Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve Message 2011

My New Year's Eve message comes to us courtesy of the great jazz trio of Cedar Walton, pianist, bassist Ray Brown, and Mickey Roker, the drummer.

The composition is Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's Satin Doll. Later on, vibraphonist Milt Jackson joins them to perform In A Sentimental Mood, also an Ellington classic.

Music speaks louder than words.

However, if you want words, all I'll say is to try and avoid the twin vices of New Year's Eve. By this I do not mean drink, drugs and so on. I mean, rather, the wrap-up and the Resolution.

The wrap-up is the habit of sending corporate styled wrap-ups that summarize how good life was for you this past year, and all of your various achievements, the accomplishments and genius of your children etc. When I first encountered this curiosity I had to ask someone what it was. "Why that's a wrap-up. You know, it's a year end summary." It didn't seem like it was written by one person for another person or the world, but rather by a public relations committee.

The New Year's Resolution is not in itself a vice. Indeed there is much to recommend in both self reflection and in self improvement.

Whether the rest of us want to hear about it is quite another matter.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Young Adulthood in the 80s: My Experience with a Christian Jazz/rock group

My installations of episodes from my life continues into the 1980s. I am not happy about this state of affairs because the 1980s are not as innately interesting to me as the 70s, yet there was something about the 80s that couldn't fundamentally shake so many elements of the 70s.

Our story takes place during the Christmas season: I am going to say 1984. It concerns the exotic curiosity which is American independent Christianity, whose vast and manifold arrays of denominations, ideologies, subcultures, and lifestyles together must surely comprise some of the most colorful and at times extreme of religious belief systems to have ever been practiced by a human culture. Please be aware that this story is but of one particular expression of evangelicalism and by submitting it I intend no aspersion towards the many well meaning and sensible Christians who populate these United States.

Somehow, alongside my regular class work at the New England Conservatory, I found myself playing with a rather odd Christian Jazz/rock group, owing to an acquaintance who happened to be a fairly decent tenor saxophonist. This would prove to be one of the weirdest experiences of my musical life. The musicians were good as was the pay, but the lyrics and sensibility were another matter altogether.

We had a couple of rehearsals and, after playing some hotel gigs, we were slated to play a Christian wedding. In this particular subculture Christian is something that is applied to anyone or anything. All matters, great or small are decided on the presence or absence of the designation of "christian" or non "Christian". I gathered that this band was formed because they wanted to form a purer branch of jazz and pop music with the Christian label. I was never asked about my beliefs or lack thereof when I was asked to join the band. Curiously, they just assumed I was a Christian. I presume that had I been named Mitch Rabinowitz, rather than Mitch Hampton, there may have been some questioning alongside the requisite pamphlets from the Jews For Jesus and inquiries into whether I was a "completed Jew".

This band had a don't ask/don't tell policy about religious belief: it was good enough that I attended New England Conservatory. All I know is that when we weren't playing music all the band members would discuss their life with Jesus Christ, how their relationship with Jesus was going, and if they were "right or wrong" with Jesus. They discussed little else. One would think from the way Jesus was discussed that Jesus could have been the name for their girlfriends - so personal and intimate were their comments on Jesus. I have spent a part of my life among Born Again Christians but they never were as insistent upon Jesus in so intimate a way. Music was never discussed. During my two rehearsals scriptural metaphors were used instead of musical vocabulary. I had to learn how to translate on the spot. I remember we had to play some cover tunes by this woman named Amy Grant. I never listened to her music so I didn't know it.

There was never any sheet music with this band. I was supposed to play along by ear and memorize the arrangmements by ear. Part of the reason they worked with me is that I was good at listening. This wasn't too hard as the music had a crude simplicity that allowed me to have fun with it, so to speak. They seemed to like, even encourage my embellishments, which made the music a little better than it would otherwise have been. After the experience of playing a concert with the great George Russell it felt a letdown but the pay was good. Hundreds of dollars. These Christians seemed to have some money at that time.

The wedding we played was very lavish. It was a wedding of extraordinary wealth, in some wealthy suburb of Massachusetts, I think, in Brookline. I remember that the bride and groom wore pastels: teal matching dress and suit. The groom wore a teal tie that matched the color, but not the fabric, of the suit. It was the most awful clothing I had ever seen at a wedding, which, when one considers the attire worn at weddings during the past forty odd years, is saying a lot. Both the bride and groom had hair so tall, wide and thick you could not have seen around a corner if you were unlucky to have their heads in your field of vision.

All of the guests at the wedding danced to our music and rarely did they appear to be without the widest of smiles, and they combined the smile and the dance to great effect.

Although my job was to perform the piano part well, as the music requires, and I approach every musical situation with all the powers within my possession, I could not go along with all of this group's ideas. One thing I refused to do, during an original song by the saxophonist called "Save Us", was to thrust my fist into the air. There was this rhythmic cue where the entire band decided to thrust their fists high into the air everytime they sang "Save us!" I just wouldn't do this. The saxophonist - I'll call him Bob - noticed I was not raising my fist into the air, but instead continued playing piano chords. "Hey Mitch why aren't you putting your fist in the air? The whole band is supposed to do it!"

I explained that since my instrument was the piano and since the piano usually required two hands rather than merely one that I be allowed to be exempt from this bit of stage theater. Bob thought for a moment and then said I made "some sense" and that probably the wedding party would not notice or be disappointed by my lack of..."thrust".

I remember during the wedding dinner, all of the talk concerned Jesus, and how this or that church was faring.

I remember that when the bride and groom stood and kissed we had to stop abruptly during a song. "They are going to kiss!" Someone shouted.

Well the newlyweds did kiss after which entire room erupted in loud catcalls, whistles, moans and cries of "Hallelujah!" and "Praise Jesus". All of this fervor was in response to the most paltry, passionless peck I had ever seen. You would miss the kiss if you blinked but you would be haunted forever by the shrill cries in that room as this outburst lasted for a few minutes. It was if this couple were afraid to kiss, knowing how much their families and friends had invested in them, in watching them. Perhaps they were embarrassed by the religiosity of the room gawking at them. that they knew that they were objects of all of these emotional projections and fixed gazes. Or perhaps they were not really in love at all and it was all arranged by "the church". I just couldn't tell because all emotion was veiled behind this private language - this arcane and ritualized vocabulary of Jesus. This experience greatly depressed me and soured me on the idea of marriage for some time.

What follows is an account of one of the most awkward, absurd and ultimately mystifying conversations and/or lectures or pitches, hustles - I scarcely know how to classify it - I had ever encountered in my life to that point.

When the gig was over Bob was so happy with how I played that he came over to me as soon as we finished playing, excited and exuberant. With a cry of "Praise the Lord", he handed me an envelope that appeared to contain evening's pay in the form of a check.

I quickly opened it to look inside and saw it was a check. I read the writing. It was the amount promised. I looked at that check for a long time while Bob waited. I was tempted to do the Groucho Marx bit and throw the check down on the floor, which, owing to the laws of gravity, never entirely insults the other party since thin paper usually hits the floor without a bounce. Bob was offended though that I opened the envelope so early.

"Ah Mitch. This man is a Christian. It is a Christian bank account. No fear. The devil is not at work here. This is Christian music. Satan free zone."

I was so used to hearing about Christian music shops and Christian dentists that the prospect of a Christian bank account didn't seem so improbable.

Bob went on further.

"Mitch it was so beautiful and joyous for you to come to this holy affair with us and share the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ like this with us."

"Why thank you."

"Did you enjoy sharing Jesus with us today?"

(I suppose this was their way of saying the gig went well.)

"Yes. You all played well."

"It sure is great sharing the Lord isn't it?"


