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Loneliness

September 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Charles Bukowski:

“I’ve never been lonely. I’ve been in a room — I’ve felt suicidal. I’ve been depressed. I’ve felt awful — awful beyond all — but I never felt that one other person could enter that room and cure what was bothering me…or that any number of people could enter that room. In other words, loneliness is something I’ve never been bothered with because I’ve always had this terrible itch for solitude. It’s being at a party, or at a stadium full of people cheering for something, that I might feel loneliness. I’ll quote Ibsen, “The strongest men are the most alone.” I’ve never thought, “Well, some beautiful blonde will come in here and give me a fuck-job, rub my balls, and I’ll feel good.” No, that won’t help. You know the typical crowd, “Wow, it’s Friday night, what are you going to do? Just sit there?” Well, yeah. Because there’s nothing out there. It’s stupidity. Stupid people mingling with stupid people. Let them stupidify themselves. I’ve never been bothered with the need to rush out into the night. I hid in bars, because I didn’t want to hide in factories. That’s all. Sorry for all the millions, but I’ve never been lonely. I like myself. I’m the best form of entertainment I have. Let’s drink more wine!”

I like Bukowski’s writing, but I feel somewhat juvenile for saying so. He is an author that elicits strong feelings from people, one way or the other. I think that in order to understand his merit, you have to have been able to relate with him. I think loneliness is the dominant theme of Bukowski’s work, and despite what he says, he was truly a lonely man. He learned at a young age that life was mean and cruel, he avoided the company of others because he mischaracterized “all people” as being mean, ignorant, violent. So he crawled into a bottle and lived his life as best he could, unable to truly come to terms with the world’s stupidity.

I would like to think that this loneliness, this universalized otherness, is something that everyone can relate to, in one way or another, as part of the human condition. I am not sure. I know that I personally can relate with Bukowski’s words, and I find some solace in the idea that I am not alone, but it is a somber type of comfort; (in the spirit of Bukowski) it is the comfort of one’s own bed after a night in the drunk tank.

If we are all so alone, yet all so together in our loneliness, what does that say about the nature of society, the character of our social interactions?

I guess I feel juvenile for liking Bukowski because the world he suggests and the philosophy he employs are so paradoxical, so easy to break out of: you are not alone, there are millions of others in this world who feel precisely the same way you do. Many of your malefactors, your tormentors, are indeed some of the most tormented. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Reasoned kindness is the type of outlook that requires the accumulation of sense data and emotional analysis. It is not the kindness of a child, who hasn’t lived long enough to fight any hard battle, but it is the kindness of an adult who can truly relate to the pain and misery of being alive. It requires more thought and understanding than the “Don’t try” emblazoned on Bukowski’s tombstone. Bukowski never got there. I don’t fault him for disacknowledging the world outside his head, because it is probably the most natural reaction to have towards an unjust world, and I can certainly relate to that urge to hide oneself, to runaway… but you can never run fast enough. The world is still there. If it is solitude that you seek, rather than rectification, then I guess you don’t need to try, but you are assigning yourself to carry a stone in your heart. The older I get, the heavier that stone seems to feel, and I think I made a decision a long time ago to not carry it anymore… I am just trying to learn how, myself and everyone else.

Categories: Art, Literature

Criticism

August 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Does all cultural criticism suffer from a problem of perspective: today’s critic is yesterday’s crusader? Culture is by the people, and when those people get old, there are new people who begin to make their own mark upon that culture. So much criticism can essentially be boiled down to: “things aren’t the same anymore… it used to be like this, but now it is different, and the old way was kind of better.” Of course, I admit that it can cut both ways. I guess the new generation has its own critiques that indict the old ways and imply the inevitable supremacy of the new. It is the same liberal/conservative split that we see throughout society.

Is the critique always the underdog? Or is underdog status relational to the critique’s positioning (being “inside” or “outside” the norm) within society? What about in situations where there is no established mainstream, i.e. critiquing two parallel subcultures of equal following?

