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"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

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Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)



OS MITOS DA CULTURA POP: DE DANTE A DYLAN

O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.



THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE: FROM DANTE TO DYLAN

The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)

THE COWBOY AND THE DANDY: CROSSING OVER FROM ROMANTICISM TO ROCK AND ROLL (Oxford University Press, 1998)

FREUD: A COLLECTION OF CRITICAL ESSAYS (Prentice-Hall, 1981)




7/28/10

Steve Winwood Fails His Eye Test

by Perry Meisel

The first time I saw Stevie/Steve Winwood was the day I took my army physical back in the '60s. Judging from the pallor and scrawny frame, it was Windwood who needed the physical. With one foot in heaven and the other somewhere in Georgia, Winwood's persona was precarious enough even during Traffic's glory days. In the intervening years, his work has continued to balance the elfin and the earthy, but it has grown alarmingly diffuse in the process. Despite his increasingly overt commitment to rhythm and blues since the late '60s, Winwood's singing has lost much of its precision and inventiveness. With Traffic now officially disbanded, the release of his new solo LP (Steve Winwood, on Island) represents his lowest ebb in years.
Not that it's offensively bad - rock and roll perennials like Winwood are usually incapable of that. Compared to last year's collaboration with Stomu Yamashta and Michael Shrieve on Go, the new solo disc is a highly wrought production piece in the classic Traffic mold, with its sinewy instrumental parts polished to a sleek, ripply shine. In fact, with Traffic veterans Jim Capaldi, Willie Weeks, and Rebop in evidence throughout the album, this is really a Traffic LP in every way but the billing. Winwood extracts his characteristic textures, colors, and dimensions from a core ensemble whose only new face is session drummer Andy Newmark, who executes Winwood's ensemble conceptions with due understanding of the Traffic signature. Above all, the slow, deep groove is still there, rooted in the snare and bass drum, and packed tight by Winwood's spare but strategic overdubbing on piano, organ, and guitar.
What's lacking, though, is a sharp vision - the melodic and emotional focus that has eluded Winwood since The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (perhaps even since John Barleycorn Must Die), and that was regained only briefly when the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section joined Traffic for awhile in 1973 - 74. By contrast, a subtle kind of tunefulness abounds on the Go album, thanks almost entirely to Yamashta, and it is precisely the absence of such insinuating melodies that makes the grooves and textures of Winwood's new LP ultimately pointless and repetitive - the Traffic structure is still intact, but the guts have gone out of it.
Nor is there much more than a whisper here of Winwood's past exertions on solo guitar or even keyboards. Sure, the organ drenches and funky fills are abundant enough, but they serve tunes so formless that the attention wanders far too often, except on a few enticing refrains ("Midland Maniac" and "Vacant Chair"), which tease the expectations without ever delivering a real chorus or even a memorable phrase. What attempted hooks there are tend to echo past gambits like Blind Faith's "Do What You Like" on "Luck's In" (though played in 6/8 instead of 5/4), or to deploy vaguely commercial shticks like the disco/choral chanting on "Time is Running Out."
That Winwood is frustrated, or drained, or both, is an explicit part of what the album has to say. "Sometimes it's hard to express what you feel," sings Winwood on"Let Me Make Something in Our Life," and the reason seems to be that "it's hard," as he puts it, "to say [see?] the things that are real." Winwood's enduring struggle with Ray Charles's influence may account for his quandary, although it seems rather late in the game for such anxieties to effectively hamper him. But with a history of titles and lyrics that bespeak imprisonment and a violent wish for release, something is obviously bothering him, though it's hard to tell exactly what it is. Now 28, Winwood has reached the end of rock and roll romanticism. What comes next is what we'd all like to know.

Originally published in The Village Voice, July 18, 1977

BEATLEMANIA: You Can't Do That!

by Perry Meisel

Murray the K is shlepping out old pictures of the Beatles as we sit in the plush gloom of Broadway's Winter Garden theatre, where final rehearsals for Beatlemania are under way. Murray is the show's special consultant, and it is his tenuous link to the Beatles that grants any legitimacy to this Broadway simulation. With its multimedia barrage of slides, movies, and graphics designed to evoke the '60s in conjunction with the Beatles' musical development, Beatlemania is an experience comparable to seeing Washington cross the Delaware on You Are There.
Much of the curiosity the show has generated comes from an advertising blitz in the metropolitan area, including a promotional deal with Coca-Cola that offers a reduced ticket price with every six bottlecaps you can collect. So far, the only reviews have come during the show's two-week Boston run - and they were mixed. The New York critics have been circumvented by postponing the official opening and filling commercials with audience testimonials. This, together with an iron unwillingness to expose the eight impostor-Beatles (four starters, four stand-ins) to interviews or unauthorized photographers, seems designed to protect a reported $1 million investment until the show has scored commercially.
On top of all this is the unpredictable course the Beatles' lawyers will take. "Had they been able to stop me," says producer Steve Leber, "they would've." But McCartney's attorney John Eastman says he may still act because, as he puts it, "the guy's ripped-off the Beatles' name." Performance rights to the songs themselves are not, of course, an issue, since they can be bought as a matter of course by anybody who wants to record or perform a Beatle tune. Beatlemania as a whole, however, is "totally unauthorized by the Beatles," says Eastman, who, unlike John Lennon's attorney, Michael Tannen, felt free to express how appalled he was by the entire affair.
Beatlemania is producer Leber's first Broadway fling in a career of rock and roll management that now includes Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Bobby Womack, and Elliott Murphy. Leber's original idea had been a concert version of the Beatles at the old Liverpool Cavern, but once he hired veteran stage designer Jules Fisher, it developed into a show about what editorial consultant Lynda Obst calls the "dialectical" relation between the events of the '60s and the Beatles' musical development.
There is, however, no real narrative to Beatlemania, and certainly no attempt to flesh out in any detail the personalities of the principals involved, largely because of fears about intruding on the Beatles' actual history. Each of the sound-alikes has been trained to produce the gestures that identify a particular Beatle onstage (Ringo's bobbing head, George's slew-foot dance, Paul's bent-elbow wave). It is an eerie and gruesome entertainment. What you see are walking, talking, singing Beatleoids, frequently veiled by scrim and lights. At times, this ghostliness seems deliberate, as though the production were striving for a Brechtian effect by distancing the audience. But at other times, it strains for the kind of innocence the Beatles never really possessed. The result is to keep you wondering where the intent resides.
Broadway, of course, is simulation par excellence, and the robot quality of the whole gig is what makes Beatlemania workable commercial theatre - neither too hot for straight suburbanites nor too cool for their pubescent offspring. Its manifest markets are all those kids who never saw the Beatles, and all those young parents who saw the '60s from the sidelines. But, in fact, no one ever saw the Beatles - not even those who went to Shea or the Hollywood Bowl. There never were any Beatles: they existed for all of us on records and films. These documents remain more real than any adoration of effigies can ever be.
But we have a fetish for bearing witness, and Beatlemania is playing to it. The producer even goes so far as to deprive his actors of billing, although they are mentioned in the program, together with their birthdates and marital status, in another of the production's attempts to carry the Beatle pretense as far as it will go.
Leber enlisted his sound-alikes through ads in these pages about a year ago. Open auditions yielded four young men with little theatre experience who had never played music with each other before. Joe Pecorino, who portrays John, originally auditioned for the part of Paul. "The manager of my building knew him," says Kenny Laguna, who put the boys through their first paces as Beatle simulators. "He was stripped to himself and his guitar."
Drummer Justin McNeill had been working in Top-40 groups on the Island, while George-impostor Leslie Fradkin (who had some brief success with a group called Daddy Dewdrop) once played in Beatle copy bands. "He knew Harrison's effects cold," says Laguna. "He knew everything."
Onstage, Fradkins gives the distinct impression that he is impersonating the youngest Bee Gee, Robin Gibb. McNeill appears to shrivel behind his drums, and Pecorino looks about as much like Lennon-circa -Yoko as Keith Carradine would in a Lincoln beard and army fatigues. Only Mitch Weissman, the show's first-string Paul, actually resembles a Beatle." He looked like a fat McCartney," says Laguna. Apart from the pounds he had to shed, Weissman was, by all accounts, drenched in Beatle lore. Like the other three, he had been kicking around the music business with only minimal success (his previous gig was as last-minute bassist for Dino Dannelli's group, Bulldog). His voice, though, is uncommonly strong, even if it cracks on high notes in "Yesterday," and he even manages to dredge up some of the Beatles' r&b roots when he rocks out on the vamp to "Got To Get You Into My Life."
But there is no way in the world an astute listener could mistake Weissman for Paul, although the pretense is particularly ironic in view of the real McCartney's emergence as a Beatle sound-alike in his own right. Laguna praises the sound-alikes' musicianship, which is reasonable enough under the grueling circumstances of a gig that requires Weissman and Pecorino to sing 37 songs a day, eight days a week (when you include matinees). This is a far bigger load than either Broadway or rock and roll usually demands; the sheer strain of it may lead the staff to alternate its first-stringers with the stand-ins in an attempt to keep the threat of hoarseness at bay.
But the really hard work came in deciding not just what tunes to play, but how to play them. In rehearsal the musicians listened to Beatle records and argued about what they heard. Says musical director Sandy Yaguda, formerly a member of Jay and the Americans: "Every time you listen, you hear something else."
This may be true for subtleties of counterpoint and lines buried deeply in the mix. Otherwise, the parts are textbook clear, which is exactly what makes a simulation possible in the first place. You couldn't imagine such a project with another band - not from an instrumental point of view - since what distinguishes the Beatles is the way every detail of their sound carries an invariable signature, with no room at all for filling in the dots.
As an exercise in scholarship, the show has produced a reliable interpretation of Beatle scripture, although it is also one that ultimately fails to see into the sources of their power as a rock and roll band. I missed the low, twanging strings on George's guitar and the hard edge on John's; the extra kicks on "We Can Work It Out"; the "Lady Madonna" bass line on "Nowhere Man." Hard work and concentration can reproduce harmonies, inflections, and even personal colorations, like John's nasal timbre. But, as the best white imitators of soulin' can attest, there are ways of copying the masters that evidence some real apprehension of the secrets involved.
The lack of real Beatle punch may also be due to the poor miking of the drums and the insufficient volume of the bass. Such a light mix is necessary on Broadway, where rock and roll's deadly anarchism is strictly forbidden. You simply can't expect the nightshades of "Yer Blues" from a production whose aim is to present the most reassuring profile of the Beatles possible.
But in case anybody should tell you that the Beatles were a top-heavy band, I suggest you listen to Capitol's newly released Hollywood Bowl album. Ringo's mythology has always blinded us to his prowess, which is especially evident in this live performance. As for the peregrinations of McCartney's power-puff bass, Weissman's version is merely a shadow in its overly sustained touch and lumbering walk.
The show's touted hook, though, is not its performance simulation, but the multimedia presentation that accompanies it. Multimedia may be too charged a word for anyone who remembers how devastating the best Fillmore light shows were. Although some of the visuals are striking, for the most part the screens parade a hackneyed series of ban-the-bomb badges, films of Martin Luther King's "dream" speech, and a Times Square news ticker with unlikely headlines like "Hair liberates Broadway." When the sound-alikes hit the big ascending chord on "A Day in the Life," the screen shows a rocket launching, followed by an astronaut doing the Nixon space walk. This is an analogy for "I'd love to turn you on"? This is Broadway-style metaphor-making. It goes for the sign of the thing rather than the thing itself, it represents a representation.
It was on a related theme that Fisher patiently lectured the sound-alikes at rehearsal last week, while they listened, yawned, and smirked at each other like any group of undergraduates in a drama course. Fisher was trying to get them to act their parts with a little more animation, but every time he asked them to think of some private image that might crack them up, the four starters couldn't come up with a thing. Then Fisher asked if they didn't think their present situation was funny enough. "Every time I'm up here," said Weissman, " I look out and I say, it's unbelievable!" Murmurs of assent among the impostors, then giggles, then guffaws. By the time Fisher suggested that people might soon be asking for his autograph, Weissman was rolling on the floor.

