William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses

Go Down, MosesGo Down, Moses by William Faulkner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Go Down, Moses (1942), though not always grouped with Faulkner’s indisputable masterpieces, is nevertheless one of his most significant and influential books.

On strictly formalist or literary-historical grounds, it is a beautiful example of the short story collection as novel, an idea that developed over the course of the 20th century until becoming a major fictional mode in its own right today, as explored by Ted Gioia in his essay on “The Rise of the Fragmented Novel.”

When Go Down, Moses was first published, its title was followed by “and Other Stories,” but Faulkner himself insisted that it should be regarded as a novel. Though it ranges among several plots and several characters and has no single protagonist or narrative, it does tell the story of the McCaslin-Beauchamp family and, through them, provides a miniature history of the American South from its settlement by whites to the eve of World War II. No doubt taking inspiration from James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Jean Toomer’s Cane (all of which we know or suspect him to have read), Faulkner in this book pushes the modernist story cycle even closer to novelistic unity.

This novel is also a milestone in Faulkner’s literary project, often regarded by critics as marking the end of the great period that began in 1929 with The Sound and the Fury. Likewise, Go Down, Moses is also often cited as the culmination of Faulkner’s evolving political vision, even as his summa on the theme of race. Telling the tangled tale of the descendants, both white and black, of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, a fierce patriarch who tried to found a white dynasty even as he committed rape and incest among the black women he enslaved, Go Down, Moses is nearly impossible to read without consulting a family tree (luckily the copy of the novel I bought in a used bookstore came with one, pictured below, probably given as a handout in a literature course).

The novel begins with a story called “Was” that reads almost like a regional-fiction tall-tale in the vein of Mark Twain, a slightly confusing but high-spirited story about bumbling twins and a runaway slave the horror and significance of which will not become apparent until much later in the book, when we learn that the story’s black and white characters are in fact related, despite the latter’s holding the former as property.

Faulkner then switches perspective to Lucas Beauchamp, a proud and independent black descendant of the McCaslin line, and his tragicomic pursuit of buried fortune on the family farm at the expense of his wife; this long story’s titular motif of “The Fire and the Hearth” can be read as Faulkner’s celebration of basic civilized decency, as opposed to greed. A mysterious story called “Pantaloon in Black” follows: it narrates the surreal descent into madness of a grieving young black man on the McCaslin farm, whose travails are then recapitulated with flippant cruelty by a sheriff’s deputy. In each of these tales, Faulkner indicts racist reductionism by, as Toni Morrison once remarked, “[taking] black people seriously.”

In the book’s longest chapter, the classic freestanding novella “The Bear,” a young Isaac McCaslin, the closest thing the novel has to a hero, pores over the family ledgers in the farm’s commissary assembling through his forebears’ often sparse notations the appalling family history (“His own daughter His own daughter. No No Not even him“). The ledgers form “that chronicle which was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South,” an obvious symbol, as Malcolm Cowley long ago pointed out in his introduction to The Portable Faulkner, of the author’s own literary aspiration.

The white Isaac is so disgusted by his ancestor’s crimes that he relinquishes his inheritance, makes many attempts to pay his black relatives their share of the patrimony, and becomes a simple carpenter in conscious imitation of “the Nazarene.” In a long argument with his cousin and surrogate father, Cass, he theorizes that God’s design necessitated not only the founding of America but also its violent purgation in the Civil War to purify botched humanity through suffering. As opposed to the racist sheriff’s deputy of “Pantaloon in Black,” who frankly declares his belief that black people “aint human,” Isaac judges thusly: “They are better than we are. Stronger than we are.” He recognizes his place in a universal brotherhood irrespective of race, claiming kinship with “not only the whites but the black one too, who were as much a part of his ancestry as his white progenitors.” To a northern black man who marries his cousin, he pleads:

‘Dont you see?’ he cried. ‘Dont you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse? Granted that my people brought the curse onto the land: maybe for that reason, their descendants alone can—not resist it, not combat it—maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted. Then your peoples’ turn will come because we have forfeited ours. But not now. Not yet. Dont you see?’

Note the “not now.” Isaac, like Faulkner, is not a programmatic liberal or leftist. The “not now” theme is echoed in the penultimate story, “Delta Autumn,” where an elderly Isaac is confronted with the failed interracial relationship of another white McCaslin scion and thinks, “Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America, he thought. But not now! Not now!

Faulkner, like Melville, is one of the only white American writers to have come out of the critique of the canon looking better than he looked before, because his attempt to undo racist ideology from the inside using experimental literary techniques was made legible by late-20th-century literary theories that went beyond New Critical hopes for textual and social wholeness. Yet Faulkner, also like Melville, had no political program. Isaac’s anguished guilt is preferable to the Confederate nostalgia that haunts other characters in this book, but it is an equivalently mythic attitude, and undeniably patronizing toward the objects of its charitable gaze. White people are enjoined to behave like Christ and black people patiently to “endure,” a solution inadequate to the complexities of the 20th century, even if its Christo-Gothic mythos of curses and atonements may secretly structure much official anti-racist discourse even in the present.

If neither Faulkner nor his hero provides a political answer to the problems they so astutely perceive, what recompense do they offer for the injuries of history? Besides the sentimental trope of the hearth, Go Down, Moses, its modernist stream-of-consciounsess infused with latter-day Romanticism, suggests two familiar salvations from organized social violence: nature and art. These are also violent, Faulkner suggests, but at least they are animated by values higher than greed for land or gold.

In “The Bear,” Isaac is initiated into manhood by going on an annual hunt. His mentor, another surrogate father figure, is the aptly named Sam Fathers, a man of mixed Chickasaw and black heritage, who baptizes Isaac in the blood of the hunt after the boy kills his first buck. The theme of the novella is their quest to bring down Old Ben, a quasi-legendary bear, with one paw wounded from a trap, who has so far evaded capture. Young Isaac attains almost preternatural hunting skill in his quest for the titular bear, but his desire to kill Old Ben should not be taken as an Ahab-like hostility toward or rage against nature; it is rather a kind of communion with the massive eternity, outside of human time and greed and generation, that nature is:

Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him.

But the “big woods” Old Ben used to roam have been sold off to a timber company by the end of “The Bear.” Walking in the forest, Isaac finds the company’s corner-markers, subjecting “dimensionless” nature to the same measurements that served avarice and cursed the south in his ancestors’ time; he judges the concrete beams “lifeless and shockingly alien in that place where dissolution itself was a seething turmoil of ejaculation tumescence conception and birth, and death did not even exist.” The theme of death’s not existing because nature is a roiling eternity ever in flux is picked up shortly after this passage, when Isaac mediates on the graves of his former friends of the hunt, and thinks of the hunt’s continuance even after death:

…he had not stopped, he had only paused, quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too, Old Ben too; they would give him back his paw even, certainly they would give him his paw back; then the long challenge and the long chase, no heart to be driven and outraged, no flesh to be mauled and bled—

Faulkner’s own famous literary style, a heedless onrush of indifferently punctuated and sometimes agrammatical rhetoric, its ornate and sometimes confusing diction (“myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part”) meant to defeat ordinary sense, its endless sentences (one in “The Bear” goes on for five pages) meant to triumph over time, here finds its justification: I am only, implies the author, imitating nature itself, which also runs on and contains everything. Nature and art are at one. They need to be because more and more of nature is being eaten up by the profit motive in the postbellum south, leaving art as the only repository of values that are everywhere being degraded by the curse laid on the south by the greed of its white inhabitants.

Faulkner’s art, in effect, takes the place of nature. Note the echo in the passage quoted above of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” whose panting lover, pictured on the titular art object, is ever approaching his beloved but never will reach her, just as the bear, suspended after death in Faulkner’s narrative, always runs and never is caught. In the “cold pastoral” of art, cold because art freezes time, nature and its passions are preserved. Cass quotes Keats’s “Ode” to Isaac, making the point nearly explicit:

‘All right,’ he said. ‘Listen,’ and read again, but only one stanza this time and closed the book and laid it on the table. ‘She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,’ McCaslin said: ‘Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.’

‘He’s talking about a girl,’ he said.

‘He had to talk about something,’ McCaslin said. Then he said, ‘He was talking about truth. Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love.’

That is how such a complex aesthetic artifact as this novel-in-stories allies itself to raw and wild nature: both sustain “all the things which touch the heart” in a world more often characterized by the heartlessness of civilized exploitation and oppression.

If I have enumerated the literary and political significance of Go Down, Moses above, this Keatsian humanism gives it its more basic emotional moment, and may explain more than anything the novel’s continuing influence. In just the last 12 months, I have read three contemporary American novels that almost overtly borrow from it: Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves. Any old novel with so diverse and distinguished a legacy as that demands to be read.


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Iris Murdoch, The Bell

The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bell is Iris Murdoch’s fourth novel. I had never read the celebrated 20th-century British philosopher and novelist before and decided to start with this 1958 book because it is often said to be her first novel that is characteristically “Murdochian” and also her first that makes a claim to greatness.

