Monday, March 31, 2008

Body Modification

No, those are not tattoos, and they are neither skinheads nor football hooligans. The subjects are seven dogfaces from World War II. I don't have a date for the picture, so I can't tell if the shaving was done in anticipation or celebration. Here they are again in an informal grouping, looking a bit more greatest-generationish:
Note how Mr. O looks a bit like a member of the Monks (who indeed started out as G.I.s at a base in Germany). Except for Mr. R, who looks as if he were wearing a flower or a rubber glove on his head, the others in their diverse ways are all reminiscent of Travis Bickle.

I've always been curious about people's willingness to turn themselves into signboards. What purpose did those haircuts here serve? Was it limited to the photograph or photographs, or did they perform a routine at a USO-canteen pep rally? How drunk were they when they had the idea? How drunk were they when they carried it out? Did the exercise fill them with a greater sense of mission and achievement, give them a certainty of imminent victory, embolden them for greater challenges? They do look like a serious crowd. I'm sure that cheap laughs figured nowhere in their plans.

I confess that even temporary and transient forms of body modification make me queasy. Tattooing has a certain criminal allure even now, but the idea of wearing something you can't easily take off seems so burdensome I'm still at pains to understand it as the mass phenomenon it has become. Painting your face blue and yellow to cheer on the Fighting Coalheavers, on the other hand, may only last six hours, but those are six hours you spend as, essentially, an inanimate object, no matter how much screaming and jumping you do. You have converted yourself into a part--a grommet or a nozzle or a flange.

But maybe that's the whole idea. People--young people especially--find it burdensome to be themselves, and long for temporary escape into the world of thinghood. You are barely distinguishable from the other things all around you. You can make a spectacle of yourself with impunity, regress as violently as you wish, throw up all over the lobby and not be easily identifiable as the culprit. That wasn't what those G.I.s were after, of course, but their haircuts were still for them a way to shed their selves and merge into a unit, a human lexeme coextensive with the idea of victory itself. If you changed their circumstances just a trifle, they would be ideal candidates for roles as suicide bombers.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Sifting through the ashes of the twentieth century, archeologists of the future will be forced to conclude that sometime around 1961, young people (primarily guys) the world over were compelled to don matching suits, assume collective names in English (not always but often, even if their native language was something else), and wield guitars and the occasional drum, to uncertain effect. Was it a religious phenomenon? A form of mating ritual? An initiation rite? Perhaps a bit of all three. Even tiny Belgium was not immune to the craze. Here we see Paul Simul & les Blue Jets, from Fleron. Paul perhaps harbored certain grandiose ideas, or maybe he was just naturally high-spirited.
Les Médiators, from Gives-Ben-Ahin, were remarkable in featuring the lovely Nadia, on guitar and singing! Their base rate was BF5500 for six hours (that would be about $180, sending each of them home with roughly 35 bucks in their pockets, in circa-1962 money). Although their string ties drawled "Western," their accordion said "bien de chez nous."
Les Tuniques Rouges, from Verlaine, also featured an accordionist, although their leader insisted on being called "Tommy." They, too, were working-class kids from the industrial suburbs around Liège. They, too, look irredeemably Belgian.
The Ansambl Aleksandra Subote, by contrast, appear to have been Romanian, but their card was found in the same pile, meaning either that they were uncommonly ambitious, relentlessly touring the continent the way Nazareth would a decade later, or else that their families had emigrated to the mines and factories of the Province of Liège, which were enjoying the last glints of prosperity then.
The Cousins ("Les Cousins") were the superstars of this milieu, a Brussels-bred Ventures-with-vocals who just about defined Belgian rock & roll in the early 1960s, holding their own against the superstars (Johnny, Jacques, Sylvie, Les Chats Sauvages) who emanated from Paris. At YouTube you can savor a few of their videos. I especially appreciate the one that shows them performing their hit "Kana Kapila" (lyrics in tiki-lounge Hawaiian) in an indisputably authentic Belgian beer mill:
There is a deep poignancy to the Cousins warbling something like "Woman, come, let's make music quick" in the ancient language of the South Seas, while behind them Jojo, a sèche dangling from his kisser, pours out glass after glass of Stella.
The Narval's--addicted, like so many francophones, to the génitif saxon--boldly decided not to display their instruments, instead choosing to pose in the most modern setting they could think of: across the river from the Liège Holiday Inn. Their modernity may indeed reflect the fact that they postdated their colleagues by a few years, at least if I'm correct in assessing José's Nehru jacket.

