Category Archives: Passages

Passages: J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard, author of Crash and numerous other works that fracture time and narrative, was born in Shangai in 1930 and spent time as a child in a Japanese-run internment camp. That experience informed his fine, tough novel Empire of the Sun, which is the springboard for the 1991 BBC Bookmark profile posted above. In his upcoming memoir, Miracles of Life, Ballard describes the city of his childhood:

Shanghai was one of the largest cities in the world, 90% Chinese and 100% Americanised. Bizarre advertising displays – the honour guard of 50 Chinese hunchbacks outside the premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame sticks in my mind – were part of the everyday reality of the city, though I sometimes wonder if everyday reality was the one element missing.

It was not a British colony, as most people imagine; but it was home to about 50,000 nonChinese who lived mostly in the International Settlement and the adjoining French Concession. It was celebrated as the “wickedest city in the world”, though as a child I knew nothing about the thousands of bars and brothels. Unlimited venture capitalism rode in gaudy style down streets lined with beggars showing off their sores and wounds.

Every day the trucks of the Shanghai municipal council roamed the streets collecting the hundreds of bodies of destitute Chinese who had starved to death. Partying, cholera and smallpox somehow coexisted with a small English boy’s excited trips in the family Buick to the country club swimming pool.

Every drive through Shanghai I would see something strange and mysterious but treat it as normal – the prosperous Chinese businessmen pausing to savour a thimble of blood tapped from the neck of a vicious goose tethered to a telephone pole; young Chinese gangsters in American suits beating up a shopkeeper; beggars fighting over their pitches; a vast firework display celebrating a new night-club while armoured cars of the Shanghai police drove into a screaming mob of rioting factory workers; the army of prostitutes in fur coats outside the Park hotel, “waiting for friends” as Vera, my White Russian nanny, told me. Open sewers fed into the stinking Whangpoo River and the whole city reeked of dirt, disease and a miasma of cooking fat from the thousands of Chinese food vendors. Anything was possible and everything could be bought and sold.

Unfortunately, “Passages” is a doubly appropriate term here. Ballard has disclosed that he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in mid-2006, which spurred him to write Miracles of Life. This is terribly sad news, and all I can do is wish him all the best.

Passages: Stephen King

In the early 1980s, my wife and I went to London on a combined business/pleasure trip. I fell asleep on the plane and had a dream about a popular writer (it may or may not have been me, but it sure to God wasn’t James Caan) who fell into the clutches of a psychotic fan living on a farm somewhere out in the back of the beyond. The fan was a woman isolated by her growing paranoia. She kept some livestock in the barn, including her pet pig, Misery. The pig was named after the continuing main character in the writer’s best-selling bodice-rippers. My clearest memory of this dream upon waking was something the woman said to the writer, who had a broken leg and was being kept prisoner in the back bedroom. I wrote it on an American Airlines cocktail napkin so I wouldn’t forget it, then put it in my pocket. I lost it somewhere, but can remember most of what I wrote down:She speaks earnestly but never quite makes eye contact. A big woman and solid all through; she is an absence of hiatus. (Whatever that means; remember, I’d just woken up.) “I wasn’t trying to be funny in a mean way when I named my pig Misery, no sir. Please don’t think that. No, I named her in the spirit of fan love, which is the purest love there is. You should be flattered.”Tabby and I stayed at Brown’s Hotel in London, and on our first night there I was unable to sleep. Some of it was what sounded like a trio of little-girl gymnasts in the room directly above ours, some of it was undoubtedly jet lag, but a lot of it was that airline cocktail napkin. Jotted on it was the seed of what I thought could be a really excellent story, one that might turn out funny and satiric as well as scary. I thought it was just too rich not to write.I got up, went downstairs, and asked the concierge if there was a quiet place where I could work longhand for a bit. He led me to a gorgeous desk on a second-floor stair landing. It had been Rudyard Kipling’s desk, he told me with perhaps jusitifiable pride. I was a little intimidated by this intelligence, but the spot was quiet and the desk seemed hospitable enough; it featured about an acre of cherrywood working surface, for one thing. Stoked on cup after cup of tea (I drank it by the gallon when I wrote . . . unless I was drinking beer, that is), I filled sixteen pages of a steno notebook. I like to work longhand, actually; the only problem is that, once I get jazzed, I can’t keep up with the lines forming in my head and I get frazzled.When I called it quits, I stopped in the lobby to thank the concierge again for letting me use Mr. Kipling’s beautiful desk. “I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” he replied. He was wearing a misty, reminiscent little smile, as if he had known the writer himself. “Kipling died there, actually. Of a stroke. While he was writing.”

I went back upstairs to catch a few hours’ sleep, thinking of how often we are given information we really could have done without.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, goes on to explain how what he expected his story to be — a novella titled “The Annie Wilkes Edition” — instead became a lean, mean novel called Misery, all starting from that bit of dreamed speech. Which only goes to show how a story can kick down the corral of a writer’s intention and go frisking off through the woods while the writer pants along after it, snaffle and curb swinging in his hands. I’ll leave you to read King’s book and find out what he had planned to do in “The Annie Wilkes Edition,” but I think you’ll agree that while the novella might have made for a good nasty EC Comics-type shocker, we’re all better of that he wrote Misery instead.

Passages: Graham Greene

Wormold, a character in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, is playing checkers with Captain Segura, a Cuban military officer and torturer:

      “Did you torture him?”

      Captain Segura laughed. “No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.”

      “I didn’t know there were class-distinctions in torture.”

      “Dear Mr. Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.”

