1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.
Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.
Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.
The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.
It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.
It's Sunday morning, exactly one week since Lou Reed died. I've been touched by many tributes since then, and as I publish the final part in my three-part reminiscence of my 32 years of Lou Reed concerts, it occurs to me that my first two installments have been soundly negative about Lou Reed's musical career from 1979 to 1989 (roughly, his Chuck Hammer period and his Robert Quine period). I suppose I'm wallowing in the disappointment of his mediocre 1980s as a literary device, to set up the happy surprise of his return to form in that decade's last year. His work improved suddenly, almost magically, in 1989, and stayed good (even occasionally great) from that point on.
Lou Reed's career began with a 12-year run of amazing, anarchic, uneven, impossibly brilliant and beautiful work -- from the first Velvet Underground album in 1967 to Take No Prisoners in 1978. This 12-year run forms the core of Lou Reed's classic body of work. In 1979 he radically changed his style, suddenly establishing a mood of sobriety and rigid control in concert and in the recording studio. He seemed intent on subverting the anarchy and spontaneity of his earlier works. Some people love his tightly controlled, emotionally searing 1980s albums, from The Blue Mask to Mistrial. I find them suffocating and depressing, but that doesn't mean I begrudge Lou Reed the right to have created the work he wanted to create at this time.
In fact, he was probably saving his own life, because his ten-year period of artistic sobriety corresponded to a more personal form of sobriety. Several of his songs from the 1980s tell a stark tale of recovery from alcoholism ("Underneath the Bottle", "The Power of Positive Drinking", "Bottoming Out"). Though I critique the music Lou Reed produced during the 1980s, I would never critique his personal sobriety, and I'm simply thankful that Lou Reed did what was necessary to get his act together during these years. His successful and apparently permanent recovery from various substance addictions must be inspiring to many others who suffer through the same bleak trials.
I guess it was good news that Lou Reed had cleaned up his lifestyle and gotten sober sometime in early 1979, just before I went to my first Lou Reed concert. But something about his demeanor onstage had also radically changed. Through the 1970s, he'd been legendary for wildly unpredictable concerts, manic and petulant behavior, deviant transformations. Now, he was subdued and professional. From the late 1970s on, Lou's mask was off. The psycho show was over.
Lou would eventually release a song called "Average Guy", which perfectly describes Lou's onstage persona after 1979. Through the course of the long career that followed, he would remain bland and remote in front of audiences. Not only was the psycho show over -- it was over for good.
My musical interests had expanded beyond Lou Reed by the summer of 1979. This was my last summer before going upstate to college, and whenever I could scrape enough pocket change together I would catch the Long Island Railroad in to New York City to browse at St. Marks Bookshop or Gotham Book Mart during the day, eat a dollar knish at Washington Square for dinner, then see a band like the Mumps or the Fleshtones or Dead Boys or Richard Hell and the Voidoids at CBGBs or Max's Kansas City or Irving Plaza. This was my idea of a perfect day.
In the past 34 years I've seen Lou Reed in concert nine times. The last show was in 2011. The first was on July 10, 1979 at a nightclub called My Father's Place in Roslyn, Long Island. I was 17 years old.
Why did I spend 34 years of my life going to Lou Reed concerts? I suppose I was searching for Lou -- not as a father figure (who would want Lou Reed as a father?) nor as a guru (he really didn't seem to have his shit together at times). I was searching for him as a magus, a creator of Dionysian musical experiences, a demonic master of ceremonies. His concerts were legendarily wild and unpredictable, and his reputation for onstage insanity was at a peak by the late 1970s.
Supposedly a crazed drug addict in real life, Lou was known to act out intense psychodramas on stage. Sometimes he wore kabuki makeup. Sometimes his hair was bright blond and he pretended to shoot up on stage. Sometimes he harangued his audience with hilarious monologues (one of these nights was immortalized in the great 1978 live album Take No Prisoners). Sometimes he didn't say a word and just played.
I love a writer with the gumption to fix the world. The list of great shouting visionaries and Jeremiahs of classic literature includes Henry David Thoreau, whose prescription was nature and simplicity, and T. S. Eliot, who offered humanity the balm of strict religious and academic tradition. it takes a special kind of sensibility to tell the world what it's doing wrong.
Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were all social philosophers, but they never made the slightest attempt to recommend a solution to society's problems, though their fellow modernist W. B. Yeats tried. Anton Chekhov did not preach, Leo Tolstoy did. Albert Camus did not, Jean-Paul Sartre did. When the Beat Generation hit, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs all seemed aware of the same fault lines in modern civilization, but it was only Allen Ginsberg who tried to recommend a path to progress through pacifism, sexual liberation and activism, as Jack Kerouac resigned himself to lyrical drunken pessimism and William S. Burroughs built bunkers, both psychic and residential, from which to observe the disasters to come.
Jonathan Franzen is a modern novelist who has the same rare and classic passion to save the world as Thoreau, Tolstoy, Eliot, Yeats, Sartre and Ginsberg, and this one reason I like him so much. Many readers, however, do not like this kind of behavior from a novelist. The enormously successful and popular Franzen (one of the few candidates, in my opinion, for best living American writer today) is now testing his audience's patience for preaching with an unusual new volume, The Kraus Project, an annotated collection of essays by an Austrian Jewish satirist and cultural critic named Karl Kraus who was, Franzen tells us, extremely influential during the twilight years of Vienna before, during and after the First World War, a hundred years ago.