Originally published in The Village Voice, June 13, 1977

Sample view:

Jack Bruce: Odd Man In

by Perry Meisel

About a year after Cream's break-up in 1968 you could go listen to Jack Bruce for two bucks and a bottle of beer at any number of low-prestige clubs around Manhattan. Bruce had just joined Tony Williams's fledgling Lifetime (together with the relatively unknown John McLaughlin, with whom Bruce had worked in pre-Cream days in London) and had thereby removed himself from the ken of an adoring rock audience despite his prowess as a singer and rock bassist without peer. Bruce had almost willfully set himself apart - he had become vanguard crossover, but he had also become a pariah as far as pop mythography was concerned. This image of odd man soon joined the growing eccentricities of his composing to make Bruce an enigma to all but a tiny cult following, even with his return bid for official stardom with West, Bruce, and Laing a few years ago. Despite the fact that 1969's Songs for a Tailor, his first formal solo project, was a minor rock classic, none of his three solo albums are available today in the United States, although his fourth solo album and his first since 1974, How's Tricks, has just been released on RSO.
In certain ways the new album represents Bruce's first substantial break with his previous solo work. The elaborate textures and sonorities of his three earlier discs have been exchanged for the clarities of a minimal quartet, while the songs themselves tend to be straighter and more accessible bag things than you might expect from the brooding composer of Songs for a Tailor, Harmony Row and Out of the Storm. Bruce's new band is composed of relatively unknown British musicians, but they can play everything from jazz-cool funk (How's Tricks) to flat-out rock and roll ("Madhouse," "Baby Jane"), with stops in between at rock ballads ("Without a Word," "Something to Live For") and symphonic montage ("Times"). You could even argue that the bag tunes are evidence that Bruce is joining the mainstream again by becoming a repentant latecomer to the roots revival after too many skirmishes with the avant garde. "Johnny B '77" is a giveaway nod in this direction, and "Madhouse" teases a Chuck Berry hook with at least as much elan as Bob Seger or Graham Parker. A slow blues like "Waiting for the Call" even takes you back to Cream heights like "Politician" or "Sitting on Top of the World," and reminds you how much Cream was really Bruce's band in both its live and its studio incarnations.
Bruce's singing here is also stronger and suppler than ever before, and it can bite your heart out with its tart shivers and exultations. It's no accident that the album's keenest vocals come on "Waiting for the Call," a song of mastery ("I'm captain of the ship") with few precedents in Bruce's scenarios of decay, corruption, and missed opportunities. When Bruce intends conventional kinds of melodies, he writes them with an unsurpassed sense of drama and sings them with more genuine passion and self-curtailment combined than virtually anyone else in rock. Lyricist Pete Brown's obsession with moments of interruption and images of nature going to hell imparts a peculiar feeling of urgency to the natural tautnesss of Bruce's voice, and gives it an existential edge even more pronounced than Parker's and more manicured than Bryan Ferry's.
Despite the novelties and the accessibility, though, the album still bears the characteristic Bruce signature throughout. There are rarely easy hooks in Bruce's music, and even though the new disc is more overtly tuneful than previous ones, what hooks there are get handled with the same kind of restraint that pressure-cooks the singing. Even the Berry channel of "Madhouse" is played only once through whenever it comes around, at least until the rocking vamp at the tune's close allows for an unusual and welcome release. Otherwise, the music consists of uncannily affecting chromatic modulations that rise and fall in spectral sheets of sound, and whose drama depends largely on Bruce's cunning (and for rock, almost unique) use of dynamics. Most of all, Bruce's cross rhythms build stress so that the tautness of his voice becomes the model for his ensemble ideas.
This is exemplary British rock of the kind that Bruce helped to invent - music poised between classical and blues feeling. His cross-rhythms are just one example of the warring prerogatives that set up a nexus of exalting tensions at the center of his music. All this has a conceptual counterpart, too, in the admixture of British folk motifs and American dreams that have characterized Brown's lyrics since Songs for a Tailor and before Anglo-Saxon weirds come and go with themes for imaginary Westerns. Together they map out fields of cultural force that cross and collide like the rhythmic tensions in Bruce's arrangements or like the tension between Scottish ballads and Nina Simone in his voice.

