gall and gumption

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Terminally Hip

I had never heard of either of these people, Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, until I read about their deaths, but that’s not surprising: she was a video game designer (and her most famous game does sound kind of cool) and aspiring filmmaker and he was a creator of abstract video art.

Their deaths (a week apart) have attracted a lot of press and discussion. The Washington Post had a piece, and so did the LA Times. The story has all the elements – you know that a couple years hence someone will write a cheesy book and someone will make a cheesy movie: an attractive pair of trendy artists right on that boundary between the entertainment and advertising industry and contemporary “high” culture.

Andy Warhol was the pioneer into this terrain but it’s terribly well-traveled now. There’s been a sort of gold rush there for some time, and that insouciant remote deadpan irony that Warhol left as his legacy ensures that his successors never have to explain what they’re doing hanging around on that busy commercial strip wearing leather hot pants and thigh-high boots in the middle of the night. It’s probably some sort of statement about being a commodity. Or maybe it’s just, you know, being a commodity with no statement. To be serious about being a commodity is highly serious.

Styles come and go, movements briefly coalesce (or fail to, more likely), but there has been one huge and dominant reality overshadowing Anglo-Euro-American art in the past 25 years, and The Shock of the New came out too early to take account of its full effects. This is the growing and tyrannous power of the market itself, which has its ups and downs but has so hugely distorted nearly everyone's relationship with aesthetics. That's why we decided to put Jeff Koons in the new programme: not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can't imagine America's singularly depraved culture without him. He fits into Bush's America the way Warhol fitted into Reagan's. …. Koons is the perfect product of an art system in which the market controls nearly everything, including much of what gets said about art.

The art world in which Blake and Duncan lived is not the artist's bohemia, though they apparently needed to believe so. The world they lived in is continually tracked through by people from entertainment, real estate, the universities, public relations, marketing, miscellaneous other functionaries (e.g., caterers, artwork installers) and, last of all, eleventy-fourteen zillion wannabes. And what is amazing is they could move three thousand miles across a continent and find themselves in the exact same world. Blake had made it big time there, Duncan was working on her break as an independent maker of intellectual films, a process in which you have to sell the thing before it is made, and market yourself to do that. She and Blake were drawn to the Bohemian life (a life by the way which the art world itself had rendered impossible when they were still in grade school). On her blog, you can’t tell whether this is some sort of schtick or whether Duncan sincerely believes in this vision of herself. There are entries where this fantasy starts to look like a preoccupation with her looks, though not to the gallant Ron Rosenbaum, who read her blog and looked at all the pictures and was moved by the presence of Beauty.

He has been on the story, wearing not his journalism hat, but his blogger hat.

So I’m reading The Times at Starbucks this morning when I come upon a story that stops me dead. The headline Two Artists, One Suicide The Other Missing.

I knew one of them. Well I didn’t know her, personally, but I felt I knew her from two years of reading her blog The Wit of the Staircase.

Her name was Theresa Duncan and she was the intellectual glamour girl of the web. Brilliant, erudite, beautiful (she looked like Kate Moss who was, unsurprisingly one of her obsessions). I loved her blog I knew when my brain was weary with the conventionalities of news and politics on the Web, tired of immersion in my own work I could always find new intellectual and sensual stimulation in The Wit of the Staircase. And by sensual I don’t mean the glamour shots of Theresa, which she understandably had a weakness for, but that she was devoted to articulating her passions for sensual pleasures—her posts on perfumes for instance were sublime renderings of the wordless in words.

Judge for yourself.

The summer night, as we know, wears a smile of light, and sits on a sapphire throne. But how many know that the long blue space which curves like a scimitar between day and night--the place called sunset--is a liminal one?

Limen means door, and twilight-time dissolves the ink on any known map, heaves even the cemetery gates wide open. This hour is prone to ghosts, and in late June this fetching, this flattering light called Wit forth at the height of all her neither/nor states too. Here comes the tipsy, the ever ready for her close up, the not quite woman, the Teenage Theresa.

This is copywriting. This is the language of fashion magazines. This is the poetry of perfume and handbags and leather jackets. The “as we know” trick establishes intimacy between her and her readers: “As we know, Br’er Rabbit was one smart rabbit.” The introduction of this obscure word “liminal” (it’s not really that obscure) with these late-Edwardian mannerisms that Max Max Beerbohm made fun of in about 1922 (Twilight ”heaves even the cemetery gates wide open” – does it? I always thought that’s when they closed them.) Amidst all these images she yet manages to note that the light is “fetching” and “flattering,” two of the most arch and well-worn fashion-copy phrases. “The diagonal stripes are more flattering to Diane’s fuller waist.” “Grab yourself a pair of Spoingo heels to wear with this fetching little cocktail dress…” S.J. Perelman was making fun of this stuff 60 years ago. There’s nothing wrong with it as such, you know, it’s honest work. And you can make quite decent money writing it for ad agencies.

After all this stage-setting we get – what subject? “The tipsy, the ever ready for her close up
, the not quite woman, the Teenage Theresa,” who is enthroned (sorry, it’s catching) in all this liminal wonderfulness doing what? Watching Twilight Zone reruns, and while it’s not uncommon for kids to take the show’s campy portentousness seriously, everybody gets the joke after about 19 or so. Is she kidding? Ah. She is simply… an enigma.

You remember the sci-fi T.V. show The Twilight Zone? Broadcast via who knows what magic to our Michigan home at the tres liminal rerun hour of midnight, the man's deep voice eased us in the audience toward a space between "science and superstition, between light and shade."

This hypnotic hero counted down to let me know all the old signposts were moot. Like a gateway drug, I carried this first forward enticement ever onward into an increasingly wild world from which weirdo Wit still refuses to trace her footsteps backward no matter how many other voices warn Retreat!

Well, I suppose there could be some more Warhol-style or other pop-style irony lurking there, that special kind of new irony that takes itself very seriously. Who can tell?

One of Rosenbaum’s readers makes particular note, rightly, of this quote from Duncan’s blog:

“‘Younger people were indeed born to kick my pigtailed ass, and if our terminally ailing democratic culture is swept along on their own sexy, slender thighed demands for freedom and money and sex and art and music that are all their own, then whoopeee!’”

The lifespan of a professional ballet dancer is maybe about 15 years, except in the case of a rare few. The lifespan of the New Hot Fey Enigmatic Young Cutting Edge Wild Child Who Will Reveal The Tensions and Ironies of Her Time But Hasn’t Actually Done the Work Yet is possibly even shorter. Especially for a woman. Youth cultures stay young by weeding out the old and replacing them with new young people.

Theresa Duncan had passed her “sell-by” date. It was a self-imposed sell-by date. Looks are part of a woman’s worldly capital, and her capital was dwindling. Other people may not have seen it, but she saw it every day. At 40 you begin to realize that one day not too far off you will wake up invisible, like a character out of The Twilight Zone. Invisible and possibly unheard too. Duncan completely identified with the idea of being a desirable commodity, artistically, intellectually, physically. Desirability is power. Desirability makes artists marketable. But at a certain point the question does arise: What are you selling, your art or your assets, the things you made or the idea of you as a creative type? Which is getting over into Kate Moss territory.

