Thursday, November 27, 2008

First snow - more questions

Sunday, September 28, 2008

What's up with Kerouac lately?

Every now and then I do a web search to see if any new images of Jack Kerouac have popped up. Mostly what you get are the usual suspects, well-known images that get re-posted over and over again, but every so often new sources go public with stuff they have been sitting on for decades. This post is an opportunity to gather some of these new photo resources together...

The most exciting new series I have found consists of four portrait shots, done by Tom Palumbo, who for many years did fashion photography for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar as well as celebrity work. He later became a theatre director and was affiliated with Actor's Studio. He is now 86 or 87 and has apparently decided to have someone create a Flickr photostream for him, and to have a nice website showing much of his best work....

Some time in 1955 Palumbo did a session in New York City in a painter's studio on E. 13th Street. Kerouac looks quite aggressive and macho in the resulting shots, perhaps because he was hungry, as Palumbo notes in a caption that the painter cooked up some spaghetti for them to eat after the shoot was wrapped up... Some of the images came up on the web in connection with a Vanity Fair article by Joyce Johnson, posted last August in connection with the 50th anniversary of the US publication of On the Road. The three images below come from Palumbo's photostream:

Don't Mess with Jack Kerouac is Palumbo's caption...

Speaking of Joyce Johnson's Vanity Fair article, this piece also has some quite unusual colour photographs of Kerouac and her, apparently taken at night in New York City. One shows Kerouac leaning against a lamp-post with Joyce in the background (she is out of focus, so you need to know it's her to identify her), another has Kerouac squatting in front of the lamp-post (Joyce is not in this picture at all) with a busy luminous background of neon signs and moving cars...

Joyce was Kerouac's girlfriend at the time when On the Road first appeared and she went with Kerouac to buy the newspapers and read the first reviews of the novel in the early editions on the day of the novel's release. It would be nice to think the photo set was shot on that occasion, but I doubt that was really the case. Joyce went on to write a memoir about her life with Jack, called Minor Characters (1983), and she has also written a play based on letters exchanged between herself and Kerouac.
The photos below were taken by Jerome Yulsman for Globe Photos, Inc., and cannot be dated more precisely than late 1950s (post 1957, pre-break-up with Joyce):

Joyce describes in her article how Kerouac was ill-prepared for the fame and the attendent media frenzy that came with On the Road's success. Kerouac eventually sought refuge on the West Coast and during one of his stays with Carolyn Cassady, the wife of Neal Cassady (the hero of On the Road) and occasional lover of Kerouac, she took a serene snapshot of Kerouac in an easy chair, reading. Note the unlaced, but not discarded hiking boots. Kerouac was, as ever, ready for that 'one fast move and I'm gone'...

While actually whipping On the Road into what the publishers thought was an acceptable shape Kerouac lived a few months in Orlando, Florida. The house he lived in is now a writers' retreat where one can stay as a writer in residence for a few months. After On the Road came out a local photographer did some work for a piece in Time Magazine on the newly famous resident. One very nice shot has surfaced on the web, showing Kerouac among oranges on the back steps of the house with a cat on his lap.

Jack Kerouac on steps at Clouser St.: Orange County Regional History Center, from images by Orlando photographer Fred DeWitt.

Another rarely seen Orlando picture shows Jack with his suitcase, getting ready to leave his sister and brother-in-law's house after a 1959 visit. Note the caption in Swedish in the upper right-hand corner of the image. This may be a photo taken in connection with the collaboration Kerouac did with photographer Robert Frank on a book called simply The Americans...

As Kerouac grew more and more weary of his role as King of the Beats, his alcoholism deepened. Not surprisingly many of the sixties photos of Jack show him in bars or other public places, often clearly intoxicated.

One such picture, Bert Glinn's photo for Magnum, shows Kerouac partying among the folkies at the 7 Arts Café in Greenwich Village, 1959:

A similar picture, but of rather more cultural interest, shows Kerouac with a group of close friends at an undisclosed New York diner. The group features Allen Ginsberg, far right; Greg Corso, who is only represented via the back of his head; David Amram, who has his mouth open (Amram is a musician who frequently collaborated w. Kerouac and who was involved in the film project Pull My Daisy); and - most interestingly - New York School painter and poet, Larry Rivers, seen in profile, wearing a suit (as the only one present)...

This photo, and several others from the same day (in connection with the shooting of the film Pull My Daisy) was taken by John Cohen (who also took the famous 1959 shot of Kerouac listening to himself on the radio)...

But, let's close on a note of up-beat youth and bucolic idyl, with Walter Lehrman's amazing picture of a radiant, yet pensive Jack, anticipating his summer as a fire lookout in the Cascades, 1956:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What's up with Marilyn reading Ulysses?

A few months ago I started keeping a Tumblr log where I post pictures and texts that I find interesting - no particular agenda, no particularly explicit aesthetics. It is a strangely addictive activity - much more so than regular blogging, in fact... I am long since past 600 posts on the Tumblr.

Among the many pictures I have posted is one taken by Eve Arnold, a highly respected Magnum photographer, showing Marilyn Monroe reading a bound edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. The photo is more than 50 years old and there is a respectable amount of scholarship on the image, both from within Joyce-studies (the best is probably Richard Brown's essay in Joyce and Popular Culture, "Marilyn Reading Ulysses: Goddess or Post-Cultural Cyborg?" ) and from the wider field of cultural studies (see Thomas Rasmussen's design studies essay, or Kim Q. Hall's disability studies essay from 2002 in NWSA Journal, which comments on an art-work inspired by the photo, Barbara Bloom's piece Playboy in Braille). My own interest stems from my work on Monroe as an American icon, and let's face it, it is interesting to see an icon read a canonical work of literature! Not least when an (over)eroticized icon reads a notoriously 'dirty' book... All this, however, has been well covered by scholarship as well as more popular accounts (such as the recent book Women Seeing Women: A Pictorial History of Women's Photography from Julia Margaret Cameron to Annie Leibovitz; or the latest issue of Poets & Writers Magazine - blogged about here) over the last 15 years.

The connection that made me post the image was that in 2006 the English newspaper, The Guardian, had asked authors to choose their favourite image of a woman reading, and Jeanette Winterson had picked the Arnold photo. Winterson writes:

This is so sexy, precisely because it’s Marilyn reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. She doesn’t have to pose, we don’t even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration. There she is, the goddess, not needing to please her audience or her man, just living inside the book. The vulnerability is there, but also something we don’t often see in the blonde bombshell; a sense of belonging to herself. It’s not some playboy combination of brains and boobs that is so perfect about this picture; it is that reading is always a private act, is intimate, is lover’s talk, is a place of whispers and sighs, unregulated and usually unobserved. We are the voyeurs, it’s true, but what we’re spying on is not a moment of body, but a moment of mind. For once, we’re not being asked to look at Marilyn, we’re being given a chance to look inside her.
Arnold in fact was quite friendly with Marilyn and took many pictures of her over a number of years, including several rather private images from the home on Long Island Monroe shared with her then husband, playwright Arthur Miller. Arnold also tells all sorts of candid anecdotes about Marilyn and her balancing a vulnerable personality with a larger than life public persona (see this lovely review of Arnold's book Film Journal in New Statesman, and another in The Guardian).
A few weeks ago I added a site meter to my Tumblr, just out of curiosity as to whether anyone at all was reading my stuff. I advise against doing this - stats are also horribly addictive and you begin to wonder who these people are that keep returning to your site from Mountain View, California or Portugal, Armenia or Malaysia... Shortly after adding my site meter I had a red letter day in my stats, featuring almost 400 unique visitors on one day. This was pretty flabbergasting, and I tried to figure out why and what these people were looking for or at. I soon discovered that my Marilyn post had been 'found' by one of the main users of StumbleUpon, the well-known web bookmarks-sharing site. Her write-up seemed to generate 85-90 % of the traffic on my Tumblr as referrals almost all came from there...