Originally published in The Village Voice, June 6, 1977

Modernism in the Streets

by Perry Meisel

Morris Dickstein's affectionate portrait of the 1960s and its achievements, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties, is an attempt to dramatize and explore what Dickstein calls the "moral landscape" of the age. In search of the "assumptions and feelings that link the individual to the wider public realities of his time," Dickstein draws on the combined resources of literary criticism, politics, intellectual history, and - in perfect 1960s' fashion - autobiography. What emerges is a remarkable array of chapters that provides less a narrative of what actually happened than a series of sustained encounters with the arts and manners of the day.
Despite the autobiographical accent, however, Dickstein is very much the formal critic whether his subject is rock-and-roll, Pynchon or the New Journalism, although it should be said that his examination of popular culture here is confined almost entirely to music and the press. "Unlike those historians who try to catalogue everything," he says, "I've slighted cultural phenomena for which I felt little affinity." Even the book's personal epilogue has for its theme the anxiety of Lionel Trilling's influence, an influence which accounts for Dickstein's belief that literature should be socially significant and politically aware, but which shows even more that autobiography here really means the life of books and ideas. This makes Dickstein's 1960s a very different time from the one experienced by the swarm of hippies pictured on the book's flyleaf, and makes the book itself a rather different one from earlier chronicles of the period.
Although Dickstein contends that the period was not, as many have suggested, an anti-intellectual one, for those of us who were students then, it was downright unrespectable - and, in a curious way, disrespectful - to be an intellectual. Of course, books themselves weren't so much out of fashion as the act of criticism itself. Analysis was the real villain in the moral struggle between spontaneity and reflection. As a result, Dickstein's emphasis on the literary and the philosophical is a welcome relief. His commitment to ideas goes at least as far back as 1967 and is due in large part to his membership in what he calls the "in between" generation which was already well established in its habits and values compared to those of us who were going through our undergraduate years then in a state of contradiction and uncertainty.
What Dickstein's study shows, however, is that the period was surprisingly unified after all, and that the work of writers like Barthelme and rock stars like Dylan was strikingly similar in theme, style, and intent. Both the hip and the square shared a commitment to what Dickstein calls "the search for authentic selfhood" and "the demystification of authority" and "both art and politics became instruments of personal fulfillment."
The self, in other words, was paramount, even though Dickstein owes his own fascination with the period to its attempt to combine "the search for personal authenticity" with "the quest for social justice." The Utopian urge was contagious in personal life and politics alike, and Dickstein sees the way "the sixties translated the Edenic impulse . . . into political terms" as an historical outgrowth of the same secular theology by which "Hegel and Marx [had] turned Christian eschatology" into "theories of social change." Thus the Zionism that had secularized Dickstein's own roots in Jewish orthodoxy becomes an implicit part of the story, too, and even mirrors the varieties of black meliorism that he examines in his fine chapter on black literature and politics.
Although these arguments are not altogether new in themselves, Gates of Eden is likely to become the official history of the 1960s because it organizes what is already familiar into a sustained critical vision that finds recurrent designs in everything it engages. Like the "primitive satisfactions" of a conventional style of personal life, says Dickstein, "the primitive satisfactions of narrative in fiction, representation in paintings, melody or harmony in music - like clear-cut positions in politics - were highly suspect."
One reason for the suspicions, Dickstein argues, was that objectivity and its conventions came to be recognized as fictions. Here the theme of the self is sounded again, this time in the name of an epistemological revolution that valued subjectivity as the only trustworthy mode of perception. Doubtless the New Journalism was central here, and it put into practice the conviction that the observer was himself a part of the events he witnessed. Thus writers like Richard Goldstein would explain a rock concert by means of his own libidinal fantasies, while Tom Wolfe would deconstruct custom-car racing by drawing on his knowledge of classical painting and aesthetics. Nevertheless, Dickstein finally dismisses Wolfe as "too genteel to let go or to get involved," a judgment that explains why those of us who admired him in the 1960s still wondered whose side he was on. Hence the journalistic Mailer - the Mailer of Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago - becomes the real hero of the decade and of Dickstein's book, even though Trilling was, for Dickstein personally, the more decisive figure.
Despite his withdrawal as the 1960s unfolded, it was Trilling, Dickstein reminds us, who characterized the student movement as "modernism in the streets." Dickstein's assertion that "the adversary ethos of modernism was becoming real" makes me recall - with no little embarrassment - the paper I wrote on Nietzsche's anticipation of the counterculture in The Birth of Tragedy. Whatever the status of such notions today, though, they were basic to the 1960s, and Dickstein is on familiar terrain when he elaborates this link between what was happening among hippies and what had already happened - or seemed to have happened - among our canonical writers.
Rock music, of course, was the cultural focus of the decade, and Dickstein examines some of its central figures in a chapter on Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones that argues for rock as a form of modernism too. "Like its forebears in the heyday of modernism and surrealism," says Dickstein, rock "was partly an assault on the audience." Even the lyrics of Dylan and John Lennon, he says, "seemed as surreal" in their own right "as any modernist text." But it is the novel, of course, that most absorbs Dickstein, and he finds in the writers of the 1960s still another version of modernism, "the second coming of modernism in American fiction." This "second coming" was itself divided in two, with the black humorists who emerged in the first part of the decade - Heller, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Southern - expressing by their very paranoia a connection to the social realities that would vanish with the appearance of more properly modernist writers in the late 1960s like Barthelme and Rudolph Wurlitzer, for whom "the sense of disconnection," says Dickstein, "is complete."
Dickstein's assertion that "form can be seen as a structure of perception" is a powerful enough insight to justify his admiration for Vonnegut and Heller alike ("up against a wall," he says, "I'd have to call Catch-22 the best novel of the sixties"), and he uses his formulation to distinguish the one-liner, gag strategy of what he calls "verbal" black humorists like Southern or Bruce Jay Friedman from the "over-articulated form" of "structural" black humorists like Vonnegut, Heller, and Pynchon. Indeed, such a notion of form also lies behind Dickstein's reading of The Crying of Lot 49 as an epistemological tract with conclusions about perception akin to those of the New Journalists.
If form is perception, however, the weary self-consciousness of late 1960s writing like John Barth's stories in Lost in the Funhouse suggests that an arid "escape from personality" threatens to be the backlash "to the fury of self-assertion" among writers earlier in the decade. Dickstein has no sympathy for purely nonreferential writing (hence his careful monitoring of the vicissitudes of Wurlitzer's career), and in "the contemporary wasteland" of experimental fiction from the late 1960s to the present he searches among Donald Barthelme's "fragments" or "miniatures" for the remnants of a connection between "form and feeling." Indeed, writers without such a connection do not even merit the designation "modernist" in Dickstein's aesthetics.
Dickstein understands modernism by way of Trilling's contention in the mid-1950s that the "intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement." From this point of view, of course, the 1960s' "search for authentic selfhood" really does derive from the liberal imagination's definition of modernism as "the self apart from culture," although to understand the full implications of such a position we have to turn to the excellent account of the 1950s with which Dickstein begins his book.
Social conformity and political repression during the Truman and Eisenhower years, he argues, found its cultural counterpart in the aggressive insularity of the postwar Jewish novel where the psychology of "the isolated self" supplants any real concern with society and, with some irony, allows the Jewish intellectual an easy route to assimilation. Indeed, the radical inwardness of this kind of literature - Dickstein offers a fine reading of Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man, to demonstrate his contention - was "an atonement for Jewish radicalism" in the 1930s. "The concept of alienation," he says, "lost its social content and took on an increasingly metaphysical cast."
But if psychology was a form of repression for writers like Malamud and Bellow, it was instead a form of insurgent liberation for sexual prophets like the Mailer of The White Negro and "The Time of Her Time." Dickstein ascribes this new sensibility to the discovery of a younger, less stoical Freud who becomes "the early prophet of sexual fulfillment." Add to this the discovery of the young, humanist Marx, and the climate was right for Marcuse to attempt his reconciliation of Marx and Freud together in Eros and Civilization.
Ironically, though, such ideological heterodoxy was possible because the 1950s had, as Dickstein makes abundantly clear, announced "the end of ideology." A tool of conformity and repression on the one hand, "the end of ideology" was a tool of liberation on the other, since it allowed revisionists in both Marxism and psychoanalysis to reread their respective canons and produce less deterministic, more humanistic thinkers than orthodox interpretation had previously allowed. Both the young Marx and the early Freud were taken to be prophets of the self rather than society, of the individual rather than the structures - whether psychological or economic - that determined him. Thoroughly Americanized, the self was now under its own control. It was, in short, beyond culture, and would soon claim to be entirely self-generated.
Hence the conviction of the student movement in the 1960s that our perceptions, beliefs, and demands were unique. Despite the American traditions the 1960s revived and extended, few of us knew or felt that an old Left had existed before us, or that our psychedelic music had emerged from now-obvious roots in rhythm and blues. Indeed, the 1960s' version of identity in all spheres of life denied the existence of parentage altogether. His frequent disclaimers notwithstanding, Dickstein himself still seems to believe in the inherent value of the new in a passage like the following: "Whatever the results (and I intend to stress their current limitations), [the techniques of experimental fiction] remain inherently superior to a return to the old stringent molds, which conservative pundits are always ready to reimpose."
Indeed, the 1960s' faith that the new is just as fresh as it seems to be persists throughout many of Dickstein's arguments, and it is difficult to square with the constant pressure of history and tradition that he brings to bear on everything he discusses. As it turns out, our 1960s writers had made their revolt against authority in the name, alas, of new authorities, Joyce, Kafka and Borges in particular; and our musical heroes, whether they were Joplin, Hendrix or Coltrane, were equally indebted to rich traditions even in their departures from them. (Dickstein is clearly aware of what he calls these "vertical" traditions of influence that cut across the horizontal line of history proper, although they do not appear to cause him any anxiety about his insistence, for example, on modernism's newness even in its "second" American incarnation.) Indeed, this same tension was also present in 1960s' notions about selfhood and society, since our belief in the autonomy of the self tended to clash with our conviction that people - as the young Marx had argued - were essentially social creatures.
It is precisely the belief that there can be a self without society that Trilling himself, as Dickstein points out, had to renounce late in his career, and it is this renunciation above all else that lies at the center of the adjustments we have had to make in the 1970s. As long as the self was autonomous - as long as its essence lay outside culture, in nature or transcendence - we could maintain a belief in the immanent Eden of something pristine, primordial, something alinguistic and asocial. Such a belief, however, was in direct contradiction to our Marxist notion of essence, and it was also in contradiction to the authority of modernism as a tradition. "Modernity," says Paul de Man, "invests its trust in the power of the present moment as an origin, but discovers that, in severing itself from the past, it has at the same time severed itself from the present."
Of course, such a belief in the self beyond culture meshed perfectly with Trilling's initial position, and what all this finally suggests is that our adversary or counterculture was no counterculture at all, since it was itself continuous with the theological humanism from which it had devolved. Trilling's ultimate withdrawal from a belief in the self beyond culture only illuminated this continuity, and was emblematic of the way in which the modernist imagination of dislocation and discontinuity was replaced by a new style of imagination - a 1970s' style - located instead in continuity itself.
Dickstein's book is an expression of this 1970s' spirit, too, despite its lingering faith in the ideals of the 1960s. Although Gates of Eden bears witness to the uniqueness of the 1960s, it is finally a testament to the continuity of American intellectual life since World War II. Indeed, much of the book's warmth and excitement derives from the dense texture of reference in which its meanings inhere, and its most affecting moments - Dickstein's portrait of Delmore Schwartz in particular - are often fervent expressions of feeling for the tradition of Jewish-American letters. Dickstein's own models are Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe, even though his prose bears some resemblance to Mailer and to rock journalists like Robert Christgau.
Moreover, in spite of Dickstein's overt dislike for post-structuralist criticism, what he refers to as its "intersubjectivity" effectively describes the categories that his own critical language generates not only on the level of style, but also in its use of recurrent figures like "matrix" or "strand" to signify the relations of which cultural discourse is composed. Nostalgia for the garden has been replaced by nostalgia for legacies and traditions instead. Indeed, our world view has been subject to so deep a change since the 1960s that we can now see a field of connections where we once saw only a wasteland.