Moss, the glamour girl with whom Duncan was so preoccupied (or was it the product?), has it easier. Moss has no intellectual pretensions, and she knows perfectly well that she is a commodity. You get the maximum financial mileage out of it, and you try not to die of boredom, and you escape at every opportunity and live your life, just as you would at any other job. You don’t actually need much in the way of brains to figure this out. The reason Duncan couldn’t figure it out was not that she was stupid but that she was going quietly crazy.

This New York magazine piece by David Amsden about the couple’s last months is unintentionally funny. I keep picturing the writer’s battered and much-annotated copies of early-to-middle-period Joan Didion. Cliches shift at glacial speed in the world of journalism. The innovations of New Journalism are now safely entrenched as “literary journalism” and reduced to an indulgence in mannerism. Didion used her style to penetrate the terra incognita of the counterculture, Republican party operatives, and other strange worlds. Amsden writer adopts her manner as if he believes that the milieu in which Duncan and Blake lived is some remote cultural outpost and not dead smack in the teeming and mercenary center.

All night long they kept coming, pouring in through the great old iron gates of St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue. Inside, under the vaulted ceiling, people were sweating and swaying to excellently named bands—the Young Lords, the Virgins—the music so loud you could feel it, like a fist, thumping in the middle of your chest. Outside in the garden they huddled around the grill or lined up at the bar for four-dollar cans of Bud Light, everyone drinking a bit more than usual, perhaps, because it was July 3, 2007, and all anyone had to do tomorrow was sleep until the headache subsided and get out of bed in time for the fireworks. St. Mark’s was where Andy Warhol screened his early films, where W. H. Auden and Allen Ginsberg held readings, where Sam Shepard staged his first two plays, and here was an evening dedicated to celebrating and preserving this tradition: everyone out to get a little lost and loose and in the process raise money to restore the church’s chipping façade…

Who were these people? Are they the same set of people referred to as “they” in the first sentence? If not, who are “they” and why don’t you just tell us? Did they, I mean, “they” and the other people, know one another? How many people were there altogether, would you say? 40? 100? 200? What do you normally pay for Bud Light on a night on the town in New York, now that you mention it? Why were they selling Bud Light of all things? Is “music so loud you could feel it, like a fist, thumping in the middle of your chest” really in the tradition of Auden and Ginsberg and Warhol? If not, what tradition is it in? Are those really excellent band names? What was the music like, other than loud? No, seriously, Bud Light? What is that, some sort of postmodern irony thing?

The thing about Didion is that she will have answered all these questions by the end of such a piece. But this is written under the same hipster inscrutability license (Title XII, Sect. A) and no answers ever come.

Well, I ask these questions, because I am not in the know. Perhaps that’s why what seems strange to me in the story of this party is not so much that the hosts were upstairs having some kind of psychotic episode, but that the party went right on swingin’ anyhow.

Duncan and Blake had been found in the rectory, seated by the window, looking down at the party—their party—below. Without apology they explained that they could not come down, no, they were experiencing a “collective vision” that the grill was going to explode, somehow harming Duncan. It would have been a more troubling exchange were it not, by this point, almost expected. During their moments of clarity there were few people as thrilling to be around as these two—the banter was invigorating, the exchange of ideas fervent—but an incident like this was a reminder that moments of clarity were increasingly rare.


In time everyone had a theory, a hypothesis, an eagerness to impose his own story line onto what had happened. To some the “double suicide,” as the newspapers called it, reinforced the quixotic fantasy that artists are somehow too pure for the harshness of the world. To others it was a Shakespearean tale of a love so tragic and potent that one person could not live, literally, without the other. According to the blog Dream’s End, the deaths were not suicides but murders connected to an “alternate reality game.” As more details emerged—about their troubles in Hollywood, their claims of harassment by Scientologists, and how many people they had thoroughly alienated in recent years—the narrative grew harsher. Now their deaths became a story of wrathful envy, of toxic ambition, of fame obsession, of a woman spurned by success, of a terrible conspiracy, of madness. People so quickly grew fixated on trying to define what Duncan and Blake represented in death that it became increasingly difficult to understand and remember who they had been when they were alive.

None of it, I admit, very flattering to the human race. I mean, maybe they're gone to hook up with Elvis. None of these sources are named, their relationship to the deceased is a complete mystery. So, by the way, is Amsden’s relationship to them. He seems awfully well acquainted with their living room.

There [Where?!!! Oh, never mind. -- ed.]is a photograph, two years old, from September 2005. In it Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake are seated on the vintage couch in their Venice Beach cottage. Behind them is a bookshelf crammed with fiction and philosophy and the political polemics that Duncan, if you let her, would talk about for hours. Do they have a fire going? You can’t see from this angle, though they so often did in the fall and winter that you can imagine the snap of burning logs and the sweet soot smell mixing with one of Blake’s Nat Sherman cigarettes. His left arm is extended along the back of the couch, as if about to embrace Duncan, who is perched back on her heels, holding a stethoscope to Blake’s heart. Her eyes are closed. She is listening. His eyes are half open, a lazy grin on his face. The photo is almost uncomfortably intimate. It was taken by the artist Dario Robleto, part of a project to collect the heartbeats of 50 lovers. “Hearing Jeremy’s heart like this was amazing,” Duncan wrote on her blog, “like staring through a telescope at a vast and previously undiscovered world. The beats sounded so powerful, and yet so temporary. We are just another damn song…”

They might have seemed like the “It” couple of their rather large circle of acquaintances, but when two people who don’t have a very strong inner sense of self begin to mirror each other in the way Blake and Duncan did, it’s not a good thing.

It was by coincidence that both Duncan and Blake moved to New York in the same year, 1995. One autumn night they ran into each other backstage at the old Knitting Factory, and this time the attraction was immediate. Within a few weeks it seemed to friends that Duncan and Blake had been together for years—two people connected by an almost compulsive fascination with the idea of the artist: the fantasies, the mythologies, the clichés.

Naturally, then, when they moved to Los Angeles, they settled in a cottage on Venice Beach. Well, Venice looks like the fantasy of the artist’s neighborhood, and it even actually was an artists’ neightborhood once, which is why one-bedroom apartments there rent for $2500 a month. They were paying for the cottage in Venice, who knows what sums, and a rather grand workspace for him, though why he needed a big warehouse with a skylight to produce drawings with a Wacom tablet-like device and a computer is unclear. I suppose it provided inspiration. But things started to go wrong in Los Angeles, the paranoia was setting in even deeper, a spreading and all-consuming conviction that they were being spied on by Scientologists. They gave up the cottage and the splendid studio and Drake kept only a single studio space. Duncan’s attempt to break into the film industry as an auteur,on the strength of her video game designs, her one short animated film, and her brilliance and looks was not making headway. This failure of a perfectly reasonable proposition, she came to believe, was a conspiracy too.

If New York can be a hostile but ultimately rewarding environment for an artist, Los Angeles is often the opposite: easy and glittering until you begin to suspect that it is all maybe a cruel illusion. It was Nathanael West, himself a New Yorker who settled in Hollywood, who perhaps best understood the potentially grim effects this can have on the mind of an ambitious optimist. “Once there, they discover the sunshine isn’t enough,” he wrote in The Day of the Locust of those who seek a specific paradise in Los Angeles. “Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time … The boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment.”