      “There’s torture and torture. When they broke up Dr Hasselbacher’s laboratory they were torturing . . . ?”

      “One can never tell what amateurs may do. The police had no concern in that. Dr Hasselbacher does not belong to the torturable class.”

      “Who does?”

      “The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal. You see, I was right to make that king, and now I shall huff you for the last time.”

      “You always win, don’t you? That’s an interesting theory of yours.”

      “One reason why the West hates the great Communist states is that they don’t recognize class-distinctions. Sometimes they torture the wrong people. So too of course did Hitler and shocked the world. Nobody cares what goes on in our prisons, or in the prisons of Lisbon and Caracas, but Hitler was too promiscuous. It was rather as though in your country a chauffeur had slept with a peeress.”

      “We’re not shocked by that any longer.”

      “It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.”

Thanks to one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers for reminding me about that passage. I trust the relevance to our current situation is obvious.

Passages: Flannery O’Connor

From “Revelation,” a story in Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge. Mrs. Turpin has just had a pretty bad day: not only did she have to share a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of trashy people, one of them actually called her a wart hog from hell. Now she’s back home and she’s demanding an explanation from God, insisting that he tell her why, after a lifetime of piety and good behavior, she deserved to be called such a thing:

Mrs. Turpin stood there, her gaze fixed on the highway, all her muscles rigid, until in five or six minutes the truck reappeared, returning. She waited until it had had time to turn into their own road. Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.

Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.

At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting halleujah.

One of the things I like best about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is the way she treats religion as a disruptive, scarifying force in people’s lives rather than a comforting flannel blanket for their minds. Religion, as often as not, is like a live wire lying on the ground, pulsing with immense power but terribly dangerous if handled improperly.

Consider the fate of young Harry Ashfield in “The River,” a neglected boy whose visit to a riverside baptism and the words of a charismatic evangelist (“You count now,” the preacher said. “You didn’t even count before.”) leads to tragedy. Or The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” who finds the Gospels have thrown everything off balance: “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can — by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” Or Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, who spends his life trying to outrun Jesus by preaching The Church Without Christ — “Where the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and what’s dead stays that way.”

Mrs. Turpin gets off relatively easy: after enduring a stretch in The Waiting Room From Hell, she gets a vision of heaven in which she really understands what happens when the first are last and the last are first. I’ve read this story for years and I’m still not sure if the epiphany does her any good. Something in the vocabulary and the way her unthinking racism and snobbery remain intact lead me to suspect this is the moment she loses her religion, as they say in the South. But I could be wrong — I could be missing some nuance underneath the grotesque surface. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened with Flannery O’Connor.

Passages: Clive James

From Cultural Amnesia, a collection of biographical essays by Clive James:

Mechanisms of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course scholars make a living by following that same assumption. But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed when he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle. He might have got his ideals of composition, colour and clean finish from a bigger boy who made a better model aeroplane. To the extent that I can examine my own case of such inadvertently assimilated education, I learned a lot about writing from watching an older friend sanding down the freshly dried paint on his motorbike so that he could give it another coat: he was after the deep, rich, pure glow. But for the way I thought prose should move I learned a lot from jazz. From the moment I learned to hear them in music, syncopation and rhythm were what I wanted to get into my writing. And to stave off the double threat of brittle chatter and chesty verve, I also wanted the measured, disconsolate tread of the blue reverie. Jazz was a brimming reservoir of these contending qualities. Eventually I was listening to so much classical music that I left jazz aside, but I never for a moment thought that I had left it behind.

If I ever need a quotation on how writing can be influenced and affected by the unlikeliest things, that passage will be my first choice. James has a real gift for aphorism, and Cultural Amnesia is full of little gems of summation and description. The trouble is, getting to them is like digging through a huge box full of styrofoam peanuts.

The passage quoted above is emblematic of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. It comes from an essay that is ostensibly about Louis Armstrong, but mostly about whether Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman were as good at playing jazz as black musicians, and whether Fred Astaire’s dancing was as compelling as the footwork of Bojangles Robinson. (The short answer, to end the suspense, is yes all around.) Satchmo can barely get his foot in the door while James charts the rise and fall of his own listening habits, and muses on the terrible ways that racism distorted the careers of black artists. All true, and yet once the curtain comes down, we are left with the feeling that Armstrong has been kept offstage by the man who stood up to introduce him.

I’m all for loose, discursive essays with room for interesting asides, but far too often James loses the thread of his own writing as he goes frisking off after pet peeves and fond remembrances. His essay on Marcel Proust, for example, is really about Jean-Francois Revel and the supposedly shrewd things Revel said in his book about Proust, which I will certainly want to read one of these days but which I suspect appeals to James mostly because Revel’s politics do as well.

Similarly, the essay on Rainer Maria Rilke barely gets going before James, spurred by Rilke’s shrewd observations on the nature of fame, starts blatting about how Marion Davies should be remembered for her talent rather than her role as the inspiration for Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, and how Bertolt Brecht was a dreadful man and an inferior poet. Again, while everything I’ve read about Brecht makes him sound like a mutt — I think it was Ezra Pound who said that not only was Brecht the only man who deserved capital punishment, he was also the only man Pound himself would like to carry out the sentence upon — we end up hearing less about Rilke than we would have liked.

James’s long-windedness amusingly undercuts itself in the essay about Albert Camus, which approvingly quotes a line from The Rebel — “Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes” — and then goes on at tedious length about the tedious speeches given by Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Having finished James’s drone about droning, we are left to muse on the fact that Camus needed only seven words to convey what James needs to pound at for seven pages.