"Isn't the Lord Jesus Christ great? He is just so great and perfect. He makes all of this possible. He made this wedding possible. He made you and I possible. He made music possible! He created music." Bob gave me a big hug and I moved back a bit, wishing some space.

"Great invention, music. Couldn't agree more."

"Mitch you play so great me and the boys wanted to ask you a deep and spiritual question."

"Okay. Go ahead." I doubt his question was as deep as my dread.

"Would you like to take a trip and go share the Lord Jesus Christ with us?"

I paused for a moment.

"Take a trip to share Jesus? I am not sure. What exactly do you mean? I'll have to look at my calendar...Wait. What does that mean?"

"It would be a great opportunity to work on your faith and share Jesus with us. It won't cost anything. It'll be like today. It will be rewarding spiritually as well as financially."

"When you say share Jesus with us, what do you mean? I mean I have my own church", I answered, "and I am not much for travel and retreats or that sort of thing. I have my own way of studying the Bible."

"Are you sure your way is true Christianity though? I wonder, Mitch. You know we were noticing that you don't share your faith out loud like we all do. You don't talk about how you are with the Lord Jesus Christ. We can sure hear the Lord in your playing. But how about in your talk? How will you spread the Gospel? It is not enough to keep it to yourself. You have a duty as a Christian. The boys and I have chosen you. That means the Lord Jesus Christ might have something.. a plan for you. Hey Mitch. Not to criticize you or anything but why did you not seem happy when the bride and groom kissed? That kiss was so passionate and loving. We were all praising Jesus and and sharing in the spirit of the Holy Ghost and you seemed to just look at the piano."

"Well I was nervous because I didn't know when I was going to come in with the piano part. I was concentrating. I don't know the music as well as you guys and I was focusing on that."

"Isn't that a great couple? Isn't it a joy for a couple to be married through our Lord Jesus Christ like that? Think of all of those sad marriages without Jesus present! What a waste!"

"They seemed like nice people."

"Well getting back to the band. Me and the boys think Jesus has a plan for each of us. And you know what Mitch? Jesus...he has a plan for YOU!"

"Oh He does? You talked to Him?" I asked with the straightest of faces.

"In our church we speak to Jesus directly. That is the only way. We are a beautiful Christian fellowship. We would be so honored to have you come share Jesus with us. Your piano playing is a gift the Lord wants you to share."

"But Bob... my focus is music you understand. If you want me to play a concert or a gig I can do that if it the pay and quality are comparable to what we did today, but you haven't said when or where we are going to be 'sharing Jesus'. You haven't explained what it is you want me to do."

"Well we call it sharing Jesus. But what that means is I have this beautiful cabin in the woods, near the Berkshires. It is a Christian cabin in a Christian community. You know its mostly Jewish up there, but just wait. The Lord wants to spread the news there too! When I say share Jesus I mean that I have this state of the art recording studio in the woods and we want to record a Christian album. It is a Christian recording studio. And you can stay overnight there. No fee. We will PAY you to share Jesus with us..I mean record this record. Don't worry about that. Hundreds of dollars to record with us. And we have this lovely girl who has just joined our church and gotten saved. Oh her life was the lowest you can imagine. Just bad family. Real Satanic influence. But then Jesus won this time, boy. She came to Jesus. And now she sings like an angel. She sings like... you ever hear Blossom Dearie? Like if Blossom Dearie were Christian. You would get to perform with this girl. Can you imagine her singing our tune Save Me? How powerful she would be?"

"Well..I'll have to look at my calendar."

"The only problem this girl is really beautiful and you know I'm a Christian. And you know the Lord wants me to be Christ-like and I don't look at her as purely as I should as purely as HE wants me to. Did you ever watch the show Dukes Of Hazard? Well this girl looks like Daisy Buchanan on that show. But she dresses Christian, I mean modestly. Don't worry about that."

"Is she part of this same church you guys go to?"

"Yes. You'll get to perform with her. She sounds like Blossom Dearie and looks like.. I remember who that was...Catherine Bach and lives a Christian life. She will have no sex before marriage you know. She has a new life now. She is reborn.

"Well, Bob. I think I get the general picture. I appreciate the offer and the compliments but you know, I have this offer from this great jazz sextet, and they play like all of the Art Blakey arrangements. It is really more the kind of music I've always wanted to play since I was a child. So thank you very much, but I am sorry that I have some other things planned for the season."

I went home the following day, deposited that check, and never called this band nor heard from them again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

An Immodest Defense of Emerson

It was with the greatest shock, incredulity and finally anger that I opened up a copy of the New York Times Magazine of December 4 in this final month of a surely awful year of 2011 to come upon an article attacking my hero Ralph Waldo Emerson. Reading this piece by one Benjamin Anastas made me realize why I am such an irregular reader of the New York Times and, while I will not go so far as Gore Vidal who infamously called it a "bad paper" I have to conclude that it has, much like The New Yorker under Tina Brown's reign, fallen prey to the worst twin vices of a sophomoric and cheap populism and utilitarianism or instrumentalism.

Would it were so that the article is a bit of a popish prank and not to be taken as a definitive piece on Emerson, yet I can't help but feel that it is very much a piece of its time and raises the issue of how and why context and relevance should be dislodged from center stage in favor of values that are at least a bit more capacious, to say nothing of transcendental.

I don't have space enough and time to do justice to Emerson. Alas, I don't want to do a close reading of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" in order that I may totally refute this - I don't know what to call it - cultural criticism.

Emerson, whatever else he may be, is to American arts and letters something like our Shakespeare. I don't remember the last time a piece with a punk or Rock irreverence indulged in a take-down of the Bard, except perhaps to wrangle over whether in fact he or the Earl Of Oxford was the biographical and historical author of the plays. Indeed, pop culture and media is all too happy to praise Shakespeare, but usually for the worst of reasons, as in a dissection of the cleverness of the narrative strategies.

The first problem then is a basic lack of respect for Emerson. Anastas does not mince words. The subtitle refers to the influence of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" as a "foul reign", Emerson's essay is called pap, and worst of all it is compared with the worst of our popular motivationalists and hucksters, but, incredibly, to the disfavor of Emerson: "Is there anything worth salvaging among the spiritual ramblings, obscure metaphysics and aphorisms so pandering that Joel Osteen might think twice about delivering them?"

Joel Osteen? Joel Osteen is a sort of fundamentalist redneck who crossed over to mainstream non-fiction, is he not?

This is the first misreading: that Emerson is part of a so-called American single line and that he is a forerunner of Rick Warren, Dr. Phil, Wayne Dyer, and Werner Erhard to pick some of the most representative examples. How do I know that Emerson is not of their party?

For one thing Emerson is not engaged in a propositional and representational project.

And the language of Anastas reveals that at heart Anastas is every bit the stereotypical socialist and materialist. He hates metaphysics and is impatient that any mention of selfhood that treats the self with any importance at all (although, Anastas misreads Emerson so deeply that Anastas takes Emerson to be one who believes in something like a real and unified self far more than Emerson, the latter ever the profoundest of mystics, ever does). I get the feeling that spiritual is a code word here for unscientific and for any kind of snake oil. As for politics, Emerson never ascribes to the self or subscribes to a view of the self that has anything remotely in common with American conservatism or, in the pathetic case of Ayn Rand, Russian/American paleo-Conservatism. Nowhere in his writings does Emerson tell us to forget the poor or to justify poverty (His essay 'Compensation' is usually dragged into the proceedings as Exhibit A for the Marxist attack upon Emerson, but "Compensation" is trying to raise all sorts of problems about the problem of free will and evil, not to justify the status quo). Emerson (like, say, Chatal Ackerman in film) is interested in questions of consciousness more than he is in practical politics. (Anymore than Ackerman is a straightforward Feminist.)