There are a couple of things to know about West. One is that The Day of the Locust was written in 1939, set in Hollywood at a point when the Depression must have felt like it was going to last forever. Another thing to know about West is that his sister, Laura, was the wife of S.J. Perelman. All three of them were urbane, cosmopolitan, talented, cultured East Coasters who made their real money as screenwriters. They loathed LA, especially the film industry. For the Perelmans and West it was a backwater, a company town, population populated by misfits, eccentrics, posers, and lost souls, in the midst of which loomed the film industry, a highly lucrative salt mine managed by goons and vulgarians. They loathed it, and they made out there like bandits. Perelman reserves his most vitriolic wit for Los Angeles. He makes West seem like Gandhi. And in Los Angeles, in 1939, there wasn’t much else but the film industry, besides oil derricks dotting its still quite empty landscape. Film noir and the novels of Raymond Chandler discovered a certain louche charm in LA life, which quickly became a cliché too, another myth. But in the nearly 70 years since The Day of the Locust Los Angeles has changed a bit. It’s simply not the place that Nathanael West wrote about. You can get all the art and culture you want there, but not necessarily in the places where Duncan and Blake thought they were.

Geography and real estate weren’t the problem. The film industry wasn't the problem. Naivete is desirable, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish from cluelessness.

Nevertheless, they returned to New York early this year and moved into even more incredible digs, an apartment in the rectory of St. Mark’s church. There they lived the Boho life of their fantasies, while Blake went out and lived the actual life of the successful art-world artist-as-commodity. A little consulting, a little marketing, a little “playing artist” --

In January, Blake was a featured guest at a screening of Factory Girl at the headquarters of William Morris – a small, informal event organized by the Whitney to cultivate younger patrons. Blake was always skilled in those environments, understanding of his role, adept at charming potential donors…

-- his ability to perform in this other fantasy only slightly impaired by the crazy. The couple seemed at first to have left a lot of the crazy back in Los Angeles, but enough of it appeared in New York to have been worrisome – at least in retrospect.

…you could, in a sense, rationalize their occasional erratic behavior. They were artists, after all, and artists are allowed a degree of lunacy.

I love that sentence.

Monday, August 27, 2007

American Traditions, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

Tom posts on subprime credit and links to this interview with a leading Swiss banker.

Switzerland's top banker has warned of massive losses from the unfolding credit crisis, describing the collapse in US lending standards as "unbelievable".

Jean-Pierre Roth, president of the Swiss National Bank, said market turmoil was far from over as tremors from the sub-prime debacle continued to rock the world.

"We're certainly not at the end of the story. There are question marks surrounding the development of the American economy," he said. "Something unbelievable happened. People who had neither income nor capital got credit with very attractive conditions. Now reality is striking back," he said.

You know what this reminds me of? Remember that famous scene in Caddyshack when this brown object is spotted floating in the pool and there's this slow-motion replay of everybody fleeing from it, set to the music of Jaws? In Caddyshack the object turns out to be just a chocolate bar. Well, I picture the European markets at this point fleeing in horror from the pool. Except this time it's a real turd and the U.S. securities industry laid it.

Speaking of turds, you really must not miss this story in Rolling Stone about defense contractors in Iraq.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


I spent a fat chunk of my working day talking to one of my small and select readers about how I have no life. The strange thing about my having no life right now is that I don’t mind terribly most of the time, I told him. I’ve got enough to do and the difficulty is making time to do it.

The last two weekends have had imperatives related to Mrs. G., my neighbor across the hall, as in “Ha ha heh heh hoo hoo ha ha hah ha haaaaaaa! Whoooweeee!” that Mrs. G. The weekend before this we had a little hospital run because of her back pain. Although she was in awful pain she made me laugh by telling me this story about the downstairs neighbor D, with whom she has resumed cordial relations after a lengthy hiatus. The hiatus followed the famous scene when Mrs. G. saw D. in the hall without her wig: “Girl, I had no idea that woman was balt haided!”

While the EMTs were figuring out how to get Mrs. G. down the stairs (she’s a heavy woman and was in a lot of pain) D. entertained us all with stories about a pain she was experiencing in the bottom of her foot.

They kept Mrs. G. for a couple of days, and since then she has chosen to have surgery to fix her back. Meanwhile she’s on good pain meds which makes her even more jolly. She demanded a hug from my dad the last time she saw him. And on Saturday she said we must go to the fruit stand again. Mrs. G. loves the fruit stand. We went there for the first time about this time last year and got all these peaches. We went up there again but all the peaches were gone so we got apples instead. Now, Mrs. G. has this big nice van with a handicapped sticker and drives all over the place in it. She’ll load people up in it for some church outing and be off in the wilds of Virginia at all hours. She crisscrosses the DC area visiting various relatives and doing little kindnesses and errands for people. But when we go to the fruit stand, which is maybe five miles away, I have to drive the van. This time, to my surprise and delight, we brought D. along too.

Mrs. G.’s church is about halfway between our apartment building and the fruit stand. It’s in a little village that used to be one of those areas where black people were consioen of those black towns. The church is a rather ugly modern affair but it sits on a nice piece of land, and next to it is the pastor’s house, donated by the state, according to Mrs. G., under some sort of history or culture grant. I’ve seen some of these people from her church. The leading quality when they are all together in a group is gentleness. They have a sort of old fashioned formality of manners and an intimate, easy acquaintance with the Lord who they are sure will work things out for the best sooner or later.

As we continued west into rural Maryland she was telling how some members of her church grew up here when these roads were all dirt. How quiet it was, how dark the nights were. Back in those days you didn’t have toilets or electricity.

I told her how when my father was working his way through college in the 1950s he was selling magazine subscriptions or something door-to-door. He went into a house in Washington DC that had a dirt floor. He swam at segregated beaches. When my mother was here in June we took a drive out this same road and she marveled at how pretty it was, it’s really a bucolic paradise out here, just unbelievably pretty with these lovely rolling hills and meadows and fine old farmhouses. “I had no idea all this was out here,” my mother had said. My parents met when they were both living in Washington DC. “Didn’t you ever take a drive out here in those days?” I asked her. “Good god, no, it would have been dangerous.”

“That’s right,” said Mrs. G. “You stayed in your house.”

You stayed in the house to avoid mischief. You didn’t want to be caught out at night. It was dangerous for a black person to be out and about at night. At night you didn’t even want to go outside to the outhouse, “You had your slops in those days,” she said, with a laugh.

D., who is from New York, had not experienced this sort of thing.

We got to the fruit stand and I bought peaches, yellow squash, fresh lima beans still in the pod, zinnias, nectarines, sweet corn, a melon, and tomatoes. Also available was milk from a dairy in Pennsylvania somewhere, and I drank some of that and it was excellent. Local goat cheese, which Mrs. G. regarded with profound skepticism.

On the way home Mrs. G. talked about men. When Mrs. G. goes out into the world, you know, she is always dressed up, she has a flawless sense of style, never overdressed, she looks like everybody’s mother. She’s quite tall, so she is, as the saying goes, an imposing woman. She was talking about the couple on our floor who split up and moved out. Apparently he was playing the jealous control freak and fooling around. “Kick that sucker to the curb!” says Mrs. G. Then she explained her theory of child support. “Do he have a key to your house, is he coming and going in and out of your house whenever he want? Awww, sheeee it.” That last expression is her feeling about the passivity of women who put up with being played by men.

