Friday, September 28, 2007

Growing Up Postmodern

Carina Chocano reviews in today's paper a film I will never see, "Hannah Takes the Stairs." As an amateur critic in the true sense of the word and as a college instructor pursuing what my performance review yearly classifies as "professional development," I scan such detritus to keep up at least in passing with what the media keep churning out. Perhaps perusing the wares more slowly than before as my immersion in the latest music, the newest L.A. Weekly's touts, or what passes for pop culture fades into my cultivated leanings towards Irish lore and medieval ideas, thoughtful literature, and music that reminds me more of past innovators than present imitators. But I do wallow in Tinseltown's trash like the rest of you hoi polloi. My "working class" roots belittled by my spouse or my sub-doctoral slumming? I find that the alma mater for what my current employer designates my "terminal degree," UCLA, has been classified as a "Public Ivy." So, I guess I never have to feel inferior to certain Harvard grads (and they but A.B.'s) I know. Blame my Angeleno upbringing for such a clash of high-minded manifest destinies and low-life First-meets-Third World reality. Chocano helpfully articulates what if I have to explain to anyone what "postmodern" means, which is doubtful given my current teaching gig, I can cite.

Chocano opens:

The characters in Joe Swanberg's "Hannah Takes the Stairs" aren't inarticulate, exactly, although they rarely manage to express an emotion, formulate a thought or even complete a sentence. They are self-conscious in a way that only a generation obsessed with its own representation can be, saddled as they are with an anxiety of influence that seems to compound by the second.

Shot on digital video and group-improvised from a loose outline by Swanberg, "Hannah Takes the Stairs" is the latest addition to the growing canon of DIY, twentysomething angst indies grouped under the category of mumblecore.[. . .]

The gang's all here, as are their usual concerns, explored with all the self-conscious, self-censoring agony of youth in the post-slacker age.{Details follow of the plot, such as it is, but I found none of this worth preserving. Offices, musician who does not play music, media types, jobs requiring no real work-- where can I find one of those?}

It's probably safe to say that very few people born in the last four or five decades haven't, at 25, felt like his or her life should be made into a movie, or is just like a movie, even (or maybe especially) at its most aimless and uneventful. If the impulse has been around for a while, the means to actualize it have never been greater. This is partly because technology has made the means of production so readily available to so many, just as distribution channels have expanded and the range and speed of word-of-mouth promotion exponentially increased. But it's also because growing up postmodern[my emphasis] means that even the most personal, intimate moments seem to hover at a safe remove, having been filtered through thousands of representations of similar moments before they are even experienced. It's hard enough to figure out who you are, but harder still under these hothouse conditions.

"Hannah," which was shot over a summer in Chicago with all the participants living together in an apartment, perfectly encapsulates the slow-motion, frustrated feeling of early adulthood, when longing and inchoate desire easily outnumber actual transformative events and achievements. After watching "Hannah," it feels inaccurate to describe what passes between the characters as love, or even like. And the work environment is so detached, laid-back and unproductive that it feels more like baby hipster wish-fulfillment than an accurate portrayal of reality. And yet there's something about the heat, the boredom and the uncertainty that feels deadly familiar. In capturing it, Swanberg has also managed to convey the feeling more, perhaps, than is enjoyable.[. . .]

For a movie so vested in youthful verisimilitude, it's conspicuously lacking in misery.

Image credit:

Save Tara Campaign

I posted on this last Spring, but as the writer (of the e-mail I copy-and-paste here) and I have commiserated, the Green Party entering into coalition with the eternally corrupt Fianna Fáil since April's protests appears shamefully and frankly not to give a damn either, speaking of another Tara.

(And belatedly after this original post I checked out "" as opposed to the address below for the official Tara protest. Well, it's a West Hollywood house threatened by yuppie WeHo developers who rule that enclave of affluent gays, elderly Russian Jews, and those motley trendinistas who flourish thanks to rent control. Likewise, the LA City Council today gives in to real estate magnates who want to Manhattanize our whole city in the name of packing millions more in and somehow expecting them all to take the Red Line. Yeah, I'll see those starstruck newbies sipping lattes on my next subway trip to work as these corporate drones and empty nesters abandon the Hummer and the hottub for rubbing shoulders with those unable to afford WeHo's annoying "house blend" of smug trustafarians and pampered pensioned. I despair at the bulldozing outside my window of what remains of the open spaces of California [as my neighbor to the north notes below]. Irish or Angeleno, Bay Area or Meath, we struggle for keeping our natural heritage-- which passes in my hometown as less than a century rather than of millennia as "old"-- intact.)

Here's Lee Templeton's letter to us; there was apparently a protest last Saturday here even in L.A., not far from Selznick's old studio, that I found out about too late. But, please do what you can to make this issue known. I will be at a conference of lit crit types next week in Tacoma at which the Irish consulate will be present, and plan to do my bit to talk up this issue of cultural preservation. Count me (even if I risk being lumped with those in WeHo) among the "bien-pensant." Over to Lee:

This Kevin Myers over at is a bit of langer isn't he?

Writing on the controversial expansion of the M3 Motorway (that's a 'freeway' to my fellow Norte Americanos on the list), Myers takes up the side of the Irish government and the corporate developers who are eager to plough through a landscape older than Stonehenge. And somehow MY culture gets involved:

Whenever show business takes sides on any public controversy, the other side is probably right. Let that wisdom be your lodestone. So it was with some gratitude that I saw the actor Stuart Townsend leading the recent objections to the M3 motorway project in Meath. end quote

Dude! What's the deal with harshin' on Hollywood? And it IS Hollywood he's talking about, because the article goes on to say:

quote again:
Twenty minutes' one-way journey-time translates into forty minutes a day, and given a forty-six week working year, this becomes over 150 hours a year: the equivalent of nearly four unnecessary working-weeks sitting in the car, every year, for scores of thousands of commuters.

Now, the smug bien-pensant can easily dismiss the mental health and the family-lives of such lesser types. For these latter are largely unimportant, plain individuals, who probably live in housing estates in Meath and Louth, not in palaces in Hollywood, such as that inhabited by Stuart Townsend and his Oscar-winning girlfriend, Charlize Theron, (who probably doesn't know where or what Tara is, but she backs it anyway).
end quote

Yeah fine. Make this about California. And you really should, because nowhere else in the world could provide Ireland with a sterling example of what happens when a government sets priorities around an auto culture. When it values progress and efficiency at the expense of history and landscape. When it (to borrow again from Myers) becomes a society that views its own archaeological treasures as "the rotting post-holes of settlements that vanished 3,000 years ago."

For some reason, it's the unknowable of Tara that Myers considers a weakness. He says "Notwithstanding that Meath is the home of an extinct civilisation, its archeological riches are unlikely to compare with those, say, of Monte Cassino in Italy, a place I know well."

The kicker here being that the Italian government paved through the Cassino landscape with a motorway of their own. "See," Myers seems to suggest, "if a former empire can do it, why not us?"

Anyway, the slam at Hollywood (and the Oscars! Who can hate the Oscars?) has me good to go on this one. I'm online this morning furiously trying to read up on the past year's worth of history so I can effectively advocate for the preservationist argument of this issue tonight at a academic meeting. I'm also writing a letter to my local branch of the Irish Consulate (something you fellow Norte Americanos might also enjoy doing! I'm using linen stock letterhead and everything! Totally retro. Check out the handy list at the bottom of this email. Read up on the whole story here: )

I also encourage any of us who want to discuss or debate this issue to join me or challenge me or whatever it is you political types like to do. After all, it's been very cool that you've read this far.

And remember: If you can't do it for Ireland, do it for David Selznick!

Lee "Hooray for Ballyross" Templeton

P.S. That phone number again:
Embassy of Ireland
2234 Massachusetts Ave. Washington D.C. 20008
tel. (202) 462-3939/ fax. (202) 232-5993

Consulate General of Ireland
Ireland House. 345 Park Avenue - 17th Floor. New York, NY 10154-0037
tel. (212) 319-2555/ fax. (202) 980-9475

Consulate General of Ireland
535 Boylston Street. Boston MA 02116
tel. (617) 267-9330/ fax. (617) 267-6375

Consulate General of Ireland. 400 North Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60611
tel. (312) 337-1868/ fax. (312) 337-1954

Consulate General of Ireland
44 Montgomery Street, Suite 3830. San Francisco CA 94104
tel. (415) 392-4214/ fax. (415) 392-0885

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

IWOSC Panel: Book Reviewing

Gary Young had asked me to a Independent Writers of Southern California meeting held last spring where I shared my Amazon experience as a Top 1000 Reviewer with an appreciative and enthusiastic audience in the Valley. Last Monday, at the Veteran's Memorial Building in Culver City-- this time along with my wife who took the photo-- I returned by his kind invitation to talk to IWOSC members, this time along with Amy Wilentz, journalist, chronicler and novelist with expertise as the past Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker; Erika Schickel, a blogger, reviewer, and freelance writer as well as a first-time memoirist; Michael Dresser, a talk-show radio host who interviews writers; and Edward St. John, who reviews, admirably as he's limited to objective statements of about 300 words, for Library Journal.

