Tag Archives: literary criticism

reading history: censorship lessons

This is a true story:

In my youth I didn’t “get” cubism. It was fine and all, not my favorite because the abstraction often left me feeling a little overwhelmed in a way that was boring (as opposed to the sensory overload of something more post modern where the cacophony of colors and textures starts to feel like it’s moving at the speed of my own millennial anxiety). Picasso felt like a “great man” myth; a justification for some shift in european ideals, a way to insure and assure the tastes and investments of the elite.

But I wanted to get it. My best friend was really into Hemingway at the time, and we would spend afternoons out on the water with him explaining to me what Tortilla Flats (the name of a local restaurant) was about. I wasn’t going to read Hemingway, it felt too macho and too punishing.

“Midnight in Paris” came out around this time (the last Woody Allen movie I would ever watch), as well. I was very impressed by the pitch perfect inclusion of Owen Wilson in that film as the most irritating white guy. I particularly enjoyed Adrian Brody’s Dalí, and Corey Stoll’s Hemingway (“Have you ever wrestled a tiger???”). Most importantly it really introduced me to the figure of Gertrude Stein. I had heard her name and sort of-kind of knew a bit about her, but I was deeply and intensely interested in this titanic dyke of modernism. The woman that Picasso and Hemingway sought to impress, who held the moment and the movement in her salons and her hands and her words.

Vintage’s “The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein”

I bought a copy of Vintage’s “Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein” from Symposium Books, back when they still had a storefront on Thayer Street in Providence. (At the same time I added Anaïs Nin to my “to read” list, and began my shallow but impassioned affair with James Joyce.)

Now, I didn’t really enjoy the writing of Gertrude Stein. I didn’t “get” it either, but she, at least, was using a medium which I had an easier time parsing than that of the painters. Her sentences were long, convoluted, often purposefully devoid of proper signifiers and disconnected from traditional structures of meaning.

I spent a lot of time just reading one word after another and hoping that I would make sense at some point. (It didn’t, entirely, but…)

Then I said to myself this time it will be different and I began. I did not begin again I just began. […] Naturally I would begin again. I would begin again I would naturally begin. I did naturally begin. This brings me to a great deal that has been begun.”

—Gertrude Stein. p. 518-9.

It was while reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that i realized two incredibly important things.

First, through Stein’s descriptions of the unease people felt looking at the works of Picasso and Matisse, the abrupt confrontation with a painting that demanded something from them, I had managed to really feel and understand, for the first time, why Picasso’s paintings were so important and significant in the evolution of art into the modern period.

Second, Gertrude Stein was a horrific chauvinist, exactly as inclined to dismiss the woman who shared her life in the same manner that the men around her dismissed their own female companions, lovers, and muses.

Indeed, the very title of Stein’s “autobiography” is redolent with this particular form of femme focused misogyny. After all, why should Gertrude retain the right to speak for Alice in such a manner when she could just as easily and just as well tell the story through her own person and presence which already figures (and presumably informs) the narrative? I made it about half-way through what was included of the novel in my volume of Stein’s works and then decided I’d had enough of the impenetrability, the disregard for female and feminine agency (Gertrude having aligned herself firmly with the masculine/male energy and expression of her male contemporaries), and historical time period which I found curious at best and sort of irritatingly self-involved at worst.

Stein herself was a disappointment, and largely confirmed my distaste for the masculinist and chauvinist writing of the time period (I still look with grave suspicion and distaste on anyone who eagerly explains to me how Hemingway has informed their writing practice), and—with the exception of a persistent interest in “The Rhinoceros” and the Modernist application of “plasticity” to literary material—I moved on to the somehow less galling, if no less obnoxious, male chauvinism of the Beat poets.

Why am I telling you this story? Why does it matter that at 15 or 16 I read some literary fiction didn’t like it very much? In a sense, it doesn’t. The process of my personal intellectual development and edification, auto-didactic as it has been in many ways, isn’t of exceptional interest to you, who may not know me. It probably isn’t of great interest to a number of people who do know me, either. But we find ourselves in the strange moment where it seems that the impressive oversight in the American, or perhaps even English-speaking, educational realm has come to a head (one hydra head of many, ever ready to split again into new horrific fractions upon its emancipation from the body of our cultural nightmare) in the form of fantastic re-imaginings of the intention, impact, and reception of—in particular, abstract—art during the interwar period.

I offer this brief excursion into my own past to try and get to a greater point about how we come to understand history and culture and literature and art as a cumulative and interconnected process. I was willing to believe those people who told me that Picasso’s artwork was “revolutionary” in some capacity, a break with the previous sensibilities of aesthetic value, but that much was obvious by comparing Cubism to its representational forebears and contemporaries. What I wasn’t able to grasp without help, was the emotional and affective aspect of that rupture with tradition. It was not possible to access that information via a history of Picasso’s work, or an analysis of the impact of Cubism, not at the start. Anything written after Picasso’s inclusion in the Western canon was established serves merely as justification, post facto, of that inclusion.

