Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pynchon Book/Obama Gates and Crowley Playing the Dozens

Lots of News- First of all, Pynchon's "Inherent Vice",Penguin $27.95, to be published August 4, really is a TRP "Beach read". It's a light psychedelic 60's LA doper noir story punctuated by a lot of raucous humor,surfing lore and with more than a few brilliant insights into our crazed culture, as it slipped form the activist 60's into the retrenched 70's. A lot of fun and probably the most "accessible"book ever written by a modern master.You're not likely to forget Doc Sportello as another classic P.I. in the museum of notable literary detectives.
I went back to Gravity's Rainbow after finishing "Against the Day" which I adored, and found it to be every bit the classic as I had when I first, on the 7th try, learned to read it with joy.
Inherent Vice is packed with sex, nefarious police goings-on and enough marijuana smoke that one can almost get a contact high from its pages.It recaptures Pynchon's spirit of resistance against the system, his love for "excluded middles" and his wisdom that some things are just inherent vice, a maritime term for unisurable risks, or glistening doubt, take your pick.The book is studded with the usual Pynchonalia of weird named characters, and tons of pop culture references to surf bands and John Garfield movies, among other waystations of our wacky culture. It's a quick read indeed that proves that Pynchon is the hippest post- 70 dude around.This is a real w--i--p--e--o--u--t!For shizzle.

Before we talk of Nobel Prize winner JMG LeCLezio's brilliant"Desert" ($25.95) to be published next week from David Godine(Long may he keep the faith)- here is a little aside about the recent Obama- Gates arrest controversy.

Obama Gates and Crowley: Playing the Dozens-C 2009
The raging controversy over the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge Mass police after “breaking and entering “ his own home, followed by the media termed "unfortunate comment" of Pres Obama about stupid actions of police,has shaken the nation. The story is punctuated in part by a claim, denied by Gates, that when Officer Crowley asked him to discuss things outside , the Professor replied, I’ll talk to your mama outside.”
The “your mama” reference brings back “the Dozens”, the national children’s insult games, which include a litany of “Your mama ‘ is so stupid or so fat or so whatever that….(Here we attach the insult) Well maybe, if Gates and Crowley are going to accept the invitation to go to the White House this week, they could settle the affair by playing the dozens then and there.
Like this:
Crowley- Your mama so stupid she thinks Brittany Spears is a UK cavalry regiment.
Gates: Your mama is so dumb she believes a charge to the “Jewry” is a tax on temples.
Crowley:Your mama think waterboarding an Olympic sport
Gates:Your mama says Minni-sota is found in a vending machine.
Crowley:Your mama say Helmand, Afghanistan is where people get killed for mayonnaise.
Gates: Your mama says police “brew” tality is the precinct beer bill.
It’s only a short distance of course before they both turn on the President with…..
Gates and Crowley to Obama: Your mama think Yes We Can” is a sardine company slogan…..
But isn’t this is much better way of ending a dispute,a children’s game followed of course by a gourmet meal and a walk in the Rose garden, and so appropriate for a nation, which is so childish as to believe it can actually win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time it transacts the nation's real business of heading off a depression , bailing out the banks and establishing national health care.

ps- For those who want to read more on the dozens,pick up the books by Bruce Jackson or trace the world-wide history of children's insult games in the once and perhaps still published Maledicta -the Journal of Vituperative Expression compiled by university scholar Reinhold Aman- He has a website but the resource material is best found in that discredited institution, the public library.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Methland, The Dumbest Generation, Empire of Illusion

Methland by Nick Reding,(Bloomsbury 2009) which was saved from possible oblivion by a front page article in last week's Sunday NYT Book review, is a terrific piece of journalism that tells two stories- the decay of a small town, Oelwein Iowa, killed by big agriculture, and globalism and whose residents turned to methampetamine to stay up all day working or escaping from road-kill reality,and viewed through the lenses of its doctor, prosecutor, and chief of police as well as some of its meth lab operators. It's a brilliant synthesis of investigative journalism and a nuanced portrayal of American life as more and more communities start to resemble developing nations and not the prosperous middle-class America we grew up with. A page-turning read as well.

The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein,Tarcher pb$15.95) and Empire of Illusions, by Pulitzer-Prize winner Chris Hedges(just out from Nation Books ($24.95)both treat of the triumph of spectacle and the decline of literacy in America.
Dumbest Generation uses multiple federal and state studies to prove that the advance in computer intelligence, and spatial understanding of our youth has been accompanied by an appalling decline in their respective reading and writing skills, as well as civic education,visits to museums etc.The author calls for a return to the traditional values, liberal arts education and more emphasis on learning. Yes, there are too many choices,'tis true, too much infotainment,and useless screen time, but the answer remains clouded- Turning in the last chapter to the Daniel Bells and Irving Kristols of the world, whose sorry propping up of a failed establishment in the late 60's ,funded by the same defense research that overwhelms universities today, is not the solution either. Maybe no one has the answer.

