poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

October 6, 2011

Odds & Ends: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love” Edition

I began to write an essay, an anti-hipster creed in defense of N. Clark Street, about how we are all part of the human comedy and can’t we just stop with the judgement and hatred already? Honestly, does everyone have to be as miserable and cultured as you all of the time?

I began to write another essay, a judgemental and hateful screed against the double standards against which society judges women who under eat v. those who over eat. Honestly, you know lying on the couch with a bag of Oreos isn’t any less criminal than skipping meals, right?

I began to write yet another essay, an admission that I genuinely don’t like how negative I’ve become in the past week or two, or three, or four, or more. Negativity is contagious, insidious. Honestly, we all have our annoyances, peeves and impossibly high standards, but let me tell you mister, it’s a real bore when that’s your primary mode of conversation. I would like to think that if every last lame ass person, place or thing in the world were to vanish tomorrow leaving me with nothing against which to exist, my identity and self-worth would remain largely in tact.

Well that didn’t make me feel better either. Also, that last one mysteriously disappeared into the ether after a failed attempt at multitasking. Karma.

So here are some things that I do like! Shallow enough to charm, indulgent enough to gratify, interesting enough to distract, a few odds and ends that I unapologetically adore at the moment.

I. Marlene Dietrich’s Temperamental Screen Test for The Blue Angel (1929)

I have always thought Marlene Dietrich absolutely divine, and I just can’t get enough of this. Her little transformation is particularly appealing to me.

From Open Culture (which you should all have bookmarked):

In 1929, Josef von Sternberg began assembling the cast for the first major German sound film – Der blaue Engel, otherwise known as The Blue Angel. (Watch the English version online here.) A classic of Weimar cinema, the film featured Marlene Dietrich playing Lola-Lola, a seductive singer in the local cabaret. Lola-Lola was, it has been said, a “liberated woman of the world who chose her men, earned her own living and viewed sex as a challenge.” The persona captivated audiences, and it made Dietrich an international star.

Dietrich’s screentest for “The Blue Angel.”

II. Catalogue of the Musee du Montparnasse exhibtion “Les Artistes Russes hors Frontière.”

One of the delights my work gives me in lieu of a proper salary is perusing through art catalogues. The vast majority are modern art, which … well, there’s that negativity again… Anyway, this one recently appeared on my desk and transported me to heaven.

From ArtInfo: “Russian Artists in Paris in the Roaring Twenties”:

PARIS— In connection with the designation of 2010 as “France-Russia Year,” the Montparnasse Museum is hosting a important exhibition of Russian artists who once converged on this storied Parisian neighborhood. Over 70 artists are represented, covering the period from 1915 to the early 1960s, with special focus on the 1920s. At that time, many Russian painters and sculptors left their country in order to freely express their artistic ambitions and to seek out new trends in art.

The museum itself is part of this history: in its building, the painter Marie Vassilieff had her famous studio — a gathering place for Matisse, Satie, and other seminal cultural figures — and her equally-famous canteen, which provided dirt-cheap meals during World War I to those who were literally starving artists.

Beginning during the political upheavals of the early 20th century, many Russian artists decide to move abroad, and many chose to settle in France. While some artists had supported Lenin and taken part in the revolution’s early stages, most became disillusioned when Stalin took power, preferring to leave rather than to accept ethical and artistic servitude. At the time, Social Realism greatly limited the range of painterly subjects. Still, important artists did remain in Russia, such as Rotchenko, who followed Constructivist principles by applying artistic creation to daily life and mass production. But many other influential talents chose refuge in Paris, the world’s artistic capital at the time.[…]

Drawing on their interest in figurative representation, the Russians developed a freely sensual style of painting. The show includes Serebriakova’s series of languid female nudes, where the artist uses a warm palette to bathe her models in a natural erotic glow. In similar fashion, Marie Vassilieff celebrates the female body with Cubist renderings that maintain bodily proportions and extreme colors that bring Italian Futurism to mind. In general, Russian artists depicted physical beauty without stylizing it. This emphasis on the body also found playful expression in Montparnasse nightlife. During the Union des Artistes Russes’s charity balls, guests freely stripped off their clothes or dressed in drag.

The Russian artists who chose to live in France stayed there, whether by preference or necessity. Erased from Soviet art history, many were forgotten until the end of their lives. It took years before significant pieces of this exiled cultural heritage were rediscovered — many of them in flea-markets. The works shown here all come from the same collection: Georges Khatsenkov gathered 300 paintings over 30 years of tireless pursuit. Since Perestroika, the Russians have rediscovered their legacy, and today these artists are featured in Moscow’s Russian Museum.