The novel has an immediately appealing premise. It is set at a remote Court or country house in England near Imber Abbey, where an enclosed order of nuns has existed since the Middle Ages. The Court has been in the family of Michael Meade for centuries, and he decides, after consulting the Abbess, to set up a lay community of believers and devotees who can live and work for the greater good of the Abbey and exist apart from the increasingly complex and alienating modern world:

…the Abbess imparted to Michael the idea of making the Court the home of a permanent lay community attached to the Abbey, a ‘buffer state’, as she put it, between the Abbey and the world, a reflection, a benevolent and useful parasite, an intermediary form of life.

Michael is one of three characters through whose eyes we see the growth and eventual dissolution of this lay community, as it is riven by the human (above all sexual) frailties of its members and visitors over the course of one late summer and early autumn.

Our other two protagonists are Dora Greenfield and Toby Gashe. Dora is an educated young woman adrift; she comes to the Imber community to follow her overbearing and older husband, the art historian Paul Greenfield, despite her own recent affair and the seeming collapse of their marriage. Toby is a much younger man, an aspiring engineer who intends to live at the Court before going up to Oxford because he wants to find a purer way of life. Whatever salvation Dora and Toby hope to discover, however, proves elusive as the plot becomes a tragic farce of hapless love affairs, misunderstandings, schemes, and accidents.

For one thing, Michael makes an odd leader for the community; less commanding than his lieutenant, James Tayper Pace, he is also a closeted gay man whose teaching career was ruined years before by a student named Nick, with whom he’d had the chastest of affairs. When Nick’s sister shows up at the Court, in order to prepare to join the nuns and enter the cloister, a dissolute Nick follows, and Michael must reflect on how to save the young man from his own addictions and self-hatred. A further complication is that Michael is beginning to have feelings for Toby as well, while Toby, a complete sexual innocent (to a somewhat hard-to-believe extent, in fact), is puzzled by his own sexuality and harbors complicated feelings not only for Michael but also for the alluring and flighty Dora.

While this suspenseful soap opera is transpiring, the titular bell (or rather, bells) furnishes a symbol for the moral problems of the individual. The Abbey’s original bell fell into the lake between the Abbey and the Court in the Middle Ages, as a result of a supernatural punishment for a nun’s sexual transgression. That bell was never recovered, but the Abbey is scheduled to receive a new bell at the end of the summer. In the meantime, Toby, diving in the lake, whose mystery, murk, and beauty also represent the mess of the human condition, discovers the old bell in the water and schemes with Dora to reveal it spectacularly.

The Bell is not just soap operatic, however; Murdoch, a philosopher, liked to use novels as Platonic dialogues, as A. S. Byatt explains in her excellent introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, and this novel’s sometimes over-the-top episodes pose questions about faith and doubt, the nature of morality, and the role of art, sex, and religion in our lives.

The moral question is the novel’s main one. Murdoch provides us dueling sermons, each with the bell as organizing metaphor. The robust James Tayper Pace, a character that Murdoch gives little space as she seems to think he is too strong to be interesting, advocates following simple moral precepts rather than examining the conscience. He preaches thusly:

‘A bell is made to speak out. What would be the value of a bell which was never rung? It rings out clearly, it bears witness, it cannot speak without seeming like a call, a summons. A great bell is not to be silenced. Consider too its simplicity. There is no hidden mechanism. All that it is is plain and open; and if it is moved it must ring.’

Michael, by contrast, advocates a recognition of human complexity and the exploration of that complexity over simple moralism:

‘I will use here, again following the example of James, the image of the bell. The bell is subject to the force of gravity. The swing that takes it down must also take it up. So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength.’

Whereas James, without knowing anything about Michael’s sexuality, had said in his own sermon that “sodomy is not deplorable, it is forbidden,” thus to remove the appealing glamor from sin, Michael reflects inwardly during his own sermon:

He did not in fact believe it was just forbidden. God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies run so deep that they were, in many people, the core of their personality.


It was complicated; it was interesting: and there was the rub. He realized that in this matter, as in many others, he always engaged in performing what James had called the second best act: the act which goes with exploring one’s personality and estimating the consequences rather than austerely following the rules.

While Murdoch doesn’t quite use Michael’s homosexuality as a metaphor for generalized outsiderdom, she does seem to suggest that the most moral people are not the best rule-followers or the devoutest believers but are rather those who have distance from conventionality forced upon them and who consequently have to make their own moral way with their own inner resources. This struggle is writ large in the lay community as they argue how much space to keep between themselves and the outer world without regressing into a kind of irrelevant neo-medievalist unreality. That Michael praises this struggle as “interesting” brings us out of the world of ethics and into that of aesthetics, and we can’t help but notice that Michael’s recommendation of the free exploration of personality echoes the priority of the novelist.

The Bell is a very briskly-written series of escalatingly intense dramatic incidents and confrontations (many of which are also very funny), but it is more notably illuminated by Murdoch’s old-fashioned essayistic analyses of her characters’ thoughts and feelings, calling to mind writers like George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy. In fact, Murdoch believed in the superiority of the 19th-century novel over the 20th-century novel; modernism, she thought, had in its formalism and nihilism evacuated the novel form of its ethical mission to represent human beings and human society in grounded and granular detail, this so that we may understand our fellows better and, more importantly, treat them better.

In his essay on Murdoch collected in The Broken Estate, James Wood sketches a little literary history that explains Murdoch’s intent for the novel as a literary form:

Of all the postwar English novelists, she had the greatest intellectual range, the deepest rigor. She takes her place, however awkwardly, in a tradition of flexible, homemade English Christian Platonism which includes Ruskin and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Woolf, in some ways, was the rebel who had to overthrow her father’s moral Platonism and make the Good an aesthetic category only, and one discoverable only by a highly aestheticized fiction. Murdoch may be seen as the rebel to Woolf’s rebellion, closing down Bloomsbury’s aesthetic mysticism (art is never for art’s sake, always for life’s sake, she has written) in favor of a moral, “hard idea of truth.”

I understand the need to rebel against one’s immediate forebears very well, but still, I am with Woolf here. As much as I enjoyed The Bell for its well-constructed plot, its assured pacing, and its sheer intelligence of analysis, I would have enjoyed it more had Murdoch displayed any greater gift for imagery or description, any richer way with words. So much of the novel is straightforward character analysis. I’m not saying “show, don’t tell” is a rule that came down on tablets of stone (hell, it probably came from a CIA memo!), but I might have preferred more freedom of my own to reflect on the fable without having Murdoch’s interpretation always in front of me. Art requires a little mystery, which fact Murdoch seems to resent, and she seems to resent, too, readers’ potential to miss her point. Given the urgency of her sense of the novel’s mission, I understand her anxiety. Wood quotes her statement of what fiction is fundamentally for:

Art and morals are…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality…. The enemies of art and morals, the enemies that is of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis….Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination…. (Wood’s ellipses)

That this is a paraphrase of Shelley’s own Platonist tract, “A Defence of Poetry,” doesn’t dispel some of the problems with the argument. For one thing, I have always found pain a far more reliable reminder than love that something other than myself is real. Also, anyone who denies that hate is also “the perception of individuals” has never hated intensely enough, and is therefore perhaps to be envied: you study your enemies even more closely than your lovers, because your life depends on it. Love, anyway, relies on a certain saving idealization, lest you perceive too many of the beloved’s flaws too closely.

As for “fantasy,” the plot Murdoch cooks up in The Bell, while it never takes leave of the possible, departs so far from the probable that she obviously had a guiltily-nurtured gift for this most crucial tool of any artist. Without fantasy, reality likely can’t be discovered at all; what would be the motive to explore, except for a fantasy of what might be found? And you don’t need to be a Marx to know that reality isn’t just there to be discovered but also to be transformed. Anyone who has ever cooked a dinner, let alone written a novel, surely grasps this.

Murdoch grasps it too. Midway through The Bell, Dora flees what she sees as the moralism of the Court and ends up in the National Gallery of London where she experiences a revelation before “Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters” (see here for the image):

She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the paintings] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. […] [She] felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before [the painting], embracing it, shedding tears.

The work doesn’t teach her anything in particular about reality, still less morality, but exists itself in reality, as a reality, as an instance of the beauty that is and a promise of beauty that may yet be. This epiphany sends her back to Imber, if only because it chastens her desire for an escape, but it does not necessarily make her more moral, only more alive.

“Revelation,” “epiphany.” Let’s add “incarnation.” Here is A. S. Byatt in her introduction to The Bell:

Her own desire to make a world in which consciousnesses were incarnate, embedded in the stuff of things, might seem to derive from George Eliot, who wrote movingly of her wish to make pictures, not diagrams, to “make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate”. Eliot, like Murdoch, was a European intellectual who had also a very immediate sense of human bodies, encounters and absurdities. They shared a preoccupation with the tensions between the formal complexity and design of the work of art and the need to give the characters space, freedom, to be people, not only to represent ideas or classes. It may be that Murdoch thought that Eliot had failed. She asked me once what I thought was the greatest English novel. Middlemarch, I said. She demurred, looking disapproving, and finally said that she supposed it was hard to find which one of Dickens’s novels was the greatest, but that surely he was the greatest novelist…Eliot began, in English, the elegant patterning with metaphor and leitmotiv that Murdoch, who believed that novelists were first and essentially storytellers, sometimes saw as a trap. (Byatt’s ellipses)

In his classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946; English translation 1953), a book roughly contemporary with The Bell, Erich Auerbach writes of how Christ’s incarnation, God’s interpenetration with not only humanity but with common (as in lower-class) humanity, breaks the aesthetic hierarchy of the ancient world and sets in train the cultural process that will lead to the triumph in the 19th century of the realist novel, which confers what Auerbach calls “tragic seriousness” on everyday life. What Murdoch resents in the agnostic Eliot is Eliot’s sense that, with God gone from the picture, art will have to take his place. If the novel becomes a matter of aesthetics, does it thereby lose its capacity for ethics?

