Sunday, January 25, 2015


The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.     Theodor Adorno, "Cultural Criticisms and Society," 1949

    You drive by the same house five mornings a week. The weather is pleasant. Your car windows are down, the windows of the house are opened. Fragrant breezes waft. You always hit the light on the corner red, so you sit and idle, listening to the cries of agony ululating from the home. Every morning you tell yourself you'll either roll your windows or call the police. Every morning you continue to wonder what the person inside may be enduring. The light changes, you floor the accelerator, go to work and do your job. The work gets accomplished, you take a different route home, and watch the evening news. 
   "Police tell Action News," says the anchor person, "That three children between the ages of two and eight were taken into Child Protective Services custody earlier today when it was discovered their parents were putting cigarettes out on their hands and arms. Now let's turn to Chad Bradstone for a look at this evening's weather. Chad?"
   The "reification" Adorno talks about in the introductory quote means to make real in either one's own mind or even the collective mind of a group, community, or society. That intellectual process of concretizing an otherwise abstract occurrence must precede a reasoned response. Reactive bursts of behavior call upon a more primitive set of non-intellectual thoughts, but in order for a given person to become creatively involved in responding to horror, he or she must be willing to strip away all the falsehoods, boredom and rationalizations and know to the fullest extent possible what is really going on. 
   Contemporary American society, it appears to me, is very much "total," in the sense Adorno intends it. More than eighty percent of us now live in cities, which means that in addition to the electronic peeps and quips from televisions, computers, telephones, stereos, radios, and other information distortion devices, we may compound our input with the sounds of grown-ups yelling at one another, police sirens, car alarms, screaming children, airplane engines, construction zones, ice cream vendors, and the scurrying feet of escaping muggers. Reifying all of that might leave us overwhelmed, so perhaps we will prioritize our attention. Assuming for the sake of discussion that we do not choose as our single focus the score of a video game or outcome of our dinner broiling in the oven, we decide to place ourselves in a role where we believe we can make a difference. We join the HOA, or we volunteer for security patrols, or we begin attending meetings at the PTO. 
   And the first thing we are struck by is that all the other members of whichever group we join have competing points of interest. Even the simplest essential chains of the bureaucracy distract us from our original intent. So even when something actually does get done, the process gets the recognition and the people who involved themselves are given a desk job.
   All we may be talking about here is one house in one neighborhood in one city. It scarcely whispers its importance when stood next to the atrocities of the Taliban, ISIS, or the Republican Party. But if we are unwilling to try to make real to ourselves the fears of the occupants of a single house, how then can we have the courage to do more than merely contemplate mass kidnappings of schoolgirls, the disappearance of the polar icecaps, or the purposeful erosion of voting rights in America? I hope that word "contemplate" jumps off the page because I'm talking to myself as much as I am to anyone when I argue that these situations deserve more than just self-serving cogitation. They deserve a reasoned response. 
   If one of us came home to find some strange, hulking man backhanding our own child, the primitive layers of our brains would blaze, leading us to pulverize the aggressor. But if the knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, hunchbacked, reptile-skinned pods of our brain can get us to do the right thing, then why do we hesitate to move beyond a little menial mental labor when we hear bullets blasting down the alley? Kitty Genovese still screams for somebody to shout out the window, chase the killer away, call the police--anything other than turning up the television to blot our her demise. Six million Jews ask the same question. So do one million Armenians, two million Cambodians, one hundred thousand Bosnians, one million Rwandans, or closer to home, the eight million Haitian Indians exterminated in the years following Columbus, or the millions torn apart by America's slave business. 
   The point is not about guilt, at least in the sense of complicity. The real guilt, if that's what you want to call it, comes from even taking that first painful step in the process of making these things real. 
   Once we've done that, as Adorno implies, poetry may still be possible. I'd be surprised if it didn't flow even more freely. But at least we will have cultivated the bond between the intellect and the emotions that is required to appreciate it. Anything short of that, when discussing art of any kind, is thinking for its own sake, a pathetic use of powerful tool.
Goering at Nuremberg Trials

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Asia's crowded
Europe's too old
Africa's far too hot
And Canada's too cold.
And South America stole our name . . .
   --Randy Newman, "Political Science."

  A New Literary History of America. Edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Harvard University Press, 2009.

