Black Ribbon Award

THIS IS YOUR FOREST; THESE ARE MY TREES

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 4.21.07 PM

Lately I’ve come to find myself burdened quite terribly by the weight of Expectations. All about me I am pestered, well-meaningly let’s be clear, by interested admirers and casual onlookers alike as to when I am going to write a book. Actually, no one has asked any such thing, but for the sake of speculation let’s pretend that they have, and that every day I am beset on all sides by a Gregorian choir saying, “Chris, it is high time you’ve come out from the dark margins and into the center stage as per your calling. And soon preferably—you’re not getting any younger.”

I suppose in some sense I should be flattered. The call to promise is one step in many to being seen as a genuine writer and not some dithering dilettante with his copious semicolons, insipid italicizations, and his alliterative fetish. But that sounds like a lot of goddamn work. And anyway I rather resent this veiled derision towards my “dark” marginalia. And I have reason to think that even if my marginalia was “light” it would be no less derided. What is this distaste for marginalia? Some of my favorite, most memorable pieces of literature are of that variety. I am, so to speak, a man forever missing the forest for the Lilliputian trees. I take all-comers: impassioned all-caps emails, scrawled notes, personal prayers, pensées, graffiti, SAT essays, break-up texts, quoted tweets, Tumblr posts changed in Google translate to Basque to Welsh to Esperanto and back to English.

Footnotes! I love footnotes. I adore footnotes. Some of my best friends are in the footnotes. I’ve never read a David Foster Wallace novel and maybe one and two-halves of his essays, but I’ve read all his footnotes. Way better than his actual writing. So candid, so real, so edifying, so much less time-consuming. My favorite thing ever might actually be a footnote. It’s buried a few hundred pages into the second edition of Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. That eight-paragraph behemoth where he’s all “since no animal can be a snob” blah blah blah “To remain human, Man must remain a ‘Subject opposed to the Object’ even if ‘Action negating the given and Error’ disappears” yadda yadda yadda “while henceforth speaking in an adequate fashion of everything that is given to him, post-historical Man must continue to detach ‘form’ from ‘content,’ doing so no longer in order to transform the latter, but so that he may oppose himself as pure ‘form’ to himself and to others taken as ‘content’ of any sort,” et cetera, and so on, amen.

Now that I think about it, the prospect of writing a larger work seems all the less tedious and intimidating if I can be given space for a steady stream of footnotes.

In fact, here’s a thought: take a look at this blog, all the 170 or so posts I’ve put up here in the last three years. Seems like a big waste of space, right? A bunch of randomized thoughts leading nowhere coming from practically nothing. But what if it … wasn’t? To wit, what if each post was but a footnote to a larger text that I have committed many more years to bringing into existence? Of course, if by “existence” you mean written out in some structurally and linguistically coherent form, or any form then, no, I haven’t done that. But, and again, because we’re already here, let’s say that there is a text but that it is invisible and awaiting revelation. How it is revealed is up to the reader. You could even say that the book is already inside the heads of every reader right now, and the readers must venture deep into their respective subconscious to tease it out. Yes that is definitely what I’m going to go with here. It’s 2018! It’s fun! Reading is an adventure once more! No one knows what’s going to happen next, not least of all me, the author!

Everyone who reads this post footnote will be charged $27.95 in conscious currency.

Advertisements

DANGEROUS AND DANGERESQUE

image_update_813762dab2a9bc2e_1345195833_9j-4aaqsk

I was trolling up and down the stacks of my local library this week when I came upon what must constitute the most recent artifact of our era. It was Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos. I’ve never read the book, and didn’t really know it had been published. I only knew its legend: born of a six-figure deal with a major publisher, then killed because Milo is Milo, then exhumed from its sepulcher to the wonder and amusement of maybe a couple thousand people. But there it was in my hands, a neatly packaged product for a self-published affair, far above the quality of your average CreateSpace tract. Nice work if you can get it, I thought to myself.

I was more surprised than anything else upon seeing it. It had been at least several months since I thought of or heard about Yiannopoulos. Those months feel like eons, and the book as a result seemed more ancient than it was. He really does belong to a certain time: election 2016, when the “danger” of an ascendant political order was a fun possibility, and triggering those with concerns about that order was practically a hoot. Things got awkward when the order actually ascended. Those concerned were no less triggered, but the stakes were not what they once were. The burdens of power or being a political apostle were not of much interest to Milo compared to finding new and better revenue streams as others were drying up.

This revelation is born not of hindsight but in confirmation of previously perceived hunches. They weren’t even weak hunches. When I flip to the back of the book I see an unusual set of blurbs. Blurbs are the most annoying aspect of publishing, the indignity of which takes away not all but a lot of incentive to see a book through the publishing process sometime before death. At least Milo still had some fun in him. “Cynical ignorant fucker,” says Stephen Fry. “BOO AND YUCK AND GROSS,” declaims Sarah Silverman. “Fat people will hate this book,” assures Ann Coulter. Not to be outdone is Peter Thiel who warns us to “Buy this book while it’s still legal.” Again, fun; patently obvious as well. Milo, like one of the endorsers and the two haters, is an entertainer, and one whose market value has, for the time being anyway, declined somewhat. (I’ve since checked that he’s published another book just last week about Pope Francis and the clerical abuse scandal, recalling his early days as a Catholic polemicist. We’ll see how that goes.) He is not so much dangerous as he is presenting an idea of danger, which is a variant of impoliteness and mid-level impishness. Dangeresque, to borrow a phrase, might be more accurate.

Milo is worth bringing back, though, as his play offers some instruction in the actual lover of danger. The danger-lover is not unlike Milo in most respects. The danger-lover is gregarious by nature, boundless with energy that can often be confused with ambition. The danger-lover can think rapidly but not deeply and logically but not soundly. The more negative and opposing a force the danger-lover faces, the more motivated the danger-lover will be. The danger-lover wishes no one direct harm and will even consent to assist the weak up to a point; as such, the danger-lover is discriminating to the point of caginess, if one thrill loses its luster, whatever honors or rewards it reaps, the danger-lover will abandon it without a thought. The danger-lover is cynical, impulsive, and careless, which enables an indifference to rather than a fearlessness of risk. We aren’t unfamiliar with this type—the antihero, the outsider—it’s all over our literature and cinema and cinematized television. In those realms they are often greatly appreciated for the complexities they embody. Milo took that dynamic and reproduced it in real life, which was less well received, in part because he seemed to relish antiheroism for no real reason. But the antihero as envisioned by liberal-minded showrunners has much different preoccupations from those who play the role seemingly for lolz.

An embrace of danger comes certainly from an acquired taste for it but also from a distaste for something else. It’s not good per se, for even the danger-lovers subscribe to an idea of the good: the good that extends to me, my domain, and very little else beyond it; that good which is more manageable but stringent. Rather it is from the opposing good which extends to me and anyone in humankind even if they can’t reach it or don’t really want it; that good which is much more generous but practically impossible. The former good encourages strength, self-sufficiency, and loyalty, some of which the danger-lovers applaud; the latter good fosters safety, charity, and harmony, all of which the danger-lovers abhor. That latter good is the good of the deluded, the foolish, the weak, the posers, the do-gooders, the virtue-signalers. It is not the object of the danger-lover to proselytize their version of the good but to defame the opposing one for its uselessness, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. They prefer to shock or disrupt one out of complacency rather than to persuade. What’s good, you see, is actually quite bad, very bad—evil, when you get right down to it. We stand up for those who deserve to be stood up for. We have integrity; we don’t need to be nice.

Some credit is due the danger-lover here if we’re being honest. Good intention is a powerful drug that can alter a user’s mind into seeing the scope of their effort extend much farther out than it really does. The do-gooders can be easily clouded by the absolution their vision to the point that everything not expressly demanded by them is a worthless half-measure, a concession to the corrupt. Or they can be rather dishonest at how inclusive their efforts really are. The danger-lovers will pounce on those weaknesses, all the more, perhaps, to hide their own. That their out for what’s mine morality, though prudent and modest, opens itself to multiple levels of cruelty. And that that morality is for the present time, and indeed for much of its history, en vogue in American society, its upholders might not be ready to have their own complacencies disrupted.