Before a full house spanning two what we called in grade school "multipurpose rooms," not a chair to be found, the evening was ably moderated by the L.A. Times heir to the late Jonathan Kirsch, book reviewer and former editor of the section, Digby Diehl. He set the tone immediately when he lamented the diminution of opportunities-- at least in print and traditional media. The chains do not wish to advertise in local newspapers, and the LATBR has suffered notably, now up-ended with the Opinion section each Sunday in a soixante-neuf exchange of positions.

I've been reflecting on the issues raised in the hour-and-a-half roundtable. For instance, are we in Los Angeles neglecting the non-English speaking population? The statistics show 52% of local households do not use English as the primary language, so I wished I could have commented on this factor. Reading in the NY Times the other day of a Hispanic bookstore's closure, I wondered how an English-dominant press can acculturate an audience that simply does not choose a book in English, and even their own native language, to pass the time. The Blue Line that I ride may have supported my skepticism. I'd estimate 80-90% of the readers choosing Spanish that I see read "Hoy," the LA Times-sponsored giveaway paper, or a religious tract or Bible. At least half the riders at any given glance I cast their way drowse, chatter, listen to music, stare without any print to peruse at all as they sit on the Blue or Red Line.

I am not sure if the colorful circulars for markets count, or coupons, as reading a paper: these gain lots of eyeball contact whether as images to pass the time or impromptu seat covers. An audience member asked about the separation of African American books in stores. Diehl acknowledged the pros and cons of this, but I would support his consideration that such "niche" markets certainly appeared to meet a demand. The black riders on the Blue Line tend from the glimpses I can make out to read a local (often not the LAT) paper or a novel aimed at the black readership, usually women reading a woman writer targeting their own demographic. The times that I saw literature being chosen by apparently non-students (the same reader on different occasions) with Paul Roche's translation of Aristophanes and Ron Rosenbaum's "The Shakespeare Wars" (the latter reviewed by me here and you know where), makes its own case in my memory as the exception proving the rule. Mass-market paperbacks of the romance, fantasy, thriller, mystery, or SF categories predominate among the relatively few riders who pack a novel, from my perspective.

Also, along these lines of genre, the NYTBR this week expands its bestsellers to a third category, trade paperback, or "quality" (and pricier) fiction aimed at the more upscale customer. A page will be lost in the Book Review to allow for this feature. Surely, as I pointed out, this only plays into the bestseller ranking obsession I share in a small way in my Top 1000 perch with the writers listening to those panelists who boasted of their own ratings on Amazon. The competition, whether driven by Amazon, the chains, the fourth estate, Library Journal and the trade, or any other category in the reading and writing realm does intensify in our capitalist society where the arts have always had to appeal to the kindness of strangers more than the fellowships and grants and acclaim of patrons.

My own efforts to concentrate on lesser-known books and music decrease my own ratings, ironically. But, I try to apply Amazon or this blog as I teach: my vocation is to expose whoever you are, in my classroom or online or in person, to what I think, given my own narrow areas of favor and personal expertise, you'd like. I did mention my own experience teaching complex ideas to students with often first-generation college backgrounds, and/or immigrant status, and attempted to justify, if not praise, my own diligence on Amazon and elsewhere on the Net (where you ponder this) as extensions of my belief in the spread of literate discourse.

(After I typed this to set aside as a draft, I rushed off to teach my night class-- is not this term itself redolent of seventy-five years ago, CCNY and red-diaper babies turned intellectuals, neo-con or Yiddishists, Marxist or anti-Stalinist? Talking outside the room was a student of mine who in a previous course gave a term paper in form of recounting and summarizing a debate he'd hosted between members of his own family from Mexico about the pros and cons of illegal immigration. A year later, he nears graduation. Beside him were a couple others whom I did not know. But I recognized under one young man's hand the library book's picture of James Joyce. The Modern Library-Random House [speaking of our American equivalent to Penguin Classics and the old Manhattan duty of a publisher to bring culture to the masses] "Ulysses." I asked him if he was reading it. "For school," he agreed, adding he'd taken it at random but quailed after the first page. I sympathized, but had to assure him how "that's my favorite author" even before I rambled on. Urging him to go to the Robot website for help of all sorts, and making him -- me the pedant-- repeat the domain name to remember it, off I dashed through the door for my three-and-a-half hour class all about "Brave New World" and reprogenetics.)

You never know, then, who you will run into. After the panel, I chatted with a woman preparing an historical novel on ancient, or at least pre-contact, Hawai'i. I admitted my lack of expertise but added the nails vs. food, native vs. sailor taboos that were both broken, and after the first Europeans left the Sandwich Islands, the shattering of the old ways led to civil war that destroyed the old order-- and this in the interim before the Western missionaries returned thirty or so years later. She was delighted at my knowledge, and told me I was the first person she'd told of her novel to that knew even this much about the topic.

Another man had a contract with U of Cal Press and was editing his architectural and cultural guide to U.S. Highway 99; a third writer with the fine surname of Redmond spoke of her spirituality interests; a fourth man told me of his series of ESL dialogues for foreign college students coming here who knew grammar well but could not speak intelligibly-- this was based on his experience with science TA's at USC. So, I was able to talk with each aspiring author a bit, as well as a woman who reminded me to be charitable in comments on the creative contingent, recounting briefly not only her own son whose film was slammed by the L.A. Times, but of her own show business career with "each of the Three Stooges." I assured her my son and wife would be delighted to know of her filmography. (And my father-in-law, gone now a week to wherever Moe, Larry, Curly, and even Shemp chuckle on the clouds, serenaded by Harpo.)

So, back to summarize: the panel tended to divide over a crucial function of reviewers. Dresser held that it was his business to help the writer sell books. I contended that I sought to help the reader decide to buy (or at least check out from the library) the book. Identifying as writers, Wilentz & Schickel disagreed over how much slack should be given a reviewer for a first-time novelist. Diehl tended to advise tempering justice with mercy for newbies, while Wilentz appeared eager to balance the ledger by slamming immoral, immodest, or indifferent writers especially if they dared to court fate by climbing the bestseller lists without due preparation in their labor and with doddering veneration of millions. They both reminded us, like St. John's own efforts, that reviewers do not choose the books they review-- a point often overlooked and the fundamental difference with my own eclectic choices.

Point well taken. But I'd add a coda that I wish I'd have thought of before. "The wit on the staircase," the bon mot that comes to mind too late-- after you've already stepped away from the dinner table's repartee. We did fill well the time on the panel, however. In the words of (where I review Celtic and Irish music for "the online magazine of the world's music" by his own invitation) editor Cliff Furnald that as he was told by another scribe: "you listen to a record differently when you have to buy it first." Same for books.

Thanks to the missus for the pre-panel snapshot; see her blog for snide comments about my "working class background" and more."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Gilgamesh: Two versions reviewed

Andrew George's:
I recommend this Penguin Classic, but it offers more thorough scholarly apparatus than usual for the series. This is not meant as a criticism! But, a beginner may find a "version" such as Stephen Mitchell's easier to start with for an overview of the storyline, and a briefer introduction and helpful endnotes. The poem itself is not lengthy, but the ancillary texts and sources, as Andrew George shows us, do take up considerable space which may please enthusiasts but discourage newcomers to this epic poem.

George prepared for Oxford UP in 1999 a two-volume edition, and this Penguin adapts the core of the English translation for a wider audience. It appears ideal for a college classroom or the reader wanting to learn more about the lacunae, the gaps, the language, and the editorial decisions made by George and fellow translators. A fascinating appendix shows how out of grammatical markers, syllabic, and half-syllabic cuneiform incisions the sounds and rhythms and absences that fill this most ancient of narratives turn into what we can understand. To a point.

Terms such as "louvre-door," "glacis-slope," "hie to the forge," and notably Ishtar's exhortation to "stroke my quim" give a rather archaic diction to parts of the translation. George aims obviously for precision in such terminology, but this does clash with the more demotic vernacular chosen by Mitchell in his popularization. Mitchell's also considerably more erotic and develops passages that in their original state, reading George, remain terse. Again, George approaches the thousands of fragments that are still being assembled nearly 150 years after their discovery and observes that this epic is still, amazingly and poignantly, one in progress as we await trained Assyriologists able to decipher not only the later Akkadian but the considerably more challenging and often cryptic Sumerian sources. It's a shame that in a region where so many billions have been spent to destroy the area between the Tigris & Euphrates that a few thousands can not be provided for the study and restoration of the oldest story text we have ever found.

