Thursday, September 27, 2007

iPod rundown - 09/27/07

I haven't done one of these in a while, in part because I'd sort of painted myself into a corner with the length of my writeups and didn't have the time for that. So I expect these to be shorter, but, hey, maybe that means they'll happen more often. The self-imposed rules: note the first fifteen songs that come up when I listen to my iPod on shuffle at work in the morning; write about them. I've settled on Thursdays as the day of the week to do this.

1. Mr. Lif - "Collapse": So-called underground, "indie" rapper (or, groan, "undie"). Def Jux. Given my former tendency to assume that the mainstream--in any genre--was not worth paying any attention to at all, I had had high hopes for the Def Jux crew, but I've been generally disappointed. Mr. Lif is no exception. Some of his songs are pretty cool, but I tend to be put off by the timbre of his voice. This one gets better as it goes along.

2. DJ Spooky - "Variation Cybernetique: Rhythmic Pataphysic": How's that for a song title? I first heard of Spooky around the time DJ Shadow was getting big. I bought a random cd of his expecting it to be something like the noisy, hip-hop-ish Riddim Warfare, but it ended up being more of a musique concrète urban soundscape sort of thing. It wasn't what I was looking for at the time, and I eventually got rid of it (I don't remember the title). Later, he did Optometry as part of the Matthew Shipp-curated Blue Series on Thirsty Ear, with contributions from Shipp, William Parker, Daniel Carter, Joe McPhee, and numerous others. I've been up and down about this album (it was on the chopping block last year), but it has enough on it of interest for me to keep. This short track features Daniel Bernard Roumain on violin and is nice and shimmery.

3. The Unicorns - "Ghost Mountain": I loved Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? Loved the ramshackle, half-formed pop songs, the crunchy guitar sound and largely non-sensical lyrics, the sense the songs gave that they were barely holding together. Listened to it incessantly for about a year, not much in the last couple. They seem to be obsessed with ghosts.

4. Scott Walker - "Cockfighter": Very dramatic. I still need to spend some quality time with the two Walker cds I have, and work is oddly not the best place for that kind of thing. This song is interesting--begins with some metallic percussion before settling into its groove--but drifts by without my really being able to get a handle on it. From Tilt.

5. The Flatlanders - "The Stars in my life": More a Legend Than a Band is one of my favorite albums of all time. Great country music.

6. Liz Phair - "Help Me Mary": Exile in Guyville is really the only Liz Phair album I like, and even it I don't like that much. I've always thought it was good, not great, but with a few fantastic songs (like "Divorce Song"). This one's ok. I've always thought it was sort of creepy how obsessed certain male listeners were with Phair, given the sexually explicit lyrics, and I'd tended to think that her popularity was mainly with that crowd (boy wannabe critics). But that was before I met Aimée and saw how much she and her girlfriends (who are all six or seven years younger than I am) love Phair and especially Exile in Guyville. (Incidentally, I have no opinion on the controversial self-titled cd; since I'd already lost interest by the time it came out, I never bothered to listen to it, though I was a little curious when I became aware that it had serious defenders in the "poptimist" crowd.)

7. Mandy Barnett - "Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings": I bought Barnett's I've Got a Right to Cry cd several years ago, partly because she has a pretty voice and sounds like Patsy Cline. The album is not bad, but not thrilling. Not really in line with mainstream country, which is usually fine by me. Never got a lot of play. I've given it to my father as part of the purge.

8. The Mountain Goats - "You or Your Memory": The first track on The Sunset Tree. I love the Mountain Goats, of course, but I did not immediately like this song. It's grown on me.

9. Pixies - "Rock Music": I never feel like listening to a Pixies album anymore, but damn their songs sound good when they come up like this, like the great pop songs they are. From Bossanova.

10. Neutral Milk Hotel - "Untitled": This is an instrumental version of one of the main themes, I think, from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I've never been able to hear what it is that makes everyone go apeshit over them. Can anyone explain to me why I should care?

11. Wayne Shorter - "Chief Crazy Horse": I've been enjoying listening to a lot of Shorter's music lately--I have a clutch of the Blue Notes. This is from Adam's Apple; I think my favorites are Etc. and The All Seeing Eye.

12. Sly & the Family Stone - "Dance to the Music": There's no doubting the historical importance of this group, but I've never been able to love them. All I have is the single-disc Anthology. It's interesting: when it comes to rock or pop from the 1960s or 1970s, I tend to have full albums and discographies from white artists, and compilations from black artists. I should probably explore the reasons for that. It makes me more than a little uncomfortable. No doubt there are several complex socio-cultural underlying reasons.

13. Basehead - "Hoes on Tour Deal Drie": Not in Kansas Anymore. One of those super-short (36 seconds) between song bridges. I inherited this rap album from a friend who was getting rid of a lot of stuff before leaving the country. It's pretty good; has a loping, drugged out feel.

14. David Thomas & Two Pale Boys - "Planet of Fools": I think David Thomas' albums with Two Pale Boys have been a lot more interesting than the recent Pere Ubu releases. This is from Erehwon and features the group's standard accordian/guitar/trumpet instrumentation.

15. Pet Shop Boys - "It's Alright": There are, what?, eighteen songs on Discography, and I have more than 11,000 songs on my iPod, and yet the Pet Shop Boys keep coming up on these things. Typically chilly disco, not bad, not great.

Bonus rundown from last week (so much for shorter, eh?):

1. Jackie-O Motherfucker - "777 (Tombstone Massive)": I'd like to be able to describe this song, probably the best track on Change, but I don't think I can, not without spending a lot of time listening to it over and over (which I'm not against, but it won't happen just for this post). JOMF seem to be able to organically combine most of my musical interests in one place: blues, Appalachian folk, skronky free jazz, electronics, drone, and post-rock come together in a glorious clamor. Change is not as good as Fig. 5 or Liberation, but it's still pretty damn good. Slightly more conventional, heavier on the blues.

2. Mission of Burma - "That's When I Reach for my Revolver": Perhaps the best known Mission of Burma song. I love the group, but this song does not excite me. Is it wrong that I heard the Moby version first?

3. James Brown - "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag": What, I'm supposed to have something original to say about this song? It's always been one of my favorites of Brown's singles from the 1960s.

4. Jack Rose - "Black Pearls": Rose is in the group Pelt, which draws heavily from folk and raga, often in the service of the drone. This is virtuosic solo acoustic guitar from Two Originals...