“Forgiveness is the very cornerstone of my faith. And the struggle to deepen my faith is my life’s journey,” Jim Broadbent said while portraying Frank Pakenham, the seventh Earl of Longford, in Tom Hooper’s 2007 film Longford. Lord Longford has a unique reputation in the United Kingdom. He was among the last of the hereditary peers, and among the last to serve in the cabinet. He was better known for his extracurricular activities: his copious books on Irish history (he co-authored an official biography of Éamon de Valera) and religion, his personal eccentricities (his unkempt, quirky appearance, his succession of sea changes in party affiliations, religions, political philosophies, etc.), and his fervent appetite for social causes. Longford crusaded against pornography, which went nowhere in the immediate wake of the Jenkins era. His advocacy for decriminalizing homosexuality in the 1950s hardened by the 1980s with his support of Thatcher’s Section 28, and he was still trying to restrict it well into the last years of his life. He reminds one of Churchill or Burke who were similarly attached to crusades, most of which failed but one. Though in the case of Longford it is more complicated.

Longford was far ahead of his time in his advocacy for penal reform. Generally it was not out of keeping with his Labour cabinet which oversaw the abolition of the death penalty and the establishment of the parole system with his help. But Longford’s independent activities went one further with committing to the notion, still radical in some corners, that convicts are still human and capable of rehabilitation, even redemption. From the 1930s until his death in 2001 he regularly visited prisoners and personally advocated for their paroles. This included Myra Hindley, at the time one of the most hated people in the country for murdering three—later five—children and adolescents with her boyfriend Ian Brady and burying them in the moorlands outside Manchester. The events of Longford (scripted by Peter Morgan) cover this period, which saw Longford tirelessly advocating for both the release and forgiveness of Hindley to anyone who would listen, which included many television shows, and receiving a great deal of grief for it in return.

Longford is less a moral film judging the worthiness of defending a murderer in public than it is a study of a character who didn’t care that anyone was judging at all. Broadbent’s Longford is the embodiment of Christian piety in the extreme. He is boundless with charity and bereft of guile. Terms like foolchildlike, and do-gooder are lobbed at him by his contemporaries, and even his family are exasperated (not always wrongly) by his genius of faith. He commits the ultimate socio-political sin of extending the benefit of the doubt to everyone, and to make an exception for Myra Hindley is against his principles. Hindley, played with great depth by Samantha Morton, is outwardly repentant for her past actions even as the sincerity with which she acquiesces at Longford’s encouragement is left unclear. She is, however, not a villain. As with most Peter Morgan-scripted endeavors, Longford is something of a buddy drama, setting up two distinct central characters into a milieu with very faint lines separating alliance, conflict, and reflection. (See the newlywed royals in The Crown, the monarch and her new Prime Minister in The Queen, the African dictator and his white doctor in The Last King of Scotland, and the washed-up broadcaster and the washed-up ex-President in Frost/Nixon.) The distinction between Longford and Hindley is not that one is moral and the other is amoral, but that one has willingly given his personal agency away to a higher power in favor of a moral order and the other has had her agency taken away from her over the course of her life so that morality of any kind is totally alien to her. Hindley in this framework is reality in the extreme, in all its contingency, malice, and tragedy.

The focus remains mostly on Longford, and for good reason: we hardly recognize his view, and we instinctively recoil from what we do recognize. His ordeal with Hindley subjects him to humiliation and recrimination by a mocking public, a righteous Ann Downey, a contemptuous and sinister Ian Brady (played with infernal relish by Andy Serkis), and ultimately by Hindley herself when she confesses to the two additional murders. Longford is not so clueless as to overlook that Hindley was ultimately not the person he thought she was willing or able to become. But he did not regret having reached out to her or any other convict. “If people think that makes me weak or mad so be it,” Longford says. “That is the path I am committed to. To love the sinner, but hate the sins. To assume the best in people, and not the worst. To believe that anyone, no matter how evil, can be redeemed eventually.” This is a tenet that many have heard, and which some could persuade themselves to believe; but to see it acted with such purpose and clarity, as an end in itself, is a rare thing. It is not just empathy or tolerance for the weak, but love; an ancient kind of love so misunderstood as to be transgressive, shocking, even dangerous.

At the end of the film, Longford and Hindley are brought back together, with Longford in his nineties and Hindley, still imprisoned, with emphysema. It is Hindley’s dying wish to apologize in person to Longford for her lapses against him. Of course he forgives her and they retain a mutual respect as humans and as people out of joint, in their own ways, with the wider world. Yet Longford does ask if Hindlely really took her confession as she earlier claimed. Her answer is peculiar. “I’m trying Frank, to know the God that you know. But if you had been there, on the moors, in the moonlight, when we did the first one, you’d know, that evil can be a spiritual experience too.” It’s less an evasion than it is a dialectical reflection of Longford’s own creed, which, like his, is recognizable enough, and which most humans could be persuaded of its truth. Only it’s much truer than we think we know; certainly to those few who see it in themselves to act upon it, but no less to those fewer who submit their lives to act against it.

THE GUILTY BYSTANDER

giphy

I’ve been thinking a lot about Billy Zane’s cameo role in Zoolander. I’ve been thinking about how it’s not really a cameo role, but a brief central role inseparable from the wider dynamic of the greatest satire of the late-1990s (perhaps better known as punctual capitalism).

A cameo, like its namesake jewelry, is a kind of decoration. A cameo actor doesn’t really need to be in a film and seldom adds anything to the atmosphere or narrative that wasn’t already established. A cameo, like its namesake literary medium as well, is a living self-caricature, playing off the personas that made the cameo actor famous. David Duchovny’s cameo propels the plot somewhat but builds off his X-Files-style paranoia. David Bowie, who appears right after Zane, is merely a restatement of his God among men iconography who is judging us all. Hence, cameo appearances are fun accent marks not to be overused. Ben Stiller mastered this in Zoolander to the extent that he assumed abusing it as he did in Zoolander 2 would go unnoticed.

Looking at Billy Zane’s appearance, however, it does not fit the criteria of mere cameo. Indeed it transcends it. His performance might be the first thing that comes into the minds of most people when they think about Billy Zane. This is by no means an insult to him. Zane has always been a capable performer, but using him never seemed like a simple task for casting directors of his era. There’s something out of time about him, about his looks, his voice, his manners, and his charm. It is no coincidence that after Zoolander he is best known for Titanic, usually followed by The Phantom, both kitschy period films. Even his brief arc in season two of Twin Peaks plays off this marquee star camp quality. In the context of the 1990s, Zane was very sui generis. He was like a walking cubist presentation of classic masculine charm; or less generously, as one half of Jon Hamm. It presents a gravitas that was uncommon in the quirkier, peppier time in which Zoolander was made. But it also seemed as self-aware as it was authentic, and Stiller—in collaboration with Zane no doubt—used it to great effect in his scene which, in addition to having greater screen time than the average cameo, has considerably greater depth.

The gravity of Zane’s role is not immediately appreciated because it comes in a scene stuffed with cameos. It not only precedes Bowie’s but also appears in between an ascendant Paris Hilton and a then-descendant Winona Ryder. But through Stiller’s framing, his significance becomes more apparent. The scene is the pre-runway party for Mugatu’s Derelicte line, Derek Zoolander’s comeback as a male model after a career decline. Zoolander is riding high on the hype and relishing the uptick in attention. Billy Zane is present, praising him and his anticipation of Blue Steel Magnum. The interaction seems quite different, more intimate. Here Zane is neither the preening villain nor the gallant hero, but a friend. This is especially evident when the party is crashed by Zoolander’s rival Hansel. Most of the frame is henceforth taken up by the two leads, but Zane hangs cautiously and stoically in the background behind Zoolander. He, like everyone else, is aware of the ongoing conflict and what it means to Zoolander, who is faced with having to reprove his worth to the upstart and to the world in the form of a walk-off. Zane is firmly in Zoolander’s corner exuding a timeless sense of loyalty and respect no words can ever adequately convey. This train is barreling at ludicrous speed and he is not neutral. But he is uneasy and concerned. Hansel did not get where he is by blind chance. Assuming the role of wise counsel, he tries to beg Zoolander off from the possibly quixotic challenge. “Listen to your friend Billy Zane,” Hansel jests albeit earnestly, “he’s a cool dude. He’s trying to help you out.” But nothing doing, Derek rather abruptly sets aside Zane’s concerns. The stars exit, leaving Zane resigned to events. “It’s a walk-off … it’s a walk-off.

That double line always stuck out to me as being among the best in the film, and its status as a meme 20 years later shows that I am not alone. But why? Certainly for its humor: its delivery capturing the absurdity and absurd tragedy of the moment.

But it sticks out just as much for its reality. There is something embarrassingly recognizable in Billy Zane’s countenance in the party scene and in the subsequent walk-off scene. We have, I think, all been in such a role: stuck between two opposing sides whose mutual animosity is becoming increasingly intense. The eruption was always inevitable, we knew it deep down but as with most bad omens we avoided it until it was too far past the point of sane management. A conflict is nigh. We take the sides we take and we contribute what little we can to help. We are no longer mere friend and ally; we are the guilty bystander. We knew the conflict’s outcome as much as we knew the conflict’s onset. We knew it would escalate quickly, that it’s conclusion would be decisive and final but that it would also come at a high price, beyond the reasonable scope of bodily safety, proven physics, and human decency. The relatability ends once the plotted redemption of both leads, working in unison, comes about in perfect timing, and after a few more cameos. It resumes though once Zane, like all of us, fades into the background until he is needed once more, possibly many years later in a more demanding but much less appreciable context.

