Saturday, November 25, 2006

Hauntology II

Since my post last month about hauntology, there's been a flurry of blog activity on the topic (Jahsonic provides a mini-roundup here). In my post, I knew that I was more or less talking out of my ass. For one thing, I neglected to mention that the term originates with Derrida (in part this is because I have yet to read any Derrida, let alone Spectres of Marx, from which it comes). The proprietor of the new blog ACADEMITASSE, Mike, posted at length on this last week. Derrida, he writes, was responding in part to the kinds of "end of history" theses being put forth by the likes of Francis Fukuyama in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. For Derrida,
all this talk of the end of history is really just an attempt to "exorcise the spirit of Marxism" from our collective memory. And then he went on to look at the some of the "spectral" metaphors in Marx, whose description of capitalism is full of vampires and ghosts and the living dead.

Along the way, Derrida coined the term "hauntology" as a pun on "ontology." Ontology is the study of being, of what exists. Derrida wants to say that our ideas of reality are "haunted" by the stuff we exclude—the things we don't want to remember or acknowledge. The Holocaust, for example, or the slave trade. Our sense of Western history as the progressive march of "freedom" and "civilization" is haunted by genocide and enslavement.
Though I came to hauntology by way of attempts to apply it to music--"sonic hauntology"--I'm interested in this idea of history "haunted by the stuff we exclude". Really, I always have been, even if I didn't articulate it as such. I was trying to touch on some of this when I wrote about the common thread I perceived running through old folk music and Blood Meridian and so forth. Then there is the question of who the "we" is that is doing the excluding. And who is or isn't served by certain historical myths.

After quoting part of the same k-punk passage that I did in my earlier post ("It's no accident that hauntology begins in the Black Atlantic, with dub and hip-hop. Time being out of joint is the defining feature of the black Atlantean experience"), Mike says: "This is what's at stake in the term "hauntology" losing its precision: the memory of specific historical experiences that called for specific aesthetic responses." He then proceeds with a short, interesting discussion of Rastafarianism and Dub, of which the following is only a small part:
Like Rastafarianism, Dub is a response to a specific historical situation. Artists like [Lee "Scratch"] Perry rose to that occasion. If Byrne and Eno [with their My Life in the Bush of Ghosts] were inspired by Perry's work and wanted to appropriate it for their own concerns, that's great. But when critics describe B&E as these "nerdy," "cerebral" musicians experimenting with electronic music, they start to construct just another history of the Western Avant-garde that ignores the intellectual contribution of Black artists. Perry was as much a theoretician as B&E.
Read the rest here.

I expect I'll return to these themes in the future. For now, the upshot, for me, is that Spectres of Marx is yet another book that I feel like I have to read and that, again, I need to get myself acquainted with Dub.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Elsewhere recently, related to Nabokov and Dostoevski

At The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney on Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. Along with a beautiful discussion of the novel, Matt says this, about people's general suspicions about imagination:
Inevitably, there were students who were convinced Nabokov was insane or a drug addict or both. This accusation comes up all the time when we read anyone who is not among the hardest of hardcore realists, because imagination is something that has come to be associated only with the stimulus of drugs or madness. That someone could think up a story like Invitation to a Beheading -- where a man is imprisoned for "gnostic turpitude" in a fortress of porous walls and fake windows and rules against improper dreams -- without being addicted to hallucinogens or lacking a couple of screws is at best inconceivable to many people, if not threatening. The people who issue these accusations would never think of such a story or such imagery themselves, and therefore they can't imagine how anyone else could, unless there was something wrong with their brains.
And Rodney Welch on giving Dostoevski another chance, finding something there, but still deciding that Dostoeksi just isn't his thing (link via The Reading Experience). He seems to notice that Dostoevski is capable of great artistic power:
A slight turn with Dostoevsky came some years after my initial attempt, and that's when I picked up Demons [aka The Possessed]. This story of Stavrogin and the band of bored nihilists of mid-century Russia was absolutely staggering, if only because it seemed to me so very, very prescient. It's a fantastic novel about how revolutions implode, and to reach that ending, where all the principals die, one dropping after the other very much like in the last scene of Hamlet, was staggering -- it was like reading this great, massive historical tragedy, written by someone with incredibly far-seeing vision, who somehow knew how the history of his country would play out. I thought maybe it was one of the greatest novels I'd ever read. And it was cinematic, too; there's a scene at the end where some character, I forget which, stumbles upon a dead body and holds a candle up to his dead face. It was a beautifully visual scene, and I didn't recall anything like it in anything else of Dostoevsky's.
But finally this "beautifully visual" stuff, along with suspense and mystery, "is not what really interests Dostoevsky. His interest, his focus, is a good deal more psychological". Rodney ultimately finds Dostoevski "weirdly interesting" but "painful" where "the attempt is more interesting than the execution." I tend to agree (though I cannot get behind his comparison to Ornette Coleman or Captain Beefheart, both of whom have made a lot of music that is simply wonderful).