In short, though Emerson can be labeled, if you must, as a kind of individualist he is no stoic and he is no right-winger. He is not even, as we shall see, really an individualist, because he feels that selfhood contains and is always already constituted by the surrounding environment, the whole human race, and perhaps even more.

As for the question of science versus spirituality, for all of his scientific and socialistic pretensions, Anastas never makes any genuine or coherent case against Emerson. This leads to the second problem, that of misreading or misinterpretation, above all the question of style.

Emerson, unlike Anastas, really believes in style. Anastas is quite a stylist himself, indeed uses it quite well, but the style chosen is the post-Pauline Kael style of flash, crackle and pop as in when Kael was asked why she defended so many entertaining Hollywood movies replied "what is wrong with entertainment? Do this people think it should be punishment?" But Anastas does NOT think that style is the measure of a thing. For Anastas verification is the only measure.

Anstas' first error is to hew to a very old view of language or style whereby words (or, in cinema, editing, lighting, mise en scene etc.) are a means to transparency, and the function of sentences is to get at the essence of things. But there is a problem here because Emerson is really a Modernist avant la lettre, and Emerson simply does not have an Aristotelian view of language. In practical terms Emerson is closer to a Proust, even a Beckett or Chantal Ackerman. That is, the way Emerson is usually read - as a kind of visionary or sage - is precisely to fall into the very attitude towards the world Emerson most wants us to be rid of. In this sense Emerson is quite American in his distrust of official titles and claims to innate gifts. (And his critics are often Continental)

Yet Emerson comes to us in disguise, as a Yankee populist preacher. This should remind us that the most extraordinary things (Emerson's oeuvre) are always misread as more ordinary than they really are, (as in the reception of Robert Frost's poetry, for example, or Duke Ellington's music, the latter initially and falsely consigned to the genre of mere dance music) and that extraordinary things arrive dressed in modest or civilian raiment. (Though this last comment on my part will strike those with a Continental cast of mind as hopelessly American in more than one sense of that unstable and slippery designation).

Let us look at the opening of Self-Reliance, at the offending words that Anastas feels gave rise to a host of sins of our post-1968 world: relativism, New Age excess, selfishness and worse:

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Notice throughout his tone: it is magesterial and measured. It is also suffused with greatest passion. He creates a rhythm through a certain syntax. We are. A man is. God will not. It is delivered. The eye was placed. This is Biblical and spiritual language to be sure. If Anastas is of the party of science he will not be pleased by this kind of tone. Yet the tone is, in language, something like that of John Coltrane in A Love Supreme, in music. It is curiously at once completely secular and free of any partisan creed or catechism and yet built from the syntax and tropes of scriptural and sacred writing and oration. This combination of the two is part of Emerson's genius.

Emerson is positing here that there is such a thing as genius or greatness, that there is something special about a John Milton, that there is value to artistic originality. He is also saying, along with Kant, that we should dare to use our own reason, and not rest or lean on the opinions of others. The alternative to this picture of life is not good community, cooperation or socialism. The alternative to Emerson's "ideal", if it can be called that (because for him it always already exists and is not dependent upon futural schemes or dates), is actually something like everyday tyranny at best or totalitarianism at worst. This is Emerson as a champion of Liberty, broadly understood, and as a small d democrat.

The whole essay starts off with a quite explicit theory of not only what art is but how to know great art when one encounters it. Nowhere in all of the oration of a Werner Erhard or a Dr. Phil is anything like a theory of art ever put forth.

Anastas' error goes in both directions. We cannot hold Emerson responsible for the errors or outrages of self help hucksters or for eroding our sense of deference towards meritocratic authority anymore than we can hold Karl Marx responsible for a Joseph Stalin or the Eastern Bloc histories. We also cannot merely read Emerson in a way that is only relevant to our present day concerns.

"I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain".

He is also saying the sentiment trumps content. This is Emerson being most modernistic. Like Susan Sontag, it's style all the way down for him.

Here is Emerson rejecting anything like selfishness:

"Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them".

So much for great and heroic visions of selfhood. The unity is "only phenomenal". Only. Anastas has not read closely enough.

And style is of the essence here because, unlike the motivational preachers, religious or secular, of our time, Emerson rarely communicates in the syntax of reductive, declarative sentences. Yet he tricks us: he always begins with declarations. But it is still a trick nonetheless. This is his most accessible work, yet one comes upon sentences with twists and turns like the following. The most important strategy Emerson uses is to make one or two explicit declarations but then, in an hypnotic fashion, to undo them as much as defend them:

"I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; — read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment".

At a first reading it appears that he is saying; this is what a character is; this is how a self works. We end up according to who we are. And so on.

But notice he says "I suppose that no man". Why the suppose? And what are we to make of "contrite wood-life which God allows"? Why is it pleasing? Should it be pleasing? Especially after an apparent celebration of will? Notice how excessive this seems when compared to the previous declaration. Notice too how he piles example upon example: poetic metaphors from Nature and Myth for example, cultural allusion, and then insists that it "spells the same thing". Had Emerson really wanted to give an instruction or sermon why does he insist upon this hypnotic accumulation of density, of stuff, especially in the context of telling us to ignore past traditions or rote book learning? Why does he interrupt with references to swallows and Alexandrian stanzas? It seems to me that these accumulations provide a proper "key" to understanding Emerson, surely more than any clear message.

He seems to say that we should not analyze, yet this whole essay is a kind of analysis or diagnosis of conformity and an offer of a solution to the problem of that conformity. Yet there is nothing more self possessed and powerful than his tone throughout. He wants some kind of conformity between he and the reader. Then again he wants us to argue too. He wants us to assent to the greatness of a Milton yet wants us to not assent to what "doesn't work for me" in contemporary parlance. But Emerson never tells us what to do with the culturally or emotionally stunted person who can't see Milton's value or even read Milton (or worse, sees in Milton only a crude sociological value, as in, "how did a Christian like Milton think of his faith in that particular time period?)

Even most contradictory, he says that what is important is what is "new in Nature", yet remarks elsewhere that there is nothing truly new and that society neither exactly progresses or declines.

He even suggest both that we cannot help what we do, and yet that our will is free and determines our lot in life, as in "we get what or who we are." A misinformed reader will likely say in response, "which is it Waldo"? A Joel Osteen would never equivocate so because he literally has the arrogance to assume he can save our souls.

It is most telling that Anastas attacks the work as rambling. Emerson, like jazz, is rambling. He does not get to the point. Like much of American art, it is episodic rather than classical.

When Anastas calls it rambling he is confronting a particular style.

Emerson will have none of this clarity. Because he is interested in the "zigzag of a hundred tacks". He is not interested in a seamless and straight line.

If we are reading Emerson properly we should be a bit confused, in truth. How are we to be true to ourselves and yet live in harmony with others? First I am told to idealize the child and in another place I am told to criticize the rote learning of so many children. I am told that no man can violate his nature but also told that many are conformist and thus in violation of their nature, or else it is in their true nature to conform. Since we are being told not to conform, then what do we do with and about the conformist?

But these zigzags are a means chiefly of creating sentiment, as opposed to thought. If you read Emerson for content alone you might consider him undistinguished, even dated. But if you fall into the hypnosis of his style, the accumulation of all of his many exhortations, something will happen to you, inside of your consciousness, something not unlike the effect of certain experimental movies or certain immersive improvisational music. Emerson is not interested in proofs so he is destined to disappoint or disturb a certain kind of skeptic like Anastas.

A real inheritor of Emerson is the saxophonist John Coltrane. Another is filmmaker Fred Wiseman. Both could be considered spiritual ramblers of the highest order. The comparison will give a sense of what I take to be valuable in Emerson.

