Saturday, December 30, 2006

James M. Naughton and Adam Clymer, “Gerald Ford, 38th President, Dies at 93,” New York Times, December 27, 2006

“I believed what I was told.” So said Ford, after not knowing Nixon’s perfidy became impossible. The big question about Ford is, What was he told? Not just about Nixon, but about suffering, politics, life, God, etc. A quietly religious man, he forgave Nixon one Sunday morning –- between church and golf –- so that what he termed “healing” could begin. Now we’re told (should we believe it?) in the gently approving psycho-biography that follows the death of any big man -- even Saddam, today, is given credit for his "courage" -- that Ford, ironically, could never fully forgive his father, who beat his mother and abandoned her when young Ford, nee Leslie Lynch King, Jr., was two.

Such is the paradox of Ford. If his pardon of Nixon suggests that Ford was able, in public life, to see the greater good -- to understand how systems of culture work and to “heal” them –- everything else about his career reveals an opposite tendency. “The problem with him,” commented his first press secretary, Jerald terHorst, “— he doesn’t like to be kidded about it — but the fact is, this guy would, if he saw a school kid in front of the White House who needed clothing, if he was the right size, he’d give him the shirt off his back, literally. Then he’d go right in the White House and veto the school lunch bill.”

Another proof for the myth of the Decent Man. The Decent Man, as an American species, believes in hard work but lives by a code of personal generosity, a small scale social gospel, that makes him a friend to the poor he can see. Systems elude him; he does not so much object to them as deny that they exist. He is a tragic hero, a good man incapable of self-realization as a great man because his vision is too narrow. But this is a ruse, as Ford’s forgiveness of Nixon and lack thereof for his father reveal.

Ford saw systems, saw culture, saw big pictures. He saw that to sustain the U.S. as he wanted it to be, a center-right nation, he had to erase Nixon as much as he could. He understood that Nixon was not a bad apple, but evidence that the system was created by and for the strong and the cunning. So he forgave Nixon, to restore the illusion of Babbitry he considered the American way.

In his personal life, though, he saw that forgiveness had its limitations. He did not go in for the banality of "healing." He recognized that some wounds are permanent -- that the anger toward his father that he clutched within his heart all his life was part of his essential make-up. If only he had been generous enough to extend this wisdom to his presidential duties! He would have allowed Nixon -- and by proxy, the system in which he rose -- to take a judicial beating the country would never forget, and rightly so.

But Ford knew what he was doing when he pardoned Nixon. He was gaming the system. And the eulogies to his decency, now that he is dead, are proof that this Decent Man, at least, was counting cards.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Primo Levi, A Tranquil Star, 2007.

My friend Bridget sent me galleys for this small collection of Levi stories, which W.W. Norton is billing as "unpublished," even though the back cover copy notes that they were all published in Italian between 1949 and 1986. Coming on the heels of Elie Wiesel's new edition of Night, A Tranquil Star is an exercise in bait-and-switch -- the hyperbole of the "unpublished" subtitle, the copy's promise that the stories are nonetheless "classic," the phony symbolism of an anniversary (20 years since Levi's much-interpreted death). Most of all, there's the cover, a twinkling star in a starry sky, like the one over a manger. It's sure to appeal to the maudlin, philo-semitic sentiments of the Christians who make up a huge portion of the Holocaust market. All that this poor man suffered, and still he had hope!

I would have discarded the book had it not come from Bridget -- I read Levi's Survival at Auschwitz years ago, took the message, and have ever since been wary of what my friend Peter Manseau, writing on the much-more glib Wiesel, refers to as "The Hazard of Holocaust Theology". Having kept the book, I would have left it on my shelf unread, along with another book Bridget sent (Creation, E.O. Wilson's worthy but unseductive attempt to persuade evangelicals to embrace some mild environmentalism) had she not enclosed a note directing me to the title story. She's a brilliant reader, so I followed her lead.

"Once upon a time," it begins, "somewhere in the universe, very far from here, lived a peaceful star..." Just what I was afraid of! What's worst than Holocaust theology? Holocaust fables. But I kept going, and am pleased to report that Bridget's guidance is sound.

