michael wetzel + stanislaw lem

standardsofliving2

standardsofliving

These sculptures by Michael Wetzel appeared in a two-person show (with Jeffrey Tranchell) called Standards of Living at Honey Ramka gallery last year. Of the artworks in the show, these objects most drew my eye and lingered in my thoughts afterward. These are blurry screenshots I made from the gallery's photos and don't do justice to the intricacy of the work, but serve as visual notes to accompany a passage from Fiasco (1986), a Stanislaw Lem novel I am reading for the first time. Lem is describing a field of bizarre, fanciful-seeming mineral deposits on the surface of Saturn's moon, Titan.

For the very reason that here nothing served a purpose -- not ever, not to anyone -- and that here no guillotine of evolution was in play, amputating from every genotype whatever did not contribute to survival, nature, constrained neither by the life she bore nor by the death she inflicted, could achieve liberation, displaying a prodigality characteristic of herself, a limitless wastefulness, a brute magnificence that was useless, an eternal power of creation without a goal, without a need, without a meaning. This truth, gradually penetrating the observer, was more unsettling than the impression that he was witness to a cosmic mimicry of death, or that these were in fact the mortal remains of unknown beings that lay beneath the stormy horizon. So one had to turn upside down one’s natural way of thinking, which was capable of going only in one direction: these shapes were similar to bones, ribs, skulls, and fangs not because they had once served life -- they never had -- but only because the skeletons of terrestrial vertebrates, and their fur, and the chitinous armor of the insects, and the shells of the mollusks all possessed the same architectonics, the same symmetry and grace, since Nature could produce this just as well where neither life nor life’s purposefulness had ever existed, or ever would.

Addendum: The first sentence is eloquent and rather long and at first it seemed ungrammatical (perhaps it's the translation from Polish). The core of it is "nature could achieve liberation" but the word "nature," surrounded by other clauses, tends to get swamped, or appears to be paired as a synonym with the word "survival" that precedes it. Regardless, once you have it, this passage is a good example of Lem's Borgesian talent for extrapolation from known phenomena to create "unthinkable" vistas and thought processes. It comes at the end of a description of a volcanic crater where minerals have run riot over millions of years of geological time to create landscapes that seem like amalgamations of our worst nightmares. There is beauty there, as well, which got me thinking about those quasi-biological Wetzel sculptures. Lem is one of the most visual sf writers, and his book Solaris has been stripped down by film directors into something like a simple love story, when the essence of it is his poetic description of the surreal life forms constantly churning in the Solarian "ocean" and human inability to ever understand them.

Addendum 2: Clearer photos of the artworks

Breece D'J Pancake

pancake_cover450w

I took a fiction writing class with this author, when we were both undergrads at UVa. According to the Wikipedians, he "has become a semi-mythical figure of American Literature" whose "vivid, compact style has been compared to that of Ernest Hemingway." Like Hemingway, he "died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound" (although much younger, at age 26). I didn't learn about his unfortunate death or impressive reputation until years later.

Back then he signed his stories "Breece D. Pancake." The Wikipedians say "the unusual middle name 'D'J' originated when The Atlantic Monthly misprinted his middle initials (D.J., for Dexter John) in the byline of 'Trilobites,' a short story the magazine published in 1977." [1] Perversely, Pancake adopted this flub as his writer name; in the Afterword to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, John Casey, our teacher and Pancake's biggest advocate, calls the acquiescence a "celebration" of Pancake's first published tale, which "eased his sense of strain -- the strain of trying to get things perfect -- by adopting an oddity committed by a fancy magazine." [2]

I remember Pancake as a (sorry, it must be said) lumpish, brooding, but oddly entitled presence at the table where we sat and critiqued work. His type of fiction didn't interest me much at the time, and none of the stories we read were as good as the ones in this collection. Just achingly honest tales of rural America, without the bleak melodrama that came later. Possibly I missed it; possibly because I was one of those "middle class" students from the Washington DC area that James Alan McPherson, in his Foreword, says Breece, a West Virginia native, had a hard time fitting in with. (McPherson also taught Pancake at UVa.)

Lumpish or no, Pancake clearly had some pull outside the classroom. Casey fawned and fussed over his writing in front of the other students. At the time it seemed a condescending form of sympathy for an outsider who had drifted into the system. McPherson frames Pancake's outsiderdom as a matter of social class; to me it was a matter of the relative (lack of) interest in bucolic-details-as-story-material. It seemed old fashioned, but Casey ate it up.