Originally published in The Nation, April 23, 1977

7/23/10

Cheever's Challenge: Find Freedom

by Perry Meisel

Loneliness has been a staple theme of John Cheever's deceptively modest art over the years, but never before has it been rendered with the combination of toughness and compassion that Cheever brings to it in his new and long-awaited novel, FALCONER (Knopf, $7.95). Now 64, Cheever is beginning to sum up, and what he has to say is sobering and impressive. Gone are the half-humorous tales of the suburbs, and in their place rise the grim walls of Falconer prison, where Cheever's new hero, Ezekiel Farragut, expects to die.
Farragut is a convicted murderer, and Cheever enumerates the details of his life behind bars with the same precision he normally brings to the interpretation of daily life in more familiar surroundings. Instead of a wife who escapes to nude thrills in Greenwich Village, Farragut has a homosexual lover who escapes to his family in the Midwest. Instead of Charlie Mallory's "geometry of love," Farragut has the "contrite geometry" of jailhouse grass-cutting. And instead of swimmer Ned Merrill's belated realization that his house is boarded up and empty, Farragut knows from the start - as Cheever never tires of reminding us - that his own predicament is one of radical dislocation and exile.
Despite Farragut's conviction for murder, though, the reader rarely feels that Cheever's hero belongs in jail or that his outlaw status is particularly real. This, of course, seems to be Cheever's point; imprisonment is our general condition, since all of us, like Farragut, live behind "a barrier of sorrow" between ourselves and the world. Falconer's ultimate import, in other words, is metaphysical, and those readers who expect to find politics here will discover that the book has nothing at all to do with "prison reform." ("Best sellers," writes Cheever with no small irony, "are written about prison reform.") Nor is Cheever's ruling metaphor of confinement as worn-out a conceit as it may seem to be, largely because Cheever interrogates it through so many layers of significance and complication.
Except for a brief inter-chapter that narrates the escape of Farragut's lover, Jody, Cheever tells the story entirely from Farragut's point of view. Although Falconer is Cheever's fourth novel, the single focus is something new in his work. Indeed, Falconer is his first book with only one hero, and it should serve as proof that Cheever is fully capable of sustaining the kind of lengthy, disciplined narrative that many longtime admirers of his stories, among them John Updike, have suggested to be no longer within his powers - or at least within his concerns - as a novelist.
To be sure, such a suspicion may have been justified on the evidence of a career that tends to match every novel with almost two books of short stories, although Cheever's circumspect readers also point to the episodic quality of the novels themselves as indications that he is a pieceworker even there. This may be true of The Wapshot Scandal (1964) - even though Hammer's narrative in Cheever's last novel, Bullet Park (1969), plainly demonstrates his considerable powers in concentrating a fairly lengthy story within the consciousness of a single character.
Hence Cheever's success in Falconer should not be ascribed solely to the new choice of subject. Moreover, despite the prison setting, Farragut is a predictable enough denizen of Cheever's world. Prior to his conviction, he is, like a host of the author's characters before him, a well-to-do commuter (Hudson Division, of course) whose wife averts her face when he goes to kiss her. Farragut, 48, is also a drug addict - not just a pill-popper like Nailles in Bullet Park, but a real, honest-to-God heroin freak. What makes him unique among Cheever's characters, though, is his peculiar situation in the eyes of the law. When the book begins, we find him entering the main gates of Falconer prison. When the story closes, we find him being carried out through a side entrance, wrapped for escape in another man's shroud.
It is a neat allegory, and, besides its Christian reveberations of fall, trial, and redemption, it packs a keen psychological drama. Farragut's crime is fratricide, and he kills his older brother, Eben, in an attempt to rescind the cruel and shocking news that Eben imparts to him in the course of a violent quarrel: "He had an abortionist come out to the house. Your own father wanted you to be killed. . . . He loved me, but wanted you to be killed."
From the novel's overtly Christian point of view Farragut wins his escape through deeds. (This comes at the end of the book, well after Jody has himself escaped - as part of a visiting bishop's entourage.) It is Farragut's simple and instinctive kindness toward the oldest and loneliest of his blockmates, Chicken, that is directly responsible for his redemption. When Chicken takes ill, Farragut washes the old man's wrinkled and tatooed body and brings him into his own cell, where he cradles him in his arms until he expires. Once Chicken is dead, it dawns on Farragut to exchange places with him in the burial sack, at which point the shroud of death is instantly transformed into a womb of rebirth.
But if Farragut's release leaves Cheever with a completed novel, it leaves Farragut himself with nowhere to go - his wife has divorced him and his brother, of course, is dead. There are, alas, no "fields of paradise on the other side of the wall," as Farragut once believed. This, however, is precisely what he has learned by the book's close. It is the exact price of his ransom to realize that life is to be valued not for its alleged freedom, but for the confinements it places upon us. Hence Farragut is finally able to throw off the "torpor" that is both the consequence and the cause of the various addictions, crimes, and irresponsibilities of his past life. Responsibility alone makes up the happy confinements known as freedom and love.
Unfortunately, all this smacks of Milton's God, although I am pleased to say that Cheever has written a book that is after all much bigger than its theology. To be sure, Cheever's Christianity is thoroughly secular, and its absolute dismissal of a "paradise" anywhere in sight should also make it clear that his famous nostalgia for nature, youth, and the past is little more than a gentle fiction of its own at this point in his career (if, indeed, it was ever really more than that). Nor should one neglect the related fact that Cheever's humanism here joins Bellow's in maintaining a vigilant stance against the Wastelanders, whose logic, however inadvertently, requires some kind of paradise both before and after the historical aberration known as the modern age.
Cheever, however, is by no means locked into dangerous myths of pure feeling like those that accompany Bellow's brand of humanism, and it is the peculiar virtue of all his work that a tough-minded "cybernetics" - to use the vocabulary of the Wapshot novels - always accompanies and balances whatever excesses his piety for "man" might produce. Moreover, this second current in Cheever's work is capable of adducing the same conclusions about life that are to be found in his humanism, but it has the advantage of removing naive elements of freedom and recognition by focusing on forces in existence far more determining than the conscious plight of a single individual like Farragut.
Farragut's attempt to maintain his identity in prison allows Cheever to uncover structures of the self long hidden by the easy assumptions we make about selfhood in normal society. Farragut depends on his memories and his dreams to keep his personality intact while he languishes in Cellblock F. But these threads of identity are far less secure than he expects them to be. When they snap, Farragut is faced with what Cheever calls "the absolute experience of alienation": "he did not know who or where he was, that the uses of the toilet he faced were completely mysterious, and that he could not understand a word of the book he held in his hands. He did not know himself. He did not know his own language."
It is not by accident that Farragut's "absolute alienation" is figured as his alienation from language. Memory and dreams have always been cast as a set of linguistic structures in Cheever's work (indeed, they provide the organizing metaphors for both Wapshot novels), and their "controlled and repeated designs" constitute a map of the self in which - or on which - Farragut tries constantly to locate himself. To the extent that prison robs him of his ability to read the map's coordinates, Farragut is in exile from his own being. Thus his gradual adaptation to the grayness and absence of life in jail rests largely on his ability to read in whatever form he can what Cheever calls the "contour" and the "geometry" of life as we know it. "The contrite geometry of grass-cutting pleased him. To cut the grass one followed the contour of the land. To study the contour of the land . . . was to study and read the contour of the neighborhood, the county, the state, the continent, and to study and read the contour of the planet was to study and read the nature of its winds as his old father had done, sailing catboats and kites. Some oneness was involved, some contentment."
Nor is Farragut at all unique in having his selfhood cast by Cheever as a geometrical set of signifying "designs." Although Farragut feels that his jeopardized birth sets him apart from his brother, who, unlike himself, has enjoyed a full and natural entrance into the world, it is nonetheless true that both children "had learned to crawl on the hieroglyphs woven into the Turkey rugs" of their childhood. That is to say, childhood itself seems to involve some common grounding, not in nature or biology, but in the "designs" - the hieroglyphs or texts - that constitute even the earliest experiences of the infant and that persist forever as a "tracery" in the rhetoric of memory.
Sexuality is part of the "design," too - Farragut knows, for example, that he is horny because the "honeycomb" of his "braincells" "interprets" his otherwise "speechless genitals." Cheever even tatooes Chicken's body from head to foot so as to make the flesh itself a cluster of written inscriptions or "tracery." And if this appears to be too radical a reading of Cheever's novel, one has only to turn to Cheever's first description of Farragut's threatened abortion, which is made specifically and emphatically in terms of writing and texts: "his father, having written Farragut's name with his cock, had tried to erase the writing."
Cheever's rhetoric, in other words, builds up a graphic representation of identity as a set of texts or designs in which the subject is located by coordinates or positions as though in a network or on a map. Like Cheever's secular Christianity, these "cybernetic" structures maintain an inevitable separation between man and some projected "paradise" in nature or in pure feeling. They also maintain a separation between what we know and what we are that does not square entirely with the fact of Farragut's recognition of his human responsibilities.
As it turns out, the entire structure of Farragut's character may be erected on a scandalous lie - Farragut, after all, knows of his threatened abortion only through the words of his brother. Hence all his attempts at self-location proceed according to determinations or plottings that may or may not be historically true, but which function as his true history nonetheless. Where that leaves Farragut as a responsible agent is plainly open to question.
In any case, Cheever's obsession with inscriptions, emblems, hieroglyphs, and designs tends to subvert Falconer's basic premises. The novel interrogates the concept of imprisonment and finds the notion more problematic than we think it is. Farragut's life behind bars is precisely life without bars - life without the bars, grids, structures, and designs that provide us with our sense of location. From this point of view, imprisonment makes no sense at all since, as a notion, it depends on the difference between inside and outside, between what is confined and what is free; a difference that the book calls directly into question.
Cheever is rather literal about this: "At Falconer the walls and the bars had sometimes seemed to vanish, leaving [Farragut] with a nothingness that would be worse." In Cheever's view, imprisonment is in fact a snugness, and the sad but fraternal life of the inmates in Cellblock F presents in bald form the kind of security that a character like Nailles in Bullet Park finds in the confinement of his joyous monogamy. It is also from this snugness that Farragut derives whatever feeling he may have for Chicken - which allows him to take upon himself the responsibility that eventually wins his escape.
At this point the novel's two currents - one humanist, one cybernetic - meet to generate the complexities of Falconer as a whole. Cheever's two worlds in the narrative are not, after all, in conflict but in harmony, and it is a measure of his achievement to have built a text sturdy enough - like the prison itself - to reconcile the rival currents of much contemporary fiction and criticism - humanist and affective on the one hand, structural and rhetorical on the other. Moreover, if we need a measure of how absurd our ethnic categories for fiction really are, we have one here. It is Bellow who resembles Cheever as a humanist far more that the goyische Pynchon does, and it is Pynchon who resembles Cheever in his non-Christian or cybernetic profile perhaps more than any writer except Philip Roth.
Finally, if Falconer is composed of converging texts - one humanist, one cybernetic - there is a correlative for it, too - and that is the prison itself. (The idea of duplication is everywhere - in homosexuality, in Farragut's prison job of typing dittos, in his twinlike resemblance to his brother.) With its inexhaustible series of cells and corridors and with the alphabetical array of its compartments (Cellblocks A, B, C. . . . F), the prison, too, is a lexical grid much like the novel's own network of language. Nor is this merely implicit in Cheever's book. "F stands for fucks, freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fatasses like me, phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences, and farts," says Tiny, Farragut's turnkey; and the name "Falconer" itself - another derivation of the F, like Farragut's own name - is presented in all its "declensions" (names, dates, history, symbols) inscribed above the "escutcheon" nailed to the prison's gate.
The real testament to Cheever's mastery of language, though, lies in the abundance of things his art will continue to signify well after its time. C, after all, stands for Cheever, Christianity, cybernetics, Chicken, convict, confinement, copy.

Originally published in The Village Voice, March 14, 1977

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An End to Innocence: How Joni Mitchell Fails