5. Nick Drake - "From the Morning": Pleasant. Pink Moon.

6. Pixies - "All over the World": Another one from Bossanova.

7. Michaela Melian "Brautlied [edit]": A song from one of those Wire magazine comps. Bells, chugging strings; don't know much about it, but I like it.

8. Gastr del Sol - "Thos. Dudley Ah! Old Must Dye": Crookt, Crackt, or Fly. Prickly acoustic guitar fragment with David Grubb's customary crisp, clear, if not mannered vocals, and sound effects. One of my favorite groups.

9. Chris Bell - "You and Your Sister": Bell was in Big Star. I have this song from one of those Oxford American samplers. A nice enough pop ballad.

10. David Thomas & Two Pale Boys - "Numbers Man": More Thomas and Two Pale Boys, this time from 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man's Chest; harder rocking than most of this group's music.

11. Pixies - "Where is my Mind?": Again with the Pixies. Surfer Rosa.

12. Supersilent - "5.2": Glacial. Lovely.

13. Smog - "Everything You Touch Becomes a Crutch": From the great, early album, The Doctor Came at Dawn. The song is short, with acoustic guitar and piano backing. That can be said about many Smog songs, so it basically tells you nothing; sorry about that.

14. Dntel - "Last Songs": Electronic pop. I bought Life is Full of Possibilities because I'd been listening to Death Cab For Cutie a lot and front-band Ben Gibbard's appearance on the album was hyped. By now, a few years on, I have very little interest in the increasingly boring Death Cab (I've discarded most of what I had), didn't even really like that Postal Service record that everyone loved (I've grown to hate Gibbard's voice), but this album gets better and better.

15. Spontaneous Music Ensemble - "Oliv 1": I bought the classic Karyobin while on a trip in London (actually at a Derek Bailey gig in Stoke Newington). I like this (1969) incarnation of the group better. This track is long (19 minutes), with a folky vibe that I find appealing. I downloaded the song from Destination: OUT. Of all the records they've showcased on their site, this is among the handful of albums I'd most like to track down.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Cockburn on Klein

The Sharp Side points to Alexander Cockburn's article in CounterPunch about Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine. Cockburn correctly observes that capitalism has always been brutal, as any reading of the history of English enclosures or the Irish famine will tell you. One point I had in mind in my recent post on "Disaster Capitalism", which used a review of Klein's book as a starting point, is that Neoliberalism essentially is capitalism. What’s “neo” about it is the re-assertion of the liberalization of trade, money, etc, from regulation, to the purpose of class war, disguised by the rhetoric of freedom for all. Milton Friedman, of course, is the big name, along with his Chicago boys. But Cockburn makes an important point that singling out Friedman misses the extent to which the mainstream liberal economists were touting the same line of bullshit throughout the 1980s and 19990s. Citing the left economist Robert Pollin (who I've been meaning to read; his Contours of Descent looks very good), he writes:
"Shock therapy" neoliberalism really isn't most closely associated with Milton Friedman, but rather with Jeffrey Sachs, to whom Klein does certainly give many useful pages, even though Friedman remains the dark star of her story. Sachs first introduced shock therapy in Bolivia in the early 1990s. Then he went into Poland, Russia, etc, with the same shock therapy model. Sachs' catchy phrase then was that "you can't leap over an abyss step-by-step," or words to that effect. This is really where contemporary neoliberalism took shape. And, it wasn't just Sachs.

It was also other slightly left of center mainstream economists, most notably Summers and Paul Krugman as well. To his credit, Krugman has now recanted; Sachs also, but only partially. It's true that you can make a case that this all goes back to Friedman. [. . .] But [. . .] to blame Friedman for the whole thing, and not how the entire economics mainstream went along--including the "liberals" like Sachs, Krugman, and Summers--is to let these people off the hook and to misrepresent history.
Cockburn quotes Pollin directly: "it's important to pummel the Sachs's of the world on this point, because they are changing, slowly. To get the world to change, their 1980s-1990s views need to be totally discredited. It's not enough to just say Milton Friedman was an ultra right winger and leave it at that."

Cockburn also chides Klein for her "catastrophism", pointing out that "[j]ust as there is continuity in capitalist predation, there is continuity in resistance". It's a point worth making. In a sense I was trying to hint in this direction in my post when I said that removing states from the equation makes it more difficult for resistance to take place. For how does one really resist a faceless, placeless corporation? But the truth is that I must admit that I am all too susceptible to a certain kind of catastrophism in my own thinking. I've been trying to rise above that kind of thinking, but it's a struggle for me. The interview with Iain Boal, also in CounterPunch, which I linked to last week, was an important reminder in this regard, as is this article by Cockburn, not to mention all of the writings of Noam Chomsky. There is work to do--and resistance does happen, it can happen, it has happened, victories large and small have been attained, many of which have indeed been overturned or undermined by neoliberal policies--hence, again, "neo"--but all the more reason to resist again, but resist better, win fuller, more secure victories. Things may look pretty shitty on many fronts right now, but that's no reason to succumb to thoughts of doom.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Mountain Goats

I think my wife Aimée may have sort of fallen in love with John Darnielle. We saw the Mountain Goats last night at Sonar here in Baltimore, and it was a great, great, joyous, life-affirming show (Aimée: "Oh my god he is so adorable!"). If you like the Mountain Goats and haven't seen them, I strongly urge you take the opportunity to do so when it arises. If you don't know the Mountain Goats, well, you should get to know them. I place Darnielle in my inner circle of great working songwriters--with Bill Callahan, Will Oldham, and, at his best, Jason Molina.

He obviously loves performing, and he and bassist Peter Hughes were having a great time and sound terrific together. Of many great moments, the delivery of this line from Tallahassee's "Game Shows Touch Our Lives" was among the most memorable:

"People say friends don't destroy one another/what do they know about friends?"

And--yay!--the encore was "No Children" (also from Tallahassee). Fantastic.

Darnielle faves the Bowerbirds opened, and they were quite good. Also definitely worth checking out.


Boilerplate Stones

[I began this post last Saturday, sitting amidst stacks of potential cd discards. I stopped because something else came up, and I wasn't sure how to finish it; also, it somehow didn't seem to fit, whatever that means. I'd felt like I painted myself into some big-claim corner (a pitfall of longwindedness), when really it was meant to be much more modest. Anyway, here goes, rambly and incomplete as it is...]