So far, so good - however the StumbleUpon thing was already a couple of weeks old when I got the peak traffic, and over the next two weeks I have had other peaks of 300+ visits, sometimes even on a Tuesday. I can only conclude that people are dying to see Marilyn, and that when they have seen this sexy picture of her they all tell their friends in Kansas, Wisconsin, Malaysia, Armenia and other outposts of civilization to go see it too. There haven't been any new reviews of the Marilyn post on StumbleUpon for a couple of weeks, so I don't know exactly what drives them - not novelty, anyway...

I am, of course, happy that people want to visit my Tumblr, but I realize that this bubble will never last. And I am less happy that out of 600+ posts, the Marilyn one gets all the attention. But that's life...

Never having been one to shy away from whoring for attention, I have tried to post other good Marilyn pictures on the Tumblr - to no avail since they have not been picked up - sorry, 'stumbled upon' - by one of the star endorsers on the top 24 of full-time nerds who do nothing but stumble around the web. I actually rather think I would like to become one such myself, time allowing...

Anyhoo, knowing that almost no-one reads this blog I have decided to go for more attention by publishing no less than 3 Eve Arnold photos of Marilyn in one post. One never knows how many lonely college boys from Missoula, Montana that might attract...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

It's a pink, pink, pink moon

All day I have been preoccupied with translation, and I have very much had Nick Drake's Pink Moon album on my mind. As many will undoubtedly know, the public fame of that album and its title song grew exponentially when VW decided to use it in one of their commercials, targeted specifically at an anti-commercial-watching segment of potential VW-buyers...

A long chapter of the 33 1/3-series volume on Pink Moon by Amanda Petrusich is given over to a very full description of the creative and commercial process behind the making of this particular ad, so one can go there for additonal info.

This, not very successful book carries a very pretentious blurb, part of which goes like this:

Like nearly all prematurely buried cult figures, Nick Drake is reinvented each time he is rediscovered. In 2000, the sheepish, astral musings of "Pink Moon" became synonymous with backing a Volkswagen Cabrio convertible away from a raucous house party, as VW boldly sold American drivers on the notion of eschewing red plastic cups and bro-hugs for moonbeams and tree trunks (and a cute German car - sort of). The Cabrio ad inadvertently sparked an unlikely boost in record sales, propelling the album towards platinum status nearly 28 years after its release. But with each well-intentioned revival of interest, Nick Drake slips further and further out of reach, martyred and codified, superceded and consumed by his own tragic context. Since his controversial death in 1974, Nick Drake has become: the 26-year-old prophet, the diffident enigma, the tortured precursor to Kurt Cobain, the fallen hero, the folksinger-as-folksymbol, the self-sacrificing patron saint of lonely, disaffected teenagers - the One who died for our sins.
For now, just watch:

Note how the commercial contrasts nature and a quiet communion with it (river, darkness, fireflies - and, of course - moon) with youth culture of the noisy, imbecilic kind (loutish, drunken and disorderly behaviour). This is a tricky sell: one community has to be valorized (we are not interested in lonely drivers here); the other must be connoted negatively. A strategy that helps accomplish this is to associate the essential features of the car with the desired community and its harmony with nature. The car's stream-lined design details and its almost noiseless swoosh as it glides through the land all become natural features: the tail lights are at one with other light sources: fireflies, moon glow; the in-car stereo produces harmonious sounds that only enhance nature's singing (crickets), and do not drown them out. The price for this is that the commercial has to conjure up a fantasy world: after all one cannot really listen to acoustic folk music in most cars, least of all with the top down!

The actual lyrics to Drake's song are, of course, not really very suited for the purpose of selling a cabriolet car - or any product for that matter, with the possible exception of Prozac. They are in fact quite scary and haunting, promising us that forces of nature will catch up with 'you', the addressee of the song, i.e. us all, and do away with us:
I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get you all
It's a pink moon
It's a pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon.
The threat, revenge fantasy or prophesy spoken by these lyrics makes a lot of sense in connection with Nick Drake's own life, but clashes violently with the easy life and quest for peace and quiet of the young people riding the VW. The only way this can work is if our four friends in the cabrio can somehow be associated with the pink moon and its revenge on an other, unidentified party. This is accomplished through the film's timing of image and music, with the most aggressive part of the lyrics being sung just as the car pulls up in front of the house where the obnoxious party guests are already at it with their offensive, loutish behaviour. The VW drivers thus become allies with the pink moon in the future eradication of the louts... but for now they'll just drive on through the night, swooshing along to Nick Drake's whispered lyrics.

This use or abuse of a song that is basically a cry for help in order to sell cars has indeed offended many who were already fans of Nick Drake's music. On the flip side of that concern is the unquestionable fact that thousands of people who had never heard this music before began seeking it out because of the commercial. One testimony on YouTube captures the sentiment of several young people encountering Drake's music through the commercial:
I listened to all of Nick's songs, especially this one, when I drove from Atlanta to LA alone in my Alfa spider, the top down much of the way, most beautifully in New Mexico. For me, the commercial makes me yearn for those perfect youthful summers I never quite had, fresh aired freedom with lovely groovy girls and true blue friends and all of life's delicious possibilities rolled out before them. And who cares if it's a commercial. Copywriters and directors can be as soulful as anyone.
In a cultural studies vocabulary, this is the typical process of commodification and incorporation into the mainstream of a hitherto underground, or subcultural artefact or cultural phenomenon. The incorporation always comes at a price, but also opens up a potential space for usage of the product in new narratives, which themselves can still be subversive or un-incorporated...

This short analysis is one such narrative.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Naked Lunch at 50

I just received a pre-notification on a cfp for an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch.

The organisers are Burroughs and Beat Gen. scholar Oliver Harris, in partnership with fellow-Burroughsian - see for instance Reality Studio - Ian MacFadyen (they are also co-editing the book, Naked Lunch@50), and with Andrew Hussey, Dean of the University of London Institute in Paris.

The organizers promise that the event website will be developed shortly, but you can already take a sneak peek here.

The following four streams will organize the discussions:

We welcome proposals that range from short papers (15 minutes) to longer talks (30 minutes), from multi-media presentations to panel discussions and open mic debates. In English and in French, we are looking for original and innovative contributions from scholars and Burroughsians under the headings: The Untold Naked Lunch / A Post-Colonial Lunch / Naked Paris / Naked Lunch Now.
I hope a lot of scholars will gather in Paris next July to discuss and celebrate this extraordinary novel.

You are free to download and distribute the flyer for the Symposium. (PDF, 324 kb)

PS: Quick follow-up. Here is a good tie-in article by Jan Herman...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lisbon conference in images

A few informal images from the recent Lisbon event:

The 25th International Literature and Psychology Conference

The Gordons (Jan & David) and myself enjoying a post-conference glass of Port.

Sherry Zivley and myself at one of Lisbon's many miradores (Roslyn Ko w. her back turned)

Me on a bench, as usual (random Lisbon gossip girls next to me).

Camelia with the Dons: Manuel and Norm

Jeff Berman and myself at Cascais.

Me at Cabo da Roca (I love West Coasts!!!!)

Another Gordon (Andy, our head honcho) in a good mood...

Rainer Kaus and myself in Belem, ready to navigate the world...

Camelia surveying the field...

- Till next year in Viterbo, Italy!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

American post-9/11 fiction

Every year the International Literature and Psychology Conference offers scholars an opportunity to discuss literature and the other arts, using insights from psychoanalysis and other psychological approaches. We have psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, Freudians, Lacanians, a few Jungians and myth theorists, Zizek'ers, post-Zizek'ers, plus an assortment of literature and culture scholars who like to dabble in the psychology of narratives and objects. The 25th annual conference took place in Lisbon at Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, ISPA, and just finished a few days ago.

