Brett Easton Ellis’ White is a Necessary Manifesto

I don’t recall Brett Easton Ellis’ first nonfiction book getting all that great a reception when it was released last year, but the Goodreads ratings come in at a strong 3.5 and there are themes in this book that the legacy media might be reluctant to support. White is about people self-censoring in the post-Empire age of American public life where we are all subject to sudden mass judgment and expulsion based on musings, wisecracks and opinions uttered on social media or in print. Ellis’ book is a fun lamentation of the death of Open Society and should be read as a warning, not dismissed as reactionary.

Though Ellis doesn’t say it outright, I think he’s understanding that the First Amendment, as a legal term, cannot encompass everything that’s demanded of a society that truly celebrates freedom of expression. If you tell somebody say, protesting a speech on their college campus or demanding that a publisher doesn’t release a book that they’re working against free speech they will argue back that they, too, have a right to criticize, to make demands and to shape the culture.

No adult should be afraid of a writer.

Of course, they do. But how they exercise that right matters. As the author of American Psycho, which has its original publishing contract canceled at the last minute after people who had not even read the book protested against what they assumed were its themes, Ellis knows full well that there’s a big difference between a civil society that says “Sure, publish it and then I’ll argue against it” and one that seeks to suppress creative work that might be challenging or, in contemporary parlance, “triggering.”

Ellis got a lot of attention for calling Millennials “Generation Wuss” and so the response to White was that the former literary brat packer had become an old man yelling at the kids. But he’s really trying to save the kids by bringing them back to a culture of aesthetic appreciation where, yes, you can watch and enjoy Roman Polanski film without concerning yourself with the director’s life, if you so choose.

From my vantage, the Millennials are not really to blame for the emergent anti-speech culture. They were children and toddlers or unborn when “political correctness” became prominent in the 1990s. Around that same time, we were slapping warning labels on popular music and people were threatening to outright censor sexual content on MTV and violent content in video games (after the Legend of Zelda massacres, of course, I kid).

There’s always been a tension between speech and society’s stability (just ask Socrates) but Ellis is refreshingly blunt about the mental illness of adults who allow themselves to be psychologically triggered and disrupted by other people’s opinions and aesthetics.

There’s a lot of art and opinion I don’t like in the world and some of it makes me mad and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Ellis, for example, loved horror movies in his youth while I’ve always hated them and scenes of even absurd horror violence can still worm into my mind and rob my sleep. But I don’t agitate against horror movies. I don’t demand that they aren’t distributed or made available to others, though I surely have every right to do so.

There’s ultimately a difference, and it’s deeper than a legal one, between saying “I don’t like something or somebody,” and saying, “Those things should not exist, those people should not be allowed employment in industries where I can see them.” It’s also funny and telling that our society is highly judgmental over who gets to be an actor, director or writer for a living but that we’re almost entirely unconcerned about who foams our cappuccino. Some of those baristas probably have hair curling opinions.

Ellis fans will also want to read White because there’s a lot of cool detail about the mindset that led to Less Than Zero and the creation of the Ellis-verse that includes all of his books. I was only a little disappointed that Glamorama isn’t mentioned at all.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism

I don’t know what it was that had me reaching for my Voltaire a few months ago — probably something in the cultural air portending a dissolution of standards and, yes, a Closing of the American Mind that must be dealt with.

Forget Joe Biden, we need Voltaire.

New Rules for Cultural Criticism:

  1. Don’t speculate about real people’s personal lives, you’ll never get it right.
  2. Never wish a creative work out of existence. Criticize it all you want, denounce it if you must, but never seek to destroy it or isolate it from other people’s attention.
  3. “De-platforming,” or whatever the scolds are calling it these days, has more in common with red baiting, blacklisting, book burning and Victorian shaming than it does to liberation or empowerment.
  4. The first amendment is a subset, and a damned small one, of free speech and expression. It does not define the concept.
  5. It’s fine not to work on creative projects that offend you morally, but it’s bankrupt to try to hinder them if the creators wish to move on without you.
  6. While you can reassess works you liked in the past, you shouldn’t ignore what initially attracted you to the art.  While you don’t have to laugh at the same joke over and over, you can’t unlaugh at something.
  7. Everybody has standing to create anything and to comment on anything.  This is the essential human right from which all others derive.
  8. Don’t make lists of ten, they’re too predictable.

Remembering “The Banquet Years”

I’m writing something about a bookworm character who is remembering the books specifically given to him by teachers in high school and college. Among the list are: The Complete Works of Emerson, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins, The Firebugs by Max Frisch, Strip Tease by Carl Hiassen, Side Effects by Woody Allen and this gem:

Published in 1955, Roger Shattuck’s vivid telling of the birth of French surrealism is a book I’ve read twice now and think about all the time. I remain sure that surrealism is the foundation of everything going on in the world today and not just in art, or even primarily in art, but in the communications of corporations and governments that are gleefully contradictory when they’re not completely free of information.

