Black Ribbon Award

Month: November, 2018

FOUR PROSE POEMS

Woman with bottle of beverage, reading book, (B&W),

The Ostrich

I once saw a painting that was so bad that I wanted to write a poem about how bad it was.

With my mastery of detail I would tell you how crude it was. In vigorous language I would show how its palette was sickly; how, for instance, the sky looked like a poisonous elixir and the earth looked like bile dried out on a bathroom rug.

With precisely enumerated stanzas, I’d expose its formal sloppiness and ambiguous vision; how, to a sophisticated gaze, it could not register as impressionism, expressionism, naïve art, figurative art, or even outsider art.

For a full week I drafted this poem. Every other line was diamond-sharp and every line between those was pearl-smooth.

But I stopped writing the poem, having realized, despite my best efforts, that I was moral after all. For it cannot be that the poem is bad.

The painting was of an ostrich.

***

An Observation at the Park

I was looking at two young lovers in the park.

I was walking by my lonesome with no specific agenda but to pass time when I saw two people, presumably acquainted with one another, embracing beneath a tree. In dark sweatshirts and torn jeans they writhed into formlessness, like an undulating ink stain or a void rifting into our continuum. I was in a pea coat and I left my cap at home.

Two people distinct in gender, similar in age, and identical in dress rendezvoused at the local park in the cloudy afternoon at the cusp of fall and winter. What their precise purpose was none but they could say. One could only deduce that it was pretty much what they found themselves doing: to envelop and entwine in passion under the spiky twigs of a tree. From yonder on the gravel path came an intruder, though a clumsy and innocent one. They, unaware of their breach in privacy, paid no mind to anything else than kissing, caressing, moaning, whispering nothings to one another that the intruder, with all the evidence before him, could only assume were sweet and not sour. “Here is proof,” said the intruder, “that love is not lost after all, is more than enough, and worth leaving the house for on a day like today.” The intruder did not say that out loud.

I really hope the Wi-Fi comes back soon. It looks like it’s going to rain any second. Serves those perverts right, I guess. But I’ll wait for a puddle to form, and lay my coat out for both of them. Then I will check with the cable provider.

***

Failsafe (A Poem for My Niece)

By the time you’re able to read this, it is to be expected that you will have read many poems of great esteem and quality. You will be able to discern with firmness and fairness which attributes make a poem good and which make a poem not good; which attributes uphold the time-honored standards of beauty and linguistic perfection and which do not.

You will, it is further hoped, use this knowledge to develop your own tastes and sharpen your sense of discrimination; that henceforth there will be poems that move you to feeling that no one but yourself can fully comprehend; a feeling that, on the one hand, sets you far above the mundane drudgery of day to day humanity and, on the other hand, brings you in closer commune with the perplexing mystery of human creation.

I’m not saying it has to be this poem. This poem could be quite bad. This poem could fail you. But that’s okay, because by the time you’re able to read this, you’ll know just where to go.

***

No One is Dancing

Just think: this could be your last moment—your final opportunity to get things off your chest. Everyone is here. A spirit is telling you—“There is no time like the present; now that there is no foreseeable future.”

Everybody’s doing a brand new dance now …

Or you could stay in the corner—where it’s not too cold, not too crowded, where you have a good view of the room, and where the room has almost as good a view of you.

I know you’ll get to like it if you give it a chance now …

This room is nothing but corners for everyone to be in. Real corners and psychic corners. The spirit compels you still—needling you almost. But the spirit isn’t the boss of you. The spirit isn’t your dad.

My little baby sister can do it with me …

You should probably call your dad—soon, by the looks of it.

The tassels are starting to fall like silver hairs of an aging angel—onto the floor, onto your shoulders, even into your gin and tonic. One of the three balloons has popped—panic ensues and recedes in an instant.

It’s easier than learnin’ your a-b-c’s …

You start to wish that the future was not so foreseeable already. You wish that person who brought the camcorder would point it elsewhere, or at least to take the lens cap off. But by the time you get up to tell him—only then will it be too late.