Empire of Illusions,whose author wrote the polemic War is a Force that Gives us meaning, and American Fascists( a book on the Christian radical right) examines the decline of literacy and the replacement by spectacle, the growth of violent porn, the decline of wisdom and replacement by elite business schools catering to a generation of money- hungry uneducated business school graduates and finally the decline of America, a subject covered by Chalmers Johnson and others equally well. It's an unrelenting course in misery, punctuated by the author's pleas for a love saves all solution at the end- Don't get me wrong- Hedges is right on target throughout this book and remains a great moral voice in the wildernesss of our lives. But it was hard springing up with joy in the morning after staying up at night to read its bitter truths.
Two passages stand out though- the comparison of Orwell's dystopian 1984 to Huxley's Brave new World. Orwell's was a society that relied on coercion and control, and Huxley's on a surfeiting of happy, irrelevant trivia to dope the populace.With the growth of mobile screen culture(we love it ok!) offering thousands of soporific alternatives to reading the morning newspapers, to the endless housewives and business commuters mindlessly playing sudoku we are truly, in the words Of George HW Bush, "in the deep doo-doo".Huxley, after all, was the visionary here.

The other passage contains a pungent quote from Andrew Lahde,a Santa Monica hedge fund manager,who made an 850 percent gain by betting on the subprime mortgage collapse,then abruptly shut his fund down in 2008 and took the profits before the crash. Said he ,in a farewell letter to investors:

"The low-hanging fruit,ie idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking" and speaking of the oligarchic class- he went on:
"These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received...rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government.All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy ended up only making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God Bless America."

Well. someone has to keep the Hopium flowing - who can that be?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Werner Herzog and The Spell of the Sensuous

Werner Herzog, the acclaimed German director of Aguirre The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Encounters at the Edge of the World, and dozens of other films, including a large number of documentaries and shorts, spoke Friday night, June 26 before a packed crowd of 150 or more persons at the McNally Robinson bookshop in Soho.
Herzog, known for his extraordinary film making voyages through the Amazon, to the edge of a volcano in Guadeloupe about to explode , to Antarctica,and numerous other remote corners of the world, gave the audience a trip instead through his mind while making Fitzcarraldo. This is the film about an obsessive early 20th century entrepeneurial dreamer who wants to build an opera house in the jungle town of Iquitos so Enrico Caruso can sing there. In a cracked effort to corner the rubber market,he attempts to pull a 320 ton steamboat across the jungle hills and an isthmus separating two rivers. The film starred Klaus Kinski in one of his memorably insane roles with Herzog as director and the film was itself the basis of a documentary by Les Blank about its making entitled Burden of Dreams.
Now 30 years later, Herzog has written a memoir of those days, entitled Conquest of the Useless, following the pattern of diary entries from his unique mind- It is witty, profound and surreal- and was sold along with a copy of a newly translated short prose work "Of Walking in Ice", first published thirty years ago about a walk Herzog took from Munich to Paris in the late fall snows of 1974 because he had convinced himself it would help save his friend Lotte Eisner, who was seriously ill in Paris at the time.(He reached her and she lived for many years afterward) Herzog , who is a self-taught scholar,writes powerfully descriptive,almost surreal passages, but as his mother once said, his powers of description dwarf his abilities to explain-Never mind- he is a genius at what he does.

Herzog was brusquely funny in his repartee about our"bastardized culture"- he deplores shamans,ayuahasca(the legendary tryptamine on the vine), loathes the drug culture, and cinema verite and believes his documentaries are "fiction in disguise."He spoke of the famous scene in Nosferatu, when he convinced the city of Delft, Netherlands to allow him to release 11000 painted rats upon the arrival of Dracula(Nosferatu's) boat-This was done upon the payment of substantial sums and the promise to recapture all of them- Actually 11400 were captured as they had rapidly propagated in the interim.(This film, by the way, is so good it creates the illusion it is presenting almost an anthropolgical view of the gypsy settlements depicted in thevampire-savaged countryside.)

And as for nature,it is not there to be venerated but feared-it is erotic , obscene and pastorals here.

Compare this wild work with David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous,where Abram treats of ecological magic and demonstrates that our truest human attributes spring as in oral culture from our relationships wth the senses and the elements and the earth and animate natural world. We have lost a great bit when we solely depend on written language and alphabets- even as we have in Kabbalah the concentrated and refined magic of the written word , compared to the wild and multiplicitous magic of the natural intelligent world.

Abram, who is associated with the Alliance for Wild Ethics, is one of the greatest teachers on the planet- I cannot too highly recommend his text..You read the book with the sense that all life, rocks, and plants are charged with the life force. You will likely feel very different about bird song as well after you dabble in its pages.
More of Abram and of Jay Griffiths, and The Welsh writer's brilliant study "Wild' in the near future.