I highly recommend The Banquet Years. I may pick it up again soon.

Epic Theatre in Pre-Literate Societies

Fascinating article today about Milman Parry, the Harvard scholar who worked out how pre-literate societies like the ancient Greeks were able to compose, memorize and perform epic poems like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Parry found examples of this type of storytelling in other cultures, including the Bosnia of the 1930s. As with so much else, the capacity for Homeric storytelling seems to be a universal human trait.

Milman Parry at Harvard University.

What we’ll never know, but is fun to imagine from my perspective, is how these stories changed when told by different bards. I’d imagine each bard had their own style, based on their politics, religion, philosophy or homeland. I’d bet some were quirky and some serious. Some were angry and some were in awe.

How many ways can you tell the story of Odysseus’ voyage home? How many ways can you explain the motivations behind the invasion of Troy? What about all of the other Homeric hymns and the lost stories? Was their an epic Homeric universe?

Of course, we’re still retelling these stories. Over the last two years, I’ve read a bunch of these new takes on old tales and I recommend them all:

  • The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallidatides (translated by Marlaine Delargy, Other Press, 2019)
  • The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.)
  • Circe by Madeline Miller (Little, Brown and Company, 2018)
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Ecco, 2012)
  • Wake Siren, Ovid Resungby Nina MacLaughlin (Macmillan, 2019)
  • Eurydice by H.D. (from: Collected Poems 1912-1944 (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1982: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51869/eurydice-56d22fe6d049d, though the poem was originally published in The Egoist in 1917.)

Hey Siri, Did Poe Kill Himself?

In my daily life, I am surrounded by people making astounding claims about computational power. Many of these claims are true. Insurance underwriters can increasingly predict our mortality based on our habits and behaviors and the more data they have, the more accurate they can be. Psychologists at Lancaster University have set computers to the task of figuring out whether Edgar Allen Poe killed himself after a descent into severe depression.

The researchers conclude, after having the computer compare Poe’s late-life writing through a database containing words, phrases and images that typically connote depression and the suicidal impulse, that Poe was depressed but did not take a direct hand in his death.

It’s a worthy project, but I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons. First, the database is necessarily bereft of writing samples from people who don’t write while suffering depression and from people who don’t write anything in advance of suicide. Second, I wonder if you can compare the writing of somebody like Poe, who is practiced at writing in character, to a database of anything, even if you’re using his letters and journal entries.

Not saying the study has come to a correct or incorrect solution, just that computers can’t know everything.

The Ending of Candide

“The end of Candide is for me incontrovertible proof of genius of the first order; the stamp of the master is in that laconic conclusion, as stupid as life itself.” -Gustave Flaubert

I’ll never be able to sum that up as well as Flaubert. The famous ending is, after all of the calamities, misfortunes, tortures and pains endured by Candide and his friends Pangloss, Cunegonde, Cacambo, Martin, the Old Woman, Paquette and Girofleo, that the only solace is productive work and that excessive philosophizing is just a path to superfluous misery.

“We must cultivate our garden,” says Candide, dismissing another of Pangloss’ arguments that everything has turned out for the best in this best of all possible worlds. By this point in the story, Pangloss has renounced him optimism but has decided to keep arguing for it anyway, because that’s what philosophers do.

It’s nice to see the roots of literary and theatrical absurdism creep out from a satiric epic. Though Voltaire would likely skewer an observation like that.

My City Gone By, I Miss It So

I’m very late to reading 2013’s Goodbye to All That, a collection of 28 essays by women writers who have left New York City, including Emily Gould Cheryl Strayed, Emma Straub, Dana Kinstler… well, they’re all notable writers and they’re all gone. They do a collectively wonderful job paying homage to Joan Didion, who wrote the essay that named the collection.

I’ll cross 20 years living here in October. I’ve rented in Queens, Brooklyn, Union Square and now the West Village. Our son goes to school here. It’s very much home. But it is interesting to find out, in a seven year old book plucked from the radiator in the lobby where neighbors leave books for the taking, that the Great Lakes Bar in Park Slope shut down years ago, or that the Riviera Cafe on 7th avenue south, which I saw shut down, was there for much longer than I’d thought.

Somehow, we let the state close down Cafe Loup just because the owners owe some taxes. Nobody asked me, as a citizen, if I’d rather have Loup or their tax money, but the answer is Loup! Also, I was assured that Cedar Tavern would come back after it shut down a few years back.

It’s odd to be finishing the book right when Gould is shutting down her independent publishing operation, Emily Books. Or to notice that none of these writers had time to lament the closure of The Awl, which published both my wife and me before it closed and is a badge of honor for us both.

“I wanted more from my city,” wrote Dana Kinstler and I can’t help but agree. In a city so expensive that then mayor and now president hopeful Michael Bloomberg once called it “a luxury good.”