So come on, come on …

Somewhere in the wreckage there will be grainy video evidence of a void filled with music and no one dancing.

… do the loco-motion with me

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THE BUBBLE

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Growing up in the suburbs gives one the impression that the world itself is a suburb. There are no town limits; the suburb just keeps being the suburb. The suburbs end where the ocean begins. If you cross the ocean, the suburbs start over. “The city” is merely a part of the suburb. It is to the suburb what a beauty mark is to the skin.

The first thing you learn as a dweller of the suburb is freedom. You learn it by example—your own example. Parents in the suburbs tend to allot freedom to their children with minimal restraint. For most children that means embracing the strenuous life of self-sufficiency and risk. Childhood in the suburbs is often retold in injuries rather than in words. Each scrape, each fracture, each sprain, each break, each concussion is its own chapter.

***

One time in second grade I was playing by myself on the playground after school. I was sitting a few feet from the swing set, putting the pebbles and sand into a large mound, because why not? Another child approached me, he was a grade beneath me; he was much bigger than I was and with bright blond hair. He complimented the efficiency of my piling. I’m not sure I answered him; anyway he pushed me to ground. I ran wailing to my mom who was reading to herself some ways off by the baseball field. She told me in no uncertain terms to deal with it myself. I think I just sulked back and resumed my mound-making once the kid was gone. The next day I was sitting by myself at lunch and he walked over and sat across from me. “I’m sorry I pushed you,” he said. Then he paused. “I’m going to beat you up after school.” Then he walked away. Nothing happened, but that was my first pause.

***

The astute reader will notice that this was when I first started to consciously spend time alone. I guess it was at this time that birthday party invitations stopped being automatic and you had to sift to your own friends. I never actually did that because I was separated from the larger student body and placed with kids who had learning disabilities and disciplinary problems. We had smaller classrooms and were brought to them by a smaller bus. Here I was taught the concept of the “mainstream.” The mainstream was something I was not a part of. If I improved my performance in this or that subject I could be “mainstreamed.”

I had one classmate who lived down the street from me. We’d wait for the bus together at the top of my driveway. His dad would walk him over every morning; he was a researcher at Bell Labs when it was still called that, he always wore sneakers, jeans, and a sweater to work, which always astonished me. One winter this kid decided to throw snowballs at passing cars, including our bus. He was mainstreamed when it was discovered that his learning disability was actually a peanut allergy. He went to Stanford.

I had another classmate named Shawn who made constant overtures of friendship toward me which were responded with constant overtures of refusal. I believe the sociological term for Shawn would be “spazzoid.” Eventually I felt ashamed enough about this that I went to his house exactly once where we played some Michael Jackson-based video game. I tried to take up his hobby of coin collecting, but it didn’t take. I switched to another elementary school and I never saw Shawn again.

I was given some time in “mainstream” classrooms. The one in third grade had a ratty set of World Book encyclopedias from 1975. I used all my free time flipping through it. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than when my parents got me my own up-to-date set.

***

In fifth grade I developed an “interest” in the Catholic Church. This is distinct from taking an interest in the Catholic Church as it was altogether independent from my instructions in Sunday school and CCD. I was not interested in the catechism, morality, or theology, such as they were in that parish. I was curious about the experience: about the rosary, the rituals, the Gregorian chants, and the hierarchy. I was interested in Hell. I talked about these openly at home and at school in a way that may not have been coherent to anyone. I hung a crucifix in my room for a while. It might still be around somewhere. My parents indulged this curiosity, deducing, not wrongly, that I’d found my grandmother’s parochial effects and was trying without much success to connect now to then.

***

My strenuous life was by now largely internal. Going outside was a kind of acquiescence I made in exchange for more of this particular freedom. My interests were expanding rapidly. From what prompting I cannot recall, I asked my mom what “S&M” meant; unfazed, though erring on a clinical tone, she told me. Recently a friend told me that his first encounter with sex in literature was through Isaac Asimov; mine was from the Marquis de Sade, in middle school.