When I got home I was starving and made a salmon sandwich, then I went back for another slice of tomato, then a couple slices more, then a couple of slices more. After about my third trip back to the kitchen I realized I was having one of those tomato-eating experiences that make people complain about all their other tomato-eating experiences.

Aside from the Ultimate Tomato and the laughs, I am glad that D. got to come along on a little pleasure excursion. She sits alone in her apartment with her cat a lot of the time, I don’t know what she does with herself all day – except for the pain in the bottom of her foot she seems to enjoy perfect health. But she never goes anywhere.

She is sort of a boring person. She talks about the weather. She talks about the pain in the bottom of her foot. She talks about her car. These three things provide an inexhaustible supply of petty complaints, for which despair of any resolution is the primary assumption going forward. Oh, and the other thing she says often is that she’s thinking about moving back to New York because it’s too boring here. She’s been saying that for years, according to Mrs. G.

I am glad she and Mrs. G. are patching up their differences because Mrs. G. is able to take these slim conversational materials and spin them into gold. Like this one she reported to me a few weeks ago, when D. called and asked if she had a spare onion to lend.

Mrs. G.: No, I'm all out of onions.

D: You sure?

Mrs. G: I ain’t going lie to you about no onions, baby.

Two Good Things

My daily quick spin through Metafilter yields two good things. This story choked me up but in a good way. Art is long and life is short, but sometimes you get a break.

And here's a rare interview with Robert Fisk, a real journalist. At Vice magazine of all places. An excellent choice of venue if you ask me.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


I spoke with one of my cousins in Jamaica about midday. I expect as a matter of course that phone service will be out for at least a couple of days. One just expects that to happen in Jamaica. But from reports that are making their way out this one sounds a lot less dangerous and a lot less terrifying than people had anticipated.

Images, story, and updates from around the region here at the BBC.

How Many Ways Can You Spell Spam?

Years ago, when I was in college and my grandmother was still alive, she answered an ad that said she could make $1,000 a week stuffing envelopes. All she had to do was send in $5 or something and she'd find out how. She sent in the $5 and then got deluged with all these letters -- it turned out that you would make $1,000 a week if you could get a bunch of other people to send you $5 to find out how to make $1,000 a week. Well, she caught on at that point, and was not interested further, but letters from this outfit kept coming. They had lots of BLOCK LETTERS and EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!! And, following good marketing practice, used the word "YOU" a lot -- which always makes me feel special, because then I know they really care about me.

I suspect that a lot of the money made from spam is not made from the sale of actual products, but from the sale of the hope of making fortunes through the production of spam.

I do peek in my bulk mailbox just to make sure I haven’t missed anything that shouldn’t have gone in there. That has become a fruitless exercise over the last year, as the volume of spam has increased hugely. It comes in waves. I had a bout of Viagra spam a few weeks ago, and I remember before that some penis enlargement offers. The subject headings of some of these looked like they ought to have been scrawled on the side of a building in Lagos, Nigeria.

Then that ended and now it is the free gift offers. (A free sample of Febreeze Air Freshener! How exciting!) Then the Coke and Pepsi taste tests. Then the gift cards. Lots and lots of gift cards. I’d need a warehouse to store all these gifts. I have won literally hundreds of lotteries. Then a lot of people were very keen to give me a laptop computer. Did even one person in 10,000 did click on the message with the heading “Nordstom?” I am in doubt about “Easy way to a flat belly,” too, and I feel no need to answer the call to “Separate yourself from other men.” (A lot of the penis-related spam seems to speak to an anxiety about other men. These are the ones that have some relation to the product they are selling. There are others where I just imagine some poor boiler-room worker rushing to fill his quota of messages for the day, grabbing at random bits of prose, like this: “’Chinese’ said Johnny. ‘I don’t understand any of them.’”

I wonder, for instance, whether all of the Free Gift Card people are working for the same company. At any rate, their software doesn’t seem to keep track of whether two or three or forty people from the same spamshop are sending the same messages to the same addresses. Are they in some sort of boiler room operation or are they doing “Chrisitan Work From Home?”

Then there is the spam that is disguised as spam. A couple of these have gotten through the filters, and they carry subject headings that seem to assume a certain familiarity. I think, “I don’t who she is, I don’t know why she’s leaving town, or why I should care. But maybe she’s someone I met somewhere.” Open. Scroll down down down through a lot of white space occasionally interrupted by the sort of alphabetic leftovers that always travel with glurge. But there is no glurge. At the very bottom is one line, written without punctuation, inviting me to look at some very special pictures.

I have my doubts as to the existence of the pictures. I imagine this entire pursuit, like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or maybe Kafka, or one of those strange Victorian stories of curses, ghosts, or fetishes. The product is elusive, whether it is the free laptop or the $50 TJ Maxx gift certificate or the carton of diapers and baby wipes. Answer the message and you will pursue the offer through this tangled, foggy wilderness, from which come messages assuring you that all you have to do is get to the next stage, to get ahead of the competition, to participate, to join thousands of successful entrepreneurs. You aren’t chasing a laptop now, you’re chasing the prospect of making a fortune selling the idea of selling the idea of a laptop. Somewhere along the line you may be persuaded to part with a small sum of money. The whole point of the exercise is that right there: to skim a little, not enough so anybody minds. But all those little bits can add up..

"Pump-and-dump" is when spammers buy shares, orchestrate a spam campaign promoting the company, then wait for a share price to rise before selling their stock for a profit.

I read this in the Caribbean Net News without noticing that it was also reportedly the biggest spam dump ever.

Wealthy people can buy quality advice, have all the access they need to information, can protect themselves with armies of lawyers; Warren Buffett is safe. He’s safe because he has other ways of getting a laptop than taking up some free offer off the Internet. He doesn’t have to think, “Well, maybe they mean it this time.” Movies end happily when the scrappy little underdog takes on the big bully and takes him down. But the sad reality is that it’s the weak that get preyed on, continually. Why? Because it is easier.

People who can afford to pay for a laptop computer don’t want to be given a free one from some mystery spam outfit on the Internet. The people who want such things free are 1) people who have no money, and 2) people who have no information. The two categories are not the same. And they don’t make their investment decisions based on spam either.

“I tried being poor once,” said Picasso, “It was too expensive.”

Picture a guy named Larry, who’s got his own little crew of aspiring dealers. What’s the matter? No nibbles? Well, Larry has some leads he’ll sell you. Larry makes $25K a month. And you buy some of his leads (which ones do you suppose Larry is willing to sell?), and you buy some of those How-to-Sell DVDs via mail order from some guy in Missouri. Do you dare to complain of this arrangement? Well, you aren’t a team player. You are possibly a socialist.

After six months the weak are quietly winnowed out of these operations--they aren’t team players, they aren’t trying hard enough, they aren’t happy to spend 10 straight hours cold-calling on a strict commission basis. Larry has sold his less productive leads, got a percentage of any sale made, maybe got a cut of something from the Missouri guy. A new crop of single mothers, retirees, part-time community college students and immigrants arrives. The great thing about taking money and free labor off the poor – aside from how easy it is – is how many of them there are.

Larry’s riches are proof that El Dorado exists. Question L arry and you are criticizing the Idea that money can be made, is made, without any exchange of goods or creation of value. All effort is the effort to transfer money from A to B. Larry is a profound seer into the mysteries of money. Don’t criticize Larry; Be Larry.