by Perry Meisel

Despite Joni Mitchell's reputation as a lyricist, the poetic element in her work has been a growing source of embarrassment to many listeners over the years. Less a measure of ignorance than of optimism, Mitchell's verbal pretensions are a product of her innocence - an innocence that seems unwarranted by the crushed hopes her songs discern in everything from urban blight and stardom to motherhood and love. Usually, Mitchell's melodies have been so compelling that her songs stand up on purely musical grounds, at least until her last LP, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which sounded so aimless that it put off many of Joni's oldest fans. It is the poetic/lyrical factor, though, that sustains the new album, Hejira, Mitchell's ninth disc in almost nine years and her best since Court and Spark.
The predominance of the verbal and vocal on Hejira is largely the result of its simple dearth of melody. The singing, lean and true as never before, is almost entirely in the service of Mitchell's verse, which flexes through a wide variety of thematic exercises in language sharper, but also more abstract, than one has come to expect from her. Recitative rather than swinging or rocking, the songs tend to hover low and somber over the flat and sometimes faceless surface of the backup rhythms (most of them without drums), making Mitchell's declamatory voice the disc's sole object of attention.
In fact, Hejira presents the Queen of El Lay more explicitly in the guise of a poet than ever before, festooned with cape, beret, slanted pinky, and the backdrop of a resolutely abstract landscape. Well, that's the way poets are supposed to look, I guess, and Mitchell's (self-)portrait here seems to be a little too aware of that. Mitchell, of course, has always tried to pass herself off as a poet by printing out her lyrics on the covers of her recordings. No mere listening aids, the printouts constitute a tacit commitment to the perils of scrutiny and rereading. Mixing your metaphors in ignorance is one thing, but flaunting your pretensions in black and white is quite another. Unless. . . unless . . . the vaguely ironic Mitchell that emerged after For the Roses is now becoming more overt.
Mitchell's paradoxical history, both personal and artistic, should have prepared us for such a contingency. Here was a lover of words who, by all accounts at least, had spoken for a generation in revolt against language, a prairie girl from Alberta who wailed about the garden she had willfully forsaken for the grit and darkness of adopted cities like Toronto, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles. Above all, here was a capricious lover resisting fantasies of domesticity even while the hausfrau within her was rattling around the kitchen in a constant huff about how fickle her own lovers seemed to be. Despite the paradoxes, though, Mitchell managed to forge an ego-ideal for lots of women, and certainly an ideal for the female vocalizer who was also a versifier, not to mention the lousy poet who could sing.
But self-absorption in art, the city, and the emerging self was only half of it. On the other side was another cluster of dreams, all of them allied with the rhythms of nature, childbearing included. Beyond them, however, was the question of whether matrimony and domesticity were parts of nature, too, or whether they were simply another expression of the same evil that had erected New York and L.A. in place of the garden. The categories got jumbled - what was nature and what was repression?
The new album seems to offer a new set of answers to the old questions, beginning with the familiar contrast between the world of "nylons" and the world of "jeans": "You know it was white lace I was chasing / Chasing dreams / Mama's nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans" ("Song for Sharon"). Surprising as it may seem to hear Mitchell opting for the "white lace," self-reliance capitulates to domesticity, the cowgirl to the family. Yes, what is real or natural - what is "underneath" - turns out to be an ego-ideal named "Mama."
Yet the rest of the stanza complicates this moment of self-discovery by scrambling the terms on which it is made: ". . . first you get the kisses / And then you get the tears / But the ceremony of the bells and lace / Still veils this reckless fool here." The "bells and lace," of course, turn out to be just as foolish as the "jeans." Neither is more real or natural than the other. The "veil" of the bride is also the veil of illusion. So the meaning of "underneath," in its Freudian sense of discovery, gets called into question; depth itself becomes a fiction and the self a surface of images, ciphers, or signs. Epiphany is "just a false alarm" ("Amelia"), while "deep and superficial" ("Hejira") come to be one and the same thing.
If Mitchell's language denies the possibility of real discovery, though, what happens to the "nature" that Joni the romantic has always been hell-bent on recovering? If there is no ground, how can there be a garden? And if domesticity may be part of humanity's natural rhythms, where is a nature that is separate from society and its attendant constraints?
At this point Mitchell's mythology begins to crumble. Premised on a return to nature, her mini-allegories fairly reek with a nostalgia for the garden and, by implication, for a pre-fallen language as well. Such a paradisiacal language would identify the word with the thing, allowing Mitchell to speak about feelings with all the sincerity for which she yearns. Trouble is, we're all outside the gates of Eden. Language is not an innocent tool of expression; it leads a life of its own, and, more often than not, it helps to manufacture the world in which we live.
Mitchell, though, resists the power inherent in language as such, even the power her own language displays. Despite the fact that her words generate ambiguity and call their own meanings into question, she wants them to stay fixed and believes that they do. A relentless practitioner of figurative speech, Mitchell behaves as though her words are straightforward conduits of expression, "direct from the heart" as it were. I'm more than willing - in fact, I'm eager - to grant Mitchell the title of Ironist. Unfortunately, she's not willing to grant it herself. Indeed, she clutches on to reactionary notions about history and anthropology as eagerly as she clutches her own sincerity. Without a belief, however metaphoric, in the garden beyond or before civilization, there could be no belief in the garden of pure feeling that Mitchell assumes to be growing "underneath" ego and superego in the terrain of the self. For the Mitchell of Hejira, "history falls / To parking lots and shopping malls" ("Furry Sings the Blues"). Though the trope's manifest meaning is simply that old buildings get torn down by property developers, Mitchell's figurative use of the word "history" also makes a clear (even if unintentional) rhetorical distinction between "history" and "shopping malls" that implies that shopping malls aren't part of human history at all. What's more, this trope is typical of her indulgence in nostalgic fantasies about a simple past she presumes to have existed before technology and industrialization. In this context, the phrase "history falls" turns out to be meaningless: history is a consequence of the fall, not the other way around. In this way the phrase even threatens to invalidate the Christian romance of Mitchell's quest for redemption - of personal and public histories alike.
The question of literary prototypes also raises the question of Mitchell's relation to real Romanticism. The High Romantics themselves were by no means the pantheists our high schools like to teach, nor were they the source of Mitchell's naive assumptions about the status of nature. Shelley, for example, begins his famous poem in awe of Mont Blanc, and ends by asserting that he has imagined it. Not only is there no way back to the garden that Mitchell's "Woodstock" once demanded - nature itself may not even exist. There is no state of innocence down "underneath," where she expects it to be.