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Other notes on Despair

Here are a couple of other observations about Despair that I'd originally tacked onto the end of the previous post, but which are not much related to the balance of that post's content, and looked kind of random and lost there.

In his Lectures on Literature, these are Nabokov's opening and closing sentences in his (three-page) discussion of the portion of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park in which Fanny visits the Portsmouth relatives:
The novel, which shows signs of disintegrating, now lapses more and more into the easy epistolary form. This is a sure sign of a certain weariness on the part of the author when she takes recourse in such an easy form. [...] The Portsmouth interlude--three months in the life of Fanny--and the epistolary form of the novel is ended. We are back where we were, so to speak, but the Crawfords are now eliminated. Miss Austen would have had to write practically another volume of five hundred pages if she had wished to narrate those elopements in the same direct and detailed form as she had done in relating the games and flirtations at Mansfield Park before Fanny left for Portsmouth. The espistolary form has helped to prop up the structure of the novel at this point, but there is no doubt that too much has happened behind the scenes and that this letter-writing business is a shortcut of no very great artistic merit.
So it is amusing when, in chapter four, our narrator engages in a bit of literary criticism of the epistolary form:
There are in my possession two more letters written on similar paper, but all the answers have been destroyed. If I still had them [...] it would be possible now to adopt an epistolic form of narration. A time-honoured form with great achievements in the past. [...] The reader soon ceases to pay attention whatever to the dates; and indeed what does it matter to him whether a given letter was written on the ninth of September or on September the sixteenth? Dates are required, however, to keep up the illusion.

So it goes on and on, Ex writing to Why and Why to Ex, page after page. Sometimes an outsider, a Zed, intrudes and adds his own little contribution to the correspondence, but he does so with the sole aim of making clear to the reader (not looking at him the while except for the occasional squint) some event, which, for reasons of plausibility and the like, neither Ex nor Why could very well have explained.
A few pages later in the same chapter, there is what may or may not be an allusion to Proust:
But while I looked there started afresh that process of fusion, of building, that making up of a definite remembrance [...] I could not discover what the kernal was, around which all those things were formed, and where exactly the germ, the fount--suddenly I glanced at the decanter of dead water and it said "warm"--as in that game when you hide objects; and very possibly I should have finally found the trifle, which, unconsciously noticed by me, had at once set going the agent of memory...


Notes on re-reading Nabokov's Despair

Soon after starting this blog, I posted about revisiting Nabokov. I'd begun re-reading Despair, which had been one of the first few Nabokov books I'd ever read. Alas, I was in a total haze as I started reading it, so I put it aside for a bit. In the meantime, I mentioned having come across this interesting paper, in which the author, Alexander Dolinin, discusses parody in the book, as well as Nabokov's evolving critical attitude towards Dostoevski. So I decided to read some Dostoevski, something I hadn't done since I'd read The Brothers Karamazov some twelve years back (not long before I'd read Despair, as it happens), very early in my serious reading life. I read Notes from the Underground and then returned to Despair itself. I'd meant to post about that experience, but time got away from me. Time always seems to be getting away from me.

Around that time, I also started to dip into Michael Wood's The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction. In the preface to his wonderful book, Wood writes about Nabokov's self-imposed loss of the Russian language for the purpose of his prose writing. He says that what was ultimately important about this loss (which Nabokov saw as necessary) was that it produced a
...fabulous, freaky, singing, acrobatic, unheard-of English which (probably) made even his most marvelous Russian seem poor, and therefore meant that the terrible decision of his early years in America had been right, that the second language could flower for him only at the cost of the first; had to become itself a new language, a language to write in.
Wood closes his preface by telling us that he is focusing on the novels written in English but that "the shadow of his Russian helps us with the shadow of his English. The absent language reminds us of the many absences in Nabokov's seemingly so complete and confident later prose." Unfortunately, this means that he does not discuss Despair, which was originally published in Russian in 1932 and first translated into English (by Nabokov) in 1937. For the American release of the novel in the mid-1960s, Nabokov returned to the book and extensively re-wrote it. This is Nabokov not only after having given up Russian, but also after the major successes of Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire. It seems to me that Despair would have been an interesting novel to look at in this context, how the novel relates to Nabokov's English-language work. No doubt there is plenty of work out there comparing it with Nabokov's other Russian novels.

