It would be nice if this meant the end of conventional liberal politics, but it would have been nice if the Libyan bombings or drone strikes or the massive transfers to banks had been the end of conventional liberal politics. It would be nice, but conventional liberals will continue to vote for Democratic politicians. They will feel smarter than Republicans, I guess, because at least they know their guy’s a crook, while the Republicans are delusional.

Assuming that’s true, and I don’t assume that, liberals ought to at least wonder what their vote has earned them, exactly. Obama has done just about everything Bush has done, but in a different style. The War on Terror continues. Domestic surveillance has been expanded. So have drone strikes—against American citizens. A dumb war has been waged, this time in Libya. Obama’s healthcare plan was dug up from the Heritage Foundation archives, negotiated with insurance companies, and can be seen as an enlargement of Bush’s Medicare Part D. On abortion, he’s been rendered impotent by Republican state legislatures and, like every Democrat of his generation, he’s scared to bring it up. Unions have been smoked. Gay marriage is about the only notable near achievement, though it took him till his second election run to endorse the long-standing liberal position. Everything else, crap.

Before the 2008 election, liberals said that if they could just get more Democrats, they could accomplish all these wonderful things. They got majorities in Congress plus the presidency, and found themselves stymied at every turn by a minority of supposedly moronic Republicans.

Liberal Democrats might want to rethink a couple of premises: a) that these Republicans are dumb b) that Obama meant well, but was foiled by those morons.

Consider the possibility that Obama has gotten the job done, the job he wanted done. His friends got jobs and money. You lost both, but he did wink and nod in the direction of gay marriage.

One thing I’ve read on Facebook today regards the sadness of certain committed liberals: all those young people will be disenchanted, they won’t vote, and oh, God, then what? Dude, you should all consider disenchantment. Your last twelve years (at least!) of organizing and voting and believing have delivered you precisely this: just about all of George W. Bush’s programs have been promoted and expanded by the head of the Democratic Party. That means he has saddled you with this junk just as much as George W. Bush saddled his party with this junk. Both parties are saddled. If you continue to vote for that party, you will continue to wear that saddle.

You have, really, three options. One is to keep on being the horsey. You could protest, but that would probably require you to remember how impotently people protested the Iraq War or Wall Street. I recommend withdrawal. Try out a garden, Voltaire style. You can have, really, a full and wonderful life. You will never again regret your vote.

“Granted, you exist…”

The president began so kindly, but ended with his fat declaration of loving constraints. These blocks were allowed us, except and until androids claimed them for storage and thrash zones. Then we had to present ourselves for thrashing. They beat us with the excess steel of unburnt cars. During either the fifth or sixth thrashing of that year, Father said he would never mow again. He never lied, and that is why the weeds have strangled our homes.

We are characterized by our economic activity: consider the way children’s education is discussed on the news. Marx and Rand (influential if not exactly great thinkers) both saw us as vessels of productivity. The exploitation of that productivity was Marx’s concern; the reward of (some) productivity was Rand’s.

The constant talk of men and money—of men as money—makes aspects of Kierkegaard’s view of the individual attractive. It is important, first, to recognize that K writes from a Christian perspective that is largely alien to me as a secular Jew, probably alien to all non-Christians, and a large percentage of people who call themselves Christian because well, hey, Jesus.

K starts from the idea that the relationship between each of us and God is the most important relationship of our lives. Everything else is less than secondary: it is of no importance. Abstractions about race and politics mean jack: “The race, mankind, differs from an animal race not merely by its general superiority as a race, but by the human characteristic that every single individual within the race (not merely distinguished individuals but every individual) is more than the race.” He writes in reaction to thinkers like Hegel, who introduced the concept of the “World-Historical Man” and developed to a high degree the idea of all history as a kind of process in which the rest of us are either abstracted out of identity or made into bit cogs of the machine.

Such wide-reaching systematizing and mechanizing is anathema to K.  To counter it, he counsels a break with crowds and conventional political participation. These sorts of relationships, regardless of cause, build the system at the cost of the individual: “… every individual who flees for refuge into the crowd, and so flees in cowardice from being an individual … such a man contributes his share of cowardliness to the cowardliness which we know as the crowd.” You know what he means if you have ever felt a sense of diminishment of self in crowds, whether at theme parks or football games. The mediation of a TV screen elevates the sense that crowds are alien—non-human—events at which the Gator chomp is performed uselessly. But I hadn’t thought of cowardice before, and now I imagine the crowd as a many-eyed blob of cowards who can’t play ball—can’t do—while the pathetic rest of us look to add our own eyes to the blobby mass.