From de Sade I went to EC horror comics to Alfred Hitchcock to H.P. Lovecraft to William S. Burroughs to punk to industrial to Joel-Peter Witkin to fringe politics to murderers and cults to manifestos-as-literature to the avant-garde of almost everything. All of this cut from the same outré cloth. I didn’t become an extremist in my own temperament, but I placed a certain superiority, mostly aesthetic but sometimes moral, upon those who were.

***

Riding the bus to my high school meant passing two historical landmarks. One was the Kopechne family house on Debbie Place and the old Bell Laboratories complex on Mountain Avenue. Bell Labs was past its Cold War prime by that time, and had changed its name to Lucent, but for a while it still attracted eminent people of the world—I believe Jiang Zemin once visited—and cast a long shadow over the town. Some towns are factory towns, some towns are college towns, some towns are full of secrets, some towns are without pity, some towns are two-thirds highway, and some towns are simply excellent. When social critics like to make hay about the “meritocracy” they tend to have something like Berkeley Heights and the surrounding area in mind. Our school forsook rankings but had a quant fixation that was appeased with numerous standardized tests. There was even a test to qualify for graduation; I do not remember what it was called, but I did not pass it and had to sacrifice a study hall to take a prep course for the retake. With me was a girl from the standard-issue popular clique who was in tears on the first day. We did fine.

The most meaningful test was for advanced placement. In a technical sense, passing the test gave one access to courses with transferable college credit. In a grander sense it conferred a certain status. Advanced placement students had advanced placement problems far removed from the rest of the student body. In a personal sense it meant that advanced placement students were approved to read Waiting for Godot while I was going to get Of Mice and Men and I was going to like it. Before I get sanctioned for hyperbole: I wasn’t a complete waste case. I was in honors history, I did pretty well in electives, and was active in the newspaper and literary magazine. But having grown accustomed to not appreciating arbitrary limitations, and being otherwise cordoned off from public standards of excellence, I took firmer possession of my freedom. I placed it on a pedestal. I blew it out of proportion.

***

“Free-range” parenting has grown out of fashion lately. But to have experienced it at its zenith—in the suburbs, in the 1990s—was to appreciate its clever design. Free-range parenting, contrary to recent popular myth, was not a blithe attitude toward child safety, but a reinforcement of it. Unsupervised limitlessness was much more supervised and much more limited than first assumed. Children were not so much as expected to gain a fondness for their personal autonomy as they were to admire the bounty within the suburban bubble: the bubble that does not end. One road out is just another road into somewhere similar. You may go out as far as you like, the keepers of the bubble say. I’d say that one day you’d be back, but really you’re not going to leave. At the core of every suburban parent is their desire for their children to become suburban parents as well, to perpetuate the comforts of a value-neutral world. It is as close to a utopia as I or anyone I grew up with will possibly experience.

***

The suburbanite, like the colonialist, comes to see his world and its value-neutrality as complete. He accepts that his position and the freedom it confers is a luxury easily attained. He sees those whose access, for whatever reason, is closed off and he agrees that they desire it, that it should be made open for them, and they will be guided with care. And like the colonialist, the suburbanite gives himself to the reactionary. He doesn’t really understand or acknowledge those who are opposed to this world; not least of all those within the bubble. He cannot reason with those who profit little from the freedom they are given; who, in other words, find more to admire in John Lithgow than in Kevin Bacon.

Behind my old house lived a family of, I want to say, eight. It may have been more than that. But they lived behind us and they played with us sometimes. The children were homeschooled, and the family was pious. So pious, in fact, that there was a gap in our interactions as a result of their being forbidden to associate with the children of a family whose parents were undergoing divorce. This was told to me indirectly, and after the fact, though knowing what I know I can’t say that I disbelieve it.

