdom of God comes. There are things that can be done.

There is, also, a bit of a false dichotomy in the argument, though it is true that certain liberal or humanizing measures can work to ensure the continued operation of a basically, essentially illeberal and dehumanizing system. And it is true that change often comes after some social polarization, where the moderate, middle position becomes impossible to hold, though this is equally the case for positive and negative changes, pogroms and enslavements as much as liberations and civil rights movements.

The argument didn't really disappear for any of those reasons, though. It was just that the rhetoric was too complicated -- I don't want to say sophisticated, but tricky-- and it couldn't compete with the rightist rhetoric of resentment.
With talk of welfare queens and cheats, and taxation as theft, with the complete alienazation of society's poor and needy and the self-proclaimed victimization of middle majority who, by any objective measure, have benefited from society as it is, the argument about conservatism as a better way to help "the least of these," the "orphans and widows" of society was constantly creamed, crushed, destroyed and disintegrated by the very people who should have held it.

That's how it felt anyway.

The last time I heard the argument was the first time George W. Bush was campaigning, when he suggested there could be a kind of "compassionate conservatism," and while it wasn't quite worked out the way I had wanted that idea worked out, the idea itself, in 2000, lasted for about a nanosecond before conservative commentators drowned it under the rhetoric of resentment and imagined persecution, and then conceded it could be kept as a shell of itself for cover for doing nothing to help those who need help. There was, as I remember it, a moment, a pause, a single, gargling, transitionary breath, and then the idea was dead: Conservatism in this country was not and would not be about a better way or a better system for a more just society. It wasn't interested in that, actually. Everything was going to be about fighting for the interests of one's own group, one's side, one's self.

I bring this up now only because I see that Slovoj Zizek, in the latest of the wonderful RSA Animate videos, makes this same, old conservative argument about the "surprising ethical implications of charitable giving." He says well-intentioned people "very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease, they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease .... The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible and the altruistic virtues have really prevented this aim." Of course, he's doing it as a kind of unreconstructed revolutionary communism that, say, the folks at the Acton Institute might find quite shocking.

Aug 14, 2010

Picture on the cover

Speaking of class and status and art, and what is or is taken as art (and how): Jonathan Franzen.

AKA, Great American Novelist.

It's interesting that the Time Magazine cover article -- as abridged online, anyway -- talks about but doesn't seem to understand his "uneasiness" -- "It's hard to say exactly what makes Franzen so uncomfortable," Time says -- though really, it seems to me, Franzen's anxieties are pretty clear, and also exactly the kinds of things exacerbated by being on the cover of America's great middlebrow, middle-America, fits-on-every-coffee-table-in-sea-to-sea suburbia magazine.

Where he joins the ranks of Mario Puzo, Michael Crichton, and Garrison Keillor(!), and also Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe, and also Updike and Irving. This would seem to be two or maybe three totally different ranks of American writers, but, of course, at Time they're the same.

Which is to say they're popular, but specifically in the way that makes people feel special or superior for liking them. And they offer what feels like a "wide shot, the all-embracing, way-we-live-now" view of the world, even if that really ends up meaning telling people they're like exactly what they thought they were like all along.

Besides, of course, the possibility that this is a left-handed compliment (you're the great American writer who won't be too challenging or in any way uncomfortable for Time's audience), and besides the question of how uncomfortable it is for a Midwesterner like Franzen to be put in a position, complete with Big White Type, where you're not, anymore, an average person, you're not an average writer, and you kind of can't, with your upbringing, agree with the cover celebrating you without doing the unforgivable thing of putting yourself above other, average people and thinking you're better than them, it raises the question that actually already worries Franzen, which is who "literature" is supposed to be read by.

Can literature manage to be literature and middle class? Middlebrow? Is it supposed to be elitists -- that is to say, actually, somehow challenging, special, superior, different -- or should it be able to be read by anybody, even those 3 out of 4 Americans who can but don't read?