Stein gave me something else: she gave me the immediacy of a semi-synchronous description of Picasso’s artwork, the process he underwent in bringing his vision to life, the socio-cultural factors he and the other modernist painters were responding to, the uncertainty of the times everyone was living in. And, perhaps most importantly, a look directly into the face of the conservative reaction and rejection of something new, something they felt was out of place, out of line, out of joint, their desire to shuffle it out of sight and return to the placidity of the values with which they were most familiar and most comfortable.

Some combination of my accidental concentration on the global history of genocide and systematized political mass violence (which always starts with censorship and (violent) exclusion of “undesirables”), and the love I carry for the outré, the perverse, everything pulpy and defiant of tradition, has meant that from the response to Picasso to the banning of Ulysses to the court case around Ginsberg’s Howl to the repeated attempts to shut down and limit access to queer art and literature online in the 90s, the 00s, the 10s, I return again and again to the question, not so much of what is “allowable” or “permissible” or “acceptable” in art and aesthetics, but why it is that every generation thinks that they are the ones who have discovered the “true” rules of Good Art?

In this case, history teaches us not so much where previous censorship fell short or failed to achieve some new horizon of enlightenment, but that every censorial iteration has been forced to admit defeat and then been castigated as—at best—foolish, or—with much greater frequency—as actively immoral, harmful, and destructive.

Time and again, those who emerge from history wreathed in the ever-fading light of timeless moral rectitude are not those who call for the abolition of this or that artistic or aesthetic mode, but those who speak, write, and interrogate that which they find morally, aesthetically, or intellectually impoverished, and who speak with clarity, passion, and fearlessness in favor of that which they believe to inspire to new heights and new horizons the breadth and wealth of the human spirit.

Rationality and Superstition, some thoughts on reckoning in Weird Fiction

One of the things I find most fascinating in Lovecraft’s writing is the way in which the structure of his fiction actively undermines the very things he claims and seems to hold dear.

I’m currently reading Jason Colavito’s The Cult of Alien Gods, (more on his most recent book: The Mound Builder Myth some time soon). In one of the first chapters––I’m sorry, I’m reading it on the Kindle and it’s an impressively badly structured file, none of the footnote links work, etc. Which is frustrating given that I bought the damn thing OFF AMAZON, but I digress––… In one of the first chapters he outlines the trajectory of the Gothic romance into horror and detective fiction and ultimately into the Weird tale to bring us through the evolution of the literary form which culminated in Lovecraft’s work.

“Thus for Lovecraft, the stories of the age taught him that oblivion was the end result of the unwholesome pursuit of knowledge, a theme he would employ again and again.” (Loc 513)

This quote reminded me of something I often find myself discussing with people who come into my place of employment: while Lovecraft tells us explicitly in his language, via description and story structure, that the rational middle-to-upper class white men who make up his protagonists are of superior breeding, intelligence, and composure than any of the religious, superstitious, and non-white individuals they encounter… Protestant scientific rationalism never saves any of his protagonists from ignominious ends.

This tends to feed into my personal belief that one reason that Lovecraft endures as a writer despite his obvious failings as a human being, and especially despite the way those failings contaminate his fiction, is because this, like other parts of his œuvre, demonstrate that he was a better artist than he intended. His fiction is packed with epistemological ambiguities, the form and the fiction at odds with one another (and especially at odds with contemporary characterizations of both the fiction and the man… Perhaps something to follow up on at a later date). He tells us that the only way to achieve true knowledge and understanding is by following the path of rational scientific inquiry and to cast aside all superstition, but at the same time, he shows us that pursuing rational inquiry into these realms of the vast unknown can only result in madness and death.

I always return to The Dreams in the Witch House, the story which first arrested me with this realization. Because my biggest take away from the story was that the story’s protagonist, Walter Gilman, was an idiot. Throughout the entire story, Gilman is warned by “a superstitious loomfixer named Joe Mazurewicz” that he should abandon his somnambulant inquiries into the mysteries of the witch Keziah and his apartment on the top floor where the witch once lived, lest something terrible happen to him.

Spoiler alert:

Obviously, he doesn’t abandon his exploration of the spooky mathematics he’s involved in, and obviously he does not come to a good end, or he wouldn’t be appearing in this essay. It is important to note that, in defence of Lovecraft’s materialist worldview, neither does Mr. Mazurewicz. It would be blatant falsehood to state that religious or superstitious thinking provides any measure of true safety in the Lovecraft Mythos. But the kind of superstitious thinking which makes one wary of those places where the veil between the worlds is thinnest (if you will) is certainly worth heeding, even in a world populated with Old Ones and non-Euclidean geometries.