Part of the problem with Cultural Amnesia — a big part of the problem, actually — is that it comes freighted with ambitions that cannot be supported by collection of short pieces and knock-offs. Each of these essays is supposed to use the subject as an object lesson in the defense of liberal humanism against totalitarian ideologies. This works well when James is evoking the cafe intelligentsia of Austria in the years before the Anschluss, but it becomes hilarious when James throws in celebrity appreciations of Tony Curtis and W.C. Fields, and groaningly tedious when James derails a salute to Beatrix Potter in order to denounce Soviet children’s books.

The rest of the problems lies in the fact that Clive James, while formidably well-traveled and well-versed in languages and literature, is at bottom a middlebrow snob — often an amusingly fatuous one. No madeleine crumb falls from Proust’s table without exciting his wonder and awe, but he groans like a bored high school student over Herman Melville’s philosophical musings in Moby-Dick. James is also howlingly ignorant of science and all too ready to convict it of complicity in the mass murders that defined the 20th century:

The future of science, Renan’s cherished avenir de la science, can be assessed from our past, in which it flattened cities and gassed innocent children: whatever we don’t yet know about it, one thing we already know is that it is not necessarily benevolent. But somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all.

Spoken like a true creative writing student who just flunked his physics exam! Here’s another ripe piece of intellectual cheese:

Science lives in a perpetual present, and must always discard its own past as it advances. (If a contemporary thermodynamicist refers to the literature on phlogiston, he will do so as a humanist, not as a scientist. Nor did Edwin Hubble need to know about Ptolemy, though he did.) The humanities do not advance in that sense: they accumulate, and the past is always retained. The two forms of knowledge thus have fundamentally different kinds of history. A scientist can revisit scientific history at his choice. A humanist has no choice: he must revisit the history of the humanities all the time, because it is always alive, and can’t be superseded.

A pity that James, who includes Tacitus among his list of notables, did not cook up a profile of Isaac Newton, who wrote in a letter to another scientist that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Scientists carry their history wherever they go, simply because they want to avoid repeating its mistakes; writers and artists are forever reinventing the wheel — it’s part of their charm. No scientist would talk about phlogiston as anything but an antique theory, tested and discredited by other scientists. Clive James, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of humanist who might still be impressed by it.

Plenty of mushy thinkers blame science for the horrors of Hitler and Stalin, as though anti-Semitism had not existed before there were trains, as though the czars had not been equally careless and vicious with the lives of their subjects, as though the decay of the old European monarchies had not set loose poisons in the political and cultural bloodstream of the world. Worldwide cataclysm was launched from Germany, the land of Goethe and Beethoven, and Italy, the wellspring of classical civilization.

I recommend that Clive James read Jacob Bronowski and learn that the gap between the two cultures is not as vast and unbridgeable as he thinks.

Passages: Harlan Ellison

Okay, kiddo, so you went to see Grindhouse (which I’ll comment upon later this weekend) and now you think you know something about The Authentic Grindhouse Experience? If you want to know what the real sticky-wall grindhouses in and around Times Square were like, try this excerpt from Harlan Ellison’s essay “The Three Most Important Things in Life.” It’s one of his best:

New York. Early Seventies, maybe ’73 or ’74. I was in the city on business. Business taken care of, I got together with a friend, a writer from Texas who loves movies as much and as indiscriminately as I do. The ritual: the movie crawl. Load up on junk food, start at the first movie theater on the downtown side of 42nd Street, and just work our way from Times Square to 8th Avenue, cross the street, and work our way back to Times Square. Days. Endless days. Twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight hours straight time in the dark. We eat in there, sleep in there, piss and daydream in there. Hot dogs, popcorn, slabs of cheese, munchies, French bread, anydamnthing. And we see them all: the good flicks, the bad flicks, the kung-fu operas, the porn jobs, the superfly stomp the paddy flicks . . . all of them. One after another, till our eyes turn to poached eggs, staggering from theater to theater like refugees from a Macao opium den.

I don’t remember the name of the particular theater, but it was on the uptown side of 42nd Street, close to Broadway. It was something like four in the morning. My buddy and I were almost totally cacked-out. I remember the double-bill, however. The lower half, the B feature, was Fear is the Key, a really dreadful action-adventure turkey based on a crummy Alistair Maclean novel. The main feature was Save the Tiger, a contemporary drama starring Jack Lemmon. He won the Oscar for the role in that film.

And there we slumped, way the hell up in the balcony, our knees jammed under our chins, best seats in an almost empty house. Four ayem. Two rows below us — and it was steep up there, what I’m talking here is damned near per-pen-dic-u-lar — some black dude was juiced out asleep, lying across three or four seats, snoring.

My buddy the Texas writer is dead asleep, having polished off a recent meal of three boxes Good’n’Plenty and a frozen chocolate covered banana on a stick. And, blessedly, Fear is the Key ends, and Save the Tiger begins.

About ten minutes into this serious, sensitive study of a garment center guy who is killing himself with floating ethics, and from the very first row of the balcony, below and to the right of us, but still very high above the floor of the theater, I hear a shrieky black voice start mouthing off. Dialogue straight out of ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR MISUNDERSTANDING.

“Muh-fugguh! Gahdamn muh-fugn stupid piece’a shit. Dumb sunbish cah-suckin’ piece’a shit garbage . . . Leroy! Hey, you sumbish niggah prick Leroy! Le’s get th’ fuggoutta here, Leeeeeroy!”