Despite that religious quandary, Murdoch does not make an assertion of faith. The Bell is not quite a Christian novel. It ends on the note of a declaration from Michael: “there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.” This, with its echo of Kafka’s “plenty of hope but none for us,” is the opposite of the problem Nietzsche diagnosed in us, whom he addressed as “we moderns,” “we knowers”: we still believe in God, he said, because we still believe in grammar. That is, we are officially secular, often officially atheistic if we are modern intellectuals, but we do not realize how many forms of order we take for granted or wish to preserve actually depend on the tacit presumption of monotheism’s assurance of ultimate significance. Murdoch does understand this dilemma and seeks to circumvent it by writing, in a sense, as if there were a God. “[T]he mass existed and he existed beside it,” we read of Michael at the conclusion. We moderns aren’t ready to believe in the mass beyond its bare existence; still, if it exists, who knows but that its ultimate addressee might exist as well?

A novel this intricately conceived is not to be taken lightly, and I will certainly be reading more Iris Murdoch in the future; but the modernist intuition that a novel must live in its own right rather than just pointing us toward some external source of meaning is neglected to this novel’s detriment. If Murdoch recalls her forebears Eliot and Woolf without equalling their achievement, this painful self-mortification must be the reason why.


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Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This 1965 novel is a text so overwhelmed by its various contexts that it is almost impossible to read. It was still ubiquitous as a semi-illicit paperback when I was a child in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reputed to be an overwhelmingly intense and filthy book. I accordingly tried to read it when I was 11 or 12, but couldn’t make head or tail of it; I had better luck with Kosinski’s later novel, the National Book Award-winning Steps (1968). Steps is an episodic novella in the mode of pornographic dystopia, and I read it in one sitting, fascinated and revolted and pool-dazed. It also, famously, made an impression on David Foster Wallace, who should have learned a thing or two from its brevity.

I abandoned any plans I had to read The Painted Bird when I discovered that it was regarded as a sham, that its author (a kind of counterculture celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s) had falsely advertised the novel to his publishers as autobiography, and that many of his works may have been either partially plagiarized or partially written or translated for the author, still uneasy in the English language, by editors.

Once hailed by the literati as an instant classic, praised by Arthur Miller and Anaïs Nin and Elie Wiesel, canonized as a contribution to the literature of the Shoah, The Painted Bird came to be regarded as a mere hoax, notably denounced by Norman Finkelstein as one more piece of false advertising for what he controversially called “the Holocaust industry.” Kosinski, who committed suicide in 1991, seemed by the turn of the millennium to belong not in the literary canon but in the annals of notorious confidence men.

So it is surprising to turn to the actual text of the novel, as I finally have, and to find a carefully composed narrative, delicately written and thematically unified. Scholars and critics differ as to the actual provenance of the text, except to note that the horrors it narrates are decidedly not autobiographical: the Jewish Kosinski spent the war sheltered by a Polish Catholic family, not wandering the novel’s psychosexual nightmarescape version of Poland’s countryside.

In fact, The Painted Bird is so manifestly symbolic, the extreme events it narrates so difficult to credit, that I have a hard time believing anyone could have taken it as an unvarnished memoir. Appearing around the same time as The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the first publication of The Master and Margarita, Kosinski’s book might usefully be regarded as magical realism. Elie Wiesel, to be fair, acknowledges as much in his New York Times review, quoted at length on the first page of my edition:

If we ever needed proof that Auschwitz was more a concept than a name, it is given to us here with shattering eloquence in The Painted Bird, a moving but frightening tale in which man is indicted and proven guilty, with no extenuating circumstances.

I would dispute only the word “proof” there: as befits a work of the literary imagination rather than of the mind in recollection, The Painted Bird gives proof only of its author’s sensibility. Kosinski’s sensibility is neither pleasant nor entirely original, but it is fascinating and bizarre enough, especially as rendered in this novel’s wonderfully economical prose, to commend this novel as more than a hoax—rather, as good fiction, a compelling “tale,” to use Wiesel’s most apt word.

The premise of the tale, as noted by D. G. Myers, who also judges the novel “great” despite the problems posed by Kosinski’s biography, is that Auschwitz is, for those who came after it, the truth of their world:

The Painted Bird is notorious for its horrors: eyeballs are gouged out of sockets, animals are tortured, women are violated with bottles holding manure, men are devoured by rats. “The Germans puzzled me,” the boy says. “Was such a destitute, cruel world worth ruling?”

This is the question that Kosinski’s whole life was given over to answering. That he died by his own hand suggests that his answer, finally, was No. And so Kosinski joined a line of Holocaust writers—Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery, Paul Celan, Primo Levi—who by committing suicide testified that the world was beyond repair. Although The Painted Bird may not be directly about the Holocaust, although it may not be based on Kosinski’s own experiences during the Holocaust, it is nevertheless an indispensable document of the Holocaust.

Another blurb, this one on the back of my old paperback edition, where it is jarringly discordant with the grotesque wraparound cover illustration, compares Kosinski to Anne Frank. Even allowing for Cynthia Ozick’s wise warning not to sanctify Frank, this is highly misleading; The Painted Bird belongs on the shelf with Sade, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Bataille, not with The Diary of a Young Girl.

From the uncredited cover illustration of the 1970 Pocket Books edition.

The novel is the retrospective narrative of a young boy’s journey through rural Poland during World War II after his parents have sent him away from the city to protect him from the Nazis.

In the countryside, rife with anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment as well as with magical folk beliefs about metaphysics and medicine, the narrator encounters a sequence of grotesque and violent incidents, from the fire he accidentally sets that destroys the home of his first caretaker to the brutal gang rape and murder of a later caretaker’s lover. He witnesses incest and bestiality, he is systematically tortured by a peasant with a fearsome dog, he is nearly drowned in an iced-over pond, he is thrown into a pit of manure by an incensed mob, and he is even captured by German soldiers, only to be released in a mysterious act of mercy by a glamorous Nazi officer, whose power and command the boy admires:

The instant I saw him I could not tear my gaze from him. His entire person seemed to have something utterly superhuman about it. Against the background of bland colors he protected an unfadable blackness. In a world of men with harrowed faces, with smashed eyes, bloody, bruised, and disfigured limbs, among the fetid, broken human bodies, of which I had already seen so many, he seemed an example of neat perfection that could not be sullied: the smooth, polished skin of his face, the bright golden hair showing under the peaked cap, his pure metal eyes. Every movement of his body seemed propelled by some tremendous internal force.

Along the way, the boy accedes to folk belief about his status as an evil being (due to his being, in the peasants’ eyes, a “Jew” or “Gypsy”), adopts Catholicism and begs God to intercede on his behalf, decides that Satanic powers truly rule the world and tries to join the side of the evildoers, admires what he sees as the knowledge and power of the Germans who wish to subjugate him, and, finally, when liberated by the Red Army, accepts communism’s promise of the brotherhood of man until the flaws in that ideology, too, with its own trampling of the individual, become apparent.

Like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Painted Bird is a bildungsroman that follows its budding hero’s consciousness into wider and wider contexts, each new one revealing the limitations of the previous. Struck mute during his ordeal, the boy regains his voice at the novel’s conclusion; in other words, having passed through these ordeals and ideologies, he becomes capable of telling his story.

But if the latter development sounds like a sentimental anticipation of official multiculturalism’s favorite trope of literature as “voice,” the rest of the The Painted Bird is a decidedly more decadent affair. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, when reading scene after scene of vivid brutality, that the novel’s briskly-narrated phantasmagoria indulges an aestheticization of violence to the point of pornography. The regaining of voice at the conclusion even recalls the pornographer’s old alibi of having told a moral tale, while Kosinski’s deeper account of individualism, in keeping with the boy’s admiration for the Nazi officer and later for Stalin, involves the right of the strong to re-order the world at will according to their own aesthetic designs, precisely the game Kosinski played with history when he passed this off as his autobiography.

To support an interpretation that emphasizes individualism, consider the titular metaphor. The novel’s title comes from an early episode wherein another of the boy’s caretakers, a peasant bird-trapper named Lekh, would regularly choose a bird and paint its feathers in bright colors and then release it; when this painted bird would attempt to rejoin its flock, its fellows, disturbed by its dazzling and artificial coloration, would set on it and kill it. The Cold War moral is clear: individual vs. society.