Is it conservative to critique religious fundamentalists because they are the “outsider” in todays culture (or are they not the outsiders)? Atheists? Unitarians? Mormons? Westboro Baptists? Is today’s mainstream society so socially liberal that modern social conservatives are actually a progressive insurgency for change?

It also seems to me that there is more criticism of the conservative variety than the liberal, i.e. more old people complaining about young people than vice versa. This could be a reflection of demographics (there are more young people), the liberalization of society, or maybe more so the complacency of today’s liberals with the social order (having nothing to really bitch about, or better things to do than bitch). How much do the bourgeois pleasures of the global neoliberal marketplace placate today’s young radicals? Do the youth of today care more about creation than critique, and if so, is this a phenomena that is unique to our time, constant throughout history, or cyclical?

Self-determinism has been a distinctly American value throughout the county’s history. From the babyboom generation onward, American’s have enjoyed the material wealth and associated privilege required to shape their world and future into whatever they may imagine. If this is a liberal attitude, the ability to create something new and actualize one’s dreams, it would seem that criticism would find little respite within the cadre of artists and visionaries that set the cultural agenda.

Categories: Art, Culture, Philosophy

Joseph Epstein on the American Novel

August 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Joseph Epstein reviewing “The Cambridge History of the American Novel” in the Wall Street Journal:

Only 40 or 50 years ago, English departments attracted men and women who wrote books of general intellectual interest and had names known outside the academy—Perry Miller, Aileen Ward, Walter Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Joseph Wood Krutch, Lionel Trilling, one could name a dozen or so others—but no longer.

I’m not familiar with any of those names, which of course speaks more of me than Epstein. Perhaps I am a victim of the academic evisceration and pedagogical over-extension that Epstein describes.

With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today. The most lauded novelists in “The Cambridge History of the American Novel” tend to be those, in the words of another of its contributors, who are “staging a critique of ‘America’ and its imperial project.” Thus such secondary writers as Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow are in these pages vaunted well beyond their literary worth.

Bring on the barbarians, I say. Ginsberg and Vonnegut were among the authors that spoke to me in high school and made me interested in books. To somehow deride them because of their politics is to miss the point: art is a reflection of the people and times that create it. I am sure that My Antonia and The Great Gatsby spoke to Epstein because they addressed the world of his time. The lessons in its pages had already been lived, digested, absorbed, and processed by the society that I was born into, a society whose young people became interested in a different set of questions and ideas than the ones puzzled over by Epstein and my grandparents. The commodification of the American Dream is merely hinted at in Gatsby, but it is at the forefront of everything that has been written since Ginsberg, et. al.

Epstein’s assessment of the modern English department is correct, but the correlation between the practices he maligns and the declining enrollment rates in American English departments lends no proof to any chain of causation, one way or the other. Book lovers still find their way into English departments, and they also find there way into Econ departments as necessitated by the realities of our changing society. The collected popular memes of postmodernism do not lend themselves very well to the type of canonical English department that Epstein reminisces over, the type where art’s meaning is conceived only within the mind of the artist and the audience’s role is to find this “correct” meaning rather than bring their own experiences into the process.

“The Cambridge History of the American Novel” could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.

Sadly, this is the case. When did popular culture and consumer culture become synonymous? Epstein’s “40 years ago” sounds about right, but has consumerism so permeated our society that all cultural output is now corrupted by it, and made unworthy of comparison to what came before? Unable to be compared, perhaps, but certainly not unworthy.

I do sympathize with Epstein here, because culture has become commercialized and it is something that is discomforting. But the quality that Epstein pines for is a subjective value, and within the current paradigm of postmodern thought that dominates today’s youth culture, subjectivity is inauthentic, a type of “anti-quality”. Within the current commercial structure of the cultural world, today’s more enlightened and informed consumers have not felt intellectually hamstrung by their enjoyment and relation with commercial art. Instead they embrace the diversity of choice that commercial art engenders, while simultaneously being aware of the subversive influence that capitalism has upon it (an influence that permeates every facet of society, of which there is no escaping, and of which Epstein’s generation [and perhaps several after it] was not viscerally aware in the same way that today’s youth are).