Stephen Mitchell's:

I read Mitchell's freer version immediately after Andrew George's Penguin Classic (also reviewed by me). Readers need to remember how incomplete our Gilgamesh story remains for us today. The plot breaks or perplexing contexts are not the fault of its translators or retellers. George-- editor of the first scholarly edition in English-- meticulously keeps the brackets and the italics that expose modern concessions to our ignorance. The two-thirds of the epic estimated that we have today fills with conjectures; the spaces, and the breaks intervene over thousands of years to keep us from the complete epic that once existed. I wonder if may still be revived among the thousands of untranslated tablets that keep being unearthed.

Mitchell admits his lack of Akkadian and his reliance on experts. Many criticize Mitchell's attempt; he has a long career -- reminding me of Ezra Pound's efforts to render the archaic Chinese into vibrant English despite his lack of academic training-- in popularizing scholarly effort so a wider audience can enjoy the tales vigorously and fluently told. So, be warned that this is not a crib or a line-by-line equivalence. This being said, in his defense, the endnotes Mitchell provides often show carefully how he has changed the original word-for-word translations into more poetic form. He retells, therefore, an exciting and moving tale.

Most beginners-- thus educated-- may find a "version" such as Stephen Mitchell's easier to start with for an overview of the storyline, and a briefer introduction-cum-commentary and helpful textual notes that follow the story proper. The poem itself is not lengthy, and can be read easily. From here, moving on to more accurate translations could reward the still curious. But, for many who want the story and not the scholarship, the sufficient introduction, comments, and glossary here will satisfy the curious first-time reader.

I returned to this after thirty-plus years and profited from a mature encounter with a text that for a teenager proved too enigmatic. Intriguingly, talking with my own fourteen-year-old son who had read the poem for school, he found Gilgamesh and Enkidu far more recognizably like ourselves than stoic Beowulf or stern Aeneas! Many want also to bowdlerize or censor the few sexual encounters, but I defend Mitchell's claims for the primacy of the civilizing power of the erotic as dramatized sparely but evocatively in the suggestive verse. Speaking of relevance for teens, the slanging sparring verbal showdown between Inanna and Gilgamesh rivals any rapper's challenge today.

George aimed for precision in his translation, and while I liked the careful results, they did aim at academics in their vocabulary. which tended occasionally towards the overly technical or remained awkward. Mitchell chooses more explicit terms for action; he shows an awareness to entertain the reader whereas George may seek to inform the student. Mitchell's also considerably more erotic and develops passages that in their original state, reading George, remain terse. So, be aware of these crucial differences between the more accurate and the more vivid words.

Reviewers have shown surprise that Mitchell makes reference to the current destruction in Iraq. Yet, the irony that this tale is set amidst death, the longing to be one with the gods, battles with fearsome foes, contentious marketplaces, angry citizens, and terrifying journeys shows how narratives of human concerns age but little. The story cannot be properly blamed for its leaps in events or jumps between settings. We must remember that a third of the tale is not in our possession, so neither Mitchell or the anonymous tellers can bear fault for the ravages of time and our own lack of understanding of the nuances of Sumerian!

George observes that this epic is still, amazingly and poignantly, one in progress as we await trained Assyriologists able to decipher not only the later Akkadian but the considerably more challenging and often cryptic Sumerian sources. Mitchell reminds us in what Rilke called "the epic of the fear of death" how mortality in its cradle, here amidst one of the earliest civilizations in the Middle East, remains open to violence and ravages today. It's humbling and necessary to learn from such a fragile literary moral and a long-attenuated cultural heritage. It's a shame that in a region where so many billions have been spent to destroy the area between the Tigris & Euphrates that a few thousands can not be provided for the study and restoration of the oldest story text we have ever found.

Apologies for any overlap, but the two reviews lap at each other's shores. Here's the encounter of the "hierodule" Shámhat with Enkidu-- the wild man tamed between a woman's legs-- from a great depiction of Mitchell's lecture on his version as illustrated by Gordon McAlpin at

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Paul Hallam's "Book of Sodom": Review

Readers of my blog, if you exist, may have figured out my revived if longstanding fascination with this trope. Inspired not only by Molly's exhortation to kiss her bottom but Joycean's vague evocations of "Gomorrhean vices" and Leopold Bloom's earlier reflection on the Dead Sea as the "grey sunken cunt of the world," I have long been intrigued by this literary and erotic and biblical confusion of place with transgression with ambiguity. Note, contrary to my spouse, that I only post using four-letter words when demanded by fidelity to original sources. Here, my take (posted to Amazon) on last night's post-Kol Nidre reading of Hallam's compilation of this theological text's fervid afterlife.

The stunning cover photo by Humphrey Spender, 1938's "Newcastle United Football Changing Room," sums up this anthology: a naked, buff athlete is puffing a cigarette lit up by a demonic, shadowed black clad figure behind whom hang white jerseys, as if the latter figure's detached wings, lurking in the otherwise Stygian gloom. Paul Hallam, in his early forties when he compiled this grab-bag of material relating to Sodom, explains in his opening essay "A Circuit-Walk" his fascination not so much with the supposed sin of sodomy attributed falsely but powerfully to the inhabitants who lusted after "strange flesh," but the place of the sin. Hallam's lengthy introduction surveys the acceptance of his own marginal identity as a youth in Nottinghamshire, blended into his own secondhand searches for theological tracts, socialist harangues, and literary forays into the Cities of the Plain. Out of these random encounters in text he has amassed his own collection to commemorate the place that haunts so many denizens of the urban fringes today. As Hallam notes, "the anthology rests with a Sodom rumor." What the actual sin is-- it's left up to us.

Along with the expected entries from Proust, the gleefully depraved celebrations from court transcripts, louche lotharios, and the infamous libertine Lord Rochester, Sade (the selection I found rather limp, if from 120 Days of Sodom), Apollonaire, and 18c London trials of the torture of accused "sodomites," there are a few unexpected and fresher entries. The bulk of the selections concern what we moderns term homosexual activity. But, an evocative few pages from Michel Tournier's novel "The Four Wise Men" show the heterosexual side to the survivors of Sodom driven underground, while John Milton gets a brief entry for his précis of a drama on the cities' fate; Voltaire opines on asphalt and the Dead Seas, while Jonathan Spence's book on the Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci is employed to astute use to emphasize the Catholic fear of non-normative sex in the Middle Kingdom. Joao Trevisan's Brazilian forays play off Sir Richard Burton's earlier speculations on the "Sotadic Zone," while John Cleland in an often-deleted man-to-man chapter from "Fanny Hill" and the medieval theologian "Peter the Cantor" gets his early digs in against the sins of Gomorrah.

Most of the entries, as I mentioned, concern same-sex relations or the accusation of such, but once in a while, Hallam remembers to include the wider applications of Michel Foucault's memorable mention of "sodomy, that utterly confused category." I would have liked more substantial inclusion of not only theological or literary, but historical, travel, and critical texts. Not to mention more "hetero"genous and more eclectic erotica!

The forlorn place itself gains but a desultory visit, if too brief an excursion in a snippet from Andrew Lumsden for a gay newspaper. It leaves you wanting much more from the actual site, or the supposed one--nobody's quite too sure at least of the 1993 copyright date; perhaps Charles Pellegrino's 1994 "Return to Sodom & Gomorrah" could update us? The best entry for me, alongside Tournier's dreamlike and rather sexy, if austere, scenario, is the symbolist tale from 1883, "The Grape-Gatherers of Sodom" by "Rachilde" (Marguerite Eymery), which powerfully and vividly captures the decadence and the debauchery that led to the calumny given this blasted terrain of sulphur and bitumen, boiling pitch and burning desire.

(Image: the book cover, oddly missing from anywhere else on-line, thanks to a Toronto gay bookshop's site. One tidbit Hallam neglects that I discovered only the other day. My religion teacher in high school [later a defrocked bishop for his own sexual proclivities, albeit with a priest he ordained despite lack of qualifications and in compromised circumstances. But I do pray for the man all the more so.] taught us sophomoric "wise fools" the meaning of St Paul's recondite fulmination against one consigned as a "catamite." I also thought it'd be a great website domain, indie band name, or personalized license plate. Turns out it's a corruption of "Ganymede," tainted god with what used to be denigrated as the Greek vice.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Philip Roth's "Everyman": Review
My title refers to the unnamed protagonist's indirectly expressed (through a fittingly omniscient if humanly bound narrator) thought: "Should he ever write an autobiography, he'd call it 'The Life and Death of a Male Body.' But after retiring he tried becoming a painter, not a writer, and so he gave that title to a series of his abstractions." (52) The fiction may be a bit too abstract, but it's meant to place our universal limits within a particular body, imperfect by nature.