My paper there had a certain American Studies relevance, as I spoke about recent American post-9/11 fiction as trauma narratives. Here are a few excerpts from that paper:

The post-traumatic aftermath of 9/11 is currently playing itself out in every conceivable arena, generating cultural texts in many different modes and genres: memoirs, documentaries, political analyses, therapeutic discourse, poetry, drama and film, to name but a few. Not surprisingly, given such a plethora of discourses, several novels have also recently appeared which thematize directly the effect of the 9/11 events on individuals, in or outside America. In my paper I propose to analyze these novels as trauma narratives, as well as aesthetic products. I shall focus mainly on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, but I also draw in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and, to a lesser extent, Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

The 20th century has often been dubbed the century of trauma – hardly surprising given the list of horrendous events occurring as the technology of destruction seemed to outpace the ethical development of the human race. WWI; WWII, featuring genocide in too many forms to number, including the Holocaust and the advent and use of nuclear weapons; Communist mass internments, dislocations and extermination; colonial and post-colonial wars world-wide, but particularly violent in Africa and south-east Asia; assorted minor wars and conflicts, often with a component of ethnic or religious cleansing at their core – the list could go on and does go on as we speak. The truth of the matter seems that the 21st century promises to outdo the previous century in terms of traumatic quantity.

If this had not been painfully obvious to that proportion of the world’s population living in the USA, the events of September 2001 certainly constituted a rude awakening. While the number of lives lost in the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon was not very high by comparison to war-time events, the exposure of the events by the media and their secondary effects once disseminated and re-disseminated gave us a hitherto unprecedented example of what I would term ‘trauma by proxy’. I personally lived through the aftermath of 9/11 at close proximity in New York City and felt the effects of post-traumatic stress to a nearly career-ending extent, so I do not speak lightly or frivolously of these events – yet one cannot but wonder why such a relatively small-scale occurrence should generate a massive discourse body, large enough to rival that generated by the holocaust or the nuclear and other civil terror warfare strategies of the entire WWII…

I have in fact addressed the specifics of this phenomenon in another piece, so suffice it here to say that an innocent, even naive people’s state of mental unpreparedness, combined with a ruthless exploitation of the initial trauma by the media and a war-hungry political and military establishment has led to an unusual and disproportionately protracted post-traumatic phase in the American public unconscious. Novelists have latterly turned to this rich story for material for tales of trauma and survival, and as is always the case with trauma narratives thereby run the risk of further perpetuating the post-traumatic phase. On the other hand, literature may just have a role to play in healing the trauma, or at least to lend voice to the victims, and therefore we should perhaps turn to an examination of a few post-9/11 novels.

Jonathan Safran Foer was born in 1977 and represents the third generation of postmodern American writers (first wavers include Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut; second wavers Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and E.L. Doctorow). Foer’s debut novel Everything Is Illuminated tackled contemporary teenage consumer culture and the Eastern European Holocaust/survivor legacy all at once. The result was a funny, infuriating and haunting novel which redefined the trauma narrative genre in its own right. In his 2005 follow-up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Foer continues to mix historical narratives in the best tradition of historiographic metafiction as developed by first and second generation postmodern authors such as Pynchon (known for his two-tier novels which construct a nexus between WWII and contemporary America of the 1960s), Vonnegut (same dual strategy in Slaughterhouse 5, with some futuristic sci-fi mixed in), and Auster (whose 1980s novels, such as Leviathan, frequently examined the historical roots of politically motivated terrorism, although they did not feature the explicit two-tier structure Pynchon, Vonnegut and Foer all employ). Foer’s novel constitutes an obvious intertext with the works of all three older writers and with several other practitioners of postmodern narrative (such as Don DeLillo).

The most obvious intertext is Vonnegut’s oeuvre, particularly Slaughterhouse 5, with which Extremely Loud shares the theme of the fire bombings of Dresden, as well as Vonnegut’s later, extensive use of graphic tricks, illustrations and samples of handwritten texts, all of which features are also employed to excess by Foer. Auster haunts Foer’s text in several ways, not least in the implicit (as in never stated) Jewishness of several of the protagonists, but also in the multiple references to walks and rambles in New York, which is strongly reminiscent of scenes in Auster’s New York Trilogy where apparently random rambles literally produce texts and messages (but little meaning). In Extremely Loud the young protagonist Oskar Schell spends a good deal of the novel searching for a lock to match a key he has found among his dead father’s belongings. In the process of this quest he visits every single person in New York named Black (another allusion to Auster whose protagonists are frequently colour-coded). The outcome of the search is however as disappointing as any postmodern quest for epistemological insight (cf. Oedipa Maas in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49) as the lock turns out to have no relation to Oskar’s father’s life at all.

The trauma narrative in Extremely Loud consists in two story tiers each representing a different historical period and its traumatic events. Oskar is traumatised by proxy by the 9/11 terrorist attack, during which his father dies in the WTC collapse. Oskar is the only family member who knows that his father left several phone messages from the WTC tower on the day of his death, and Oskar is plagued by survivor’s guilt, not least because he did not pick up the phone the last time his father called, immediately before the collapse. All Oskar has left are memories of his father and the recordings from the answering machine. He desperately tries to make sense of these texts and clues that remain, but much of the time he is in fugue from the trauma content provided by these memories and texts. He zips up “the sleeping bag of his self” (dissociation), wears “heavy boots” (depression), compulsively counts the seconds until he falls asleep, and is generally incapacitated by his trauma and grief. The search for the lock that the key he finds may open is his last resort at finding a solution to the conundrum of why his father had to die.

Another narrative strand is interspersed, accounting in Oskar’s grandparents’ alternating voices for some of the events in Dresden, before, during and after the British and American fire bombings in February 1945. Oskar’s grandmother (who was not present at that time in Dresden) further listens to a survivor’s account of the atom bomb’s effect on Hiroshima, which lends another layer of historical depth to her and Oskar’s experiences (and allows increased reader horror and empathy). Her husband, Oskar’s grandfather, experiences the bombings first-hand and loses his first love, Anna (the sister of Oskar’s grandmother) who is newly pregnant with his child. As a result he gradually loses the ability to speak, his artistic gift as a sculptor, which it has been his life’s dream to pursue, and in his bitterness and powerlessness he swears never again to have children. He immigrates to America to put as much distance as possible between himself and the scene of his loss.

The two narrative strands meet in the present of post-9/11 New York, but prior to that there is a mediation phase where Oskar’s family history is recounted. Oskar’s grandparents have re-met shortly after WWII and decided to marry, despite their handicaps and the lack of mutual love between them. He is trying to survive despite his oral aphasia and an artist’s block; she is trying to come to terms with the loss of her entire family, and through a complicated system of text production they try to cope with these losses. In both cases, however, the trauma effect erases all possible narratives of itself. He writes thousands of daybooks, filling them with phrases that he needs in everyday communication, but which make little sense outside their specific pragmatic use; she tries to cope with her gradual loss of sight by writing her life story on an old typewriter he provides her with. The story she fills thousands of pages with turns out to be written without a ribbon in the typewriter and therefore no legible traces are left on these many pages. He tries to hide this fact from her by pretending to read and discuss the narrative with her.

This lie on which their relationship rests is mirrored in another deception, as she quickly realises that he still loves her sister and is only using her as a sexual and emotional stand-in for that, to him, all-important person. In effect, he is reliving the traumatic experience of Anna’s loss every day by being married to her sister instead. She decides to be her own person and to follow her destiny instead of performing a tragic repetition of her sister’s life and breaks their agreement to never have children by becoming pregnant. He leaves her the very day she tells him this. After that his writing changes, as he begins a new string of thousands of letters addressed to his son, in which he tries to justify his actions. In the only one of these letters his son ever receives he succeeds in narrating the horror of his Dresden experience. That letter is reproduced in the novel’s diegetic world, complete with the son’s copy editing of the discourse, marked in red as a literal form of trauma redaction.