It is not accidental that in a dispirited age such as ours, when so many problems seem to admit of communal solutions, especially in a broken economy with so much suffering, that a poet of sentiment like Emerson would come to be regarded with suspicion. But that is not his problem but ours. There is a crucial role for sentiment in our life, not the sentiment of communal emotion and agreement, not the sentiment that does away with intellect altogether, but rather the venerable attempt to think without thoughts that underscores so much that has been exciting about the Modernist project. Emerson wants us to put different uses for our intellect, not to save the world or understand it, but rather, I think to savor it, to experience it, which though it surely involves the brain is an altogether different matter than conceptual cognition.

But the question of just what this difference is - between ordinary cognition and experience - and where such difference lies, is a question with which I will end this discussion.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gratitude, Civility, and the Nature of Emotion

For the purposes of this particular post I have little or no interest in the origins of this Thanksgiving that we Americans celebrate once a year in the Fall. I do not wish to celebrate our ancestors, nor to curse the evils of how Native people were treated; still less do I care to lecture on how best we ought to "celebrate" this peculiar holiday. Rather, I want to make some cumulative notes on philosophic matters concerning gratitude more generally.

As can be observed in the brief comedic exchange from Barney Miller, the best humor or comedy is generated by a quite complex web of mutual incomprehension between two people, the absurdity that ensues when desired or accepted outcomes are thwarted by such clashes, mistakes in identity, or in this case, world outlooks and temperament etc. This is the kind of material that was eventually expanded to the highest art form in Larry David's magesterial Curb Your Enthusiasm series.

Yet this most humorous of exchanges is a rich starting point for the most serious of discussions of gratitude. I take Inspector Luger to be a figure for the rules of civility and traditional sentiment, a vision of moderation and social consensus. "Don't worry me and spoil everybody's fun with your metaphysical and philosophic speculations, do the right and civil thing and simply wish others Happy Thanksgiving and in return accept a mutual meeting." On the other hand, Inspector Luger is being the unthinking philistine and detective Dietrich is being the sincere thinker, approaching Socratic territory, and if you are at all curious about the world, would seem an attractive conversation starter (presumably at another more appropriate time).

There is a real question here. Do emotions have to have or always implicitly have objects? And does it matter?

It seems to me that it might matter less than we think. Whether we like it or not, or even whether we conceptualize it or not, the universe is shot through with value and meaning (to quote Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi). That is, whether or not we believe in or feel a cause of our state, we are, all of us, in one kind of state or another, experiencing the world in such a way that something, however great or small, is at stake.

As you are reading this post I am sure that you, dear reader, are in some kind of state. You might be annoyed while reading this. You might be anxious about family or cooking the turkey. You might be elated, or even distracted, you might be sleepy or well rested, but the important point is that you are experiencing at this moment something of value because you are in a certain kind of relation with the world. Though we understandably take this for granted, it is nevertheless one of the precious and even scandalous things about our humanity.

Looked at in this way, I can imagine being in a certain kind of state that may just be powerful enough so that we may experience thankfulness as an immediate instinct. The positive state may be reason enough for our thankfulness, placing the issue of a clear cause or object of our emotion into a secondary status, (notwithstanding the issue of the believer for whom the Creator is always already omnipresent). This is a thankfulness that a serious nonbeliever can and should, as it were, get behind.

The trouble is, such a state can only be experienced after the foundation of certain preconditions. In this case we are brought back to my Thanksgiving exchange and example. Inspector Luger says that the saying of "Happy Thanksgiving" is connected to "good breeding" as if you'd be an awful barbarian to call it into question or not say it.

In a balkanized world such as ours, full of manifold, competing and sometimes ruthlessly oppositional identities on display, like so many varieties of organic cookies at the local health supermarket, it gets difficult to negotiate competing values.

It is not so much the case that we are two Americas, one conservative and one liberal, but rather the case that we are potentially hundreds or thousands of Americas, (and most importantly, not in the sense of individual identity or liberty but rather group identity) all speaking in languages walled off from all the others by "imaginative mutual incomprehension" in Thomas Nagel's brilliant formulation.

There is a lot to say here about civility but I shall leave the last words to Robert Pippin:
"If civility can be understood as an enactment in daily life of mutuality or the actual establishing of the norm of rational agency, as an active attempt to recognize and help to promote each other as free beings, then, as suggested, such a dependence and commonality must already exist and be experienced in daily life as existing."

In such a climate it seems that for simpler pleasures, if indeed one is lucky enough to be able to experience such pleasures, gratitude is always appropriate. You may be gracious towards a person in particular, it may towards an entity. But the state itself could be at once rational and Romantic or at least be meaningful enough to please both Romantics and Rationalists among us. It is connected to Pippin's notion of civility as "not a duty, a responsibility, or an entitlement but already a manifestation of something else not subject to moral will or legal coercion."

It is useful to meditate upon what one has left once one has eliminated all of these false ways of describing civility. Such meditation would go a long way towards thinking about our emotions as an art, as a reason, or an irreducible virtue, not amenable to quantification or fiat. The first priority, of course would be to realize how "shot through with meaning" each of us stands, maybe even by the simple fact our existence, with no further need of justification or explanation.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why I am an Aesthete

"Artistic language by definition has to be experienced and has to be gone through. You can't just extract the 'ideas' from it and leave behind the object and the way in which it was expressed without actually reaching conclusions opposed the intention and effect of the art itself." Colin Jager

"But isn't what we experience when reading the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament the same as when we read Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Proust? Isn't the difference between the scriptures and worldly literature only social and political? The centuries-long polemics on the contrasts between poetry and faith can perhaps be reduced to the question of whether we should consider one poem or story holier than another. I have long since come to the conclusion that we can say with certainty that any powerful literary work is holy. And the opposite claim, that it is worldly, is equally valid. But it would be completely senseless to consider any great literary work holier or worldlier than another". Harold Bloom

What do I mean when I say I am an aesthete? Even when the pronunciation is correct and understanding partial there are suspicions. My interlocutors are always taken aback, sometimes amused. Does it not mean a devotion to sensation for its own sake? It is it not anachronistic, indulgent? Is it not guilty of holding beauty above all other values? And so on.

Let us ease into the matter slowly.

There is surely more than one way of knowing the world. Today, though, there are many people, usually, but not restricted to scientists, who think that explanations and knowledge form a whole, are all of a piece. It follows that if there are multiple ways of knowing the world, then none of those ways of knowing the world could ever replace or stand in for any of the others. None of the ways of knowing the world are more precise or true versions of the others.

There is a way of knowing the world in which you understand it; you can take it a part and see of what it consists. Science is the best version of such a way of knowing. In science you prove that something is so by using experiment, evidence and so on. In science something must be repeated thousands of times before it even has the beginning of validity. This very caution is why science has been extraordinarily successful at explaining certain things.

What science explains is something we can look at and point to. No matter how internal the object of study, even if it consists of a report of inner human dreams, strife, and sensations, the account of science is, by definition, limited to being a purely external one, involving third person subjectivity. It can show what neurons are firing or what part of the brain can light up when a we think about food or sex, or anticipate the end of the world. And sure enough we can report on what the brain does under those conditions.

Now many people feel that the effects of such physical processes are side effects, in essence fantasies or illusions that give us a sense that there is an "I" apart from such scientifically proven and observed facts.

Now, remembering what I observed about there being different ways of knowing, ask yourself the very basic question, what are you doing when you have an experience? Do you buy the scientists when they tell us that the neurons firing are all that is? When they tell us that humans created music in order to attract a mate? Should we trust our intuition that our experiences are real?