There is a charge often made about this era that it is “beyond satire.” If by “satire” it is meant the holding up of a mirror to society that magically accentuates its innate and rapidly coarsening ugliness then there might be something to that. But there is that other vein of satire, which doesn’t so much highlight the defects of a time as it poses the alternate ideal. This type is less remarked upon because such a satire often predates the era it is targeting and, as with the greatest prophecy, is not always willful. But when it is noticed, even in a passing glance, the landing punch is powerful. “You think times are bad?” it mocks. “Buddy, it turns out they are.”

Try to guess which kind of satire this is.

INTENSITY

0722-aldrin-flag-moon-landing

Among William Hazlitt’s better-known essays is his short meditation “On Gusto,” published in 1816 for his Examiner paper. “Gusto in art,” according to Hazlitt, “is power or passion defining any object.”

[T]here is hardly any object entirely devoid of expression, without some character of power belonging to it, some precise association with pleasure or pain: and it is in giving this truth of character from the truth of feeling, whether in the highest or the lowest degree, but always in the highest degree of which the subject is capable, that gusto consists.

“It is a test of disinterestedness,” Hazlitt biographer Duncan Wu writes, “the ability to transcend the self so as completely to apprehend the sensations of another object.” “Milton has great gusto,” Hazlitt wrote. “He repeats his blow twice, grapples with and exhausts his subject. His imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.”

Hazlitt was an English essayist writing from an unmistakably English understanding. An American admirer such as myself can relish without issue his style—that refined and propulsive diction he denied as being a style—while having not the first notion of what he’s talking about.

Hazlitt’s gusto is utterly alien in the United States. Americans would not recognize gusto if it tipped its top hat with its walking stick in our general direction, which it is advised not to do if it knows what’s good for it.

It would be easy to say that gusto is merely a variation on what we Americans know as intensity. Easy, but wrong. This is no simple discrepancy in language. Really no difference held between the Americans and the English can be drawn down to language alone. Though we do have our shared history and our fealty to the “special relationship,” these alas have clouded us of our first agreed-upon step towards forging a more perfect Union: don’t be English. Do not invite Englishness into your household or person. Do not pretend it or give it quarter. If Englishness be found in you: pluck it out. More than pluck it out: take firm hold of it and hurl it, as our forefathers so ably demonstrated, into the sea. Those Anglos who remember this principle have a fear of us from root to branch. They perhaps see much truth in D.H. Lawrence’s assessment of the American soul as “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”

And there is truth to it, but that should not have bothered him. No one cares about D.H. Lawrence and his fancy “thoughts.” We Americans have better objects at which to direct our isolated stoicism. Allow me to explain by way of returning to the actual subject of this essay.

***

I got to thinking about intensity after the release of First Man, Damien Chazelle’s film about Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. I have not seen it, but I’ve heard plenty about it, though less about the film itself and more about the stultification of our discourse at the moment. First it “owned the cons” by evidently not showing the iconic moment when the Apollo astronauts planted the American flag on the moon’s surface. Leading that charge was Marco Rubio who called its exclusion “a disservice” and, evidently without irony, “total lunacy.” Not to be outdone in being owned were, as ever, the libs, here led by New Yorker online film critic Richard Brody, who returned the criticism by saying, actually, First Man is a covert reactionary “fetish object” that valorizes Neil Armstrong’s masculine stoicism in the face of greatness for its own sake and mocks—if unintentionally—the marginalized voices (and Kurt fucking Vonnegut) who saw the mission as an expensive self-aggrandizing lark.

It was only a matter of time before someone somewhere would return from the desert having come face to face with the capital-T truth, that con and lib were owned in equal measure for the classic crime of being wrong. The somber task fell on A.A. Dowd at AV Club. “Given all the opposing negative takes, it’s tempting to see Chazelle’s movie as a casualty of the culture war,” Dowd writes. “Straw Man, he might have called it.” Naturally there is a film and a subject far too interesting to be imprisoned in ideology. Dowd, being able to step back, and see whole picture finds not a manifesto, but a story, with “a troubling ambivalence” at its heart.

It’s hard not to be amazed by NASA’s achievements. That’s the most compelling case against reading First Man as anti-American: To depict this much willpower, gumption, and drive is, on some level, to glorify it. At the same time, Chazelle never lets us (or Armstrong) forget what was lost forever en route to the moon; “It’s a bit late for that,” our hero remarks when his boss (Kyle Chandler) starts talking about considering the costs of their mission, which of course included the men who died in crashes or burned to death during simulations.

Beneath the actual history lie themes that Dowd sees as echoes from Chazelle’s breakout film Whiplash. The space race dynamics and political ambitions are mere dressing for central aim of depicting a man with “a job to do well.” Beneath the stoic, remote veneer of Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong, lies an obsession that, in spite of the physical and mental costs it has already exacted, he will see this through to the end. “We are amazed by Armstrong’s commitment and perseverance, by what he accomplishes in the grandly majestic finale. But we’re disturbed, too, by the costs,” Dowd writes. “And maybe there’s something uniquely American about the kind of ambition and individualistic drive …. Is the determination we had to go to the moon so different from the destructive push of manifest destiny or whatever kept Oppenheimer toiling away on The Manhattan Project?”

Numerous American creatives have made whole careers trying to ascertain the meaning of America. It proves to be an irritating business because (a) no meaning is ever really discovered lest a career should be ended or cast thematically adrift and (b) if a meaning is reached it is usually a false friend; a compartmentalized, and highly provocative, hypothesis born out of the creator’s own mind. Davids Simon and Chase are hailed as auteurs of American Truth, when in fact they are polemicists against it. Rather than show the thoughts and motives of America’s marginal social underclasses, they present them as vessels for the thoughts and motives of those who watch them. They promote a kind of Liberal Realism, where nuance is in supply but regulated; doled out to those who have earned it.

What Chazelle presents with First Man, as per Dowd’s assessment, is an idea that is at once nuanced and simple. A simple idea, that is, which applies broadly: our intensity. Whether left or right or whatever, no American finds him or herself entirely exempt from that drive which we have made our singular trait. The drive that abjures caution for risk, ambivalence for certainty, abnegation for commitment, logic for instinct, sensitivity for abruptness, warmth for remoteness, and expanse for focus. In this mode, “a job to do well” is not a basic task but a defining act, a reason to exist. It is not of our creation, to be sure. It did not appear in concert in 1776 when Thomas Paine put “United States” into the popular imagination. It was stolen, one could say, from the Promethean archetype, the character of headstrong self-assurance and will to power. Previously an negative object in the works of Milton and Mary Shelley, it was imported ashore as, if not a positive, then at least an inextricable a part of us for good and ill.

Strange indeed how Moby Dick, so crucial to our self-understanding in our commitment to extreme and narrow obsession come what may, has gone unmentioned in writings on First Man. Yet Melville’s vision is somewhat revamped and simplified by Chazelle. Neil Armstrong is our new Ahab, our moon the new white whale. Armstrong spends much of the film, in Dana Stevens’s words “obsessed with moonlight.” Disaster precedes his reaching that precious rock. Mistakes are made, accidents happen, people die—horribly. But once he’s there, he then goes away, like Cincinnatus, resting on his laurels in the shadows. In a sense Richard Brody is correct, the film—willfully or not—is a manifesto after all, but a psychological manifesto rather than a political one.

Americans will never not be intense. They will never not find one thing, at least, to which their whole being will be gladly handed over. Just look at football spectatorship; or, if we’re talking of recent history, football condemnation. Yet in all cases American intensity is one of dominance. I am going to dominate this thing, the American says. I am dominating this thing. I have now dominated this thing. Depicting Neil Armstrong as Chavelle does, he demonstrates the sequence as we would prefer to see it. Dominance is followed by a life of rest, not repeated out of some nagging compulsion. For every American except Armstrong, there is not one moon, but a whole procession of moons, all in a line like enormous bowling balls. What more, each dominance seems imperfect upon completion, and so the next one is pursued more fervently. If you are in a situation where there is an American of piqued intolerance, who looks upon kindness or manners with a simmering disquietude, who sees sacrifices rather than collaborators, and who understands compromise no clearer than he does Farsi or Cornish, and you feel an imprecise but very concrete unease, just imagine the version the person after you will have to deal with.