For the last two years I’ve watched this housing disaster building. The money got cheaper but the price of houses went up and up, but the money kept coming. Why did it suddenly become so appealing to put people into houses? Why did we suddenly find it so important to put people into homes they couldn’t afford? When did we suddenly start giving a shit about the poor in this way? Somewhere down the food chain it was about having a place to live, but higher up it was about the Idea.

So there, some buyer chases the Idea of a home, the big symbol of arrival in America. “Don’t get priced out! Real Estate never goes down! They’re not making any more land,” and if you’re living on the edge of poverty – the condition of a lot of the country’s middle class – you feel it is your responsibility to buy. And the interest rates are low, though the prices have shot up to such an extent that it is delusional to think that the rates give you any kind of a break. And you didn’t even have to put up a down payment!

But if you can get in you will have this great symbol, you’ll be established, and also this symbol will make you some money. Two religious mysteries of America right there, two pillars of American personal identity. When these pillars of identity collapse under people, it’s sad, yes, but occasionally you get a glimpse of something primitive and nasty, of this disintegration, regression. That’s the only way I can explain horrible things like this. Then I suppose these people go away and have all the work of assembling an identity again. “Hi! We’re the Murphys! Do we look like the sort of people who would abandon their dog in an empty house? We’ve got brand new furniture!” That is, they will assemble their identity again out of things.

The people who made money trading in mortgages were not interested in trading in houses, but they needed people who believed that you could get free money by trading in houses. That belief drove the production of those securities. The people who wrote the mortgages didn’t carry the risk. That went up the food chain to – who? The people who bought the debt were no more interested in actual mortgages than speculative house buyers were interested in actual houses. Nouriel Roubini explains what they were interested in.

different (equity, mezzanine, senior) tranches of cash CDOs that receive a misleading investment grade rating by the credit rating agencies; then you create synthetic CDOs out of the same underlying RMBS; then you create CDOs of CDOs (or squared CDOs) out of these CDOs; and then you create CDOs of CDOs of CDOs (or cubed CDOs) out of the same murky securities; then you stuff some of these RMBS and CDO tranches into SIV (structured investment vehicles) or into ABCP (Asset Backed Commercial Paper) or into money market funds. Then no wonder that eventually people panic and run - as they did yesterday – on an apparently “safe” money market fund such as Sentinel. That “toxic waste” of unpriceable and uncertain junk and zombie corpses is now emerging in the most unlikely places in the financial markets.

Understand that some of these investors borrowed money to play with “zombie corpses.” That is, they planned to pay for these securities with the money they were sure would be realized in swapping them about.

Second example: today any wealthy individual can take $1 million and go to a prime broker and leverage this amount three times; then the resulting $4 million ($1 equity and $3 debt) can be invested in a fund of funds that will in turn leverage these $4 millions three or four times and invest them in a hedge fund; then the hedge fund will take these funds and leverage them three or four times and buy some very junior tranche of a CDO that is itself levered nine or ten times. At the end of this credit chain, the initial $1 million of equity becomes a $100 million investment out of which $99 million is debt (leverage) and only $1 million is equity. So we got an overall leverage ratio of 100 to 1. Then, even a small 1% fall in the price of the final investment (CDO) wipes out the initial capital and creates a chain of margin calls that unravel this debt house of cards. This unraveling of a Minskian Ponzi credit scheme is exactly what is happening right now in financial markets.

So we find ourselves in the Cayman Islands again. Such a tiny little place, and what untold wealth is buried there!

Except when the zombies vaporize it.

Bear Stearns, the fifth-largest US investment firm by market value, sought bankruptcy protection for the funds July 31 in Cayman Islands Grand Court.

The hedge funds, managed in New York and incorporated in the Cayman Islands, invested in home mortgage securities. The funds collapsed amid rising subprime defaults.

Bear Stearns closed the funds after granting $1.6 billion in emergency financing in June. The attempted bailout was the biggest since the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998.

Over the next few months, by the end of the year, the term “hedge fund manager” will be a standing joke. But when the money was gushing they were wizards of mysterious acuity and vision.

Poor people did not create this scheme. If Wall Street had not wanted to buy these mortgages, the poor (and yes, often black) homebuyers could have sat in their cardboard boxes all along those sidewalks and begged for housing relief till they cried blood, as my grandmother used to say. If it hadn’t figured out a way to make money out of their need, Wall Street would have stepped over them and gone on about its business. But in the years of the growing bubble, these people were encouraged to buy, and encouraged to take on this debt that there was no hope on earth of their repaying.

For the past year, more and more Americans find themselves living in houses under crippling mortgage payments on debt that is worth more than the house. Not a whole lot better than a cardboard box, I imagine, in terms of peace of mind, security, and brightness of future prospects. But the Fed has stepped in for – or rather, stepped over, those cardboard box-dwelling citizens – and come to the rescue of Larry.

Update: I fixed the links and did a little bit of tweaking.

Update II: Via Metafilter, here's an explanation of what the Fed did.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Listening to the Folk Music Again

Now that I've moved to a noisier section of the office, it's essential. Far too many of the noises are physiological, as in the late-afternoon loud belching of one neighbor and the sort of weird moaning gasping noises emitted by another neighbor. And then one of those guys who talks really loudly on the phone. So it's the folk music again.

People have encounters in cafes in folk songs. But they are always small cafes. I'd like to hear a folk song where they have that last sad talk at Sizzler.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The News and the Weather

An errand had me driving around in Virginia today, of all things. It was one of those days of anxious retrospection. The landscape was all abloom with couldas, wouldas, and shouldas. I gathered armfuls of them -- I was sure no one would miss them, there were so many! -- and the filled the car with their rich and evocative scent, so that I was quite giddy with anxiety. Emphasis on anxious, anxiety lighting on anything that passed by. Oh there's another horse farm! My thighs are expanding! Will I end up living in one of thse noplace apartments between the 7-11 and the storage place? (I was telling Leslie about it, it made her snort wine through her nose with the result that I may now owe her a pair of pants. As she put it, "Where did I make the wrong turn in my life so that I never got to own a horse farm?")

I was also painfully hungry, having made no plan with respect to stopping to eat, and being on totally strage roads. I drove through Leesburg, saw places to eat, but on these anxious drives it's so hard to stop. I took White's Ferry and stopped at the White's Ferry store and had a hamburger, onion rings, and some kind of weird Mid-Atlantic version of coleslaw in which horseradish seems to predominate. (I know some East Coasty person will tell me some day that's the only way to have cole slaw etc. etc.) That was a totally native, totally unpretentious experience. Drove home (this was the long way home) passing through Poolesville where someone actually has a black lawn jockey in front of their house. Got home feeling quite shattered and dived into bed at 4 p.m. That's not as bad as it sounds if you understand that I had about a two-hour bout of insomnia the night before.

After the nap -- yes, more nightmares -- I took the dogs out to a new part of the lake and they did not like it. There was a bit of boggy ground and for some reason they didn't want to be there, they were balky and nervous, most strange. I'm thinking maybe it was a bit snaky. They really do not like snakes. They want nothing to do with them, when they smell snakes it's like they hit a wall, they just back up and look disgusted and alarmed.