From the exhibition: Georges Annenkov’s “Nu Allongé”


III. Ken Burns’ “Prohibition.”
Booze! Chicago! Roaring 20’s! I’d been eagerly anticipating the airing of this PBS documentary all summer, and let’s say I wasn’t drawn to it for its educational appeal. The fact that I learned anything new from it was icing on the cake, or a garnish on the glass, as it were. Did you know that there used to be no federal income tax, that women not only led the fight for but also against Prohibition, that men discovered the clitoris in the 1920’s or that elephants can do the Charleston? Neither did I. Did you evah hear of Lois Long? Neither had I. Now that I have, I am in love.

From “Prohibition”:

Twenty-three-year-old, Vassar-educated daughter of a Congregational minister, Lois Long was assigned to cover the city’s nightlife for the New Yorker. She wrote about the speakeasy lifestyle with a liberated woman’s perspective under the pen name Lipstick. Long was the epitome of a flapper and chronicles of her nightly escapades of drinking and dancing in her column enchanted her readers.

“Lois Long’s columns were laced with a wicked sort of sexual sense of humor. She openly flouted sexual and social conventions. She was a favorite of Harold Ross who was the original editor of The New Yorker and who couldn’t have been more different from Long if he had tried. He was a staid and proper Midwesterner, and she was absolutely a wild woman. She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper. And her readers really loved her. “

From Wikipedia:

Lois Long (also known under the pseudonym Lipstick) was a popular writer for The New Yorker during the 1920s and the epitome of a flapper.

She was born to a Congregationalist minister in Stamford, Connecticut and graduated from Vassar. Long had worked at Vogue and Vanity Fair before finding fame at The New Yorker. Harold Ross hired her to write a column on New York nightlife. Under the name of Lipstick, Lois Long chronicled her nightly escapades of drinking, dining, and dancing. She wrote of decadence of the decade with an air of aplomb, wit and satire, becoming quite a celebrity. Because her readers did not know who she was, Long often jested in her columns about being a “short squat maiden of forty” or a “kindly, old, bearded gentleman.” However, in her marriage announcement to The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, she revealed her true identity.

To summarize her lifestyle in her own words: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love.”

She remained with The New Yorker as a columnist until 1968. She died in 1974 [1]

I don’t really believe in reincarnation or any of that nonsense. But it’s a little eerie, don’t you think? 😉 A toast to Lois Long!

IV. Salon: Why American novelists don’t deserve the Nobel Prize.

This article ignited the absolutely most tedious discussion on my facebook page, but I still like it, and after you read it, I will happily explain why.

An American hasn’t won in 20 years. The Academy finds our writers insular and self-involved — and they’re right
America wants a Nobel Prize in literature. America demands it! America doesn’t understand why those superannuated Swedes haven’t given one to an American since Toni Morrison in 1993. America wonders what they’re waiting for with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. America wonders how you say “clueless” in Swedish.

OK, enough. But the literature Nobel will be announced this Thursday and if an American doesn’t win yet again, there will be the usual entitled whining — the sound of which has been especially piercing since 2008, when Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl deemed American fiction “too isolated, too insular” and declared Europe “the centre of the literary world.”[…]

Four years after Morrison won the Nobel, David Foster Wallace predicted the current rut in which our literature finds itself in a New York Observer evisceration of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time.” Though he took particular issue with Updike’s autumnal output, Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions. The following is Wallace’s estimation of Updike, but it could just as easily be said about anyone else in the postwar American pantheon: “The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.”

Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards.

As Bret Anthony Johnson, the director of the creative writing program at Harvard, noted in a recent Atlantic essay, our focus on the self will be our literary downfall, depriving literature of the oxygen on which it thrives: “Fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.” This sentiment is a sibling to Wallace’s anger — and both have a predecessor in T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he called art “a continual extinction of personality.”

The rising generation of writers behind Oates, Roth and DeLillo are dominated by Great Male Narcissists — even the writers who aren’t male (or white). Jhumpa Lahiri is a Great Male Narcissist whose characters tend to be upper-middle-class Indian-Americans living in the comfortable precincts of Boston or New York. Swap the identity to Chinese-American, move the story a couple of generations back on the immigrant’s well-trod saga, and you have Amy Tan. Colson Whitehead started promisingly with “The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days” but his last novel, “Sag Harbor,” was little more than the bourgeoisie life made gently problematic by the issue of race. Jonathan Safran Foer is a narcissist disguised as a humanist. To his credit, Jonathan Franzen doesn’t even pretend.

That makes for a small literature, indeed. The following are words from citations for recent winners and runners-up of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, inarguably our most prominent commendation for a novelist: tender, warmth, heartbreaking, celebration, polished and sensuous. It’s all small-bore stuff, lack of imagination disguised as artistic humility.

Just look back to 2008, when the slight “Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer, but the Irish-Turkish writer Joseph O’Neill told the story of America in “Netherland” with far more eloquence, insight and humor than an American writer had in more than a decade.