Clearly, the critic in the first row of the balcony found this deeply penetrating study of middle class morality as seen through the dissolution of Jack Lemmon’s knock-off sweat shop less than relevant to his existence as a mid-Twentieth Century denizen of the shitty slum to whence he would wend his way once this stupid kike film about muh-fuggin’ honk paddy bastids ended. Which wasn’t soon enough for him. “Leeeee-ROY!”

I had the feeling that Leeee-ROY was the terminal case lying over the seats two rows below us. Out of it.

Well, I peer through the gloom and see the dude down there in the front row of the balcony, his feet up on the brass rail, his partner beside him, silently watching the film but not stopping the noise. And I watch the two of them for a little while, hoping the third member of the group, good ole Leeee-ROY, will bestir his ass and go rejoin them there sepia Athos and Porthos, and maybe just maybe vacate the site quietly so I can watch the goddam muhfuggin’ movie.

But no such luck. The critic only gets wonkyer, yelling at the top of his lungs. Leeee-ROY don’t twitch a bun.

And just as the critic is reaching a pitch that will cause sonic tremors, squealing sunbish and muh-fugguh at the top of his lungs, from behind me I hear The Voice of Doom . . .

You’ll have to read the rest of the essay to find out what happens next, but something tells me Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t have lasted long in one of those places.

Passages: Molly Ivins

As if to remind us of how much we lost when Molly Ivins died, Salon.com has brought back a regular column by Camille Paglia, whose posturing as the Auntie Mame of Academe has been deeply, deeply tired since about, oh, five minutes after the publication of Sexual Personae, the tome that remains her only claim to intellectual seriousness.

I suppose I should be electrified by what Paglia has to say about blogs, but honestly, why bother keeping track of her thoughts as she shotgun-sprays them all over the Internet? In one interview for Salon (her steadiest customer) she started with her usual beefs about the neglect of classical authors and history, then whined that she didn’t like blogs because instead of striking out to conquer new visual terrain, they offered “all this print.” That’s what many of us like about blogs, Camille — they stand apart from the lemming rush to graphics, pictures and pared-down stories that makes the mass-market media so freakin’ tedious.

Now she’s reversed herself and is intrigued by the viral possibilities of YouTube. She lurves that word “viral” — it’s so trendy, like chaos theory was in the 1980s. I dig concert clips as much as anybody, and if YouTube gives us all a chance to watch a Republican presidential contender self-immolate, that’s a bonus. But the dowdy old written word and the tired old printed book is still the most effective and flexible way to convey information and argument.     

Apropos of which, here in its entirety is what Molly Ivins wrote about Paglia for Mother Jones back in 1991:

“So write about Camille Paglia,” suggested the editor. Like any normal person, I replied, “And who the hell might she be?”

Big cheese in New York intellectual circles. The latest rage. Hot stuff. Controversial.

But I’m not good on New York intellectual controversies, I explained. Could never bring myself to give a rat’s ass about Jerzy Kosinski. Never read Andy Warhol’s diaries. Can never remember the name of the editor of this New Whatsit, the neo-con critical rag. I’m a no-hoper on this stuff, practically a professional provincial.

Read Paglia, says he, you’ll have an opinion. So I did; and I do.

Christ! Get this woman a Valium!

Hand her a gin. Try meditation. Camille, honey, calm down!

The noise is about her oeuvre, as we always say in Lubbock: Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. In very brief, for those of you who have been playing hooky from the New York Review of Books, Ms. Paglia’s contention is that “the history of western civilization has been a constant struggle between . . . two impulses, an unending tennis match between cold, Apollonian categorization and Dionysian lust and chaos.”

Jeez, me too. I always thought the world was divided into only two kinds of people — those who think the world is divided into only two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

You think perhaps this is a cheap shot, that I have searched her work and caught Ms. Paglia in a rare moment of sweeping generalization, easy to make fun of? Au contraire, as we always say in
Amarillo; the sweeping generalization is her signature. In fact, her work consists of damn little else. She is the queen of the categorical statement.

Never one to dodge a simple dichotomy when she can set one up, Ms. Paglia holds that the entire error of western civilization stems from denying that nature is a kind of nasty, funky, violent, wet dream, and that Judeo-Christianity has been one long effort to ignore this. She pegs poor old Rousseau, that fathead, as the initiator of the silly notion that nature is benign and glorious and that only civilization corrupts.

Right away, I got a problem. Happens I have spent a lot of my life in the wilderness, and also a lot of my life in bars. When I want sex and violence, I go to a Texas honky-tonk. When I want peace and quiet, I head for the woods. Just as a minor historical correction to Ms. Paglia, Rousseau did not invent the concept of benign Nature. Among the first writers to hold that nature was a more salubrious environment for man than the corruptions of civilization were the Roman Stoics — rather a clear-eyed lot, I always thought.

Now why, you naturally ask, would anyone care about whether a reviewer has ever done any serious camping? Ah, but you do not yet know the Camille Paglia school of I-am-the-cosmos argument. Ms. Paglia believes that all her personal experiences are Seminal. Indeed, Definitive. She credits a large part of her supposed wisdom to having been born post-World War II and thus having been raised on television. Damn me, so was I.

In addition to the intrinsic cultural superiority Ms. Paglia attributes to herself from having grown up watching television (“It’s Howdy-Doody Time” obviously made us all smarter), she also considers her own taste in music to be of enormous significance. “From the moment the feminist movement was born, it descended into dogma,” she told an interviewer for New York magazine. “They stifled any kind of debate, any kind of dissent. Okay, it’s Yale, it’s New Haven in ’69, I am a rock fanatic, okay . . . So I was talking about taste to these female rock musicians, and I said the Rolling Stones were the greatest rock band, and that just set them off. They said, ‘The Rolling Stones are sexist, and it’s bad music because it’s sexist.’ I said: ‘Wait a minute. You can’t make a judgments about art on the basis of whether it fits into some dogma.’ And now they’re yelling, screaming, saying that nothing that demeans women can be art.

