December 23, 2008


Here are a few worlds that I have been tracing together recently:

1. Late Sunday evening, I fired up the bar-b-que pit in the backyard and cooked a chicken slowly, spontaneously inviting Andrew and neighbor Paul and his new tenant, Polly. We sat round the fire as the night grew warm before the jet stream brought an arctic storm into Southern California, tequila shots and beer in moderate quantities. The conversation turned to poetry as Paul and Polly both ply the art, and I was delighted as the ever literate Andrew spurred the conversation with extended quotes from William Carlos Williams and Paul wily commented on Jean Genet. We picked flesh off the bird on the grill, warmed against the night's chill.

They talked about what makes poetry good or bad, and I caught another glimpse of the idea (and now I will try to convey my impression of it, I will fail of course) of thwarted signification and the role of the arbitrary in helping to sharpen the apprehension of subject (OK, I failed, let's try again...), the need to break the egg and the violence implied therein (close, but no cigar), of the role of misbehavior in the history of art (nope, still didn't get there). The term MacGuffin flashed in my head as they talked, Hitchcock's name for a plot device that sacrifices it's identity to serve the movement of the story, a receptacle for the imagination that must always remain a placeholder. I thought of surrealist strategy, "As beautiful as the fortuitous meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table". Later, I found out more about the source of this quotation, Comte de Lautr?amont, who wrote about evil as a means of making vivid, the good. Two snips from Wikipedia:

I have written of evil as Mickiewickz, Byron, Milton, Southey, A. de Musset, Baudelaire and others have all done. Naturally I drew register a little exaggerated, in order to create something new in the sense of a sublime literature that sings of despair only in order to oppress the reader, and make him desire the good as the remedy. Thus it is always, after all, the good which is the subject, only the method is more philosophical and less naive than that of the old school. (...) Is that the evil? No, certainly not.
?letter from October 23, 1869.
The critic Alex De Jonge writes, "Lautreamont forces his readers to stop taking their world for granted. He shatters the complacent acceptance of the reality proposed by their cultural traditions and make them see that reality for what it is: an unreal nightmare all the more hair-raising because the sleeper believes he is awake."

Right about that time arose the story of the custom and code of behavior in some truckstop bathroom glory holes, where certain participants place a baguette in the urinal as a signal that the rest stop was a sexual playground. Moreover, certain practitioners sometimes pinch off a corner of the bread and place it in their mouth as acidic ironic commentary on their relation to the Catholic church. I resolved to delve further into Genet. The next day, Andrew lent me his copy of Sartre's Saint Genet. Here's a tiny slice from page 2:

"His works are filled with meditations on death. The peculiarity of these spiritual exercises is that they almost never concern his future death, his being-to-die, but rather his being dead, his death as past event. this original crisis also appears to him as a metamorphosis. The well behaved child is suddenly transformed into a hoodlum, as Gregor Samsa was changed into a bug. Genet's attitude to towards this metamorphosis is ambivalent: he both loathes it and yearns for it.

Paul ended the evening's conversation with the idea that art should astonish and amaze. I held on to this, thinking about Andrew Bernardini's words at the end of the blogpost Kippenberger: at MOCA and Beyond: "...the true spirit of art: ambiguity and astonishment."

2. Dennis Prager has been holding a class on the Torah line-by-line ever since the LA riots in the early 90's. Stephanie and I attended this fall's session: Leviticus, the book of laws. I don't have access to my notes and I don't trust myself to recount the sessions with him at Brentwood's University of Judaism but here is my homemade bullet-point-rendition of Judaic apologetics:

-No where else in world civilization does exist the narrative of freedom as a central concept except in ancient Greece and Judaism.
-In Judaism, the Torah is a house of memes and the inhabitant of this house is the sanction of freedom to mankind from G-d. This singular act removes the malicious redefinition of the concept of freedom from the meddlesome hands of man, an ultimate salvation from despotism.
-Jews are the chosen people in terms of responsibility, duty, a designated task, guardianship. They must maintain the house of memes that is the Torah much like the ritual rebuilding of the Ise Shrine. Others should not envy the chore. Gratitude is a better response because the Jews live with a little less freedom that the rest of humankind, a literal and literary warrior class in biblical terms.
-G-d's charge is for us to make distinctions in the world; to pull taut a string of existence between G-d and nature; and to incline oneself towards G-d, hanging upon the line as we do. (The world has a grain to it.) The question of which set of distinctions that one makes is less important than the act of making distinctions, thus the eventual equanimity within the Judeo-Christian world and beyond.
(End bullet points.)

