the Horn Farm Paste Mob


JOHN BERRYMAN – 77 Dream Songs

I didn’t have the heart to bring Ulysses camping with me, so I stepped sideways to another opaque modern monument that I had wanted a little quiet time with. 77 Dream Songs is the first (and much shorter) of the two books that the Dream Songs were collected into. (Or “was collected into”? The blurbs on the back refer to the 385 poems collectively as one long poem, which seems precious to me but maybe is standard poet talk.)

So okay so, if you don’t know anything about the Dream Songs, the deal is that they are all (all?) about a figure named Henry, who is frequently in conversation with a second, unnamed figure. This figure distinctively addresses Henry as “Mr. Bones”, which makes it very hard not to call HIM, the unnamed friend, “Mr. Bones”. Often, one of the two speaks in a minstrel-show parody of black dialect; probably a lot has been written about what that means, but I haven’t read it. Henry has suffered “an irreversible loss”, which I’m assuming, maybe unimaginatively, is similar to the suicide of Berryman’s father.

Even forgetting Berryman’s own eventual suicide, these are often (dear God!) kind of depressing. I settled on the strategy of taking them in as I would a batch of songs– letting each one off the hook right away if it made no impression and rereading only the ones I wanted to. While good lines were plentiful even in the middle of allusive thickets, I found myself returning to the poems I mostly understood, like #67:

I don't operate often. When I do,
persons take note.
Nurses look amazed. They pale.
The patient is brought back to life, or so.
The reason I don't do this more (I quote)
is: I have a living to fail--

because of my wife & son--to keep from earning.
--Mr Bones, I sees that.
They for these operations thanks you, what?
not pays you. --Right.
You have seldom been so understanding.
Now there is further a difficulty with the light:

I am obliged to perform in complete darkness
operations of great delicacy
on my self.
--Mr Bones, you terrifies me.
No wonder they didn't pay you. Will you die?
--My
          friend, I succeeded. Later.
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THOMAS NAGEL – The View From Nowhere

I avoided this book for a while because I admire a lot of Nagel’s thinking and didn’t want to face down the segment I was pretty sure I disagreed with– the Nagel of “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” who believes that consciousness is made of magical pixie dust.

Nagel isn’t actually as unreasonable as I feared; in particular, he realizes that conceivability arguments are largely pointless unless one is an expert on the thing being conceived: it proves nothing, for example, that I can imagine my having a headache without my brain being in any particular ‘brain state’. I can also imagine a group’s per-capita income going up even while every single member of the group becomes poorer: I’m imagining it right now, with a little green arrow pointing upward labeled “average income”, and a bunch of stick figures with frowny faces standing around as cartoon coins jump out of their pockets. Does this prove that it’s not a contradiction in terms, merely a coincidence that it’s never happened?

Still, Nagel writes off a lot of possibilities kind of fast. He says that the ‘objective view’ can never be complete, because no matter how many ‘steps back’ you take, the fact that you are holding your NEW even-more-objective view of the world in your mind is a fact about the world that your description of the world doesn’t take into account. (Why not? If a theory needs to explicitly enumerate every true fact about the world to be complete, then nobody can ever actually understand a container of yogurt, let alone the entire universe. And if it doesn’t, then any theory which purports to cover the existence of human minds at all could clearly subsume an incident of human-understanding-the-universe that had not yet occurred at the time the theory was formulated.)

He’s much more lucid on ethics (and morality, etc.), which takes up about half the book, but not much is there which can’t also be found in the denser The Possibility Of Altruism or the less abstract Equality And Partiality, both of which I recommend more highly. This was interesting, as Nagel always is, but I don’t think I got much from it beyond a few moments of fear that I might not actually be human since I don’t share the anti-materialist convictions that some philosophers consider to be the necessary result of introspection by any non-robot.

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BOB HARRIS – Prisoner of Trebekistan

I assumed this would be a cash-in on the heels of Word Freak and that movie about crosswords and the one about spelling bees and you get the idea… It is very much of a piece with those stylistically; Harris alternates between bits of personal memoir and detailed recountings of Jeopardy games. (VERY detailed– in some cases based on frame-by-frame study of his videotapes.) But it’s also sweet, funny, and, unusually, well-written. Harris, formerly a stand-up comic, cracks jokes constantly but does it with such a straight face that it quickly comes to feel like he’s just reporting the contents of his head, at which point it’s charming.