I want to argue in favor of a band's catalog, in favor of an artist's minor works. As I begin this post, I am listening to Steel Wheels, the Rolling Stones' 1989 album that kicked off their massive world tour of the same name, effectively ending the post-Dirty Work animosity between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Since then the Stones have released an album every five years or so (generally, as with every Stones album since 1981's Tattoo You, praised in certain quarters as their best record since either Exile On Main Street or Some Girls, depending) and toured the world, making boatloads of money in the process.

I'm listening to Steel Wheels, for the first time in probably 15 years, because I am culling the collection, more aggressively than ever before. I listen to this album, and I'm reminded again of how great the Rolling Stones are. I'm not trying to argue that Steel Wheels is a lost classic or an underappreciated gem. Hardly. I'm not even going to keep it. But, it's fine, you know? It's a perfectly pleasant 45 minutes or so of listening. The band is in fine form, even if the songs generally aren't terribly memorable. Very few Stones albums are unlistenable, and there is plenty to enjoy on Steel Wheels ("Sad Sad Sad", "Terrifying", and "Hold on to Your Hat" would fit in just fine in some comprehensive, career-spanning compilation). It's boilerplate Stones, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Like any normal Stones fan, my favorite album is one of the big, obvious, famous ones. Many opt for Beggars Banquet or Sticky Fingers. I go for Exile on Main Street. Exile, in 1972, finished off their great run of classic records, after which they settled into their period of rock-star excess (as any retread bio will tell you). Ironically, perhaps, the music from this point on seemed modest by comparison, even when they scored a big hit. You could make a kick-ass two cd collection just cherry-picking the singles from the last 35 years, and in truth that would be all you'd really need from that period. But, as ever, there's some good music to be had looking past the obvious.

I've always thought this, but I was struck by this anew a few weeks ago, after returning home from a friend's wedding in Rhode Island. One of the songs played at the reception was the Stones' "It's Only Rock'n Roll". I had great fun pretending to preen like Mick Jagger (seriously). The song is a classic rock radio staple, or used to be anyway. There's something faintly ridiculous about its lyrics, and I had never listened to the music closely before. But I now had the song, especially its opening, stuck in my head, so when I got home, I pulled out my It's Only Rock'n Roll cd and listened to it several times over that next weekend. Somewhere Lester Bangs calls It's Only Rock'n Roll "the first Rolling Stones album that doesn't matter, and thank God for that" (not a direct quote; I could go get my Bangs anthology to check, but that seems like a lot of work). What this album offers is good, solid Rolling Stones music. By the time "Fingerprint File"--the six-plus minute last song--was half done, I realized that here was a damn fine rock album. Nothing on it sticks out like, say, "Sympathy for the Devil" or "Paint it Black"--even "It's Only Rock'n Roll", its big chorus notwithstanding, just sounds like, well, rock and roll, like the Rolling Stones, which I mean in the best possible way. When I think of the Stones, I think of a grimy, swaggering professionalism, if that isn't too much of a contradiction, and this album exudes this quality. If Exile is the quintessential, classic album representing my idea of what the Stones were really about, It's Only Rock'n Roll is the workmanlike entry providing ample evidence that the band lived and breathed this kind of music.

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Talking Music

I haven't posted about music in a while, for a variety of reasons. Time, as ever, is one of them. Another is that my relationship toward music, particularly the acquisition of music and keeping up with new music, has changed dramatically this year, perhaps definitively. I am, for example, in the early stages of getting rid of a lot of the music I currently own. I will be allowing my subscription to The Wire to lapse. I may talk more about this later, but for now I'll leave this as a preamble.

I may be listening to less music, or buying less anyway, and unable to keep up in the manner I'd become habituated to, but I still read about it a lot online. And there's some great writing about music going on and some great conversations taking place. So I'm going to try to point to some of this stuff more. Here are a few:

The Bad Plus is a jazz trio that has become known ("notorious") for playing covers of rock and electronic songs. I've never heard them, though I'd like to. They have a blog. They seem really cool. I noted the word "notorious" because a lot of the press they've received has assumed that they are taking the piss when they cover this material. In this post, they take issue with this idea. A sample:
With the rare exception, TBP doesn't choose to improvise on music written from 1920 to 1965. Instead, we find it really interesting to search for ways to make rock, pop and electronica songs vehicles for contemporary improvisation. One reason that this material is not "standard" is that you can't call "Iron Man" at a jam session and pull off a mediocre interpretation of it the way you can with "All the Things You Are." There simply isn't a common language for it.

But just because the non-original songs we play can't be called at a jam session isn't the reason 10 English critics think it's a joke. Why do they think it is a joke? There are two possible reasons:

A) The original music itself is a joke: in other words, Nirvana, Blondie, Aphex
Twin, ABBA, Neil Young, The Police, David Bowie, Burt Bacharach, Tears for Fears, Black Sabbath, Pixies, Vangelis, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Radiohead, Bjork, The Bee Gees, and Interpol is just inferior and not at the level of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood. Implied is the phrase "rock is not worthy of the jazz tradition."

B) The way we play the covers appears like parody or at least highly ironic.

Both are wrong.

The whole post is worth reading, as is their blog generally, if you care about this sort of thing. I came to their post by way of this post at James Darcy Argue's Secret Society, one of the better jazz-focused blogs I've seen. And it was this excellent Secret Society post about irony and humor in music that led me there (link via be.jazz).

Brian at the new musicology blog People Listen to It wades into the authenticity wars with Why Beefheart? Paraphrasing Christgau, he says, "both Zappa and Beefheart are weird, but Zappa is being weird. Beefheart is weird. Thus Zappa is a poser and Beefheart is the authentic artist, worthy of reverence and whatever else." I disagree with this, for my own purposes. This kind of thing has nothing to do with why I like Captain Beefheart and don't like Zappa. Besides, I've been counter-conditioned to be suspicious of these kinds of claims to authenticity. (Though I think there is an authenticity that resides outside the familiar tropes, but I've no time to flesh that idea out here.)

Finally for here, at Parlando, in "Cool Ain't Shit", Scraps writes on the theme of "No one wants to hear that something they like is crap."