Does it need, like a politician, to appeal to the broadest possible commonalities and common denominators, to the 50 percent plus 1, even if that means pandering and posturing and speaking like a politician?

This isn't really a question for Time magazine, though. Franzen exactly fits Time's idea of literature. Which, really, makes him uncomfortable even though, at this point, after "last time," it's not like he's going to turn the offer down.

Aug 13, 2010

Questions of context of beliefs

Apocalyptism isn’t consistent across the history of American evangelicalism. It waxes and wanes in apparent but unexplained and unpredictable cycles. Interest is intense in some periods, such as the late 1970s and early ’80s, almost completely absent others, such as the 1930s, and just an underlying murmur of an issue at other times, as it appears to be today. But why? Why is it that dispensational American evangelicals are sometimes so obsessed with millennialism and apocalyptism, talking as if everything had to do with the rapture and the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast and the tribulation, and other times, without there being any apparent change in the actual beliefs, these topics barely register and seem to be wholly peripheral concerns?

The appearance of cultural concerns among American evangelicals, such as homosexuality, abortion, the definition of marriage, pornography, alcohol use, card games, dueling, or etc., seems to be pretty consistently correlated with actual developments in the broader culture. Theological concerns and debates among American Christians also seem to be either more or less consistent, though their history, such as the question of predestination, or to be clearly connected with some development or event, such as the debates over glossolalia and Open Theism. By comparison, the advent of millennialist concerns seems wholly mysterious. What accounts, for example, for the wild success of the Left Behind series? What, if anything, was it about the mid 1990s that prepared people for the fictional depiction of the rapture and rise of the Antichrist? What was it about the post-Civil War era that can explain the broad acceptance of C.I. Scofields’ dispensational premillenialist study bible? What did the 1840s, with its Shakers and Adventists, have in common with the 1980s, with its Jesus People and Christian communes? If, as has been said, “millennialism grounds the transcendent promise of salvation for the elected few on the Word of God and projects it onto a particular social group in history," why does this happen some times more than others?

To put the question that seems to sometimes hover just at the edge of the discussions’ frame in a broader, perhaps, or more general way, we know that people believe, and we know why people, in self descriptions, say they believe in the evangelical apocalyptic, but what are the motivating factors? What are the conditions or social contexts, what are the questions that these pessimistic millennial beliefs are answers to? How can we account for these beliefs, or explain the contexts for these beliefs, especially given the fact that, unlike, say, the belief that a belief in the divinity and sacrificial death of Jesus has a saving effect on the believer, or the belief that there will be an afterlife that will rightly and finally reward and punish people, this is a belief that has, in its intensity and frequency, varied rather wildly even in the relatively short span of the history of American evangelicalism?

Aug 12, 2010

Notes on reading American Psycho

There's an old sentimentalist saying that the purpose of the novel is to show us that we are not alone. There are all sorts of problems with that idea and I don't want to suggest that I just buy it, though I am sympathetic to these humanistic ideas of art as ethics, but it's worth mentioning again because Bret Easton Ellis seems to use almost the opposite idea for his book, American Psycho.

The book is basically a bludgeon, beating the reader with the idea that there's nothing at all, no humanity we share. This is a book that aggressively wants to break you down. Ellis' novel could be understood as an exercise in art as isolation: it says, no, you really are all alone.

There are no people in the novel, for one thing. They are only surfaces. Automatons. Sites of consumption and locations of lifestyle and style choice. For a while I was hoping the excessive serial-killing violence of the protagonist would only be his fantasy, so that Patrick Bateman imagines saying to a girl that he'd like to dismember her but doesn't actually say it, or he imagines his suit is spattered with blood that no one really notices at the McDonald's, because that would have meant that Bateman had internal life, a private realm, a solipsistic inside of which he was the center of every experience and where he could actually feel something like loneliness to which we, the readers, could relate. It doesn't go that way, though, and so when Bateman says, towards the end of the novel, "I decide to make public what has been, until now, my private dementia," it comes off completely strange. What public? What private? There are no people but only surfaces here, unlike, say, Dostoyevsky's underground man, whose self is an abyss of loathing and wretchedness internally monologued and to which we can actually relate, recognizing ourselves in his misery.

