Friday, January 02, 2009

Time to catch up on what I read in 2008. Before I forget:

First, a list of some of the best I read this year:

The Tyranny of Oil by Antonia Juhasz (the best book about the industy out there)

Wall Street by Steve Fraser (an essay on the zeitgeist of greed, drawing from the history)

The Squandering of America
by Robert Kuttner (one of the two best overall explanations of why our economy is fucked up -- rooted in the failure of regulatory policy and the laissez faire doctrines that dominate the discourse...who was it said, "a little learning is a dangerous thing" ? (Alexander Pope?) ... well, when it comes to economics, he was so right, because the real world has nothing to do with what they teach us. Rather than savage the academics, however, Kuttner explains what has actually happened.

Bad Money
by Kevin Phillips (the other best overall explanation...a bit less exacting on the policies, but much more soaring in its rhetoric...the capstone to the brilliant trilogy of books that he issued during the past 8 years)...

The Great Depression and the New Deal by Rauchway (are you ready for it to happen again? If not, you should be, and there's no better intro than this tight, concise history...and you can find more on his blog)

Coming of Age at the End of History
by Camille de Toledo (French essayist, young activist with a sharp chip on his shoulder)


New Orleans, Mon Amour by Andrei Condrescu (I read that on a recent trip back down to sleeziana...nice, crisp columns by the NPR commentator)

Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life by Tom Clark (bio) I stopped halfway through - intend to finish - I like to read poets' bios before I decide if I wanna make the effort to read their work - esp. ones that are difficult like he seems to be.

Tree Smoke by Denis Johnson (They tout this as his masterpiece. I was a bit disappointed, actually. Though very well written, as are all his novels and poetry, there's not much to the plot.)

Generation of Vipers by Phillip Wylie. I keep running across copies of this snarky early 1940s social critique at used book sales. And with a title like that, how could I resist? (Esp. as a big fan of contrarian writers, like Hitchens, Mencken, Twain, etc.). This was quite entertaining and scorching, but there were times when he seemed way off-base -- esp. his views on women, which seem a bit wacky, even for those days: "The henharpy is but the Cinderella chick come home to roost: the taloned, cackling residue of burnt-out puberty in a land that has no use for mature men or women" except where they acknowledge that women are the primary targets of the new heights of commercialism: "Women as an idle class, a spending class, a candy-craving class, never existed before...The idea women have that life is marshmallows which will come as a gift -- an idea promulgaed by every medium and many an advertisement -- has defeated half the husbands in America. It has made at least half our homes into centers of disillusionment. ... The goal of security, seen in terms of things alone and achieved in those terms during the least secure period in human history, has predictably ruined Cinderella: she has the prince, the coach, the horses -- but her soul's a pumpkin and her mind's a rat-warren. She desperately needs help.")

That said, I loved some of this venomous vituperation:

"The doctors are condemned as a whole, again, by their infuriated defiance of a public tendency toward health insurance and toward any step that may be called the socialization of medicine. If this defiance were accompanied by a practicable plan, agreeable to all, whereby the mordant and the miserable of this republic could get themselves a fair measure of mere physical care, the emotion could be interpreted as an urge to restrain man from foolishness and guide him into wisdom..." (p. 179)

and bilious bloviation:

"The grievous gulf between medieval man's engineering skill and his ineptitude at being manlike is thus reflected in the art of the woebegone period as vividly as it is to be seen in his crammed and caterwauling psychopathic wards." (p.25)

Spitting into the spiritual facetiousness of Christianity:

"Behind the mask of these good, virtuous, scrificial and holy American people, instinct has gone on working exactly as it always worked. Men are murdered. Children are seduced. Public officials are corrupted. Thieves steal. Churchly men have invented forms of theft so subtle that the law has no means of detecting and punishing them...On and on the negative instincts led the disguised chase. The practice of law became in a large part the practice of concealed robbery. A business apprenticeship consisted in training a youth to be a Fagin. Even a doctor might be practicing medicine or he might be practicing any crime that suited him -- for profit. The scientists hired themselves out to the businessmen and searched only those corners of nature in which lesser brains thought there might be quick money gains. A tradition of integrity in the central government for a time hampered the process of irresponsible acquisition, but men soon set about to put in government persons whose identification with noble tradition would be less embarrassing. Eight graders, with hair over their ears, gangsters, perverts, thugs, bullies and scumskulls of every sort, so long as they were either purchasable or preoccupied with some personal crotchet that did not interfere with the plunder of man by man, were recommended solemnly to the halls of state by big business leaders, lawyers, doctors, soldiers and the rest of the blind and grabby retinue of people whom the church had blessed and confirmed as perfect Americans."


And it goes on and on like this!

And now and then a nugget like that scumskulls! My copy has a list of similar neoligisms and impugnations:

yut (53)
nance (61)
prickamice (95) tetanic (95) padisha (161)
Nawab and voivode (164)
sciamachly (165)
bargrove (175)
sciolist (241)

I have no idea what put Wylie into such a scathingly mordant state of mind that he could crank this entire Jeremiad out in just a few weeks in early 1941, but you can imagine that the incipient War and the exigencies of patriotism building up to it ("War...represents an unreasoned and inarticulate attempt of a species to solve its frustrations by exploding") had a lot to do with it, despite the claims of Art that he cites in the introduction written 13 years later: "Criticism, that is to say, and the doubt out of which it arises, are the prior conditions to progress of any sort. The intent of "Vipers" was and is to provide a body of exactly that sort of criticism, that sort of doubt and self-doubt."

The next paragraph suggests he knew exactly the kind of response he'd get: "The critical attitude, however, is mistrusted in America, for all its fundamental place in any pattern of progress. Formal criticism, as such, while allowable, is regarded as an exercise of "longhairs" or "eggheads" ... The result is to keep the American majority not just intellectually uncritical but anti-critical."

Although the book was apparently a best-seller, "To people with that orientation -- people who imagine that the "right" approach to any problem must involve optimism -- "Vipers" was a great shock. For "Vipers" suggests that downright pessimismm, in this day and age, may be a more fruitful source of national improvement (and even a surer road to mere survival) than all the compulsive optimism the public can pump up concerning its wonderful self."

We've come a long way since then. If anything, it seems we are now in the age of resignation, where each new scandal (Enron, Halliburton, Blackwater, Madoff...) is met with little surprise.

Still, I hope with I. B. Singer, who said, "The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence, but a mighty passion for the redemption of man."

Wylie suggested much the same in his 1954 intro, albeit with what now seems like far-fetched histrionics:

"I talked to one young lady for an hour while she sat on the window sill of a high floor of a Manhattan skyscraper with a copy of "Vipers" on her lap! ... It was necessary to persuade such people that a mere vista of difficulties, however huge and horrid, is not an excuse for abandoning human effort -- let alone life itself. Such reactions are extremely childish. Unfortunately, many people are just that infantile. A great many Americans have given up moral and intellectual effort in behalf of their country simply because it is hard to be moral and to reason."

Of course there's much self-justification here, since "the modern American, to express the bulk of the though in a single phrase, has rejected the critical method for himself," someone like Wylie had to come along and puncture his ballooning self-importance.

Thus, he does the rounds, like a scalpel-wielding social surgeon on a rampage.

The colleges "themselves were ponderous stone buildings, usually segregated from the populace...Great learning was attributed to pedants who were still debating points that had been without relevancy for thousands of years...The education of young people had very little to do, it may be seen, with the life for which they were being prepared, and every sort of bigotry was proselytized by one or more colleges. History was written and taught without any regard for fact, but only with the motive of nationalistic 'face-saving." Yes, indeed, "the flat hat on the pate of the American graduate is a hallmark of philosophical treason -- and there are enough of them to shingle hell."

How nice it would have been to cite that on graduation day!