As A. E. M. Baumann points out in his excellent Jungian reading of the novel, Kosinski portrays all collectivities, from rural peasantry to Soviet empire, as essentially hostile to individuation:

The effect within the book of this continuity between worlds and beliefs works not only on the grand scale but also to the specific. For example, when we meet Lekh the bird catcher, and read of the demise of the bird painted by Lekh, the whole of the scene is likewise brought into the mythic unity of the book. The scene is not an artificially inserted metaphor: it presents an idea already inherent to the world-systems of the Polish peasants, inherent to their belief systems: and as will be seen, inherent to all cultures, even to the “equality” within the new, Russian state. As such, the antagonism between the individual and culture that is the center of The Painted Bird is from the start inherent to the whole of the world through which the boy passes. In turn, through that unity, that antagonism is brought out of the historical and into the mythic.

Fair enough, but the reader also has the right to be disturbed by the total amorality of this mythical version of individualism, with the persecuted painted bird’s wish to join the flock and envy of its most powerful members (e.g., the Nazi officer), even with this myth’s affinity not only for what the boy sees as German style and swagger but also for the Nazis’ imperial view of the Polish populace, which the novel literally dehumanizes (per the bestiality motif).

When contemplating the ideological possibilities of an individualism untethered from morality, it is a relief that such a vision produces in this novel only a version of aestheticism, only the voice to tell the tale, rather than anything more severe. In this sense, Kosinski pits the paint of the painted bird against the violence of the flock; the novel implicitly and ultimately exalts the artist, who represents only his own idiosyncrasy, over the officer who marches on behalf of a collective.

To end on this aesthetic note, whoever wrote The Painted Bird wrote it effectively. (On the authorship question, I observe that Samuel Beckett’s first literary agent, the Irish writer George Reavey, is another claimant; and there is something of Beckett, if not his humane and humorous awareness of universal suffering, in this novel.) Its crisp narrative is a well-paced succession of sensory detail given in a style that is simple without being affected like that of a Hemingway epigone or someone imitating the paratactical style of the Bible; the novel would repay strictly formal study by the student. Orwell’s ideal of prose as a windowpane comes to mind, as long as we recall that the window is really a painting, and that the painted vista is, for better and for worse, almost entirely the product of Kosinski’s imagination.


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Alan Moore, Miracleman

Miracleman, Book Three: OlympusMiracleman, Book Three: Olympus by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.

In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.

In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.

In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.

Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?

Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.

The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.

My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.

Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.

Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).

Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”

The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.

Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.

This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.

Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.

Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:

A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)

Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.

Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.

Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:

And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…[11010000]: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)

The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.

So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?

Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.

Art: Alan Davis

Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.

Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:

Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.

I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.

In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:

I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)

So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.

I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:

Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.

Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.

Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?

Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.


By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:

Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.

The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.

Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:

These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)

And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.

In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):

The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.

Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”

The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.

Art: Mark Buckingham

The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:

He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.

Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?

Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.

As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.

Art: John Totleben

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Grant Morrison, Sebastian O | The Mystery Play

Sebastian O/Mystery Play by Grant MorrisonSebastian O / The Mystery Play by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the one hand, the best audience for this book might be Morrison completists, those willing to hack through the wilds of the author’s varied oeuvre to find rare specimens and paths not taken.

The 1993 Vertigo miniseries, Sebastian O, originally conceived for Disney’s never-realized adult-comics Touchmark imprint (along with Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s similarly queer-themed masterpiece Enigma), reimagines Oscar Wilde as a super-assassin in a steampunk setting. The literary style is an amusing pastiche of fin-de-siècle Aestheticism and Decadence, the amorality of the narrative faithful to its Wildean and Huysmanian inspirations. The art by Steve Yeowell is magnificent when it comes to architecture, but an artist who could have done a tribute to Art Nouveau, similar to what Morrison does with late-Victorian literary style in the narration and dialogue, might have served the project better. All in all, very entertaining, and recommended for all lovers of Wilde and Co.

Grant Morrison and Jon J. Muth, The Mystery Play

The somber 1994 graphic novel The Mystery Play could not be more different in tone and style. An early Vertigo graphic novel reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s collaborations with Dave McKean, The Mystery Play features a Yorkshire town trying to revitalize by staging medieval mystery plays until the actor playing God is murdered. Enter Detective Frank Carpenter (his flagrantly allegorical name is typical of Morrison’s lack of subtlety here), who begins a hallucinatory investigation into the death of God within the postmodern world. Jon J. Muth’s spectral watercolors are perfect for this graphic novel’s tenuous grip on reality. If Morrison’s allegory is far too transparent (“The house is empty,” says Carpenter, peering into a replica church on a miniature golf course) and his tone too dour, his slowly-paced script and Muth’s haunted paintings are unforgettable, to me anyway. Not subtle enough? Not as zany as Morrison’s other work? Well, I first read this book at some excessively young age, 13 or so, and I fear it permanently affected my sensibility. Zaniness and subtlety are overrated.

So, to finish the thought with which I began, the question of audience: on the other hand, these two projects might work best not so much for fans of Doom Patrol or The Invisibles, but rather for those curious about experimental approaches in the comics medium to the classics of the literary canon.


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Gerald Murnane, The Plains

The PlainsThe Plains by Gerald Murnane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gerald Murnane is in vogue. Every few years, it seems, a new writer or handful of writers is coronated in the book reviews, little magazines, and literary coteries of the English-speaking world as a monarch of world literature. So far this century, we’ve had W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante, László Krasznahorkai, and the posthumous canonization of Clarice Lispector.

Murnane would appear to be the latest to join this company. True, he writes in English and hails from an Anglophone country, but his style and allegiances, his continuity with certain strains in 20th-century experimental writing, make his fiction a kind of honorary example of literature in translation.

I haven’t looked into Pascale Casanova’s sociological study The World Republic of Letters since early in grad school, but as I recall she argues there that the two readiest paths to canonization in world literature are those blazed by Joyce/Faulkner and Kafka/Beckett—to put it rather brutally, you can be the bard of the local or the philosopher of the void. 

The late 20th century, with its rise of the postcolonial novel, was the time of the Faulknerians: Gabriel García Márquez, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, José Saramago, Arundhati Roy. J. M. Coetzee was a Beckettian outlier in that context, reproved by Gordimer for his social irresponsibility.

But the 21st century so far has been a veritable age of Beckett: novels about time and the body, anhedonia and self-laceration,  the limits of language, the desperation of the writer, the inevitability of sorrow and loss, history as an unrepresentable sublime of suffering. Presumably the collapse of the 20th-century utopias—the communist and liberal variants on the end of history, more or less—has provoked a chastened literary response from the world avant-garde.

Murnane, though praised for his originality, is also clearly in the Kafka/Beckett line, all mysterious landscapes and inner deliberations over truth and representation.

In his 1982 novel The Plains, re-released last year in a beautiful new hardcover from Text Publishing, a narrator from nearer the coast arrives at the titular setting, a fantastical variant of the interior of Australia, with the intention of making a film that would capture its essence.

The novel’s first sentences (praised by Paul Genoni as “the most compelling opening in Australian fiction”) sets its stately, meditative tone and announce its theme of searching apparent blankness and monotony for significance:

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.

My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.

Genoni oddly but persuasively goes on to compare The Plains to The Great Gatsby; while the idea is evidently to suggest that The Plains is a “national” work akin to Fitzgerald’s perennial candidate for Great American Novel, it is a counterintuitive comparison. The Great Gatsby is, whatever else it is, a heavily-plotted thriller crowded with personalities, dialogue, visual description, and often violent incident.

Murnane wants nothing more than to wean us from all such fictional trappings. His narrator is attracted to the plains precisely because their, well, plainness both invites heightened attention and provokes their habitués to sensibilities of great individuality and subtlety:

I told them a story almost devoid of events or achievements. Outsiders would have made little of it, but the plainsmen understood. It was the kind of story that appealed to their own novelists and dramatists and poets. Readers and audiences on the plains were seldom impressed by outbursts of emotion or violent conflicts or sudden calamities. They supposed that the artists who presented such things had been beguiled by the noises of crowds or the profusions of shapes and surfaces in the foreshortened landscapes of the world beyond the plains.

The landscape is a correlate or metaphor for Murnane’s ideal fiction, and the word “plain” comes in the novel to signify any rarefied and evanescent ideal.

The narrator, as he waits in a bar to seek patronage for his film from the great landowners of the plains, thinks of the history of dueling artists who once dominated the plains and whose conflict even spilled into political factionalism. One side took as its standard the “subdued yellow” of the plains themselves, while the other adopted the “blue-green” of the horizon; politically, the former wished for the plains to secede from Australia, while the latter wished for the plains to dominate Australia.

In either case, whether valuing the land or its limit, whether separatist or imperialist, the artists of the plains devoted themselves, like the 20th-century avant-garde, to an ideal blankness signifying infinity.

The narrator says as much when making his case to the landowners: “I believed that every man was called to be an explorer.” He is taken on by one of them, and the second half of the novel details his uneventful and gently comic service as resident filmmaker in a great house. Our narrator never succeeds in making a film but only in making notes for one; Murnane, who has stated his dislike for film and for fiction that apes its effects, allegorizes the demotion of film in favor of literature in the novel we are reading, the failed filmmaker’s testament.

If the minimal suspense of the novel’s first half came from wondering whether or not the narrator would succeed in persuading the landowners to patronize his film, the minimal suspense in the second half is generated by the narrator’s interest in the landowner’s wife and granddaughter.