The liberal-minded among us seen this cycle spin one time too many to not endeavor for some kind of cure. And I should like to humbly direct them to what I have determined to be the cure’s surest pathway.

***

“That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think of it as a matter of no great consequence.” So Flannery O’Connor wrote in the preface of Wise Blood 10 years after its first publication. It concerns Hazel Motes, a World War II veteran who, upon returning home, is overtaken by a virulent atheism. He takes to the streets preaching for a “Church Without Christ” where, Motes says, “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way and “where the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.” Yet Hazel’s ministry is everywhere thwarted. The blind street preacher he aimed to challenge turns out to be a fraud. A completely different fraud starts a competing “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ” and profits by it. He kills the competing “Prophet” whose dying words are his confessed sins. A patrolman with “eyes the color of clear fresh ice” pulls him over because he “just don’t like [his] face” and pushes his car off a cliff (“Them that don’t have a car, don’t need a license.”). Upon his return to town, Hazel blinds himself with quicklime, wraps his torso with barbed wire, walks with pebbles in his shoes, gives away his remaining money, and dies of exposure.

O’Connor’s novel holds a peculiar place in America’s literary history—a more peculiar place than any transgressive literary experiment could ever hope for—as an American novel with a Catholic point of view; or more accurately, as a Catholic novel that takes place in America. Beneath the novel’s riotous comedy is the notion that the will is not as free as many would wish it to be. “For [agnostic readers] Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind,” O’Connor’s preface continues. “For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.”

The Catholic intensity is quite unlike the American intensity. For one, it has several centuries on it; for another, it is its inverse. The Catholic meets the American’s dominance with its own devotion. I will devote myself to God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and all the angels and saints. I am devoting myself through regular and correct observance of the sacraments. I have achieved grace through my devotion. The conflicts between the intensities are quite evident in more concrete, if speculative terms. The Americans’ apprehension of a Catholic President is not that he or she will levy a new inquisition, but that the Catholic President, believing God just and Hell real, will not ascent to fulfilling the Americans’ will to, say, drop their nuclear payload over Blackpool because the penance and Eucharist abstention required to make up the difference of the sin would be a job in itself.

Wise Blood is no less an American classic, of course, because of how well it frames the unique situation the country created for itself. And while it arguably could not have existed without Melville first writing “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” it also serves as a kind of antithesis for Moby Dick. Both are peculiar, heavily symbolic novels that cut radically against the grain of their contemporary literary scenes when published and were met with indifferent critical notice. Both feature central characters driven by obsessive and nihilistic impulses and whose stories end bleakly. But while Moby Dick is an epic of self-destruction, Wise Blood is a parable of redemption. Moby Dick showed the limits of transcendentalist self-reliance; Wise Blood showed the resilience of God’s stubborn, tough, and ironic love. If the only thing that comes of this proposal is that these two novels come to be read and taught in concert with each other—Humanities 300: Intensity of the American Experience, or whatever—then my proposal will have done its level-best.

Essentially my proposal amounts to swinging from one extreme only to land on its reflection. To some this might seem rather self-defeating. To which I’d first say, well, self-defeat is kind of the point. But also: what can I say? I am just an American writing from an unmistakably American understanding.

FIVE VERY SHORT ESSAYS ON BEAUTY

121270258

Skull, Robert Mapplethorpe

The Verbal Cul-De-Sac

I’ve never taken much interest in what anyone had to say about beauty. As a general rule, the more cogent and articulate the opinion, the more agonizing it was to hear.

I’m by no means antagonistic to beauty as a concept. But the merits of beauty tend to be offset by the amount of effort put into explaining it. Treatises on beauty are very popular. They are like entryways into ideological seriousness. I, knower and lover of beauty, am no mere pundit, but an aesthetic critic—a defender of culture. But in truth, such treatises are very easy to do. Beauty sets up a simple polemic where anything its defender doesn’t like can be drafted into the enemy infantry, armed only with dull sticks. Jeff Koons is not beautiful. Brutalist architecture is not beautiful. Pornography is not beautiful. Body positivity, socialized healthcare, Rosanne without Rosanne, Beto O’Rourke’s haircut—not beautiful. If you take all those essays, blog posts, monographs, and books with titles like On Beauty or In Defense of Beauty and line them up in rows, you will have the verbal equivalent of a suburban cul-de-sac.

More than that, there is something deceptive at the heart of such treatises. You’ll find that they are more passionate and rigorously argued the more they bend toward the negative. In Defense of Beauty is an effective rallying cry for those who already care. The end result, however, is more Against Ugliness. Where they do assert the positive, I find rehashes of stuff for which Roger Scruton already advocated, as if he was the first and final authority. This is not bad in itself. Things in life, very many things in fact, are repulsive, and they invite being called out as such with all the force and clarity one can muster. But such polemics come with a cost: the cheapening of beauty itself and the ignoring of the challenge that comes with actually finding beauty.

***

Wine Coolers and Thorazine

The struggle over capital-B beauty is better seen as the struggle to maintain what is correct. Or what seems to be correct—that is to say, most orderly. This, plainly put, is pedantry. It is the platonic ideal of pedantry. It is a beauty-adjacent practice, one of several, in fact. Think of event planning: the technique of arrangement, of best practices, of the tried and true sensory experience. The tables are arranged just so, parties and cocktail evenings—always held with a concise purpose, a desired end and never for their own sake—are timed with extreme precision, military precision. War, come to think of it, is also a beauty-adjacent practice.

It is anybody’s guess when the beauty-adjacent practices shift with new modes of beauty. The defending pedants, the event planners, and the “strategic defense consultants” do not have the time or the instincts to seek them out. Pursuit of the beautiful risks rendezvous with error. They’ve probably been on Tinder Hinge Coffee Meets Bagel Bumble dates a few times in the past, they aren’t too eager for another one with a total abstraction, one where the stakes are somehow higher evan as the probability of VD is decidedly lower. The prospect of pursuing a new mode of perfection or a new standard of elegance is too gnarled a path to navigate. And no amount of Thorazine can smooth the edge of actually arriving at a path’s end, never in the place they expect, never in the time that they wish. It’s too much; they’re not built for it. Old age is wasted on the elderly. Don’t tell them when a mode has changed. They’ll wake up one day and find they already know it.

Wine coolers do good business in the beauty-adjacent life. Wine coolers and Thorazine.

***

The Snob’s Progress

It was not until a year ago that I was called “a snob” to my face. I dodged accusations in the past only because my accusers had more semantic tact, as if I was some kind of idiot—“close-minded” was a popular one; “up his own ass” was less popular but had the same spirit. Being called at long last by the proper term was hardly the insult it seems. It was only a matter of time before the cat would be let out of the bag, and to sink its teeth into the complacent rodents in its midst. It was cathartic if anything.

I have always been a snob. How I became a snob is a matter of curiosity to me. It was not by nature, I’d say. Neither my parents nor my siblings nor any other extended relatives share my intense proclivities. The finer things stoke no enthusiasm in them as they do me; the vulgar things, no revulsion.

Perhaps nurture explains it. The place of my upbringing was remarkable mostly in its close proximity to New York City—though I spent comparatively little time there until my early adulthood. Being constantly among the suburban free-range hive could, nonetheless, exacerbate a curiosity for the finer things. What were the finer things? Things that existed beyond mere practicality. Everything is practical in the suburbs—or it is nothing. Through one bored avenue or another one might eventually find culture.

It could also be a bit of nature and nurture. If the malaise of the suburbs bored me away from milquetoast utilitarian living, then my temperament, inherited from my father whose humor tilted heavily toward irony, sent me in perverse pursuit of any convenient alternative. That makes one more edgelord than snob, which certainly led to several detours, at turns amusing, fleeting, and dangerous, that I somehow turned away from in the precise optimal time.

I think back on this journey and see myself a most difficult person to grow up with, to befriend, and to raise. I’ve also been paid decent money for my snobbery so no one can complain too much. Someone should do a study of latent snobbish tendencies, though.

***

Mapplethorpe Grey

Robert Mapplethorpe never processed his own film. He was never formally trained in the technique of taking photos. Photography was the happy accident he fell into from the collage work he’d done from manipulated images of gay porn magazines. He developed his medium through careful, if unsystematic, study of previous examples: Edwards Weston and Steichen, Carl Moon, Peter Berlin, Catholic martyrology. In short, he looked at pictures.

There’s something dated about Mapplethorpe. He has his glamor, but he’s very much of his time, the same way Tom Wolfe, Rita Hayworth, and Lord Byron are of their time. He brings back memories of debates long ago settled, of a triggered Jesse Helms waving a picture of a penis on the Senate floor, of a gay culture that was halfway out of the closet and seemingly on the verge of being pushed back in. He’s a history lesson, showing us how far we’ve come but not where we need to go.