Such things were occurring all over the globe, from Thailand to Latvia and from Egypt to Peru, a previously unimaginable mass of youth, gyrating frantically, enthusiastically grooming, grinning and finger-popping, wiping their 45s on their sleeves, mispronouncing English words--while their grave and beaten elders shook their heads and muttered imprecations. How did this happen, and why, and how is it possible that, nearly fifty years later, a version of it persists?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Unpacking My Library

Yes, we're back. Sorry that postings have been so erratic of late, but I just went through an overwhelming week of cleaning the Augean stables, followed by moving. (Faithful readers will note that I moved only a month ago. Let's just say the task came in two parts, of which this was the larger by far.) As a consequence, I have my entire library together in one place again. This is no small matter.

I have a very large library by most normal standards, have seemingly arranged my life in order to acquire as many books as possible--I worked for three years right out of college in a large secondhand bookstore, then for a literary review where I raided the mailbag on a daily basis, and spent much of my free time in book barns and flea markets. Meanwhile I've moved around, often; only once did I live in a single place for as long as ten years (and it was possibly the rattiest of all my residences). I lived in New York City in that bygone era when as soon as you got a $20 raise you'd move to a slightly bigger apartment. My older friends probably still suffer joint aches from helping carry my hundred boxes up to sixth-floor walk-ups.

But after living in smallish apartments for decades I just spent seven years in a house with a full-size attic, and everything went to hell. Books entered my house under cover of night, from the four winds, smuggled in by woodland creatures, and then they never left. Now that I have moved again--into a house that's not necessarily smaller but that I am determined to keep from being choked with books like kudzu--I have just weeded out no fewer than twenty-five (25) boxes worth: books I won't read and don't need, duplicates, pointless souvenirs. I discovered that I owned no fewer than five copies of André Breton's Nadja, not even all in different editions. I owned two copies of St. Clair McKelway's True Tales from the Annals of Crime & Rascality, identical down to the mylar around the dust jacket. I had books in three languages I don't actually read. Etcetera. It was time to end the madness.

I still possess a great many books. But I'm not a book collector. Over the years I've gotten used to the inevitable questions. No, I haven't read all of them, nor do I intend to--in some cases that's not the point. No, I'm not a lawyer (a question usually asked by couriers, back in the days of couriers). I do have a few hundred books that I reread or refer to fairly regularly, and I have a lot of books pertaining to whatever current or future projects I have on the fire. I have a lot of books that I need for reference, especially now that I live forty minutes away from the nearest really solid library. Primarily, though, books function as a kind of external hard drive for my mind--my brain isn't big enough to do all the things it wants or needs to do without help.

Optically scanning the shelves wakes up dormant nodes in my memory. Picking up a copy of Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller or George Ade's Fables in Slang or Chester Himes's Blind Man With a Pistol and leafing through it for five minutes helps restore my writing style when it has gone stale. Seeing that the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant is fortuitously shelved right above The Ego and Its Own by Max Stirner might get something going in my subconscious (or it might not). Many books are screwy, a great many are dull, some are irredeemable, and there are way too many of them, probably, in the world. I hate all the fetishistic twaddle about books promoted by the chain stores and the book clubs. But I need the stupid things.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


If you have spent an appreciable amount of your life acting in opposition to a prevailing set of mores, you will eventually come to appreciate the importance of those mores as a point of reference. Gradually, it will occur to you that in addition to opposing that way of life, you require its presence, in various subtle ways, and not simply for the friction. Around the time you realize this, however, you will also realize the fragility of your nemesis. You once had the luxury of thinking of it as a monolithic force; it stood for a political position, an ethics, an aesthetics--and now it will turn out to be made up entirely of people. You will only be fully aware of this when those people have died out.

The bad politics, the questionable ethics, the offensive aesthetics are still all around you, only now they belong to your contemporaries and juniors. What is missing are grownups. You yourself may pay taxes, raise children, hold a job--you will still never quite embody the definition of "grownup" to yourself, because for you that idea is inextricably associated with the style of one group of people, your elders. And their style, in turn, was a complicated mass of elements arising from and contingent upon their specific time in history, its culture and technology. And try as you might, you will never be able to replicate this style, even if you decide to take it upon yourself to inhabit it in all sincerity. In your hands it will never be anything but ironic.