So there is finally no paradox involved in Mitchell's having spoken for the nonverbalists of the '60s. Hers is a language on the verge of dissolution, though the dissolution is largely unwitting or unrecognized. Unlike Barthelme or Borges, whose language is intentionally designed to empty out its signifying power in a dissolution that is part of its significance, the dissolution of Mitchell's language falls outside her will and control. Her language is therefore clouded, vague, imprecise, immodest; above all, rampant with figures of speech that break down under scrutiny and that collide in implications they do not intend.
God knows, I've had my heartthrobs for Joni, and I've been moved almost to tears by her stuff. But that's when I've been listening to her sing. Joined with melody and the infinite nuance of her voice, Mitchell's words are something else again. At a batch of syllables no longer bound to the responsibilities of the page and its ironic preconditions, they acquire a new and different kind of life. Puns on "ego" and "eagle" ("Coyote"), for example, are entirely legitimate when they're sung, despite their nonexistence on the page. Even the dangers of imitative form are superseded when Mitchell's voice ascends to meet the heights of "ice cream castles in the air" on "Both Sides, Now."
Mitchell's language also creates the kind of phonemic density and variation that only singers like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan can impart to the relatively simple verbal mannerisms of most pop tunes as they are written. Because the phonetic density of Mitchell's lyrics is so high (I'd wager she uses more syllables per song than any songwriter living, Dylan included), her songs are, formally speaking, almost like copied-down scat extensions of a simpler melody line embedded somewhere inside the tune as a whole. From this point of view, Mitchell's style of song-writing seems designed to catch up as best it can with its perception of the essence of jazz singing proper. What it more often resembles, however, is the effort of a patchworker or bricoleur in assembling fragments of inspiration from a bewildering panoply of half-understood sources - blues, folk, opera, music-hall, cabaret, and so on.
Mitchell readily admits to knowing next to nothing about "real" bluesmen, like the pop composer W.C. Handy or the vaudevillian Furry Lewis, whom she pairs up in what is doubtless Hejira's most distressing song, "Furry Sings the Blues." Despite its expressive flexibility Mitchell's voice is about as far removed from anything like real jazz singing (especially Ella's or Vaughan's) as her romanticism is from the Romantics themselves. Joni's voice doesn't get you in the crotch or gut the way real blues heartthrobbers do. Mitchell lacks the element of swing as plainly as she lacks a direct kind of sexiness - witness her version of Wardell Gray's "Twisted" on Court and Spark or even Hejira's "Blue Motel Room."
If Mitchell's sexuality is hard to flush out into the open, her prairie-bred will is always plainly in evidence. Her instinctive professionalism yokes together all her half-digested musical influences, saving and polishing every scrap and displaying in the process of frugality and neatness that may signify a latent anality in this liberator of the repressed. Granted, when the compulsive Mitchell handles the crossfire from her various musical sources with perfect control, the results are melodies like those on Blue, which inhabit the mind as an unforgettable sweep of notes largely devoid of the lyrics with which they are sung. Without melody, though, Mitchell's singing gets boring and redundant despite its requisite subtleties and nuance as on the droning, recitative "Coyote," Hejira's opener. Is it an accident that, even for Joni's greatest fans, her greatest songs have always been her most tuneful ones?
Bound to the page as they are, however, Mitchell's songs insist on being divided against themselves. There is no more striking example of this than the breathtaking moments on "Refuge of the Roads," in which the song's recurring melodic channel emerges with sudden splendor in a late chorus. The splendor is due to the ambitious words with which this melody is sun: "These are the clouds of Michelangelo / Muscular with gods and sungold / Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads." Yet the lines are impossibly pretentious for a number of reasons, chief among them the vague relation between Michelangelo and the clouds, and the unfortunately successful identity it implies between Michelangelo's work and Mitchell's own. Both accomplishments, by the way, are signified by the figure of clouds, which have always been a cipher for all that is significant to Mitchell since "Both Sides, Now."
Hejira's title, however, is its most enticing trope. The word "hejira" refers to Mohammed's flight from Mecca in 622, a flight for personal survival that preserved the fledgling Islamic religion. Ever since, "hejira" has come to mean such a purposive flight from danger or oppression. Clearly, Mitchell means to take this meaning for her own, to signify her many flights from oppressive relationships, the burdens of stardom, the dirt of the city. In this way, the album's recurrent images of flight - Icarus, jets, crows, and so on - conspire to suggest a Mitchell whose only "refuge" is "the roads." Yet "flight" also signifies the transitory, the ephemeral, the flighty quality of Mitchell's own attempts at meaning. This kind of flight - escape or loss rather than departure for freedom - is far different from the Mohammedan sense of the word, which Mitchell wants to use to grant her own flightiness a weightier sense of purpose than it really possesses. The meanings are at odds, and they fight it out within the word itself.
Ultimately, though, we are left with a question of intentionality: Are all these meanings of "hejira" really "there," or does Mitchell's language comment on itself - indeed, deconstruct itself - outside her control and design? Just how naive is this airy lady of the canyons, whose new album seems a witness to the inauthenticity of all sincerity? Mitchell mocks herself on Hejira, though just how wittingly it is hard to tell. There seems to be something like bitterness on the album, even if it comes out as a diminished investment in the self and a decline in the earnestness with which the persona is presented. I suspect that this level of irony is firmly within Mitchell's conscious grasp, and that her absurd pose on the album's cover is a caricature she has willfully drawn to subvert her own pretensions as a personality.
As an artist, however, Mitchell clearly lacks any real understanding of what her work is and how it behaves. Aware as she may be of the ironies of her pose as a lover and a soothsayer, the finer ironies of what it means to work in language obviously elude her. These are two distinctly different kinds of irony, mind you, and they signify two distinct levels of knowing. The first is dramatic or situational, the way we have of knowing what we don't know, much as Mitchell the self-mocking artiste knows she no longer has the answers. The second, however, is far crueler, since it knows we can never mean what we say. It is this second style of knowing that characterizes a literary language, and that can transform any language into an aesthetic one so long as its syntax displays some delight in the hazards of signification and some deliberation as to how it means to handle them.
These hazards are not only beyond Mitchell's control but also beyond her ken. Her art lacks deliberation because it lacks a knowledge of the instruments it employs. The product of these shortcomings for the artist is the self-consuming artifact that finally consumes its own maker. Hejira signifies Mitchell's flight from precisely this fate. The mythology of the garden still has her in its thrall, and until she confronts it within her conscious imagination, her work will be haunted by the prospect of its own annihilation.