It’s hard to not want more from a city that charges multiples more for monthly rent than a mortgage, taxes and insurance would cost elsewhere (but not elsewhere within a reasonable commute of the city) where the road is also paved badly and difficult to bicycle on.

Even for a die-hard New Yorker, this book makes you think “I’m not getting enough.” It also makes you wonder if the city can still be considered a literary city when it now has so few book shops. Thankfully, we still have The Strand, and Alabaster Bookshop but I half expect we’ll be taking donations to keep the remaining Barnes & Noble locations kicking before too long.

The founder of Brazenhead Books, the speakeasy used bookstore that you had to know some one to get into is “indefinitely closed” after the death of its founder. Les Bleus Literary Salon is also on hiatus after its founder, well, said goodbye to all that.

It’s fun to read the essays from different eras. The writers who came here in the 80s and early 90s really did get the more punk rock, club scene, performance art scene, cheap rent, cheap drugs, cheap bars experience the rest of us didn’t. But there’s also a bygone era of dotcom commerce with two distinct publishing and media booms, both long gone. Still, you’re reminded, that each generation of New York’s visitors finds something new, makes something new and leaves little but other people’s nostalgia for it behind.

So far as moving goes — there is a provincialism in provincial places. I know that, I was raised in New Mexico. But there’s provincialism in big provinces, too. “City hicks,” is a term I’ve used. Technology says we can live any place and there are no longer a lot of book stores anywhere.

Though, London looks cool, if expensive.

ETA: I did write my own “Goodbye to all that,” though I haven’t left. It’s here in McSweeney’s.

George Steiner, An Appreciation

Very sad to read that George Steiner died at 90 years old. Perhaps more than any critic, Steiner was able to cover vast philosophical, literary and historic ground in concise and readable prose. His essays, particularly the four that make up In Bluebeard’s Castle simultaneously open up the world while filling the reader with lament about how little we know and how much there is to study in so little time.

Steiner approached the world with an artist’s sensibility in times increasingly dominated by the soft and hard sciences. He was a deep reader and a generous explicator. In a world adrift in the shallows, we needed George Steiner.

Happy Birthday, Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein lived the very best of literary lives because she was both an artist and an appreciator. The writers, painters, sculptors and musicians that she nurtured made the world a better place, as did her own writing, particularly The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Everybody’s Autobiography.

I do wonder what she’d make of our own lost literary generation.

Is Freedom of Speech Still Our Highest Value?

I grew up with and have long practiced a kind of first amendment absolutism that seems now to be out of step with our times. It’s not that people don’t believe in the first amendment — polls show that most do and pretty much everyone I know would say they do — it’s more that people will no longer rank it as the highest value as issues of safety and social equality have taken new precedence in our discourse.

I first encountered this impulse directly in the 1990s, as part of an Albuquerque-based theatre company producing Ntzozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf with a multiracial cast, a decision that ran afoul the sensibilities of a local bookstore and led to protests. It didn’t even matter to those offended that Shange had explicitly blessed the production and casting.

We tend to view new attitudes about speech and whats constitutes offensive speech as a highly contemporary development, but this has been with us since the social awakenings of the 60s and was huge in the 90s. Along the way, the right of anybody to say whatever they want has eroded and the simple dismissal “you’re just complaining about the social consequences of speech,” doesn’t really suffice as an answer. Not if those social consequences are shutting people out of global conversations.

In an online literary forum where the topic of American Dirt was raised, I wrote: “We all have an absolute right to tell any story we want.”

The first response: “Hard disagree.”

This isn’t exactly an attack on the Constitution is how the argument tends to proceed. The Constitution only guarantees that the government will not stop something like American Dirt from being written and published. It makes no promises about people buying the book, agreeing to sell the book or not protesting the book’s existence. That’s all true. The right to write a book is equal to the right for somebody to protest the book’s existence. That’s the deal.

But I sill believe that the conviction that certain people shouldn’t even attempt to tell certain stories represents the beginning of an erosion of free speech. “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt,” is just not an argument I can get behind even as “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt badly,” is one I’m fine with.

We should argue about the quality of speech, not the existence of speech. The Freedom Forum Institute, which conducts an annual poll about first amendment attitudes shows that absolute support for free speech is slipping. In 2018, 23% of the poll respondents said that first amendment protections “go too far.” That number climbed to 29% in 2019. Can nearly a third of Americans really believe such nonsense?

35% of respondents believe that student journalists in public schools should need school administrator approval to write about controversial topics in student run publications. 27% believe that teachers should be allowed to punish students for the contents of their social media posts.

We allow and accept, by the way, that employers can fire people for what they post on social media or for having political bumper stickers on their cars. We also allow and accept that the massive corporate gatekeepers of the internet and the wider culture, like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter can promote or ban whatever speech they want and we say that this is proper because they are private even though corporate censorship may be a bigger threat than government censorship in contemporary America.

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