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Otto Dix’s War Sketches

I was lucky enough to see the exhibit of Otto Dix’s paintings in Montreal last year. I previously thought of him as one of the weaker expressionists, being too unsubtle even by their standards (check out his doctors, but his war portraits in particular really impressed me and showed a far greater range than his portraits and paintings. This site with Otto Dix’s War Cycle has a good selection, but many are missing and who knows how long it’ll be up, so here are some of the ones that most struck me. I’m not going to post any of the most unbearable images, and I’m starting with the milder stuff. Some of the most overwhelming are from a cycle he did in 1924, but there are other equally good drawings from around the same time and before.

Before gas masks became a horror staple:

Storm Troopers Advancing Under Gas

There’s a bit of an EC Comics vibe to this one. Art Spiegelman loved the expressionists, Grosz especially, and I think their influence shows up strongly in a lot of the RAW comics of the 80s, Sue Coe for example. Not that it hadn’t shown up earlier in the underground too.

Wounded Soldier

Likewise this one. Recently the black and white drawings of Lorenzo Mattotti seem to have taken on the quality of the scribbled figure here:

Nocturnal Encounter with a Lunatic

This sketch bizarrely seems to anticipate George Grosz:

Card Players

This one I would swear was *by* Grosz:

War Cripples

As a side note, some apt music for these sketches. I think Richter has the edge but Sokolov here is very, very good. I’m usually a speed demon but this particular movement should not be played too fast.

This one jumps out at me for the dominance of the landscape rather than of the figures, and the overall brilliance of the composition. Usually my eye is drawn toward some central horror of a work by Dix (not just in the war work, but all of it), but here the whole print is balanced.

Disintegrating Trench

This picture of barbed wire with bodies needs to be seen in much better resolution, though it’s a lot less horrifying at this size. The whole cycle is compared to Goya but the lines here remind me of Rembrandt.

Barbed Wire in Front of the Trenches

The linework here is amazing:

Totentanz

Finally, as a bookend, an allegorical painting from around the same time. The colors here are not captured well; the painting was much more compelling “in person.”

Still Life with Widow's Veil

NYC Sightings

Two friends, one reading Mason and Dixon, the other with a Trystero tattoo on his right forearm.

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.

Three Versions of Conservatism

Reductionistic Framework Alert!

Since “conservatism” has had such bizarre associations in the United States for a long time now, I thought I’d give brief accounts of the three breeds that I most often think of in connection with the classical sense of conservative (that is, the sense that still has something to do with the meaning of the word).

1. Classic Conservatives

These types are drawn from the political literature of the last few centuries.

a. Elitist Conservative

Firm believer in the natural superiority of a small elite. Worries about the danger of the unwashed masses having too much power, surely leading to chaos and mob rule. Thinks they already have too much power. Dismissive of egalitarian doublespeak such as “rights” and “liberty.” Seeks to vest power in the hands of the enlightened, the cultured, and (of course) the rich. Almost certainly belongs to one of these groups.

Religion: None, but thinks everyone else should go to church.

Worst Fear: Jacobins.

Mascot: Alexander Hamilton. Leo Strauss.

Representative Artist: D.H. Lawrence.

 

b. Sentimental Conservative

Loves their country. Loves their country more than other countries. Sheds a tear for the flag. Embraces the beautiful traditions that make his society what it is. Insists on civility, manners, and respect for one’s betters. Thinks they contribute to the benevolence and stability of the culture. Hates to see the traditional order of things upset by multiculturalism, class mobility, etc. Uses “fireman” instead of “firefighter.” Trusts in the benevolent hand of the upper classes to take care of the lower classes. May use the phrase “white man’s burden” unironically.

Religion: The state’s.

Worst Fear: Minorities and immigrants.

Mascot: Edmund Burke.

Representative Artist: Norman Rockwell.

 

c. Cynical Conservative

Ridicules those who think society can be improved. Believes in the fundamental rottenness of humanity. Jeers at futile attempts to improve our lot. Thinks we’re lucky we have what we do. Wildly inegalitarian. Thinks stereotypes are funny because they’re true. Sees liberals as priggish, humorless idealists chasing rainbows. Certain that things will get worse.

Religion: Are you kidding?

Worst Fear: Political correctness.