“You see, right from the start it was impossible for me to be taken into the feminist movement, okay? The only art they will permit is art that gives a positive image of women. I said, ‘That’s like the Soviet
Union; that is the demagogic, propagandistic view of art.’ ”

Well, by George, as a First Amendment absolutist, you’ll find me willing to spring to the defense of Camille Paglia’s right to be a feminist Rolling Stones fan any hour, day or night. Come to think of it, who the hell was the Stalin who wouldn’t let her do that? I went back and researched the ’69 politburo, and all I could find was Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Gloria Steinem, none of whom ever seems to have come out against rock music.

I have myself quite cheerfully been both a country-music fan and a feminist for years — if Camille Paglia is the cosmos, so am I. When some fellow feminist doesn’t like my music (How could you not like “You are just another sticky wheel on the grocery cart of life”?), I have always felt free to say, in my politically correct feminist fashion, “Fuck off.”

In a conversation printed in Harper’s magazine, Paglia held forth on on of her favorite themes — Madonna, the pop singer: “The latest atavistic discoverer of the pagan heart of Catholicism is Madonna. This is what she’s up to. She doesn’t completely understand it herself. When she goes on Nightline and makes speeches about celebrating the body, as if she’s some sort of Woodstock hippie, she’s way off. She needs me to tell her.” I doubt that.

Bram Dijkstra, author of a much-praised book, Idols of Perversity, which is a sort of mirror image of Sexual Personae, said that Paglia  “literally drags the whole nineteenth-century ideological structure back into the late-eighteenth century, really completely unchanged. What’s so amazing is that she takes all that nineteenth-century stuff, Darwinism and social Darwinism, and she re-asserts it and reaffirms it in this incredibly dualistic fashion. In any situation, she establishes the lowest common denominator of a point. She says, `This is the feminist point of view,’ and overturns it by standing it on its head. She doesn’t go outside what she critiques; she simply puts out the opposite of it.”

“For example,” Dijkstra continues, “she claims, `Feminism blames rape on pornography,’ which is truly the reductio ad absurdum of the feminist point of view. Of course, there are very many feminist points of view, but then she blows away this extremely simplified opposite, and we are supposed to consider this erudition. She writes aphorisms and then throws them out, one after the other, so rapid-fire the reader is exhausted.”

Tracing Paglia’s intellectual ancestry is a telling exercise; she’s the lineal descendant of Ayn Rand, who in turn was a student of William Graham Sumner, one of the early American sociologists and an enormously successful popularizer of social Darwinism. Sumner was in turn a disciple of Herbert Spencer, that splendid nineteenth-century kook. Because Paglia reasserts ideas so ingrained in our thinking, she has become popular by reaffirming common prejudices.

Paglia’s obsession with de Sade is beyond my competence, although the glorification of sadomasochism can easily be read as a rationalization of bondage into imagined power, a characteristic process of masochistic transfer. Dijkstra suggests that the Sadean notion of the executioner’s assistant is critical to her thinking, though one wonders if there is not also some identification with de Sade the Catholic aristocrat.

Paglia’s view of sex — that it is irrational, violent, immoral, and wounding — is so glum that one hesitates to suggest that it might be instead, well, a lot of fun, and maybe even affectionate and loving. Far less forgivable is Paglia’s consistent confusion of feminism with yuppies. What does she think she’s doing? Paglia holds feminists responsible for the bizarre blight created by John T. Molloy, author of Dress for Success, which caused a blessedly brief crop of young women, all apparently aspiring to be executive vice-presidents, to appear in the corporate halls wearing those awful sand-colored baggy suits with little floppy bow ties around their necks.

Why Paglia lays the blame for this at the feet of feminism is beyond me. Whatever our other aims may have been, no one in the feminist movement ever thought you are what you wear. The only coherent fashion statement I can recall from the entire movement was the suggestion that Mrs. Cleaver, Beaver’s mom, would on the whole have been a happier woman had she not persisted in vacuuming while wearing high heels. This, I still believe.

In an even more hilarious leap, Paglia contends that feminism is responsible for the aerobics craze and concern over thin thighs. Speaking as a beer-drinking feminist whose idea of watching her diet is to choose either the baked potato with sour cream or with butter, but not with both, I find this loony beyond all hope — and I am the cosmos, too.

What we have here, fellow citizens, is a crassly egocentric, raving twit. The Norman Podhoretz of our gender. That this woman is actually taken seriously as a thinker in New York intellectual circles is a clear sign of decadence, decay, and hopeless pinheadedness. Has no one in the nation’s intellectual capital the background and ability to see through a web of categorical assertions? One fashionable line of response to Paglia is to claim that even though she may be fundamentally off-base, she has “flashes of brilliance.” If so, I missed them in her oceans of swill.

One of her latest efforts at playing enfant terrible in intellectual circles was a peppy essay for Newsday, claiming that either there is no such thing as date rape or, if there is, it’s women’s fault because we dress so provocatively. Thanks, Camille, I’ve got some Texas fraternity boys I want you to meet.

There is one area in which I think Paglia and I would agree that politically correct feminism has produced a noticeable inequity. Nowadays, when a woman behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, “Poor dear, it’s probably PMS.” Whereas, if a man behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, “What an asshole.”