Ok, moving on to the novel itself; I'm not intending a cohesive review of it here, but I was leafing through my notebook recently and thought I'd share some of my observations.

Anyway, the story. On a business trip to Prague, our narrator, Hermann, encounters a man who he takes to be his twin. From the beginning he expends a lot of energy telling us how obvious it is that the man looks like him, could easily be mistaken for him. Eventually, he devises a standard-issue murder-for-insurance-money plan that he thinks is not only brilliant but will be a great work of art. I hope it's not giving too much away to say that things don't quite go according to plan. In and of itself, the novel is an entertaining thriller of sorts. But this being Nabokov, there's a lot more to it than that. Hermann is not only an unreliable narrator, but he virtually shouts "unreliable narrator" throughout, he's almost too obvious about being unreliable, from his declarations at certain points that he is lying, to the manner in which he repeatedly records, to his evident surprise, that no one has noticed the resemblance between him and his double (how convenient for his scheme!).

After reading Notes from the Underground, immediately it seemed clear to me that, in part, Nabokov is parodying it in Despair. This is how I put it before: "superficial similarities are obvious, from the 'confession' addressed to some unnamed accuser ("gentlemen" in Notes, "reader" in Despair), to the narrator's exaggeratedly high opinion of himself and repeated backtrackings and claims that he is lying." It also occurred to me that this novel is in some sense a dry run for Lolita, not in the latter novel's lurid subject matter (that dubious honor goes to the inferior novella The Enchanter), but in the form, as well as the character of Hermann, who seems like a prototype for Humbert--again, the apparently hyperliterate confession, the unreliable narrator who is quite full of himself (bragging about odd things that come off sounding like bullshit, for example claiming to "have exactly twenty-five types of handwriting" before proceeding to describe several of them). Hermann fancies himself smarter than everyone around him, as a keen observer of people, when in reality he is unable to notice many obvious things right in front of him (for example, an affair between his wife and the artist Ardalion). I say "apparently hyperliterate" because, while Hermann makes a number of overt literary references and goes on and on about art versus life, his allusions are inept. Nabokov gives us something of a hint on this front in his introduction to this edition where he provides the full text of the Pushkin poem that Hermann quotes partially in chapter four. Dolinin writes that the portion of the poem omitted by Hermann shows that Hermann misunderstands Pushkin's point, and he points out a similarly inept reference to Gogol.

Returning here to the idea of parody, in his discussion of Lolita, Wood spends some time exploring the ways in which Quilty acts as Humbert's double. Quilty is Humbert's "sleazy alter ego, his monstrous dream-double" but not a figment of Humbert's imagination; he is "an aspect of Humbert's self-image that has got loose, seceded, and taken over a part of the plot. Or he is Nabokov's answer to Humbert, the case Humbert can't make against himself." When Humbert recognizes with pleasure the name of his secret tormenter, his pleasure is weird, but Wood relates it to Kafka and "the pure perfection of everything going entirely wrong"; Quilty is "objective proof (in the world of the novel) of the conspiracy we thought we had only dreamed." And here is where Wood addresses the parodic elements of that novel, and makes me wish again that he had included a chapter on Despair in his book:
I seem to have slithered over the element of literary parody in all this, but that is easier to see. Lolita is not only a book with a manically material double in it, it is a joke about books which allow such creatures any sort of run. Nabokov would expect us to remember Dostoevsky, who wrote a novel called The Double and whose reputation in the West, Nabokov thought, was hugely inflated. That inflation itself might have seemed enough to secure the allusion, even if we didn't know that Stavrogin's almost unnameable sin, in The Possessed, is the molestation of a little girl; and Humbert himself, in case we need a hint, says he feels a 'Dostoyevskian grin dawning . . . like a distant and terrible sun'. The clue to Conrad, another specialist in doubling, is stealthier. Humbert imagines Quilty as 'that secret agent, or secret lover, or prankster, or hallucination, or whatever he was'. 'Secret sharer' is the phrase Humbert has left out, but he wouldn't want us to prompt him. When Humbert speaks of Quilty as 'my brother', the fun piles up in several tiers.
Etc. Nabokov obviously has great fun in layering this stuff like this. Naturally, I haven't read either The Double or The Possessed; even so, Nabokov provides enough surface references to make you wonder what he's doing in Despair. There are constant overt references to Dostoevski and to a "Russian psychological novelist".

