David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2011 (page 1 of 3)

Elaine Showalter and Erika Schickel on James Ellroy

I thought that Elaine Showalter had a reasonably ironic point when she talked about Ellroy’s latest plunge into narcissistic self-examination in James Ellroy, the Ancient Mariner of LA Noir.

From the earliest days of his literary career, Ellroy was working out how to create a memorable persona, costume it, style it, rehearse it, polish it and sell it. The Hilliker Curse offers a fascinating account of his understanding of the role of performance in the contemporary publishing scene, and the skills he developed for it. As early as 1979, he writes, “I was certifiably hot shit. I rocked with a sense of destiny and exuded a raucous panache”. Once his books started selling, “I told my life story to a captive audience. I became a dazzling public speaker at the get-go”. For his first big book tour, “I spent hours perfecting my reading gigs and podium patter. I bought some snazzy new threads to enhance my You de Man status”. On the road, he did “bookstore events every night. I performed introductory shtick, read from my novel, and took questions. I was electrifyingly good in the middle of a meltdown. I always played to one woman in the audience”. Ellroy realized fast that reading was a form of seduction, and he “sensed . . . what career womanizers know cold: female discontent is opportunity”. Before long, a third of the bookstore audience was female, and some women left him their phone numbers.

Given his critical and commercial achievements, and the happy resolution of his quest for the Other, I wonder whether James Ellroy will now stop telling his life story. Will safety and serenity work for him, or will he be driven again to find his inspiration and motivation in danger? I also wondered, while I was reading the book, who might buy it, besides the hardcore Ellroy completist. But apart from Ellroy cultists, I would recommend it highly as a marketing guidebook for aspiring women writers who struggle with diffidence, modesty and self-deprecation. Ellroy’s Curse could be a self-effacing woman writer’s bible.

Yet in the comments is a reply from Erika Schickel himself, Ellroy’s current partner, who energetically follows Showalter’s lead:

While your review focuses on Ellroy’s gift for self-promotion, you have touched on one of the merits that has brought me to love this complex man so dearly – his feminism. Before THC published, we hoped that it would be read more widely by women, and reviewed by more women than men. Not only because it is a work of deep romantic and emotional honesty, but because he so nakedly grants women power.

I received a progressive, liberal arts education, came of age in a post-feminist era, and have enjoyed the advantages of having been born into a culturally privileged family — yet it was scrappy, self-made James Ellroy, with his single-minded belief in manifest destiny, women in general and me specifically, who has helped me loosen my grip on self-deprecation. My modesty and diffidence had become metastatic for reasons you could probably explain better than I. Ellroy has been the antidote for that specific, crippling condition.

While much of his public persona is indeed a “confident and aggressive” act, the act protects the truest thing about him: his vulnerable, sweet and brave heart. I am not in love with “The Demon Dog,” but I endure his public persona in order to be with this dear, private man.

James Ellroy will always be, at bottom, a boy whose mother was raped and murdered — a boy who received no subsequent counseling, little education indifferent parenting, and a boy who turned to a dead German composer (Beethoven) as a role model when others failed to emerge. That this boy is even alive today, writing, loving, and searching for his own artistic and emotional truth, is a testament to his bravery and strength of spirit. Ellroy’s strident persona, obsessive nature and compulsive heterosexuality make him seem predatory, but in fact, he is a true and tender champion of women.

If I have any quibble with your otherwise completely laudable review, it is with your assertion that Mr. Ellroy “persuaded” me to leave my marriage and bring my daughters to live with him. As anyone who has been in a “tanker” marriage (Ellroyism), the true story is much longer and more heartbreaking than it appears (and is a subject I am trying to plumb in my own forthcoming memoir).

The figure of the sensitive, vulnerable womanizer, more honest in his dysfunctional misogyny than would-be enlightened men, is not new. The deflation of this figure is not new. (Rodolphe staining tears on his letter to Emma in Madame Bovary is just about its quintessence.) Showalter seems to be quoting from Ellroy with a fair bit of contempt. Schickel ignores (or just doesn’t notice) Showalter’s implied disapproval and goes on to say that yes, Ellroy is indeed a female liberator, an antidote. Her experience is her experience, but I admit to being a bit nonplussed. Still, Showalter and Schickel’s two voices both ring as archetypal to me. I’ve sometimes heard them in a single person.