The novel regresses, in reverse after his burial opens the action, back as if he imagines relating his life to "each of the women who had been waiting for him to rise out of the anesthetic in the recovery room." (15) This allows the chronology of his days to unfold, forward erratically but appropriately, as if remembered as a series of vignettes. This does distance a reader considerably from empathy with this often selfish character. But, Roth presents us with a recognizably flawed tragic hero, not a plaster saint or thwarted genius. His Everyman without a name could stand in, and does, for all of us. It may not be a perfect novel because of this verisimilitude, ironically. The uneven emotional states and the dull stretches appear more identifiably real, because Roth refuses to polish or prettify these moments of pain and loss.

The fear grows as the years progress; Millicent Kramer's fate foreshadows his own terribly and movingly. Her decision at the end of her life provides an option akin to that wondered about by Hamlet, who wondered about "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns." This quote does not appear, but a witty aside to Hamlet does, mouthed by the bitter wife who's thrown over as the protagonist's lusts overcome his commonsense and his family's unity is shattered by his own desire and deceit. He lies that he only visited his mistress to break up with her, and that she cried "the whole four nights" (of their tryst):"That's a lot of crying for a twenty-four-year-old Dane. I don't even think Hamlet cried that much." (119-120)

The protagonist's sons do not appear in a good light. But, the book is presented, during the character's life, from his indirect point-of-view. This obliquity forces us to side with him even as we try to separate ourselves from his foibles. He gets defensive, as any of us would in telling our own side of our life's story. Roth takes this reflex and works it subtly into his novel.

The two sons resent his abandoning their mother for this Danish model, who's not even half his age of fifty. They are briefly evoked as "children who by their nature could not understand there might be more than one explanation to human behavior--children, however, with the appearance and aggression of men, and against whose undermining he could never manage to make a solid defense. They elected to make the absent father suffer, and so he did, investing them with that power." (97) It's a twist perhaps on Lear, too, a masculine alternative. Roth underplays this aspect, but one does get the sense that some of the loneliness and isolation is self-inflicted. This jars the chance that the character thinks he has to bed a twenty-something woman he flirts with on his seaside stroll; it does for me spoil the mood of the book when the man assumes that from early manhood into his fifties he could have any woman he wanted any time. You get the often romanticized wish fulfillment of many writers, not to mention we readers, projected here, which does appear sadly to be belied by the life experiences of many of us ordinary men! I guess that's why they call it fiction.

But libido declines, and the memories stubbornly persist. This is what we fear about our aging, after all. He wonders: "was the best of old age just that--the longing for the best of boyhood"? (126) The distance between him and his Newark past, the Jewish heritage of his youth and his own detachment and perhaps total rejection, bothered me. I wondered as I neared the close if this would return as a thread to be tied into the weaving of the narrative arc. In a scene that risks sentimentalizing, and perhaps hints at what's been derided as the appearance of "the Magic Negro," the character meets at his parents' gravesite a middle-aged gravedigger. Again, although unmentioned, Hamlet's ghosts flittered for me. Roth always likes to incorporate in his fiction engrossing detail of how a craft is carried out; I think of his extended take on glovemaking in one novel among his recent Zuckerman trilogy.

Here, the cemetery worker shows how we open up and then close over what the main figure thinks of as "the brutality of burial and the mouth full of dust." (166) This suffuses the later, desperate, pages of the novel with a needed softness. I welcomed the scene, identifying both with the fear of the elderly Jews mourning their loss and being targeted by muggers even in daylight, and the slow subsiding of the ground and the toppling of the headstones as the earth shifted and the visitors dwindled. It's a powerful evocation of both the inevitable forgetting of those who came before us and of the end of the Jewish presence in that little patch near the exit to Newark Airport.

It's a neighborhood Roth in his fiction often recalls, and his character here follows suit, even as the curtain prepares to fall. "But now it appeared that like any number of the elderly, he was in the process of becoming less and less and would have to see his aimless days through to the end as no more than he was--the aimless days and uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing. This is how it works out, he thought, this is what you could not know." (161) Roth attempts to enter the "undiscovered country." But even he, as you will read in the last sentences, cannot return and report beyond the poignant and appropriate ending. It's one that we all wish we could escape.

P.S. A necessary book to read, if in its honesty a painful one. As this was on the public library's new book shelf the day that my father-in-law died, and as I had been wanting to read it even as I feared a bit doing so, I took it as a sign. Still, I postponed my finishing it it yesterday as I did not want to close my eyes on its final page. I waited until the next day to conclude and write this review.

(Posted to Amazon today. Image: Hamlet contemplates Yorick; the paperback of "Everyman" has more color, and the watch marks the protagonist's father's trade. The hardcover was black with white stark text only.)

My Father-in-Law, Days of Awe, Philip Roth & Pipe Tobacco 5768

I am finishing Philip Roth's short novel "Everyman," but resist the final pages, although the protagonist has already died. He is still alive, but it's much later in his story and that of the tale itself. It's as the title shows the same story we all must act in, and we never quite will have our closing speech memorized in time.

The narrative began with his relatives and colleagues watching as each adds a handful of dirt into the open grave. They gather in a decaying Jewish cemetery near the New Jersey turnpike's hum. The neighborhood long ago became a ghetto, the Yiddish has faded except perhaps for a Hasidic enclave within the diamond trade, and the dead man's brother enjoys a palatial ranch in the hills above Santa Barbara. How far has he come from the shetl of his own parents. Roth and his main characters in his fiction-- well, I've read now seven of his books but by no means count myself among even his regular devotees-- often marry and re-marry and even more frequently couple and cavort among the gentiles. They wander far from their ancestral past, and in becoming American they assimilate and try to "pass." But, as Roth in his "Roth" novels battles with, and in his "Zuckerman" novels confronts, the difference matters and endures, crumbling yet persisting.

How does this relate to Al Drebin? My wife showed me an essay he wrote for a college course in 1940. Already, the writer laments the war that has killed so many, ponders his distance from his parents' faith, but insists that he remains a Jew and can never countenance a God who if existing remains so detached from an agonized and cruel humanity. He also argues against a fundamentalism that depends on outdated notions and literal applications of outdated texts, employing of all passages Samuel Butler's "The Way of All Flesh" and the clever argument that St Paul would have condemned tobacco if he had known about it! And, Al addresses familiarly his professor, who apparently has made his own Christian beliefs quite known at the U. of Washington.

Certainly, like a Roth protagonist, Al made his way from poverty and city life that labelled him as a minority and an outsider into the mainstream. The same year he wrote that essay, he left for Hollywood to join family who'd already been working in the film industry, and he never left it. He too married thrice, and managed to the first time around produce my wonderful wife and lifelong companion. I never met his second spouse, but his third, Aliki, became utterly if demonstrably devoted to his needs during his long heyday and his slow decline. Like the Everyman in Roth, Al faced the end with the same amount of resignation, courage, and frailty.

Thinking about the upcoming memorial we will have for Al the day after Yom Kippur, I know what I will (I hope briefly) recall. It's his pipe tobacco. A scent that reminded me of my own great-Uncle Leo. When I was introduced by his daughter to Al, it was at Budget. His office was full of this fragrance although he was not behind his desk, but out roaming among the stacks of reels, his mind alert and his memory recalling the exact frame needed among thousands of canisters and hundreds of thousands of hours, perhaps, of film moments. The smell of pipe tobacco stays with me, long after Al gave up smoking and long after that office was demolished.

This for me symbolizes the passage and duration, in Jewish terms, of a life. Rabbi Jedaya Penini in the 14c provided a striking analogy that I used to meditate upon each Yom Kippur in our softly illuminated little temple. I looked for it this Rosh Hashanah in the new machzor donated for our current use, but it's not in the new edition. So, let me resurrect it, like the smell of tobacco, to drift again for the last time there in that same shul where we will remember his life, where the thought from six centuries ago first moved me nearly to tears, fifteen years back when Al still puffed his pipe.

"And remember that the companionship of Time is but of short duration. It flies more quickly than the shades of evening. We are like a child that grasps in his hand a sunbeam. He opens his hand soon again, but, to his amazement, finds it empty and the brightness gone."