"This star was very big and very hot," Levi continues,
and its weight was enormous: and here a reporter's difficulties begin. We have written "very far," "big," "hot," "enormous": Australia is very far, an elephant is big and a house is bigger, this morning I had a hot bath, Everest is enormous. It's clear that something in our lexicon isn't working.
The story is five pages long; 4/5 of it is dedicated to the inadequacies of descriptive language and the assumptions of theology; 1/5 to a Peruvian astronomer for whom a tranquil star is a threat to his marriage. But Levi does not reduce philosphy to commentary on the domestic difficulties of the educated middle class. Rather, the story is -- I think -- a Holocaust fable.

Or, perhaps, a fable about Holocaust fables -- a "very distant" response to the infantilism with which the Holocaust is too often described by those who would turn it not into theology, but into a set of dark (or worse, inspiring) fairy tales. As novelist Hal Niedzviecki writes, "Nothing is Illuminated" by bad Holocaust fiction.

"A Tranquil Star," packaged as just that -- to be fair, it likely wouldn't sell much otherwise -- is something else altogether, a story without meaning. A rebuttal to "meaning." An empirical gesture that doesn't point in any direction.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ann Nocenti, Daredevil, late 1980s

About a year-and-a-half ago, bored by the dull politics that clog too much of my book-in-progress, I decided to spend some time thinking about the stories that made we want to write in the first place. I was a Tolkien geek as a kid -- I spent first grade reading throught The Lord of the Rings, very slowly -- but that ground had been trampled by the movies. I loved them despite all their faults, but they so fully claimed the stories for the bright light of pop culture that little of the imaginative mystery I remember from childhood remains. So I turned to the other mothersource: Comic books. At first, I bought only a title called "Amazing X-Men," because it was written by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and, for my money, one of the most emotionally perceptive writers at work in any genre. Then, at the recommendation of a man in a bar, I moved onto Brian Bendis' Daredevil. Bendis at his best is another one of the great contemporary writers, but, of course, he's unknown in literary circles because he works in a pulp genre, and, what's more, he clearly loves that pulp genre -- he's not trying to transcend it, he's trying to fulfill it.

I'd occasionally buy my comics from Forbidden Planet, the giant comic/geek emporium at Broadway and 13th, but I preferred to pick them up from a guy named Joe who runs a tiny shop round the corner from me called The Dugout. Sports cards, toy figurines, and a half dozen new titles every month. Not always the same title. I can't figure Joe out -- he reads the comics, discerns between the writers, and sells them like they're a front for his real business. Which, I gather, the whole place is -- he's an old neighborhood guy, and I think he makes his money on real estate deals, turning over the 'hood to people like me.

He's not one of those guys who won't talk to the yuppies, but you have to pass his test. First time I go into the store, he recommends Bendis' Alias, a great comic about a depressed private eye who quit superheroing because her powers -- a little bit of flying, stronger than the average sally -- were to lame to carry a storyline. But that wasn't what Joe was talking about. "Check it out," he says. "Page fuckin' one, Luke Cage"--another superhero with grade B powers--"givin' it to her from behind!" Joe's pretty big in the gut, but his hips proved remarkably nimble as he reached out and humped an imaginary superheroine-turned-private eye.

I bought the book. Joe's been helpful with comics advice ever since.

This past Thanksgiving, I found two boxes of childhood comics in my father's attic and gave them to my four-year-old nephew, Teo. (No explicit sex, but plenty of the implicit kink that fuels all stories beloved by children.) Teo has been wearing superhero costumes for about two years. He can't read comics, and he doesn't really care what the storyline is, but he loves them. Dressed as Superman, he heaved the boxes upside down and poured out avalanches of comics onto the floor. Then he rolled around in them, giggling and tossing them into the air. I intervened -- not on behalf of the maybe-valuable books, but for the sake of my old Daredevils. Those, I took back to Brooklyn with me, and I've been reading them one or two a day since Thanksgiving.