That left a certain impression, as the saying goes. It would not be some time until I interacted in any substantial way with people more against my grain. Other people who were homeschooled, people with more expressive religious convictions, people who didn’t go to any public school, people who grew up in more wide-open spaces, people who did not see an R-rated movie until they were 18. I’d like to say that in coming into contact with these kinds of people that it reformed me. That I broke free from freedom, broadened my perspective, and ultimately burst the bubble. If that were the case there’d be no reason to write this. You can’t burst the bubble. You can only make it bigger, make it take up more space, and make its surface more kaleidoscopic.

***

There is no mistaking how defined I am by the bubble despite my discrepancies within it. Nothing else comes close to giving me a rationale for every thought, every action, every fear or thrill that courses through me and propels me. Nothing else in my history or body is as equal in its force. I don’t presume to speak for my peers, but I can’t discount that they, on some visceral level, share this understanding, particularly as many of them start making their way back, finding their roots more firmly planted and resiliently sprouting than when they last left. But even if they are in some far off place that has nothing, not even a Dairy Queen, the bubble is going to be there, around them, filling them with a feeling that I can only describe as History ending endlessly.

(THE END OF) THE EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

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I believe in excellence. I’m pretty sure I’ve said that before—a couple of times, maybe. But I think it bears repeating. I believe that nothing is worth doing that cannot be done well. That’s the ideal, anyway; it’s the only one I do my best to try to live out. Indeed, when one believes in excellence, one finds that very few things can be exempt from its exacting standard. I try to write with excellence. I try to make a grilled cheese sandwich with excellence. I try to floss with excellence. I try to nap for 15 minutes out of the day with excellence. The excellent life is not for the timid or for the consciously mediocre. So intense is the excellent life that even setting limitations on excellence requires its own excellence.

David Brooks, like me, is a believer in excellence. And, again like me, has very probably mentioned excellence more than once in his long career. He has done so quite explicitly in his most recent column. But unlike me, Brooks came not to praise excellence, but to mourn it. Excellence is on its deathbed, it seems, felled by the greasy, stubby grips of “the remnants of the B teams and C teams” and now the “D teams” of Donald Trump’s administration. “Many of those staffing the White House,” he writes, “could not get a job in any normal Republican administration, which selected people according to any traditional criteria of excellence.”

Brooks is not wrong. From the first day of business the machinery of the Trump White House was held in place with Elmer’s glue, paper clips, rubber bands, and Scotch tape. It is forever becoming disentangled and reassembled in the greatest haste and panic. And the center holding it all in place appears to be … Stephen Miller. This is worth pointing out as it seems very much unlike past presidential administrations, and totally alien to past emanations of conservatism. During the Cold War “being a conservative was a moral cause. … Compassionate conservatism and the dream of spreading global democracy were efforts to anchor conservatism around a moral ideal, but they did not work out.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, conservatism became “technocratic, economics-focused.” Worse still, it embraced a tenor of resentment and a sense of rejection. The rejected “resentniks” took a jaundiced view of excellence and moral fortitude, and it has flowered into our current situation:

In such a situation, you’re almost bound to get a return of blood-and-soil nationalism. The losers in the meritocratic competition, the permanent outsiders, seize on ethnic nationalism to give themselves a sense of belonging, to explain their failures, to rally the masses and to upend the meritocracy.

In office, what the populist nationalists do is this: They replace the idea of excellence with the idea of “patriotism.” Loyalty to the tribe is more important than professional competence. In fact, a person’s very lack of creativity and talent becomes proof of his continued reliability to the cause, as we’ve seen in the continued fealty to King Trump.

As I am taking the time to write about a David Brooks column, clearly I have trouble with this analysis—not so much with the “blood-and-soil” bit, which is undoubtedly much more present today. But his use of both “excellence” and “meritocracy” are worth closer examination.