Given Dostoevski's reputation as a great writer of the "novel of ideas" and Nabokov's famous disdain of same, it seemed obvious to me that the latter is poking fun at the concept in Despair. Hermann expresses and explores a lot of ideas, many of which are just plain idiotic, or if they aren't idiotic, he doesn't have anything interesting to say about them. For example, in chapter two, he describes his wife, Lydia, and her hatred for the Bolsheviks. He then says:
When I used to say that Communism in the long run was a great and necessary thing; that young, new Russia was producing wonderful values, although unintelligible to Western minds and unacceptable to destitute and embittered exiles; that history had never yet known such enthusiasm, asceticism, and unselfishness, such faith in the impending sameness of us all--when I used to talk like this, my wife would answer serenely: "I think you are saying it to tease me, and I think it's not kind." But really I was quite serious for I have always believed that the mottled tangle of our elusive lives demands such essential change; that Communism shall indeed create a beautifully square world of identical brawny fellows, broad-shouldered and microcephalous; and that a hostile attitude toward it is both childish and preconceived...
That a supporter of Communism would say this strikes me as highly unlikely--it sounds like a parody of Bolshevik claims as expressed by one with contempt for their ideas and methods. At first I thought this was an example of Nabokov allowing his own opinions to color his writing, but he probably knew what he was doing. That the narrator is something of a pompous idiot tells me that Nabokov knew full well that no real advocate of the Bolsheviks would use these kinds of words in support of them (microcephalous?).

But I think it's a little too easy to think that Nabokov is simply having a go at Dostoevski. There are several superficial digs; for example:
Did it actually go on like this? Am I faithfully following the lead of my memory, or has perchance my pen mixed the steps and wantonly danced away? There is something a shade too literary about that talk of ours, smacking of thumb-screw conversations in those stage taverns where Dostoevski is at home; a little more of it and we should hear that sibilant whisper of false humility, that catch in the breath, those repetitions of incantatory adverbs--and then all the rest of it would come, the mystical trimming dear to that famous writer of Russian thrillers.
As I read this, it occurred to me that Nabokov himself would not have found the conversations in Dostoevski "literary", would have found them staged, contrived, "political", characters as mouthpieces for so-called ideas. Or would he? Dolinin compares the American version of Despair with its Russian predecessor and identifies some clear differences in the object of Nabokov's parody. In the US, Nabokov is famously dismissive of Dostoevski, but Dolinin shows that it wasn't always thus. Dolinin cites a paper Nabokov wrote in 1931, while living in Berlin as part of the Russian emigre literary community, in which he praised Dostoevski's ability for "keen sight". For Nabokov "keen sight" is where the art lies in literature, the well-observed detail, for example, whereas "insight", into human psychology, or via other great ideas, is the province of Dostoevski at his worst, what he would have called "Dostoevskian stuff". It would appear that Nabokov, in 1931 anyway, thought highly of Dostoevski's abilities, but felt that he too often chose to work elsewhere, to lard his fiction with all of this psychological business. Dolinin suggests that Nabokov's position in the US compelled him to switch the object of parody from "Dostoevskian stuff" to Dostoevski himself. He writes:
The reorientation of the English Despair toward Dostoevsky was undoubtedly prompted by the Western cultural context of the 1960's in which (and for which) Nabokov was rewriting his thirty-year-old novel. By this time Nabokov had severed his ties to contemporary Russian literature, whether written by émigrés or Soviet nationals.[...]In America Nabokov wanted to play the role of the last survivor and representative of the great Russian literary tradition, the ambassador plenipotentiary of the mutilated Russian culture and language, the sole peer and interlocutor of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov rather than Pasternak (as the author of Doctor Zhivago) or Solzhenitsyn. This is why he was so enraged when in the 1950's and 1960's the American intellectual elite, under the influence of French existentialists, began to venerate Dostoevsky, whom they proclaimed the father of existentialism and the only Russian writer of genius. The main aim of Nabokov's individual crusade against Dostoevsky was not so much to dethrone the mighty predecessor as to undermine his uncritical cult in America, which tended to reduce all Russian cultural heritage to the soul-searching of Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
I have not read a lot of the critical apparatus around either Dostoevski or Nabokov (pretty much just the ones I'm quoting here and stray other pieces), but the narrator of Despair, Hermann, is a doof, so perhaps by putting these comments in this idiot's mouth, he is sort of discrediting the ideas--maybe Nabokov was still not so down on Dostoevski as he claimed or he simply conceals the "good" he may have still found in Dostoevski. Or, he lampoons his own excessive dismissal of Dostoevski, while writing a novel that mimics the "Dostoevskian-stuff" he actually disliked in Dostoevski's writing--to the point of having Ardalion (an actual artist) criticize Hermann (who has artistic pretensions) for the Dostoevskian-stuff. Also, remember, Hermann thinks of his crime as a work of art, and accordingly he thinks that his "confession" is prime material for a great novel and claims to be unconcerned with whether he is credited or not. He writes about what a certain psychological novelist he has in mind might do with his book, referring variously to his "first reader" or "that Russian author to whom my manuscript will be forwarded when the time comes". Perhaps Nabokov here is having fun both with his character, who is not as smart as he thinks he is, while again skewering the idea that a crime can even be a work of art, as he does in Lolita (Humbert is monstrous, not an artist, no matter his refinements), and also nodding again in the direction of Dostoevski, positing one like him perhaps, who might try to make use of such material as this.