K contrasts my vision with, natch, the example of Christ, who “repelled people absolutely, would not found a party, did not permit balloting, but would be what He is, the Truth, which relates itself to the individual.” This sort of withdrawal is heckled constantly by regular voters, but it has my full sympathy. It does not mean a lack of involvement with the world. (Whatever else, Jesus went to that temple. He had his say.) It means the involvement is qualified first by the individual relationship with God and second by the individual’s confidence in himself, a willingness to draw a contrast between himself and the crowd, a strength to flip off the system, the way everybody does it.

I do not have the God-relationship K described. I can never have it. Someday, maybe I’ll figure what I might have to replace it. Right now, though, it’s that second qualification that interests me most. It has the veneer of cliché: stand out, etc. But everybody knows that you can’t be an individual by going to business school. You can’t by buying commenting on blogs or listening to underground bands either. You have to find less comfort in your economic and political choices. You have to worry less about finding people to agree with.

To be this sort of individual requires a kind of constant reevaluation of your position in the world, your relationships with others. It’s an integrity to which I must constantly aspire.

have you read michael noll’s blog, read to write stories? it offers great interviews and insights into contemporary fiction, plus writing exercises based on whatever michael’s reading. it’s a fine blog, and i would say that even if he hadn’t taken a hard look at my story, “the archived steve,” here.

Check out Marc Schuster’s great review of Vs. Death Noises here.

And, if you haven’t yet, purchase the book here or here.

You may have heard that Ms. Flannery O’Connor is one of the great lights in our fiction. Lately I’ve been rereading her essays and letters, taking down the hard truths, and trying to make sense of them. Problem: she offers too many truths for one blog post. (Note: I can imagine how much use she might have for a blog post.) Anyhow, right here I just want to note and respond to some ideas in her essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” It’s in her book, Mystery and Manners, which you should own.

Some background: Ms. O’Connor is writing in response to a vapid fool who would like contemporary writers to describe 1950’s USA in a more complimentary manner. She dismisses him curtly but takes the opportunity to elaborate her own relationship to storytelling as a Christian, Southerner, and artist.

“The country that the writer is concerned with in the most objective way is, of course, the region that most immediately surrounds him, or simply the country, with its body of manners, that he knows well enough to employ.”

Generic but fine writing advice: be specific. Be specific about what you see, what you know, what you hear. The greater your specificity, the more your vision of the real comes alive. This vision of the real is not the same as what is real. It is also far removed from the generality, either good or bad, of a nation of some hundred millions of people. Do not try to capture all. Please, God, kill the whole idea of the Everyman, especially the one Philip Roth wrote. Kill his Everyman so dead that I cannot remember it. Hey, I love Roth. I’m trying to pray off my man’s mistake.

“The anguish that most of us have observed for some time now has been caused not by the fact that the South is alienated from the rest of the country, but by the fact that it is not alienated enough, that every day we are getting more and more like the rest of the country, that we are being forced out not only of our many sins, but of our few virtues.”

The racial system of the South through and after desegregation was monstrous. This is not arguable. But Ms. O’Connor foresaw the modern flattening suburbanizing unpleasurable decadence made cheap by Visa and Comcast, cheered on by our political non-leaders. It has reduced much of our lousy character, but perhaps it has reduced all character. This may be the challenge of the fiction writer: how to make characters in a time of general characterlessness. Alienation is also distinction. The specifics of our alienation are the meat of fiction.

I’m not sure this is entirely true. I think that mass homogenization is more a perverse desire than a fact. Maybe it’s just an illusion. We live in an age of mass individualism. No people has ever been more often alone—and lonely—than we are now.  Subjectivity has increased to levels we cannot quite calculate. The problem now is how to simulate that subjectivity in a manner many of us can understand.

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural … to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

I want to say that David Foster Wallace said that realism’s new task it to make all this reality strange. He may not have. Someone almost certainly said it, and if it was him, then Ms. O’Connor said it before him. Anyway, I agree. If a writer is to communicate his vision, it is through these distortions, these tweaks of what is all around us. The world must be and must not be recognizable. In 2013, these distortions may come—and are coming—in all sorts of ways: twisted forms, wild syntaxes, unsuspected descriptors. Check out the recent works of Jenny Boully, Padgett Powell, and Blake Butler for three different, wonderful approaches. The artist is never making the world. He is ever re-making the world.

“Where the artist is still trusted, he will not be looked to for assurance. Those who believe that art proceeds from a healthy, and not from a diseased, faculty of the mind will take what he shows them as a revelation, not of what we ought to be but of what we are at a given time.”