Side note: While I don’t think anyone is going to show up to start arguing with me, though I welcome people’s input, I am compelled to mention that I believe that in Dreams in the Witch House Gilman is to a certain degree bewitched (hah) and enthralled and therefore his decision to remain in Keziah’s apartment despite the presence of Brown Jenkins (truly the story’s most terrifying element) is not entirely his own. But that really only brings us to the edge of considering the quest for knowledge as a compulsion/enchantment in its own right.

But Lovecraft often seems to walk on the knife’s edge separating an annihilating Truth (accessible through rational scientific inquiry) and the safety of a recognizable supernatural reality (manageable through superstition and mystical belief). Being able to access a more accurate vision of reality does nothing to improve one’s ability to describe or comprehend it. His rational protagonists might have a “better idea” of what the Old Ones “really are” or better understand themselves or any number of things, but, as evidenced by their gibbering madness, are not at all better equipped to engage with that reality. Indeed, it often seems that the best way to “deal” with a Lovecraftian universe is to approach it with the armature of superstitious belief and a quasi-religious reverence. After all, several thousand years of religious worship clearly demonstrates that the human mind is equipped to handle belief in creatures with powers beyond anything they can imagine.

But Lovecraft often seems to walk on the knife’s edge separating an annihilating Truth (accessible through rational scientific inquiry) and the safety of a recognizable supernatural reality (manageable through superstition and mystical belief).

This approach to the supernatural, and the distance between rationality and superstition reminds me of the work of Lovecraft protégé and weird fiction writer Frank Belknap Long (now there was a man whose racism felt “of the time” by being just a light, temporal seasoning in the fiction, rather than a deeply rooted epistemological function of the fiction itself). I didn’t, on the whole, love Long’s fiction. As with many others, my primary motivation for reading his stuff were the two Lovecraftian stories, “The Hounds of Tindalos” and “The Space Eaters”. “Hounds” was frustrating because it felt like a brilliant premise executed to only a fraction of its full potential.

“The Space Eaters” by contrast is almost singularly brilliant… Up until the very end, where it lost me completely. I will actually refrain from speaking too much about the story itself, because it would be a genuine tragedy to ruin the experience for anyone who finds themself reading the story for the first time. I wish to discuss one element of the story which does not figure into the plot, but I noticed was characteristic of Long’s work, and I will, for better or worse, be discussing the mechanics of the end of the story which were such a disappointment to me.

One thing that struck me about Long’s work, over all, was that in contrast to Lovecraft’s characters who find themselves compelled to gaze into the abyss, Long’s protagonists compulsively look away. Where Lovecraft gives us a horror made of up of disjointed, impossible descriptions made all the more horrible by their almost coherence and comprehensibility, Long operates with a nearly cinematic “cut away” format for horrific reveals. In Long’s stories, we remain with the protagonist as he hears things, perhaps smells things, but he never ever looks, and, in “The Space Eaters”, one of our only hints as to the horrors that he is facing is given through the description of the face of someone who DID look while the protagonist looked away. It’s a fascinating structure, especially when compared to Lovecraft, because it proves to a certain degree how much the joke about Lovecraft’s hysteric “It’s was indescribable!” is in fact a gross mischaracterization of his descriptions. (Though he does overuse the word “cyclopean” it’s true.)

But in “The Space Eaters” Long’s protagonist eventually defeats the invaders by making the sign of the cross. It’s probably not the worst twist a story has ever had, but given the presence of a Lovecraft stand-in and the debates Long and Lovecraft had with one another about the merits of religion in general and Catholicism in particular, it does feel somewhat pointed. It also allows the protagonists to make it out alive in a way that few Lovecraftian heroes ever have. Indeed, Long’s fiction seems often to function specifically to shore up the argument that a healthy dose of superstitious thinking does a body good in a vast and largely unexplored reality. His protagonists tangle with the terrifyingly bizarre and incomprehensible, but then manage to move along consigning such things to the realms of fable and fiction, or secure in the knowledge that humanity’s spiritual and religious beliefs have developed alongside these intrusions into conventional reality for the specific purpose of managing and containing the experience of them.

Of course, modern fiction writers (at least, many of my favorites) like to explore the step beyond both Lovecraft and Long. They recognize the value of each viewpoint: that rational scientific inquiry, based in evidence, can yield a better understanding of reality; superstitious, or religious thinking has held a privileged place in human history and experience as a direct result of its capacity to explain the otherwise inexplicable and advise accordingly. But they don’t stop there. Most importantly, they recognize that life continues after these interruptions in conventional reality; it is often not a question of possibility, but of necessity to acquiesce to the new reality paradigm and continue living. It is possible to chart a path between Lovecraft’s Victorian “madness in the face of the irreconcilable” and Long’s “delivering unto the Outside what belongs to it”. We can and do reshape our realities and our understanding of the realities of others to interface with what was previously outside our direct comprehension.

Madness is a luxury not everyone can afford.