Also related to this question of Dostoevski and what might be the object of Nabokov's parody in Despair is some interesting stuff in Dolinin's paper about the differing literary camps in the aforementioned Russian emigre community in Berlin. He cites many examples of stories and novels that followed various trendy models, including those that were heavy on the "Dostoevskian stuff", the "inner 'irrepressible light' of Dostoevsky's insights", and he says that it is very likely that various aspects of Despair were specifically parodying some of these works. I often talk about my own anxieties about alluson, how I always worry that I'm going to miss something, and this would appear to be a case in point of a huge amount of allusion and intertextuality necessarily passing me by. But, of course, the American reader is highly unlikely to have any acquaintance with this stuff and Nabokov would have known it, and I suspect he modified his text accordingly to focus on Dostoevski, in the process bringing it more in line with his contemporaneous rhetorical stance. I think Nabokov is also having fun with those in America who venerate Dostoevski (and the existentialist or psychological treatment of art--he makes fun of Sartre in his introduction to Despair and is constanly railing against Freud)--either for doing so at all, or for missing what art there actually is in Dostoevski. He wants people to be able to notice the difference, but is happy to have a joke at their expense if they do not.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Joy in Repetition

Earlier this evening, I was looking through my cds, and I noticed a white, paper-bound set, just after the Alva.Noto/Ryuichi Sakamoto collaborations. I couldn't remember what it was, so I pulled it out. Ah yes. Mort aux Vaches. Two cds of electronic music from Alva.Noto, Signal, Komet, and Byetone.... It never was entirely clear to me what the story was with the different Mort aux Vaches releases. They appear to have been special limited edition showcases of artists from other labels, in this case raster-noton. Like a lot of the releases on the boutique electronic labels, the packaging on these was often very entertaining. The one I have is no different: it's two cds, inside heavy, folded white paper (the only color being black ink, indicating that mine was supposedly number 292 of the 1000 made), with raised lettering for liner notes. The cds are held in place with a metal fastener, poked through the folded paper, and through the holes in each cd, the metal bent back on the other side.

I was again delighted by the silly packaging, so I opened it, and was reminded of how precarious the placement of the cds is. The cds fell out into my hands, and I noticed right away that disc 2 had what appeared to be a pretty egregious scratch, straight from the inner circle to the edge of the disc. And now I was somewhat irritated. Granted, it had obviously been a few years since I'd even been aware of owning the set, but here I had a cd I'd no doubt spent far too much money on (limited edition import?) and had probably only listened to once, and now there was a good chance it might be unplayable. Expecting the worst, I placed it into the cd player and pressed play. It seemed ok to start with. And then I was drawn into the music. Clean, electronic tones. Blips and squirts, and sounds like drops of water, along with occasional swells and bass. Very minimal, but not just static. Painterly. Beautiful, really. I was happy I had this cd, and happier still that it seemed ok.

I had to do something upstairs for a while, but I left the cd playing, even though I couldn't hear it very well. After some time, we noticed that we could hear the same tone repeating over and over again, and for several minutes. I said, "You know, I have to admit that I can't say offhand if this cd is supposed to sound like this, or if it's finally started to skip..." I went downstairs and checked it. I yelled up, "You know what's awesome?" "Let me guess; it's not skipping," came the reply. "It's totally not skipping. That's cool," I said. "That's one word for it," she said.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Election 2006

I don't have much to say about the elections. I'm not optimistic that the Democrats will do much of anything now that they control Congress. But I do share a sense of relief that, at least, things will be a little harder for the Bush Administration. It seems clear that the war was the key element driving the anti-Republican backlash, which is great, though I doubt this will result in troop withdrawal. And I very strongly doubt we're going to see Impeachment proceedings. I'd love to be proven wrong on both counts. I'd love to see the DLC lose control over the Democratic Party. I'm not holding my breath on that one either.