And anyway, you don't really understand it. You may have immersed yourself in the period--have read the books and listened to the music and watched the movies. Still, the culture of the grownups will always remain alien to you in fundamental ways. Look at the pictures above. What is afoot is not just a matter of sharkskin suits and cocktails and Mantovani records and idiot party games. Their idea of conviviality has a core that you simply cannot penetrate. In part that is because it is a dilution of earlier notions and wishes held by them, and you are not privy to the bargaining and substitutions that led them to this pass. In part, too, it is because their culture was formed in opposition to an earlier monolith--the world of their own parents--and you have even less insight into that. It may seem that nothing in the world is ever upright. It is either leaning forward, or leaning back.

Monday, March 10, 2008


"Where are you from?"
"Wherever I can get a passport from."
"You sound Russian. Is that your country?"
"I have no country, and the more I see of countries, the better I like the idea."
--dialogue between Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney) and bartender (Michael Delmatoff) in The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941)

Wishing a slightly belated happy 49th to my green card!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

My True Story

Someday I will write the true story of my youth, but the details are so hair-curlingly bizarre that I may have to call it a novel. If I told how I was raised by capuchin monkeys in a remote canyon, and emerged at the age of six to be conscripted into labor at a blacking factory, before being recognized as a living Buddha by a breakway sect of hashishin, then made a career of winning spelling bees in languages I did not previously know, at the last of which I encountered the glamorous movie star who was my true mother, but who could not acknowledge me because of her secret and unwilling ties to the North Korean nuclear program, the codes of which remain on a chip implanted in my left armpit, which throbs exactly a week in advance of an earthquake... But no, none of these matters can be fact-checked. The media would have my hide. A tearful confession on a popular talk show is no sweat, of course, but by now they've amped up the amends. I would have to return the advance. Including the film options.

So I will have to call it a novel. But then no one will care. Because, you know, the imagination--bah, everybody has one of those! It is contemptibly common, the imagination. If literature were concerned with the imagination, everyone would waste their time reading books filled with lies. The point of literature is to let people step forward and tell their story, the true, unvarnished tale of their struggle to become fully human in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the one source of true beauty, this struggle. As the great captains of literature--the Defoes and the Dickenses and the Samuel Clemenses--have shown, it is only by purification in the white flame of suffering that literature is made whole. Were it not for this purification, then literature would be morally ungrounded, a freak show of no lasting purpose and with no lesson to impart. Sadly, though I have been seared by suffering as few mortals have, I will have to deprive the world of the moral refreshment only I can provide. My beautiful story will remain my tawdry secret, and the media will continue their caviling, soul-destroying ways. Alas!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Iron Men

In Italy, in 1966 and again between 1974 and 1977, there was a shortage of coins. As a consequence, all sorts of things became legal tender: slugs, buttons, chiclets, chocolate squares, various sorts of quasi-official scrip, potatoes. Somehow, the economy did not collapse--or at least it fell no farther than it already had. Money, after all, is an imaginary substance with real effects. It has been established that if you pretend with sufficient conviction that you have money, people will treat you as if you actually do. Perhaps if you pretend with sufficient conviction that a given substance qualifies as money, it actually does.

It has also been proven that it you attach a dollar bill to a fishing line and drag it along the sidewalk from a height, people will injure themselves and each other trying to grab hold of it. The ephemera shown above illustrate a corollary principle. The pseudo-clams--one promoted a crank running for president and the other two were phone-sex come-ons--were scattered around the streets, tucked in phone booths, left on subway benches, in full confidence that suckers would pick them up. This would not have worked had they been disguised as pork chops or mash notes.

Or coins, for that matter, since money comes in two classes, which have been pulling in opposite directions for some time now. Coins might as well be chiclets, as far as the average American is concerned. You might try an experiment: place a dollar bill on one side of the pavement and a quantity of change totalling, say, $1.50 on the other. I'll wager that every passing citizen without exception will aim straight for the green and totally overlook the corn. Does this imply that someday a fortune in nickels will be worth less than a thin sheaf of Washingtons?