{Image: It's hard to find an illumination of "child + sunbeam" even Googling, so forgive the one that I did like with its playful if Christian application. Blame my medievalist training. I think Roth would accept and Al would bless my ecumenical spirit meant well. The realm of light surrounds us all. Early thirteenth-century illumination, Christ Child on Sunbeam, from Enfancie de Nostre Seigneur, Bodleian Library MS. Selden supra 38, fol. 24.}

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ruth Mazo Karras: "Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others": Review

Professor Karras’ subtitle conveys her thesis. Sex in the Middle Ages meant not what two people did with each other, but what one person did to the other. One person was active, the other passive. The action mattered more than the sex of the two people, at least in certain conventions. That is, what’s “normal” to us roughly equated with a medieval person’s what’s “natural.” People’s sex mattered less than what they did during sex. Acts were open to procreation and used the “natural vessel” properly or they did not—this led to a vague term still bedeviling us today of what we mean by our distortion of the sin of Sodom. The danger of uncontrolled sexual expression could lead to the undermining of marriage. This relationship mattered not for romance or self-fulfillment then. Marriage ensured that property could be transferred along clearly aligned lineages, and that legitimate heirs could be identified.

This in turn goes back to sexual intercourse as essential for continuity of families and power, whether among the poor or rich. Sexual activity meant the control of one person by another, and the monitoring of how the body could be taken under the supervision of authority. People thought about sexual actions therefore as who penetrated the other. Beyond our modern concepts of homo- or heterosexual, Karras appears to build upon the insistence of scholars such as Karma Lochrie (see her “Covert Operations” credited in the annotated bibliographical sources) that a medieval person would not recognize either homo or hetero as familiar classifications so much as how one person used another person’s body. Sex was not mutual activity so much as mastery.

Karras argues that this crucial distinction marks not only transitive verbs and direct objects, but the very idea of how sexual activity, perpetrated or contemplated, differed from our own times. Such differences fill these two hundred thoughtful, vigorous, and learned pages: Karras reminds us constantly how our conceptions of sex, gender, sexuality, and relationships have been deeply colored by the ubiquity of sexual material in our own era. While medieval people thought about sex perhaps no less than we do, they expressed it less in the contexts of the body and individual identity and self-expression which we moderns have constructed, and far more as related to the need for nourishment and the concern for the survival of the body after death. Karras’ conclusion emphasizes how food and religion subsumed sex within larger categories, ones that we have nonetheless inherited regarding sexual attitudes whenever we see a “bad girls” t-shirt worn, regardless of our own fidelity to the doctrines of a scriptural text or a fundamentalist doctrine.

The five chapters are organized logically. The first chapter gives an overview. She does not, in my opinion, go far enough to challenge scholars who have accepted Michel Foucault’s ungrounded assumptions of a neat Medieval “Other” (for this again see Lochrie), but Karras sufficiently reminds us that as we are faced largely with legal and literary descriptions, chronicled anecdotes, lyrical fancy, and canonical proscriptions from largely the elite superstratum rather than the testimony directly from the rural majority and the urban workers, we lack inevitably full understanding of what medieval people talked about when they talked about sex—and love, lust, fantasy, reverie, sin, and guilt. It’s often circumspect and tangential evidence, heavily filtered and probably distorted by the time it survives centuries of accidental or intentional, and often clerically or politically motivated, reasons of survival down to our time. Karras never forgets the danger of reading the texts out of context, as well as why the information would have been recorded and the purposes for which such sensitive data might have been gathered.

Chapter two, "Sexuality within Chastity," reminds us how much of what we know about the topic persists through a celibate clergy’s literacy, and Karras explains too the differences between Latin Christian and Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim societies who lacked the total ban on clerical sexual activity.

The third chapter investigates sex within marriage; Karras estimates, unexpectedly for me, that 15% of Western Europeans did not marry for a variety of reasons. This inevitably catch-all category does stress, in her interpretation, the separation of the religious and legal rationales for stable partnerships which would ensure the transmission of goods and land from one generation to the next with a surprisingly varied array of options within which men and women however bound by wedlock might manage—especially if predictably the married man with an unmarried or perhaps separated or widow woman—could expand the bounds of tolerated, if not exactly licit, sexual behaviors. This applied to men with men, arguably, as well as women with women. The whole problem same-sex relationships posits for modern readers is that we expect the explicit. Karras counters that we may differ fundamentally from what medieval people were able to understand as deep friendships, passionately declaimed in rhetorical tropes, but ultimately eluding our equation of desire with physical manifestation.

Women and men “outside marriage” then gain their own respective chapters. As Karras studies the evidence, the role of women appears decidedly subordinate to that enjoyed by men. Not groundbreaking material, you may aver. Karras, nevertheless, builds upon a wide variety of texts and situations: adultery and the vexed debate over “courtly love;” concubinage and quasi-marriage; unmarried women; violence and coercion; same-sex relationships. The difficulties posed by the dramatic changes five hundred years (let alone a thousand or a thousand and a half) from this period pose difficulty for anyone wishing to unearth the “reality” beneath dispositions and depictions. Karras reminds us that what we would classify as “quid pro quo sexual harassment” likely dominated many activities in this period, and the male—presumed the active force and forcer—likely dominated the relations whether explicitly or implicitly simply due to the power imbalance of the era.

I have already mentioned the resistance of applying “homosexual” labels to same-sex actions then. The chapter on men addresses the slippery state of the “sodomite” category, and the often mutable identities that proved, from the abundant if (of course) provocatively transgressive legal evidence reported from Florence and Venice. Men moved from passive to perhaps active roles in “sodomy” before most married late, in their later twenties or early thirties, compared to much younger ages of their brides—as well as younger overall ages for both betrothed in Northern Europe. Karras remains vigiliant in reminding us that we cannot make blanket statements about sexuality outside of local, and frequently very different, contexts, and she carefully notes again the distinctions between Catholic Europe and the Jewish, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and “heretic” communities that create such nuances. As far as the record shows, written of course by the literate who were often clerical or their allies, God mattered more than the needs of the body, all mortal things considered. This shows us too how far we have moved from the fixed systems and hierarchical nature of our medieval engenderers.

A couple of points somewhat eluded me. Avicenna and Albert the Great both discussed the “two-seed” theory of conception that assumed, building on Aristotle, that the man contributed “form” by his ejaculation in the vagina to the women’s “matter” that rested inert, waiting to mold the male injection. Galen and Hippocrates, I recall, also considered this theory, which battled a one-seed theory in the Middle Ages, but Karras appears to leave the foundation for this debate aside and the background remains unexcavated by her. I would have liked more coverage of the evolution of this crucial argument. The need for a woman to reach orgasm along with the man, so the “double seed” could take root in her, meant a somewhat different, and more participatory and equally shared, responsibility than many may assume for this period.

The intriguing and infamous relationship attributed to Edward II and Piers Gaveston seems downplayed by Karras. The charge of “sodomy” that led to the gruesome end of the English king after his scandalous affair supposedly carried out with his consort here gets downplayed. The evidence, Karras agrees, does not support a same-sex intimacy. Perhaps, but the perception that has persisted certainly exaggerated such an attachment, and the rumor, unsubstantiated though it may be, certainly accounted for the king’s symbolically appropriate skewering with the red-hot poker. Karras skirts this tale’s aftermath, undeserved although it may have been in her hindsight.

On a related matter, Karras agrees with those who would deny a “homosexual” gender role or a totally same-sex identification, arguing the anachronism of such classifications. However, I would have liked to see her incorporate the arguments made by Mark E. Jordan in his “The Invention of Sodomy” (also reviewed by me) more thoroughly, given that I suspect fruitful debate would emerge from Karras’ reluctance to grant a “communal” if largely underground status to the category of same-sex relationships. I find hints, compared with Jordan, that Karras may differ on such details with Jordan.

In the conclusion, Karras recalls the primacy of food and death within the questions which mattered most back then to our ancestors: how would I get enough to survive now, and how would the body I feed today fare once death and decay set in? Karras credits Caroline Walker Bynum’s “Holy Feast & Holy Fast” as essential in understanding the role that sex played, if subordinate to questions of endurance that we moderns would tend in turn to minimize compared to our sexual satisfaction. Such careful application of scholarship and how we contemporaries cannot fully enter into the medieval mindset speaks well for the cautionary commonsense with which Karras approaches this topic.

“Further Reading” comments briefly on her sources, primary and secondary. This satisfies the need for more arcane or less generalized research. She has read widely, and adds to her colleagues her own readings and ideas to expand the study of this difficult and elusive field of investigation that only in the past thirty years has truly been able to be delved into, thanks to pioneers from later centuries— albeit misinformed often on medieval perceptions and the alterity of earlier textual evidence-- such as Foucault.

Karras offers here the first “recent book-length study of medieval sexuality.” It's ideal for anyone approaching this field; if I could I would rate it 88/100. While not all's crystal clear, the compression of so much into about 160 pp. of narrative history, plus extensive notes and index all totalling but two hundred pages, makes for inevitable editorial excisions.