The wife likes to read a genre of philosophy favored in the plains that “most often would perhaps be called novels in another Australia” but that “on the plains make up a well-respected branch of moral philosophy.” These works consist, as the narrator describes it, of their authors’ phenomenology of regret, inspections of their own inner experience of loss. Again, Murnane’s fiction provides an image of its own ideal.

In his essay “In Praise of the Long Sentence,” a defense of compound sentences and  hypotactic prose as the ideal vehicle for a fiction of consciousness, Murnane distinguishes “film-script fiction,” which presents visual scenes to the reader, from “meditative fiction” or “true fiction,” which presents instead the reflections and sensibilities of a narrator.

The distinction does not, to my mind, hold up: fiction that presents visual scenes still expresses through them the sensibility of the author. Moreover, when Murnane says that the film-script-fiction writer “prefers, for the time being, to show me details rather than to impart information,” I have no idea what he means; are details not information? This essay shows Murnane in a “blue-green” mood, wishing to conquer Australia, or world literature, with the sensibility of the plains. I am all in favor of compound sentences, though; there we can agree.

Back to The Plains. When the narrator proposes to end his film with a shot of the landowner’s granddaughter in the landscape, we may recall the landowners’ long colloquy in the novel’s first half about how they visit brothels to enjoy suntanned prostitutes whose brown skin differentiates them from the pale women of the plains. The men sometimes find, however, that “there were always some girls who kept their last inches utterly white.”

Whiteness and idealized femininity are (do I even have to say “problematically”?) the human corollaries to the plains’ metaphysical infinitude of a various blankness. When I say that Murnane is, despite his much-praised originality, in the line of Kafka and Beckett, writing in an identifiable and, if I may, somewhat predictable genre of world literature, I am also thinking of those suggestive remarks scattered through Deleuze’s writings about the continuity between late-modernist fiction of the Kafka/Beckett variety and the quest romances of Arthurian myth, the search for the Holy Grail:

It is sometimes said that the novel reached its culminating point when it adopted an anti-hero as a character: an absurd, strange and disoriented creature who wanders about continually, deaf and blind. But this is the substance of the novel: from Beckett back to Chrétien de Troyes, from Lawrence back to Lancelot, passing through the whole history of the English and American novel. (Deleuze, “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature”)

While some assessments of Murnane’s newfound popularity connect his work with the autofiction trend (as attested by Ben Lerner’s introduction to and Teju Cole’s blurb on this edition), The Plains is, generically, more a fantasy than anything else. If every occurrence of the word “Australia” were replaced with the name of a fictional planet or fantastical country, the novel’s metaphysics and politics would be little altered. I was reminded at times of Kafka’s Amerika, Beckett’s Molloy, Borges’s “The South,” Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and Aira’s Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, but I was reminded equally of Lem’s Solaris.

As for any world-lit Faulknerisms we may observe of Murnane, they come up in his life rather than his work, in his reputation as the local eccentric making extraordinary pronouncements even as he has never left his region of Australia. Shannon Burns* is a good guide to this aspect of Murnane’s reception and the difficulties it has created for his work’s reputation.

I personally dislike the metropolitan condescension, the patronizing indulgence, the “Isn’t he just darling?” that infects the tone of some commentary on Murnane I’ve seen. Many of his “eccentricities,” such as his preference for correct prose or his relative dislike of cinema, seem admirable enough to me, and his seeming arrogance, however tinged with self-satirizing grandiosity—

You mention the craftsmanship of my writing. I wouldn’t dare give myself a ranking among my contemporaries in any field other than craftsmanship. And in that field I’d rank myself first. My sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during my lifetime. The previous sentence is a fair average sample of my prose.

—is almost inarguably preferable to its inverse, the maddeningly faux-humble tweet of Millennial self-promotion: “So um guys I like wrote a thing?”

Even so, the commissars of world literature will have to pack me on to the next train to Philistia (maybe I can sit next to Ted Gioia if he’ll have me), because I am going to need many more sights and sounds and smells and scenes from my fiction than are on offer in The Plains, with its extraordinarily abstract narration. I admire, in theory, the severity and astringency of Murnane’s aesthetic, but my own preference is for a livelier landscape. What can I say? I was reared amid hills, reading Faulkner and Fitzgerald.


* I can’t resist noting that Burns, an Australian academic and writer, also wrote two brilliant essays I’ve enjoyed recently. One is a somewhat illicit piece called “In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class,” which contains these lines, lines I wish I could make any number of people understand:

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of a middle-class life is the extent to which it shields its beneficiaries from fundamental, brutal realities. Most lower class people of all ethnicities quickly learn that universal justice doesn’t exist, and probably never will, yet unbridled fantasies of fairness are continually thrust upon them from above. Don Quixote rides his workhorse, Rocinante, with the same blind abandon.

And he also wrote an appreciation of the late Philip Roth that doubles as a defense of amoral or even immoral fiction:

Some strains of contemporary criticism are driven to weed out the “bad seeds”, writers who are considered morally dubious, and Roth’s reputation has certainly suffered as a result of this critical turn, but I want to suggest that writers who disappoint moral or ideological expectations are as worthy of attention as those who appeal to and reinforce them. Writers are under no obligation to be role models or social engineers, and literature needn’t serve to reassure its readers or confirm their values.

I recommend both essays highly.


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Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

Long Day's Journey Into NightLong Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Long Day’s Journey into Night, often considered one of the finest American dramas and as its author’s masterpiece, was first published posthumously in 1955. The sources of its plot and characters in the Nobel-winning author’s autobiography, his tortured family life marked by regret and addiction, seemed to demand its withholding until O’Neill’s death in 1953.

The play’s title is apt as it obeys the Aristotelian unities of time and place: it is set from morning to night on one summer day in one room of the Tyrone family’s New England summer home. The offstage sea, with its encroaching fog and sounding foghorn, contribute much of the solemn, oneiric mood.

The patriarch of the Tyrone family, James, is a wildly successful stage actor who came from impoverished Irish immigrants, including a father who abandoned the family. This poor beginning led him to sell out his Shakespearean gifts and ambitions for a moneymaking role that made him rich and famous but vitiated his talent; it also caused him to become a lifelong miser, no matter how much money he makes.

His wife, Mary, is a morphine addict who became hooked on the opiate after the birth of their son, Edmund. Edmund is their third son, but their second, Eugene, died in childhood; this tragedy, along with a punishing life on the road as an actor’s wife, has contributed to Mary’s addiction and despair, her endless reminiscing upon her long-vanished youthful promise when she was a convent-school girl.

Jamie and Edmund are their grown sons, Jamie a dissolute and cynical actor and Edmund a budding intellectual and artist devoted to the most pessimistic currents of modern thought. (Biographical critics note that Edmund is transparently a stand-in for O’Neill, though observe, too, the poignance with which the author gives his own name to the dead child.) The two sons, like the father, are alcoholics. Much of the play’s rhythm is structured by their increasing drunkenness throughout the day, and by Mary’s increasing disappearance into her morphine haze, “night” being not only a time of day but a state of mental darkness.

Long Day’s Journey is not quite plotless: its two dramatic foci are the family’s discovery that Mary has relapsed into addiction, when they’d thought she was cured, and Edmund’s diagnosis of tuberculosis, which casts a shadow of death over the proceedings. Both events provoke the play’s intense dialogues between and among the family members as they hurl recriminations at one another or deliver monologues about their failed promise, speeches gathering emotional force and bitter honesty as day turns to night.

Brief quotation cannot suggest the play’s mounting power of confrontation and scenic construction; I imagine it, like Death of a Salesman, is more powerful staged than read. O’Neill and Miller share a perhaps greater gift for dramaturgy than a way with words (which is not quite true of other major American dramatists, like Tennessee Williams and August Wilson). The play’s tableaux, particularly the concluding one, might be more powerful than the rather slangy and verbose speeches.

On the other hand, Long Day’s Journey also has a novelistic quality that comes out in its extensive stage directions, the descriptive passages of which seem meant to be read rather than staged. O’Neill’s impossibly detailed renditions of his characters’ appearances, which no casting director could hope to approximate, demand an inner theater:

Edmund is ten years younger than his brother, a couple of inches taller, thin and wiry. Where Jamie takes after his father, with little resemblance to his mother, Edmund looks like both his parents, but is more like his mother. Her big, dark eyes are the dominant feature in his long, narrow Irish face. His mouth has the same quality of hypersensitiveness hers possesses. His high forehead is hers accentuated, with dark brown hair, sunbleached to red at the ends, brushed straight back from it. But his nose is his father’s, and his face in profile recalls Tyrone’s, Edmund’s hands are noticeably like his mother’s, with the same exceptionally long fingers. They even have to a minor degree the same nervousness It is in the quality of extreme nervous sensibility that the likeness of Edmund to his mother is most marked.

What most fascinates me about this play is the debate about literature itself that O’Neill stages between the generations. The living room that is the play’s setting features two bookshelves. One represents the rebellious modernity of the sons and the other represents the old man’s comparative classicism:

Against the wall between the doorways is a small bookcase, with a picture of Shakespeare above it, containing novels by Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, philosophical and sociological works by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, Max Stirner, plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, poetry by Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Kipling, etc.