When we have an experience it can be a thin or a thick one. Most of popular culture, regardless of what its boosters will tell us, only gives us a rather thin experience. Now some of it is quite excellent, but we should not make it out to be more than what it is. (Some popular culture is a mixture of the thin and the thick - the Beatles' A Day In the Life is a good example)

Part of the reason that something is "thin" is that the goals of the object are clear and admit of no difficulty in meaning or emotion. People crave these types of experiences because it is a kind of dress rehearsal for life. It might even serve a pedagogical function. That is why popular things review over and over the same emotions, events, touchstones, bromides, sometimes emotional cliches and the like and why they tend to deal with and resolve "hot button" issues or current events.

I am currently watching a rather thin product called Pan Am. It has as many pains (need to flee or fly to detective and thriller business) as joys (the relationships and dreams of the stewardesses).

A Japanese filmmaker named Ozu made a film called Late Spring in which he narrated a daughter leaving her father's home and getting married. In that film the final wedding is never shown. We don't even meet the husband which normally would be characteristically opportunistic for Ozu to indulge his observations of female-male interaction and difference. All that is shown are the backstage or backyard preparations around the wedding. The events of these characters are so rich with innuendo and emotional meaning, so thoroughly observed, that it can get quite an intricate, and funny, affair. That is because Ozu is an artist who is essentially a thick artist, who is interested in inducing thick experiences in the spectator. That is another reason why he spends an inordiante amount of time showing us beautifully composed static shots of scenes and objects in which no person appears. He is trying to literally get us to a place where we must contemplate such a space and vision, in part to train our vision towards an act of contemplation, attention and focus. He wants us to treat part of the movie as a static painting. His is a project that takes very seriously indeed the first personal, experiential aspect of reality.

Science, since it is a report of what things are made of, from the third person, has been and will always be practically worthless to try and account for this first personal effect. All science can report about an Ozu film is that the shots in Ozu might relax or bore or distract the spectator. Science can tell us that it might make us healthier or something. Science can determine that it is from another age. It can track and record the box office receipts and receptions. Science can tell us that females like this particular bit of character doings in a scene and that men appreciate this other scene and so on.

Yet NONE of those accounts has anything to tell us about whether we should spend our time watching Late Spring, or, more importantly why. Though Ozu undoubtedly has what I am calling thin elements in his films - their popular subject matters for example - his films are also as thick as could possibly be in my formulation. Indeed I think that all thick artworks incorporate a thin outlying structure from which to begin.

We must remind ourselves, if possibly on a daily basis, that some of the most important things to human life are things that, on certain accounts, seem certainly worthless. In actuality their worth is spiritual, that is, their value is that they get us to do two things:

1. to meditate upon ourselves and the world. This mediation could be contemplation of beauty or excellence in creation, or it could be contemplation of the state of our souls or our character.

2. to think of how our lives might be otherwise, how we might improve ourselves. Part of this in giving an account of how we got to where we are. But this account must, if it is aesthetic, by definition, must part company from what we think of as news or journalism (at least journalism when it is a report of events rather than an art of prose).

There is a tension between understanding and experience. In my view the highest art deemphasizes understanding in favor of experience, in other words, it abandons reporting and enters into the expression of consciousness. You might think about the difference between understanding and experience as the difference between a man hearing about his pregnant wife and being at her side and the wife actually having the baby. He can certainly have a moving experience. He can even feel as if he is going through it with her. But his experience will be limited at the level of understanding. Only the wife having the baby has gone beyond mere understanding unto full experience. It is a kind of special knowledge. This is the domain of mysticism, of magic, and spirit. Art, good, bad, or middling, tries to place the reader in the position of that pregnant wife. This is a constant truth, quite apart from whether the artwork seems detached or not, in fact.

All art at at its best strives the recreate such experiential intensity. It aims to go beyond the mere intellect to the emotional and spiritual levels.

Marcel Proust, in his wisdom, said that: "books with themes stuck in them are like goods with their price tags still attached"!

When Walter Pater suggested that all art aspires to the condition of music this priority granted experience is what he had in mind. Not to privilege music as a medium but to suggest how we should think about art in general!

Now it will always be a matter of debate what experiences are thick versus those that are thin.

I don't want to get into that now since it would be useful for another essay and another time.

Obviously we need both thin and thick experiences in our lives. Yet the experiences themselves nevertheless do exist.


If we look at the etymology of the word I use to describe myself - aesthete - it will help clarify a lot of confusion around these matters.

The word arose in the 19th century, in a time that was as often hostile to aesthetic experience as it was suffused on the one hand by the utilitarian demands of a growing Left politics, and by the discoveries of a a Materialist and Physicalist science, and on the other by the rise of markets and money fever, technological innovation, and other worldly pursuits. Many voices rose to counteract this, such as Hegel, John Ruskin, William Morris, and the often misunderstood decadent authors like Oscar Wilde or Walter Pater. At the end of the century writers like Henry James and Marcel Proust (these two in particular) tried to claim the power and importance of completely interior subjectivity. Others like Dickens or Flaubert stuck to a more narrative or realist approach. In painting Whistler, Degas, and Manet shocked viewers into reflecting upon ideas of the human body and visual perception. Degas in particular depicted figures with a radical unawareness of being observed and outside of the frame in a ways that anticipates modernist cinema and theater. There is a very direct line from Degas to all of modernity and post modernity in this sense( as a way of destabilizing the frame).

In the United States the figures of Emerson and Nietzsche - who were fans of one another - and the poetry of Walt Whitman tower above even the foregoing by the force of their emphasis upon experience.

In essence all of these creators were attempting to save and protect the human individual from the forces of quantification and dehumanization. That is, their projects were essentially religious projects - importantly shorn of the the specific preachments of an authority figure or specific creed - for an increasingly secular age.

In sum, to be an aesthete is to commit to a romantic vision of sorts, borne in the 19th century, yet indebted to a Kantian autonomy. It is to project this vision into the present day. It is a way of reading. I might not convince that it is the best way of reading, as my opponents on the utilitarian or even neo-classical side appear to be winning our hour. Yet it is a way of reading that was a genuine progress over earlier, essentially tribal or homogenized readings.

What Kirkegaard got so terribly wrong in his Either/Or is the assumption that the aesthetic is about simple and indulgent pleasures, that it is behind or beneath the ethical or religious life Actually the aesthetic is really only the religious or spiritual pursued by means other than propositional creeds or texts. It is really not very different. As Bloom remarked in his quote from the opening, we study Shakespeare as we study the Bible, or rather we ought to study them in identical ways. We ought to look at the Mona Lisa in much the way we pray or sit yoga.

Unfortunately the Mona Lisa is being taught to us as if it were about the sociology of the times in which it was painted, or the technique of brush stokes. It might be talked about as an inquiry into painters attitudes towards the female. It might be seen as a mystery to be solved. (What does her face say or mean and so on). None of these approaches will get you to approach it like Yoga or Bible study. Nevertheless, I am suggesting that is how we should go about it. We should ask the Mona Lisa what it has to tell us. It is painting that clearly never shuts up after all these years (and all those bad interpretations!)

Anyway if you really want one answer to the Mona Lisa, it is a painting about our inability to get to the bottom of the woman in painting. Yes, that rather old painting is so very contemporary in that it reflects upon its own preconditions of creation and artifice!

Another mistaken notion is that the aesthetic is interested in "beauty" per se or at least the pursuit of superior standards of beauty or snobbish fetishism of beauty.

But if we take beauty to mean the intense exploration of our own experience and subjectivity beauty itself is not so straightforward a matter. There is an obvious beauty that appeals to a lust of the senses and this is absolutely necessary in life, though it leans towards the "thin" mode in my binary formulation. But there are other forms of beauty that are a bit more complex, as Andrey Tarkovsky wrote:

"When I speak of the aspirations towards the beautiful. of the ideal as the ultimate aim in art, which grows from a yearning for that ideal, I am not for a moment suggesting that art should shun the dirt of the world. On the contrary. The artistic image is always a metonym. where one thing is substituted for another. Hideousness and beauty are contained within each other. This prodigious paradox, in all its absurdity, leavens life itself, and in art makes that wholeness in which harmony and tension are unified."