Who wants words, on an August weekend before the final week of the summer? I don't. Let's look at some pictures instead.
Renee Jorgensen Bolinger, a philosophy graduate student at the University of Southern California, has found a fresh way to think about her favorite thinkers: she paints their portraits, mimicking styles of thematically corresponding classic painters. That's Wittgenstein/Mondrian at top left, W. V. O. Quine/Dali top right, Kierkegaard/Lichtenstein bottom left, Philippa Foot/Toulouse-Lautrec bottom right. (I've never heard of Philippa Foot before, but apparently she's a neo-Aristotlean ethicist).
This is Willets Point, a sprawling center for automobile salvage located just west of Flushing Meadows Park in New York City, a place of amazing squalid beauty. CitiField, where the Mets play baseball, is visible just beyond the scrap yards. Willets Point, one of the last remaining vestiges of the Great Gatsby's Valley of Ashes, that glorious Danteesque wasteland, is about to disappear forever. It will be replaced by a gleaming mixed-use development project encompassing "retail and entertainment amenities, a hotel and convention center, mixed-income housing, public open space, and community uses".
Willets Point was not the whole of the gigantic Valley of Ashes, which is now covered by the main area of Flushing Meadows Park (still and always my favorite park in New York City). CitiField, the US Open Tennis Center and the bygone Shea Stadium and Worlds Fair grounds were built directly on top of the original burning trashworks. And, once Willets Point is replaced by shiny new buildings, we will still keep some remainders of the desolate vision that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald, because the asphalt and gravel factories on the east bank of Flushing Creek will continue to operate under the shadow of the Van Wyck Expressway overpass. Maybe the Valley of Ashes will never completely disappear.
The art directors for the Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby film that premiered earlier this year must have scouted out the Queens location carefully, because they did a great job of capturing the ambience, as seen in film stills like this one. The similarity to my photo at the top of the page seems quite remarkable:
The philosophy blogosphere (to the extent that such a thing exists) blew up this week after Noam Chomsky opened a can of whoop-butt on Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. The American philosopher characterized the three European celebrities as posturing phonies who inspire cultish devotion even though their theories cannot be boiled down to meaningful principles. Zizek, the only living representative of Chomsky's three targets, responded by chiding Chomsky for supporting Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s -- a confusingly musty response, since even a brilliant philosopher ought to be allowed to make one mistake every forty years or so.
Still, a little feud between superstar left-wing philosophers is always fun, and I was able to observe with amused interest because I tend to look kindly on both Chomsky and Zizek (as well as on Derrida and Lacan). Chomsky is on strong ground when he slams these Europeans for being incomprehensible, since he himself has been consistent and intelligible (if sometimes insufficiently charismatic) during his entire long career. But I'm sure that Zizek does not merely engage in "empty posturing". I have myself been able to gain value from reading Zizek's essays and books, even though he tends to meander exhaustingly and dazzle disconnectedly.
I've never been sure how to reconcile the fact that I'm a pacifist with the fact that I'm a major American Civil War geek.
Though I'm a major geek, I'm not a Major -- that is, I don't participate in any Union or Confederate reenactment brigade. But I've been to many reenactments since the 150th anniversary of the USA Civil War began on April 12, 2011: First Manassas, Second Manassas, Ox Hill, Chancellorsville. I would join a brigade if I could get over the embarrassment of explaining it to my friends. And if I could square it with being a pacifist. So far, I'm not able to do either.
I can trace my fascination with the American Civil War to a novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and more directly to the movie made from the book, Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell. Michael Shaara, born in 1928 in New Jersey, was a modestly successful writer whose career biography seems similar to that of Kurt Vonnegut: he crossed genres from science-fiction to sports fiction to historical fiction, and reached his peak in the 1970s with The Killer Angels, which surprised the author and his family by winning a Pulitzer Prize, but did not become a bestseller until Ted Turner agreed to produce the movie Gettysburg in 1993. The movie was a success, and made the book a backlist hit for the first time. The author did not live long enough to see this happen, though his children Jeff Shaara and Lila Shaara have followed in their father's proud literary footsteps.
The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard never married, but he anguished for years over the existential personal puzzle of love and marriage. He transformed the question into a revolutionary book, Either-Or, published anonymously as Enten-Eller in 1943. This debut work immediately captivated readers, and would turn out to be not only his breakthrough work as a philosopher but also the most successful book he would ever write. Originally published in two volumes, it pretended to be a miscellaneous set of documents found in a desk, loosely edited by a nonexistent person named Victor Eremita.
The documents present a literal "either/or" representing two attitudes: a young Copenhagen fop who writes essays and speeches expressing his dread of the idea of marriage, and the young man's uncle urging his nephew to take the leap. The book also includes texts collected by these men: a "diary of a seducer", a sermon by a country priest. Later commentators have characterized the first figure in Either-Or as a representative the lifestyle of the "Aesthetic Man", and the second figure as the representative "Ethical Man". In this set of documents, neither side wins the argument clearly, suggesting that neither the aesthetic nor the ethical attitude towards life can ever exclude the other. There may be a third implicit voice presented in Either-Or, the voice of the philosopher who apprehends both sides of the question and realizes the impossibility of ever solving the puzzle. This voice has been characterized as that of the "Existential Man", and can be presumed to represent Soren Kierkegaard's own attitude as he fabricated the eternal opposition represented by this book.