Farther back is a large, glassed-in bookcase with sets of Dumas, Victor Hugo, Charles Lever, three sets of Shakespeare, The World’s Best Literature in fifty large volumes, Hume’s History of England, Thiers’ History of the Consulate and Empire, Smollett’s History of England, Gibbon’s Roman Empire and miscellaneous volumes of old plays, poetry, and several histories of Ireland.

As opposed to the supposedly calm universality of the father’s classic and romantic drama and enlightened historiography, the sons incline toward anarchism and socialism in politics, naturalism and aestheticism in literature, all of which entail a rejection of Christian metaphysics and morality. In later scenes, the sons quote from Baudelaire, Swinburne, and Wilde, whose aesthetics Tyrone pronounces “morbid”; he goes on to claim that Shakespeare contains both the genuine truths expressed by the morbid moderns but also much more:

Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters? You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him—as you’ll find everything else worth saying.

When we learn in a monologue what Shakespeare means to Tyrone, nothing less than a total transcendence of his desperate origins, we are less inclined to condescend with the radical youth to the elder’s classicism:

I was wild with ambition. I read all the plays ever written. I studied Shakespeare as you’d study the Bible. I educated myself. I got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife. I loved Shakespeare. I would have acted in any of his plays for nothing, for the joy of being alive in his great poetry.

And when Edmund mocks Tyrone’s possibly parochial insistence that “Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic,” we might be invited to appreciate the English dramatist’s universality as much as to laugh at the Irish-American’s credulity (and history has caught up with half of Tyrone’s equation, anyway: Shakespeare is nowadays widely regarded as a Catholic writer, if not an Irish one).

O’Neill intends, I think, to synthesize the classics with the moderns. If his characters are trapped in a fate they can’t escape, marked indelibly by their family and class origins and controlled by addictions they can’t evade through force of will, is this any less true of the personae in Sophocles and Shakespeare? How great a departure is Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Zola’s naturalism, or Wilde’s aestheticism, with their insistence on humanity’s determination by inhuman forces and on art’s amorality, from Greek tragedy’s celebratory hymns to crushing fate? Mary insists that “life,” a mysterious determining force, is the agent in their lives, rather than they themselves:

But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it. None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self for ever.

Mary, though, retains a transcendent belief in some “true self” for “life” to betray and abuse. Edmund, for his part, praises the dissolution of the self in the engulfing sea as his most authentic experience, which we could easily compare to Hamlet’s concluding admission, “Let be,” or the manifest death-drive of Sophocles’s Antigone or Euripides’s Pentheus:

When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself. To God, if you want to put it that way. […] Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Edmund’s artistic-mystic vision is the authentic experience of which alcohol and morphine offer only the degraded copy; this insight is why Edmund, the O’Neill stand-in, is alone among the characters in being able to write the play.

Browsing through Harold Bloom’s introduction to a later edition of the text (Yale UP, 2002), I see that Bloom dwells on the un- or anti-Americanism of O’Neill’s aesthetic. For Bloom, this means un- or anti-Emersonian, a rejection of Transcendentalist self-reliance and progressive optimism, against which the Irish-American O’Neill posits the pessimism of Schopenhauer and the severity of Jansenist Catholicism. In this vein, I have also sometimes heard O’Neill discussed by others as not American at all, but an honorary Irish author working somewhere between the “scrupulous meanness” of Joyce’s naturalism in Dubliners and the surrealist inertia of Beckett’s drama.

Leaving aside the perhaps beside-the-point national question, Long Day‘s modernist combination of a naturalistic with a more symbolic or expressionistic mode makes O’Neill’s drama exemplary of a heightened or mythic realism, like so much of the 20th-century’s most powerful fiction and drama from Henrik Ibsen to Toni Morrison. O’Neill’s intellectual conviction that his characters’ wills are not their own, that they are lived by their fates, is embodied strikingly by their wild changes of mood, tone, and posture, as if O’Neill were asking the actors to be successively possessed by different spirits:

He forces a laugh in which she makes herself join. Then he goes out on the porch and disappears down the steps. Her first reaction is one of relief. She appears to relax. She sinks down in one of the wicker armchairs at rear of table and leans her head back, closing her eyes But suddenly she grows terribly tense again. Her eyes open and she strains forward, seized by a fit of nervous panic. She begins a desperate battle with herself. Her long fingers, warped and knotted by rheumatism, drum on the arms of the chair, driven by an insistent life of their own, without her consent.

In this way, O’Neill’s dramaturgy literalizes his famous description, in the drama’s opening dedication to his wife, of “the four haunted Tyrones,” protagonists of this haunting modern tragedy.


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Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus

Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short StoriesGoodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories by Philip Roth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

She walked away and around the oak tree. When she appeared again she’d stepped out of her shoes and held one hand on the tree, as though it were a Maypole she were circling.
—Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

Just then, as if a spell had loosened them, down came a little shower of withering rose leaves from the May-Pole. Alas, for the young lovers! No sooner had their hearts glowed with real passion, than they were sensible of something vague and unsubstantial in their former pleasures, and felt a dreary presentiment of inevitable change. From the moment that they truly loved, they had subjected themselves to earth’s doom of care, and sorrow, and troubled joy, and had no more a home at Merry Mount.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The May-Pole of Merrymount” (1832)

Among the nineteenth-century New England literati who form of the core of the classic tradition in American literature, Hawthorne is the patron saint of the second- or third- or fourth-generation writer—any writer whose forebears migrated to this country with one or another stern faith and a ferocious capitalist work ethic, just the combination to make those immigrant ancestors understandably disgusted when they find they have somehow spawned dreamy, perverse sons and daughters who would rather explore the possibilities of human nature and live experimental lives than venerate the household gods or do an honest day’s labor. In “The Custom-House,” the Preface to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne, forced to get what my relatives call “a real job” by economic need, imagines his Puritan ancestors’ judgment on his true vocation, that of novelist and short story writer:

“What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.

At least Hawthorne’s forebears were long dead, and he only imagined their reproach: some of us have to hear it, still, in the flesh. But as the concluding sentence of the quotation allows, such writers as Hawthorne understand that something in their immigrant ancestors’ grim view of life is true, truer than the meliorism of settled, satisfied classes. That, in a sense, our rebellion against them reprises their flight to America, their quest for some other, better way to be.

Philip Roth was, strange to say, a Hawthorne of the late twentieth century. And Roth understood it, as the reference to the maypole in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, demonstrates, along with the name of the rebel daughter, Merry, in American Pastoral. It’s true that nobody in Hawthorne ever fucked a liver or jacked off over his mistress’s grave, but in Roth and in Hawthorne the heroes seek—and invariably find—the limits of our American freedom, shadowed all the while by the gloom of their immigrant ancestry.

The final story in Goodbye, Columbus, “Eli, the Fanatic,” even re-writes “The Minister’s Black Veil.” It is set in a prosperous midcentury suburb populated by Jewish and Protestant professionals steeped in modern expertise from psychoanalysis to all the accoutrements of the ’50s home. At the edge of this community, Orthodox Jewish refugees from Europe have set up a Yeshiva school, and Eli, an attorney, is dispatched by the alarmed suburbanites to use zoning laws to run out those whom they consider unsightly fanatics. But Eli is unaccountably transformed by his encounter with the “blackness” of both the refugees’ traditions and their suffering and ends up donning the black Orthodox garb himself, which renders him a madman in the eyes of his bright suburban neighbors.

Roth, whom you might expect to puncture the conservatism of the Orthodox, here defends them against the merciless philistinism of the middle-minded Americans, one of whom protests against giving his daughter a religious education because the story of Abraham (“‘Today a guy like that they’d lock him up'”) gave his daughter nightmares! Such censoriousness from any quarter and with whatever justification is always disgusting, because it evades the “blackness” that has seeped from the exigencies of history into Eli.

With these ideas in mind, we can turn to the collection’s famous title novella. A work of extraordinary economy and precision—a model to the writing student, as Emily Gould notes—it portrays a failed love affair over the course of one summer between Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin. Brenda’s family has grown rich and moved out of working-class Newark to a better address, while Neil still lives in the old neighborhood with his aunt Gladys. This class conflict is more a subtext than the story’s explicit source of conflict: the Patimkins seem to tolerate Neil, even if they are occasionally knowing about his lower status; Mr. Patimkin even appreciates Neil’s greater proximity to Jewish life:

“Here you need a little of the gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?”

“Thief,” I said.

“You know more than my own kids. They’re goyim, my kids, that’s how much they understand.”

Brenda, a character of lovable complexity, is never more the spoiled rich girl than in her conflicts with her mother, while Neil at times seems to sympathize with Mrs. Patimkin, as her character was forged by struggles he understands but Brenda does not. Meanwhile, Neil’s aunt Gladys is a beautiful loving comic sketch of a certain type—I don’t think you have to be exclusively Jewish to recognize her, to hear the intonation of her voice in your own head, but you do have to have been around the old twentieth-century immigrant neighborhoods at some point in your life, as I was in my childhood.

