Perhaps it’s like this: You can go through the defense of taste and come out the other side, as if you jumped out the kitchen window into the alley dumpster. There is a kind of fake refinement that turns into a vulgarity baser than any other. It doesn’t come from saying the worst, it comes from deciding what other people can’t say.
The Intellectual Situation
The first regression was ethical. Eggersards returned to the claims of childhood. Transcendence would not figure in their thought. Intellect did not interest them, but kids did. Childhood is still their leitmotif. The second regression was technical and stylistic. In typography and tone the Eggersards adopted old innovations, consciously obsolete maneuvers.
Reading the Weekly Standard is like stepping into a parallel universe. Not an alien one; one nicely mirrored, left to right. You get the methods of the left without the nervous tang of powerlessness. Despite their control of the presidency, Congress, and much of the judiciary, the magazine continues to present conservatives as an embattled and victimized minority.
The athletes are too big. How big? Between 1963 and 1983, the average NBA player grew an inch, from 6’6” to 6’7”, but his weight held steady at 211 pounds. Since then, along with yet another half-inch of height, he has packed on fourteen pounds of muscle. The change shows. It’s become startling to see footage of those spindly fellows from 1983, with their slender shoulders, their vulnerable thighs poking out of their too-short shorts.
This is the way to dignify an American Empire. Right now we plant democracy like an orchid and depart—leaving behind oilmen to drain nutrients out of the soil. Better to offer a plot in our own garden, so to speak, protected and sheltered by many hardy perennials, who find the new shoot in no way inferior.
It has come to our attention that some on the Left compare W. to Hitler. Nothing could be more wrong. It is an impossibility, a misreading of history. No, it’s our embarrassing distinction in the United States today to be that rare country which acquired a follower as its leader. The younger Bush is an adherent. He is a Believer. You don’t picture him on the podium at Nuremberg.
Two sets of images bookend our Iraq War. First, there were the photographs of the naked protests of men and women, in what seemed to be the most ineffectual or deliberately trivial dissent, at a time when not even articulate dissent on a mass scale could stop the war. Now, we see photographs of the naked, piled bodies of men, sandbags on their heads, and Americans laughing at them.
“I know there’s an ending somewhere,” Gary said of the Log. “I just don’t know where it is. First I thought: I’ll do it for a year. Then I thought I’d do it until I got up to his age—Log #30. But that was when the Kirkpatrick thing happened, and I couldn’t end it there. Now I’m thinking maybe I’ll stop when they make the movie: like, that’s it, they’ve made a movie of his life, there can be no more.
Were “In the Penal Colony” to be written today, Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine. Instead of the sentence to be tattooed on its victims, the machine would inscribe lines of numbers. So many calories, so many miles, so many watts, so many laps.
Reading has always been double-edged. One of the first things we learn how to do, it is bound up with our relations to the institutions that mark our lives: family, school, a well-paying job. It is also one of the few things we do alone and for ourselves. It’s an acknowledged pleasure but the most complex of pleasures.
Over the years, images replaced paintings, and objects replaced sculptures. But painting was quietly both an image and an object.
When you live, as I do, in a country where things just seem to happen because they do, with no apparent plan or reason, you can do one of two things. You can accept that bad things happen to good people, bad people, and in-between people at random. This is difficult. Most of us don’t like to live with the idea that we could get arrested or killed or kidnapped at any moment. So we make up explanations.
Deaths by ambush occur every day now in Iraq. The Saddam Hussein regime lost a three-week war to the overwhelming force of the United States, a war in which our military conquered a nation of twenty-four million people, slightly larger in landmass than California, and left behind a partly relieved, partly dismayed population, who have since given birth to a variety of resistance factions.
According to Wolfe, a curious form of envy was the likeliest explanation for the “ghastly delight” intellectuals of the period took in depicting the land of the free as a gilded cage. “The European intellectuals have a real wasteland? Well, we have a psychological wasteland. They have real fascism? Well, we have social fascism,” etc., he ventriloquizes with glee.
Fiction and Drama
The old man went down on one knee like a clumsy courtier and after steadying himself and making sure he wouldn’t topple over, he brushed away loose, loamy soil with the hand the stroke had spared—he’d had a second apoplectic stroke two months before—and located the beginnings of a pale root. He yanked up the hound’s tongue, as the weed was called, and sighed. He stood and righted himself, less of a labor than a few weeks ago, and stuffed the weed into the left hip pocket of his overalls, fingering its velveteen leaves.
Last week Gary and I decided to check out this new titty bar in town. It’s a decent joint called Brenda Bruno’s near the River Mall. The dancers are all educated so there’s no exploitation and the DJ is a connoisseur of the moody tunes I favor in the company of nude women who despise me.
“Of course not. They couldn’t care less. And then they say, ‘Why aren’t the provinces producing?’ They’ve got to be kidding. It’s just déjà vu every time. They keep trucking the norms in, they keep trucking them in, and inside they’re lying there all dried up and stale. They could at least get the norms right. It’s strange.”
As a private society that encourages its members to assume power beyond the limited aims of the group, Doctors Without Borders is undeniably better than Skull and Bones, but members of both share a constant tension between an ideal of virtuous action and the gratifications of ambition and egotism. This tension is a curious historical leftover of an aristocratic consciousness; those with the power and skills to help should do so, but the awareness of obligation is never separate from a sense of superiority.
Where to go after Infinite Jest? David Foster Wallace’s 1996 opus now looks like the central American novel of the past thirty years, a dense star for lesser work to orbit. More than that: even the writers from whom he borrowed and stole are coming to seem like satellites.
There was once an entire opera community in this town that did not merely read the novels of James McCourt, but believed in them.
We are living in a time when Nabokov and Henry James are read in Tehran but we have pornography and publicity at home; a time when serious writing about culture has become the exclusive province of bullies, reactionaries, and Englishmen; a time when journalists can refer to Vladimir Sorokin, a towering figure of Russian postmodernism, as a “shocking” writer who became a “best seller” after his books were trampled in public by a neo-fascist youth group; a time when a magazine like Lingua Franca can’t publish, but Zagat prospers.
Through the forties and fifties, PR was the greatest of magazines. The Quarterly, for its part, was known in the late nineties for racy homoerotic photography and a fascination with Slavoj Zizek. You used to be able to buy old issues of PR at The Read, on Bedford Ave.; to see the Quarterly, you need to go to Guy Cimbalo’s apartment.