I also didn't know until I read the Foreword and Afterword to The Stories that he had been workin' the refs in his off hours, confidently marching into his teachers' offices and saying he wanted to study with them. (His exact words to McPherson were "Buddy, I want to work with you." Gag me.) His chutzpah and the quality of the stories he thrust on them got him an amazing amount of special treatment. But they also gave his benefactors perhaps more than they bargained for.

This anecdote from McPherson awakened me to a world of mentor-boundary-crossing I couldn't have even imagined back in the day:

In the winter of 1977 I went to Boston and mentioned the work of several of my students, Breece included, to Phoebe-Lou Adams of The Atlantic. She asked to be sent some of his stories. I encouraged Breece to correspond with her, and very soon afterward several of his stories were purchased by the magazine. The day the letter of acceptance and check arrived, Breece came to my office and invited me to dinner. We went to Tiffany’s, our favorite seafood restaurant. Far from being pleased by his success, he seemed morose and nervous. He said he had wired flowers to his mother that day but had not yet heard from her. He drank a great deal. After dinner he said that he had a gift for me and that I would have to go home with him in order to claim it.
He lived in a small room on an estate just on the outskirts of Charlottesville. It was more a workroom than a house, and his work in progress was neatly laid out along a square of plywood that served as his desk. He went immediately to a closet and opened it. Inside were guns -- rifles, shotguns, handguns -- of every possible kind. He selected a twelve-gauge shotgun from one of the racks and gave it to me. He also gave me the bill of sale for it -- purchased in West Virginia -- and two shells. He then invited me to go squirrel hunting with him. I promised that I would. But since I had never owned a gun or wanted one, I asked a friend who lived on a farm to hold on to it for me.

Pancake gave McPherson a gun; he asked Casey to be his godfather! This was a twenty-something-year-old man. From Casey's Afterword:

Not long before Breece and I got to be friends, his father and his best friend both died. Sometime after that Breece decided to become a Roman Catholic and began taking instruction...
Breece asked me to be his godfather. I told him I was a weak reed, but that I would be honored. This godfather arrangement soon turned upside down. Breece started getting after me about going to mass, going to confession, instructing my daughters. It wasn’t so much out of righteousness as out of gratitude and affection, but he could be blistering. And then penitent.

McPherson also recalls Pancake standing in the corridor of the fiction department shouting over and over "I'm Jimmy Carter and I'm running for President!" -- prompting more paragraphs of contorted, hagiographic justification (akin to Casey's riff on "D'J") -- about the New South and Pancake's place in it.

Pancake appears from the essays to have been bipolar or BPD, yet the teachers catered to him, built him up, hung out with him, at least until McPherson moved to Yale and stopped opening Pancake's mail. (Breece was his bosom buddy till he wasn't.) Regarding his suicide, McPherson quotes a letter from Pancake's mother stating that "God called [Breece] home because he saw too much dishonesty and evil in this world and he couldn’t cope," an explanation that covers a lot of territory.

Pancake's book sat on my shelf for several years; I was motivated to read it, finally, after encountering the fiction of Daniel Woodrell, an Ozarks writer who has been compared to Pancake. I prefer Woodrell, for the simple reason that his prose does not make me crave oblivion. Pancake's writing exudes a primal, all-encompassing pain; it's a freakishly intriguing body of work but not a very fun experience. Woodrell tempers the pain with stoic humor, at least; Pancake is rarely funny.

In Pancake's universe, if there is a mine, it is played out; if there is a field, it is shriveled; if there is a car, it is a wreck. People suffer black lung, cancer, brain damage, "spells." An animal will be slaughtered or a woman called a whore at least once per story. Characters can never quite escape them hills. In Woodrell's world people want to stay in the Ozarks. Some commenters on The Stories find resilience and life-affirmation in Pancake's work. This is surely not the case. The best reason to read it is to understand, to live, the levels of despair one might experience before the trigger is pulled, in a West Virginia that serves as a petri dish for all the toxins of Milton Friedman's America. The exquisite craft of Pancake's old-soul, Hemingway-informed prose makes it possible to go this deep.

Still, I don't like the stories much. They seem half-baked, or adolescent to me, for all their brilliant channeling of greater writers. More symptom than fiction.