I appreciated Robert Mapplethorpe for reasons I could not quite articulate for a long time. In part because to like him seemed to desecrate his historical place. It was when I discovered the cover of Swans’ The Burning World, which featured Mapplethorpe’s Calla Lilly, however, that the articulation came into place. Albeit carefully, but in a way Mapplethorpe would maybe appreciate.

Gore Vidal once damned photography as an “‘art form’ of the untalented.” So for one instance at least, he and Jesse Helms—“I don’t even acknowledge that it’s art,” Helms said. “I don’t even acknowledge the fella who did it is an artist. I think he was a jerk.”—were in complete agreement. But photography is more than just focusing a lens and pushing a button. Photojournalists, like sharpshooters, need keen alertness and good timing. Street photographers, like voyeurs and party hosts, need social bravery—or as some would say “a lack of boundaries.” Fine arts and portrait photographers, like directors and designers, need spatial awareness. Mapplethorpe had a genius for arrangement. He had a clear, uncompromising sense of where things should go, what should and should not be shown, how one should stand or look, and with how much light. Pornography has a similar fixation on arrangement. Mapplethorpe was aware of this, and acknowledged his debt to it, but I don’t think he did so without his tongue in his cheek. Porn is notoriously humorless, Mapplethorpe was mordant—look at Self-Portrait with Whip, Joe, NYC, his show invitations—he appropriated pornography for his own purpose.

Mapplethorpe is credited as the kind of artist who bridged the highbrow and the lowbrow—in raising sex and photography into high art. Mapplethorpe is unique, however, in that he was genuinely highbrow. Transgressive artists who erect similar bridges tend to lift high art affects like revolutionaries raiding Versailles. They take only what they need, not the parts, for instance, that most confer authority, and hence responsibility. Not so, Mapplethorpe. Simply looking at his crisp, sculpture-like lens work and greyscale rendering, his use of lighting (at turns exacting and sensitive), and his use of space (at turns bold and meticulous), it is clear that he was not appropriating fine art. It was his first principle, the mark of his authority. He was entitled to it.

Mapplethorpe’s final exhibition, the one that made public funding for the arts a great way for people to play sophisticated at loft parties, was called The Perfect Moment. There is no one perfect moment, but several, in his early cool Polaroids, his candids of vacationing aristocrats, his commissioned portraits, and his “pornography”—of plant and animal. Moments made possible because of his inimitable vision, his insatiable drive for personal glory, and because he never processed his own film.

***

Blew Steal

My critics call me “Zoolander.” I don’t know this for certain, of course. If I have critics—and really I must—they are not one for airing their views in public—say, on Twitter—but underneath a veil—say, in group DMs or in that shrouded enclave of Slack.

But I wouldn’t be speaking for them without having some confidence in the likelihood of what they say. I like to get a few steps ahead of my critics. That means serving as my own critic—the harshest one at that. I even thought if starting a sock puppet Twitter account dedicated to the constructive trashing of my own work: @Blew_Steal, or whatever.

It’s not easy being a gorgeous person. That my gorgeousness is conveyed in my words does not distinguish my plight from the plight of my peers and forebears: Kate Upton, Emily Ratajkowski, Armie Hammer; Marilyn Chambers, Isabel Adjani, Paul Newman. It is always a great burden to reflect what is best in humanity. The vulgar have it so easy. They have freedom to not be beautiful, to expose their flaws free of censure. They never let down their whole civil fabric with slight disappointments, lapses in polish. A blemish is not the end of their world; it is the beginning of a story if anything.

It must be nice to have stories; we gorgeous have none. Nor do we have the time or space for thoughts or reflections on the surrounding world. An attention to style and ornament over the content and character is not for everyone, and little understood as a result. Until, of course, they find themselves in the rapture of that very ornament. Wishing, in fact, that they could adorn themselves in like manner, and embody the highest ideals. We gorgeous have ideals—we have each other.

We gorgeous, it might also not surprise, possess no opinions. We don’t even have opinions on the vulgar—our critics, our haters. We know that envy is strong in them, and they let it loose with an invective that can reach commanding heights. No gorgeous person can answer it to the vulgar’s satisfaction, let alone on the vulgar’s terms. What is satisfaction to the vulgar but the converting of misery to currency, and having it spread like an emotional universal basic income? This does not bother us gorgeous people anyway. We know that the aesthetic arc of the universe is long, and bends toward hotness. We bide our time, gazing long into our looking glasses.

I am complaining too much. Pardon me. There are worse things than being a gorgeous person. And on the whole it has its splendor, even if, at this moment, it cannot be admired. I, in spite of my better judgment, love words; and I, against all standards of taste, believe arranging them in such and such a way imbues them with an especial power. A power to make stupidity virtuous, beauty effortless, and, maybe in time, to make someone wish they could have done the same.

OF BOAR-HUNTING, BOUNCING BALLS, AND BORES

HW1874P172528

About a year ago, I set out to write an essay on the subject of embarrassment. It seemed like an interesting topic for writer and reader alike. The writer had experienced and continues to experience embarrassment on a reliable basis. Ditto the readers, who find themselves marooned in a cultural moment where embarrassment is both the norm and the least of their worries. I did what any self-respecting writer would do: scribbled some notes, posed arguments, sought examples meant to illustrate those arguments, all that stuff. Then … nothing. I hit a wall. Then I lost interest. You’ll find this happens every now and then when you write. Some ideas have a robust lifespan, like the 500-year-old Greenland shark; others pass like mayflies, so quickly you hardly notice. Sometimes, though, they resurrect unexpectedly, because their husks were commandeered by a “zombie fungus.” (I promise I’ll stop now.)

Embarrassment always ties back, for me, to the writing of essays itself. Essay-writing is an embarrassing endeavor—foolish, really. Someone who frames a text explicitly in his or her voice and all that attends it is in a vulnerable position. It is like convening a trial or an inquiry. (Some promise.) The reader is judge, jury, and executioner, while the writer is defendant, witness, and prosecutor. Whether the writer is exonerated or condemned, a painstaking examination of all available evidence must be undertaken before making that determination. I won’t dare to speak for other essay writers, but for my part the cold sting of guilt is always upon me after every piece; at least every piece on this platform.

But of what crimes? Well, there’s self-indulgence in style, circuitousness in structure, an ambiguity in tone that arises from a mix of earnestness and irony in a single piece (even a single paragraph), humor that is solipsistic or just not funny, a frivolous approach to morals, over-sophistication, pretension to sophistication, repetition of subject matter, random range of subject matter, lack of political commitment, sympathy to a politics the reader does not share, and a general lack of clarity as to what, precisely, I am getting at. Some of these charges are best left for the passage of time to determine, but the last one is both the most serious and the one to which I will readily cop.

There is a fashion nowadays for literary nonfiction to provide the clearest, most efficient route to its conclusion. Have a view, out with it, and let me get on with my day, the reader impels. There’s something to be said for that position. Concision is a difficult craft; sincere concision is virtuous and difficult. Some views or responses require few words, sometimes just one. And if not concision, then there’s entertainment. Tell me a story, damn you, the reader says, teary-eyed and red in the face. Make it good and looooooooong. I suppose there’s something to be said for that as well, but I do not feel like saying it.

The attentive reader will have concluded that neither concision nor entertainment is my way. Indeed, I suspect in the reader a frustration by my more searching approach, which looks like a stylist in search of a substance—like a game hunter trudging aimlessly through foggy woods, taking precise aim, but only hitting twigs. And if by chance I return trailed by the carcasses of three or so wild boars ready to roast, the reader will have long ago stopped giving a shit. And I do not blame the reader. For sometimes these excursions produce no kills of any size. Kills are entirely incidental, frankly. More frankly still, I’d rather not kill anything if I can avoid it.

The nicest way this tendency has ever been described was “intuitional.” It seems apt that it was a visual artist who said this. I took it to mean that my work had a more literary than intellectual cast. Intuitional things, as I understand it, are usually bereft of the trappings of logic or order. It’s kind of like saying how someone who is not very bright is nonetheless redeemed by “emotional intelligence.” Whether or not the word was meant in that way, there is the sense that I’m not following an argumentative path and, perhaps, that I am dodging arguments by boring my readers to death. (I did say if.)

I prefer to think that I’m merely being traditional. Following the essay form in the classical sense, not as a thorough investigation, but as an open-ended inquiry. It is a lark, a speculation, a leap in the dark, or (God forgive me) an attempt. “Few write as an architect builds,” said Schopenhauer. “Most write as they play dominoes: their sentences are linked … one by one, in part deliberately, in part by chance.”