But the walk was good, all I had to do was just, you know, walk. I listened to John Prine on the iPod. About 10 years ago I bought his double album "Great Days." I could not tell you why. But I listen to it a lot. Today, it was this song:

So what in the world has come over you?
What in heaven's name have you done?
You've broken the speed of the sound of loneliness;
You're out there running just to be on the run.

Oh, did I leave some details out? Ah well.

I did learn, however, that at White's Ferry it is possible to rent a canoe and have them drive you up to Harper's Ferry so that you can paddle (or not paddle) all the way back down.


You may not have realized this but I quite like this river. The Potomac. I went to Carderock on Sunday with the dogs. This magical, rocky river landscape, practically underneath the Beltway. Great Falls is a couple miles up but I missed the turn for that. Something to look forward to. I took my camera but got not a single picture because every time I stopped to take one Misha assumed that it was time to get us all safely back to the car, and was dragging me with all her strength. Misha's idea of a really good time is : get in car, get driven around and bark at people, stop someplace nice, take a shit, and immediately get back in car and bark at more people. Also if pork rinds could be worked into this scenario...

Between Great Falls and Georgetown the river has all these hazards, it's quite dangerous. I saw a sign that said wading was illegal. I was not tempted.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Update on the Entity Birkerts

Frank Wilson at Books, Inq. has more on the Mythical Beast Birkerts, via Wood s Lot.

Another response
from Daniel Green, and he's got links to a couple more people at the bottom of his post, if you find yourself with an insatiable hunger for all things (allegedly) Birkerts.

The original offense was prompted by a Cynthia Ozick piece in the April Harpers on the decline of literary criticism. There is a very simple reason why I was not aware of this Ozick piece: that issue had a story about the condition of the animals in the Baghdad zoo. I can't handle that stuff, it makes me crazy, so I did not read Harper's that month. But now I'm curious about the Cynthia Ozick article.

What Good Looks Like

Yesterday I found this interview with Raoul Hilberg, but I don't remember where I got the link. I've been looking for it, but no luck. I don't spend all my time being cranky about awful critics, you know. I like to know what truly good looks like. It looks like Raoul Hilberg, who died yesterday.

The Vienna-born Hilberg, a Jew himself, was best known for his massive study "The Destruction of the European Jews" which chronicled how Nazi Germany constructed and operated history's most lethal killing machine that murdered 6 million Jews.

When he started his research soon after World War Two, Hilberg was a rarity in his early scholarly passion for the topic. "In the Jewish community the topic was almost taboo," Hilberg told Reuters in a 2004 interview. "I went ahead with my work starting with the end of 1948, almost, I would say, as a protest against silence."

Another memory of goodness for which we can thank him:

Sometimes Hilberg would react particularly strongly to small details of the Holocaust, such as when he found out about a Jew who sued the Nazis for the right to purchase coffee.

"I was nauseated because obviously this Jew was picked up and sent to Auschwitz or wherever they sent him and died," he said. "Why did this particular incident affect me when I could calmly read about mass murder?"

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Made it to the Beach

Well, sort of. Friday I managed to catch the Boudin show at the National Gallery. It was smaller than I expected, and so were the paintings. Maybe there are some bigger ones somewhere but these were all small. I thought of him out there with his gear on those windy Atlantic beaches, and you'd want to paint small, I imagine. In the beach paintings where there is the least bit of sunlight the sand is almost the color of clotted cream, and I love looking at it just for that. And then on the sand, between the sea and the sky, these wonderful shapes of figures. Not much color, and there's rarely a sunny day. But what an effect a few black umbrellas can have, or three young peasant women wearing red petticoats, dark blue skirts and big white headscarves. There's only ever just that the odd little bit of intense color but the rest of the painting just organizes itself around that bit of color and those simple shapes so nicely. And they seem unpretentious and without drama, not even tranquil, just sort of stolid, almost unimaginative. If you had seen him out there on the beach you might have taken him for a sort of duffer, a producer of tourist art, maybe. But the paintings I liked best seemed so simple and unassuming, and the sea and light are of the actual sea, not some romantic fantasy of the sea -- not "effects" but observation of the most matter-of-fact kind.

The paintings of boats at anchor don't do much for me. They really do look like tourist art, but that might not be his fault.

What I liked best were the paintings of figures on the beach. (This one's from the National Gallery in London, not DC, by the way) but you get the idea. The beach doesn't look very comfortable, but here are all these ladies with their big full skirts and their umbrellas, the bathing-machines, the chairs. It's windy but the waves aren't very big, it's probably damp, sand blowing on you if it isn't damp, and here are all these people who can't stay away, in their little islands of comfort on the sand.

Monday, August 06, 2007

"Bother Mr. Birkerts!"

'IS it Mrs Harris?'

'No, Betsey Prig, it ain't,' was Mrs Gamp's reply.

'Well!' said Mrs Prig, with a short laugh. 'I'm glad of that, at any rate.'

'Why should you be glad of that, Betsey?' Mrs Gamp retorted, warmly. 'She is unbeknown to you except by hearsay, why should you be glad? If you have anythink to say contrairy to the character of Mrs Harris, which well I knows behind her back, afore her face, or anywheres, is not to be impeaged, out with it, Betsey. I have know'd that sweetest and best of women,' said Mrs Gamp, shaking her head, and shedding tears, 'ever since afore her First, which Mr Harris who was dreadful timid went and stopped his ears in a empty dog-kennel, and never took his hands away or come out once till he was showed the baby, wen bein' took with fits, the doctor collared him and laid him on his back upon the airy stones, and she was told to ease her mind, his owls was organs. And I have know'd her, Betsey Prig, when he has hurt her feelin' art by sayin' of his Ninth that it was one too many, if not two, while that dear innocent was cooin' in his face, which thrive it did though bandy, but I have never know'd as you had occagion to be glad, Betsey, on accounts of Mrs Harris not requiring you. Require she never will, depend upon it, for her constant words in sickness is, and will be, "Send for Sairey!"'

Tom is having a little bit of sport with Sven Birkerts (for some reason the image of a sea lion playing with a beach ball comes to mind and won't leave), having reportedly spotted the figure of the critic, lorgnette in hand, peering over the clouds of Olympus at the antlike bloggers below and giving the most decorous little shiver.

That's assuming Birkert exists. I've read the writing of the purported Birkerts over the years and I suspect that some sort of late-20th century Gamp-like person invented him. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to learn that he is the handiwork of a man named Carl living in an expensive and ugly converted garage in Canoga Park or possibly El Segundo, beaming this Imaginary Literary Entity Birkerts out at the world for our sins. The Birkerts Entity claims his hair is graying. Hah! Nice try. Entities don't have hair. With Betsey Prig I say, "I don't believe there's no sich a person!"

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Peeling the Onion

I just finished Gunter Grass's autobiography, Peeling the Onion. I've preferred Grass the polemicist to Grass the novelist, though I'm not sure I can give a good reason for that. Based only, really, on a long-ago reading of The Tin Drum and of this autobiography and some of his essays he's literary in a way that I feel uneasy with, entirely owing to my own education in the novel, which is strongly biased in favor of -- well, whatever you call it that unites Austen, Kleist, Trollope, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Faulkner, Pushkin, and Chekhov. I grew up into a mistrust of allegorical modes of writing, for one thing. So I always had this reservation, though I've tried to resist it.