Bateman isn't miserable or wretched, though. He has no abyss. He just buys stuff and consumes and makes reservations -- and even in that he doesn't have an identity. Ellis makes this point by point out the main character himself is constantly being confused or mistaken for other people, and he and his group are constantly mistaking people for other people, so that everyone's interchangeable, no one's identifiable and no one actually exists as human.

The only actual glimmer of humanity in the book is the bums who crowd the streets, 30 in the first few pages, whose own need for human connection makes them the stand-in for the reader with that old senitmental idea of what the novel is going to do. And Bateman's favorite response to the bums is, a) to tell them they're horrid and stink and to get a job or, b) to act like he's going to give them some money, only to snatch it away at the last second, and instead insult them. The latter seems like a pretty good picture of Ellis' tactic too.

In this context, the pornographic violence and brutal sex of the world of American Psycho are very logical responses to and outworkings of the reality that there are no people here. They aren't dehumanizing, though I'm sure that was a criticism, but responses to there being no humans at all. It's sadism, but kneejerk sadism, pain without point or feeling, without even the part of sadism that's an attempt at an ethics.

The whole thing, I think, works as a meditation on the failure or art. Or the ethical uselessness of art. The very first attack of violence in the novel is immediately followed by an extended commentary on the band Genesis. Art follows violence. Both are inconsequential. When Bateman stabs the bum, first in the eye, "flicking the handle up, instantly popping the retina," and then repeatedly stabs him in the hands and stomach and back, before stomping on the front legs of the bum's little dog, he tells the bum, "It's just that ... I don't know. I don't have anything in common with you." Then the next chapter is about Phil Collins' band, Genesis, which hasn't been able to do anything to Bateman that might make him think he has something in common with someone else.

There's actually a lot of art in American Psycho. A ridiculous amount or art. It's normally pretty rare for an author to fill up his novel with excessive references to other works of art, but Ellis' is full of names of real and fictional works of art and artists. An incomplete list includes:
  • Les Misérables
  • Elmore Leonard
  • Talking Heads
  • Genesis
  • David Onica
  • Huey Lewis and the News
  • Whitney Houston
  • Jon Bon Jovi
  • U2
  • George Stubbs
  • Eric Fisch
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Nat King Cole
  • Hemingway
  • Cindy Sherman
  • Springsteen
  • The Beatles
  • Elvis
  • Madonna
  • Sting
It's an incomplete list in part because of tricky (for me) taxonomical questions about "high" and "low" art -- like should the made-up TV talk show in the novel be counted alongside Sting?, what about Body Double?, what about biographies of serial killers? -- but also because so many things that might be considered art in some contexts, like fashion designers' clothing lines and food, for example, are here understood only as status objects. Consumption that's conspicuous, etc. But then once you draw that line, and say there's distinct difference between a status object and an object of art, between say a Rolex or an BMW, on the one side, and a Milton or a Picasso, on the other, and that the difference has something to do with how something is taken, or received, it becomes quickly clear that there's no art in the novel at all. These are all status objects. An Auden, in this world, is no different than an Audi. A Stein no different than Starbucks. These are all things meant to be consumed as part of a lifestyle, as part of a personal expression that is a creation of self identity that one has purchased, except of course even that implies that there are people with identities that they express, and Ellis' world all you have are humans with the same content as billboards. Art isn't art here, or anyway isn't taken that way.

Making the list immediately uncovers the question "what is art?" or "what is taken as art?" but, more disturbingly, strongly suggests the answer that there is no art all.