1. The "John" was added by Pancake, the Wikipedians state, "after converting to Catholicism in his mid-20s."

2. For a writer whose last name is an oddity, to allow a thoughtless gatekeeper to choose an even odder one as his permanent "brand" seems more like an act of self-dislike than one of "celebration." As Pancake's champion both in life and posthumously, Casey seems to have avoided any darker explanations for his behaviour.

[revised after posting]

get ready for work hardening, seniors

"Haircut" is a classic Ring Lardner short story employing an unreliable narrator. A barber describes his swell chum who the reader quickly determines is a complete ingrate. Wired magazine (intentionally -- I think*) uses this device in its recent article Meet the CamperForce, Amazon's Nomadic Retiree Army. Written in a perky, upbeat style, it describes the grimmest of circumstances: a man works his way up the ladder at McDonald’s, retires at 60, loses his savings to shaky investments, and spends his twilight years in a soul-deadening Amazon warehouse job.

And not just by himself: there is a small army of elderly camper nomads in the outbacks of Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, and other states (cheerfully called "workampers" in the article) who are being exploited by Jeff Bezos in the same manner. Their aging bodies aren't accustomed to 10 hour days schlepping consumer goods around the inside of a warehouse so Amazon begins their (seasonal) work cycle with "a period of half-days called 'work hardening,' meant to help newcomers adapt to the physical stress of the job."

Amazon makes arrangements with existing trailer courts to provide space for the "CamperForce," as Amazon calls these itinerants. In the off-season they camp elsewhere: on public land, in the desert... Wired describes the loving, friendly communities of seniors in rickety, leaky RVs, who have all found each other in their post-retirement estrangement from US consumer society (the term Hooverville is not used). As Naked Capitalism commenter Off the Street put it:

Divide and conquer springs to mind. Hard to resist the societal tides as one piece of jetsam. Given the low savings of most Americans, there is an oversupply of potential workamperserfs to depress wages through their remaining nasty, brutish and shortish lives. If there are silver linings, then those may be through human connections, less need for a wired or credit-driven world and more appreciation of what people once had. Who knew that the Mad Max movies were destined to become instruction manuals? What other movies are in the works now ;p

*The tone of Wired's article is difficult to pin down. The essay isn't original to the magazine; it's a teaser from an upcoming book from a major publishing house. Is the author naive, or passive aggressive? Consider this line: "Many of the freshly arrived Camper­Force workers were curious and strangely excited to work alongside the robots that threatened to replace them." Is the author afraid to speak critically of Amazon's brutal labor practices? Is she being constrained to speak by her publisher? The "Haircut" style makes the article less palatable than if she simply took a stand.

hitler on art

From William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990 edition), pp. 243-4:

The Germany which had given the world a Duerer and a Cranach had not been pre-eminent in the fine arts in modern times, though German expressionism in painting and the Munich Bauhaus architecture were interesting and original movements and German artists had participated in all the twentieth-century evolutions and eruptions represented by impressionism, cubism and Dadaism.
To Hitler, who considered himself a genuine artist despite his early failures as one in Vienna, all modern art was degenerate and senseless. In Mein Kampf he had delivered a long tirade on the subject, and one of his first acts after coming to power was to “cleanse” Germany of its “decadent” art and to attempt to substitute a new “Germanic” art. Some 6,500 modern paintings—not only the works of Germans such as Kokoschka and Grosz but those of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and many others—were removed from German museums.
What was to replace them was shown in the summer of 1937 when Hitler formally opened the “House of German Art” in Munich in a drab, pseudoclassic building which he had helped design and which he described as “unparalleled and inimitable” in its architecture. In this first exhibition of Nazi art were crammed some nine hundred works, selected from fifteen thousand submitted, of the worst junk this writer has ever seen in any country. Hitler himself made the final selection and, according to some of the party comrades who were with him at the time, had become so incensed at some of the paintings accepted by the Nazi jury presided over by Adolf Ziegler, a mediocre painter who was president of the Reich Chamber of Art, that he had not only ordered them thrown out but had kicked holes with his jack boot through several of them. “I was always determined,” he said in a long speech inaugurating the exhibition, “if fate ever gave us power, not to discuss these matters [of artistic judgment] but to make decisions.” And he had made them.
In his speech -- it was delivered on July 18, 1937 -- he laid down the Nazi line for “German art”:

Works of art that cannot be understood but need a swollen set of instructions to prove their right to exist and find their way to neurotics who are receptive to such stupid or insolent nonsense will no longer openly reach the German nation. Let no one have illusions! National Socialism has set out to purge the German Reich and our people of all those influences threatening its existence and character… With the opening of this exhibition has come the end of artistic lunacy and with it the artistic pollution of our people…