It follows, of course that all of the professions, especially medicine, are overdue for a skewering: "Witch-doctoring and quackery, mummery and nonsense, robbery, withal a Niagara of nonsense, a mountain of mulcting, a swindle and a scandal, and if your grocer did a tenth as much to you you would have him in the clink, even though we will agree that grocers, as a class, are a collection of choice theives and liars too."

Religious hypocrisy and the day's attitudes about sex are easy targets, too, as already suggested: "You are every man on every rack -- every moaning and foaming gobbet of flexh in history -- every good impulse and also every evil one. By denying the existence of the evil in you, you have forced upon it an autonomous existence and it has marched clear around the globa and it is ready to consume you."

Then, of course, there is the hypocrisy of Americans at war. For while we denounce the Japs for dousing the Chinese and burning them alive in Nanking, Wylie notes in a 1954 postscript that "Since I wrote (a reference to that infamous activity), of course, we have cooked a million or so Japs in napalm, which is a form of gasoline, and left some other thousands mere man-shaped carbon stains on radioactive sidewalks. These achievements make it even harder for us Americans to acknowledge, humbly, the terribleness we share with others. Indeed, most of us seem able to declaim brightly that atomic weapons "must never be used in war," without noting the eternally attached shadow: that they have so been used and that we did it."

And in a society where "liberty is the right to compel people to produce and purchase stuff" (he doesn't mention the perversion of Free Speech in the application of First Amendment protections to advertising, but might have, had he traced some of these moral failures to a distortion of the society's ideals in the way its laws were interpeted), there is no easier target than the businessmen.

None are innocent, and "Man's destiny lies half within himself, half without. Toi advance in either half at the expense of the other is literally insane. We are almost all, of course, as mad as hatters. Our statesmen, our scientists, ourselves. You. Indeed, if you go on reading this book, unless it makes you wiser, it will very likely cause you to cork off screaming to the nut factory. You belong there anyway and, deep inside yourself, you know it."

This past year, I also re-read Studies in Classic American Literature by D. H. Lawrence (I think it's the only book by him that I've ever finished. I can't get into the novels and the poetry never got me too excited either.).

I have to admit that I must have missed some of the sarcasm here when I read this in college. I also don't recall catching the the way he makes use of what he said in the previous chapters. The chapter on Melville is superb, as is his chapter on Whitman who, I don't know why, I wrote about for my college thesis. (Have you read the essay Whitman wrote to introduce the first edition of Leaves of Grass? I still think that's a stunning piece of rhetoric.) Anyway, I definitely was not mature enough when I read this Lawrence the first time, becuz I totally missed a lot of his jabs and allusions. But then, I've always been slow on the draw when it comes to subtle humor.

In prepping myself to read Roberto Bolano's masterpiece, 2666, I've decided to read a few of the slimmer volumes being issued by New Directions, starting with Last Evenings on Earth, a delicious collection of short stories.

This guy Bolano is the best Latin American writer to have his works translated into English in a long time. Reading Last Evenings does a lot for me: a) reminds me of that joyous peripathetic (sic) period of my life when I lived in Cambridge, MA (6 months after graduating), working odd jobs and reading voraciously the literature I wanted to read (rather than what I was required to read), including Joyce, Pynchon, Bellow, and various poets, and ambling and rambling with various characters in the bars and streets of Cambridge, going in and out of the Grollier book store (only store in the nation that I know that's exclusively devoted to poetry, outside of the Bowery Poetry Club, which doesn't count since it makes ends meet on entertainment and whatever Shappy can rake in at the bar)...

Anyway, the stories in Last Evenings (and the parts of the Savage Detectives, which I admit to putting down mid-way through) is chock full of "failed" characters -- second-rate writers, a diaspora of desperate exiles and poets off on their own private vision quests, etc.

The narrative feels like the someone's caffeinated divagations about other open mike habitues or the local quarterly editorial clique, without pretensions.

Bolano is Chilean, part of the diaspora of literary desperadoes who were sewing their oats just about the time when Kissinger and Pinochet pushed Salvador Allende into suicide and chopped off Victor Jara's beautiful hands. That is, he wrote like someone with nothing left to lose.