Then there is the question of ethics. It is the charge that aestheticism is amoral at best and immoral at worst because it traffics in surfaces.

There are two problems here. Firstly, all surface appearances are themselves inseparable from inner substance. Secondly, the highest ethics aims at experiencing the actual causes of evils in an excruciating and dangerously fearless fashion. By definition then, many artworks - sad to say for the sensitive - must depict graphic evils in order that we understand the points of view of both perpetrator and victim. There is, it is true, an excess of such stuff, yet it fills a need to expand our compassion.

Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Joyce Carol Oates' Zombie, Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita and Pasolini's Salo, some artworks of the 1970s are attempts to understand the ugliness of life, yet go beyond understanding towards experience. Bresson's Mouchette does the same for an innocent victim. In works like these our faces are shoved into ugliness so that we may come to leave behind our naive levels of comfort.

As to the other charges from the ethical: that art should not contain certain behaviors or gestures within them, all of these objects are not literally real life events, so they should not be taken as such. If they are taken as such then they have been perverted by their consumers, to say nothing of having been misread. The poet neither claims or disclaims, as Sydney wrote in Defense Of Poetry.

As to the charge that the aesthetic is a waste of time and energy that should otherwise be put towards survival or charitable works, these charges are non sequiturs, since the aesthetic has always about it a gratuitous character removed from the practicalities of life.

While this gratuitous aspect might, in times of great privation or hardship, be something we are forced to forgo, it is nevertheless one of the marks of our human species: that is, if any of us are still interested in demarcating ourselves from other animals, as something other than one being or type among the rest.

That is all I can do at this time to explain my chosen label. But don't hold me to it. Like all categories it is as much a fiction as a truth. It is capacious; indeed it has something of life itself. But whatever else it is aesthetics is not empty and it is not superficial. It is but another word for another way for we people to reflect upon ourselves in a space - sacred or not - away from purely direct or immediate concerns.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Farewell to the Suburbs, Hello to the City

“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children, in fact, are barely presentable,” wrote Fran Leibowitz. I surely should apologize, dear reader, for having enough shallowness of spirit as to be unable to see adequately into the insides of others that I cannot but concur with Leibowitz’s sentiment. Alas our insides are very much invisible and silent. But our outsides are ever present and never stop talking.

Yet, to make matters worse, though we do have a bit of control over the presentation of ourselves, whether through cosmetics or dress, there are great limits that Nature has set before us. When it comes to our externally built environments, however, the ones we can never escape at least without a wrecking ball of sorts, we have something approaching total control. Though we have this control over our environments that we are denied over our own person, we have repeatedly committed acts of ugliness at best and outright sin at worst. The architects and designers of the 20th century have a great deal to explain, though they will surely resort to Theory as an alibi.

Second only to our original sin of slavery is the sin of deciding that every human being be entitled to car use and ownership alongside the massive development of what is called the suburbs to support such car centeredness, the spreading and sprawl of ourselves outside of our cities to accommodate these driving machines, the supreme sin being the planning and building of the Interstate Highway System. Every problem, from the inner workings of troubled families, the disease in any soul, to the decay of arts and culture more generally, can be traced to that fateful decision. Without the decision to suburbanize we would not be having much of a discussion about fossil fuels, and only a scientist would know how much less would be our effect upon the Ozone and so on.

We need a new way of regarding older words that is free from euphemistic cant. Instead of using the word entitlement to describe basic human needs like a living wage, or retirement funds, or medicine, or even the right to work, we ought to use the word entitlement - and in the most scolding sense - for the idea that sprung up in the forties and fifties that every human being deserves a house with a yard and even two children of their own, to say nothing of the dogs and cats. Think of how a wise extraterrestrial being would regard the spectacle of every human being moving around in these most ugly and cumbersome of machines to go from one place, many miles away, to another. Such a being would think us mad at best, evil at worst.

Recently I went back to Tampa, Florida for the funeral of my father. As my friend Greg drove me across miles of long stretches of cement, as we passed one chain restaurant after another - an Outback, an Applebees, The Cheesecake Factory, the only attractive diversion breaking up the soul killing monotony being what appeared to be an independently run strip club, or fringe Southern Baptist church - Greg sensed my great displeasure at what comprised the largest part of the humanly created American landscape. He said to me with great emphasis: “Mitch, these are your roots. This is where you come from.”

I have spent the remainder of my life trying to get away.

To be fair, I remember another part of my childhood far away from all of this and that was New York City - Manhattan. It is here where I must make some clarification for some of my peers in the ecology or environmental movements whom I take to be greatly insensitive to a great part of what makes us tick. For the problem is not, as these peers are wont to say, civilization, or modernity, or even industrialism. To regard civilization or, in particular, cities as the root of the problem is to commit what I call the error of Holism: to take life as forming a single system, such that, if there is anything wrong with the system you have to scrap that system and start over anew, even with revolution if need be.

Rather, the problem is a long series of little decisions that accumulate. Not the car itself, but the decision that everybody should have one is the real problem. The splitting of the atom did not compel us to make a weapon out of that act. That weapon was a choice we made. Whatever history is, it is not an inevitability. The Devil is in the details.

Curiously and perversely many of our ecologically minded peers have helped create our current crises in at least a couple of ways. The first is, by fetishizing nature and green spaces they only encourage sprawl and an anti-urban attitude, what one scholar, Carol Clover, termed urbanoia. Urbanioa might lead people to try and recreate the simulation of nature wherever they may roam. This is why in all of these cement strips that cover the United States you see these little plots of green, as if that is an aesthetic solution to anything.

The second way in which some ecologists contribute to the problem is by a dubious distinction between the natural which is considered virtuous and the unnatural which is considered unhealthy. Thus, Playboy magazines and Christian Louboutin shoes are considered most unnatural and therefore bad, while organic farms or tribal living are seen as more or less natural and thus, good. This is an arbitrary convention, reflecting the fashions and tastes of an epoch rather than eternal verities.

This distinction between the natural and unnatural contributes to a coarsening of our aesthetic sense. We criticize things that we deem unreal and praise things to the heavens that feel real, not knowing that everything we humans do is in a certain sense unreal all the way down. There is no object more unreal than the play Hamlet, for example. Yet there is no object that could have more to teach you about human life.

Humans do not merely dwell in one but at least in two dimensions. The dimension to which our ecologists rightly pay homage is that of utility and necessity: the world of farming, for example. Many today dream of going back to a purer world which by their definition always means something rural. They would point out that this is not mere utility but family and community and wholeness.

I would retort that family and community, in addition to Love, also always already possess conformity and narrow religiosity, to say nothing of homophobia, perhaps sexism and other evils. In a certain sense we do not choose our families so there is a very intimate connection between the nostalgic and traditionalist love for family and the concern with organic farming. Thus, perhaps there is a fear of choice involved among those who would restrict life to utility.

We do not live by need or necessity, including family, alone. There is a second dimension to human affairs and it is gratuitous. This is why humans need and create civilizations. It is why we need cities.

Marx, so long ago in the 19th century, spoke of the “idiocy of rural life”. Today so many of our idiots hail from rural areas, and the nature of such idiocy has seldom changed.

Without cities all of our arts and culture would surely be nonexistent. I do not deny the necessity to overhaul our way of life in some way. I only deny that in the future we not be reduced to utility alone. I only confirm that space be made for our gratuitous nature. For if history is any guide we humans are exceedingly gratuitous. And any vision of the future that does not incorporate that stubborn and often times sublime fact is a vision that surely could only have been been concocted by tech geeks, engineers and the like.

