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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: america (page 3 of 19)

Ah Cheng on Writing

Great interview.

Oriental Outlook: But we haven’t seen you write any commercial films.
Ah Cheng: The directors haven’t asked me to. If they asked me, I’d do it. But would the movie sell? It’s not something you can simply will to happen.

Commercial stuff is very hard to do. It’s like a cow—everyone’s seen one, so if you’re even a little bit off, everyone can criticize you. Art is a ghost—since no one’s seen one, how do you know what I’m really thinking? Ghosts are easy to paint. Cows are not.

Oriental Outlook: When you were in the US, did you have to work for a living?
Ah Cheng: Of course. Do you think I held up banks? I worked a lot of jobs in the US, but I mostly did house painting. Painting doesn’t require any thinking. Who says I have to find a mentally-taxing job?

Oriental Outlook: What books are you reading these days?
Ah Cheng: I’m most concerned with primary sources, primary materials from society. Literature is not produced out of literature. If that were the case, it would be idiotic. Inbreeding always produces idiots.

I read the local news in the newspapers. People’s stories can help your thought process.

Oriental Outlook: What sort of help?
Ah Cheng: We normally live our lives within limits. Reading primary materials, you’ll see a different side of life, one that you’ve never had a chance to see, and you’ll discover lots of relationships that you never before imagined.

Oriental Outlook: So what is the appropriate designation for your current identity?
Ah Cheng: A person without an identity—you probably haven’t interviewed one before. I’m just someone a little bit better-off than those disadvantaged groups.

Oriental Outlook: As an author and an intellectual, how do you perceive the invasion of high culture by commercial culture?
Ah Cheng: First, as I’ve said, don’t call me an author. If you call me an author, you’re calling me a beggar.

Commerce is the foundation of production and of life. Without commercial culture there’d be no high culture. We cannot escape it for even an instant; we would cease to exist if we were to do so. There is nothing blame-worthy about commerce itself; the measure is whether a commercial product is of high or low quality. Hollywood films are commercial products of the highest quality. Domestic commercial films, shit, with quality as poor as that, they aren’t commercial films. They’re like low-quality fakes—toothpaste that doesn’t work when you brush your teeth. This is the crux of the problem.

We’re only trying to eliminate low-quality fakes right now, but we haven’t truly engaged commercialism. Only in a society with full financial and credit systems can we talk about commercial issues. Does China have real credit cards? Can someone without a job get a credit card? When you use a debit card you are spending your own money. In the US, utilities are hooked into the credit system, so your credit is built up gradually. If you don’t have that foundation, then you can’t talk about commercial culture.

Do you think that American beggars are all a certain sort of person? There are double PhDs all over the place, people who simply lost their credit and now are disconnected from commerce.

More on Ah Cheng.

History’s Bunk Pt DCVII

From the October 15 TLS. Michael Whitby quietly undermines the anthology he’s reviewing, Makers of Ancient Strategy, which purports to relate strategy then and now:

Inevitably, some essays work better than others. In part this arises from two issues noted by Victor Davis Hanson in his introduction, namely that we have very few explicit contemporary discussions of strategies in Antiquity, and that for some of the topics we have little evidence at all and few modern discussions. Hanson’s own contribution, on Epaminondas’ invasion of the Peloponnese in 370-69 bc as archetype for a preventive strike, is particularly problematic in this respect.

We know very little about the events of this expedition and less about its motivation, so that debate as to whether this was a preventive or pre-emptive strike becomes circuitous; the 2003 Iraq war may, or may not, be relevant. Presentation of Epaminondas, who was regarded in Antiquity as a highly principled and effective leader, as an analogue for George Bush’s Iraq war may cause unease. Another difficulty is the contestability of the presentations of some ancient scenarios.

Although Pericles might appear a rare example of an ancient leader whose imperial strategy we can actually grasp, thanks to the assessment of his younger contemporary Thucydides, the problems in the Thucydidean portrait of Pericles are not acknowledged in Donald Kagan’s treatment of soft justifications of Athenian imperial power: many would now question Thucydides’ sharp distinction between Pericles and his successors, with the major difference being the challenge of pan-Hellenic conflict, which Pericles’ financial policies had left Athens ill-equipped to sustain, whereas the rigour of imperial control as experienced by the people of Samos and Lesbos represents continuity.

For Adrian Goldsworthy on Julius Caesar the most relevant modern parallel is Napoleon; it might also have been interesting to explore Ho Chi Minh or Robert Mugabe.