Originally published in The Village Voice, January 24, 1977

The Kramdens, the Bunkers, and the Flintstones

by Perry Meisel

Who says there are no traditions on TV? Even though network programmers like to tell us how new this season's shows are supposed to be, every viewer knows that television's past is always a part of its present. Where would Phyllis or Rhoda be without Lucy and Gracie? And where does Kojak come from if not Naked City, M Squad, and The Detectives?
Television's lines of descent are probably easiest to see, though, in the story of the American workingman told by three classic shows in the history of situation comedy - The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, and All in the Family. Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden is the prototype for Fred Flintstone and Archie Bunker both, and Ralph's character and style of life constantly define and direct the temperaments of his successors, and the predicaments in which they are embroiled.
Ralph's famous rage has no clearer reflection in subsequent television history than Archie's famous ranting, while the Bunker racism and ultraconservative politics simply make overt what you might have expected from Ralph all along. It's one thing to share life at 328 Chauncey Street with the Mullinses and the Manicottis, but what would happen if a black or a gay tried to move in downstairs? If Ralph is so ready to send Alice to the moon, can you imagine the fate of such aliens in the confined world of Bensonhurst? Even a suave dance instructor gets booted from the building by Ralph and Ed Norton.
Norton's heir, of course, is Barney Rubble, Fred Flintstone's best friend and neighbor. In fact, the team of Fred and Barney is really an instant replay of Ralph's and Ed's legendary banter and mutual browbeating - just listen to the way the voices match up. If that's not enough, watch the way Fred lords it over poor Barney ("You're the stupidest man I ever knew," says Ralph to Norton), even when Fred concocts the world's dumbest schemes. Remember Fred's doomed attempts to sneak out on Wilma for some bowling? How many times has that bowling ball given Ralph away when he tries to slip out on Alice?
If the shows have common characters and situations, they also have common themes and a common vision of America. Ralph, Fred, and Archie are all working-class heroes, of course, but even more than that they tend to be schemers and dreamers hoping to get rich quick. Each is intoxicated with faith in himself, and each thereby underestimates what kind of world he is up against. "I got him just where I want him," says Fred when he thinks he has Mr. Safestone, the supermarket king, up against a wall in a deal to buy truckloads of Wilma's homemade pies. Fred's scheme does not only rely thoughtlessly on working Wilma to the bone. ("Go home and start cooking," Ralph commands Alice in a similar gesture when he tries to win a bet on his prowess as master of the house.) Fred's scheme also relies on his general unawareness of the social and economic realities that make his pies cost more to produce than they will yield in profit. Like the old squeeze play that Ralph so cavalierly tries to pull on his boss for a raise in pay and a promotion, Fred's estimation of Mr. Safestone precludes any realization that power here rests solely in the buyer's hands. So too Fred is unwittingly exploited as a stunt man in the movies for no pay, just as Archie is totally ignorant of the blatant rip-off scheme behind the local undertaker's obeisances. Archie's prejudices are particularly self-defeating, since they seal him off from sympathy with those other parts of society used and discarded like his own.
Such delusion, however, is usually the source of the shows' uniform brand of humor. But at what a price! Day after day, episode after episode, all three of our heroes are subject to the grossest humiliations and defeats imaginable. We laugh when Ralph and Archie hit the ceiling at the slightest challenge to their authority but that happens precisely because both are sensitive to their peripheral position in society and the powerlessness that accompanies it. Thanks to the resources of cartoon, Fred Flintstone literally finds the ceiling hitting him, at least when the script calls for some concrete expression of his victimization. Even Fred's intermittent torpor manages to represent the defeated cast of mind that seems to underlie both Ralph's and Archie's excessively combative (read defensive) attitude toward life. There's such trouble, such striving, such pain in Ralph's face when he starts screaming. And no wonder. "My whole life's been a struggle," says Ralph, "ever since I was a kid." It's a miracle he doesn't have a stroke right there on the set, a fear that may even connect Ralph and Archie medically when the Bunkers conspire to keep their breadwinner on a strict regimen to control his blood pressure and diet.
Sadness and despair, of course, wouldn't seem to rank high among comedy's attributes, but there they are, informing and directing the humor every step of the way. What's more, the workingman's submerged grief is a clue to the understanding of society that lies behind the shows' humorous exteriors, but which still seems to escape the consciousness of the major characters. Norton's job in the sewer, Ralph's on the bus, Fred's in the granite pits, Archie's in the warehouse loading room - all these jobs are basic functions in the economic system, and place the characters in each show at the center of society. This economic centrality is, of course, hidden, or at least made ironic, by the peripheral position the characters occupy from the point of view of status and upward mobility. But by placing such characters in the role of stars - that is, by making stars out of working-class characters - American television really affirms this centrality after all, and renders the worker, with all his disappointments and defeats, the real hero of the society in which he lives.
Neither characters nor viewers, though, are allowed to tender such an insight for very long, since our blindness to it is what sustains the humor of all three shows and guarantees their success as entertainment. This fine tension or balance between facts and funnies, however, is what makes these programs as powerful - and as powerfully funny - as they are. It's also what succeeds in giving them the authority of a tradition on American television. Even though we like to think it's just the commercials that intrude on our entertainment viewing, there is more than a share of the realities they represent right at the heart of TV's funniest shows.