His little narrative hops into the future knit it all together, making it satisfying in the way that reading your own journal from a period you’ve forgotten is. They also make Prisoner Of Trebekistan slide in right next to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home on my mental shelf, a pretty good place for a book to be. Non-linearity is a somewhat adventurous technique for a writer, and I appreciate it just for that, but it’s also the real texture of memory for me. Harris hops from one notional place to another along lines you’d choose yourself and along lines you wouldn’t, reinforcing a Jeopardy-backed moral: The world is a web of facts, and even the things “everybody knows” change their meaning depending on what order you learn them in.

And here’s the thing: I finished Word Freak wanting to play more Scrabble; I finished Prisoner wanting to live a bolder, more charitable, more spirited life. Harris’ life lessons don’t feel like a stretch, they feel like his motivation for writing the book in the first place.

I mean, you should take my praise with a grain of salt because I’m in a pretty sunny mood right now. But I think that the book put me there.

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MARTIN AMIS – Night Train

Frequently referred to as Amis’s attempt at genre fiction, a “police procedural” or “detective” novel, but its real genre is “meta-detective novel”, after the fashion of City Of Glass or La Disparition. Amis isn’t as bent on disappointing the reader as Auster or Perec, though; he just wants to disappoint his characters. The narrator gets a few good lines in before the end, enough to remind me why I used to like Martin Amis.

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RICHARD DAWKINS – Unweaving The Rainbow

Dawkins is petulant and dismissive, and the long– LONG– digression about elephant penises is not the only primly salacious part. I agree with his nominal thesis: that understanding the science behind something usually makes it more beautiful, not less. Understanding more about Richard Dawkins, though…

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DANIEL DENNETT – Consciousness Explained

Loved this book. I feel like it’s still rearranging my brain. Rarely does a day go by when I don’t notice something making more sense with Dennett’s account of consciousness available to me.

He leans hard on his assumption that pure materialism is correct, which can be disorienting. It’s not that I disagree, or that I think he treats the alternatives unfairly; it’s just rare that a writer has cause to point out, over and over again, that whatever physical laws describe the world must also describe us.

More on this when I finish The Intentional Stance and Elbow Room, which seem to complete this corner of Dennett’s theory.

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JAMES TWITCHELL – Adcult USA

Fully four versions of author James Twitchell appear in Adcult USA: he is alternately a snob and a cultural democrat, and in both guises he will be sometimes supercilious, sometimes warm. A little less of Twitchell altogether amid the scholarship and maybe the contradiction would not need resolving… oh well.

Mean populist Twitchell hates art critics, which seems to have led him to ignore throughout the book that apprehending art (or ads– same thing, says Adcult) has any experiential element. Yes, sometimes people like ads in and of themselves; the Superbowl comes up several times to prove this point. Still, a Busta Rhymes fan who puts “Pass The Courvoisier” on repeat is never treated differently in Twitchell’s analysis from a driver heading down a road that he does not realize will be particularly dense with billboards.

Twitchell’s refrain is that whatever advertising does, it is something that we do to ourselves, not that “they” do to “us”. What he really means is that advertising is blameless. Of what? Doesn’t matter. Criticizing ad agencies makes you a self-regarding aesthete who doesn’t know how the world works. Twitchell doesn’t deny that ads affect behavior; when he plays the friendly snob, he almost makes our tendency to fall for corporate creations like mouthwash or Christmas into an endearing and universal foible. This has been going on for a long time (the parallels between modern advertising culture and centuries-old religion are one of the book’s more interesting parts, perpetually running deeper than the reader expects), so why not stop worrying and learn to love it?

Well, for one thing, it’s untrue that social conservatism is morally neutral just by virtue of the fact that it only reinforces what’s already there. Suppose Twitchell does convince us that any social evil advertising supposedly causes will vanish from advertising only after it vanishes from the rest of our culture– advertising still strengthens the grip of that evil. Twitchell seems to suggest that it’s fatuous to blame advertisers for appealling to our worser natures because “they” are us, creating parallels with, say, an individual who frequently regrets shopping sprees. (Who’s to say that the self doing the regretting takes priority over the self which decided to buy stuff in the first place? etc.) This just changes the language, though, not the debate; why is assigning blame to advertisers for the ads they issue an invalid way for the body politic to resolve its internal confusion over what “we” collectively want?