Which brings me to the title of this post, Ann Nocenti, the writer of the most interesting stories in the run I had. (I started collecting after the legendary -- and overrated -- Frank Miller, whose fascistic sadism seemed as real as his talent.) I don't have a complete run anymore, so I had to piece together the narratives, but that made the stories better, more elliptical, which is the effect I think Nocenti was aiming for. I won't summarize. Suffice it to say that Daredevil, the blind boxer with "radar" power, ninja-grace, and a billy club, battles mainly a villain called Mephisto. The name isn't metaphorical. Mephisto is the devil, or a devil, or something crazy and lewd and demonic and clever. One of my favorites involves Manhattan transformed into hell, with everybody going about their ordinary business as machines and bureaucrats combine into monsters all around them, such as the grinning cop/dentist/drill/taxi combo with smoke coming out of his ears called Officer Drill. Daredevil, in a daze, disillusioned among the illusions, walks amongst the horrors occasionally kicking or punching a baddie. But he's not all there. He's never all there in Nocenti's stories, as if the superhero himself is so freaked out by his powers that he's retreated into a natural prozac haze.

Eventually, Daredevil lands in actual hell. The stories here are funny -- all the demons drawn by John Romita, Jr., are revolting and giggle-inducing at the same time. They're also heavy-handed -- this is Big Thoughts 101, which, I'm guessing, is all Nocenti thought Daredevil readers could handle. (And many of them couldn't handle that; there were plenty of letters from adult readers demanding a return to ass-whuppings in Manhattan.) That combination -- absurd, and didactic, and fantastic -- must have made for a wonderful time of writing. No concern for drama, art, or even pulp -- just Nocenti's mind turned inside out onto the page, with the anxieties of a blind lawyer/acrobat hero as her frame.

What happened to Nocenti? She became an editor of High Times. An appropriate career choice for such a trippy intelligence. But Nocenti's stories were more loyal to the comics pulp genre than they seemed, particularly the political tension at the heart of the superhero narrative, between the inherent conservatism of a strongman who sets things right and the implicit radicalism of carnivalesque fantasies of spider-men and women, green-skinned, muscle-bound ids, and robots with sex lives. From Bakhtin's 1965 study of Rabelais, which made "carnival" an essential term of lit crit:
It could be said (with certain reservations, of course) that a person of the Middle Ages lived, as it were, two lives: one that was the official life, monolithically serious and gloomy, subjugated to a strict hierarchical order, full of terror, dogmatism, reverence and piety; the other was the life of the carnival square, free and unrestricted, full of ambivalent laughter, blasphemy, the profanation of everything sacred, full of debasing and obscenities, familiar contact with everyone and everything.
Here's Nocenti on what attracted her to comics, in an interview I found on a Daredevil fan site:
I painted oils and did zinc plate etching back then, i.e.: I was poor. Answering a help wanted Village Voice ad, I sincerely lied my way past the shooter at the door, pretending I knew what a comic was. Once inside the citadel I was stunned by the incendiary energy of words and pics shoved into little box grids, printed on toilet paper, to be rolled up and stuck in a back pocket like a rag. The whole thing seemed subversive. Why was all this psychedelic power crammed into such tiny, badly-printed packages? Were they peddling some new drug here? I knew right away I wanted a crack at making the things.
Me, too! That's why I got into writing.

The southwest view from the corner of Third Ave. and 3rd St. in Brooklyn, late afternoon on a snowless day between Christmas and New Year’s, 2006.

The sky is ¾ cloudy and the air is mellow dusty, the beams of the sun tracing lines across the rooftops. I walk down 3rd Avenue toward my work studio, keeping pace just in front of an old man pushing a shopping cart. His back is so bent that his head is even with the cart, but his legs propel him as quickly as mine. He rattles behind me for blocks.

I stop at the northeastern corner and let the man behind me push his shopping cart past. The two-story building across from me -- an old Jewish bathhouse? An abandoned bank? -- catches my eye first, for the watch it keeps over the surrounding cityscape, flattened, with few signs of new construction. The building sees nothing -- its windows are boarded up black and its second story ledge is garnished with rusty barbed coil wire, grey with old plastic bags. Romantic ruins.

But the building is just the frame. The picture stretches out to the right, a long horizontal painting of muted colors and indifferent glory. I see it in terms of the composition Phyllis Kulmatiski taught me in the 9th grade, when I shared an art table with Dave Taylor and the first two girls who were sweet to me, sharp-tongued, bow-lipped Quincy Thomas and gentle, smart, beautiful, doomed Joanne Powell. Mrs. K, as Dave called her, taught us a rule of threes: We were not to divide our work into halves, the natural instinct of simple creatures, but thirds. And so I see the cityscape before me: Third Ave., coasting down to the swell of the 3rd St. drawbridge over the Gowanus, dominates the lower third; a construction fence of plyboard panels painted pine green fills the second; the sky, fading blue and dusty yellow and dull iron, completes the third. Third Avenue is unremarkable, but the fence looks like a series of panels by Ben Shahn, somehow painted and etched and printed all at the same time. One board peels toward me, revealing the crapscape behind it, layers upon layers.