I admit that prior to the election I grew increasingly irritated with the standard-issue Liberal exhortations that everyone vote. I disagree with those who say that "no matter what side you're on, so long as you vote, that's what's important". (If you're going to vote for a Bush-type, I'd much rather you stayed home, frankly.) This annoying, patriotic faith in "liberal democracy" in the face of all manner of evidence that not only is the system broken, but it's rotten to the core, is tiresome to me. Similarly, I disagree with the idea that, if you don't vote, you don't have the right to "complain" or that this renders any "remotely political" thing you have to say automatically irrelevant. There are numerous perfectly rational reasons why someone would choose not to vote, especially given the stolen presidential elections, and the Diebold business, and the lack of much real difference between the two major parties.

That said, I voted, and I still think that voting is worth doing and important, especially for local elections. And while it is true that the major parties share the same basic assumptions about business and American power, and it's also true that at no point have "the people" had much to do with what the ruling class likes to call "the national interest", nevertheless the Republicans are demonstrably worse, even if only slightly. So a vote against them is ok by me, until such time as we have something concrete to vote for. For that reason, Tuesday's results are at least an encouraging sign that Americans are not completely insane.

Elsewhere, check out post-mortems by Brian Leiter, Lenin, Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair, and the always inspiring Stan Goff.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Could Stalin have stopped laughing?

In CounterPunch, Michael Neumann (author of the excellent book, The Case Against Israel) on why the US should "cut & run" sooner rather than later in Iraq:
In Iraq, the US has been defeated militarily, because it has not attained the most basic objectives it could possibly be said to have had. These were not silly high-school-civics objectives having to do with 'democracy' or 'hearts and minds'- could Stalin have stopped laughing if someone had told him he hadn't won Eastern Europe's hearts and minds? No, to attain any sort of military objective the US had to control Iraq. That means, oh, for instance, controlling the capital city, the major roads, really it means imposing authority over the whole country, as the allies did in Germany and the US in Japan. The US has not established military control over Iraq's capital, much less the whole country. That was its objective. The goal was not to eliminate the Iraqi army, never considered a threat, but to get Iraq under control so that, according to the administration, it would not threaten the US in the future--or, according to me, so the US could show itself capable of getting some country, somewhere, under control. The US failed to attain its objective, and not because of sunspot activity or an asteroid colliding with earth. It failed to obtain its objectives because there were people with guns in their hands who prevented the US from obtaining them.. I don't know whether these people won, but it is quite clear that the US lost. It did not attain those objectives and it won't.

So the US can't conquer a country it has been at work crippling for years, a country just barely big enough and sophisticated enough to make a credible opponent when in good shape. Leaving now, that would indeed be a case of cut and run. It's more than a military defeat, more than a political disaster, it's a catastrophe of historic proportions. So it's not surprising that Bush and Poodle are sure they have to stay there.

If it's a catastrophe to cut and run, why should we (or 'we') cut and run? How can a good argument for 'staying the course' be not good enough? Because we're *not* going to stay the course. Because we *are* going to cut and run, and sooner is much better than later. Later only makes the defeat even bigger.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Sea, and 1000 Other Books

Ellis Sharp has gotten around to reading John Banville's Booker-winning novel, The Sea, and admits that he must agree with Tim Sterne that it "remains a listless, lifeless exercise in aesthetic pretension" and that "[t]hematically, the novel is tired and unoriginal". When Banville's novel won the Booker Prize, there was much ado in the British press about it about how it was a horribly snooty selection, proof that the Literary Establishment is out of touch with regular readers, or some such nonsense. But, comparing it to Ian McEwan's Saturday, Sharp observes that The Sea is basically plot-driven: "It lures the reader on to the end, to find out how everything resolved itself. And finally the pieces all click together, like a jigsaw. There is nothing, at the end, to furrow the reader’s brow. Both novels aspire to be serious literature but supply the sweet-tasting delights of a certain type of genre fiction."

I enjoy reading Banville's prose, and I enjoyed reading The Sea, at the surface level. However, it definitely felt slight in comparison to his other work, and the writing itself, unusually for him, I thought, was occasionally awkward. I've now read the six novels published immediately prior to The Sea, and I must conclude that it's by far the weakest of the bunch. I think Eclipse and the loose trilogy comprising The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena are all excellent novels (all "engaging the mind", too).