When I speak of “excellence” I speak specifically of cultural excellence. Cultural excellence, as I see it, is a democratic endeavor. It must be, because people are cultural animals. We communicate with each other by exchanging and contrasting our ideas of what best exemplify our respective worlds. And while one cultural creation will have a different style, talent pool, craft requirement, and social context from any other, it can still be judged by and recognized through its own standards because each creation in cultural excellence is some admixture of hazard (or market demand) and discipline. Hence, Eric B and Rakim’s Paid in Full, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” Alan Moore’s From Hell, and the Space Mutiny episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 all meet a kind of excellence. They are respected within and without their cohorts and seldom surpassed.

Brooks on the other hand is speaking of political excellence. And while he uses “meritocracy” in association with it, he uses the term (perhaps unconsciously) as a euphemism for “aristocracy.” This is a classical understanding where excellence represents the highest human ideals, imposed on everyone but wielded by a trusted few. Conservatism, he concludes, “has to restore standards of professional competence and reassert the importance of experience, integrity and political craftsmanship.” Such standards aren’t just given out at Kmart.

We are apparently supposed to take Brooks at his word that restoring a standard of excellence in politics will reverse the ills of Trump’s White House. History complicates that somewhat. Between James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election, Buchanan held multiple prestigious diplomatic offices, including Secretary of State, while Lincoln spent one term in the House more than a decade before. But Buchanan lives on in our memory as the man who let the Union fall apart, and Lincoln as the man who forced it back together and put it on the path to becoming a world power. A generation earlier, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun were the most revered senators of their era, and arguably more powerful than their presidential contemporaries. Respectively they were the Senate’s top orator, negotiator, and theoretician. They were on different sides of the slavery debate and put all their talents into turning the country away from the precipice to which the debate was driving it, only to push it over.

Politics relies much more on judgment than it does on teachable skill. “Judgment” appears nowhere in Brooks’s column. In this framework, though, “judgment” is merely “impulse” in sheep’s clothing. Fair, to a point; Otto von Bismarck based an entire career on making judgment calls, almost all of them terrible, and still countless would-be powers-behind-the-throne flock to Harvard or wherever to somehow replicate his genius. But judgment is all around us. In fact it’s free.

When Donald Trump was elected I knew two things. First was that starting then, an entire nation’s oxygen was about to be continually inhaled by this person. Nothing we could do would ever be too far separated from his name, no matter how trivial or tangential its relation to it. And every activity would somehow be made to be a referendum on him. In short, I knew it was going to be a long four years. Second was that those four years were going to become eight years before I knew it.

I don’t know what can be said about Trump supporters that has not been said already, other than they come in greater variety than most like to think. There are blue-collar rural Trump supporters and white-collar suburban Trump supporters. There are poorly educated Trump supporters and well-educated Trump supporters. There are Burkean moral order Trump supporters and Landian accelerationist Trump supporters. There are dovish Trump supporters and hawkish Trump supporters. There are evangelicals for Trump, Hindus for Trump, goths for Trump, and Trump supporter supporters. Trump is to his supporters what The Shining is to fan theorists in Room 237, they have their very committed idea of who he is and what he means and not all of them are going to be right. But they seem fairly united in their rejection, in one manner or another, of Brooks’s call for excellence.

Trump supporters and detractors are copacetic in their view of Trump’s style of leadership. Each understood straightaway that Trump would never be civil, would never pay lip service to the inherent gravitas of “acting presidential.” He would disregard “norms,” and he would treat his opponents as you’d expect anyone else to treat their opponents—not coolly or with kid gloves. And all of that, to the supporter, was good, beautiful even. Trump would free the presidency of its delicate habits bringing it back to a sterner, Spartan, business-like, and purely pragmatic office. Under Trump, the presidency is not the office that feels other people’s pain or inspires us to seek greater heights of purpose as virtuous citizens. The presidency is the least moral it has been since Nixon’s term. People like to remember Nixon’s presidency in fractured ways. It was undeniably criminal and cynical at its core, but occasionally centrists and liberals bestow their alms for his straight and narrow policy victories of environmental regulation, conscription abolition, and bringing China our of its hermitage. (He was also a hit on Twitter before Trump was.) At the close of this year, Trump is advocating for a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that seeks to reverse the excesses of Bill Clinton’s own crime bill, which is as Nixonian as anything else he is accused of. So when Brooks decries what Trump is doing to the office, his enablers must reply in unison: “And?”