Let me leap to correct this unfairness by saying of Paglia, Sheesh, what an asshole.

Passages: Pablo Neruda

Here is your early Valentines Day poem, courtesy of Pablo Neruda and his book Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair:

In my sky at twilight you are like a cloud

and your form and color are the way I love them.

You are mine, mine, woman with sweet lips

and in your life my infinite dreams live.

The lamp of my soul dyes your feet,

my sour wine is sweeter on your lips,

oh reaper of my evening song,

how solitary dreams believe you to be mine!

You are mine, mine, I go shouting it to the afternoon’s

wind, and the wind hauls on my widowed voice.

Huntress of the depths of my eyes, your plunder

stills your nocturnal regard as through it were water.

You are taken in the net of my music, my love,

and my nets of music are wide as the sky.

My soul is born on the shore of your eyes of mourning.

In your eyes of mourning the land of dreams begins.

We should just rename Valentines Day as Neruda Day and be done with it. Nobody writes love poetry like the Chilean maestro. He is the bard of what comes after the first night together, when the doors are all being opened and the wonders of the two of you are ready to be explored. It’s the kind of love that can burn out quickly or, if you are lucky, reduce to a long simmer that lasts for years, flaring up at unexpected and delightful times.

This is from a poem in The Captain’s Verses:

Lovely one,

with a nest of copper entangled

on your head, a nest

the color of dark honey

where my heart burns and rests,

lovely one.

Lovely one,

your eyes are too big for your face,

your eyes are too big for the earth.

There are countries, there are rivers,

in your eyes,

my country is in your eyes,

I walk through them,

they light the world

through which I walk,

lovely one.

There are writers whose works can make you feel smarter, sexier, funnier, stronger, better, more loveable and more worthy of love. Neruda is one of them. You should have at least one of his books and know at least some of his poems by heart. If you don’t, these two books are great places to begin.

Passages: Fritz Leiber

From “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” a short story by Fritz Leiber, collected in Swords Against Death:

“The Devourers are the most accomplished merchants in all the many universes — so accomplished, indeed, that they sell only trash. There is a deep necessity in this, for the Devourers must occupy all their cunning in perfecting their methods of selling and so have not an instant to spare in considering the worth of what they sell. Indeed, they dare not concern themselves with such matters for a moment, for fear of losing their golden touch — and yet such are their skills that their wares are utterly irresistible, indeed the finest wares in all the many universes — if you follow me?”

Fafhrd looked hopefully toward Sheelba, but since the latter did not this time interrupt with some pithy summation, he nodded to Ningauble.

Ningauble continued, his seven eyes beginning to weave a bit, judging from the movements of the seven green glows. “As you might readily deduce, the Devourers possess all the mightiest magics garnered from the many universes, whilst their assault groups are led by the most aggressive wizards imaginable, supremely skilled in all methods of battling, whether it be by the wits, with the feelings, or with the beweaponed body.

“The method of the Devourers is to set up shop in a new world and first entice the bravest and the most adventuresome and the supplest- minded of its people — who have so much imagination that with just a touch of suggestion they themselves do most of the work of selling themselves.

“When these are safely ensnared, the Devourers proceed to deal with the remainder of the population: meaning simply that they sell and sell and sell! — sell trash and take good money and even finer things in exchange.”

Ningauble sighed windily and a shade piously. “All this is very bad, My Gentle Son,” he continued, his eye-glows weaving hypnotically in his cowl, “but naturally enough in universes administered by such gods as we have — natural enough and perhaps endurable. However” — he paused — “there is worse to come! The Devourers want not only the patronage of all beings in all universes, but — doubtless because they are afraid someone will someday raise the ever-unpleasant question, of the true worth of things — they want all their customers reduced to a state of slavish and submissive suggestibility, so that they are fit for nothing whatever but to gawk and buy the trash the Devourers offer for sale. This means of course that eventually the Devourers’ customers will have nothing wherewith to pay the Devourers for their trash, but the Devourers do not seem to be concerned with this eventuality. Perhaps they feel that there is always a new universe to exploit. And perhaps there is!”

“Monstrous!” Fafhrd commented. “But what do the Devourers gain from these furious commercial sorties, all this mad merchandising? What do they really want?”

Ningauble replied, “The Devourers want only to amass cash and to raise little ones like themselves to amass more cash and they want to compete with each other at cash-amassing. (Is that coincidentally a city, do you think, Fafhrd? Cashamass?) And the Devourers want to brood about their great service to the many universes — it is their claim that servile customers make the most obedient servants for the gods — and to complain about how the work of amassing cash tortures their minds and upsets their digestions. Beyond this, each of the Devourers also secretly collects and hides away forever, to delight no eyes but his own, all the finest objects and thoughts created by true men and women (and true wizards and true demons) and bought by the Devourers at bankruptcy prices and paid for with trash or — this is their ultimate preference — with nothing at all.”

Early in his career, Fritz Leiber received the benediction of no less a luminary than H.P. Lovecraft, in an unsent letter found after his death:

Young Fritz (twenty-five, a University of Chicago graduate, and entering his father’s profession) has one of the keenest minds I have ever encountered . . . His understanding of the profound emotions behind the groping for cosmic concepts surpasses that of almost anyone else with whom I’ve discussed the matter; and his own tales and poems, while not without marks of the beginner, shew infinite insight and promise.

Not a bad start for a writer of imaginative literature! Too bad the acquaintance was cut short, for Lovecraft would have benefitted immensely from prolonged contact with Leiber’s prose, which right from the start was several cuts above his peers and kept developing right up to Leiber’s last works.