But then, here we are. The artists. Art progresses not only by the Oedipal turn against the constriction of previous generations... but especially by means of blurring distinctions, doesn't it? And the question hovers over us, how can we proceed when art history has had such a thorough legacy of distinction blurring? How do you question authority when the a universe of means of questioning authority has been deployed as much as it has been already, when the questioners matured into the authorities? What can we make of this in light of the points made above (re: Genet et al.)?

Mr. Prager wants to posit the purpose of art as function of elevating G-d, to incline ourselves towards him along the taut string of existence... but if art had a hard purpose such as that, what would distinguish it from other programmatic ideologies such as Marxism, where art's purpose is reduced to advancing the revolution of the proletariat? In both cases, art is mere illustration. Art's function seems instead to be concerned with maintaining the plasticity of paradigm, closer to breaking the egg as I like to say. Life is easily taken for granted, the function of art is to break that mindset. And therefore what is freedom but a world outside of the ruts and chains of bondage? Could we not say that art and freedom are interrelated? Identical perhaps? What does it mean that it is G-d himself who licenses to us this condition of freedom?

One tentative answer: I once tendered with the blogpost Personal, Difficult Things. I saw the string as a bungie chord. Elasticity, salvation and plunging into the depths of experience... another view of art?

3. From John Gray's review of Mark Rowlands' THE NATURE OF THE BEAST The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness, an article in Literary Review online:

wolf John Gray.gifThe bond that Rowlands formed with Brenin was based on the fact that the wolf had emotions in common with the philosopher, such as courage, affection and delight in play. At the same time, Rowlands seems clearly to have been drawn to the wolf because of its profound differences from humans. In evolutionary terms humans belong in the ape family, and if apes are intellectually superior to other animals it is because of their highly developed social intelligence. Some of the most valuable features of human life - science and the arts, for example - are only possible because of this intelligence. But it is also this type of intelligence that enables apes - some kinds of ape, at any rate - to engage in forms of behaviour that, when more fully developed, embody types of malignancy that are pre-eminently human. As Rowlands puts it: 'When we talk about the superior intelligence of apes, we should bear in mind the terms of this comparison: apes are more intelligent than wolves because, ultimately, they are better schemers and deceivers than wolves.' The ability to scheme and deceive requires a capacity to enter the minds of others, which other animals seem not to possess in anything like the same degree. But the human capacity for empathy brings something new into the world - a kind of malice aforethought, a delight in the pain of others that aims to reduce them to the condition of powerless victims. If the philosopher loved the wolf, it was because while it could kill without emotion it lacked this distinctively human trait. Among other things The Philosopher and the Wolf is a series of unsentimental reflections on human evil. Rowlands does not think of evil in simple terms, as mere Schadenfreude - it is far more complicated than that. But neither does he share the rationalist delusion that evil is a kind of error, which can be removed from human life by better knowledge and improved understanding. On the contrary, unfashionably but to my mind rightly, Rowlands accepts that evil is part of human nature, which can be moderated but never eradicated. Mark Rowlands tells us he has long pondered the claim, often advanced as an objection to his life with Brenin, that wolves have no place in civilised society, and has finally concluded that it's true. The reason is not that Brenin was too dangerous to be allowed in civilised company. Rather, it is that 'he was nowhere near dangerous, and nowhere near unpleasant, enough. Civilisation, I think, is possible only for deeply unpleasant animals.' I would put the point rather differently. Civilisation is a way of coping with what that supremely great twentieth-century poet Wallace Stevens called 'the unalterable necessity of being this unalterable animal'. The dark side of the human animal is not wolf-like; it is ape-like, and at its worst peculiarly human. In other words, civilisation is a defence erected by humanity not against bestiality, but against itself.

(Emphasis Mine.)

Posted by Dennis at December 23, 2008 8:50 PM

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