For another, Twitchell equivocates on the idea of desire. Ads are presumed less problematic if they work via desires the audience already has instead of inculcating new ones. Okay, but this is only plausible if a ‘desire’ is always specific enough to entail a particular action. You could argue that if somebody loves to eat McDonald’s french fries, an ad hoping to motivate them to go do that right now is barely coercion; you won’t get as far claiming that it’s okay to hawk exorbitant engagement rings on the sole ground that people already think love is neat.

I only got a few pages into Twitchell’s Carnival Culture before its “hey you kids, get off my lawn” approach to some of my favorite aspects of culture put me off. Adcult USA promised better, if only because I think Twitchell and I share the same basic aesthetic stance on most advertisements. All his perceptiveness, though, can’t substitute for certain failures of insight.

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ALISON BECHDEL – Fun Home

Kind of exhausting. Not, I think, because of the near-unbrokenly lofty tone (as Douglas pointed out in his Salon review, Bechdel chooses her arcane words very carefully, which I dig) or because the subject matter is heavy. And the book’s certainly not too long; I wish it were longer.

It’s because nearly every panel has captions in it. Bechdel gets very little opportunity to use her skill at dialogue– she looms over the whole thing as narrator. And why not? It’s her story! But the constant ‘voiceover’ meant that at the end, I had the lingering feeling that I’d just read 240 pages of prologue. The story never reaches ‘now’; as strong a character as the author is through her narration, she never steps in. The closest she comes is a disorienting reference to public records that she looked up in 2001.

The clarity and depth with which she intertwines different points in her past throughout the rest of the book makes this overarching omission weird.

I also have mixed feelings about the ways Bechdel apologizes for winding the thread of her life so tightly. Maybe she didn’t want to stake the book’s success on her ability to make implicitly clear the difference between the coincidences she reports and the symbolic correspondences she draws; an author who blows that distinction can come off as just making shit up to support bogus sentiment. She never does. I feel like maybe she never even comes close enough to need an apology.

On the other hand… well, on the other hand, it’s a beautiful book. I’ve reread the long-ish stories at the ends of the Dykes To Watch Out For collections so many times, it’s not surprising I (a) have very particular unconscious expectations about pacing, and (b) have so much respect for Bechdel’s talent that I’m perversely easy to disappoint. Normally it’s a little alienating to see so many rave reviews of a book I have reservations about; in this case, I couldn’t be happier.

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ANN POWERS – Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America

I loved this book but never seem to get around to writing about it. I dog-eared heavily while reading, though, so I can post excerpts. (All emphases mine.)


“There is no ‘alternative,’ ever,” intoned Tom Frank, one of the ideologues of today’s cultural underground, in an essay that helped him secure a book contract with a major publishing house. Young would-be bohemians lapped up his pronouncements. It was easier for them to refuse a legacy that had lost its shape than to figure out what its newest permutation might be.

Yet the loss of clear markers around bohemia actually creates an opportunity that only cowards could refuse, because the same boundaries have been loosed around conventional society. The mainstream has always been more myth than lived experience, and everyone struggles to adjust their imperfectly shaped circumstances to its mold. Bohemia is the countermyth, the other side of our shared story.

Some spiritually minded liberals are negotiating the moral sphere, trying to get what they can out of ancient religious traditions while sidestepping their equally ancient failings, like sexism. Most of us, however, have lost the thread of this conversation, unable to take it into the secular realm, where we’ve all agreed to keep out of each other’s worldviews.

To get our moorings, we can look to bohemia, the floating underground, which is really more a life path than a place. That its facade is out of fashion only makes it easier to get to what’s inside.The bohemia that survives today is the one that escapes cliches, because it is not a show staged for others. It is a challenge undertaken in privacy, with the decision to engage coming after the infatuation with the sparkly sheen has worn off. From the sketch artists of Henri Murger’s time to today’s website iconoclasts, bohemians have preoccupied themselves with a challenge that outlasts the milieu’s changing costumes and crazes–to confront and reinvigorate the premises of soceity, the definitions of kinship, labor, love, leisure, consumerism, and identity itself. It is time, now, for these serious matters to overshadow the flashy performances of the past.