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Handke and Bernhard in Harper's

I usually like John Leonard's "New Books" column in Harper's, but his review of Peter Handke's Crossing the Sierra de Gredos in the August 2007 issue irritates. First, he tells us that Handke probably lost any chance he had at a Nobel Prize "when he blamed Western politicians and the media for the disintegration of Yugoslavia, took the side of Slobodan Milošević in the Balkan bloodlettings, and published an agitprop travelogue called Justice for Serbia (1996)." Much could be written about the West's role in the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but I'm not going to do so here (I recommend Fool's Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions by Diana Johnstone). Second, this "is Handke's first novel since he surfed this wave of ethnic cleansing". Whatever that means. I'm no expert on Peter Handke's politics, but from what I've seen elsewhere, these kinds of comments seem wrong, if all too typical. And I wonder what it all has to do with Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, though I've yet to see a review that hasn't mentioned this business. Leonard writes: "Naturally, we read it for clues to his disorderly state of mind." Do we? Naturally? Handke, it seems is not so helpful: "Just as naturally, he is hiding out in allegory, wearing veils." Hiding out! Leonard proceeds to discuss the novel for a short while, taking time out to praise earlier "allegorical voyages" such as A Moment of True Feeling (1975), The Afternoon of a Writer (1987), and Absence (1987), before closing with this:
But never before has Handke gone on at such inordinate length, 480 pages, before arriving at that same old post-modern solipsisim that feels sorry for itself because it no longer believes that anything else is real, certainly no Srebrenica.
Priceless. (For what it's worth, see what Handke himself has said about the "Balkan bloodlettings" here and here.)

Also in the August issue of Harper's, in the "Readings" section, is an excerpt from a 1986 interview with Thomas Bernhard, by Werner Wögerbauer. The full English version appeared in signandsight. Here is an extract (oddly, I notice that the extract is somewhat different--including some strange rearrangements--than the same bits in the full version, though the translation is the same, by Nicholas Grindell; since I saw it first in Harper's I'm putting what they have, if only because it's weird that it was so modified):
Wögerbauer: What kind of intellectual aims do you--

Bernhard: No one asks themselves that sort of thing. People don't have aims. Young people, up to twenty-three, they still fall for that. A person who has lived five decades has no aims, because there's no goal.

Wögerbauer: But when you describe yourself as a "destroyer of stories," that is a theoretical statement.

Bernhard: Well, people say a lot of things in fifty years of life. If a reporter is sitting in a restaurant somewhere and he hears you say the beef's no good, then he'll always claim you're someone who doesn't like beef, for the rest of your life. You go for a walk in the woods, and someone takes a photo of you, then for the next eighty years you're always walking in the woods. There's nothing you can do about it.

[. . .]

Wögerbauer: What, in your view, is a conversation?

Bernhard: I don't usually have them. To me people who want to have a conversation are suspect, because that raises particular expectations they're unable to satisfy. It all gets thrown in together and then one person stirs this way, the other stirs that, and an unbearable stinking turd comes out the bottom. No matter who it is. There are collected conversations, hundreds of them, books full. Entire publishing houses live off them. Like something coming out of an anus, and then it gets squashed in between book covers. It's all just for the workers at the paper factory, so they have something to do, which might make some sense. Because they have a terrible life anyway and lose all their limbs--at fifty most of them have lost a leg or five fingers. Paper machines are cruel. At least it has some meaning, the family can get something extra. I live next to two paper factories, so I know how it is. In ten years you'll see how stupid it all was. This wasn't a conversation either.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Disaster Capitalism

Naomi Klein’s new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, has been getting a lot of attention lately. I’m interested in reading it. I liked what I read of her earlier book, No Logo (I read about 3/4 of it), and have appreciated her work in recent years.

At ads without products, I came across the following short advertising film for the book, directed by Alfonso Cuarón of Children of Men fame:

In the film, and it appears the book, Klein draws comparisons between the use of torture in U.S. interrogation techniques (laid out in the CIA manuals) and the methods of “crisis capitalism”, or what she calls the economic “shock doctrine”: each is intended to soften up the victim so that they are more likely to bend, less likely to resist.

In a respectful review in the Guardian (link via The Reading Experience), John Gray puts Klein's thesis like this:
As Klein sees it, the social breakdowns that have accompanied neo-liberal economic policies are not the result of incompetence or mismanagement. They are integral to the free-market project, which can only advance against a background of disasters.

[. . .]

Klein uses torture as a metaphor, and does not claim any cause-and-effect link between its re-emergence and the rise of neo-liberal shock therapy; but she does point to some disquieting similarities. Individuals and societies have been "de-patterned" with the aim of remaking them on a better, more rational model. In each case, the experiments have failed, while inflicting lasting and often irreparable damage on those who were subjected to them.
In his penultimate paragraph, he writes:
There can be no doubt that fortunes have been reaped from the Iraq war as they have been from other experiments in disaster capitalism. Yet I remain unconvinced that the corporations Klein berates throughout the book understand, let alone control, the anarchic global capitalism that has been allowed to develop over the past couple of decades - any more than the neo-liberal ideologues who helped create it foresaw where it would lead. Rightly, Klein insists that free market ideology must bear responsibility for the crimes committed on its behalf - just as Marxist ideology must be held to account for the crimes of communism. But she says remarkably little about the illusions by which neo-liberal ideologues were themselves blinded. Milton Friedman and his disciples believed a western-style free market would spring up spontaneously in post-communist Russia. They were left gawping when central planning was followed by the criminalised free-for-all of the 90s, and were unprepared for the rise of Putin's resource-based state capitalism. These ideologues were not the sinister, Dr Strangelove-like figures of the anti-capitalist imagination. They were comically deluded bien-pensants, who promoted their utopian schemes with messianic fervour and have been left stranded by history, as the radiant future they confidently predicted has failed to arrive.
I disagree with most of this paragraph, which is packed with a lot of questionable assumptions. I won't attempt a point-by-point response, but let me try to address some of them.

In an earlier post in which I briefly asserted that capitalism needs states, I quoted a passage from a Noam Chomsky essay from 1977 ("American Foreign Policy in the Middle East", collected in Towards a New Cold War). As the titles makes plain, the essay was specifically about American policy in the Middle East and, in part, about the role of the oil companies in the region. Here is how the passage began:
The oil companies face local problems as a result of continued American barriers to a political settlement of the Arab-Israeli crisis in the only possible manner, that is, with a two-state settlement along roughly the 1967 borders. But the basic long-term interests of American capitalism have, so far, been adequately served by this policy. As noted before, this is not the first time that the oil companies, despite their power, have been subordinated to more general interests.
And what are these more general interests? They are the maintenance of the capitalist system as a whole. This is where the idea that capitalism needs states comes in. In his review, Gray says: "There are very few books that really help us understand the present." I agree. Gray suggests that Klein's is just such a book. Here are two more: A Brief History of Neoliberalism, by David Harvey, and Empire of Capital, by Ellen Meiksins Wood.