Even as Neil enjoys his entrée into upper-class living, he works in the Newark Public Library where he forms a kind of friendship with a black boy who comes in on his summer vacation to look at book of Gaugin’s paintings. The phrase “goodbye, Columbus” has a double provenance in the text: it is intoned on a commemorative record given to Brenda’s brother upon his graduation from Ohio State, but it also appears in a dream of Neil’s wherein he and the black boy from the library are setting out from Gaugin’s Tahiti while the women on shore shout, “Goodbye, Columbus.” The real discoverers of America are not the upwardly mobile and the assimilated, we may take this to mean, but the outcasts, whether on grounds of race or sensibility, the indigenes of art. Art, as all its serious practitioners are aware, is not the same as doing whatever you please; certainly the monkish Roth—a writer all the way down, per Zadie Smith’s tribute—did not think so.

It is sex, which will become Roth’s great topic, that drives Neil and Brenda apart. Roth was and is often mistaken, by censorious sensibilities both religious/conservative and feminist/liberal, for a mere libertine, but he is not, no more than is Hawthorne. In Hawthorne’s great early story about the maypole, two gangs of extremists face off with a newlywed couple between them: the extremist pleasure-seekers of Merrymount and the extremist Calvinists of Massachusetts Bay. Both are mistaken in their exaggerations. Contra the revelers, life is not and cannot be pure pleasure, pure freedom—once you make any commitment, whether to a discipline or to another person, you are necessarily constrained. Contra the theocrats, however, commitments should not be imposed externally but must be freely chosen. Real freedom is when you are at liberty to choose that to which you will be bound.

Neil and Brenda are, on these grounds, ambiguous figures, and Roth is not obviously on the male’s side: the crisis in their relationship comes when he urges her to get a diaphragm, which her mother discovers. If there is a polemic here against the Patimkins’ punitive or puritanical respectability, there is also a disturbing element in Neil’s possessiveness and control. The couple never earnestly and openly discusses the innate difficulties of their relationship, and Neil’s insistence on the diaphragm is his way of finding a shortcut to a premarital commitment. By the end, we don’t know quite what to think, though we have been given much to think about. It is part of the iron discipline of art that the artist not choose sides.

All well and theoretical, but the pleasures of this novella are as much in description and motif as in theme and thesis. Read it for the fruit, the swimming pool, the sweat; read it for Roth’s first attempt to put all of Newark into language. And then read the rest of this book for its controversial short stories, comic allegories of culture clash and individuation, the first works to put Roth in the eye of the censors, who wanted and want a clear statement of virtue from the books they read. But in Roth, as in Hawthorne, the authorial self-control necessary to refuse resolution, to refuse to choose among America’s divided legacies, is the clearest statement of all. The point is to leave readers free to embrace whatever destiny is theirs. It is an honorable tradition to join—certainly the most honorable I have personally discovered in America—and Roth was and will remain a model practitioner of the art.


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Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

Radical Chic; &, Mau Mauing The Flak CatchersRadical Chic & Mau Mauing The Flak Catchers by Tom Wolfe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about those less fortunate.
—Whit Stillman, Metropolitan

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it is a year or two into a conservative presidential administration—one that follows an epoch-making liberal one, and that was carried into office on a wave of resentful white populism. Social and cultural changes that once looked permanent now feel a bit insecure. An alliance between the cultural and economic elite with progressive causes, including some of those causes’ more radical exponents, starts to break. Satire overwhelms earnestness. The ideological and demographic constituencies of the broad political left itself begin to fall out: socialist vs. liberal, working class vs. middle class, African-American vs. Jewish. The ethical status of the state of Israel is a particular flashpoint. And the New York Times increasingly appears to side, at least in matters cultural, with the political right.

Is this America? Is this 2018? It is indeed America, but I am describing the Nixon years, and you can read all about it in the late Tom Wolfe’s 1970 classic of embedded and excitable reportage, “Radical Chic.” The titular phrase, by the way, is one—among others—that Wolfe introduced into the language; it signifies the temporary adoption of left-wing ideology by the rich as a matter of fashion. (The word woke now means roughly the same, at least in its ironic usage, where it is spoken in imagined quotation marks to suggest a privileged white liberal’s patronizing adoption of black slang.)

Upon the white-suited author’s recent death, I wanted to read something of his, preferably not a 900-page novel in the mode of a zany Zola, so I chose this diptych on hearing “Radical Chic” commended on social media as especially relevant to the politics of the present. I just didn’t realize how relevant it would prove, even though I am the one always saying history is likely more circle than line.

“Radical Chic” famously narrates a party and/or meeting and/or benefit (the nature of the gathering actually becomes a point of contention in its controversial aftermath) held in the home of celebrated conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1970 wherein he hosted a number of Black Panthers alongside his more customary guest list of VIPs (Otto Preminger, Barbara Walters, Harry Belafonte—to cite a few names still in circulation). The event itself goes awry when Bernstein and his cohort begin interrogating their new guests not so much on racial politics, but rather on the Panthers’ avowed revolutionary goal of overthrowing capitalism—obviously an unwelcome prospect to this gathering of the haute bourgeoisie. Further, there is the tense subtext of worsening relations between the black and Jewish communities, exacerbated by the Panthers’ Third Worldist politics and concomitant hostility to Israel. When a columnist somewhat mockingly reports on the party in the New York Times the next day, it becomes a watchword for the delusions of fashionable bien pensance at the end of the 1960s.

While Wolfe artfully restricts his narrative timeline to the present of Bernstein’s party and its immediate aftermath, his own authorial voice ranges through the history of status wars between old and new money in New York City. Because America has no landed aristocracy, Wolfe explains, there are always new rich emerging from new bases of wealth (railroads, oil, steel, etc.) who need to set themselves apart with new status symbols. Often this takes the form of nostalgie de la boue, or “romanticizing of primitive souls”—essentially, slumming. Making matters more complicated, the new rich of the midcentury, who made their millions in media and culture, come from the ranks of the formerly impoverished immigrant groups: they are Catholics and Jews. These groups, especially the latter, have an understandable historical connection to the political left without compare among previous Protestant cohorts of the new rich. For this reason, they are especially divided between their self-interest and their desire for social justice, and are accordingly susceptible to radical chic, a fundamentally dishonest way of reconciling these incompatible commitments, and one moreover accompanied by an exploitative aestheticization or fetishization, even a consumption, necessarily de haut en bas, of the objects of their pity:

These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—

—no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads—

—these are real men!

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women—there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they’d stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows exactly what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because “the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes.”

Radical chic is the anti-racism that is really just racism.

Now Wolfe could not explicate this history and its results so knowledgeably without some sympathy for the subjects of his investigation. His attitude is not simply one of contempt; there is too much understanding in it for that. But there is satire, especially in the piece’s opening explanation of how Bernstein and friends clamored to hire white (largely Hispanic) rather than black servants in preparation for their encounter with the Black Panthers.

Wolfe largely spares the Black Panthers themselves his satirical scrutiny. I suspect he sees them as honest political players, pursuing their interests in the open sans the complex codes of the comme il faut among the jet set, codes that often operate precisely to conceal conflicts of interest. In the slighter second piece in this volume, “Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers,” he is more unsparing, and here his conservative politics come to the fore as he presents an elaborate game between community organizers and poverty programs in San Francisco. The staid bureaucrats, he explains, require the organizers to intimidate and harass them to justify getting anything done, though what they bring to the communities they ostensibly serve is often make-work amounting to little. Wolfe allows that this characteristic exchange of administrative liberalism helps to bring self-reliance to otherwise desperate constituencies, but here his derision is withering, especially in his depiction of a climactic parade through the gilded and marble City Hall of children, grotesquely eating junk food and headed by an organizer in a dashiki.

But if “Radical Chic” helped me to understand aspects of elite media in the Age of Trump, “Mau-Mauing” helped me to understand why the last president—himself a former community organizer—often implored his audiences to push his ostensibly moderate government toward more radical goals; according to Wolfe, this is a longstanding technique for change in urban politics. While “Radical Chic” exhibits a certain tact in writing about the Black Panthers that prevents the piece’s satire from lapsing into racist invective, “Mau-Mauing”—with its eponymous mocking allusion to anti-colonial revolt—does no such thing: its author is the anthropologist as insult artist, and the field report is acidly cartoonish, even if written with contemptuous relish.

The progression in this book, then, is the one narrated by this book: a rightward shift, a growing impatience with the attempt to display sympathies whose honest extension would mean your own undoing. It is true that this can be a cold and unfeeling doctrine, a Nietzschean call to the right of might, but on the other hand at least it does not have that particular reek of hypocrisy. And anyway, Wolfe seems to suggest in his relatively respectful allowance of voice and distance to the Black Panthers, better an open conflict of interests than the cheat that is the power-play of pity. Wolfe’s own justly celebrated writing style, its dandiacal energy unimpeded by guilt or condescension, is the literary correlate of such an aristocratic politics.

The effect of Wolfe’s satire against the high-low alliance made by radical chic is to shield the middle classes, the “silent majority,” from the scorn of the cultural elite and the anger of the insurgent oppressed; yet Wolfe is certainly not of this middle realm himself. His overture to them—like so many we see today—is possibly only another unworkable and hypocritical partnership across the line dividing the cultural haves from the have-nots. As Flaubert claimed he was Emma Bovary even as he anatomized her delusions, so Wolfe might have to acknowledge a kinship with Leonard Bernstein. But I doubt the maestro is the doppelgänger Wolfe would have chosen out of his own text. Perhaps as he gazed across Bernstein’s parlor, over the heads of the cringing liberals, he saw—in a moment of nostalgie all his own—the Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party as his own self-image in photo negative: the stylish warrior.