The most illuminating discussion, which provokes thoughts about alternative perspectives on the classical topic, is the first, on Persia. We are inevitably brought up, at least in the West, to view the empire of Darius and Xerxes from the perspective of our Greek sources. Marathon is one of the crucial battles in world history that ensured the triumph of liberty and democracy over authoritarian slavery, and Thermopylae a demonstration of the superiority of free warriors obedient to their country’s laws unto death over a mass of impressed soldiers with no personal stake in their cause. Tom Holland, however, reminds us that an equally valid interpretation sees the Greeks as a terrorist threat to the established order of the Near East, obstinate fanatics who thought nothing of destroying important public buildings with substantial loss of life. On this view, the 300 at Thermopylae are comparable to suicide bombers in their unreasonable attachment to a minority interest that conflicted with the international stability espoused by the cultured and tolerant Persians. The Persian ambition was to bring security and stability to a remote mountainous and impoverished region, but geography and climate were against them, while their opponents also claimed that divine support guaranteed their success. Unfortunately for the Persians, it was the Greeks who composed the historical accounts so that their interpretation prevailed; as a result films such as 300 (2006) introduce further distortions and depict the Persians as precursors to contemporary Middle Eastern bogeymen.

I’m sure Whitby knows Hanson and Kagan’s neocon agenda. He’s more subtle than Gary Brecher, who wrote in 2005 about an earlier Hanson book:

The grimmest joke in the book is that there really is one parallel that holds up when you compare the Peloponnesian War to America’s military history. You bet there is. But here’s the kicker: it’s the one connection Hanson would never, ever allow into print. I’m talking about the creepy way that our Iraq disaster resembles the Athenian invasion of Sicily. When Hanson says, describing the preparations for the expedition to Syracuse, that the Athenians’ “[i]ntelligence about the nature of Sicilian warfare, and the resources of the enemies was either flawed or nonexistent,” you can’t help thinking of Bremer, Perle, the “cakewalk,” and the WMDs. When Hanson talks about how the Persians sat back and watched their enemies to the west bleed each other, you can’t help thinking about the way Iran helped draw us into Iraq by feeding the suckers at the Bush administration fake intel via Chalabi. Then they settled down patiently to watch. And they enjoyed every minute of the war, cheering when we blasted Saddam’s guys and cheering even harder when the insurgents started blasting our troops—with the help of new IED designs straight out of Tehran. When Hanson talks about the way the Persians just reabsorbed the Greek colonies in Asia Minor after the Peloponnesian War had drained the whole Hellenic world of power, you can’t help but imagine the way all of Shia Iraq will be smoothly absorbed into a Greater Iran when we face facts and cut and run.

Jose Donoso: The Garden Next Door

This is a late novel by Donoso, and it bears very little resemblance to anything else I’ve read by him. The Obscene Bird of Night and A House in the Country are two of the greatest Latin American novels I have read; hell, two of the greatest novels I have read, period. (Just for comparison, I would easily rate both above Hopscotch, Avalovara, Terra Nostra, Three Trapped Tigers, Paradiso, and anything by Garcia Marquez.) Garden does not even seem to try for such heights: it is realistic and contemporary, two characteristics utterly lacking from the other works. And it is more or less a joke, which is not to say that it’s not brilliant. It’s just that the book is perplexing until the “punchline” of the last chapter, which is one hell of a punchline.

It’s also fascinating for how much it prefigures Roberto Bolano. There is very little similarity between Bolano’s work and Donoso’s earlier novels, but the overlap here is ridiculous. The novel uses a first-person reportage style to describe a sad Chilean expatriate writer living in Spain, a Boom also-ran associating with his obnoxious betters, and so has lots of sniping and sour grapes about the politics of the Boom and the poor standards used to decide who gets anointed as genius. Our narrator Julio is bitter, and so he creates his own, even more exclusive world in the strange, aristocratic house next to his apartment, shutting out even the famous writers:

Ah, the splendor…the old heart-rending nostalgia for impossible times and bodies! The Gatsby-F. Scott Fitzgerald part of a world out of my reach, the party I wasn’t invited to and can only dream about…. Ah, the childish fantasy, the terror at being left out! Left out? Impossible? What about my novel, that fierce weapon, to start forcing the breach? Nuria Monclus, Vargas Llosa, Roa Bastos, Fuentes, Chiriboga, Cortazar…do they have access? No. This is a closed circuit, with its own language and values, an underworld with its different stars. I long to pass through to the other side of the looking glass they live in, where perhaps the air is so thick it stops you from breathing.