On a period when she had a lot of casual relationships, many sabotaged by the sense that she was not ‘supposed to’:

The funny thing about norms is, not that many people strictly abide by them. Yet instead of questioning the rules, most folks condemn their own actions as insignificant or wrong whenever they don’t fit. That’s what I did in my pirate days, thinking that even the encounters that gave me the most delight were fiascoes when their natural limits set in. And the men who disappointed me were also getting screwed, suffering serious confusion and psychic harm at letting down someone whom they genuinely liked, even sometimes loved, because they couldn’t fit into my mold.

Quoting a woman who’s now a sex activist and writer:

“This friend of mine and I used to have a joke about the fact that we were not getting what we wanted: it’s like, I’m the only one who notices that the CD is over. Just once in my life I wanted the music to end while I was having sex and not notice, because I was so wrapped up in the sex. Now that happens all the time.”

In a chapter on work, and the motivations of Powers and her fellow minimum-wage record-store clerks:

On the one hand, [popular music is] about making your own style through creative consumerism (Elvis owning blue suede shoes); on the other, it’s about generating your own fun in ways that defy money’s power to exclude (Elvis crashing a rich girl’s party and charming her with his guitar). To negotiate this paradox, which is incresingly present in all aspects of popular culture, the record-store clerk needs a spark of defiance that feeds every transaction, an attitudinal punch that says this money stuff is just a means to an end. The music industry can charge whatever it wants for the CD jewel box, as long as everyone gets the impression that the music inside is still free.

Loving music had pushed all of us off the track–away from the normal pursuit of career, mate, and family, on an endless quest for that vibrating high, the plunge beyond time that comes only when you submerge yourself beneath the waterline of amplified sound. We were addicts, in a way, but also adepts, enlightened by a noise most people considered no more than a pleasant distraction. What was left for us but to practice our art of listening?

Reuse allows things to retain their value as they circulate. An object’s worth does not diminish with each hand it passes through; in some cases, as with collectibles, it may increase, and usually it stays the same. [...] It doesn’t matter if something returns in two weeks’ time; that simply gives someone else the opportunity to enjoy it for a while. Instead of the traditional model of scrimping or the yuppie game of showing off, both of which rate people by how much they can obtain, reuse lends status to those who share. You’re not somebody in the social milieu of a Buffalo Exchange store until you offer up clothes as cool as the ones you’re walking out with. At the heart of this circular economy is a notion that Americans fantasize about but rarely believe; that where we live, there’s enough to go around.

The explorations that lead bohemians to nurture new value systems usually begin in youth, and the search for alternatives doesn’t magically stop after college. In fact, it intensifies as responsibilities grow. The perception of adulthood as the phase when questioning gives way to cool contentment doesn’t make sense in an era when no basics, not your dress code nor your family structure nor the shape of your career, are solidly in place. Slackers refuse to act like grown-ups because they believe that to do so would be to lie.

The central tenet of bohemian life–that our everyday choices must be constantly reassessed and renewed–contradicts the assumption that maturity tames doubt and wanderlust. The dominant notion of adulthood is all tied up with the concept of settling: fixing your position in life and then making do with it.

What few people have grasped is that the endless adolescence of Generation X was never meant to be taken literally; it is a kind of ritual, the public interrogation of a myth. On one level, this has meant scrambling and unscrambling the images, scrutinizing vintage and contemporary visions of growing up to get at their changing meanings. We are trying to distill some truth from these stories and signs, to see what it might be like to reach adulthood free of habit, without our suits already picked out.

The indie scene of the 1980s and 1990s, the very one belittled for adopting boyish clothes and girlie haircuts, is the most upstanding, self-sufficient, and, arguably, mature scene rock has yet produced. Perfecting the do-it-yourself ethic punk had introduced, indie rockers make their own records, book their own clubs, publish their own fanzines, and tour in their own bands. Many indie players associated this autonomy with adolescence, partly because many were high-schoolers when they joined the scene, but also in deference to rock’s portable teenage cosmos. Emphasizing the freedom that comes with thinking your own thoughts for the first time, and trying to keep that freshness going as they mature, form communities, and take on obligations, indie rockers strive for a practical version of the 1960s youth ideal.