The magnificence of the scene, though, rises from the fence. To the north, the Kentile Floors sign, the metal skeleton of an industrial beast that died. I’m looking at the back of the letters, rising over Brooklyn. To their south, if perspective was geography, is the trapezoidal lace of the steel arches suspending the F-Line, five train tracks over the city. To the north -- actually, closer to me -– stands a double row of beige, cement silos. The tracks point to the Kentile Floors sign, and so do the dust-filled sunbeams. The silos, like the old bath house, are part of the frame, but taken as flat shapes, as the diamonds that all squares viewed at an angle and a distance become, they, too, point to the sign. The sign, Mrs. K. would say, is the point of emphasis; all perspectives lead the eye to it. But it faces away from me, faces the setting sun, which does what it can to spotlight the sign’s rusty grandeur. This is a scene of industrial afterlife, and I’m not part of it.

Then again, I am. I keep walking, past a shiny new madrassah of fake red stone and over a bridge crossing a tributary of the Gowanus and zigzagging my way from Third Ave to Second on a series of half streets and loading dock alleys til I emerge at 9th Street, between the Kentile Floor Sign and the elevated tracks. Then I enter my building, beneath the bridge, and disappear into the picture completely. That is where I’m writing from.

(2005 photo by Mike at Satan's Laundromat)

I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey (Vanguard Records), 2006.

At the closeout sale of the once massive Tower Records empire on Broadway in Manhattan—it occupied a block and half, then dwindled to a block, then to one store on the corner of Broadway and e. 4th, I think—I picked through the picked over bluegrass collection on sale for 40% off. There wasn’t much—no actual Fahey albums, for instance—but I found this. There were actually two Fahey tributes, one made up mainly of entries from more established stars, several of them country, and this hipster version, with entries from artists such as Sufjan Stevens (of course; but it’s actually the weakest track, the guitar diluted by Stevens’ too-clever choir) Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth (who uses voice effectively; it took me two listens to notice that what I had taken for feedback that sounded like the voice of a walrus recorded in the distance on his cover of “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee” are actually human voices, recorded, apparently, on the Brooklyn Bridge), and Calexico, whom I’d been wanting to hear for a long time. They use voice, too – maybe murmur is a better word -- and it’s ok, because they’ve made “Dance of Death” their song--it’s a lot more southwestern, but just as autistically personal as the Fahey original.

I discovered Fahey in college when I read a Spin article by a reporter who’d tracked him down in a SRO and gotten his guitar out of hock for him. This led to modest Fahey revival and a thin living for Fahey. My then-girlfriend and I saw him perform at a club in Northampton, the Iron Horse, not long before he died. It was kind of painful--just sort of dull. His blood was probably half prozac by then.

A greatest hits album of his (there were no hits, of course) became part of my writing soundtrack, instrumental to the writing of the unpublished cancer book and for years afterward. It’s since been retired. I like this album a lot, though. I hope it can carry me through the writing of the last chapter of the current book, if not further.

In which I explain myself

I'm a journalist. I write for Harper's and Rolling Stone. I also teach at New York University, where I edit a sort of blog/online magazine about religion and media called The Revealer. There, I publish work by journalists, scholars, students, and me -- whatever I have to say on the subject. I'm co-founder of Killing The Buddha, an online magazine at which I'm now just an "editor at large" -- which means I can publish anything I want on the subject. Buddha-killing, that is. It's not what it sounds like.

But I'm also a reader, a nerd, a bookworm, a bibliophile, a text fetishist, a book groper. And this, "Call Me Ishmael," is where I get to indulge my obsession. And, if I'm lucky, spark some conversations with those likewise afflicted.

My title might seem grandiose, but remember what happens to Ishmael in Moby-Dick. He gets overwhelmed by genius -- Queequeg's, Ahab's, the whale's.

Same principle here.