This sort of revelation is produced by the distortion. The distortion is not the thing to be resisted. It is not a barrier to understanding. Understanding is not the point. Distortion makes a mystery of the mundane, elevates all that to the realm of the beautiful. It is essential to the aesthetic.

“When we talk about the writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him.”

This relation of inner to outer country is most important in a time of increasing subjectivity—especially when in the midst of that subjectivity we are more joined than ever by our technology. Our aloneness is strangely evolving: we can speak or play with hundreds of people without leaving the house, without ever knowing their manners, looks, and hearts. Our ways of feeling and understanding one another are changing too rapidly for us to keep up. A modern writer must try to describe this relationship between the personal country of our minds and the increasingly borderless world.

“To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.”

The last part describes beautifully the writer’s position vis a vis the inner and outer country. To find a vantage point requires an increasing ability to detach oneself from the world. If that detachment is done well, the writer will necessarily create the distortions of reality so that, for a time, the reader can be exiled. In that wonderful exile, we can know ourselves in a new way.

vs. propaganda

Posted: March 30, 2013 in reviews

I really wanted to like Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident is Ours. I’d read a sample of it online, and it looked good. Besides that, I’ve enjoyed other books put out by Futurepoem. They’re a good press.

The prose is, for sure, interesting. Levitsky piles one clause atop another. Combined with the often scientific prose, it often creates interesting perspectives. Here’s one I found cool:

As I write this, i find myself far from certain that what I am describing–this tremendous aspect of our lives clamoring for articulation, an all-consuming absence of affect in which we were left, such that the thing by which we were consumed and which made us always feel aware of the threat as both looming and happening at the same time was also something foreign, as a concept, outside immediate experience because we could neither apprehend nor comprehend it, leaving us in a situation in which we could only pursue it, for example, in movie theaters, where we went to press what was under our skin, and therefore sealed, through the surface, into a shared and public field of vision, assessment, objectification, tactile sructure, something supraorganic, though having had once belonged to us, inside us, us lacking names, unnamable, untenable, adrift but not wandering–was not boredom after all but rather a constant state of seasickness in the way that seasickness implies the struggle of land leaving the body.

I imagine that the diagram of this sentence extends like the paw of a many-clawed demon for which we have no name. It is wonderful in its massiveness, and the study of its single scales can provide pleasure.

But only so much pleasure. My experience of this book might have been different had I not read the acknowledgments, which address WTO protests and a need for radical politics. I did, though, after my first sit-down with it. I’m no Newt Gingrich. Rather, I think a clear vision of politics should not guide the writing of a novel. It can lead, as it appears to have led Levitsky, to the creation of propaganda rather than art. (Spare me the discussion of Triumph of the Will’s art. Propaganda may have artistic elements. Even if you claim it’s art, you must know it’s a quite low art.)

This paragraph is indicative of the book’s failure:

It is in the fact that the once not-yet-completely ruling class had been able to be first the somewhat ruling class and later the ruling class completely that we learned–we could see–no, those of us who came before us could see and come to know and therefore help us to see and come to know–that a something could come to be where something else was and furthermore that this replacing thing could shift and budge the shape of the rest of things until the shape of things was completely transformed into an exaggerated, or diminutive, or diminished version fot he shape of the once new thing once it was no longer new.

This account of the narrator’s awakening (this narrator is almost always a “we” except when speaking of the narrator’s accident, though that accident is “ours”) is necessarily loaded with abstractions and vagueness. It is sweet, I guess, but really it’s boring. Beyond the shape of the sentence, nothing new is offered here. The vague is the general is the blah of political sloganeering–necessary to marshall others to the feeling.

The use of “we” and “us” is a pretty normal aspect of propaganda, too. The constant need to group many together, for us all to see the same things. Meh.

But the worst part of propaganda is its humorlessness. Because the politics are felt rather than examined, believed rather than explored, those politics must be taken seriously. The “We” can never be ironized. The “I” cannot be laughed at. It certainly cannot mock itself. The antagonistic State and all who are within that State are taken most seriously, Lex Luthor seriously.

Literature is meant to be written seriously. Art is a serious business. But in a true novel, the most serious of moments are treated with the lightest  of hands. That light is meant to be understood here in the sense of weight and weightlessness. We’ve known this from Don Quixote: allow your people their foibles. Do not shrink from them. They must suffer, true, and their plights will be serious, but they will not be merely serious.

All people are ridiculous. If nothing else, the novel reveals this. If you cannot show this, you probably should not write. If you can show this, but choose not to, you write dishonestly.

You must love your subjects, but not enough to lie for them.