C. Wright Mills on the Tea Party

Actually, Mills is talking about McCarthyism and other manifestations of the 1950s, but just like the last entry, this seems a good deal more urgent than anything by Zizek, Agamben, Hardt/Negri, or most any other academic leftist today.

The noisy conservatives, of course, have no more won political power than administrative liberals have retained it. While those two camps have been engaged in wordy battle, and while the intellectuals have been embraced by the new conservative gentility, the silent conservatives have assumed political power. Accordingly, in their imbroglio with the noisy right, liberal and once- left forces have, in effect, defended these established conservatives, if only because they have lost any initiative of attack, in fact, lost even any point of effective criticism. The silent conservatives of corporation, army and state have benefited politically and economically and militarily by the antics of the petty right, who have become, often unwittingly, their political shocktroops. And they have ridden into power on all those structural trends set into motion and accelerated by the organization of the nation for seemingly permanent war.

So, in this context of material prosperity, with the noisy little men of the petty right successfully determining the tone and level of public sensibility; the silent conservatives achieving established power in a mindless victory; with the liberal rhetoric made official, then banalized by widespread and perhaps illicit use; with liberal hope carefully adjusted to mere rhetoric by thirty years of rhetorical victory; with radicalism deflated and radical hope stoned to death by thirty years of defeat—the political intellectuals have been embraced by the conservative mood. Among them there is no demand and no dissent, and no opposition to the monstrous decisions that are being made without deep or widespread debate, in fact with no debate at all. There is no opposition to the undemocratically impudent manner in which policies of high military and civilian authority are simply turned out as facts accomplished. There is no opposition to public mindlessness in all its forms nor to all those forces and men that would further it. But above all—among men of knowledge, there is little or no opposition to the divorce of knowledge from power, of sensibilities from men of power, no opposition to the divorce of mind from reality.

In America today, men of affairs are not so much dogmatic as they are mindless. For dogma has usually meant some more or less elaborated justification of ideas and values, and thus has had some features (however inflexible and closed) of mind, of intellect, of reason. Nowadays what we are up against is precisely the absence of mind of any sort as a public force; what we are up against is a lack of interest in and a fear of knowledge that might have liberating public relevance. And what this makes possible is the prevalence of the kindergarten chatter, as well as decisions having no rational justification which the intellect could confront and engage in debate.

It is not the barbarous irrationality of uncouth, dour Senators that is the American danger; it is the respected judgments of Secretaries of State, the earnest platitudes of Presidents, the fearful self-righteousness of sincere young American politicians from sunny California, that is the main danger. For these men have replaced mind by the platitude, and the dogmas by which they are legitimated are so widely accepted that no counter-balance of mind prevails against them. Such men as these are crackpot realists, who, in the name of realism have constructed a paranoid reality all their own and in the name of practicality have projected a utopian image of capitalism. They have replaced the responsible interpretation of events by the disguise of meaning in a maze of public relations, respect for public debate by unshrewd notions of psychological warfare, intellectual ability by the agility of the sound and mediocre judgment, and the capacity to elaborate alternatives and to gauge their consequences by the executive stance.

C. Wright Mills, “On Knowledge and Power” (1954)

Steady-state or snowball? I think I know which.

C. Wright Mills on Thorstein Veblen: Outside the Whale

I picked up the recent Oxford anthology of Mills, The Politics of Truth, for cheap. While there’s plenty of problems with Mills’s sociology, he still represents, along with Thorstein Veblen and Erving Goffman, a sort of triumvirate of  American sociologists who managed to find the right balance between theory and empiricism. They were also all amazing writers, and Mills was probably the best of the three. His writing is so damn compelling that I find it very easy to overlook gaps in his logic or structure because his visceral precision in describing behavior and emotions connects so well. I am suspicious of this ability! But because I sympathize with so many of his positions, I still find him gripping. Here he is paraphrasing and then quoting Veblen:

Thorstein Veblen realized that the world he lived in was dominated by what one might call “crackpot realism.” That was, and one must use the word, Veblen’s metaphysic–his bone-deep view of the nature of everyday American reality. He believed that the very Men of Affairs whom everyone supposed to embody sober, hard-headed practicality were in fact utopian capitalists and monomaniacs; that the Men of Decision who led soldiers in war and who organized civilians’ daily livelihoods in peace were in fact crackpots of the highest pecuniary order. They had “sold” a believing world on themselves; and they had–hence the irony–to play the chief fanatics in their delusional world.

