Commentaries - January 2008
Well, first - sorry - a little set-up. Artie is exasperated by his survivor father's behavior. Artie loved his mother and feels he hates his father; constantly feels guilty about the brother he never met, who died in the Holocaust; feels that his father especially holds him up to the standard of what the brother might have done and been. Artie, who is now of course a visual artist - a comix guy - longs to see his mother's story of surviving Auschwitz. But now he is about to learn that his father has burned the diaries his mother kept, for which they had both been searching - and which Artie desperately needs for his book project, to "bring balance" to it. Currently it has no balance because it's wholly the story of the manipulative father.
Vladek, the father, pretends to have had a heart attack - in order to be sure Artie responds to his latest phone call. Drop everything, he says to Artie on vacation in Vermont, and drive down to my summer bungalow - right now. So Artie and his partner Francoise begin the drive. Art sighs:
"I mean, I can't even make any sense out of my relationship with my father... How am I supposed to make sense out of Auschwitz? ...of the Holocaust?"
The key phrase is "make sense...of." He wants to understand the huge historical forces, continent-wide life in extremis, that shaped his way of understanding his family, which is to say shaped his most basic means of understanding what people do for and to each other. He cannot make sense of B (the larger force which created the smaller force) if he cannot (first?) make sense of A (the smaller force created by the larger). B made A but A must be made sense of if B is to make sense.
Another reading has it that Artie is wrong: one does not need to deal with one's Freudian family romance (love mom, hate dad, envy sibling who had mom's special love, call dad murderer for destroying mom's narrative) - to deal with one's personal neuroses - in order to be able to tell the story of the Holocaust. Personal psychic health should not be a pre-requisite for knowing how the European genocide happened, and why - and to know how to try to prevent another. If so, lots of folks would have an excuse not to learn about the Holocaust. Or, in short: Artie's idea of subjectivity is itself selfish and perhaps (in a world that understands the Holocaust too little) dangerous.
I don't agree about the danger imagined just above. Maus is a representation of the Holocaust that is constantly showing its awareness of itself as a representation - that it is opaque; that it is the survivor narrative filtered through layers: (1) anger and damaged memory; (2) loss of crucial perspective; (3) a neurotic teller of the tale. We need to know that in order to know how hard it is to "make sense of" something that would seem to be objectively knowable as a story but is utterly dependent on a knowledge of the subjectivity that nearly prevents it every time.
I was pleased to read Dan Chiasson's positive review of Mark Scroggins's biography of Louis Zukofsky in the New York Times this past Sunday. It mentions Scroggins's work only briefly - but glowingly. That's good in itself. Better, it's a very good one-page summary of why Zukofsky should be read. One dear to me - a smart wide-ranging reader who loves modern art, the modern novel, modern design but keep a little distance from modern poetry - read Chiasson and pronounced herself excited by Zukofsky's project. What more could a review accomplish? If you know Zukofsky well, you might not have the same response, but give it a try.
Along the way we learn that Zukofsky admired Henry James - which both makes sense and doesn't. Here's Chiasson, drawing off information he found in Scroggins: "A poet needs a myth of origin: Zukofsky, born among James’s 'great swarming,' located his at the moment when Henry James stood on Rutgers Street with 'the look of a shaven Chassid.'"
For my 1960 blog (no, not the 1960s - the year 1960) I've been reading dozens and dozens of newspaper articles and magazine pieces about "beatniks." By then the phenomenon was four or five years old, in the public consciousness, at least, and yet 1960 seems to be the year when it really hit Time and Newsweek and began to receive the usual scoffing afforded such trends in the New Yorker. Legit beat hangouts were invaded by journalists asking regulars and proprietors to make distinctions between real beatniks, part-time beatniks, tourist beatniks, and gawkers at beats who happened themselves to be bearded or carrying bongos for non-beat purposes. My most recent blog entry quotes from a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" piece that resulted from a visit to Cafe Figaro in the Village. Click here to see it.
Here is one of Ken Friedman's "events" from 1964:
Fast Food Event
Go into a fast food restaurant. Order one example of every item on the
menu. Line everything up in a row on the table. Starting at one end of the
row, begin eating the items one at a time. Eat each item before moving on
to the next. Eat rapidly and methodically until all the food is finished.
Eat as fast as possible without eating too fast. Eat neatly. Do not make a
Ken Friedman's work has always been a form of artistic and intellectual shareware. The work is free for use by everyone provided that the source is acknowledged.
Thirty Events and Objects were Friedman's contribution to "The World's First Digital Art Festival" organized by Nam June Paik for broadcast over the global computer network. The festival was a simultaneous festival on what was then called the "Worldwide Internet" - presented in connection with the Seoul-NYMAX Mediale, a "Celebration of Arts without Borders" that was presented at Anthology Film Archives in New York from October 8 to November 6, 1994.
For more, go here.
Put off by all the praise for Joan Didion's prose style, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote an essay-length critique of Didion. It gets, shall we say, very personal. The piece was called "Only Disconnect" (1980) and begins in this hilarious way:
When I am asked why I do not find Joan Didion appealing, I am tempted to answer -- not entirely facetiously -- that my charity does not naturally extend itself to someone whose lavender love seats match exactly the potted orchids on her mantel, someone who has porcelain elephant end tables, someone who has chosen to burden her daughter with the name Quintana Roo; I am disinclined to find endearing a chronicler of the 1960s who is beset by migraines that can be triggered by her decorator's having pleated instead of gathered her new diningroom curtains. These, and other assorted facts -- such as the fact that Didion chose to buy the dress Linda Kasabian wore at the Manson trial at I. Magnin in Beverly Hills -- put me more in mind of a neurasthenic Cher than of a writer who has been called America's finest woman prose stylist.
And later in the essay, this:
Nothing matters, Didion writes. What one hears is, "Only what I have to tell you matters." And, for Didion, only surfaces matter.
I've made the entire essay available here.