One of my favorite opening passages in any story is this sixty-word rule breaker from “Gonna Roll the Bones,” a 1968 novella about dicing with Death that should be the basis for Tim Burton’s next animation project:

Suddenly Joe Slattermill knew for sure he’d have to get out quick or else blow his top and knock out with the shrapnel of his skull the props and patches holding up his decaying home, that was like a house of big wooden and plaster and wallpaper cards except for the huge fireplace and ovens and chimney across the kitchen from him.

As a bonus, the story also has one of my favorite closing lines:

Then he turned and headed straight for home, but he took the long way, around the world.

Leiber’s straight science fiction work, such as The Wanderer, has dated pretty badly. His metier was pure fantasy in all its modes, and his best work of all was in heroic fantasy, for which Leiber himself coined the term “sword and sorcery.”

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, when it seemed the bulk of fantasy writing was either a Conan knockoff or a slavish Tolkien imitation, the stories of Fritz Leiber were in a class by themselves. Urbane and witty where so much heroic fantasy is broad and clunky — only Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories come close to matching it — Leiber’s work remains a lodestar for writers like Neil Gaiman, who owe him a debt of thanks for showing how even a cootie-laden genre like sword and sorcery can stretch to encompass the humor and alertness of the best writing.

As the above passage shows, Leiber also had a taste for amusingly barbed satire — something not often seen in such a humorless genre.

Though he worked in a genre that sprang more or less complete from the forehead of Robert E. Howard, Leiber’s heroes were conceived as a human-scaled alternative to Conan and the platoon of brawny supermen who followed in his train. Fafhrd, a strapping northern barbarian, and the Gray Mouser, his diminutive comrade-in-arms, were instantly more believable and engaging than the standard run of fantasy heroes. Leiber took care to show their personalities forming and developing over the course of the seven Nehwon books, and one of the pleasures of Swords Against Death (the second in the series) is Leiber’s readiness to pause for interesting character touches. Late in “The Jewels in the Forest,” after a particularly vicious battle with a band of competing treasure-hunters, Fafhrd comes down from his berserker rage by laughing, then weeping over the blood he has shed; the Mouser, meanwhile, feels “worried, ironic, and slightly sick,” aware that his own emotional reaction will not come for some time. Imagine Conan experiencing such complex feelings after a bout of violence.

Their travels across the alternate universe of Nehwon always took them back to the fetid city of Lankhmar, a superb creation in its own right. Though the darkened streets and alleys read as an overlay of all the great, dangerous metropolises of history — think Rome at its most decadent, or Constantinople during the reign of Justinian — Lankhmar was at bottom a lovingly detailed cousin of Manhattan, squatting next to a great salt marsh passable only by an elevated road, choked by smogs and smokes, with streets and place-names that amusingly echoed and inverted their equivalents in the Big Apple. Read a couple of the Nehwon volumes (all but one of them were short story collections, which best suited Leiber’s muse) and you could quickly locate Cheap Street, the Plaza of Dark Delights (derived from Times Square in its viciously seedy, pre-tourist days) and Thieves House, with its front door always left ajar to taunt anyone foolish enough to attempt unauthorized entry.

Most . . . well, pretty much all heroic fantasy reads like the work of teenagers and boy-men whose experience of the world runs the gamut from ogling at the shopping mall to copping a few feels at the high school dance. Leiber, son of a Shakespearean actor who led his own touring company, had clearly been around and it showed in his fiction — particularly his characterization of the Gray Mouser, whose dealings with women ventured into pretty louche territory for a genre where the apex of sexuality was Conan yelling for more mead as he swatted the backsides of barmaids. Leiber was also an accomplished swordsman, which knowledge he put to good use in the fight scenes.

Leiber’s Nehwon stories are also unique in the range of moods they encompass. The adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser cover everything from straightforward swashbuckling action to horror to slapstick comedy. Swords in the Mist, the third Nehwon collection, opens with a straight-up chiller called “The Cloud of Hate,” then takes a left turn into “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” a cross-breed of Robert E. Howard and Bertolt Brecht, in which the heroes part ways for separate careers when their money runs out. The Mouser becomes a hired thug for a local crime boss, while Fafhrd cuts his hair, forswears wordly goods and becomes a servant to the priest of a lower-tier god called Issek of the Jug. Though Issek has previously been pretty much a laughingstock deity, Fafhrd’s charismatic devotion (and the fighting skills he uses against shakedown artists) raise Issek’s stock in the public eye, bringing more donations and making it inevitable that the crime boss will demand his own cut — thereby bringing the two companions into conflict.

“Bazaar of the Bizarre,” the concluding story in Swords Against Death, was Leiber’s personal favorite and it’s easy to see why: within the space of a single short story, Leiber packs in social satire, weird fantasy, swordplay and comedy. As it happens, I agree with him, and while I would recommend the story to anyone wanting to venture into Lankhmar for the first time, I certainly wouldn’t recommend stopping there. If there’s one American writer badly overdue for rediscovery, it’s Fritz Leiber.