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Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues

The Hero And the BluesThe Hero And the Blues by Albert Murray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Albert Murray is, as the fashion journalists say, having a moment. His collected non-fiction and fiction/poetry have now been canonized by the Library of America (in volumes published in 2016 and 2018, respectively) and his insights on race, American identity, music, and literature are now being rediscovered by a wider readership.

Murray, who lived from 1916 to 2013, was an African-American critic and novelist most active in the mid-twentieth century and known for his writing on what he called “the blues idiom” and its intersection with literary modernism. While I had heard Murray’s name before, I was first urged to read him by friend and correspondent Matthew St. Ville Hunte, whose brilliant review-essay on another Murray reissue—Murray Talks Music—is a good place to start learning about the writer:

Major critics do not achieve that status by possessing impeccable taste; it is not the highest calling to have the cleanest scoresheet. Indeed, there is something foppish and epicurean about striving to merely have all the right opinions at the right times. Instead, the major critics are the ones with the strong opinions, the ones who aren’t receptive to every new experience, the ones whose defiant inflexibility may bend the culture towards the future. Major critics have major themes, which ballast their writing and allow them to rise above merely being tastemaking. Just as Edmund Wilson had modernism and Trilling had the liberal imagination, Albert Murray had the blues idiom.

This is both a perfect and a somewhat odd moment for an Albert Murray revival. Odd because his ideas and emphases are almost anathema in this time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head? Three or four times in just the last week, I have run across laments about the almost Soviet gap between what liberal writers, educators, and media professionals feel they can say in public and what they are saying in private. (What they are saying in private, let me tell you, is nothing other than what I just said—we can say it; but we will have to overcome our own pusillanimity, which is admittedly a tall order!)

On the other hand, the popular adversaries of the above trends are not much less deadening in their reductions than the left-liberal literati; the “Intellectual Dark Web” leaves a lot to be desired, especially intellectually. Everything today decays into the worst kind of simplistic political argument, cable TV crossfire obsolesced because now generalized—it feels as if we are all talking heads in hell. What a perfect time, then, to read and re-read an intelligent, complex writer who argues for the importance of myth, archetype, and ritual, for the universality of art, without succumbing to the cruder polemics of a Jordan Peterson, a writer who insists upon the cultural autonomy and political independence of African-Americans in a register more alive to nuance and tragedy than Kanye West’s Twitter.

With the Library of American reprints, Murray’s entire oeuvre—some 2000 or 3000 pages—has come flooding back all at once; but as I am a slow, lazy reader, and as we all have to start somewhere, I have decided to focus on The Hero and the Blues, a short collection of three lectures published in 1973.[1] In this small but carefully composed book, Murray outlines his thesis that art’s function derives from ancient rituals meant to ensure community survival by embodying a hero’s story. Art shows us how our fictional surrogate, a Representative Man, is or is not adequate to the challenges posed by life. In this way, art demonstrates how we ourselves should live:

It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the story teller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man—perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so, he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.

Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late twentieth century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.

As a result, says Murray, fiction has sold its birthright to the sociologists and psychologists (dismissively metonymized by Murray as “Marx-Freud,” a hybrid monstrosity of shallow thinking). Novelists have given up tragedy, comedy, and farce for the lower art of melodrama: a story where narrowly material and social success is the goal rather than any broader confrontation with the nature of things. The higher modes of tragedy, comedy, and farce, by contrast, deal not just with the social context and material well-being emphasized by the protest writers; they put the hero into conflict with the essentials, Emerson’s “lords of life”—the tragic hero transcends them even as he is defeated by them, the comic hero overcomes them through the social regeneration of marriage, and the farcical hero evades them through nimble caprice amid absurdity[2].

Murray sees the hero of tragedy, comedy, and farce as defined by what he calls “cooperative antagonism”—that is, heroism is necessitated by adversity. This in turn implies that adversity is not to be avoided even if one could, that “safety”—to put it in contemporary pop-psychobureaucratic terms—is not to be sought as a political telos, especially because it is incompatible with freedom:

Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only an indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.

Here Murray comes into conflict with prevailing political thought about race in America on the left. (Though it should be said that this is not at all the main topic of the book, which is primarily an aesthetic treatise.) By capitulating to Marx-Freud and salvation through superior political management, black writers offer themselves up as objects of pity and study to white intellectuals, and in the meantime they give up their people’s own contribution to world culture: the blues tradition, whose improvisatory craft demonstrates how oppression may be transcended through artful ritual. As Hunte comments in his review:

The blues, as explained by Murray, are not the wails of lamentations, melancholic outpourings for the woebegone and disconsolate. Au contraire, the blues are intended to dispel such feelings, not wallow in them. The blues constitute a battle against chaos and entropy and in their broadest interpretation, lie at the heart of any artistic endeavor. But this is not merely art as entertainment, though it must certainly be that as well. This is art as ritualized survival technique.

Committed to the autonomy of art, Murray refuses to explain black expression as simply the result, the epiphenomenon, of slavery and oppression; he sees it, rather, as the intellectual and sensuous mastery by brilliant craftsmen of their adverse context. For this reason, he makes an extended comparison between the blues ensemble and the Elizabethan theater, and between Duke Ellington and Shakespeare: African-American art, like European art, is not a primitive eructation of the volk but the work of master crafters committed to improving the polis. Blues is thus the epitome of all true art, the heir of those rituals that assembled themselves into the epic from which all later music and narrative derives. Murray goes so far as to recommend that black experience become the paradigm of American experience in general, that all American artists become black blues artists—not as cultural appropriators, mind you, but as fellow crafters who rightly recognize the genius after which they ought to pattern themselves if they want to overcome their own troubles. The writing of Marx-Freud, by contrast (he singles out Wright and the later Baldwin; in our own day, he might mention Coates and Rankine),

concerns itself not with the ironies and ambiguities of self-improvement and self-extension, not with the evaluation of the individual as protagonist, but rather with representing a world of collective victims whose survival and betterment depend not upon self-determination but upon a change of heart in their antagonists who thereupon will cease being villains and become patrons of social welfare!

The title notwithstanding, there is surprisingly little about the blues per se in this book. Much of it is rather a reading of two of Murray’s favorite modern writers, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, both of whom he sees as modeling heroic fiction. His enthusiastic discussion of Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers as the depiction of a nimbly exilic hero rather than a Moses bound for the Promised Land will make any reader realize that they should go beyond Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain with Mann, while his praise of Hemingway makes that writer’s seeming outdatedness itself look like little more than a quirk of our own cynical era.

I would like to conclude with Murray’s defense of experimentation in the arts. Whenever anyone starts talking about myth and archetypes as underlying literature the way Murray does, people understandably get suspicious: doesn’t that lead to artistic complacency and stereotypes, to political conservatism of the least thoughtful variety? But Murray was a partisan of modernism, not a marketer of Joseph Campbell monoplots to Hollywood nor a vendor of supposedly antediluvian sexual wisdom like some we could name today. Modernism’s motto was “make it new”—myths and archetypes are the “it,” but “new” is the point. Formal inventiveness, new ways of telling the old stories, are the aesthetic correlate of the social renewal presaged by true art’s rituals of survival and transcendence, the bearing of vital traditions through every challenge:

Implicitly, experiment is also an action taken to insure that nothing endures which is not workable; as such, far from being anti-traditional, as is often assumed, it actually serves the best interests of tradition, which, after all, is that which continues in the first place.

Revivals of unjustly neglected or forgotten authors may also renew tradition: so, if you want surprisingly prescient and relevant wisdom from almost half a century ago, it is a good day to read Albert Murray.

[1] 1973 was the same year of publication, incidentally, as Toni Morrison’s Sula, and only one year later than Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. It would be a great reading experience to take these three books in sequence, each correcting the excesses and omissions of the other: Reed cares, like Murray, for black expression as ritual action, but he puts this in an Afrocentric and anti-colonial context that Murray would find too culturally exclusivist and anti-American; as for Morrison, her vision of heroism incorporates more of the negative and the nihilistic than Murray seems willing to acknowledge—Murray may believe in “cooperative antagonism,” but Morrison believes in the devil—and she also, crucially, portrays female heroism, whereas Murray’s vision of the hero is (like all his favorite novelists) male.

[2] Murray would recognize the aforementioned social-media flayings as ritual actions, and he values farce above all genres—somewhat as Northrop Frye values satire (derived from the satyr play, the goatish—we would now call it “inappropriate”—caper that capped tragic trilogies in ancient Athens)—because of its power to counter the solemnity of ritual and mock ideologies before they become so aggrandized that they menace the community:

Farce breaks the spell of ritual. It counterbalances the magic which ritual works upon the imagination. It protects human existence from the excesses of the imagination and operates as a safeguard against the overextension of ideas, formulations, and formalities. After all, extended far enough, even the idea of freedom becomes a involving security measures and thus a justification for restrictions which exceed those that generated the thrust toward liberation in the first place. The world is, or should be, all too familiar with totalitarian systems which began as freedom movements.

“Should be”—you can say that again.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!