No mere joke, however, but a basic element of his perspective caused Veblen to write in 1922 what might with equal truth be written today: “The current situation in America is by way of being something of a psychiatrical clinic. In order to come to an understanding of this situation there is doubtless much else to be taken into account, but the case of America is after all not fairly to be understood without making due allowance for a certain prevalent unbalance and derangement of mentality, presumably transient but sufficiently grave for the time being. Perhaps the commonest and plainest evidence of this unbalanced mentality is  to be seen in a certain fearsome and feverish credulity with which a large proportion of the Americans are affected.”

The realization of this false consciousness all around him, along with the sturdiness of mind and character to stand up against it, is the clue to Veblen’s world outlook. How different his was from the pervailing view is suggested by his utter inability to be “the salesman.”

Veblen opens up our minds, he gets us “outside the whale,’ he makes us see through the official sham. Above all, he teaches us to be aware of the crackpot basis of the realism of those practical Men of Affairs who would lead us to honorific destruction.

C. Wright Mills, “Thorstein Veblen” (1953)

This phenomenon is still very much with us, and yet these descriptions from 1953 and 1922 are better than any contemporary commentary I’ve seen.


  • Explicably funny: “Ah, daylight: nature’s sunlamp.” (Thanks, G.)
  • Belgian writer Hugo Claus, who wrote the striking, perplexing, and recently translated Wonder (Archipelago), turns out to have dated Sylvia Kristel for a few years in the 1970s. I found this out while watching a bit of Claude Chabrol’s film Alice, his loose adaptation of Lewis Carroll, which (a) stars Kristel, and (b) looks rather bad. Stick with Jonathan Miller’s incredible Alice, the only version (as far as I know) to have been influenced by William Empson’s essay on Carroll, “The Child as Swain.”
  • I’m very happy to see that the amazing resource Hungarian Literature Online has returned with a new redesign. I voted for Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight in their poll over Esterhazy, Nadas, and Marai, which has currently put it over the edge to lead, though I can’t imagine it’ll win.

Dante: Old Maps of Hell

Divine Comedy Map

I’m always surprised that there haven’t been vastly more attempts to capture, in a single image, the architectural entirety of Dante’s Hell, if not the other two regions. (You can see which one dominates in the above picture.) Hell is by far the most sensible (sensory, that is), visceral realm, as Anne Stevenson so well put it:

In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls

Anne Stevenson

Painters who painted the flights of martyrs for money,
Who filled the drapery of angels with rose-tinted oil,
Had to please rich patrons with trapeze acts of the body,
Since no one can paint the electricity of the soul.

My lady in her blue silk cowl must by now be topsoil;
She swans into Heaven, almond eyes uplifted in piety.
My lord kneels at prayer in a cassock, blade at his heel.
Not a single electron remains of his sin or sanctity.

While in Hell, for example in the water church of Torcello,
The wicked receive their desserts. Disembowelled and dismembered,
They are set upon eternally, yet their bodies alone are touched;
Unless souls, flushed out of the flesh, are the flames that torch them.

No wonder evil’s so interesting and goodness so pitifully dull.
Torture of the body symbolizes torture of the mind;
And burning in the bonfires of conscience is hardly confined
To hell for bad Italians, who, being damned, are being saved as well.

I suppose the thing is just too massive, encompassing an entire cosmos, as Erich Auerbach said in his book on Dante. Botticelli certainly did brilliantly on the massive front, but I have an affection for the more human-scale version by Bartolomeo, which replaces the vastness with claustrophobia:

Bartolomeo's Inferno

The Driftless Area Review recently posted a set of Infernal images in The Landscape of Hell, including this lovely version of Dante’s:

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