It is the fictional Chiriboga to whom Julio has the most animosity, and his rants against him are hilarious. (Does Chiriboga have a real-life analogue? It seems unlikely.) He is also vexed by kingmaker editor Nuria Monclus, who does not seem to have much interest in making him into the next Cortazar. Julio is in agony because he also realizes he does not have it in him to write the great novel that he can conceive of in his mind, the one that would beat out all these other pretenders and give him the fame he thinks he deserves. But as Julio listlessly drags himself to art parties and associates with the local lowlife, his wife descends into alcoholic stupor assisted by the street kid Bijou and her friend Katy, while Julio remains utterly ineffective and sidelined. These are the Pinochet years: the expatriates either seem to delude themselves into their own private world of importance, or they are simply resigned and lost.

And then, after the novel enters the impoverished streets of Spain, the narrative turns into something out of The Sheltering Sky with a detour to Tangiers, and then…well, I can’t give away the punchline. The novel is short enough that I won’t ruin it other than saying that it is a damn near perfect double-punchline, ironic, incisive, and ambivalent all at once, and I had no idea Donoso had it in him to pull something like this off. It gives greater resonance and cruel humor to all that has happened up to that point, and makes it clear that the novel is about more than writing, but the use and abuse of human imagination in losing and finding one’s self. Bravo.

Gene Wolfe Challenge Won!

I’ve been tardy in mentioning it, but a reader going by the sobriquet “Dave Tallman” has posted a very convincing explanation of Gene Wolfe’s cryptic Seven American Nights, and in doing so has answered the challenge I made nearly a year ago. Bravo, Dave Tallman! In doing so, not only has he made the story far more enjoyable for me without my needing to expend more effort than I wanted, but he has also given the lie to those who say, as one commenter did, that “There are no true clues or false clues; the mystery is the point of the exercise.” For your work, I am proud to award you the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary:

On the Wolfe wiki, there is his detailed explanation of the ending, as well as a timeline. Some of the minor points are disputable, but for the crucial questions, I can’t imagine a better explanation.

The crucial points of the explanation: there is no hallucinogen and Nadan certainly doesn’t take one, Nadan is dead by the end of the story or shortly thereafter, and the last few entries of the journal are forged by some US governmental agency trying to cover up their killing of Nadan.

The explanation does indeed give shape to the story where I could not find any before. It sounds like Mr. Tallman was led to these conclusions by looking at the Biblical Jesus parallel, which in retrospect makes great sense, but which I wouldn’t have considered, not having that background myself. The whole “play” business clearly matches up with the passion play, but oh well, my mind just didn’t work that way. I should have figured out the “Sunday we will be great again” business in connection with Easter, however, so there I’ll chide myself. I’ll chide Wolfe, however, for inserting the red herring of the supposed presence of the hallucinogen, which serves thematic purposes but, to use a timely analogy, makes the story NP-hard: you can verify a solution very quickly, but finding one is damn near impossible because of the multiplication of possibilities involved. And one key clue, that the quality of the journal’s prose decreases once the forgery machine is writing, is amusing to me because I don’t find Nadan’s prose particularly high-quality.

Still, the ultimate plot details are yet again interesting in revealing Wolfe’s seemingly strong anti-colonial attitudes once again. America looks even worse than it does on initial reading now that their evil plot is revealed, and Islam comes off as positively tolerant. At least in recent years, Wolfe has been something of a Catholic populist right-winger, and so I find it hard to believe he would write this story today. I would say the same of Fifth Head of Cerberus, but here he goes even further and seems to hold up today’s third world as a better model for humanity than Ugly America. Post-Vietnam syndrome?

There were others who claimed knowledge of the story’s plot (and therefore meaning) without giving it. Since all the explanations I found online and elsewhere (including several academic texts, which do their best to fudge the fact that their authors do not have an explanation for the story) fell far short of the satisfaction of Mr. Tallman’s, I’m inclined to be skeptical.

Thomas M. Disch Appendix

In dealing with Disch’s work, there was so much I had to leave out. I finished the article with an even greater respect for Disch’s achievement as well as a sadness that the rawness and brutality of his work perhaps confined him more to the generic ghetto than some of his peers. Certainly the quality and erudition of his writing matched any of his contemporaries. So here is an appendix of miscellaneous points that I didn’t have space for, in the hopes of pointing people to assorted other spots in his oeuvre.