Mascot: Thomas Malthus.

Representative Artist: Henry de Montherlant.

 

2. Degenerate Conservatives

Each of the three accounts above can degenerate into a less appealing form under the right circumstances. (E.g., today.) Respectively:

a. Natural-Order Conservative

Enthusiastically embraces the status quo. Believes that things are the way God (or Nature) made them: it’s not only useless to try to change them, it’s wrong and distasteful. Thinks people naturally float to wherever in the great chain of being they belong. Admires the Great Men of history. Looks forward to the slow disappearance of society’s inferiors as Social Darwinism takes hold. Failing that, enjoys the labor provided by these inferiors, especially its surplus value.

Religion: Calvinism.

Worst Fear: Not being one of the elect.

Mascot: William Graham Sumner.

Representative Artist: Thomas Carlyle.

 

b. Paranoid Conservative

Turns to law and order to save them from any and all persecutors. Believes the thin blue line needs to be as thick as possible. Fears the great unwashed, lower-class resentment, and teenagers. Looks to religion, law, and any other socially repressive organization to prevent disaster. Jumps to endorse war with other countries, but worries we aren’t at war with the right countries. Never, ever joins the armed forces. Trusts government, usually.

Religion: Any of the Good ones.

Worst Fear: Too many to mention.

Mascot: Roger Ailes.

Representative Artist: Artists are degenerates, but if you must: H.P. Lovecraft.

 

c. Fatalist Conservative

The most boring of the conservatives, liable to talk your ear off with their endless theories of history and the inevitable future of this or that society. Probably has a dim view of humanity, but this is overshadowed by crankish ideas about what humanity must be at each stage of history. Dismisses activism as attempts to fight indisputable truths. Predicts a grim future because the past was so grim and history repeats.

Religion: Their own.

Worst Fear: Other competing theories of history.

Mascot: Oswald Spengler. Arnold J. Toynbee.

Representative Artist: Artists are mere products of history.

 

Update: Non-conservatives

People say I seem to have left out certain types. Hence this appendix.

Libertarian: I assure you that the Ancien Regime really didn’t give a fig for “individual rights,” much less natural ones. Things don’t seem to have changed that much, leaving real libertarians as eccentrics whose unifying trait is that they never hold any actual power. Some of them are exploited as useful idiots, such as the good people of the Cato Institute, who were thrown to the wind by the Republicans once the Cato folks ceased to agree with them). Didn’t see that coming. See The Libertarian FAQ for further details.

Neocon: Haphazardly invading and occupying small but troublesome countries in order to spread freedom or what have you is not very conservative, and quite expensive to boot. Excusable during the cold war, but not anymore.

Objectivist/Capitalist Utopian: Elitist, yes, but the funny thing about most Objectivists is that they think the world is a meritocracy and the people at the top deserve to be there, so if they work hard enough they’ll get there too, if only the government and bureaucracy didn’t stand in their way. Suckers.

Otto Dix’s Doctors

The Met’s “Glitter and Doom” exhibit (I know, sounds like a Barnaby Jones episode) isn’t as impressive as the Dada one at MOMA last year, but I still got a kick out of it. I think Dix is a shallower artist than Grosz or Beckmann, so I was a little disappointed that he dominates the exhibit, but them’s the breaks. I did like seeing the portraits of doctors who didn’t mind that Dix’s pictures of them would drive away business:


Dr. Meyer Hermann. (The droll wall copy describes him as “in-reality handsome.”)


Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann. (A psychologist and hypnotist. You can’t see it here, but his eyes are all glittery, just short of black and white spirals.)


Dr. Hans Koch, urologist. Say no more. (Dix also stole Koch’s wife. “Dix and Martha Koch became lovers, sharing, among other things, a passion for dancing. When Dix returned to Dresden at the end of 1921, Martha Koch followed him, leaving her husband and two children behind. Koch remained unperturbed, however, because he had already begun an affair with his wife’s older sister, Maria Lindner. Two new couples formed. Koch and Dix became brothers-in-law, and the friendship continued until Koch’s death in 1952.”)

Still, I don’t think any of these are as simply effective as Egon Schiele’s Herr Doktor von Graff:

Dr. Erwin von Graff, gynecologist. (Given to von Graff in lieu of payment for an abortion.)

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