At the point in time where the two tiers of history and narrative are brought together (post 9/11) Oskar’s grandfather and grandmother have begun living together again. He has brought all of the unsent letters to his son back from Europe and now has no living person to send or read them to. Their son has died a death as meaningless as Anna’s, and he has a hard time finding a way to be present in his grandson’s life. It is only by gradually involving himself in Oskar’s project of visiting the Blacks that he finds a way back in a newly constituted family. The better solution to the trauma of both these generations turns out to lie in another act of textual transmission, and Oskar and his grandfather decide to exhume Oskar’s father’s empty coffin and instead fill it with the letters grandfather never sent. Through this exchange the grandfather purges himself of a burden of guilt, an act of outpouring or kenosis, which then fills the cenotaph or empty grave and by proxy fills some new non-trauma tainted content into Oskar’s life. The trauma is thus worked through to some extent, or at least partially cathected by the confrontation with the void/gap which has led Oskar to a pattern of avoidance behaviour (he invents impossible gadgets that will keep everyone safe, he avoids “obvious targets” of terrorism such as trains and ferries, he collects evidence of “stuff that happened to me” (pictures he downloads from the internet containing victims, crimes, porn etc.)), leaving Oskar and his family with the possibility of forming new attachments in a more anger-free, de-affected, non-addictive manner.

Don DeLillo’s post-9/11 novel, Falling Man, by contrast contains the story of a literal survivor of the WTC collapse, but more importantly also demonstrates the effect by proxy of such a traumatic event on a small family. The strains on the married couple in the narrative are quite similar to the ones described as tearing Oskar’s grandparents apart in Foer’s novel. DeLillo’s protagonist feel equally dissociated from the routines of his actual family who desires nothing more than a continuation of life as it was before the disruption, and eventually he seeks the company of a fellow survivor whom he hopes has the capacity to understand his emotions of anger, depression and suicidal numbness. De Lillo’s novel also draws narrative lines to Germany, but not the Germany of WWII. Instead the protagonist’s mother-in-law has an affair with a former Rote Armé Fraktion terrorist, and another German strand consists of us occasionally sharing the viewpoint of one of the 9/11 terrorists who has been trained partially in a German university and there has been converted to the cause by Mohammad Atta. Falling Man is a collective novel, as almost all its characters are allowed representation and narrative point of view. This causes the novel to be diffuse and uneven, especially as the terrorists (former and present) come across as little more than stunted human beings, stereotyped beyond sympathy. As the main protagonists all suffer from PTSD, one also encounters in their diction the deadening of affect so typical of trauma sufferers (recreated in a virtuoso performance by DeLillo) and this means that the novel is flat and uneventful on a surface level. The book ends with a tour de force scene where for the first time in the novel we enter into the burning tower with the protagonist and witness the traumatic event directly through his eyes. The scene begins onboard the hijacked plane and is narrated from the terrorist’s point of view. The second the plane hits the tower and he dies, the point of view is propelled out of his body and into the protagonist’s physical experience of the explosion. This transition is probably meant to suggest the communality of destiny between victim and terrorist, but somehow leaves the reader dissatisfied. DeLillo is in my opinion more culpable of 9/11 exploitation than Foer, despite not providing any cathexis of trauma content for his characters.

DeLillo and Foer of course share the trope of falling as central to the dynamics of their novels. Foer’s protagonist Oscar wishes to know how his father died and imagines that he can see him in the grainy news footage of people jumping from the burning tower. In the end he invents a mechanism that can play back the events in his head in reverse, and the novel closes with a series of images of a man falling up toward safety which can be activated by flicking the pages of the book in the manner of a primitive animation (an oblique reference to E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime). DeLillo’s falling man is a body artist who enacts a body falling towards the ground in a number of public settings in New York, much in the manner of what Yves Klein, the French situationist performer, painter and photographer did in real life.

In the novel the New Yorkers are angry with this artist who reminds them of an event many would rather repress the memory of thoroughly. However, the protagonist’s wife comprehends the necessity of the artist acting out the trauma content and mourns him when he dies as a result perhaps of a re-enactment going wrong. Thus DeLillo illustrates well the function of art as a solution to the ill effects of trauma-by-proxy which might otherwise be contributing to the trauma content being perpetuated unnecessarily. Nonetheless, ultimately one does not need DeLillo’s novel to the extent that one needs Foer’s. Both authors have renounced their frequently employed satirical repertoire and in the case of DeLillo this leaves him with little else to offer.
I hope that a longer version of this paper will appear shortly in PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Skin Too Few

Jeroen Berkvens' 1999 documentary A Skin Too Few takes its title from a remark Gabrielle Drake has often made about her brother Nick, trying to describe why he found it so hard to cope with the world. This film is everything other Nick Drake documentaries are not - a raw heart-tugging document of a young man's terrible trouble adjusting to the pressures of growing up, being uncommonly talented and unreasonably sensitive at the same time. The film shows testimony from family and close friends and associates, illustrating Drake's slow turn away from the world into his own mind where demons of depression lurked and eventually overpowered him.

Unlike Nick Drake Under Review this film does not rely so much on assessments from other musicians or journalists/biographers. In fact the only other musician we hear from is Paul Weller whom we see in the opening scene in a recording studio w. John Wood and Robert Kirby, two of Drake's very close collaborators. Weller never knew Drake, nor does he have much to say about him, so I wonder why he has to appear at all, but never mind...

Rather, we should be very grateful for what we get from this film instead: a very moving portrait of a man and an artist who was very deeply rooted in a loving, supportive environment, both in terms of family and friends and his fellow professionals in the music world. We follow Drake's life chronologically, virtually from cradle to grave, and the main narrator of this story is his older sister Gabrielle, supplemented by the taped voices of both Rodney and Molly, their parents, telling us of events that Gabrielle did not herself witness.

It is quite interesting to get the whole story of the Drakes' time in Burma and to hear Gabrielle speak of Nick's birth and the easy life of a colonial well-to-do family in the late 1940s - illustrated by home movies of a happy family. Her assessment of Molly as a troubled soul, buoyed up by the love of her husband who made life livable for Molly without strangling her creativity is very poignant. The footage then takes us to Tanworth-in-Arden and inside the magically named childhood home of Nick, Far Leys, where we follow the camera into Nick's room, see his wonderful round window, while the soundtrack plays a home recording of "Hazey Jane I" (in a much more rocking version than the Bryter Layter version - a very cool performance by Nick), the camera then panning to a view of a fruit tree out of the window. The images thus already prefigure the theme of home, longing, escape, failure, return, sadness which structures the whole narrative of the film.

Gabrielle then plays one of Molly's songs, again emphasizing the very strong relation between Molly and her son, both in terms of the similarities of their temper and talent, and in terms of her maternal love. Over the sound of Molly's song we hear the train clickety-clacking, signalling Nick's departure to Cambridge which is the next period to be narrated by the film. The use of the train in image and sound is another unifying feature of the film, recurring throughout...

Brian Wells, a Cambridge friend of Nick Drake's, narrates the next portion, a story of dope smoking, guitar playing - in effect a 3 year holiday for the young men. In contrast, Gabrielle reads from a letter from Nick to his parents on liking Cambridge more than before, claiming to have "thrown off one or two rather useless and restrictive complexes that I'd picked up before coming here". One of course wonders where and when...? Gabrielle's stock of letters from Nick would certainly be superlative material for a sincere biographer to have access to. "River Man" is played over footage of Cambridge streets - people coming and going as the lyrics also detail. On tape Rodney speaks of Nick's Cambridge nostalgia, and of his desire that Nick should have a degree as a safety net, whereas Nick insisted that that was the one thing he would rather not have...

The scene shifts to London as Gabrielle remembers Nick one day coming home to their flat, tossing copies of Five Leaves Left on the bed - to her amazement, since she never realized that he was recording a whole LP. This portion continues with musical testimonials from producer Joe Boyd talking about Nick's skills and reliability as a player, Robert Kirby speaking of his arrangements ('lonely and bleak') complementing the perfect guitar line, which John Wood, the engineer, illustrates on the mixing board (playing the raw tracks of "Chime of a City Clock"). As the song plays on the soundtrack in its fully finished version, the images illustrate the song with night footage of rainy London street, segueing into the well known stills of Drake standing motionless against a wall as other pedestrians rush by.