That’s not to say our literature is barren. Dave Eggers has written a novel about the Lost Boys of Sudan, “What Is the What,” and a fine “nonfiction novel” about Hurricane Katrina, “Zeitoun.” Best of all, his 826 reading centers have been a wholly selfless bid to get poor children reading and writing in eight cities. Then there is Aleksandar Hemon, son of Chicago and Sarajevo, who writes the kind of fiction that still seeks to span worlds. Johnston quotes him in the Atlantic: “I reserve the right to get engaged with any aspect of human experience, and so that means that I can — indeed I must — go beyond my experience to engage. That’s non-negotiable.”

Maybe it’s the same story as in politics and industry: America, once great, has been laid low. The difference is that great art needs no tariffs, no financial stimuli, no elections or military campaigns. It only requires courage — though a courage of a special kind — to see beyond oneself, to speak across both space and time via what Ralph Ellison once called “the lower frequencies.”

Indeed, compare the Pulitzer-winning descriptions with these words pulled from the citations of recent Nobel Prize-winners: Revolt, visionary, clash, oppression, subjugating, outsider, barbaric, suppressed. And lastly, the one word that seems most elusive to our writers today, so much so that I fear we’ve become afraid of it: universal.

Alexander Nazaryan, a member of the editorial board of the N.Y. Daily News, has written about culture for the New York Times, the New Republic and the Village Voice, among other publications.

Alexander Nazaryan is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is writing a novel about Russian immigrants in New York.

Are you done giggling at the irony of that last little bit? I could not possibly care who wins what award for what. Anecdotal evidence and recent experience hints that such attention is often reward for a successful combination of kissing ass, having the “right” worldview, exemplifying cultural trends and, we pray, talent. Everyone who leaves home is talented in this postmodern world so I suppose all those other matters are the only way to weed out the worthy from those who must continue to suffer for their art.

Moreover, while I do think that there is a navel-gazing movement in American writing, my grief with the state of contemporary American lit is that it often strikes me as nihilism wrapped in a big bow of preciousness. I would even go so far as to extend this description to most of contemporary culture. However, none of the above would necessarily prevent one from writing well or exploring the human condition in one’s writing.

I appreciated the article because I do find American literature to be shamefully insular, and because I could once more recommend “Against Eternal Provincialism: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon.”

V. Some music I like. Deal.

Several friends have advised that I, during such times of sadness and heartache as these, seek comfort in music.

I’m a bit burnt on music, having spent the past several months being told I know nothing about it. I’m no expert, it’s true, but my god I have spent the last 37 years listening to the stuff. What a perfectly ridiculous claim! Fortunately whatever breakup-induced illness had befallen me making me never ever want to listen to another song ever again was short lived, and the other night I found myself dancing around my apartment like a hysterical chorus girl to this:

Katherine Whalen singing “After you’ve gone.”

I’ll close with Ella singing Cole Porter. I may not know anything about music, but those two sure as hell did.

“Just one of those things.”

Should it be that these odds and ends do nothing much for you, it’s no deal-breaker. I’ll not interpret it as rejection and look for a corner in which to mope. I’ll celebrate your uniqueness and thank you, as always, for stopping by.

…and then I’ll begin another essay about how YOU ARE ALL WRONG!



  1. “The rising generation of writers behind Oates, Roth and DeLillo…”

    I read Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man” in 2008, in a Russian military unit. Overall, it was a good read. And a good time.

    Comment by Evgeny — October 6, 2011 @ 5:04 PM | Reply

    • I’ve never actually read any of his work…

      Comment by poemless — October 7, 2011 @ 9:12 AM | Reply

      • The major protagonist of the “Falling Man” is an eyewitness of 9/11, who suffers from a suppressed form of PTSD. The novel describes the life of an American family after 9/11, the way that event changed their lives and the place of their country in the world. The echo of 9/11 embodied in performances of an unknown artist nicknamed as the “Falling man” is a theme which emphasizes the major topic of the novel — the country-wide post-9/11 depression. Or something.

        What are your favourite American fiction books? The newer, the better. ;-D

        Comment by Evgeny — October 7, 2011 @ 11:00 AM | Reply

      • p.s.
        Russia-wise, I liked the way Beslan was mentioned in the “Falling Man”, and I didn’t like the mention of a “copper mine in Afghanistan” — an obvious reference to Steinbeck’s “The Moon is Down”. Like, the author didn’t have to draw a line between Soviet and American wars in Afghanistan.

        Comment by evgenyfil — October 7, 2011 @ 11:13 AM | Reply

      • Don DeLillo was postmodern before people quite knew what postmodern was — lots of references to other cultural totems and attempts to use those references as symbols and whatnot. I probably would’ve been a lot more impressed had I not read him after first encountering the brilliance that was MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000, which was DeLillo with insane wit (or a kind of gentle nihilism used to side-splitting comedic effect, IMHO).