This is as good a reason as any to mention that ridiculous 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die business several others have noted. Both The Sea and Saturday are on it, which perhaps tells you all you need to know, but I'll bore you some more about it. Steve Mitchelmore expressed annoyance about the list because it resists "randomness; as if all one has to do is read the 1001 and you're done." He also noted its typical wrongheadness, where this book places over that one, etc, which is inevitable in any such large list. Of course, I agree with him about the random appeal of learning about books via blogs and the like, yet I like to look at lists; there's usually something interesting on them, something random, in its way, that I hadn't come across before. But this one is so huge it defies that kind of effect. And its particular wrongheadness is worth noting. It's almost as if the compilers couldn't be bothered to make decisions on what to include on their own list. Nearly half of it is taken up by books since 1960. It's actually kind of nice to see contemporary fiction get shown such regard, but this is pretty silly. And it's pretty heavily weighted towards British Commonwealth writers (generally Booker-eligible). I haven't read the vast majority of books on it, but I remain skeptical that many of them are truly "essential", that I simply MUST read them before I die. It's as if the compilers simply raked in a whole bunch of award-winning and/or generally well-reviewed novels and left it at that (and maybe they claim no different, and maybe the introduction to the book says just this). And yet they still managed to leave off Richard Powers and William H. Gass, just to name two very highly regarded writers. Meanwhile, there are ten (ten!) J.M. Coetzee books on the list, seven Philip Roth, eight Ian McEwan... Coetzee, Roth, and McEwan are all writers I have enjoyed, but their books that appear on the list are damn good indications that the criteria for what might constitute "essential" are rather lax, if not missing altogether. Once again: Roth has written some books I would call essential, but The Plot Against America and The Human Stain are not among them (Sabbath's Theater is). And Ian McEwan has written some very fine novels (I'm partial to Atonement, Enduring Love, and The Child In Time, though even among these three I don't know that all of them are quite essential), but Saturday and Amsterdam are bullshit. With Coetzee, it's like they couldn't decide at all, threw up their hands, and listed nearly his entire published works. Etc.

I find I've pretty run out of interest on this one. Glad I could share!

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Music = fun or boring?

Earlier this week at his Status Ain't Hood blog, Tom Breihan wrote about his visit to the Music is a Better Noise exhibition at the PS 1 Art Center in Long Island. I have no quarrel with most of the content of the post (not least because I didn't see the exhibition), but he opens the post with this:
I'm generally pretty suspicious whenever any institution tries to make explicit connections between pop music and art, whatever that term means, mainly because musicians' dumbshit ideas about art have resulted in some of the most boring and joyless forms of music ever invented: abstract jazz, prog, glitch, all that shit. Once musicians starts taking themselves uber-seriously and looking for new, more direct forms of self-expression, they usually lose all connection with the idea that music should be fun to listen to, that you can find plenty of ways to play around with ideas and preconceptions without sacrificing any notion of rhythm or melody.
I think there's a whole lot of bullshit in these few sentences. First, let me say again that I am happy over the last couple of years to have allowed myself to be exposed to chart pop and its potential delights, rather than ignorantly dismissing it as by definition garbage. But one of the problems I've had with some of the pop-ist rhetoric I've read has been an excessive emphasis on "fun", as if "fun" is a useful term for judging all music, and if music is not "fun" then it must then be "boring". I strongly object to this. I enjoy Tom's writing, while often disagreeing with him on matters of taste (though I've also learned about a lot of music from him). But occasionally he rubs me the wrong way, and it usually has to do with his over-use of these very words and, frankly, his general critical stance. Music is not easily defined in just these limited terms. His contention that "music should be fun to listen to" is frankly incomprehensible to me. I enjoy a lot of music that I would have a hard time describing as "fun". Some music should be fun to listen to, sure. A lot of dance music, for example. But it's hardly fruitful to use the expectations we have for dance music or other immediate, hook-heavy pop music, for assessing the value of all other kinds of music, for even all other kinds of pop. I could get on his case and drag in classical and ask if he really believes that all music should be "fun to listen to", but he's probably only talking about pop, generally (and not just chart pop, specifically). But even here, I doubt he really believes it. To take just one example, he's noted several times that his favorite album from last year was the Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree. Is an autobiographical song-cycle about an abusive step-father all that "fun" to listen to? Is "fun" even relevant here? I submit that it is not. I submit that this means that even Tom likes plenty of music for reasons having nothing to do with "fun" and that, even for his purposes, the word isn't terribly helpful.