A post-excellence American politics lacks a lot of attributes familiar to the American public. Not only are virtues and civility obsolete, but so are glory-seeking, ambition, and adventurousness. This seems rather difficult to accept given that Trump is nothing if not all three of those things. But while Jordan Peterson likes to explain Trump away as the perfect manifestation of a decadent age, Trump can also serve as the imperfect catalyst for a new political paradigm. Politics after excellence sees the politician reduced in stature. He or she will have become a crude functionary sublimating individual sentiment to popular will, and whose level of empathy does not exceed the level of his or her voters. It’s the kind of politician Americans have been demanding for decades, and after excellence there will be no other model of governance at every level of service and in each party. There may be remnants of the old civility still milling around speechifying by their lonesome. They will attract curiosity, pity, and occasionally scorn in any elections where their presence will be tolerated.

It is easy to see 2020 as yet another—this time the ultimate—referendum on Trump. And sure, we can succumb again to that temptation, as we have done with every election in the past. Or we can see it much more broadly as an election between different ways of doing business, with the line of persuasion being drawn between the old excellent way against the new functionary way. Much can happen between now and the next two Novembers—like, a lot, in my imagination alone—but as of now I see a majority of the people tilting a certain way. To a governing style that leaves excellence to fend for itself among the wolves.

COCKTAIL DISCOURSE

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Napkin no. 1: Liberalism, as I see it, is seeing ideological formulation in the choosing between which injustice one disfavors more: injustice through hatred or injustice through indifference. Generally,

Napkin no 2: people of the Right tend to disfavor the former while people of the Left disfavor the latter. There is much that separates those injustices. Injustice thro-

Napkin no. 3: ugh hatred is more dramatic and traumatic, but it is seldom enacted and even more seldom successful in its aims. Injustice through indifference on the other hand is much more pervasive,

Napkin no. 4: its effects are slower and generally absent of ideological framing or even deliberate intent; its scope is as far-reaching as hatred’s but its gradual nature means discovery comes far past the point of prevention.

Napkin no. 5: Injustice through hatred is combatted with equal or greater hatred. The outcome of the conflict is

Napkin no. 6: based not on which hatred is purer but on which has greater strategic advantage or fortune. Ind-

Napkin no. 7: ifference has been combatted against through many means, none of them entirely successful. If hatred is like fire, indifference

Napkin no. 8: is like weeds, corrosive weeds at that, if one patch is found and eradicated it will just as easily grow elsewhere, often in gre-

Napkin no. 9: ater abundance.

The liberal position tilts decidedly against indifference but finds hatred similarly repulsive. Its ultimate end, willfully or not, is stabilizing the severity of each. Of course it never

Napkin no. 10: does this on its own and is empowered most often by a strong economic situation. Citizens generally will not acquiesce to a liberal scheme

Napkin no. 11: if the word “liberal” is anywhere associated with it.

Conservatism shares a similar view with liberalism, except where it has a greater sensitivity toward, and hence a firmer vigilance against,

Napkin no. 12: injustice through hatred. Liberals may accommodate, or be oblivious to, the hatred of factions under its tent; in certain circumstances

Napkin no. 13: they can even be useful up to a point. If a conservative can make the same vaguely liberal case, without conjuring “liberal,” the citizens will tend to flock to that case.

MAN 1: Dude, did you get her number or what?

MAN 2 [stuffing napkins into his coat pocket]: I doesn’t look like I did.

THIS IS YOUR FOREST; THESE ARE MY TREES

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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.

DANGEROUS AND DANGERESQUE

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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.

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 of 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

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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. 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

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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

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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 defending them. 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 effects 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.