In his book, Harvey traces the development of, experimentation with, and eventual widespread political accommodation to neoliberal ideas and policies. The bankruptcy of New York City in the 1970s; the assassination of Allende of Chile in 1973, followed by the first imposition of Milton Friedman's neoliberal ideas on a nationwide scale by Pinochet, guided by Chicago-trained economists; Thatcherite England; Carter and Reagan; the capitalization of China: Harvey discusses all of this and more, along the way comparing the rhetoric of neoliberalism with the practice. Where Gray paints Friedman and his followers as deluded "utopians" (not unlike popular conceptions of communist revolutionaries), Harvey shows that "the theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has . . . primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve" the goal of "restoring, or some instances (as in Russia and China) creating, the power of an economic elite". In short, class war, justified by the attractive but ultimately empty rhetoric of freedom. That is, they knew what they were doing, even if Gray is right (and I think he probably is) that "disaster capitalism is now creating disasters larger than [the system] can handle". (For more on what happened to New York City in the 1970s, see "Neoliberalism and the City" from Studies in Social Justice (the link is to a pdf); for an even briefer history of neoliberalism than offered by Harvey's book, see this excellent interview with Harvey at The Monthly Review's MRZine.)

"They knew what they were doing." Who is "they" in this case? If Gray's review is any indication, it sounds as if Naomi Klein focuses on the depredations of "disaster capitalism" through the prism of large corporations. If so, this isn't surprising, given the balance of her work in the past, including No Logo. It's not unimportant, of course. We need to know what those corporations are up to. But, as suggested by the Chomsky passage, there are general systemic interests over and above the short-term needs of even the most powerful corporations. Who attends to the system? Whereas many have observed the existence of hugely powerful multinational corporations and organizations such as the WTO and concluded that we are living in a period of the declining importance of states, in Empire of Capital Ellen Meiksins Wood argues that
. . . for all the globalizing tendencies of capitalism, the world has become more, not less, a world of nation states, not only as a result of national liberation struggles, but also under pressure from imperial powers.

These powers have found the nation state the most reliable guarantor of the conditions necessary for accumulation, and the only means by which capital can freely expand beyond the boundaries of direct political domination. As market imperatives have become a means of manipulating local elites, local states have proved to be far more useful transmission belts for capitalist imperatives than were the old colonial agents and settlers who originally carried the capitalist market throughout the world.
Where formerly it was the British who enforced the nascent global system (Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts, which I am currently reading, is proving invaluably instructive on this score), with the end of World War II (and adverserial inter-ally politics during the war) the United States emerged as its guarantor. Wood spends some time discussing the differences between various empires throughout history (Roman, Chinese, Spanish, Arab Muslim, Dutch, Venetian, British) in order to show how the empire presided over by the United States is different: the first truly capitalist empire. If capitalist imperatives are self-replicating and "purely economic", and neoliberalism promises freedom for all, where is the problem? The problem is
this mode of imperialism, like capitalism itself, has contradictions at its very core. On the one hand, it depends on the separation of the ‘economic’ and ‘political’, which makes possible the unbounded expansion of capitalist appropriation by purely economic means and the extension of the capitalist economy far beyond the limits of the nation state. Capitalism has a unique drive for self-expansion. Capital cannot survive without constant accumulation, and its requirements relentlessly drive it to expand its geographic scope beyond national boundaries too. Yet, on the other hand, capital has always needed the support of territorial states; and while the wide-ranging expansion of capitalist appropriation has moved far beyond national borders, the national organization of capitalist economies has remained stubbornly persistent. At the same time, the nation state has remained an indispensable instrument – perhaps the only indispensable ‘extra-economic’ instrument – of global capital.
'Extra-economic' means politics; 'extra-economic' instrument means the political state, usually in the form of a monopoly on violence. Within countries, the process is more straightforward: "capital appropriates, while the 'neutral' state enforces the system of property, and propertylessness." It's a lot more complicated in the global system, but I think the actions taken by the United States since the end of World War II--from containment policy, including the wars in Korea and Vietnam, to "support" for not only Israel and, earlier, South Africa, but countless Third World despots--make a whole lot more sense when viewed within the conceptual framework of the United States as enforcer and guarantor of the capitalist world system (which is not to say that individual personalities don't impact the political situation in their own ways). Now, as American economic hegemony has all but collapsed, American attempts to throw its weight around militarily seem increasingly desperate.

There is a lot more that can be said about Wood's book (I found the idea of the state as the enforcer of not only the system of property but also "propertylessness" extremely important, and now that she's brought it to my attention, obvious), but I'll leave with one more thing before finishing up here. She points out that the idea that states are declining in importance, the premise that "the nation state is giving way to a new form of stateless 'sovereignty' that is everywhere and nowhere" (as argued by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their popular book Empire, which I have not read)--"such views", she says, "not only miss something truly essential in today's global order but also leave us powerless to resist the empire of capital." Recognizing the remaining importance of states means that there can be--and are--centers of power, potential loci of resistance. Many of us feel powerless enough as it is, but without political entities (in this case states) to resist against, without a place to act politically, that sense of powerlessness can only increase.

I like what I've heard about Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, and I look forward to learning a lot from it. For those interested in understanding the present world, I highly recommend also reading A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Empire of Capital.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Forced Scarcity and Catastrophism

At CounterPunch, see "Specters of Malthus", a fascinating interview with Iain Boal ("an Irish social historian of science and technics") about "scarcity" and "catastrophe". Some samples:
So there's no denying that capitalism is now threatening the basis of life on earth. Certainly that's true. But I refuse to cave in to Malthusian assumptions. Why is it not possible to imagine a reorganization of agriculture, and I don’t mean some new technofix from Monsanto. It will surely mean agrarian revolutions, though the content of those revolutions would be contested, to say the least. Marxists have always thrilled to the sight of really big tractors. They don't much like to hear about watersheds and foodmiles and small Kropotkinian communes.

[. . .]

. . . it's important to notice the ideological move that naturalizes events which are the result of human decisions. It turns disasters that have as much to do with human agency and decision into natural and inevitable events.

[. . .]

What is so poignant is that things could be otherwise. We don't in fact live in a world of Malthusian scarcity. Far from it. Even Malthus himself acknowledged this when he spoke of "nature's mighty feast". And yet the history of modernity is the history of enclosure, of the cutting off of people from access to land, to the common treasury and to the fruits of our own labour. Excluded by fire and sword and now "structural adjustment". Everywhere you look, there [is] nothing much natural about it, this kind of scarcity. It's a story of artifice and force. No wonder the fables offered us by modernity's clerisy are the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons. The premises of the science of economics are a disgrace, and so are all the proliferating offspring of Malthus. Our first task is to kill these sacred cows of capitalist modernity.