Originally published in TV Book: The Ultimate Television Book (New York: Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 1977)

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7/22/10

Who's Afraid of the Virginia Woolf Cult?

by Perry Meisel

Virginia Woolf is probably the most abused and misrepresented figure in all of modern literature. Quentin Bell's biography (1972) and Nigel Nicolson's memoir (1973) have transformed her into the unlikeliest of cult heroines, while the women's movement has found in A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) a spokesmanship so urgent and complete that Woolf's name has lately come to signify little more than the achievement of a stunning polemicist and politician. To be sure, Woolf was not unlike the woman her various new admirers have chosen to idealize - a feminist, a sterling case study, and in all likelihood a socialist. But she was a writer first and last, and wanted to be remembered that way.
No doubt the elusive and uneven nature of the work itself has been a silent factor in the non-literary style of the Woolf revival that began some three or four years ago. Heartbreaking and endearing in its emotional appeal, Woolf's prose is nonetheless vague - to all appearances at least - and often irritating in its languor and indirection. Moreover, the novels are unsteady in their quality over the course of her career, and a strict or even a working canon has yet to be established with any real authority by her critics. Although Woolf's achievement as a novelist slackens in the years between Orlando (1928) and Between the Acts (1941), we are led to believe, usually by default, that her entire production is of a single excellence, and that the early novels, which are among her best - The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919) - are merely exercises in something called the "conventional" mode of fiction, which is ridiculed, we are told, in the later, "experimental" books.
One byproduct of the failure to establish a canon is an economic one. The publishing firm, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, holds a virtual monopoly on Woolf's writing in the United States, and has done its best to reissue many of the same essays under different covers time and again. Even a fitful antic like Freshwater (1923-35), a brief dramatic entertainment written for friends, suddenly emerges in hardcover at the bookstores, together with new softcover editions of some of the novels' earliest criticism, largely plot-summary banalities, by Jean Guiguet, Dorothy Brewster, and Joan Bennett.
I suspect, then, that the joking that has accompanied the revival from the outside is not just a product of the usual sexism, but also a judgment on this literary neglect and its commercial consequences. Even critics and scholars devoted to the careful study of Woolf's novels (the essays still receive only minimum scrutiny) find their interpretations everywhere but in the texts they mean to elucidate. Rarely do they find their focus in what Woolf liked to call "the medium in which a novelist works." The phrase is from her 1927 essay on E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, an essay in which she takes her friend Forster to task because "almost nothing is said about words" in what is, for Woolf at any rate, a rather disquieting book about the novelist's craft. What follows in the essay is cautionary advice to all critics of fiction, particularly to critics of her own prose:
"One might suppose, unless one had read them, that a sentence means the same thing and is used for the same purposes by Sterne and Wells. One might conclude that Tristram Shandy gains nothing from the language in which it is written. . . . Fiction is treated as a parasite which draws sustenance from life and must in gratitude resemble life or perish. In poetry, in drama, words may excite and stimulate and deepen without this allegiance; but in fiction they must first and foremost hold themselves at the service of the teapot and the pug dog, and to be found wanting is to be found lacking. Strange though this unaesthetic attitude would be in the critic of any other art, it does not surprise us in the critic of fiction."
Nor should it surprise us in the critic of Virginia Woolf. Though a few volumes in the last few years have begun to shift the balance toward Woolf the writer and her peculiar brand of literary language - notably James Naremore's World Without a Self (1973), Allen McLaurin's The Echoes Enslaved (1973), and Avrom Fleishman's Virginia Woolf: A Critical Reading (1975) - what comes before, and what continues to flow in a steady stream from the presses and the journals, constitutes one of the most inadequate bodies of criticism to accompany any major writer in English. Among these readers the meaning of the novels is variously reduced to elementary feminism (Herbert Marder), spurious phenomenology (Harvena Richter, Alice van Buren Kelley), or, at best, psychological poetics (Nancy Bazin). Even those informal perspectives we have inherited to account for Woolf's style from a supposedly technical point of view tend to prey upon outdated notions like "stream of consciousness," and give us the impression that there is no narrator at work in novels wholly dominated by the voice of an omniscient authorial presence.
What puzzles me most of all, however, is why Virginia Woolf's biography should exert such a fascination over people who have never read a scrap of her writing. Some degree of kneejerk curiosity is natural enough to students of the fiction and the essays, even if Woolf and her circle turn out to be infinitely duller than we like to assume. But for those readers who have experienced Woolf only secondhand, through Bell or Nicolson, or for those who know her only by hearsay and reputation, she comes alive, for some reason, like a pop star.
Admired for her boho behavior by these new admirers, she turns out to have retired most evenings at 10 after days spent writing, walking, perhaps printing with Leonard, and reading before bed. Praised, too, for her brilliant circle of London friends, Woolf and Lytton Strachey alone among the intimates (Forster is a bit removed) present literary capabilities of the first order. Even to say that Woolf realized her resources when Strachey did not would probably be to put too fine a point on the differences between them. Praised above all for her advanced views, she turns out to be rather formal and snobbish, despite her progressive tendencies, and to all appearances breaks with the traditions of her distinguished family far less than she continues them. As for the glamor of her intermittent madness, it is an absurdity that any reader of A Writer's Diary is unable to tolerate for long.
The recent publication of THE LETTERS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: VOLUME II, 1912-1922, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $14.95) will, of course, deflect our attention from the writer once again and center it on the personality instead. Like the first installment of the Letters in this projected series of six, the newest one tells us little about Woolf's work and less about her reading - she seems to have reserved most of this for the Diary. Unlike Lawrence, or even Joyce, her correspondence is usually devoid of literary topics. Unlike her counterparts, too, Woolf was no exile, and had lots of friends, so that we are obliged to overhear in the Letters what often amounts to a catalogue of appointments - "Dear Poppies, let's have tea tomorrow at 6" - or a tedious round of gossip.
In any case, the interpreter who plans to search the Letters for "evidence" about the meaning of the work should be assured that most of the big "clues" in this sector have long been available in documents cited in the Bell biography, and in the Woolf/Strachey correspondence published in 1956. Meanwhile, exhumations of more Woolf papers proceed at archives in Sussex, New York, and Austin (the University of Texas is a major repository of Woolfians), even though it is unlikely that much besides Woolf's working drafts and manuscripts will prove helpful to us in the real tasks of interpretation. This particular packaging job, though, is especially important now that Chapel Hill's Harold Shapiro has discovered numerous discrepancies between English and American editions of the novels.
It goes without saying, of course, that such discoveries are of value only to those readers who will bother to examine the texture of Woolf's language. Yet it is no wonder that most readers turn away from the exigencies of Woolf's prose to seek their interpretations in the clearer air of biography, elementary politics, and pop psychoanalysis. As a novelist and essayist both, Woolf's language is not fixed but sliding, designed to monitor the various weights of meaning attached to particular words or word weights of meaning attached to particular words or word clusters. What the careful reader will find - Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is probably the most controlled example - is that Woolf's texts are structures of variable significance in which the same sign may participate in more than one order of meaning.
Hence the programmed multiplicity of what meaning is in a given novel or essay tends to neutralize any attempt to ground Woolf's language in the fixity of attitudes alien to it - in the reductions of biography, politics, and psychology, with their largely innocent view of language and with their lamentable belief in the certitude of explanation. Meaning in Woolf is always tenuous because the narrator renounces any claim to a rooted relation between language and the world. Instead, language becomes a play of relations within itself, generating resonances whose echoes grant the illusion of dimension to a tissue of discourse unable, strictly speaking, to achieve depth in the conventional heroic or psychological sense. This may explain, too, the prevailing sense of loss in Woolf's texts - Mrs. Ramsay's death in To the Lighthouse (1927) is the overriding example - a thematics of absence that has led more than one critic to characterize Woolf's imagination as an elegiac one.
But despite the isolation of the soul this feeling of loss may appear to signify, Woolf's characters - unlike the usual "isolates" of modern fiction - tend to lose their separate identities in the narrator's all-consuming embrace. In this way, the novels really seem to focus on the Woolfian speaker instead, hence allying the fiction and the essays through the medium of this common consciousness (Orlando lies precisely here), and making Woolf's total achievement one consistent weave of discourse, uniform in nature even though it is uneven in quality.
So Woolf in practice is a rather different writer from the super-realist of the "ordinary mind" that her aesthetic manifestos, "Modern Fiction" (1919) and "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924) make her out to be. Woolf's cynicism about "life" in the essay on Forster's criticism makes more sense in this context, and suggests that she is an artist more for the sake of art than for the sake of plumbing experience as sincerely as her polemics lead us to believe. Nor is this Aestheticism an accident. Literary historians are largely silent on Woolf's relation to Pater, and Bloomsbury's relation to the Decadence and to the Pre-Raphaelites before that, chiefly because Bloomsbury did its best to cover the tracks that lead backwards to its progenitors. The motivation was probably the desire to maintain the pretense of Bloomsbury's newness, and also to sever what, after Wilde, were sordid intellectual connections too dangerous for the embattled Bloomsberries to acknowledge.
What all this suggests is that our usual notions of Woolf's modernity are less than adequate, too. She is a far more conservative writer than we are willing to admit, more in the line of the great Victorians, for example, than in opposition to it, and, as a learned author, clearly in the mainstream of historical tradition, alluding as she does to Keats and Wordsworth, Petrarch and Dante, and always to the Elizabethans, with whom she felt a special sort of kinship.
So there is more, and less, to Virginia Woolf than our current mythography is willing to let us see. We can at least be assured that there is, after all, a writer who lurks behind the biography and the politics, and that her work will survive even after the fashions that surround her name today will have made their peace with history.

Originally published in The Village Voice, December 20, 1976

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