And then there's "boring", which seems to be flip-side of "fun". If it's not fun, then it's boring, right? While there is plenty of music that ultimately is little more than boring, there is a lot of other music that might seem "boring" on first listen, but which reveals a lot of pleasure over the course of subsequent listens. If music is difficult, or hard to get at first, I can imagine the listener would be bored by it. We're often bored by what we have a hard time appreciating. I think the problem here is impatience. Some of my favorite albums have required many listens before I even grew to like them, let alone consider them among my favorites. Sometimes pleasure requires work. And if that word bothers you, then substitute "effort". Sometimes you have to meet the music halfway, enjoy it on its own terms, whatever those may be.

He's not wrong that often musicians take themselves too seriously, and that the music suffers as a result, but this is a pretty sweeping statement: "musicians' dumbshit ideas about art have resulted in some of the most boring and joyless forms of music ever invented: abstract jazz, prog, glitch, all that shit". Dismissing such a wide variety of music as "all that shit" is strange and off-putting. What exactly do they have in common? Does Tom have a definition for what "abstract jazz" even is? I'm not sure I know what he means. Is it free jazz? There is without question a ton of highly indulgent, painful free jazz, but a ton of it is incredibly life-affirming. I'm thinking William Parker or David S. Ware or Cecil Taylor: "joyless" or "boring" are the last words I would use to describe this music. Prog? Is there a lot of painful prog? Oh god yes. Did Emerson, Lake, & Palmer suck? Yes, and they were boring, too, and pretentious in the worst ways. But they weren't boring by definition, and they are hardly all that prog is. (I suppose I could provide lists of examples and counter-examples, but I just don't have that kind of time. Maybe for a later post.)

In part this fun/boring approach rankles because it does little more than reinforce our short attention-span, media-dominated, consumerist muddle we find ourselves in. We flit from item to item, in search of cheap calories, of fun, bored out of our minds by anything requiring effort. I'd like things to be just a little slower, a little more contemplative, even in pop music.


Junior Boys

The Junior Boys' So This Is Goodbye has quickly become one of my favorite albums of the year. I had not heard a single note of their music before the middle of September, when I bought both Last Exit and the new album. (I had somehow managed to not notice that the also excellent Last Exit was one of the most widely acclaimed records of 2004.)

It was probably this effusive k-punk post that focused my attention on them. I read it again after listening to the cd obsessively for a couple of weeks. Apparently in some quarters the Junior Boys have been labeled "retro", accused of merely hearkening back to the synth-pop of the early 1980s. k-punk takes issue with this, saying that's an absurd irony that many casual listeners would cast the Junior Boys, not the [Arctic Monkeys], as retro. That's because rock has been eternalized, removed from any responsibility to renew itself, whereas electronic pop is cursed to be forever associated with a brief period in the 70s and 80s.
This is an excellent point. I haven't heard the Arctic Monkeys, but I have read a lot of the chatter about them, and the point is clear. How often do we hear about the latest guitar band being touted as the future, when they rarely offer anything stylistically that hasn't been heard before? Then he says:
But the synthpop revivalist tag has always been misleading and reductive in the case of the Junior Boys. Some of the Junior Boys' textures may be borrowed from synthpop but, formally, their songs would be impossible without twenty years of the rave discontinuum.
Which of course I can only take his word for, since I have no history with rave, and I doubt that it's possible at this point to fill in the blanks much. He links to this Dissensus thread where there is an interesting discussion about this question of revivalism, retro, etc, in pop. At one point, Tim F (Finney?) brings up Booka Shade and Villalobos and their influences (disco/house/rave, etc. for Booka Shade; Jon Hassell & IDM, for Villalobos), and whether they are combining these influences in a novel way or merely biting. And the thing is, I like Booka Shade (haven't heard Villalobos yet), but I have no frame of reference for them, other than "generally danceable, cool-sounding, electronic-ish music". But no history: I am unable, right now, to listen to them as part of a continuum, unable to identify their possible antecedents (with minor exceptions). I do wonder, what do you do when you have no real frame of reference for a record? I mean, obviously, I can enjoy it and anything else for whatever reasons I like. That's not the point. I like knowing and understanding the reference points for the music I listen to, but far too often, the music is just out there on its own.

Anyway, I think I'll return to this idea in the future, but for now all I'll say is that the Junior Boys are great, and So This is Goodbye is easily one of my favorite albums of the year.

Before I go, I want to quote another sentence from k-punk's post that I thought was interesting and worthy of more exploration:
So This is Goodbye's songs bear much the same relation to high-energy as the late Sinatra's bore to big band jazz: what was once a communal, dance-oriented music has been hollowed out into a cavernous, contemplative space for the most solitary of musings.
I'm interested in this idea, too: the movement of music (and culture generally) away from the communal toward the solitary, and how much my own musical preferences have been heavily geared towards the solitary even while I increasingly value the communal elsewhere...