Few books, I have found in my own studies in the Middle Ages, remind me so well of how rigor and imagination need to be combined for any of us today who dare to re-read the scattered texts and enigmatic evidence in our effort to try to think more like our medieval ancestors within a vastly changed society. The author in her afterword counsels us not to be too smug. We cannot romanticize the brutal past, nor should we divorce it entirely from our own shared frailty and longing for union. Karras when read attentively will not let us forget, contrarily, that we still owe ourselves quite a bit to these forebears for our own legal, cultural, and religious understanding of how our bodies relate to one another, and the intimacy binding self with soul. We may think differently when saying “sex, gender, and sexuality,” but we share the frail humanity and mortally fragile longings with our ancestors many centuries ago.

(Posted to Amazon; image from the Bayeux Tapestry-- its meaning's debated still!)

Pierre Klossowski: “Diana at her Bath & The Women of Rome” & “The Baphomet”: Reviews

These two books follow “Roberte Ce Soir & The Evocation of the Edict of Nantes” as intellectual exercises, couched less as fiction and more as essays in “Diana,” and as a more straightforward (relatively speaking) imaginary excursion in “The Baphomet.” The preface, included in the latter novel, is an essay by Michel Foucault on the moment of Acteon’s attempt to restrain the huntress. Well-written and easier to understand than perhaps Klossowski in his many recondite moments, Foucault’s essay, however, seems oddly placed. It should have been introducing the other book—the one on Diana!

“The Baphomet” appears in a handsome volume, with four illustrations by the author. This tale does open more dramatically than most of his imaginary stories, with the Templars’ infamous rituals about to be exposed. This shifts into a visit from a sufflation, a breathed spirit, of St Teresa (spelled here in the French fashion) of Avila. The problem is that the characters in the action, such as it is, have been turned into emanations seeking vainly a re-entry into the flesh. Such is their fate, repeated endlessly, and they cannot hope for any exit from this existentialist cycle. So seems the case, according to the saint. As with Klossowski’s earlier fictions, this predicament inspires extended theological and diabolical debate. Eventually, centered around the androgynous figure who incarnates as the Baphomet, the arc segues back to the Templars’ earlier clash-- before another seismic jolt forward. Near the end, an enchanting meditation on Martha vs. Mary enters into a consideration for what we’d call “living in the moment”—yet this earns eloquent expression, a reminder of the difficulty we have in living in a time that does not seem our own. Klossowski by his narrative appears to instruct us to forget fitting in, and to embrace the suspended, brief, fleeting moments when we slip temporal bounds.

The book stops suddenly—as does the recounting of the Ovid encounters retold in “Diana.” A translator of Vergil, Klossowski’s ability to plumb the intricacies of Ovid and the Latin poetics reveal a careful scholar as well as an adventurous adept. I cannot say the book succeeds as its own totally engrossing or assuredly mimetic fiction, but in the spirit of Barthes, this compilation works well enough, if rather tediously for my less refined tastes. “Women of Rome” contrasts the erotic staging with the liberated sexuality of the classical tableaux dramatized. Critical notes grace both editions; “The Women” itself is more an excursus or series of appendices than its own full-fledged, extended text.

Klossowski’s method often appears to me scattershot, with rare moments of insight couched in overly mannered prose stylized in the fashion of French philosophical speculation, scholastic terminology borrowed from Catholic medieval erudition, and sporadic episodes of brief erotic grappling. I cannot imagine that there are many readers sufficiently educated in the nuances of all three discourses. But Klossowski, ex-Dominican seminarian, student of Bataille, mentored by Gide, and explicator of Sade and Nietzsche, is the one writer who’d search for and reward perhaps this rarified audience.

(Posted to Amazon; Image: a late sketch by PK)

J. F. Powers’ “Wheat that Springeth Green”: Review

This final entry--1988 marks its long-delayed arrival--in a lengthy career (starting in the mid-1940s) of scant fiction marks the end of the postwar, triumphalist, yet marginalized, Midwestern Catholic parish—and notably here, rectory—intrigues that Powers excelled at conveying. His scale, being so focused, gains accuracy and depth by its concentration upon detail. Like a model railroad set, the 1:150 (or whatever!) ratio means painstaking attention to fidelity. Such realism to the untutored eye appears grotesque or caricatured, but to an aware observer reveals a nearly exact fit of form with content.

{Note: the other six reviewers all gave it a perfect five on Amazon...] I give it four rather than five stars as I have re-read (and reviewed here [and on this blog], "Morte" and the thirty stories in their original three volumes as well as the collected reissue) all of Powers recently, and I believe that his many strengths as a writer are at times clouded slightly by his tendency towards oversubtlety. A forgivable fault in an era of so many authors straining for the obvious or what critics call "overdetermining" their subject, but Powers tends in all his work towards lengthy passages where not much goes on at all, but in which an editor could have polished the presentation and refined the craft even further. Powers appears to have been his own worse enemy and his own most scrupulous critic, on the other hand. Be it as it may, Powers makes nearly all of his peers look hasty, scattered, and undisciplined by comparison.

Action over the course of a priest’s youth, coming of age, and gradual rise from curate to administrative assistant (when that word did not connote a secretary or receptionist) and then pastor comprises the narrative. Less verve here than the worldlier, more urbane Fr Urban had, but perhaps in his principled if compromised (the whole crux of the tension) fidelity to the needs of separating “Church from Dreck” Powers reveals that the need for reform Fr Urban realized while Vatican II was still in session (so to speak) by the end of the decade became all the more apparent as the slow slide downhill accelerated. Set by its conclusion around 1968, if offhandedly, the Catholic Worker roots of Powers and his conservative radicalism stand his fictional main character in good stead as priests wander off, parishioners ignore crusty priests’ reprimands, malls open on Sundays, the hillbilly’s war machine thunders on in the small town press, and guitars with cant supplant chant.

This novel, like his earlier (sharing with it a clumsy if rarified referential title) “Morte d’Urban,” (1962), suffers from arid stretches, where the humor is so deadpan, the pace so true that the inert nature of our own shared experience with the clerical protagonists appears too neatly aligned. Dullness enters. A VD quarantine warning takes up one and a half pages verbatim. A few sample sermons from Father Felix (who helps out saying weekend Masses) summarize the stultifying, yet sincere, homiletics of a certain, less soundbitten, age. So with Powers, who in this novel had been criticized as a man out of time, with figures he identified with whose era had passed them by. Joe is only in his mid-forties. He seems much older. This may be a sign of now-diminished respect, when the maturity demanded of authority figures gave an earned dignity and a bit of unearned noblesse oblige to the clergy in smaller towns where the collar still mattered. Joe Hackett manages to get through the routine, and out of the limelight that had once courted his counterpart Fr. Urban, this parish priest does his best balancing God with Mammon, as the demands of a new accounting system make fundraising all the more essential, even as this pulls at the Gospel admonition that it’s better to give alms in secret. How to square this with the need to make accountable freeloading parishioners when the Archbishop’s needs come payable on demand? Out of such quandaries, Powers raises his own quiet art.

The need in fiction for a jolt, a spark, a spin off from the quotidian to the profound nestles, certainly, in Powers. This, however, moves along leisurely, and often nothing seems to happen for chapters at a time. Then, you understand that this accurately limns the trajectory of a recognizably human life like our own. You can see Powers’ study of Joyce in his preparation of the slow ascent to epiphanies, such as Fr. Joe Hackett’s finessed blessing of a scruffy draft resister who steps to tie his shoelaces while the padre finagles praying over his head and out of eyesight or earshot as the young man prepares to flee to Canada, on the pastor’s unspoken advice but according to his moral example.

Re-reading this nearly two decades after it appeared, I admire Powers’ critique of not only the institutional Church and its compromises with the world, but of his own admission that holy Joes only go so far in their own zeal in battling for their losing side. They must do so, vowed to do so and called by their Maker, but Powers recognizes in his own mellowing how annoying piety and phariseeism can be for the rest of us. Not for nothing is an early battle Joe engages in at the seminary, much to the disgust of some classmates and the suspicion of his rector, over the necessity of wearing a hairshirt.

Constructed in part from stories written over the past (two of which appeared in the last of his three thin story collections, 1975’s “Look How the Fish Live,” the novel does let its seams show. I wonder if parts of this novel were left too long on the shelf, or in hibernation. Yet, this is how Powers wrote. Very slowly, spending days pondering if a character would use the term “pal” or “chum” in referring to a confrere. Such was his state of mind, and more power to him. Probably a patron saint of scrupulous writers, if he is canonized as he deserves! His friend and colleague Jon Hassler eulogized him as “a saint with a bad temper.” Hassler notes how Powers could strain so long over a detail that a reader, even an informed one such as himself, might miss the very nuanced finesse.