The main problem with such a version of the essay is that it was meant for the smallest possible audience: the writer. The critique of me not knowing, precisely, what I’m getting at is a valid one because, sometimes, not even I know. The essay is the act by which I sate my curiosity to find out. They are excursions, winding ones; some are more interesting than others, some are more clarifying than others. This is evident when I find myself returning to a subject as though I’m looking on it for the first time. As one example: I’ve taken at least three separate occasions to write about Sub Pop Records. In no way have I done so systematically, in a way that implies a grander theme, though perhaps it is there, hiding. Why it chooses to hide I have no idea. It is up to me to coax it out into the light by the only means I know how to coax it.

Obviously something that comes close to a conclusion came to me before I wrote this essay. I wrote it in a notebook where I keep things that I may or may not use later. I had thought to weave it more seamlessly into the piece but, in keeping with the now somewhat vague theme of embarrassment, I thought instead to reproduce it verbatim from my scribbling:

It would seem that my formation as a thinking person began in 2000, when I started looking into grunge as a phenomenon. I had the distinct advantage of being privy to fringe culture of all sorts & knew not to go to Soundgarden so soon and not to Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains at all. Hype was the catalyst, I believe, in showing how people make a culture from scratch, all its positive & negative outcomes. I was really fascinated by this and by the additional exposition of Our Band Could Be Your Life. These were things that changed me, that made me care about ideas and human activity. The politics that appeal to me, as a result, are the politics that must accommodate this view. Initially I thought it was libertarianism, but now I find it might be communitarianism. It is quite possibly neither pure forms, but a mix and match of both. This leads me to suspect that I might want to look into William James for real this time.

There you have an idea whose lifespan has endured far longer than many others I’ve had. An idea concisely expressed at that. It’s maybe less of a wonder as to why I have this idea or that one than it is as to why I choose to publicize any one at all. True, in this idea I get a sense of fullness where otherwise I’d feel anemic. Yet also I come away from it with a sense of shame, of disappointment, and even a little bit of decadence: shame at its shallowness, disappointment at its obsolescence, and decadence at its uselessness. If an idea cannot be readily fixed into the machinery that is our present discourse, then the idea is just a trinket, a swirl-patterned bouncing ball or plastic jewelry cranked out of a coin-operated dispensary at the grocery store.

Here I shall conclude this essay, even as reason tells me it is neither right nor serviceable to do so. But if I wasn’t erring on the side of reason before, what good is it starting now? I have looked back fondly on this essay. Even as I finish it, I feel nostalgia setting in—and truly it was good. This essay has done its solemn duty, even at the cost of making a fool out of its writer. No matter, I shall place on top of it a fancy, alliterate, and basically accurate title, planting the foolishness of reader and writer alike on an equal plain, as the good Lord intended.

SOME NON-PROSE

Dance-Of-Death-1493

We’re Wolves

No, they aren’t werewolves.
No, they aren’t body snatchers.
No, they aren’t actuaries.

I don’t know what they are.
Try asking them.
Or don’t.

Maybe that’s what they want.
Maybe they are the hunters. And
maybe we are the wolves.

***

Prepped

Are you prepared for a life
of diminishing returns?
Of starting conversations
just to leave them at the height of tension?

Are you prepared for a life
of bringing the fast lane to a standstill?
The fast lane is a myth, I’m pretty sure.
Isn’t every lane, in their way, a “fast” lane?

Are you prepared for a life
of being a human feedback loop?
Whatever that is?
(I don’t know.)

I’m only asking because
you look like someone
who is more prepared
for life than I am.

You look like someone
who wants someone else
to think you’re their hero.
The real deal, right?

***

To-do

1 say “please” where you should say “yes”
2 search keyword “disco therapy”
3 buy more paper than is required
4 seek a nemesis
5 make self useful by breaking a window
6 and repairing it
7 Delete delete; delete delete—delete. Delete.
8 pray for nemesis’s future happiness
9 curtsy where you should say “… or whatever”
10 search keyword “things to use paper for”

***

A Poem That Sucks

Stop telling me how much I suck.
And that, actually, it is good to suck.
Because you’ve put it in your head
that vulgarity is “more real” than beauty.

It’s almost as if you want me to say,
“No, you and what you do are beautiful after all.”
But honestly, no. I mean, not really. I don’t know.
It’s not a bad thing—it’s just not my thing.

***

Wonderful

Auteur theory means to me
that anyone can be an auteur.

An auteur, but for doing taxes.
An auteur, but for playing video games.
An auteur, but for regularly attending Mass—and being on time.
An auteur, but for staying up at night and sleeping during the day.

This, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree,
makes for a world more wonderful
than the one we currently have.

THE MODESTY OF HENRY ROLLINS

Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 3.26.46 PM

My penchant for walking developed early. It came about first as a necessity during the summer between eighth grade and my freshman year in high school in getting to my first job as an attendant at the town tennis courts. After high school started it took a stronger hold, going from necessity to habit. It was a time of fluid friendships and no clear impetus to make them solid, but also no real desire to stay indoors. So I went out, usually walking to the library and looking for books it didn’t have, then perhaps to the park to pass time on a bench, or to the video store to look for the copy of Doom Generation I was told was there but which I never found, then, rather ill-advisedly, to the convenience store for a Coke and a Ding Dong or some such. If I met some classmates and they weren’t totally dismissive, great! If not, well, whatever.

Naturally this, among other things, made meshing with my peers more difficult. Some were a bit more proactive than others in highlighting this difficulty. One method I disliked the most was drive-by harassment. This didn’t happen often, but when it did it was both embarrassing and a bit frightening. Once instance I have not forgotten happened in between walking from my mom’s house to my dad’s house a mile away. As I made my way on Mountain Avenue, a car filled with upperclassmen happened to be making its way as well. As it past me, one of its occupants yelled something. It was unclear to me what was said but it still jarred me into sprinting, especially as I noticed the car turn around to yell at me again.

After that I walked more uneasily, quite sure it would happen again. Because why not? And indeed it did a little over a year later when I was walking to my subsequent job at Pizza Hut. I was on Snyder Avenue, adjacent to the putrid lake that sits on the property of a small chemical factory. Again some upperclassmen came down the road in a vehicle, again they took notice of me, and again they delivered an unsolicited message. This time the messenger in the passenger seat had a megaphone (I realize that doesn’t make sense but that’s how I remember it). As they passed the passenger turned his head out the window shouting, “Henry Rollins is a bad poet!” in my direction and continuing on their way.

This one seems at first more absurd than terrifying, but it was not a non sequitur. Some time earlier I gave a presentation in a creative writing class on the poetry of Henry Rollins. Poetry like this, from his 1990 collection Bang!:

There was a time
When things weren’t so
And the air was
And people were
When you could go about at night
And hear no gunshots

I remember neither the framing of the project nor anything I said; I only remember that it was not met warmly. In fact it was met with considerable derision from other students, and one student in particular who just generally didn’t like me. “It isn’t poetry,” was the main, extremely adamant, critique. So offensive/amusing was this that it was mentioned to the other members of the artsy clique I was inconsistently welcomed into, leading to the later drive-by.

This all seems rather stupid for reasons that should be obvious; but also because the argument being made to me was one I’d already come to agree with. Of course I agreed with it. Henry Rollins was not the only poet I’d read by that point, and with enough sophistication to know that the quality of Rollins was nowhere on par with, say, Anne Sexton or Jim Carroll. Not liking Rollins’s writing, or his music, or his spoken word, or just him as a concept was and is entirely understandable. Rollins is the primordial edgelord. He set the mold, as yet unbroken, for an affected angst that borders on camp, for an intensity of feeling that passes for intellectual depth, for Devil’s advocacy that passes for moral clarity, and for a surly sarcasm that passes for scintillating wit. It’s the aesthetic of permanent adolescence, typically seen—or assumed—in white males.

Even as he kept writing and publishing he didn’t necessarily get better, just more precise. From 1998’s Solipsist:

All at once she was done with me and I was pushed out the door. Years later the memories of the house and the woman inside haunt me when the weather grows warm. Broken dreams of conquest stabbed with failure. Of hope driven mad by emptiness. Of the long march that ends in muted defeat, tricked by bad maps and dry riverbeds. Blood drying silently on stones under and unrelenting sun. All the time truth was there trying to tell itself to me, but I did not heed the warning. And through the years she has risen out of heat-driven mists like a cobra. Different faces, same killer. Yes, they are all the same. I learned the lesson after many self-inflicted deaths.

And yet, the very public remonstration and my silent acquiescence to it did not cause me to abandon Rollins altogether. There was something sort of necessary in keeping him around, something useful, and which remains useful today, but for different reasons. The first reason being Rollins’s relation to punk.