Indeed, a good part of our future should include a return to the city. By city I do not mean an “exurb.” I do not mean, say, Watertown. The use of terms like “Exurbs” or “edge cities” is a way of trying to give credence to the suburban way of life. Quite the contrary. I mean exactly something of the large cities of old. Maybe even, dare I say it, New York City. Of course nothing on that scale is safe or sustainable anymore. but the population density might be a necessity.

Instead of moving out, the time has come for us to move back into the city. We need to reclaim and reinvent the city. Of course this is assuming we have decided we still want a place for some kind of culture not reduced to utility. The city was a precondition for the creation of someone like a Shakespeare or a Bach - to be a little quaint and corny about it. The city was of course a precondition for American popular musical art, for the theater, and many other riches. Farming and hunting and gathering will not quite make it.

There was a brief moment, in the middle of the previous century, when great poetry came out of suburban experience. John Updike and John Cheever come to mind. That day is long past. The best works of art today that reinterpret representations of the small town are works of art that both foreground their artificiality or are descriptions of a purely contemporary sensibility, and are really more about the present than the past, as in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville or in Madmen. These works say more about our time than the past. They are stuck in the present, while pretending to be be an archeology or anthropology of the past.

I should note that there continues to be a romance of the car, exemplified in the car chase in cinema, the halfway decent art/exploitation film Drive being the most recent evidence that this romance shows no signs of abatement, whatever the fashion for the bicycle.

But perhaps as in Updike and Cheever for domestic life, this romance of highway life will grow rusty. Maybe it too will be ridden out.

Moreover there is economics to consider: people never tire of telling me that nobody lives in cities because they are too expensive. By and large I believe the causation to be reversed. Cities are so unaffordable because not enough people stay in them to keep them affordable: everybody desires to live further out, in the sticks if possible. They see in the city only a place to shop and consume and to escape their boredom.

In contrast to the trends of the past forty years, I hope the future belongs to the city. I will let others dream of the Anarcho-Syndicalist commune in the woods. Speaking for myself, I dream of a place for arts and what used to be known as culture in the city.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On What is Objective and What is Subjective in Value, (with a nod to fashions)

It is one of the highest marks of a worthy maturity to grow into the ability to detect in culture that which is personal bias and that which is objective truth. It is harder, but equally important, to know what might be fleeting fashion and what might be more permanent.

There are certain objects in the world of culture that admit of objective value. For Christians, for example there is their Bible or good book. Read as a work of poetry, (poetry being that variety of "news that stays news" or convenient lies or fictions that reveals latent or transparent truth) they are correct to see objectivity in it. But read as a truth claim competing with other "good books" from other religions, The Bible becomes a more subjective affair - at least subjective for the communities that follow it.

There are objects in the world of culture though that not only make no discrimination, that admit of no partiality, but that are potentially for all people at all times. Shakespeare's sonnets and plays are an example. Miles Davis' quartet from the sixties is another. The dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is yet another. People that miss the truths in these and similar "warhorses" are as spiritually impoverished as a poor person would be materially impoverished were there to be no food and water.

Every society has its mode. I have written of this before. The mode may be most excellent, may even admit of a certain objectivity, but nevertheless may be a bias and a fashion at one and the same time. The bias of a mode usually consists in what it eliminates, what the mode implicitly or explicitly rejects, critiques or works against. Each age has a largely unconscious bias in favor of its mode.

The cultural or artistic bias of the contemporary period is a bias that makes a taxonomic distinction between the unreal, the counterfeit, the deceitful, the dishonest on the one hand, and the authentic, the natural, the honest, and so on, on the other. Clearly the latter column is to be preferred. On a surface reading of those terms, that might seem to be a distinction involving improvement over other ages, a change that is certainly unobjectionable, if not virtuous.

But things, alas, are never that simple. This myth of the natural/artificial and real/deceitful distinction was brought painfully home during a curious, peculiar, emotionally satisfying and yet frustrating experience on an experimental indie film set.

During the course of the filming I got into a serious argument with several other participants/performers: of course the argument was filmed and maybe to be included in the final cut of the film.

Two problems were in great evidence during the verbal fight. Firstly, my interlocutors were considerably younger than I and this fact seemed to be of little or no importance. That is, they treated me and talked with me as if I were simply a peer and my age was of no significance.

The second problem was that all of us agreed on the status or value of a particular film. Sometimes agreement can be a real problem because easy and unconscious assumptions set in about the nature and and implications of such agreements. The film in question was Robert Kramer's Milestones. Milestones is a hard film to summarize, its greatness is in part its resistance to narrative summary. It is a practically four hour saga of ex radicals and hippies trying to make a life for themselves in the 1970s. The film ends with the birth of a woman in a communal setting, shot in real time, among everybody in the film we had seen throughout the previous hours of film time.

To say it is a moving experience would only begin to chart its considerable virtues.

Now all of my interlocutors on that day of production and I agreed about Milestones. Yet, perhaps because of this we disagreed about nearly everything else. That is, they, I think, wanted every other work of art to be made rather like Milestones. They believed in a kind of myth of raw reality and had an innate suspicion of artifice.

What started the fight was the book group we were filming. This book was the fictional narrative of a couple having phone sex in the early 1990s, VOX by Nicholson Baker.

VOX, some didn't really didn't like. Not because of the sexual content, or the usual Feminist objections. (VOX by the way, was the book Monica Lewinsky gave to President Bill Clinton during their affair, doubtless for his or their masturbatory enjoyment - at least I hope!)

No VOX was a failure because, in the words of one of the young film theorists, "the artifice of story and narrative structure was too exposed, was too much at work".

This was when I became ruthless with the room. I said that the "conceit of narration of two people talking on the phone in Baker's novel is in no way a mark against the novel. It says nothing about why we should dislike or reject the novel. It is a non-argument. You have not proven yet to me why the novel is not a good novel".

"I thought it was uninteresting" he exclaimed.

"You have only told me about your own particular preferences not about the value or lack thereof of the book," I continued.

I said that I found three critical categories close to useless. One was gratuitous, the other was that something was depressing and the third was that something was "pretentious".

They resorted to the usual charges against this novel VOX: that it is false, or invented, that it doesn't show people in all of their immediate purity.

I said that the novel VOX, like the movie Milestones was nothing but a tool. Their complaints told us nothing about the efficacy of the tool.

I said that Milestones' decision as a film to use real locations and nonprofessional political activists as the actors in no way guarantees either a good, great or terrible outcome, anymore than The Harvey Girls' decision to use period costumes and elaborate sets insures a better or worse outcome. I said to think of such things as a toolkit or like colors in a palette. In one experience we deal with a relatively unaltered experience of scruffy everyday bohemians in the 1970s; in The Harvey Girls we deal with colorfully costumed and brightly lit stars who sing and dance and act in a more remote and "stylized" way.

I told them that I loved both the The Harvey Girls and Milestones. They are like two different cuisines or foods. Each gave us a different feeling, radically different, and that perhaps we needed both in some form.

I would concede their point that, in the long scope of history, or in terms of spiritual enrichment, Milestones might have a slight edge, but that was a function of those two films in particular and not a function of whether there are stars in glorious technicolor, or "regulars" in natural and direct light. All of these tools could be used for the greatest or the worst of ends. They were confusing the tools with the end result and they were making a category confusion about various styles. While the nature of the tools surely does contribute to that result, an inquiry into the tool itself is insufficient, at best, to tell us anything about the value of the result. Various styles are different from one another precisely in order to create that difference.

At that moment I confess I wanted to force a viewing of The Harvey Girls upon them. I insisted, in the most earnest way possible, that a viewing of The Harvey Girls could teach them something about their own daily lives in the here and now as anything else of value they could encounter.