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Amis Blather

Martin Amis has a typically obtuse article in the Times. The first half is devoted to a bunch of tone-deaf idiocy about the American penchant for abbreviations and the exciting use of dates represented as numbers (a la "9/11"). Then the real nonsense begins. There's the obligatory reference to the invasion of Afghanistan and how "the 'genocide' eagerly predicted by Noam Chomsky and others" did not materialize there (Amis seems incapable of mentioning Chomsky without completely misrepresenting him, in the liberal fashion). His bored rehearsal of the "ascertainable truths" supporting what he disdainfully calls "the argument for moral equivalence". Of course, he doesn't actually understand the argument he disdains, as is made evident by everything else he says, including his paranoid blather about Islamists' "mad quest for world domination" and a "restored Caliphate. . . .presiding over a planetary empire cleansed of all infidels". He doesn't actually understand the history he attempts to rehearse, which is made painfully clear as he moves his critical eye onto Israel and what the Palestinians call al-nakba, or "the catastrophe". This section is as inept about history as the rest of the piece and is ably demolished by Ellis Sharp, so I'll send you there for that, and quote his conclusion here:
Amis perverts the meaning of ‘the catastrophe’. It is so-called not because it involved the defeat of Islam by Judaism (a ludicrous and bogus proposition) but because an entire nation was dispossessed. It was a catastrophe for ordinary human beings who were forced from their homes, their land and their businesses.
As Aaronovitch Watch observes: "Apparently there is literally nothing the man can write, no matter how idiotic, that is not publishable in a national newspaper."

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

No greater proof

From Text 410 of The Book of Disquiet:
There's no greater proof of an impoverished mind than its inability to be witty except at other people's expense.


I've seen cats look at the moon

From Text 405 of The Book of Disquiet:
Life would be unbearable if we were conscious of it. Fortunately we're not. We live as unconsciously, as uselessly and pointlessly as animals, and if we anticipate death, which presumably (though not assuredly) they don't, we anticipate it through so many distractions, diversions and ways of forgetting that we can hardly say we think about it.

That's how we live, and it's a flimsy basis for considering ourselves superior to animals. We are distinguished from them by the purely external detail of speaking and writing, by an abstract intelligence that distracts us from concrete intelligence, and by our ability to imagine impossible things. All this, however, is incidental to our organic essence. Speaking and writing have no effect on our primordial urge to live, without knowing how or why. Our abstract intelligence serves only to elaborate systems, or ideas that are quasi-systems, which in animals correspond to lying in the sun. And to imagine the impossible may not be exclusive to us; I've seen cats look at the moon, and it may well be that they were longing to have it.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe Trilogy

A few months ago I briefly mentioned having read and enjoyed Richard Ford’s first two Frank Bascombe novels, The Sportswriter and Independence Day. I recently finished reading the third, The Lay of the Land, and I liked it as well, though I don’t think it’s quite as good as either of the first two. In that earlier post I mentioned that I’d not expected to read these books but was inspired to do so after reading Steve Mitchelmore’s lengthy piece about the series. Since it was Steve’s essay that prompted me to read the books, I’m going use it as a jumping off point for my own discussion, along with Ellis Sharp’s blog post that essentially disagreed with Steve’s take on the book.

In his essay, Steve refers to James Wood’s recent assertion that "the major struggle in American fiction today is over the question of realism". Yet, says Steve, "from the reception of the trilogy one would imagine the struggle is over already. Writing is a report from the real world directed through the craft of fiction. Richard Ford has written such a book. That’s it." Ellis suggests that reviewers responded in this conventional manner "because it is, after all, only a conventional narrative", that it’s "a condition-of-America novel, capturing the state of the nation – or a significant, representative slice of it – in autumn 2000", and that it’s "written as if modernism and post-modernism had never existed".

But, Steve continues, "Frank Bascombe . . . isn’t so sure". Isn’t so sure about what? That "writing is a report from the real world directed through the craft of fiction"? That "the struggle is over already"? Elsewhere, Steve wrote that these books are the way they are because "Richard Ford wants to tell the truth about his character and the only way he [can] tell that truth is in this form, a displaced monologue" (the link is to a post about an excerpt from Ian McEwan’s latest novel; scroll down for the remark about Ford). The phrase "displaced monologue" intrigues me.

Ellis writes that he hadn’t read the first two books when he read the third, but that he wasn't too concerned about this, because it seemed like "a self-contained narrative". This is where I’m not so sure. Because on the face of it, yeah, the third novel can seem a lot like "a report from the real world directed through the craft of fiction", it does seem as if it could be about the state of the world today--though, interestingly, the today of the novel is late 2000, before "everything" supposedly "changed". But Frank Bascombe doesn't pretend to have the answers. We see a lot of a certain corner of America through his eyes, but he doesn't pretend to have any real idea why things are the way they are, or even necessarily how they ought to be. He has a lot of ideas about people and sketches convincing portraits based on the most superficial of details, but there is no reason for us to take his version of reality as accurate, if only because, contrary to what Ellis says in his post, he is in fact wrong about plenty.

Flipping through The Sportwriter, I stopped at random on page 139. Frank is in Detroit with his girlfriend, Vicki, who he thinks he might be in love with. He has been caught having rifled through Vicki's purse for he-knew-not-what, effectively wrecking the delicate trust held between them. He muses:
So much of life can't be foreseen. A hundred private explanations and exculpations come rushing up into my throat, and I have to swallow hard to hold them back. Though, of course, there is nothing to say. Like all needless excuses, the unraveling is not worth the time. However, I feel a swirling dreaminess, an old familiar bemusement, suddenly rise into my appreciation of everything around me. Irony is returned. I have a feeling that if I tried to speak now, my mouth would move, but no sound would occur. And it would scare us both to death. Why, in God's name, isn't it possible to let ignorance stay ignorance?
Here is the "dreaminess" he complains of throughout the book. Then, he climbs into bed, apologetic:
She smiles and sits looking at me as I pull the sheet up around my chin and begin to think that it is not a hard life to imagine, not at all, mine and Vicki Arcenault's. In fact, I would like it as well as it's possible to like any life: a life of small flourishes and clean napkins. A life where sex plays an ever-important nightly role--better than with any of the eighteen or so women I knew before and "loved." A life appreciative of history and its generations. A life of possible fidelity, of going fishing with some best friend, of having a little Sheila or a little Matthew of our own, of buying a fifth-wheel travel trailer--a cruising brute--and from its tiny portholes seeing the country. Paul and Clarissa could come along and join our gang. I could sell my house and move not to Pheasant Run but to an old Quakerstone in Bucks County. Possibly when our work is done, a tour in the Peace Corps or Vista--of "doing something with our lives." I wouldn't need to sleep in my clothes or wake up on the floor. I could forget about being in my emotions and not be bothered by such things.