I wouldn’t say that Black Flag is my favorite band. I find most of their records after Damaged to be rather unlistenable, and agree with the consensus that touring was where they shined brightest. (That Greg Ginn is a Deadhead is not a coincidence.) Yet unlike Slint, the undying admiration of which defies all logic, Black Flag’s artistic legacy is earned. The chief aim of punk is often seen by adherent and critic alike as bringing the higher arts down to its level and nothing more. Black Flag were not content to settle for that and, again with varying results, not only took hold of them, but mutated them in their own image. Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski gave Black Flag a distinct aural language. Raymond Pettibon’s drawings for their records and flyers, not to mention their simplistic but striking four bar logo, gave it a distinct visual language. Applying the Black Flag approach to actual language seems rather inevitable in this light, but that wasn’t the case until after Rollins, a dynamic performer who sometimes read Henry Miller aloud at shows, joined the band as their fourth vocalist. The first half of the 1984 album Family Man is made up of Rollins’s early spoken word, and serves as a kind of coming out.

As a recent convert to punk and one with literary leanings, “Can punk be literary?” was a question I asked myself a lot at that time. Initially it appeared that writing was subservient to music by way of zines and journalism. It was an angle of promotion, not an end in itself. If it became one it had to match the scope of intensity and introspection set by the music—which meant poetry or memoir. Rollins’s transition into poetry was nursed by Harvey Kubernik. His spoken word compilations that included Dennis Cooper, Exene Cervenka, Chuck Dukowski, and Susanna Hoffs calcified that standard. But however interesting those are as cool projects or historical documents, their interest was not lasting to me personally.

One way to think of punk is as a road beset with a series of tollhouses. You come to one, pay some sort of vague due, and pass through to the experience it offers—a record, a show, a scene, etc. Each subsequent tollhouse offers a different experience commensurate with one’s maturity. Not everyone stays on the road at the same length, and those who stay on long enough might only have a faint memory of the first destination. (Or, conversely, that is all they remember.) But the road is still the road. Henry Rollins, however, was more of a detour or an off-road attraction. He didn’t really reveal anything to me that, at the time, I hadn’t already encountered with other poets. The real tollhouse was very nearby, though.

After Raymond Pettibon fell out with the band (and especially Ginn, his older brother from whom he is still estranged) over the use of his artwork, he set off on his own career that is arguably more independent of Black Flag than Rollins’s. Though his ink-based comic strip-esque artwork remains starkly minimalistic, it has grown more sophisticated. It’s singular personality is much clearer as Pettibon became a fixture in the contemporary art world, exhibiting in MoMA and the New Museum, and contributing cover art to other bands. Ultimately, for all of Black Flag’s artistic innovations, their real testament is to discipline: the simple, but defiant, act of getting things done. Pettibon, on the other hand, embodied development, the more anxious act of moving forward.

Nearly 20 years after receiving my mobile criticism, however, I find myself defying it even more than I did originally. True, I’ve since encountered people who’ve done what Rollins has done much better. Steven Jesse Bernstein was a better “punk” poet; Jim Goad is a more savage and transgressive polemicist. But Rollins works well within the strictures of his skill set, which isn’t nothing. He’s above everything a gifted performer. Much of his best work comes from his faculty for talking. His essay on 7-11 in the second issue of SPIN begs to be read aloud. He has his substance as well. His minor hit song “Liar” is a pointed character study in someone many of us have had to deal with at one point or another. He is, moreover, one of pop culture’s best chroniclers and archivists. His diaries during his time in Black Flag best capture in real time the milieu of brilliant misfits in which he found himself—not just Ginn, Pettibon, and Dukowski, but D. Boon, Mike Watt, Kira Roessler, Spot, and Keith Morris.

Most of Rollins’s recent publications are diaristic and based on his world traveling, but he admirably never shied away from his early work. There is something admirable still in it. Whereas in the ‘90s it was praised for its “rawness” or “realness,” what comes through now is its modesty. His writing does not aim higher than it needs to or should. It serves a concise purpose of articulating an experience or feeling as the writer saw it, which is the base purpose of most literary expression. It just happens to resonate with a lot of people. “I fell in love with Henry Rollins when I saw an episode of his spoken word show,” write an Amazon review for Black Coffee Blues, considered by some his best book after Get in the Van. “I have never seen such raw emotion and a genuine sharing of feelings. It hit home and helped me understand that no matter how many people are around, you can still be totally alone.”

That Rollins’s work never aspires to greatness or art is the point. Rollins witnessed and directly facilitated feats of greatness that came with costs not even the people willing to pay for them could afford. What you lose in excellence you gain in wisdom, and strangely a kind of perfection. “[James McNeill] Whistler was an amateur,” Max Beerbohm wrote of the painter’s book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, something of a predecessor to Get in the Van. “But you do not dispose of a man by proving him to be an amateur. … His very ignorance and tentativeness may be, must be, a means of an especial grace. Not knowing ‘how to do things,’ having no ready-made or ready-working apparatus, and being in constant fear of failure, he has to grope always in the recesses of his own soul for the best way to express his soul’s meaning.”

SERVING IN HELL

478px-paradise_lost_191

High School literary education—rather, public high school literary education—doesn’t really do much to instill in students any meaningful insight into literature as a craft or as a medium through which we might understand this or that part of the world. I lay the fault for this on no one person or cluster of people, that’s just sort of how it is. Anyone who thrives on literature tends to be a self-directed seeker no matter what. But for the average student, the most this education does is to sharpen his or her mind just enough to memorize select lines. Many of us can go decades carrying them with us. “That government which is best is that which governs least”; “To thine own self be true/And it must follow as the night the day”; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; “Or does it explode?”. Stuff like that.

Another one is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” spoken by Satan in the first book of Paradise Lost. The appeal of this line is rather niche compared to the others. It sticks most readily in the minds of moody, metal-inclined teens—teens like me—who would be most bewitched by Milton’s dark irony that is instantly gnarled by teenage earnestness. It’s a very high school sentiment out of context, but very fun to return to as I have a few times in the past, and I’m returning to it now, but with a bit of a twist.

While Milton’s Satan—rebellious, headstrong, dramatic—has endless attraction to the teenage mind, much less attention is given to Milton’s Beelzebub. Though usually the names Beelzebub and Satan are interchangeable with one another, Beelzebub in Paradise Lost is Satan’s second-in-command and something of a foil. Equal in eloquence but wiser and more levelheaded, Beelzebub provides grave and sound council to Satan, even if Satan always has a good answer for everything—hence the above quote. Nevertheless, Beelzebub resigns himself to his station, serving and trying to bend his master to the best possible outcome.

If this sounds like a very annoying way to spend an eternity, just wait for adulthood. Indeed, the more one sinks into it, the more one might be inclined to understand Beelzebub and even find him worth emulating. And I was thinking of this earlier in the week when I read Will Leitch’s New York piece “What Fresh Hell is Barstool Sports?”. Technically the question had already been answered by an earlier exposé on Barstool Sports in The Daily Beast. But Leitch adds more context with his experience of founding and running his own sports website Deadspin.

The great hierarchy of sports-culture websites is structured roughly thus: at the top is the much-mourned Grantland, followed by its punchier successor The Ringer. Under that is Vox’s SB Nation, which fell from grace a bit thanks to a 12,000-word disaster that threatened, but I fear did not totally demolish, the idea of “longform” as an end in itself. After SB Nation is Deadspin, which at best is a gateway toward the others, handholding the non-sports fan into interesting sports coverage. Then, beneath all that (and maybe even below sites like The Chive and BroBible), is Barstool Sports, initially a Boston-based print entity that has exploded into a mini-web empire and a haven for a simpler form, to say the least, of sports fandom. Barstool, and especially its founder and figurehead Dave Portnoy, embodies what Leitch calls the “cool guy”:

What Portnoy has channeled is a familiar sort of character, the sort that has existed long before there were blogs and comment sections: the reactionary sports fan, the person who just wants to watch his (always his) games and hang out with his boys and talk about chicks, embodied famously by the notorious “and twins Coors Light commercial, which looks so archaic now but is actually younger than Tom Brady’s NFL career.

The mentality is suffused by Barstool’s mantra: “Saturday is for the boys.” All well and good, one might suppose, if that was that. But this being the future, nothing can stay in its cave (man cave, Platonic cave, or whatever) for long. Barstool is known first and foremost as one of the most putrid toxic waste dumps of the internet. Robert Silverman’s report at The Daily Beast, which got him doxxed by Portnoy, shows that Barstool flouts every nostrum of common decency under the sun. Barstool contributors have made sexual comments about underage female athletes, Portnoy writes blog posts extolling the merits of torture and the word “cunt.” Portnoy and his readers have waged bitter feuds against anyone who criticizes Barstool, though a disproportionate amount of the bile is directed at women like ESPN’s Sam Ponder and Deadspin’s Laura Wagner. Even women who have worked for Barstool have not been spared.