And yet some Germans at least, especially in the art center of Germany which Munich was, preferred to be artistically polluted. In another part of the city in a ramshackle gallery that had to be reached through a narrow stairway was an exhibition of “degenerate art” which Dr. Goebbels had organized to show the people what Hitler was rescuing them from. It contained a splendid selection of modern paintings—Kokoschka, Chagall and expressionist and impressionist works. The day I visited it, after panting through the sprawling House of German Art, it was crammed, with a long line forming down the creaking stairs and out into the street. In fact, the crowds besieging it became so great that Dr. Goebbels, incensed and embarrassed, soon closed it.

angela nagle, simon reynolds on rightwing transgression (but what about bullying by the left?)

My years on dump.fm (from which I'm still recovering) saw a constant meme-play tug-of-war between left and right attitudes. Which was better, to shock the left or to be the left?

That question comes up (not in those exact words) in Simon Reynolds' post today discussing Angela Nagle's book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right (alt-right is a Clinton term but we'll let it go since everyone seems to think they know what it means). (FYI, Nagle discusses ideas similar to those in her book in a recent Baffler essay.)

Reynolds notes that Nagle references his 1995 book The Sex Revolts (co-authored with Joy Press). Here's what he has to say today about that book and how it relates to the current situation:

Nagle references The Sex Revolts a couple of times during her thesis. That book is a bit of an orphan in the oeuvre, indeed there have been quite long periods when I've completely forgotten that Joy and I ever wrote it. While I can't quite reconstruct the head that came up with the over-arching thesis on which the thing is scaffolded and which I'm not certain stands up anymore (that was the peak / swan-song of my infatuation with French theory), whenever I've looked back at a specific portion or patch of it - the stuff on grunge, or Siouxsie, or the whole section on psychedelia - it still seems on the money.

Probably the sharpest part is the stuff that relates to Nagle's book, which is the early chapter dissecting the masculinism of all the immediate precursors to rock rebellion - the Beats, the Angry Young Men, James Dean, Ken Kesey, et al - during which we bring up "Momism", a concept coined by Philip Wiley in his 1942 book Generation of Vipers. Wylie identified a form of new American decadence in the growth of consumerism, mass media entertainment like radio, and suburbia, which he linked to matriarchy and domesticity: American virility, the frontier style of rugged martial masculinity on which the nation was founded, was being smothered by over-mothering, comfort and niceness. The Sex Revolts mentions Robert Bly's Iron Man as a modern-day, therapeutically tinged and New Age-y resurgence of the Momism critique, a sort of Jung Thug manifesto. But, published in 1995, our book was a year too early for Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club: angry young men reacting against metrosexual consumerism and sensitivity, a creeping decadence weakening from within.

Fight Club was the book that coined the term "snowflake," and the novel has proved to be a prophetic parable. The ugly contorted face of anti-Momism today is the paranoid impatience with political correctness, safe spaces, trigger warning -- the new proprieties that are felt as intolerable constraints, restrictions on the male right to spite. Underlying it all is the crisis of masculinity that doesn't know what its for anymore, in a demilitarized and post-industrial era. Hence the fixation on guns, on rapacious extraction industries like coal and the removal of protections for Mother Earth, on macho posturing foreign policy - surrogates and displacements for an eroding and increasingly irrelevant style of manhood.

Left-bullying has also grown increasingly macho -- from the virtual stoning of Ryder Ripps a couple of years ago to the nazi-punching video craze -- but it will be a while before a book is written about that. It's too complicated. Angela Nagle sort-of-covers it in Kill the Normies: as Reynolds notes, its thesis "asserts that there is a commonality of psychology in the desire-to-shock, whether manifested on the far right or far left of the political-cultural spectrum." But the nazi-punchers and the Ripps mobbers aren't out to shock. They think they are noble. The shock Nagle is talking about is old-left transgression against the Man -- beatniks not bathing, etc. -- which morphed in the late '70s punk era into "Nuke the Whales" events, the patrician humor of P. J. O'Rourke and other affronts to left-wing pieties. 4Chan is a slightly nastier version of that. (The first time I heard the phrase "politically correct" was in the late '80s. Reverend Ivan Stang of the Church of the Subgenius used it to describe "off limits" humor as dictated by the left -- yet being from Dallas he hated right-wing sanctimony just as much or more.)