The extended battle of the story that was “Bill” for Joe to learn his new curate’s name appears tedious and unbelievable, a shaggy-dog tale after a few pages of the many devoted to this embarrassing and rather cryptic episode. The story earlier published as “Priestly Fellowship” enters the novel mostly unchanged, but again the dive into the post-Vatican II uproar appears muted, if perhaps less dated for its lack of topicality to specific changes so much as the persistent lack of clerical fidelity. Yet, as the novel lengthens, the episodes do build upon possibilities tucked into these two stories, and while they unfold in off-handed and perhaps overly-controlled fashion, they are truer to the texture of everyday life for being so controlled. Holiness comes, if at all, minutely slow. The lack of histrionics or forced symbolism remains despite the uneven pacing in his longer works Powers’ greatest talent. Powers knew when and how indirect first-person voice carried his stories; his shift in and out of his protagonist’s minds is at its best in the imagined reverie Joe lets himself into as he pitches in the yard with Bill to let off steam. As with Urban’s similarly prosy—both exaggerated and ordinary-- temptation at Belleisle in “Morte,” the priestly heroes let their deepest selves emerge when they pretend they are just like the rest of us. Powers, and we, know better.

A final word, quoted from one of his students in Commonweal on his death in 1999. In the novel, out of his collar on a much-needed vacation, Joe passes himself off at the hotel bar as working for a “big concern,” in “life insurance.” The firm? “Eternal.” Sort of a multinational, he admits, although he works out of a local “branch office.” Powers explained when asked in class why he wrote so much about the clergy, and if he was anticlerical. "I'm not anticlerical. I simply look for a story that elucidates truth. If a human being buys an insurance policy, that's not much of a story. But when a priest buys an insurance policy, there's something going on that needs to be said and I want to say it." It took him nearly fifty years to write it.

(Also posted to Amazon; images of original 1988 cover playing off in turn original 1962 cover, and NY Review Press reissue. The fridge in Joe's rectory's often filled with beer, or should be, considering that the lack of such puts him in a pickle.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Clinton Heylin's "Babylon's Burning": Review

Posted to Amazon today. Subtitled "From Punk to Grunge," it does not leave the 70s until past 500 of its 640 pp. of narrative history. The "college rock" indie-label roots of what used to be called the US alternative scene and the subsequent realization at the end of the 1980s that you could admit to liking Sabbath & Zep as well as punk receive thoughtful but scant coverage compared to the immense and usually engrossing detail given the latter half of the 1970s, mostly in Britain rather than the few American centers of innovation in NYC, Ohio, and sporadically California. The emphasis on England, both London & Manchester, I found appropriate, as again and again the British combination of "the theatre of aggression" and what led quickly out of the dead end of gobbing and cartoon thuggery into post-punk and experimentation seems to have largely improved on American inspirations, whether the Stooges, Ramones, or the overlooked Pere Ubu.

The spark came from across the Atlantic, even as far as Radio Birdman and the Saints (the former group gains its own chapter early on) in Australia. Yet, it took a minority, often off major labels, to defy the conformity of the non-conformists as the punk subculture became commodified and immersed in its own contradictions of purity vs. mass exposure, anti-everything vs. a lack of progress, limited musicianship vs. a desire to complicate musical possibility. Even by early 1978, before the Sex Pistols released their LP, many on the original scene, as is the wont of such pioneers, lamented that the punk ideals had already become tarnished by the marketplace and the mall.

The quick rise and steady fall of punk's moment took, however, decades to plot accurately. Its trajectory proved exciting, as Heylin meticulously documents by his own interviews woven into a choppy but rewarding text full of quotes, press kit snippets, liner note excerpts and musings from the 1970s music weeklies. While in an aside Heylin sniffs at "purple prose" chroniclers and instigators such as Jon Savage, his authoritative "England's Dreaming" combines sociology with a fan who was there. Savage should be read first, but in the decade since, Heylin has built upon this fundamental study of the origins of British punk with a broader perspective.

I also recommend a scribe he unfairly dismisses, Simon Reynolds, in his recent "Rip It Up & Start Again: Post Punk". Heylin bridges these two solid histories, although he places much more weight on the pre-1980 side of his textual span. "Babylon's Burning" benefits from this unevenly distributed, but chronologically longer take, that begins with such groups as Suicide in the waning hippie-junkie days of the early '70s, and he excels in his careful attention to the Cleveland and NYC artsier movements that intersected with the Ramones and CBGBs' axis. As a veteran of the LA punk scene, I found his take on the violence that overwhelmed this nascent and more eclectic local movement accurate; Heylin's correct in that we had images from the weeklies of the British punk scene long before we could hear the bands, even on long delayed and rarely imported vinyl, so we formed our own mental impressions of what they sounded like from afar! Unless you have heard most (I have heard about 100) of his massive array of around 110 groups in his discography, however, this energy may seem inert on the page.

Any music historian suffers this challenge. A four-CD set dated 1973-78 on Sanctuary Records in Feb. 2007, the notes promise, "compiled and annotated by the author" with "rare and unreleased tracks" to correct some of this sonic reduction. Heylin writes with serious analyses, and has many books (a short shelf on Dylan alone) on rock including an earlier NYC 1970s-era volume. He never forgets the fun, poignancy, and contradictions of his subject matter. His prose combines witty wryness and snarky phrasing on every page. Readable, thoughtful, and dense without being dull, this I found an ideal companion despite its hefty size for many long hours that reminded me of how many of these bands and songs still resounded in my own mind as well as occupied considerable space on my shelves in vinyl or disc form.

Bands who recognized the danger of being anti-everything, and the fate of those who tried to tear down without offering any other structure with which to construct a better, more genuine, type of musical expression closer to the experience of fans who despised pomp decadence and prog excess emerge as the most prophetic. The bands who veered early from the mosh pit ahead came out better artistically if not on the charts. The front runners Pistols, Clash & Damned found themselves quickly spent, even by 1978! But, Buzzcocks, Penetration, Subway Sect, Magazine, Mekons, Throbbing Gristle, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Fall, Pere Ubu, the Adverts, the Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, and Joy Division all managed, if for a couple of albums at best, to capture a purer and more intelligent, less forced, British or Northern Irish maturity that accepted a wider heritage of the best of the past that music offered.

Similarly, I welcomed the attention Heylin gives-- although I wish it was not so truncated-- to such wonderful later LPs as the first full-lengths by Dream Syndicate, Gun Club, X, or the best from the Minutemen, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, or Black Flag from the American indie-label movement. A mention's better than no mention, although dozens of bands might lengthen this list that Heylin leaves out. These later chapters, alas, feel winded and weary compared with the brisker pace of the punk era. But, once again, this book is long as it is.

There remain, unfortunately, problems with such an ambitious attempt. The title may be misleading; the art director put Johnny Lydon-Rotten on the cover along with Kurt Cobain to hint to readers or buyers that this volume's not about reggae. The song that inspired the title receives little explication, a minor hit if a deserving success from The Ruts, whose Malcolm Owen gains a considerable amount of attention as a predecessor to Ian Curtis's own path to destruction. The photos, for such a cultural history, are skimpy and reveal little fresh about their posers. The discography is well-chosen, but lacks the annotation that makes Savage's hundred page appendix an invaluable reference source.

Now, the flipside. What's confusing is that Heylin brackets and adjusts by his own insertions and deletions from original sources so often-- nearly every one of hundreds of quotes gains editorial attention that alters the transcription. So, why do other errors persist? He appears to have written down by ear some of what persists here as misspellings. The whole process of using these laboriously "corrected" quotes does not make for a smooth page, and makes the product choppier when compared with his more consistent prose.

This will not be a comprehensive study. I wonder, in fact, why he did not end with the death of Ian Curtis. My hunch is that he had leftover material from the 80s he tacked on, and the book would have been tighter in execution if he had never entered the 1980s. Simon Reynolds for Britain and "Our Band Could Be Your Life," by Michael Azzerad, despite the flaws of both books (I review them on Amazon) will fill in many gaps.

Here's some corrections. LA is not a "trek" of eleven hours from SF at least by car and probably not even by bus circa 1978. The Elks Lodge in LA gets a plural totemic adjective. I doubt if the Gang of Four played what one musician is quoted as hearing as "marshall music." The Radiators from Space, in a poorly composed sentence, appear to be "Derry's leading rock band" rather than Dublin's. Roxy Music's sax player is not Andy "McKay." Neither was Salvation Army's leader Michael "Corseo." Lee Ranaldo did not go to college at SUNY "Binghampton;" nor did Black Flag or the Circle Jerks come from "Huntingdon" Beach (three times misspelled).