If there is no outside, then perhaps the best use for the myth of indie independence is the way it helps people remember their principles in the face of compromise.

Rebellion and compromise are complementary actions in developing an independent worldview, just as running and stretching develop an athlete’s body. One makes you strong and the other makes you flexible. The poets and the punks who refuse to stretch often end up cramped, giving up hope and the human desire for contact with strangers. Eventually, they sell out, too, by accepting the dominant view that they can’t dent the larger scheme of things. Meanwhile, some of the sellouts they’ve scorned do get soft and lose sight of their origins. Others, though, stay vigilant, pushing toward a finish that nobody can predict. That’s where I’m headed, I hope, chased by a sellout past that I’m learning to be proud of.

We have fallen back, toward the dark side of the cycle of breakthrough, negotiation, and exile. Corporate rock still sucks, and gay people still get bashed for holding hands on the street. The plentiful evidence that bohemian values have affected the mainstream [...] is often overlooked. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve been waiting to let the gloom wash over us, and mourn a utopia we could never bring ourselves to believe in.

In the face of this torpor, I want to propose a radical move. [...] What we need to refuse is the negativity that comes from always defining ourselves against a society we can’t help but live within. it’s time to stand up for what we are.

Maybe a lot of this seems facile out of context. In her introduction, Powers talks about how friend after friend that she talked to said, “There really aren’t bohemians anymore,” or, “I’m not a bohemian; I’ve got two kids!” and so on. She doesn’t agree. As I read her arguments, I thought about how I hesitated even to buy the book, standing there in Raven Used Books thinking “oh, I just want to buy this so I can flatter myself that I’m part of the counter-culture, which I’m obviously not. I mean, I work in an office!”

Boiled down, this common neurosis says bohemia is so great that nobody whatsoever should be allowed in. Ann Powers, on the other hand, doesn’t think that what’s inherently good about the lives she details (mostly hers and her friends’) can dilute itself by spreading. Admittedly, she has some cool friends; my neurosis crept back on more than one occasion as I read. Mostly, though, I had to put the book down every ten or twenty pages as another fragment of recognition hit me: I do have a value system! I’m not pursuing an adolescence I wish I’d had; I’m going after the life I want now, hindered by the assumption that it’s only for teenagers! And so on.

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MICHAEL KAMMEN – The Lively Arts: Gilbert Seldes and the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United States

I had never heard of Seldes before finding this book on the curb, and it’s dry reading, but I’m glad I picked it up.

As with anyone whose primary distinction is that his ideas were ahead of their time, Seldes did not himself hold my interest here; the fun part was having to imagine the state of the world when one idea or another was new. For example, Seldes pushed very early the idea that popular culture deserved the same kind of criticism and praise as high culture. He published his manifesto The 7 Lively Arts in 1924, after already praising Krazy Kat et al. in magazine articles for a few years.

Here’s what came to mind, for me, in thinking about mid-20s culture before I read this book: Dada had already happened; Surrealism had just begun or was about to. Eliot and Joyce were established. What else… no rock and roll for a long time, though popular music existed. TV was decades away.

Here’s what didn’t come to mind, because I hadn’t realized it: Radio was still brand-new as a popular medium. Radio.

Similarly, 1950s-era debates over whether television inherently made people dumber probably didn’t– I realized while reading– have the knee-jerk qualities that debate always has when repeated today. Some of the people arguing remembered a time before movies; all of them could see the difference between the world of radio’s mass debut and the world they lived in, which meant most of them had theories about what part radio played in that change.

Most of all, Seldes seems to have loved variety. Occasional creative disasters, to him, were just the price a network or publisher paid for trying new things in an attempt to higher instincts that were going unfulfilled in the audience– maybe ones the audience didn’t even know about yet.

Anyway, not earthshaking, but interesting, particularly considering how many of the controversies Seldes weighed in on have parallels today in debates at Pitchfork or ILX and forums of that ilk.

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