Next, Boyd talks about Nick quitting touring in frustration over audiences being indifferent or hostile. Wells tells an anecdote about Nick slipping into isolation and depression. One of his most upbeat songs, "When Day Is Done", illustrates Nick's next move "back where you've begun," as the lyrics read. Wells remembers Nick returning home to Tanworth, and his being ashamed at having failed to live and cope in London. Drake was hospitalized, and diagnosed as clinically depressed, whereas Wells sees Nick's condition more as an existential crisis, brought on by the coldness and futility of life as such.

We next hear a recording of Molly, quoting Nick: "I don't like it at home, but I can't bear it anywhere else..." Molly concludes that Nick had "given up on the world", and she recalls her utter inability to help him overcome his sense of acute failure at everything he had ever tried to do. Gabrielle explains it like this: "I never did see a change - it crept up on us..." "He saw more, and he became more silent as he saw more." "That is expressed in his songs and almost nowhere else..." This sequence of the film is very dark, also in terms of images of the night, storms, even featuring Gabrielle dressed in black - all quite effective emotionally, as one understands the tragedy of his family not being equipped to help Drake at all. Love was not enough.

Boyd talks about trying to get Drake to seek help from a psychiatrist, but Nick being ashamed of such a course of action. Later Boyd details Nick's outburst against his lack of success, making an analogy between Nick's anger directed towards Boyd, and the lyrics to the song "Hanging on a Star" ("Why leave me hanging on a star when you deem me so high?") As Nick sings the desolate lyrics to "Know": "Know that I love you, Know I don't care, Know that I see you, Know I'm not there" we pan to the supernatural beauty of the English woodlands in misty, early morning shots, another technique Berkvens uses to great effect, showing the incongruousness between Nick's surroundings and his self-image.

Keith Morris, photographer for the Drake albums, remembers the Pink Moon sessions, especially Nick's almost total silence which contrasts dramatically with earlier occasions where they had worked together. The images taken during that session are shown with no musical accompaniment. The film shifts to Gabrielle reciting Molly Drake's poem "The Shell," describing how both Molly and her son had problems sensing the world directly without the feeling of being imprisoned in a shell - this is accompanied by images of Gabrielle placed in the woods as a stylized, tragic figure herself - obviously practising her actor's craft here...

We are next treated to English woodland and village scenes - evincing the same stylized beauty, as Drake finally sings "Hanging on a Star". The camera takes us again to Nick's room, and a montage of both parents' voices narrates the last night of Nick's life (we see Nick's round window increasingly freeze over during this narration). Molly remembers the final night and next morning - the agony of never having known how dangerous the Triptozol pills were, the inevitability of finding him dead that morning. Gabrielle remembers being in a comedy play in Bristol at the time, and how her parents drove down to tell her of Nick's death. As she tells us this, we see the room scene again, and Berkvens uses the out of the window motif, as Nick sings of the "endless summer nights" (from Pink Moon's "From the Morning"), escaping his shell for good.

Gabrielle's theory of Nick's death is that it was a spontaneous act - whether suicide or cry for help she could never determine... (We see the interior of the Tanworth-in-Arden church as a service ends.) Gabrielle muses on the blessings of having had such a family and the tragedy of losing them. Kirby relates his feeling of being shocked at the news of Drake's death, whereas Wood felt terribly sad, but not surprised...

The closing scene begins with Nick's voice on tape, apologetic that his voice is failing - but he promises to do one more song. Over images of Tanworth "Northern Sky" plays, and suddenly the music is lowered so we hear Nick's naked voice, as we see his headstone in the church yard. The sequence ends with an impossibly beautiful shot of the church in the distance.

Gabrielle closes the film by talking of Nick's recent fame, and the helping quality of Nick's music for so many young people of later generations ("had he only known..."). As "Northern Sky" closes, we end with the Drake family home movies - filled by images of Nick's happy childhood. The soundtrack ends with sounds of waves and moving trains.

I find the film very well made, especially as it allows itself to have a narrative that veers from the straight documentary aesthetics and into techniques borrowed from fiction: the use of leit motifs, colouring, sound effects etc. This enhances the film's emotional impact greatly and it is hard to not be very moved by its otherwise familiar story. I am very impressed by Gabrielle Drake's role in the film which she virtually carries single-handedly - both as a trustworthy narrator and as a great actress using her craft to play on our emotions. The 48 minutes spent with the Drake family are very enriching and enlightening.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Nick Drake Under Review

A few weeks ago my friend Gorm was visiting and spotted a couple of Nick Drake documentary DVDs on my shelf. I had been saving them for special occasions because I knew they would be emotionally challenging to watch and I would want to write about them (as this review bears witness to), and at the same time I hadn't really wanted to watch them for fear of disappointment - the usual syndrome that can hit the ardent fan when someone else dares to provide opinions on and analyses of the sacred object: On the one hand you want there to be as many Nick Drake documentaries as possible, but on the other hand you don't want to watch them because you know they'll be full of nonsense... Anyway, Gorm asked if my wife and I had watched the films, and when I said no, he concluded: Oh, you're not that big a fan, then! Thus challenged, I figured it was high time to actually get started and to deliver the review I rashly promised when I first started this blog named after a line in a Drake song...

The 90 minute Under Review film came out on DVD in 2007 (Chrome Dreams - Director and writer apparently both wish to remain nameless...). It is not sanctioned by the Nick Drake estate, Bryter Music; nor by Drake's record company, Island. Therefore, we are only treated to short snippets of Drake's recordings - I suppose to keep the copyright issues minimized by sticking to the standard fair use clauses. As a result the film contains longer clips by Bob Dylan and Davey Graham than it does by Drake. Of course there is also the matter of Drake never having been filmed live, so we don't get any performance footage either, but then that is a given in any Drake film.

What we do get is a bunch of interviews with people whose lives have in several ways brushed up against Nick Drake's, either because they knew him, or because his music somehow has captivated them. The film is chronological in that it follows Drake's life from childhood to his premature death at 26. It goes into great detail about some aspects of his life, primarily of course the creation of his three completed albums, but also to some extent his personal life. The interviewees thus function as narrators taking us through a mixture of basic information (although a voice-over narrator also provides that type of continuity, esp. in the first third of the film) and personal assessments. The chief narrators of that kind are the two main biographers of Nick Drake, Patrick Humphries and Trevor Dann, plus the only contemporary music journalist who took Drake seriously, Jerry Gilbert (Gilbert conducted the only interview Drake ever gave to a music journalist). Analysis is also provided by Caitlin Moran - columnist and journalist w. The Times, and her husband Pete Paphides - also a music journalist. They represent the younger voices, sanely assessing Drake's significance to our current time and its musical and cultural climate.

The second type of narrators consists of musicians, and again we get two different generational viewpoints: Drake's contemporaries and our contemporaries. Of the first kind are Fairport Convention musicians such as Ashley Hutchings (who 'discovered' Drake) and Dave Mattacks (who played on the Bryter Layter recordings w. Drake), as well as Ralph McTell - who headlined the last gig Drake ever played at. These three provide insightful analysis of why Drake failed as a live performer, but succeeded as a songwriter and musician in the studio. Other older members of the 60s folk scene in the UK are interviewed as well, but good people such as John Renbourn (who teaches us the difference between the blues style vs. the finger picking style on the acoustic guitar) and Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band didn't really know Drake personally and have little to say about him. Here one sorely misses Linda and Richard Thompson, John Martyn and other, closer, musician friends of Drake.

The younger generation of musicians is represented by one of the relatively few women in the film, Kathryn Williams, who also performs fragments of Drake's songs. Keith James, a singer / songwriter in his own right, also performs covers of Nick Drake songs (some of which he has recorded on CD) and talks about Drake's tuning and playing techniques. A few comparisons are made with another English guitar innovator, Davey Graham, who has been rather more unkindly treated by time. Renbourn and Bert Jansch are of course also mentioned as influences on Drake's playing style, but other than that most of the film's interviewees emphasize strongly how Drake's music really transcends the narrow bounds of the 'folk' label, esp. because of his knowledge of other types of music, classical as well as jazz. As for the analysis of the music of Nick Drake the film is severely hampered by the lack of involvement from the people who really worked with Drake: Joe Boyd, John Wood, Robert Kirby - producer, engineer, arranger of scores, respectively, are all missing as voices...