   The written word spreads out across the land, slamming onto the shores of the Charleston Bay, climbing the Appalachian Mountains, shivering along the dances of the Ohio River, littering cricketless two-lane highways with warnings of dinosaur remains, striking flint sparks near the Alamo mission, whispering along anthill trails buried by the Badlands, chipping away at the canned celluloid of Hollywood movies both profound and profane, opening doors, peaking through fogged windows, blowing out of stereo speakers, screaming through political megaphones, blotting out the cast shadows of political assassinations while--in the words of a hoary old folk ballad--knocking on Heaven's door. Johnny Cash called America home, even while singing about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Abraham Lincoln knew the name as he stood in awe of both the slaughter before him and his own Gettysburg Address. America has slept with the legacy of Malcolm X and shared a pillow with Toni Morrison. Progress remains our searchlight just as avarice remains our blind-eyed guide. We are a big country. We erect thousands of identical signs demanding "Diversity" despite an often pathological compulsion toward homogeneity. We endow Dorothy's ruby slippers with totemic and topical reverence, fathom the sanctity of our own prayers, distrust the French while mourning their losses, produce more than a few among the world's finest writers, worship the soil while murdering the land, yearn for dates with cowboys and cowgirls, vacation in the lonesome wilderness (with millions of our comrades), and buy tickets to spring training major league baseball games. We are a people embarrassed only by our own swelling pride. We may not forgive, but we are quick to forget. And outside of the classroom, we very seldom undertake to read a book with a girth the size of this one.
    This book and its two hundred or more entries will leave any reader who meets it even halfway gasping at that fine and shiny stretch of land that those of us between Canada and Mexico like to call America. 
   I will not demean this beautiful tome with a chapter-by-chapter summation. But it is worth noting that the first entry, "A New Geography," is subtitled "The name America appears for the first time on a map." 
  This heavy book is not only comprised of words. It is about words, about the people who have used those words well, about the places that have worn them well, and even about some people who have written well about the people who use them. From the year 1507 through the first presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008, editors Marcus and Sollors and their schools of contributors write their five or six page explorations of (just to take a few at random) the impact of Alcoholics Anonymous, the censoring of the film Baby Face, the introduction of the word "multicultural," the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Dorothy Parker, the birth of Life magazine and the birth of the cool, Superman comic books, "Roll Over Beethoven," Henry and Philip Roth, Hurricane Katrina, Rocky Marciano, and Elia Kazan. Whether one looks into America as an abyss that looks back at us or through America as a glass darkly or even across America as if it were one endless football field, the single thing on which we can all agree is that America is too big to believe in, just as it really is too big to fail, as big as Elvis or as Big Bad John, big enough to deflect Russian missiles launched from Cuba (in our nightmares), bigger than every movie made from the beginning reeled end to end to the moon and back, see our flag wave it high. We are so big we cannot see the forest, we cannot feel the lakes, we cannot smell the pesticides. 
   America is, however, the kind of place that calls out to those of us already here and to those on their way either in or out. We are the essence of our own contradictions (Quoth the raven: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." And thanks, Walt.). We are more than a country, more than a collection of competing states bellowing for their rights, more than our segregated communities, our warring religions, our bottled water, our missile silos, our seeds of grain. One would have to visit the Middle East, I think, to find any other countries that are so inherently and polygamously wed to the group notions of our own divinity and our right to defend the same with whatever ruthless means we can muster. 
   Even one hundred pages into A New Literary History of America (and there is no reason to follow the chronological order; skipping around is part of the fun), we begin to rock on our boothills from the heat of our own illumination. I intend no hyperbole here. This book comes as close to telling the story of our own use of the component parts of our "dream of a common language" as any collection of essays can hope to do. Further your deponent sayeth not, or for that matter, naught. 

This book is so big it has its own website which you may sample as:

Saturday, January 10, 2015


   Although this piece concerns a book review of a musician's autobiography, in order to place the experience of reading this book within its proper context, we will need to flash forward to the near past, to the killings in and around Paris by Islamic extremists. A good friend was asking me to put the murders within some type of historical context so she could at least get some sense of the irrationality behind the slaughters. I briefly sketched out that in a country such as France, Jews and Muslims represent a large number of the unemployed. They also tend to live in specific areas of the city of Paris, rather than being sprinkled throughout the town. A given Muslim reads in the newspaper where the French and Americans are bombing ISIS encampments. He interprets this as Europe and the United States siding with Israel against his people, despite the fact that Israel is two thousand miles away and his people represent ten percent of the French population. The Muslim envisions the Israeli military murdering Palestinians on the Gaza Strip. He has learned in school that Israel was permitted by the United Nations to draw up its own borders, that it was supposed to share the territory with the Muslims, that Jerusalem is the seat of three major religions, each of which has displayed a willingness to manipulate the others to further its own dreams of Armageddon. At the same time, the Israeli leadership knows its history. The leadership recalls the formation of Israel in May 1948 by a United Nations resolution. It knows that this occurred within the context of Great Britain ending its control of Palestine and perhaps more to the point within the context of a post-Holocaust world. It recalls too what they consider to have been Arab collaboration with the Nazis, especially in northern Africa. Anti-Semitism, of course, did not begin with persecution of Jews by Germans in 1933. For the real origins, one has to go back a bit farther, say, about six thousand years. You may have read of the former prisoner, a cat name of Moses, who brought his people out of bondage? Prison is always a university for revolutionaries. Just ask Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, Antonio Gramsci and Nelson Mandela. 
   Sometime back in the early 1980s, I made a personal accounting and reckoned as how political solutions to the things that actually matter to people are a dead end. I am not saying that short-term benefits don't happen. Clearly they do--just as clearly they never seem to last. To reduce the cogitation to its basest parts, I made a decision that the kind of revolutionaries I wanted to follow were the musical ones, the literary ones, the ones with sketch books and canvases. 
   When Charles Mingus died at the age of fifty-six in 1979, I had never heard of him. Someone played for me her Joni Mitchell album. Mingus was, I guess, a tribute, although it struck me as less than revelatory. But I stayed open minded, did a little homework, and bought a stack of albums. 
   I have been somewhat different ever since. 
   A warm place exists in my mind for standard melodies with innovative progressions. My brain responds with upturned nodes to all manner of tuneful compositions. But the tunnels that run between my brain, heart and gonads prefer a kind of music about which it would not be entirely inappropriate to claim for it the sobriquet "noise."
   The first Charles Mingus recording I played was The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Then as now as forever I did not understand the music intellectually. My own musical training was limited to drumming and was (and remains) rather conventional. There is nothing conventional about The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Composer-bassist Mingus called the music "ethnic folk-dance." His psychoanalyst, who co-wrote the liner notes, thought of it more as an exorcism. All these years later, that tag still works for me. I cannot imagine hearing those four tracks without imagining demons breaking free and slip sliding back into hell where, one presumes, they will be more at home than in the human soul. 
    I realize that the previous paragraph does not do justice to the preeminent composer of his generation, an easy contender for significance right up there with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It may not do the music justice, but it is still all right. 
    From his very first appearance on record at the age of twenty-three in 1945 (he played bass for Russell Jacquet and His All-Stars on a song called "Penny's Worth of Boogie") to his last (with the Charles Mingus Orchestra on the song "Farewell Farwell"), he communicated the need that an aching mind has for surcease better than anyone I'm ever heard. I will leave the superlatives at that.
   Loving the man's music as much as I have, I decided that when the opportunity presented itself I would read his autobiography: Beneath the Underdog. Great title, right? The book was published in 1971. During the first days of 2015, I finally found the time. 
    I imagined stories that would shine a bit of specific light on songs such as "All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife was Your Mother," "The Continuing Fables of Faubus," or perhaps the Tijuana albums. And that is exactly what I got. I just didn't get it the way I expected. What I got was the answer in the form of noise, the perfect way to experience it.
   Superficially, the tale is nothing more than an insane retelling of some unlikely sexual exploits. In fact, by the time I had made my way near the middle of the book, I felt gypped, violated, robbed and betrayed. But this was Mingus, after all, and I owed it to the man to hang in there until the end. He was not going to write about discrimination, civil rights, teaching thirteen year old Dannie Richmond to play drums or what it felt like to be broke in New York City. Instead he was going to write about going to Tijuana and having sex with twenty-three different prostitutes in one night and still being so unsatisfied that he had to take matters into his own hands to get satisfaction. He was going to write about his cousin the millionaire pimp. He was going to write about being married to cohabiting women simultaneously. This was not the story I expected, wanted or even much cared to hear. Then all of a damned sudden, Charles is in the nut house. In a word: boom.
   You realize that you cannot trust the story that leads up to his stay at Bellevue. But beginning with the story of him begging the guard to let him in, you believe every word. You also are able to reinterpret the nonsense that came before it. Because it was not nonsense at all. Being untrue has little to do with significance. The story lets us look into the blazing mental conflagration of a supremely unhappy genius. The story might not quite be a parallel with A Beautiful Mind, but it kicks at the consciousness with a similar power. An even more apt parallel might be years in the lives of a European Jew or a European Muslim, each one trying to pierce his understanding through the psychological prisms of funhouse mirrors. 
   If a solution to the Muslim-Jewish-Christian conflict materializes, it will be one consequence of an appreciation of the human potential for goodness. That potential cannot be envisioned as a result of political, economic or military actions. It can only be glimpsed rather than fully comprehended and that glimpse comes to us through art. The expression of that potential for goodness is the only purpose art has, outside of creation for its own sake. If the soundtrack for that revelation could only be from one composer, that composer would be Charles Mingus. I will leave it to you to pick the album. You already know my choice.