Still, anywhere that you can enjoy Mark E Smith's definition of a genre he soon outgrew as the "mistreating of instruments to get feelings over" (317) and where you can ponder profound epitaphs on the lifespan of punk by such as Richard Hell, Genesis P-Orridge, Howard Devoto, Pete Shelley, Brian James, Jason Ringenberg, Joe Carducci, Mark Arm, John O'Neill, Vic Goddard, Dick Witts, Una Baines, Caroline Coon, Vivienne Westwood, and Lora Logic shows the range of interviewing and citation that supports a flawed, but compulsively readable study. The first two chapters (on NYC and then Australia early 70s) I found plodding, but once Malcolm McLaren and John Lydon entered, not to mention Bernie Rhodes, the energy kicks in and, until many pages later with the demise of Ian Curtis and then the slow decay of Kurt Cobain, never lets up. So, stick with a slow start and hold on tight. It's a bumpy ride, but fans will enjoy the jolts and humps.

Image: British cover shown has Kurt in a different pose, not looking down as US artwork on Johnny but with his hair over his face.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pierre Klossowski's "Roberte Ce Soir & Revocation of the Edict of Nantes": Review

Posted today to Amazon US. "Pornography with intellectual pretensions," sniffed one pithy reviewer, and I agree! But, far more of the latter than the former, alas. Klossowski's extremely intelligent and there's real potency (in the Scholastic terminology as well as erotic scenarios and philosophical thinking) but the exertion invested fails to dynamically charge this "damp squib."

This reads, perhaps as with Beckett doubled in translation from French to English, like a parody of a French intellectual's one-handed amusement. Here, scholastic philosophy thickens into stultifying langour what fleetingly reminds me of tamer moments of Pauline Reage's "The Story of O" with more than a hint of the artistic studies of awkward erotic acrobatics that both Klossowski and his brother, "Balthus," delighted in.

Since the tales do involve sex, I admit that parts intrigue me. Yet the naughty bits are few and far between. Little remains in the mind after reading many pages at a time. The pace slows, the plot staggers. There is a story buried in the second novella about the fall of Rome in 1944 that hints at a mixture of Kafka and "Open City," Sartre and "The Night Porter" through an atmosphere charged with tension, but even this energy lessens under thousands of words of unrelieved speculation and intellectual discussion. This is not fiction so much as sketches. Suitably, if not altogether satisfactorily, Octave and Roberte keep journals-- hers notably closer to "O" and his nearer Sade crossed with Bataille (his mentor). Klossowski appears to tell us an elaborate setup, only to dupe us whenever we think we're getting nearer a punchline or a money shot. This delayed and postponed climax provides the form of the novellas and their content, but the sexual struggles under the philosophical. So, aesthetically this fiction can be explained, but it's not Anais Nin or even Violette Leduc. It's far more erudite, less erotic.

Less engaging in realization than conception proves the endless neo-Thomist softcore in the first tale, expressing Octave's wish for his wife Roberte to open herself to any guest's lubricious "male gaze" and fawning caresses. This is an intriguing idea, a spin on what this fiction combined with others was issued as "The Laws of Hospitality" and which is partially translated here. But, this will titillate few readers with its vocabulary of "sedcontra" and "quidest," amidst much learned banter of austerity, essence, accident, substance, and actuality.

As an ex-Dominican seminarian turned scholar of Sade & Nietzsche, the formidably learned author may be writing more for his own delight in such rarified discourse than his reader. We truly are "incurable heirs of Augustinian Manicheism" (99) in our difficulty in rendering to the body what the flesh craves while serving the power of the spirit, and I understand Klossowski's mission as expressed by seductive Roberte "the Censor" and her erstwhile keeper Octave as stand-ins for Klossowski and his real-life wife! But, these paired novellas from 1953 & 1959 remain often too inert, too rarified. Like Sade, they jolt between high-end rationalization and low-end (if more willing here from Roberte's p-o-v) expropriation. But, unlike say Beckett at his best or Sartre in his fiction, the narrative often stalls and fails to ignite. What could have been exciting in its exploration of where the carnal swirls into the divine appears too haphazardly constructed and tediously conveyed.

This book may pay re-reading. But my interest failed rapidly after pages of theological language obscured the potency of the body and the potential of the soul to break through the confines of the erotic. Klossowski's on to brilliant material, but at least in English, the prose is too clotted and the arguments too enamored of their own cleverness. He forgets the reader needs to be enticed by images rather than bludgeoned by ideas. The potential or actual (!) subset of those able to enjoy scholasticism and endlessly delayed, teasingly meticulous voyeurism I estimate as rather limited.

(Image: PK's "Roberte agressee par les esprits qu'elle a censures," 1976.)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Sexual Attitudes: Myths & Realities: Review

The Bulloughs have written a long shelf of studies on sexuality, and this 1995 collection of essays surveys efficiently and concisely various aspects of their field. Chapters ask "Why the Hostility to Sex?" and place blame with the Platonic and Christian strictures favoring the soul over the body, and spirit over the flesh. This survey makes powerfully and poignantly the case that Western attitudes have been tainted and crippled regarding the body. Alternative Views offers Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Chinese attitudes that all remind Europeans how comparatively narrow and guilt-ridden are what we often perceive as "natural" and "ordinary" perceptions towards sexuality. Each chapter sets out its findings with calm clarity and rational analysis, backed up by primary sources and a scholarly detachment combined with a humanistic acceptance of our diversity in our sexual desires and their satisfaction. Some material has been repeated in other publications by these prolific authors; this is a minor caveat, but I do want to warn that if you have read other material by these authors, that the entries here may lack freshness. However, the Bulloughs, leading scholars in this field, write calmly, learnedly, and persuasively.

With the third chapter, the classification popularized by early Christian thinkers such as Augustine takes the '"Unnatural" Sex' restrictions against nature that limited effectively any expression of sexual activity into that of the "missionary position" for purposes of procreation, and this even limited severely and largely reluctantly by many theologians. This makes for instructive if depressing reading, considering the long shadow cast over fifteen centuries since of repressed erotic and libidinal activity by most of the Western world. The sources are dealt with concisely and clearly that led to this reaction and fear of sexual expression.

Masturbation, Sex & Gender, Contraception, Abortion gain each a chapter. Infertility, Impotence, and Artificial Insemination earns its own treatment. Pornography is differentiated from obscenity; "Homosexuality, Sex Labeling, and Stigmatized Behavior" follows. Finally, "Sex in a Changing World" compares past restrictions on sexual investigation with our own era's limited but undeniable freedom of inquiry and study. For summary, the end of the chapter on "'Unnatural' Sex" sums up the focus of this clear, succinct, and level-headed volume well. "It might be well that no human sexual activity is really unnatural. Certainly some might regard certain sexual activities as undesirable, others as potentially harmful, and still others that many would classify as immoral, but to base our assumptions on ancient Greek philosophy or Jewish mythology is to build a castle on shifting sands." (60)

(Review posted to Amazon US today.)

"Love, Sex & Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook" ed. Conor McCarthy: Review

This compiles mostly British sources in translation, as well as a few Islamic texts along with mainly Western European literary, medical, historical, and legal sources. Attention to all three topics manages to dispel the notion that this book would lack for content. As McCarthy notes in his helpful introduction, the subject gains both more sustained if less explicit treatment than today's readers may imagine.

Besides the expected troubadours, Chaucer, Rabelais, Margery Kempe, Abelard & Heloise, and Marie de France, for example, there are lesser-known works such as extracts from conduct books such as "Holy Virginity," saint's lives, Anglo-Saxon and Norman statutes, Bede, Old English riddles, Gratian, Jerome, lots of Augustine, and medical advice from Avicenna and psuedo-Albertus Magnus. The controversial practice called "clandestine marriage" gains considerable coverage. Notably, fascinating testimony from a transvestite prostitute, the ambiguous John/ Eleanor Rykener from London, 1394, attests to a "Boys Don't Cry" Brandon Teena type of case. The dozens of entries are footnoted judiciously; all writings included are preceded by brief notes cross-referenced with an excellent bibliography.

Posted to Amazon US. Cover: David & Bathsheba, Morgan Picture Bible, 1250. I recall my first tidbit about medieval iconography learned when I was 18 and had checked out an illustrated Chaucer from my public library. Adulterers were shown with one at least of the partner's feet exposed at the tail end of the coverlet, but here Bathsheba's well tucked in alongside our dancing, psalming, militant, lusty harpist-King. This Pierpont Morgan Library URL allows you a zoom on the thumbnail manuscript reproduction.