After reading Peeling the Onion, I read rather quickly through this Timothy Garton Ash review in the New York Review of Books. He mentions that before the book came out, the media broke the story that Grass, a Nobel Prize winner, had been a member of the Waffen-SS as a young man. Garton Ash also describes some of the controversy that followed this disclosure. It’s interesting, I still found that my sympathies lay with Grass in the whole affair.

For one thing, the venality of the press’s handling of the disclosure was so very apparent. And there’s something more than venality in it. Among other things, the conflict between Grass and the press was a conflict over who has the right to tell the story. This is an issue not just for Grass, but for everybody. I mean, we are all getting so used to the idea all of a sudden that people shouldn’t speak for themselves where they can be heard by anybody else -- that doing so exposes you as “uncivil.” Civil people keep quiet and let other people do their thinking for them: “We tried to Teach You How to Think but we – er, you – failed.” And it has always been true that the person who tries to defend himself against the media starts out with a huge disadvantage. So, again: who tells Grass’s story? Does journalism tell it or does literature tell it?

It just happened that I read the book first, without having paid much attention to all the fuss. I paid just enough attention to know that I wanted to read the book first.

I think my feeling about Grass's approach to literature began to change not because of him but because of another German writer, W.G. Sebald. Somehow while I was in St. Kitts I managed to get hold of his novels and devoured them. If novels is the right word for them. What I liked was their discursiveness, a quality frowned on this side of the water. Sebald's books are literary in a high and subtle way; they are "artificial" in the sense in which, say, Andrew Marvell would have understood the term, that is, deliberately crafted to seem completely natural. They wander through a series of subjects that are connected by tenous and seemingly accidental connections, and when you get to the end you have a feeling -- but you really have that feeling, it has been so carefully defined and set off from its surroundings for you. And that feeling will be a new feeling: you will know something you didn't know before and that knowledge will be fraught with the feeling. He has brought you there, and his narrator is so strangely unassuming and solitary, and so accepting of his condition. He makes what connections he can among disparate things with a sort of scrupulous thoughtfulness, as if his life depended on it. I recognize in his work his need to see life in a literary way, his sense that insights only come from this state of immersion and concentration that is a lot like being in love.

Sebald's novels are as if The Sorrows of Young Werther were readable and interesting. But instead of some ditzy romance at the back of Sebald's novels are feelings of guilt and loss. His own personal feelings? I don't know and am less interested in that question than in how it is that his reader comes to experience those feelings by following the meandering track of the narrator’s musings. The point is to experience a very specific feeling through this level of patient, detailed reflection. The feeling is the casual byproduct of the end of these musings, when the narrator comes to a moment of self-discovery that links together all these various themes and bits of narrative. The narrator, you realize, has been seeking his place among all these things – his place in history. And he can’t assume he knows what history is; he has to figure that out too. In Auschwitz the narrator is looking for continuity, and at the end you learn that you can’t have continuity without the acknowledgment of that catastrophe. The narrator has been exploring a few of the catastrophe’s implications and consequences. He’s examining the fading marks that those events have left behind, he’s looking at absences. Auschwitz is a novel addressing history – it is a novel about ideas. Not about ideology, but the use of conceptualization, i.e., various ways of making connections and seeing relations among things, to imagine, and by imagining, perceive.

(One of the ways that you can distinguish between what Harold Rosenberg called "mass-culture" writing and the real thing is that the former takes you through a very narrow range of feelings and those feelings are always predictable.)

Anyway when I discovered Sebald I ate up his books because he was trying to use ideas to write about feelings and thereby get at something bigger than both. I became much more interested in the idea of lyrical prose if it could open up other subjects, other experiences and other feelings for the writer. This interest is not about style at all, if I haven’t made that clear. It’s about finding a way to sustain and complete a thought and give it form. It is really interested in getting from point A to point B.

Grass, too, had to work with ideas in his fiction in order to reconnect with history. His metaphor is peeling the onion, peeling away layers of tricky memory to find the young man who joined the Waffen-SS near the end of the war. Peeling the Onion tells the story of who that young man was: it ends at the beginning of the career of the writer of The Tin Drum. He spent (it's unclear just how many) months in the SS; he didn’t have much choice about which division of the armed services he was sent to, though he makes no plea for himself with respect to that. At the time that he joined, everybody had to join. The army was in retreat from the Eastern front, and was falling apart. His first mission after he completes training is to Dresden, which has already been bombed. Later, he describes finding German soldiers hanging in the woods, killed by their own side for having deserted, though in many cases their units had simply fallen apart or been killed to nearly the last man or had wandered off. Meanwhile the Russians and Americans were advancing. Grass, like a lot of these late recruits, spent most of his short war running and hiding. When he finally surrendered and was placed in an American-run POW camp, he and the others that he finds there seem relieved more than anything. The Americans allow them to set up classes and anybody who has a skill can teach it to others. The whole place turns into an adult-ed classroom; it is extraordinary. Grass took a cooking class from a chef, a class conducted entirely without food. When he was finally released he had to make his way in the world just like any other young chap starting out in life – except he had no education, the world he was setting out into had been bombed to rubble, and over it all was the shadow of this terrible, terrible national guilt and defeat. There was no money, only a black market; and everybody, everybody, was poor and uncertain of the future. He never appeals to your sympathy for this situation. He does tell you that his idea of heroism was romantico-medieval, that, is, fascist; it was what made him a patriot during the war. When he joined the army he hoped to live up to this ideal. It was youthful thoughtlessness, ignorance, and the combination of propaganda and censorship. By the time he had finished his training soldiers were fleeing back into Germany and people were still unclear about the fact that the war was lost. He describes these confusions as experience, not as an excuse. His most forceful comment on his own ignorance and thoughtlessness is his account of the young dissenter in the Labor Corps whom he calls “Wedontdothat,” a conscript, like himself, who simply refuses to handle a weapon. Grass confesses to his own stupidity in joining the others in bullying this dissenter, in not thinking much about what happened to him when he was suddenly taken away. And there he is putting his finger again on the guilt and responsibility. The guilt is negative: it’s the failure to understand, which implies that there is a duty to understand, to judge rightly in order to act rightly. In this failure, he confesses himself part of the grander failure.

You can’t come through a catastrophe like this, as a novelist, and expect to just pick up writing little entertainments as if nothing has happened. History here forces on the writer the necessity of examining those values and ideas and assumptions through which we live, because those are the ones that bit by bit brought him and everybody to that catastrophe. It forces him to write about ideas.

To understand what had happened, to understand its personal meaning, must be for a writer the work of a lifetime, if he decides to take it on. Grass had already been doing that work for more than 50 years when he wrote this autobiography. I suppose he ought to have told this particular detail earlier on. But the number of people who were adults during the war and the years immediately afterwards is dwindling. Grass is 80 years old. He is an expert on the self-justifications, excuses, and self-deceits that large numbers of Germans indulged in after the war. He made it his life’s work to pursue and put a stake through each one of these evasions, using literature and reclaiming literature in the process. He’s been waging a battle for literature, for literature’s way of telling, that demands an examination of values through experience. Unfortunately, literature has no power to alter the drives and imperatives of journalism. It never has. This would seem to have been a blind spot. Literature works on history but only through the imagination, slowly.

His battle has carried Grass straight through history into the realm of Greek tragedy. Oedipus, another shrewd leader and battler, was exposed too. In Oedipus at Colonus, though, Sophocles revisits the story and has the blind, poor, exiled Oedipus, near death, come out swinging. What a mouth the old outcast has on him! It’s all he’s got and nobody can get near him.