I also said that many of the great writers of more than three centuries used clever and conscious narration for the greatest of results. We see what is at work in Fielding, in George Eliot, in Proust and Beckett. I said that, looked at in this way "all is a narrative contrivance".
When I said that a writer who creates a fiction in revolt against narrative contrivance, that in itself is always already dealing with some kind of narrative.

Let me not be misunderstood. I hate - with the greatest passion - the recent and fashionable fetish for the virtues of narrative. I think it does a great damage to our lives, to our politics, and doesn't help much our literature either. Because I see narrative as one tool among others. And I see narrative as providing the structural precondition for an overcoming of narrative.

Thus, in Nicholson Baker's VOX the unreal contrivance of getting two people to talk on the phone and make a whole novel out of that is itself made possible by the entire history of literary art, going back at least to epistolary novels of the 18th century.

It is not narrative or plot that is the enemy. It is the assumption that plot or narrative, in its most simple form is necessary for a "good read".

Indeed, I have no sympathy for the current project to resurrect narrative, either under the auspices of an argument from natural science that narrative is simply human nature, nor the argument that there is some essence to narrative that insures a more "entertaining" or effective outcome.

You might say that I both agreed and disagreed with the room on that day. I might agree with the virtue of certain aesthetic achievements but I disagreed that rebelling or discarding anything of the past is a guarantee of achievement. Surely not any more or less than a slavish repetition of the past is a guarantee of failure.

In the end it is a question of how it is done.

In any case different styles exist for the very reason that different kinds of people exist. It would be an impoverished world were it to consist of a single mode. Indeed, because of the fact that reality is of necessity always partial, always from a particular point of view, we need this difference in order to begin to properly get a sense of anything of a whole.

We do not know it now, but, perhaps, in another twenty years, if we are still around, is it possible that we will look upon our current assumptions regarding the virtue of what we call the real in exactly the same way many of us now regard silent movie acting: as just as much an arbitrary assumption of what matters as anything else?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Bill Evans, Memoir, and the Nature Of Art

There is much truth to the ways we systematize and understand our lives. There is some truth to the labels in the latest DSM. I am perfectly willing even to concede all of the vogue words and jargon that we create to try and make sense of our lives. Having said that, I still think it is the role of art to get around, behind, and beyond such reductive forms of understanding. Nowhere is this problem made clearer than in the subject, content and potential reception of a valuable and well written memoir by jazz pianist Bill Evan's last (literally to the deathbed) and younger lover Laurie Verchomin, The Big Love.

The problem stands in relief because in this tiny work of art in prose Verchomin takes material in her content loaded with traps to snare those who would approach it with preconceptions and stereotypical assumptions - Evans' chronic cocaine abuse (evidently he was never not on drugs for decades), the fact that a much younger woman chose to be with him until his death and care and comfort him, the way the author negotiates the painful contradictions and joys of the 1970s sexual revolution - and makes all of this content a means by which she communicates not explanation or even understanding but experience in the sense that the better art communicates experience.

She is also working in a much maligned form. Memoirs are enormously popular (in part for the worst of reasons, say, an overt belief in "the truth" or an excessive interest in certain fashions) some feel that there are too many of them, it is associated with charges of self indulgence, celebrity culture, the evasion of artistic and literary seriousness and much worse besides.

Yet, as I have stated many times before, genre - in this case I suppose the label would be a "coming of age" genre - is not always the most useful way to understand literary or any other kind of art. A better way to understand art is to ask if we are changed somehow after expreriencing it, if it opens up newer forms of experience to us.

One of the reasons for the mistreatment or suspicion of memoir is that both audiences and critics make a whole host of assumptions about what consists an art object, what is the role, if any, of narration, point of view and other issues.

The other reason is pure sexism in the old fashioned Feminist sense. That is, many of the concerns of the memoir are concerns authored and experienced by women. Since historically such concerns are deemed of lesser importance than, say, a traditionally plotted novel, or an objective biography of a musician, this bias can only work against a memoir written by a woman.

Verchomin's The Big Love is one of the most unusual experiences I have ever had in reading creative non-fiction. It is poetic, emotive, and compressed and distilled. Set in diary form, each sentence or paragraph is both austere and dense at one and the same time.

The great ballad "Laurie" as heard in the youtube selection was written by Bill Evans for her.

As a jazz pianist and lover of Bill Evans my perspective is surely biased: the content of the book is inherently interesting. But even more interesting is the complete lack of moralism (as distinct from true morality) and complete presence of compassion in her book. Every day that is covered reveals a very young woman coming of age and also reveals a Bill Evans slowly dying all the while performing, arguably the greatest music performances of his career. (I am often reminded of Edward Said's book On Late Style). Evans' late playing is exuberant and unafraid; it has the rawness of a scene from a Cassavetes movie yet the form of an old melodrama. Verchomin's artistic and aesthetic strategy of using bits of poetry and the journal form as we stay with the experience of this young woman and this far older celebrity and greatest of jazz artists on a daily basis has a directness that would have otherwise been unavailable to us had she travelled a more worn path.

It is admittedly disturbing the passages that creep upon the reader. As we read we get deeper into the consciousness of the subjects. It is almost as if Verchomin is challenging us to think about ethics and human relationships in a deeper way. I will be reading her book and come upon a piece of information about public people, yet the innocence and tone of the delivery works against the severity of the information. For example:

"Bill's other connection is Sam DiStephano who manages the Chicago Playboy Club. He sends over two former playmates (now a lesbian couple) to keep us company at the hotel. One is really tall and the other is short like me.

Bill asks them to find some cocaine. We went back to their apartment to wait while the tall one went out to score. I loved their apartment. They had this great writing-partner desk, where they worked on their careers as writers. And Tony Bennett had given them matching walkmens so they could think of him while they were having sex".
The effect of the passage is startling because of the reporting style mixed with the point of view of a young woman from Canada.

There is no greater case to be made for the supremacy of style in how art makes meaning than in The Big Love. Verchomin's "voice" and rhythm is everything. After many weeks of reading about the wildness of 1970s culture it is a nice to come upon purely musical examples such as Bill Evans' understandable love for Earth Wind and Fire, or more personal passages where detail and rhythm are all important:
"I am Ellaine, because she is so much stronger. I am drawing on the strength of her tenure as Bill's first wife. The woman who ate nothing but Haagen Dasz coffee ice cream for two years and then broke her fast with sushi. The woman who gave birth to twin Siamese cats, which they named Melody and Harmony. The woman who lay beside Bill for years and years, in candlelit apartments without electricity, yet keeping sacred the art of television with an extension cord strung out into the hallway".

At other times she writes about Evans' musical style:

"No one recognizes the melody; the discard has his head rearing up, an angry mane of thick grey hair framing his broad forehead,eyebrows raised in astonished agony.

Here is Bill, crucifying himself. Finally exploring his suffering in public, no longer able to control his passion, freely expressing the distortion he is directly experiencing."

It is direct experience that is one of Verchomin's themes, as well as a good phrase for the style in which she writes.

As the book keeps building the sense of repetition, by the book's end we are not quite the same as we were when we started. We are in a place where the usual categories do not apply. In my view there is no better place for a piece of writing to take the reader. We are constantly having to readjust ourselves our sense of what music and the music making process is. We have to constantly readjust our preconceptions of drugs and sexuality.

The Big Love is a short book. It is concentrated, precise and sharp. But it is a creation of pure love. It builds to a powerful and inevitable end that seems far vaster than its surface size. It is unabashedly spiritual and mystical and never downplays such interests for the sake of a purely secular or scientific culture. The Big Love it is a must for anybody involved in jazz and certainly for anyone interested in the history of the 1970s, and, above all, anybody interested in the subject of female experience in the twentieth century.