Passages: Alan Lomax

From The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax, an account of the folklorist’s song-hunting travels through the American South. This passage is about the field hollers sung by convicts in levee camps and work gangs:

In this anonymous world of the pentientiary, every man is given a distinctive moniker that ticks him off in an apt and sometimes cruel way. This nickname, once slapped on as a joke by a guard or another inmate, can last as long as the convict’s sentence, even for life. A fine-looking young mulatto might be teasingly nicknamed “Yaller Gal” and then have to fight off sexual attacks for the rest of his sentence. Our friend Tangle Eye was painfully cross-eyed, but completely accustomed to the guards yelling, “Come up, old Tangle Eye.” The Texas singer James Baker was christened Iron Head after a live oak fell on him and he never lost a stroke of his ax or a phrase of his chopping song. The great Leadbelly won his name because of his fabled endurance in the fields as “number-one man in the number-one gang in the Texas pen.”

We set down a sheaf of these fanciful black convict names, each one a humorous or a witty assertion of the deathless singularity of an individual in the seething anonymity of the prison farms. Each nickname helped to shield a personality from extinction, maintaining the man’s privacy by keeping his real name out of prison currency. For these hard-pressed exiles, all dressed alike in striped clothing and herded like animals by guards on horseback, the nicknames asserted and underscored their identities in the darkness of the penitentiary. Moreover, each man also had his own self-composed, self-identifying musical signature.

You could hear these peronal songs — sometimes no more than a few notes long — coming from far away across the fields. These so-called hollers, which belonged to the same family as the levee-camp songs, were pitched high out of a wide-open throat, to be heard from far off. A convict, by raising his holler from time to time during the long day of toil, could announce his existence and fend off the crushing anonymity of prison anonymity. His signature song voiced his individual sorrows and feelings. By this means, he located himself in the vast fields of the penitentiary, where the rows were often a mile long and a gang of men looked like insects crawling over the green carpet of the crops. Listening to a holler, some con would say, “Lissen at old Bull bellerin’ over there — he must be fixin to run” or “That’s old Tangle Eye yonder. He’s callin on his woman again.”

My father and I recorded scores of these old “field hollers’ or “old corn songs” or “levee camp hollers,” as they were variously called. They were thickest in the river-bottom country, south and west of Memphis all the way into the river lands of Texas. Most of those we found in the Southeast had been imported from the Delta. you can recognize the Delta hollers because they have have a shape different from the majority of black folk songs, which tend to be short-phrased, to conform to a steady beat, and to be performed by groups. By contrast, Delta hollers are usually minory solos, sung recitative-style in free rhythms, with long embellished phrases, many long-held notes, lots of slides and blue notes, and emphasis on shifts of vocal color. They are impossible to notate and very difficult to sing.

As a youngster, I tried to sing whatever we recorded, with varying success, of course, but I could never do a “holler” to my own satisfaction. Then came a moment when a holler spontaneously burst out of me. It was the evening of the day I had just been inducted into the army. On this first endless and awful twenty-four hours in a huge army reception center, when I had been yelled at, examined, put down, poked at, handled like a yearling in a chute, I drew KP. It was a sixteen-hour assignment, in which we KP’s helped to set the tables for several hundred me three times a day and then clean up afterward. Along about eight o’clock that evening my feet seemed to be on fire, every muscle in my body was complaining, stinging perspiration was running into my eyes, and my arms were deep in greasy, boiling dishwater. I had never been so miserable in all my life, and there were still two hours to go. At that moment, without thinking, I let loose with a Mississippi holler. Loud and clear, my levee-camp complaint rang through that hellish army kitchen:

Well, I asked my captain what time of day,

What time of day?

And he looked at me, good pardner,

Threw his watch away,

Ohhhhhh, threw his watch away.

A couple of guys looked up, but thank God most of the others were too unhappy to notice. I went on hollering and the sound got better. I got to feeling good. All those years and finally those Delta blue notes were coming out of me. Suddenly, the black KP sergeant appeared. I kept whooping and washing dishes. I felt sure I’d be condemned to another day of KP. But all the black sergeant did before he walked off was to say in a kind of nice way, “Hey, man, you sound like you from down home.”

Among blues fans, or anyone with an appreciation for American music, Alan Lomax is an irreplaceable figure. He was the first to record great musicians like Leadbelly, Son House and Muddy Waters, who as soon as he heard himself singing, decided “I can do this!” and headed for Chicago to make his name as the king of electric blues.

That’s part of the story, anyway. I recently acquired two recent books that shed new light, not all of it flattering, on Lomax’s work. Lost Delta Found claims that Lomax relied heavily on the work of a team of black scholars from Fisk University, only to downplay their contributions when he wrote his ow recollections of his song-hunting excursions. America Over the Water is Shirley Collins’s account of her romance with Lomax, which led to her accompanying him on a song-hunting trip that culiminated in the first recordings of “Mississippi” Fred McDowell.

Lost Delta Found apparently accuses Lomax of all but burying the work of competing scholars in order to keep himself in the spotlight. I’ll have to finish the book before I try to reach any conclusions.

But while I’m perfectly ready to accept the idea that Lomax may have been a bit of a shitweasel in his dealings with others, a check of some of the comments on the book’s Amazon page leave me wondering if he isn’t going to be the new Sam Phillips. Though Phillips, the head of Sun Studio in Memphis, was a blues nut in love with the sound of Howlin Wolf, there’s been an apocryphal phrase attributed to him — “If I could find a white boy who sings like a nigger, I’d be a millionaire” — that is a vile slander on the man’s character. A man who could listen to Wolf and say “This is where the spirit of man endures” would never say such a thing.

Was Lomax a credit hog? Could be. Is the story more complicated than that? Could be. For now, all I can say is that the man whose uncondescending love for blues and black American culture suffuses every page of The Land Where the Blues Began — a love he communicated to me, back in the early 1990s, sending me back to the blues after a long time away — deserves the benefit of the doubt.