        I guess I’m saying, you haven’t missed that much by not reading DeLillo. If you must, start with WHITE NOISE. It’s fairly gentle and a quick read.

        Comment by EdgewaterJoe — October 8, 2011 @ 11:22 PM | Reply

        • “White Noise” has acquired something close to iconic status, and is worth reading for that reason. I’m not totally convinced by it as a whole. The satirical elements (“Hitler Studies” and so forth) wear thin quickly. The characters and situations are shallow, but I think that’s part of the satire rather than due to a lack of authorial skill. Still, I find myself referring to the book on occasion; it does capture something essential about American life.

          Comment by Scowspi — October 9, 2011 @ 4:33 AM | Reply

          • Scowspi, I’ve heard of the “White Noise” previously, although haven’t read it. If you feel like having such a conversation, who are your favorite contemporary writers (regardless if it’s fiction, nonfiction or speculative fiction), and which books/novels have you specially liked?

            I’m looking towards reading Parfit’s “On What Matters”. Here is a review:

            Comment by Evgeny — October 9, 2011 @ 4:34 PM | Reply

            • Evgeny – if you mean only currently active American writers, I can’t really say. Most of the more recent lit I’ve read has been European or post-Soviet. The last American book I got was Raymond Carver’s Collected Short Stories, which is great stuff for the most part, but he died in 1988.

              Comment by Scowspi — October 10, 2011 @ 2:51 AM | Reply

              • Scowspi, thanks for a link. And of course, post-Soviet and European literature is not less interesting!

                Speaking of the Russian lit, the top book in my reading list is the recent Gromov’s science fiction novel “Запруда из песка”. Here you can see a fragment:

                Comment by Evgeny — October 10, 2011 @ 3:31 AM | Reply

  2. A couple of preliminary remarks: “anti-hipster creed in defense of N. Clark Street”

    I thought N. Clark was swarming with hipsters. Do you mean “pro-hipster [s]creed”? Am I that out of touch?

    “let me yell you mister”

    Nice Freudian slip there…anyway, literature. You didn’t really think that Facebook thread was tedious, did you?

    This article reminds me of my writing-group days. We met at the house of a now deceased local writer in W. Rogers Park. I liked the guy and his writing and I still have his Collected Short Stories that he gifted to me. And I got a lot of personally useful things out of that group. But complaints about the small-mindedness of American fiction resonate with me because that is exactly what we got every meeting: sensitive types growing up amidst cornfields; the angst of suburbia; the identikit “ethnic” writing (just change the names of the characters, the food they eat, and the part of town they live in, and you’ve got a brand-new story); stories that were simply transcriptions of somebody’s busted-up relationship; etc etc.

    But what is the solution? If we write “larger,” more “socially significant,” how many people will actually read? Hasn’t the function previously fulfilled by big realistic novels mostly been taken over by movies and TV?

    I have no answers; but I still keep an ear to the literary ground and occasionally find something worthwhile. There’s no getting away from Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crap”). But the 10% is worth looking for.

    Comment by Scowspi — October 7, 2011 @ 5:04 AM | Reply

    • “I thought N. Clark was swarming with hipsters. Do you mean “pro-hipster [s]creed”? Am I that out of touch?”

      Yes you are. You must come back! It’s certainly not the hipster haven it once was. Now they’re in Bucktown, Logan Square, Ukrainian Village, West Town, Pilsen, etc. However, it seems to me that hipsters can be found just about anywhere. Wrigleyville, Lakeview and Lincoln Park are now more closely associated with frat boy Cubs fans, yuppies and pseudo-suburbanites. Mostly I just don’t like the animosity between South, West and North Sides or people defining what the “real” Chicago is. It parallels what I despise about nationalism. If you’re not capable of accepting people who are not like you, I don’t see how that makes you any different than the narrow-minded suburbanites you hate. Ok, end of rant.

      “Nice Freudian slip there”

      “You didn’t really think that Facebook thread was tedious, did you?”
      Yes, but mostly because I’m suffering from the inability to concentrate. Also, you and our dear Mr. Doom live in the same city. You could meet for coffee to discuss these matters… 🙂

      “But the 10% is worth looking for.”

      Comment by poemless — October 7, 2011 @ 9:28 AM | Reply

      • Freudian slip = “yell” (I presume you mean “tell”?)

        As for Doom, we do meet on occasion. We start out talking about deep and erudite stuff, but gradually switch over to gossip. Facebook is a more disciplined medium, believe it or not. Almost like a classroom.

        Comment by Scowspi — October 7, 2011 @ 1:28 PM | Reply

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