  1. The short fairy-tale “Dangerous Flags,” published in 1964 and seemingly anticipating a lot of the work of Donald Barthelme, though Disch’s tale is far less goofy and more sinister. The tale of a bunch of small-town dopes manipulated in turn by the elite English teacher and the populist Green Magician. You can guess who won. But the general schematic for his view of middle America (the town is called Mean) is already quite formed here.
  2. “Displaying the Flag”: Nothing more and nothing less of the story of the sort of religious-right ideologues who amass power only to be found soliciting gay sex in bathrooms years later. Dead-on.
  3. “Feathers from the Wings of an Angel”: One of his nastiest stories, intentionally written in inept purple prose. A heartfelt story from the heartland that tells the chronicle of an ingenuous young writer winning a prize…with this very story! Arrogant, narcissistic, myopic. Has there been a metafiction so resolutely focused around crap writers writing about crap writing? (Mulligan Stew does not count.) Disch in a nutshell.
  4. The eccentric and hopeful story “Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire,” part of 334, where historians specialize in a period in the past by inhabiting surrogate counterparts after great study. (Finally, Disch says, providing a use for PhDs.) The idea comes from Philip K. Dick, but Disch’s take is that by living out the misery of our predecessors virtually, we can gain a bit more insight and compassion with regard to our misery and that of those around us. He’s probably right.
  5. Terrorism forms a backdrop to several of Disch’s future versions of America. It’s there both in 334 and On Wings of Song, and in both cases it’s nebulous, seemingly coming from domestic elements but never conclusively explained. (The ACLU is blamed, but everything suggests they are just a scapegoat.) The responses are much more important: police control and xenophobic fear in the populace. I compliment Disch on not making too big a deal out of a specific counterculture (as many new wave authors did in the 60s). As you realize if you read novels from back then, the counterculture itself is not very politically interesting. It’s the establishment’s reaction and exploitation of it that is relevant.
  6. An allegory of power given by Disch, by way of analogy with Philip K. Dick, though really with any act of writing:

    There is a form of Monopoly called Rat in which the Banker, instead of
    just sitting there and watching, gets to be the Rat. The Rat can alter all the
    rules of the game at his discretion, like Idi Amin. The players elect the
    person they consider the slyest and nastiest among them to be the Rat.
    The trick in being a good Rat is in graduating the torment of the players,
    in moving away from the usual experience of Monopoly, by the minutest
    calibrations, into, finally, an utter delirium of lawlessness.

    I think Disch felt that if he did not subject his characters to such rules, he would be creating an improper fantasyland from which no one could learn anything.

  7. The M.D. is probably the most substantial work of Disch’s later career, and I wish I’d had space to treat it at length. It’s a perverse take on the Faust myth in which a young boy receives a caduceus from Hermes that has wonderful healing powers, but only to the extent that it has already done equal or greater harm. (Disch never explicitly states it, but the mistake of thinking of the caduceus as a healing object–i.e., as the staff of Asclepius–weighs in as a heavy irony throughout.) Naturally, apocalypse ensues. Disch’s only engagement with AIDS, as far as I know. It also features another instance of the dead-certain Christian believer, similar to Gus in The Genocides, perhaps Disch’s most frightening archetype, beyond reason and compromise.
  8. I rate Disch above the suburban disenchantments of Yates, Cheever, and Updike because their work was so ineffective as cultural commmentary. It showed no engagement with the greater meaning of these enclaves in the American political environment of the Cold War. Likewise, the capitalist critiques of Gaddis seem way off the mark because they assume a certain amount of rational action on the part of the characters. Who is closer to Ken Lay, J.R. or Grandison Whiting? The best American authors have, I think, understood that America does not lend itself to highbrow cultural theorizing in the way that Germany does, and so inhabit the more gothic and grotesque modes. (Notable exception: Ralph Ellison.) I won’t attempt to justify this here….
  9. I cannot say enough about how Disch’s work anticipates the delusions of the Bush administration flacks who attacked the “reality-based” community. A greater vindication for Disch I can’t imagine. We have been ruled by the ruralities of the Bush administration and the urbanities of Kennedy’s “best and the brightest,” and have seen the flaws of both.
  10. Disch authored a text adventure in 1986, Amnesia. It doesn’t rank with the Infocom games of the time, but it has several very Dischian touches. First, it includes a detailed layout of Manhattan, including the entire subway system, but because of disc space limitations, there is very little descriptive text, making the city anonymous and unwelcome and, well, off-limits. Which leads to the second touch, which is that you spend much of the game as a homeless man trying to raise 25 bucks to progress to the next stage, and your options involve little beyond begging and washing car windows. Disch wants to make you know what suffering is.
  11. Toward the end of his life, Disch himself embraced many of the xenophobic and hateful tendencies he’d so acutely condemned. This is a common danger of those who get so close to such motivations and grow to hate them. The line is easily dissolved, as it was for Poe and Lovecraft as well.
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