The final type of interviewees consists of friends and acquaintances, and here we only really get snippets from an elderly couple who knew Drake's parents (but have nothing of interest to say) and a substantial contribution from Jeremy Mason - Drake's old friend (he wrote "Three Hours (to Sundown)" about Jeremy). Mason provides a number of rarely seen photos and lets us see some of his own drawings of Nick - great material, much of which stems from a stay the two of them had in Aix-en-Provence, France. Again, though, one misses more testimonials from (other) friends (where are the women who knew Nick?) and family - but Drake's parents are both dead and his sister Gabrielle is reluctant to talk to most journalists and biographers...

This leads me to my main bone of contention with the film - the role of Trevor Dann. I intensely dislike his bio of Drake, Darker Than the Deepest Sea, which spuriously suggests that Drake's problems all stem from childhood abuse of some unspecified sort (all based on so-called textual analysis of Drake's lyrics). While Dann doesn't voice any such views in this film, he still comes across as a very unsympathetic and snide character who routinely ventures into territory he has little knowledge of. His casual references to Drake's allegedly excessive drug use are left unchallenged by the film makers, whereas many of Drake's friends are willing to testify that these stories are vastly overstated. Further, it quickly becomes clear that Dann is in deep waters himself when one hears him waffle about the role of modal jazz as an influence on Drake, or - even worse - his muddy explanations of the so-called Blake and Tennyson influences in Drake's lyrics (Dann refers to the authority of so-called "lit crit guys", of which he himself admittedly is not one, to back this claim up, but he doesn't provide one specific example). Dann also claims an influence on Drake by James Lovelock's ecological ideas, despite the fact that Lovelock's book Gaia - A New Look on Life on Earth was not published until 1979, 5 years after Drake's death...

Patrick Humphreys comes off as a much less conceited biographer and wisely sticks to contributions of a musical and cultural nature, but as sources go, it is really Jerry Gilbert who is the most interesting narrator and analyst. The film is therefore, on the whole, informative and sober, and it may function well as an introduction to Drake's work and parts of the late 60s, early 70s folk scene in Britain. For the hardcore fan of Drake there is less of interest in the film, and little that one hasn't heard already. The aesthetics of the film can get quite annoying, particularly in the choice of images to accompany the short musical interludes. This footage is invariably bucolic in the early 1960s instances and then gets increasingly political and social as we enter the 1970s - but what is worse is the plodding literalism of the images: when Drake mentions food in his lyrics, we see food; when he mentions a fruit tree, we see rotting fruit; when he mentions the sky - you've guessed it...

Overall, I would recommend that even fans watch the film, but the experience is not really very deep, either emotionally or intellectually. One doesn't get under the skin of Nick Drake - and perhaps that is all for the best...

PS: As a "lit crit guy" I cannot resist mentioning that when Drake's first band (while he was still in school) took the name The Perfumed Gardeners, they were referencing an Arabic erotic classic: The Perfumed Garden, translated by Richard Burton (Sheikh Nefzaoui was the original author). Not much has been made of this curious fact, and I suppose Nick Drake's role in choosing the name is not quite clear. One wonders, though, what the reading of such a book (basically an erotic manual) might have done to a young boy's imagination... Drake's life of the mind certainly still remains largely uncharted, despite much biographical writing and documentary film making.

PPS: Make sure not to miss the extras features, in particular Robin Williamson's tarot reading of Drake's "Character - inner and outer". It is wonderfully 60s, whacked-out hippydom, yet strangely sane and a bona-fide analysis of Drake as a person, bound in a specific time and milieu...

Back in the thick of it

I still haven't gotten back in a proper routine after the Nordic Americanist events over the last two weeks, but every mill needs its grist, not least the publication one. Therefore it is gratifying to have two new book chapters out as a result of 2006's conference going!

Space Haunting Discourse is a volume out from Cambridge Scholars Press, edited by Maria Holmgreen Troy and Elizabeth Wennö from Karlstad U. Maria and Elizabeth put on two excellent interdisciplinary conferences in 2004 and '06 and I participated in both of them. The chapter I have in the fresh volume is on novels about Big Sur, California by Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Richard Brautigan. Maria and Elizabeth have written a comprehensive and generous introduction to the volume which is available as a PDF from the publishers' web site. They give the following description of my piece:

Presence and absence are also features of Bent Sørensen’s “Representations of Big Sur in Late Modernist and Early Postmodernist American Writing.” The textual referent is the actual geographical Californian Big Sur, inscribed with meanings by three writers in such a way that it is rendered absent and instead emphasises loss and disillusion. In effect, his analysis supports David Harvey’s argument that the genius loci, the place of special significance to the individual and the community, “is open to contestation, both theoretically (as to its meaning) and concretely (as to how to understand a place)” (309). Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Richard Brautigan all wrote prose about Big Sur, and Sørensen demonstrates how this locus haunts these texts in three significantly diverging ways: Miller’s locus amoenus, Kerouac’s tremens, and Brautigan’s topos.

Within the short span of seven years, the potential of Big Sur as a locus representing ideas and emotions has been transformed into a fully textualised topos, which can only serve as a vehicle for pastiche and postmodern parody of Brautigan’s modernist precursors’ anxieties. His text is haunted by the intertextual ghosts of Kerouac’s and Miller’s gender and racial values, which are parodied by Brautigan’s incongruous collection of beatnik womanisers and exploiters of both land and Native American (and Confederate) heritages. At the end of the essay Sørensen quotes J. Gerald Kennedy’s remarks on the distinction between a subjective concept of place and a “textual, writerly image”: the difference between the two is not a structural one of “real and fictive” but “between textual scenes and the symbolic experiences of place which they inscribe.” Taking it one step further we could say that Sørensen’s analysis of modernist and postmodernist inscriptions also reflect the epistemological shift in theory as well as the shift in literature from the crypto-religious impulse of modernism to the playful linguistic preoccupation of much postmodernism.
My other new book chapter is an analysis of Uncle Sam as an American icon. It is published in a volume edited by Ari Helo of the Helsinki Renvall Institute, titled Communities and Connections: Writings in North American Studies. That chapter will be integrated in my forthcoming book American Icons: Transgression and Commodification.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Upcoming conferences: Icons and Caddies

Next week will be a busy academic whirlwind tour of two Nordic capitals for me: Helsinki and Oslo. The two main American Studies events of the year are crammed together as consecutive conferences: The Renvall Institute's Helsinki do, The Maple Leaf and Eagle Conference, has reached instalment no. 12 in its fine run (it will be my third time around as a participant). The theme is always broad and this year is no exception: North America - Relations and relationships. My contribution is about the cultural importance of one specific, iconic brand of car: The Cadillac...

I approach this broad topic from a cultural text studies point of view, investigating how the cars are represented as markers of specific identity positions within specific difference hierarchies:

The Cadillac car has long featured in the American imagination as a signifier of cool masculinity, mastery of the road, financial surplus and a predilection for luxury and comfort (cf. the lyrics to ‘Cadillac Man’, quoted below). I propose to analyze a number of cultural texts that construct, establish and eventually subvert these connotations. I am particularly interested in constructions of race and sexual orientation utilizing the vehicle of the Cadillac. Texts to be analyzed include Jack Kerouac’s “fag Cadillac” in On the Road, rock singer and performer Mink DeVille, the persona of James ‘Thunder’ Early (played by Eddie Murphy) in the 2006 movie Dreamgirls, and various rock ‘n’ roll lyrics featuring comparisons of Fords and Caddies…

Well I’m the king of the road
Ain’t got no place to go, no place I call home
Seen the world from behind this old wheel
Driving away from those feelings I feel

- Cadillac Man
After a few days in Finland we'll relocate to Norway for the big European American Studies event under the auspices of the EAAS. Here my presentation is in connection with my on-going project on American Icons, more specifically some icons of transgression, associated with the 1960s. I'll give a paper on two celeb-criminals, two very different cultural texts, Patty Hearst and Charles Manson:

All iconic representations of actual persons (living or dead) are caught in a dichotomy between elements of normality/familiarity and elements of transgression. Manipulation of representations of celebrities or famous persons into hero- or other-images can either constitute adversarial or collaborative icon work. In adherence with the conference theme of “E Pluribus Unum or E Pluribus Plura” it would be interesting to examine iconic images that are meant to be particularly transgressive of normality and challenge stereotypical images of American wholesomeness. I propose to look at specific collaborative, yet provocative representations of two 1960s icons of transgression: Charles Manson and Patty Hearst, and to analyze how these particular images simultaneously stylize and sacralize these counterculture (anti)heroes, turning the viewer of the icons from passive consumers into ardent worshippers, consumers or cultural agnostics, all according to our ideas regarding the subjects and symbols in question. The images are reproduced below:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Will to Submission

On the off chance that someone would get the strange idea from my previous post that I have something against male singers with high pitched voices and a penchant for odd hand movements, I offer this counter-evidence:

Here is the sublime androgyny of Antony Hegarty interpreting Leonard Cohen's "If It Be Your Will". Leonard's song is a celebration and embodiment of the total submission to the will of the Other which a man may have to embrace once in a life time. Antony is in some ways that embodiment of the Other which we rarely have a chance to encounter in real life. We are all enriched by the art of both these individuals who give new meaning to the postmodern sublime in their rags of light...

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until I am spoken for
If it be your will

Monday, April 21, 2008

Everybody's Talkin'

I have a lasting fascination with American music from the 1960s. Many of the marquee songs of the era have become short scriptures for a generation of young folks who wanted change (hey Obama, you think you're so original?) and new values to believe in... Next semester I'll be teaching a short elective where I'll use a great book by Philip Beidler as the textbook - and he uses that phrase "Scriptures for a Generation" as his title, indicating that texts function ritualistically and communally in an orally transmitted culture...

Many such songs are 'auditory icons' in the sense that they are associated with specific filmic images through their use in film soundtracks. Think The Graduate, and hear Simon & Garfunkle's "Mrs. Robinson". Think Harold & Maude, and hear Cat Stevens' "If You Want to Sing Out". Think Midnight Cowboy, and hear Nilsson sing "Everybody's Talkin'"...

But wait a minute. Most Danes who hear "Everybody's Talkin'" these days will be thinking SAS, as in Scandinavian Airlines, because the corporate geeks in advertising have pinned their hopes on lifting the dwindling fortunes of the venerable inter-Scandinavian aviation conglomerate on the charms of this little ditty. The commercials give me vertigo (never a desired effect for an airline) and an acute sense of dislocation (not good either when destinations matter). The malady I am suffering from is space-time compression, a side effect of globalization: any text can nowadays be lifted from its original context and re-injected in a new sphere, worlds and decades from the origin. Mild disorientation usually ensues in individuals who know the history behind the original usage...

The lyrics of the song which make nice sense in the context of the film Midnight Cowboy, detailing the futile dreams of escape of two misfits trying to get out of New York City to soak up some rays in Florida, make somewhat less sense in the commercial, which follows a suited businessman as he wafts through check-in, security, arrival and apparently steps straight off the plane and into a sidewalk eatery in Southern climes... Listen:

Everybody's talking at me.
I don't hear a word they're saying,
Only the echoes of my mind.

People stopping staring,
I can't see their faces,
Only the shadows of their eyes.

I'm going where the sun keeps shining
Thru' the pouring rain,
Going where the weather suits my clothes,
Backing off of the North East wind,
Sailing on summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone.
Read into a contemporary airport/travel environment the first stanza describes a certain recipe for disaster for the business traveller: acute disorientation, borderline catatonia - you'll never make it to the gate on time... Second stanza: uh-oh, trouble at security, the sunglassed guards have obviously sussed that you feature on every no-flight list known to man... Bridge 1: not exactly the hassle free dream destination depicted in the film, where our business traveller hasn't even packed a cotton-coat, let alone any rain gear... Bridge 2: forgettaboutit - you'll never reach your destination at all - the plane is crash landing on water, Mayday, Mayday...

OK, so the advertising company didn't really pay attention to the lyrics they picked - what they wanted were the feel-good vocals and the sing-along tune. Never mind the queer undertones of the original film, never mind the frustrations and alienation captured in the song's mini-portrait of its dishevelled urban cowboy persona... In the SAS fantasy world we are all wealthy, male professionals jetting across our little uniform globe in safe, sanitized aeroplanes that never have their wheels falling off on landing...

Back to the 60s. Nilsson's versions of the song are in themselves a little strange. Here is the original opening sequence of the film, where soon to be male prostitute, Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight), prepares to get out of Hicksville:

Note the bizarre nasal drone and Roy Orbison falsetto imitation at ca. 2:00 till coda... Now compare with Nilsson's slightly longer hit single version, here recorded for a Beatsploitation Hit-Parade TV-show called Beat Club:

Note the distinctly queer moves Nilsson puts on, attempting a bit of snazzy finger-snapping and hip gyration at ca. 1:00. The foghorn-like moaning comes in the vocal effort already at 1:15 and is redoubled at the coda, where the circular wrist motion also gets a bit out of control... By this time Nilsson was enjoying a mega-hit with the single which had almost transcended the three-Oscar success of the film. Both these versions are cool mementos of an age where music and films like these could enjoy block-buster success.

Nevertheless, there is an even cooler person behind the song "Everybody's Talkin'": the original songwriter, Fred Neil... Compare the Talkin'-light tones with string arrangements of Nilsson's versions to Neil's own stark folk instrumentation, cool guitar solo and deep vocal delivery:

That is a scripture for a generation, folks... Neil was a songwriters' songwriter, having even a master in his own right, Tim Buckley, cover another classic signature song of his ("Dolphins"). For a while in the mid-60s Neil was a powerful presence in the East Coast folk scene, much admired by diverse figures such as David Crosby and John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful fame.

Sadly, Neil never made it big as a performer and, after a spell of living in Woodstock, eventually elected to make his own getaway to Florida, quit the music business and slip into obscurity. His life and times are meticulously chronicled at this website. As usual Richie Unterberger has done some of the best musico-cultural archeology on Fred Neil, which can be read in part in this excerpt...

Here is Richie's take on "Everybody's Talkin'":
Fred Neil [the album] is best remembered, however, for the original version of "Everybody's Talkin'." Much slower and more simply arranged than the famous cover by Nilsson, it clearly laid out his wishes to escape the madness of contemporary life -- the city, perhaps, or the music business? -- into a hermetic paradise. (That destination is most likely Southern Florida, where Neil would spend much of his post-1970 life, given the line about going to a place where the sun always shines through rain.)
In 2001 Fred Neil passed away at age 65, after a long battle with skin cancer...

Here is how "Everybody's Talkin'" ends, long after the SAS commercial is over:
I won't let you leave my love behind...

The Big L

Yesterday was my birthday and my wife treated me to two presents in three phases. First she gave me poetry and then a surprise party. Those were the presents - the phases, while related to the presents, are more complicated: The first phase stretched from February 1996 to the present day and promises to continue. The second phase can be pinpointed to have started at almost exactly 3.30 yesterday afternoon, and it could well be over by now (at least the guests have gone home). Anyway, there is no sign that the third phase has started yet, so it may well be entirely mythological...

The poetry was very good yesterday, as it materialised for the first time in the form of a publication that wasn't labelled criticism or theory, but actually 'poetry'. Camelia has always wanted to be a published poet, and I've referred to her as one ever since her first 'academic' piece appeared in 1999. As I recall, that piece referred to Wittgenstein, as does the most recent manifestation of her poetical prowess, Eight Senses Plus One... As I further recall, none of the many interceding works, nor the first and the latest contain the word 'poshes'. This, the critics find surprising and a potential shortcoming, but that is about the only one they've spotted so far. Bah-bah! they say happily and insistently (critics are usually sheep, but rarely as literally as in this case...)

Yesterday, I didn't do a thank you speech, but here it is: Thank you all for contributing, being a captive audience and moving along your merry way with a nice chapbook in hand, bag or pocket!

