gall and gumption

Friday, October 08, 2004

A Lesson From Stanley

It's really awful how little I have done on this thing since I started it. But I guess I could just lay it at the door of getting settled into life back in California.

If it's any comfort to any surviving readers out there, my online reading has been rather constrained as well, but I think I may be pulling out of that. One problem has been that when you read in the blog world (I promise I will not start writing about blogging as I have NO expertise on the subject) you can find yourself in sort of subject pockets that it is hard to break out of. The subject pocket that I've been confined in lately, I am ashamed to say, is politics, current affairs and media gossip.

I think politics as an art form is on a level with monster truck rallies. Doesn't have a whole lot to tell you about how life is lived from one minute to the next, and the spectacle of the larger-than-life vicious blowhards is debasing to one's image of human life. It is unedifying. Just know who not to vote for and don't give the brutes any more headroom. As I said to Mary P. recently, when they succeed in blowing up the planet I intend to be listening to Don Giovanni and not thinking of them at all.

Most of the things I really LIKE to read -- long works -- I don't find comfortable reading online.

The challenge has been finding a pocket or nest of readable book stuff. Well, progress might be beginning to be made. So I found Beatrice for a start, granted it's literary gossip which is only a step or two up from politics. Mud up to your chest instead of up to your eyeballs. And I may find that Beatrice's overall sell by date is short, short, short, as I get impatient after a while with smart-aleckyness on the subject of books.

Simone Weil says that good is not the opposite of evil, or the counterpart of evil, it's in another category. Smart-aleckiness is the counterpart of stupidity -- maybe. At any rate it is fine for dealing with stupid people (politicians, celebrities, etc.), I say, but it isn't intelligence. Intelligence like goodness is in its own category. I remember in The Tradition of the New, I think it was, Harold Rosenberg got really irritated with Dwight MacDonald for saying that art was the counterpart to kitsch.

The bit that amused me was Beatrice's little run-in with Stanley. Where was I when Stanley slapped Dale Peck for writing the funniest book review I ever read since Marvin Mudrick died?

Here is a sad bit of trivia: If you are a black person (all shades up through yeller and passing) who gets known to be of a scribbling persuasion, sooner or later some hipster will feel compelled to try to earn your admiration and gratitude by telling you how much he likes Stanley Crouch.

I won't spend time on all the social, moral and political reasons why these flatfooted attempts at ingratiation are just wrong, wrong, wrong (such as, for starters, how dare you assume that you know what I like to read when I've never said three words to you?). What I will address is the idea that there would be any reason on earth why someone would take me for an admirer of the writing of Stanley Crouch. If anyone out there is thinking of laying that tribute at my feet, let me just spare you the trouble right now. Take your bouquet of compliments and your urn full of gush and just get that mess away from me. I'm sure you can find someone who has use for it.

Long before he wrote the novel that prompted Dale Peck's review, I found Crouch's writing unreadable -- unperceiving and crass, and phony phony phony. It is all about status. That a publication with the pretensions to gravitas of the New Republic took him as an authentic voice of Afro-American culture had me wondering about the state of race relations there and among the large number of liberal-professing people who were so ready to accept such mediocrity and bullying as the best that could be expected of black intellectual writing at the time. Then I realized it's pretty much on a par with the New Republic's nonblack writers. You know, every once in a while they had something really good in their books section. But it has been a long while for me since that happened. No reason to expect or require him to be any better, really.

The sort of people, moreover, who usually come to flatter you with their offerings of praise for Stanley, were the sort of people who, before I got to be in my way a published writer with some small shortlived local renown, would never have admitted me into their little cliques that posed as intellectual but were actually about status and the art of composing a personality. Hence, no doubt, the passion of their expression of kinship with Stanley.

Now you understand something of the delight with which I read Dale's review of Don't the Moon Look Lonesome. (Think of that title, for God's sake! It sounds like a line out of Porgy and Bess or Cabin in the Sky.) Everything I suspected about Stanley was confirmed by Peck's account of his book, which quotes from it liberally. More than confirms. But for most of the reading of the review I was baffled. The narrator of the book (a jazz musician with issues) has a white girlfriend who has an unusual anatomical feature: she has a black ass, and a big concern of the story is how this black ass somehow justifies the musician's having a relationship with the white woman at all (yes, we are at that level of discourse), but that the rest of her which is white is calling into question the authenticity of his blackness. He was, we are told repeatedly, really attracted to this woman's strange rear end.

This is where I was so stupid, you see, because I kept thinking he meant that the woman's backside was black in color while the rest of her was white and for the life of me I couldn't understand how that could look attractive to anybody. So that spoiled the whole idea of the relationship from the get-go, as they say.

It was a lonnggg time afterwards -- days afterwards -- that I finally understood that the woman had a behind that was black in its form, not its pigmentation. That is, it was black in shape but white in color. Didn't I feel stupid though. Well, I was glad to be clear of the notion that the protagonist of the novel went in for women the color of marble cakes; that only left me with the book's implicit compliment to black women: that the seat of their intelligence and mystery is in their ass, provided that the ass is the right shape of course, and what makes a black man black is his ability to appreciate and value this intellectual asset. Thank you Stanley. You can kiss mi -- on second thoughts, no.

Now, I don't know whether he slapped Dale Peck for the writing of the review. Peck seems like a person with a certain gift for finding the squishy underbelly of hyperinflated literary egos. It could have been anything. I'm reading Proust right now, and am ready to believe that Peck might have blinked or failed to smile at exactly the critical moment, a lapse that carried the original insult deep into that underbelly and prompted Stanley to swing that big hammy hand.

Well if you google Dale Peck Stanley Crouch you can read all about it. The most interesting thing I know about Stanley Crouch is the story I just told you about me.

As for Dale Peck, well, a man is judged by the company he keeps. There are some critics out there who think that Dale has been corrupted by high life among all those literary New Yorky magazine types. It may well be true. But I'd say that's mostly a case of the pot calling the kettle black hahahahahahahaha.

Stanley wrote a silly book. Dale called it a silly book. Most of the discussion of this episode will not be about the book. It will be about status. The silliness of Stanley's book will not affect Stanley's status, because Stanley is a made man. All the bookbodies gather round Stanley and rumble that Dale has gone "too far," in effect, doesn't play well with others. Not like Stanley. "God dammit, he's our hag-ridden geeky black intellectual!" Dale, if he has any sense, will let the full implications of all this intellectual cowardice wash over him so that he understands just exactly what it buys for you. Status does not write books. Status, for artists, is radioactive excrement. Do not play in it, do not seek it, do not hang out with people who are talking about status when they think they are talking about ideas.

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