But this at least I know
Wittingly thou aspersest her and me;
But I unwitting wed, unwilling speak.
Nay neither in this marriage or this deed
Which thou art ever casting in my teeth--
A murdered sire--shall I be held to blame.
Come, answer me one question, if thou canst:
If one should presently attempt thy life,
Would'st thou, O man of justice, first inquire
If the assassin was perchance thy sire,
Or turn upon him? As thou lov'st thy life,
On thy aggressor thou would'st turn, no stay
Debating, if the law would bear thee out.
Such was my case, and such the pass whereto
The gods reduced me…

I find that I can forgive Grass for not telling. When he sees his guilt – however you want to measure it – being exploited, he’s right to fight against that exploitation. I can’t forgive him on behalf of anybody else, though, just for me.

Update: A few little clarifications. It's a mess, I know, but I'll come back to this maybe after I take a swing through more of Grass's novels.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Sense and Sensibility

In case you missed it Nancy Nall dropped by and posted a very gracious comment to (Oh I don't care if you're sick of the subject) the long post on editing. Leaving out the embarrassingly kind bits I don't know what else to do but promote her comment up here because it's neat to be disagreed with so nicely. This is called "making more of an effort, however slowly" which, come to think of it, might serve as the the theme of my life. I'll try to be brief in my response.

You're right to point out Kamiya's take is definitely that of a media professional (although I'm not sure what ypu mean by "hive mind"). It certainly speaks to the kind of editing you get in newspapers and magazines -- if you're lucky. He's absolutely right that the best editors improve a piece, that they're the treasured "first reader" every writer longs for, the fresh set of eyes that can see where you've gone wrong and where you need to refocus. He doesn't really talk about how rare these folks are, how staff cutbacks and corporate nut-cutting and other constraints have rinsed most of the great editors right out of the business, and shooed the rest off to conference rooms, where they sit in meetings all day contemplating suicide.

If I were to write this again I'd say that the "hive mind" (mean metaphor, yes, I know) is not an exclusive characteristic of media professionals. I think all professions have a sort of "collective voice" that is as it were its public idiom, and to my mind it isn't the voice of any single individual. Individuals become competent in writing it, but when they write as themselves they sound more like, well, more like you, to be blunt. And I find that more interesting. I read that whole piece and I couldn't tell you what Gary K. really cares about. But I read one paragraph of yours and I feel ready to trust in your power to observe, describe, reflect. I suspect that whatever writing you do on the job also sounds like it's written by a human, even granting the constraints of the style you have to work with. Your own post shows that professionalism is not incompatible with vividness, clarity, originality of voice, actual good judgment, purity of language.

I suspect your enmity is over his dismissive remarks about bloggers, and I think you're taking offense where none is intended. We both know the majority of blogging is dreck; what he doesn't say (but certainly knows, as well) is that the same can be said of editor-approved, published prose as well.

Oh, I feel so -- busted! Condescension puts my back up fearfully, I must admit, and this doesn't seem to be abating with age. I suspect it's getting worse. And when I imagine being lectured by someone about "learning to be edited" it gives me the pip. You might say, "Well, he isn't speaking that way to me personally," and of course that's true, but I don't believe anyone wants to be spoken to in that tone of voice. I am sure he thinks it's kind; certainly everyone who has ever ventured to talk to me in that way has been kind in their intent. But somehow I always experience it as impertinence. I'm not confident he's aware of the tone of this voice.

I'll tell you this: I spent 25 years in newspapers and only rarely worked with good editors, "good" defined as "those who can improve a piece with their suggestions, changes and additions." And I do mean rare -- I could probably count them on one hand. Many fell into the category of "good enough," in the sense that they could trim or add without screwing a story up. And the trailing edge were the butchers who liked to tinker, or more often, slash, just to show they'd been there, like a dog peeing on a bush.

You are pointing at the real story here. Aside from the hardship and the conditions of uncertainty there's also the loss of institutional memory, because the best ways to learn to be a good editor are (1) to read a lot and (2) learn on the job from a good editor. Another instance of self-inflicted obsolescence in that industry?

So basically I bow to the cooler heads. However -- and I'm not saying this to be pigheaded -- I maintain that there is something wrong with the tone of that piece. You do notice the difference between his writing and yours, don't you? I mean if I wanted to explain in words why I attacked that piece, I could just point to your comment here. The difference is the reason why I read your blog every day, and it's really about bigger issues than style.

Oh, and you are the only person who has ever written interestingly about the "nut graf".

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Another View

Nancy Nall, a sensible person, quite liked that Gary Kamiya piece that exercised me so much.

And I know one other person whose editorial judgment I respect who didn't mind it either -- or, as he said, not as much as I did.

No, just at this moment I don't know what to make of it all, frankly.


I broke down yesterday; the steely resolve that I had maintained for over a year caved under me and I bought myself a pair of these.

Here are the arguments with self before purchase:

Every time I buy a pair of earphones that won't stay in my ears but keep sliding out while I've got my two hands occupied with two dogs on extenda-leashes, and the music in the iPod might as well be coming out of a 1970s transistor radio, I can put up with this irritation in one of the central activities of my non-work day and go slowly -- no, make that quickly -- insane. To the tune of $20-30 a pair of these nonperformers.

Or I can take a chance that these will work. At worse I'll be out the pair of three pairs of the nonperforming earphones.

I am a cranky person who gets irritable about small things. For instance I go nearly nuts if there is dust between my toes. When I was small, things like my shoelaces not being tied tight enough, my braids not being braided tightly enough, my hair parted on the wrong side, the taste of brussels sprouts, onions on anything, the little girl from next door breathing too loudly while she was eating, these things would make me frantic. Not everything would make me frantic, but then, you never know which thing would do it next. I suppose it's a bit like having allergies. Now, I've mostly got this thing contained but in my struggles with the earphones it was definitely not contained. It broke out again in all its childishness and it even made the dogs nervous when I was standing mid-walk, holding the iPod and swearing at the old earphones.

Here are the arguments with self after purchase:

The entire contents of the iPod now and evermore hallelujah thank you jeebus. These earphones don't fall out of my ears. And inside my ears it sounds like I have some sort of wood-paneled cozy acoustical heaven, lined with good books and all sorts of brilliant thoughts waiting to pounce onto that big stack of cream-colored legal paper, and all, all is peace, no one even knows I'm here.

Except for Conscience and Prudence, who are stalking about with a distinctly martyred air, casting reproachful glances at me.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Large Marge

Does anybody remember that scene in Peewee's Big Adventure when he gets picked up by this older lady truck driver named Large Marge? If you haven't seen the movie perhaps you want to skip the rest of this entry, because when he gets in the truck they go past this site of a car accident and Large Marge tells the story.

On this very night...

...ten years ago...

...on this the same stretch of road... a dense fog just like this...

...I saw the worst accident I ever seen.

There was this sound... a garbage truck...

...dropped off
the Empire State Building.

And when they finally pulled
the driver's body...

...from the twisted, burning wreck... looked like this!

Update: For those of you who never saw the movie, a clarification

Why Me, Lord?

Do I look like I want to hear someone tell me this?

"If I had been a rich guy, I'd pay Raymond Chandler to sit in my living room and describe women."