In short, a natural extension of almost all my current attitudes taken out beyond what I now know.

And what's wrong with that? Isn't it what we all want? To look out toward the horizon and see a bright, softened future awaiting us? An attractive retirement?
Here he has unfolded a fantasy of what life might be like married to Vicki. It's an attractive vision. But it's a fantasy, no more likely to happen than are his visions of the lives of others likely to be true, even if sometimes they basically are. One thing he does seem to know, however, is that things could easily be different. His vision of life with Vicki, he knows, could just as easily be replaced by another vision. While he could be happy with Vicki, he knows just as well that he could have just as easily never met Vicki. Somehow, she wants more. In his dreaminess Frank is unable to convince her that the love he professes for her today will still be there in a few months, let alone years. He objects, but finally cannot blame her. He is all about contingency, his language throughout the trilogy is full of words like "though" and "possibly".

He doesn’t know why things happen. As Steve notes, this feeling of dreaminess is never really explained. Frank seems to be drifting through his life, unable to be fully present, especially after the death of his son Ralph (prior to the present-day events of the first novel). This inability to be present seems to have led directly to the end of his first marriage, though he’s not entirely sure what happened. In the second book, Frank is selling real estate and has moved on to what he calls "the Existence Period" in which he has been able to "ignore much of what [he doesn't] like or that seems worrisome and embroiling, and then usually see it go away". Here he explains this in greater detail:
Every age of life has its own little pennant to fly. And mine upon returning to Haddam was decidedly two-sided. On one side was a feeling of bright synchronicity in which everything I thought about--regaining a close touch with my two children after having flown the coop for a while, getting my feet wet in some new life's enterprise, possibly waging a campaign to reclaim lost ground with [ex-wife] Ann--all these hopeful activities seemed to be, as though guided by a lightless beam, what my whole life was all about. I was in a charmed state in which nothing was alien and nothing could resist me if I turned my mind to it. (Psychiatrists like the one my son visits warn us about such feelings, flagging us all away from the poison of euphoria and hauling us back to flat earth, where they want us to be.)

The other feeling, the one that balanced the first, was a sensation that everything I then contemplated was limited or at least underwritten by the "plain fact of my existence": that I was after all only a human being, as untranscendent as a tree trunk, and that everything I might do had to be calculated against the weight of the practical and according to the standard considerations of: Would it work? and, What good would it do for me or anybody?

I now think of this balancing of urgent forces as having begun the Existence Period, the high-wire act of normalcy, the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blow-up, the time in life when whatever was going to affect us "later" actually affects us, a period when we go along more or less self-directed and happy, though we might not choose to mention or even remember it later were we to tell the story of our lives, so steeped is such a time in the small dramas and minor adjustments of spending quality time simply with ourselves.
By the time of The Lay of the Land, Frank has remarried and is in the midst of what he calls "the Permanent Period". Whereas the Existence Period is concerned with the fact that "your opponent's the past and everything you've done in it and the problem of getting away from it", the Permanent Period recognizes that you are who you are, so you may as well accept it and forget about; it "tries to reconcile [the] irreconcilables in your favor by making the congested, entangling past fade to beige, and the present brighten with its present-ness":
Clarissa [...] believes all things can be adjusted and made better, and that Ann and I can finally blubbety, blub, blub. But we can't. And, in fact, if we could, doing so would represent the very linked boxes Clarissa herself claims to hate. Only they'd be mine and Ann's boxes. A lot of life is just plain wrong. And the older I get, the more clearly and often wrong it seems. And all you can do about it [...] is just start getting used to it, start selecting amazement over bewilderment.
Unfortunately, the Permanent Period hasn't been going well. He's been diagnosed with cancer, which may or may not have resulted in his ex-wife unexpectedly announcing that she was still in love with him; his current wife, Sally, has inexplicably gone off with her own ghost from the past--the past, in general, in all its heaviness, has insinuated itself unhappily into his present. Throughout the novel, things unforeseen by Frank happen, and he describes the Permanent Period as "in retreat", its "usual ... protocols aren't restoring order", his "brain buzzing with unwanted concerns" (his emphasis).

Ellis writes:
The Lay of the Land is a narrative of people stories – its range of characters is expansive, encyclopaedic. Often, as in Dickens, they are grotesque or comical or both – Frank Bascombe’s appalling next door neighbours, for example. His Tibetan business partner. His daughter’s creepy New Age boyfriend. And the telling is engaging and often very funny. Bascombe’s neighbours for example – monstrously plausible. You relish their end.
I'm curious about this idea that we "relish [the] end" of Frank's "monstrously plausible" neighbors. Do we? Obviously Ellis did, but I didn't. These characters--the Feensters--certainly do not come off well in Frank's description. But the Feensters exist off-stage, essentially (Frank never engages with them during the events of the novel). They are portrayed as people who came into some money and uprooted themselves, moving into an expensive house on the beach and then, like the stereotypical nouveau riche they were, tried to change everything to suit them. Frank doesn't like them, but a few pages before the violent scene, he is able to see them as tragic, as essentially lonely outsiders. He says: "Though the old sympathy again filters up for the poor all-wrong Feensters, who, I'm sure, suffer great needless misery and loneliness here in New Jersey with their Bridgeport social skills. My heart goes out to them, which is better than hoping they'll die." Frank tends to think that people make decisions for all sorts of wrong, fanciful reasons, that they would often be better off back where they came from, or ditching the grand vision, or whatever. His recognition of both this and the fact that he often doesn't have a clue why he's done or said something (all his theorizing notwithstanding) enables him to achieve a certain empathy towards others, even towards seemingly repellent figures like the Feensters. They seem unpleasant, but that Frank is able to recognize the tragedy of their situation is indicative of one of his best traits. The violence that they then meet is unnecessary. Ellis says that he "had a hunch there would be a satisfyingly violent Hollywood-style righteous conclusion" and so was unsurprised by these events. All I can say to this is that I was, in fact, surprised by the violent conclusion—perhaps because I had read the first two books, which do not have such events (though they do have culminating set-pieces), or perhaps it's because even in this particular volume the most important occurrence is something much more quiet and in keeping with the rest of the narrative--Frank's sudden realization that he has finally accepted his son's death. But the violence, along with the post-violence scenes, felt tacked on, forced, and those scenes are, in my opinion, the least convincing of the whole trilogy.