I'm going to quote one of the poems, not the shortest nor maybe even the best, but the one that riffs on the L word. From Unison:

It occurs to me that cloning sounds a bit like loony baloney. My husband says, quoting John Lennon: "all you need is love." "It's a good beginning," I say. "The letter L has just cloned itself." Accompanied by Bach it turns itself into a (singing) number. More. Or less.
I figure George Clooney is loony-ballooning in there somewhere, but I'll settle for being a fifty-something like most of the great leading men seem to be these days. Fifty, fit and fighting, I embrace the One Big L.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Nirvana No

Sparked off by some of my recent posts on spirituality and quests for insight in relation to the work of Van Morrison and of the Beats, I have started thinking about some of the conundrums Western artists find themselves in when they become fascinated with Eastern belief systems.

Both Jack Kerouac and Van Morrison have frequently referenced Buddhism in their works (novels, poems, songs) In fact, Kerouac read widely in Buddhist texts over a period of several years, and eventually started composing his own sutras, or contemporary versions of sacred texts. Morrison has, of course, dropped references to both Kerouac's novels and to well-known Western popularizers of Buddhism in several of his songs... One key figure in this gamut is Alan Watts, who was English but lived the better part of his active life as a Buddhist popularizer in the USA (he died in 1973). The author of more than 25 books and avid lecturer and broadcaster, Watts' ideas are still being disseminated in today's media, via posthumous book publications, on discs, DVDs and on the Web... At some point Kerouac met and became friends with Watts, and he appears as a character in two of Kerouac's novel, Desolation Angels (as Alex Aums) and Big Sur (as Arthur Wayne). Morrison primarily glosses Watts' work in a song aptly named "Alan Watts Blues" (on Poetic Champions Compose) where the chorus is a rendition of the title of a Watts book: Cloud-hidden Whereabouts Unknown. The bridge lyrics go like this:

Sittin' up on the mountain-top in my solitude
Where the morning fog comes rollin' in
Just might do me some good.

Such sentiments echo very well with a Beat writer such as Gary Snyder, whose translations of Han Shan's Cold Mountain poems, for instance, sound very similar:

I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don't get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone under head
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the word's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

As a result of Watts' acquaintance with the Beats (he first knew Snyder, who was a serious Zen acolyte and also known to D.T. Suzuki, the first scholar to disseminate a knowledge of Buddhism in English) he wrote a fairly well-known essay titled "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen", originally published as a pamphlet by City Lights Books in 1959, then collected and re-published in the Random House essay collection This Is It in 1962. Here are his definitions of the different mind sets to approaching Zen:

Square Zen is a quest for the right spiritual experience, for a satori which will receive the stamp (inka) of approval and established authority. There will even be certificates to hang on the wall. [Whereas f]or beat Zen there must be no effort, no discipline, no artificial striving to attain satori or to be anything but what one is. [He describes its self-defensive underside] But for square Zen there can be no true satori without years of meditation-practice under the stern supervision of a qualified master.

Not only did Watts identify the typical Western approaches to Zen as Beat or Square, respectively - pinpointing these approaches' short-comings (one is not serious enough and seeks instant gratification, the other is more philosophical than spiritual and caters to the intellect rather than the soul...), but in The Joyous Cosmology (1957) he had already offered a more history of ideas founded account of the difficulties of reception of Eastern religion for a Western mind-set:

The practical difficulty is that Taoism and Zen are so involved with the forms of Far Eastern culture that it is a major problem to adapt them to Western needs. For example, Eastern teachers work on the esoteric and aristocratic principle that the student must learn the hard way and find out almost everything for himself. Aside from occasional hints, the teacher merely accepts or rejects the student's attainments. But Western teachers work on the exoteric and democratic principle that everything possible must be done to inform and assist the student so as to make his mastery of the subject as easy as possible. Does the latter approach, as purists insist, merely vulgarize the discipline? The answer is that it depends upon the type of discipline. If everyone learns enough mathematics to master quadratic equations, the attainment will seem small in comparison with the much rarer comprehension of the theory of numbers. But the transformation of consciousness undertaken in Taoism and Zen is more like the correction of faulty perception or the curing of a disease. It is not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather an unlearning of wrong habits and opinions. As Lao-tzu said, "The scholar gains every day, but the Taoist loses every day."

The practice of Taoism or Zen in the Far East is therefore an undertaking in which the Westerner will find himself confronted with many barriers erected quite deliberately to discourage idle curiosity or to nullify wrong views by inciting the student to proceed systematically and consistently upon false assumptions to the reductio ad absurdum. My own main interest in the study of comparative mysticism has been to cut through these tangles and to identify the essential psychological processes underlying those alterations of perception which enable us to see ourselves and the world in their basic unity. I have perhaps had some small measure of success in trying, Western fashion, to make this type of experience more accessible.

To illustrate this difficulty I propose to briefly return to the work of first Kerouac, and then Morrison. A poem sequence such as the spontaneously composed Mexico City Blues by Kerouac illustrates the limitations. In this book Kerouac on several occasions riffs on key notions in Buddhist faith, such as Maya (the notion that all, including human suffering, is an illusion - a veil, hiding the true nature of things - namely that no thing exists). He also plays with the idea of Nirvana, a state of grace where the believer has understood that nothing is real, and that Nirvana is the cessation of existence in the world of illusion. In a previous paper I made reference to how a specific sequence of poems approaches Nirvana:

The most discussed and anthologised thematic chorus sequence in Mexico City Blues is the one eulogising Charlie Parker, which rolls from poem 239 through 242 of the collection, and thus forms the coda to the whole book. There are, however, numerous other such chains of choruses with identifiable thematic connections creating coherence across individual pages. A good example of such a chain are choruses 196 through 201, which arise out of a longer, more vaguely interconnected thematic meditation on Buddhist tenets to riff specifically on the notion of Nirvana, and the application of Nirvana as a shade of lipstick, called “Nirvana No”, to barroom girls disturbing or tempting the Buddhist sage in his meditations. Most of the Blues poems are self-contained units, ending as a page gets filled up with text. Poems can however run on, onto the next sheet(s) as illustrated by the identification of chains of choruses discussed above. On the other hand there are many examples of apparently prepared run-on lines ending one chorus, but not being picked up in the next. One good example is the last line in the Nirvana sequence which reads “And they claim”, but we never learn what it is they claim, as the next chorus seems a self-contained meta-poem starting: “A white poem, a white pure/spotless poem” (202). On the whole Mexico City Blues can be said to thematise the quest for purity of mind and belief in a world full of temptations of the flesh, a world where the speaking and writing subject suffers but seeks help and illumination from selected culture heroes, (Buddhist sages as well as Charlie Parker) and as such the collection takes its place naturally among Kerouac’s other confessional works.

One could of course argue that writing the ''white poem" is a means of getting to Nirvana, and that would be a Zen stance. However, the follow-up notion that such a poem has to be "spotless" contradicts the move towards Nirvana, by the poet's getting hung up on achieving perfection within Maya. I think the operation in Kerouac's mind is typical of the Western way of thinking within the box of attainment, quality, perfection. Nirvana is not perfection, but the cessation of the striving for perfection.

Van Morrison's tribute to Watts seems to imagine the trip to the mountain top as a small stay at the spa, a detox of the mind, after which the poet returns to the grind of everyday life and its temptations:

I'm waiting in the clearing with my motor on
it's time to get back to the town again
Where the air is sweet and fresh in the countryside
Well, it won't be long before I get back here again.

This again is similar to the way Kerouac ends his Desolation novels, Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. The poet returns purified, but with the knowledge that this state will not last. In Kerouac's case the root to the flaw is already laid during the meditations on the mountain top where he has realized that all is illusion, but fails to take the final step of realizing that the suffering caused by this realization is also illusion. In Morrison's case one almost gets the feeling that the cleansing procedure is an established routine, not a one off extraordinary event that might lead to satori...

I end with a video of Watts' Conversation with Myself. There are 2 more parts easily available on YouTube...