Ellis particularly bluntly beats on this point by having a character (about to be murdered) point out that a David Onicia painting Bateman has hung prominently and proudly on his wall turns out to be upside down. We're never told about what the painting looks like, though presumably it's abstract, but we are told multiple times how much it cost, or how much Bateman says it cost, or how much someone says he says it cost. Ellis here repeats a pretty common complaint/critique/snide and stupid comment conservatives make and always have made about the senselessness of modernist art (it's upside down -- ha ha!), and so we have this scene where Bateman doesn't understand this art, which he only has because it's supposed to be valuable, bestowing status and marking taste, and also, simultaneously, we're given the idea that the painting is meaningless and there's nothing to understand.

There is, actually, this really, really conservative strain, in the book, especially if you want to take it as a satire. There's this picture of the world that American Psycho has, which is the world conservatives think we'll live in if we give up foundationalism, realist theories of art, authorial intent, divine chains of being, divinely directed metahistory, etc., and succumb to "postmodernism." "Sex is mathematics," Bateman says, expounding on something, but sounding particularly like what, say, conservative culture commentators say "postmodernists" sound like:
"Individuality is no longer an issue. What intelligence signify? Define reason.
Desire -- meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear,
recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things,
emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is
senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be
trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in ... this
was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged ..."
You see this, too, in how the novel takes the idea that identity is constructed, and that there is no "essential" self, and, switcho-chango!, makes it into a character of an idea where humans are hollow and all, basically, the ethical equivalent of serial killers: Bateman says, "I simply am not there ... Myself is fabricated, an aberration ... My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist."

At Harvard, natch.

Whether I read this as a position or a satirical critique of a position, it seems to me to be deeply disdainful of art. As if it's saying, look, idiots, art can't save us, we're animals and serial killers and none of it means anything and yes, you're alone in this, and no, you can't share that aloneness with anyone else: you're alone in being alone and then you die; or it's saying, look, once we give up these old, "classical" ideas of art, which is that art is about transcendence and universal truths, which is to say "high" art and to say it's about class, then we're left with only pop and trash and no one is "elevated" and then look, idiots, art can't save us, we're animals and serial killers and none of it means anything and yes, you're alone in this, and no, you can't share that aloneness with anyone else. Either way, though, it's art as opposed to the idea of art.

There is, oddly, one piece of art that actually gets taken, I think, as art, by Bateman in the book. There's one piece that has the function I think I want art, including this book, to have. What's odd, though, is that it's a Post story about the sighting of urban legendish creatures that are part bird, part rodent, and almost certainly and pretty obviously a hoax. It's this story, though, and only this story, that has an art-like effect on Bateman:

"... it fills me with a nameless dread that someone out there has wasted the
energy and time to think this up: to fake a photograph (and do a half-assed job
at that, the thing looks like a fucking Big Mac) and send the photograph in to
the Post, then for the Post to decide to run the story
(meetings, debates, last-minute temptations to cancel the whole thing?), to
print the photograph, to have someone write about the photo and interview the
experts, finally to run this story on page three in today's edition and have it
discussed over hundreds of thousands of lunches in the city this afternoon. I
close the paper and lie back, exhausted."

I don't know why that one piece is different for Ellis or for Bateman. It's the one story, though, that seems to awaken even a glimmer of the idea of an infinity of otherness, and maybe there there's the chink in Ellis' art-hating piece of art. Whether one takes this book as an endorsement of a certain idea of life, that is this is the way the world is -- as Ellis kind of seems to in the end, saying, "summarizing for the idiots," saying, "this is, uh, how life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century and how people, you know, me, behave," -- or if one reads that as a criticism in the form of a satire of how life presents itself at the end of the century to certain people, it's still dead and deadening, except for this one moment that probably deserves the attention of a whole paper, it's still "hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid," as David Foster Wallace said, and a work of art that doesn't believe in art, except perhaps as a way to stab us in the face until we give the hell up on our idea that it might be possible to not be alone.


Writing is thus essentially the morality of form.
              - Roland Barthes

Aug 11, 2010

You know, don't you, that the sun's going down now
Evening on the Pa. turnpike (goodbye again America).