Most of these antics have been well known in the online sports subculture. But the wider attention comes as Barstool seeks more advertising money and farther cultural reach. At the center of both pieces is Eric Sollenberger who under his better known moniker PFT Commenter is seen as crucial to Barstool’s evolution.

I’ve known about PFT Commenter longer than I’ve known about Barstool. In fact it is because of the former that I know about the latter. Sollenberger came into prominence a few years ago through his Twitter activity, which satirized the horrid comments of an entirely different sports site ProFootballTalk. He operates much like Dril but for a niche audience, parodying macho affectations peppered with inconsistent grammar, but with an added mockery of the sycophancy that plagues NFL fandom:

Slate compared him to Stephen Colbert, and his star has been steadily rising since. He currently cohosts the Barstool podcast Pardon My Take, a riff on ESPN shows that nonetheless got him appearances on EPSN. Earlier this year, The Washington Post covered him.

Sollenberger is controversial seemingly because he is so uncontroversial. He and his cohost Dan Katz according to Silverman “provide [a] valuable service: The widespread and false perception that they’re ‘the good ones’ creates an acceptable point of entry, allowing brands to associate with Barstool and giving readers permission to wave away the worst of the site’s behavior.” Leitch echoes Silverman, calling Sollenberger “a legitimate talent,” but also adding a warning. “[I]t is becoming increasingly clear that the bank shot he’s attempting … is destined to backfire. Barstool will be with him forever, no matter what happens to it or to him.”

Leitch is speaking from his experience of watching Deadspin mutate out of control. The site became “less about writing stories I found interesting and more about increasing traffic, engaging in petty online turf wars, and Fighting The Man.” Unlike Portnoy, online celebrity left Leitch “exhausted,” and rather than dig in at Deadspin, he jumped ship over to New York.

Leitch’s position is one we’re starting to hear a lot from these days: the sorrow of the early adapter. These are the people who had the good fortune of logging onto internet media around 2000 to 2008-ish, at the time of its greatest promise and innocence before it rapidly deteriorated. To this mindset, that Barstool thrives while Grantland failed is an injustice. That PFT Commenter, by all accounts a gifted, shrewd, and sophisticated acolyte, should lend his talents to Barstool feels like a personal repudiation.

That a weary web denizen should want to help steer another away from poor life choices is an understandable impulse. That it is a correct impulse is another matter, resting as it does on some bold assumptions. The primary assumption being the desire for upward mobility. It implies that because Sollenberger is so brilliant, he wants to, and by all means should, take his place with his equals.

I take issue with this on two counts. First, that Sollenberger is not equal with the likes of people at Deadspin or SB Nation, but superior. I can’t recall anyone else in the online media world who has turned their Twitter activity into something so madcap as Goodell vs. Obama: The Battle for the Future of the NFL. While the trove of online scribblers dole out think-pieces and try to keep pace with the meme output, Sollenberger seems more interested in seeing how far he can take this online character he created. Second, therefore, is that the only one competent enough to see how that talent is used is Sollenberger himself. Doubtless he did not go on his knees before God and ask to serve Him and mankind by being good at Twitter. Like us he’s given what he’s given and has to work it out as he sees fit. Talent coming with strings attached is a nostrum of the less talented.

True, PFT Commenter just so happens to match up with my personal neo-Decadent cultural view, where excellence counts for much, virtue counts for very little, and fandom is the lowest form of existence. But there’s a bit more to it. The idea, for instance, in someone figuring out their careers for themselves while there is still a career to have. As Leitch surely knows, there is no straight or stable road to success. One person’s sophistication is another person’s suffocation. Perhaps to some, Drew Magary’s posts are the pinnacle of eloquence and clarity. Maybe to others he is a sentient washcloth.

I do agree with Leitch that Barstool long term will likely prove limiting, at best, to someone like Sollenberger. But Barstool may offer breathing room for him that higher planes presently do not. In any case, he doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon.  “I would venture to say that we have some of the most entertaining and uniquely creative people working anywhere in media today and there is no better place to be allowed complete creative freedom than right here right now. … Everything we do here is authentic and I think people realize that.” Sollenberger writes. “Dave’s the one who put his life into building this company, and while I’m in a high position here at the company, Dave’s still my boss and the best I can do is make him aware of my opinion and ask him to consider it.”

A sagacious servant to the end.

A FATEFUL GLITCH

06_10_017210

I had a close call once. It happened 13 or so years ago when I was still in college. It was during the spring semester “Midnight Oasis” dinner, that meal the school puts on where it served all the leftover breakfast food at midnight for the student body at the beginning of finals week.

There was some disagreement among those who were there, sitting at my table next to me, that what happened actually constituted a close call. It certainly felt like a close call from my perspective, as it happened. It lasted maybe seven seconds in real time, though the moment itself remains frozen in nervous amber.

The school is small, but the vast majority of the students crammed into the dining hall for this occasion packing it near to capacity. For what? To cram foamy eggs, rubbery syrup, and plastic bacon into our mouths. Our drunken mouths, I should say. It is hard to enjoy this tradition stone cold sober. Even I, a known lightweight, had imbibed just prior to going. That is almost certainly a major contributor to this close call, equal if not more than the other person.

I can’t remember the name of the other person. I want to say it was John, but maybe it was James, or Dan. We’d sort of known each other because we shared a dormitory floor at one time. I took an instant disliking to him. He was not especially intelligent or cultured and made it abundantly clear, stating with pride that his understanding of the world did not extend beyond his Pennsylvania hometown, which was not far from our Pennsylvania campus. I, affecting to be a paragon of liberal arts collegiate sophistication, found this wholly offensive. Maybe this would have been less grating if he hadn’t been, at least at the time, an education major. I can’t remember what subject he wanted to teach. In any case, he was kind of a default version of a college male. Being on better terms with his roommate, I was in their room from time to time and once saw his computer wallpaper was Madonna kissing Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards. He joined a frat in short order and spent most of his time there.

What he felt about me I was and remain unsure. He was polite in that way most Pennsylvanians are polite, but likely thought little of me overall. At best he was only vaguely aware of people who did not closely resemble him.

At Midnight Oasis, however, I was very much in his space of awareness. How this happened was by no means planned on anyone’s part. It was just one of those fateful glitches that bring disparate people—in an enclosed ecosystem, to be sure—together. I don’t know who did it, or whether it came from my table or the one next to it, but someone threw a bit of food in the direction of his table, which happened to hit his head. He got up and charged at our table, obviously drunk, demanding to know who humiliated him so. Most of us laughed, and so did I, until he turned to me, looking me square in the eye, the pinnacle of rage, yelling something at me that I could not hear. He moved closer to my seat but his bros managed to hold him back and returned him to the table.

I was taken aback by this, to say the least. Being non-confrontational by nature, at times to a fault, I was not accustomed to dealing directly with someone who was, particularly by someone with an athletic build, which was somewhere outside of the football range but much more athletic than mine was and is.

“Did I almost just get my ass kicked?” I half-nervously, half-jokingly asked my tablemates.

“I don’t think so,” as I mentioned, was the consensus, and maybe the right one all things considered. What would have happened if his bros had not been there to hold him back? I’d say he’d likely get much closer, “inside my face,” to paraphrase Will Ferrell. Perhaps at worst he’d grab me by my shirt and hoist me up to make whatever point he wanted to make much clearer. But really without him having to do much, I would have shrunk down and, in typical spaz fashion, flinched out of my seat, flush over with embarrassment. But something tells me that the embarrassment would have been mutual. The kind that arises between two people when their conduct in reality corrodes the ideals they’d carefully cultivated of themselves in their heads that would not have easily resorted to respective brutishness and cowardice. Or so I’d hope, anyway.

Leaving the student union, I happened to pass by him at the entrance. He was more jovial by then and not paying attention to me, as if no interaction had taken place less than 30 minutes earlier. I was a bit confused but mostly relieved. It was my last memory of him.

Why I should remember this incident that seems so comparatively trivial a bad memory doesn’t seem to make much sense. But thinking about it now, my part in the incident felt as though it was deserved. It’s the price I’d have to pay for judging someone I knew only casually, and who offended me so generally, so harshly, and having my judgment more or less confirmed.

I couldn’t possibly tell you what lesson comes from this. It’s not like there’s a law requiring any. But it was a close call. That much I know.