Ellis observes that Frank's "insights into other people always seem persuasive. He never seems wrong about anything. He’s an easygoing, likeable guy." It seems to me he’s "wrong" about a lot, doesn’t understand a lot (his children are an almost complete mystery to him). His insights into other people do often seem persuasive, but then he reverses himself, or takes the unexpected (for him included) action. He doesn't know why he does things, and ultimately, for all his apparently persuasive insights into human typology, doesn't understand why other people do the things they do, either.

Ok, now let me finish up by returning to Steve's phrase "displaced monologues". I understand this phrase to mean that the monologue we encounter--Frank Bascombe's three-book narrative--is removed ("displaced") from the actual life of the narrator. These narratives end up being the distance between Frank and his own lived life. They are first person, present-tense narratives, each covering the few days surrounding a major holiday (Easter, July 4th, and Thanksgiving, respectively). And yet it's hard to imagine Frank the narrator actually doing much of anything, actually living the life described. He tells us about being on this or that board, about being a Sponsor (essentially a volunteer who goes about listening to others and offering helpful advice), about reading to the blind, about selling real estate. He is not a "joiner" and yet repeatedly tells us about his involvement with groups. The voice that tells us these things, the essentially literary voice this failed writer employs in his telling, the failed writer who, as Steve points out, claims to distrust the truths of literature--this voice seems far removed from the life described. I think in the telling he removes himself from the doing, and his ideas about what period of his life he's currently in further distance him from that life. Ellis says he didn't experience that distance, that there was, instead, "a hearty surplus of feeling" on the page. I would counter by saying that, in my reading of the whole trilogy, a lot of feelings are referred to, but few actually felt by the Frank employing the voice. I would argue that what makes the third book not work as a separate self-contained narrative is that by the end of the book, this distance is beginning to collapse, and that we can only really understand that distance sufficiently through having read the first two.


Saturday, September 08, 2007

Follow-up to Goldberg: Variations

So, Goldberg: Variations. I hope it was clear from my review that I quite liked this book. When I agreed to write the review, it so happened that I was midway through Josipovici's On Trust. As I began to read the novel, I was immediately struck by how much correspondence there was between the two books, and I felt compelled to use On Trust in the review. And so I did. I had a lot I wanted to say about it, but I necessarily had to focus on just a small part of the novel; even given the fairly large amount of space I had (far longer than a typical even lengthy blog post, or a normal newspaper review), a lot had to be left out, editorial compressions made. I could have talked about Goldberg's discussion of the cunning of Odysseus. I could have discussed the significance of insomnia--how the consistent inability to sleep means that one is never really awake, and the implications that might have for the rest of the novel. I could have mentioned the fragility of society (ruins figure in the novel), or butterflies flapping around inside one's head (a special trauma I am all too qualified to sympathize with), or the chapter that is a detailed description of a painting, or the chapter--the longest one in the book--that depicts Goldberg spinning variations on the theme of, as King George puts the challenge to him, "A man who had enough wanted everything . . . As a result he was left with nothing." Or I could have written about Klee's painting, The Wander-Artist, and what it might mean to the writer in the "modern" parts of the novel. Etc. All of this, of course, has some bearing on what I did focus on, namely the question of tradition and trust in that tradition. As such, I will probably be pulling the novel into future further entries here on Josipovici and his ideas.

As mentioned, space considerations meant that some trimming and compression was necessary. An example was the final paragraph, which was condensed from the following two, which I think are a little clearer, particularly the idea of "trust" in the last sentence:
Josipovici has written a novel of ideas, ideas which are indeed at the center of his concerns as a writer and a critic, but which are subtly interwoven into the fabric of his fiction. If any of this sounds dry or academic, it’s not. Josipovici’s prose is lucid, with a lightness of touch that well serves the often complex and heavy ideas at play. The characters, though several may exist in another character’s fiction, never seem to be mere containers for these ideas, speechifying back and forth, but in fact people grappling with serious issues.

I’ve focused on just a small portion of the pleasures Goldberg: Variations has in store for the serious reader. Structuring his fiction in a manner that invokes the traditions, Josipovici has given us a narrative that effectively and entertainingly animates the problems that arise when trust in those traditions has been lost: how to make the decisions we need to make in order to live in the world.
Judge for yourself.

(By the way, it was pointed out to me this morning, quite rightly, that I mangled the legend of Bach's Goldberg Variations. In the second sentence of my review! As J. D. Daniels says here, the Goldberg in question was not the "rich patron" suffering from insomnia, but the harpsichordist who played the Variations for a Count Keyserlingk [or as Wikipedia has it, "Kaiserling"]. It was the latter who suffered from insomnia and had had Goldberg play for him until he fell asleep. The Variations, the story goes, were composed for him.)

(Also, I have just come across two pieces about Goldberg: Variations, both of which have been around for a few years; I'm not sure how I missed them before. One is a review from 2004 by, of all people, Peter Kramer, and appears in The American Journal of Pyschiatry. Kramer is very positive, though he begins with a potentially questionable gambit, criticizing the French nouveau roman, or "new novel":
Experimental fiction has a consistent shortcoming; it appeals to the mind more than the heart. Certainly "new novels" had this failing. They were thin books—most by mid-century French authors—aimed at subverting readers’ expectations. Alain Robbe-Grillet, for example, might describe an object at length, but the eraser or venetian blinds would prove to have scant relationship to the characters’ inner being and no moral import, except the negative one, that the world stands apart from us.

Gabriel Josipovici writes in the tradition of the new novel, but with the improvement that his work can be deeply moving.
The other is called "The role of music in Gabriel Josipovici's Goldberg: variations" and is by Werner Wolf. This article is very long--24 web pages--so I haven't had a chance to read much of it yet, but it looks fascinating.)

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Goldberg: Variations review

My review of Gabriel Josipovici's novel Goldberg: Variations is in the new edition of The Quarterly Conversation. The issue contains several items of interest, including Garth Risk Hallberg's argument against James Wood's repeated attacks on DeLillo's Underworld; Antoine Wilson on Tom McCarthy's Remainder; and Matthew Cheney on Rick Moody's Right Livelihoods.