Some things I’ve been reading

I haven’t read Bukowski for many years. But he’s hard to ignore when you follow a lot of writers in social media. When I saw Betting on the Muse in my local used bookstore I decided to give him another chance. This collection of mostly poems and a few short stories was put together from an archive that Bukowski had set aside to be published after his death. The first thing that must be said about the poems is that most of them aren’t poems at all. Most of them are little narrative vignettes arbitrarily broken into tiny lines. Bukowski’s line breaks don’t make a hell of a lot of formal sense and, frankly, I don’t think he gave a shit. However, they’re very good little narrative vignettes. There are even a few gems. I must say that after having the presidential election shoved in my face every day for a year, reading these Bukowski vignettes on the way to the beach once or twice a week has been great therapy this summer. His misanthropy combined with astonishing tenderness and sweetness and even the occasional I don’t give a fuck attitude has been refreshing for me.

Bouvard and Pécuchet and Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
This is my second reading of both novels. The introduction to my Penguin paperback of the former emphasizes the novel’s profound ambiguities, states that it is “hardly calculated to become a popular favorite”, and adds that many readers find Flaubert’s attitudes to be “depressingly negative”. Indeed Flaubert’s relentless hammering away at the protagonists’ failures would seem likely to wear down many a reader. But those ambiguities are rich enough—I’d venture to guess—to keep many more interested. Not least among them is a note of self-parody that seems to be played, or at least suggested, throughout the book. I find Sentimental Education to be the more depressing of the two, simply because it is of the Realist genre. Flaubert’s portrait of Frédéric is unrelenting, merciless and by the end of the book nearly impossible to regard. But it’s truth. I don’t know of a better example of the anti-hero in literature or film.

Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm
With the rise of Donald Trump I thought it would be a good time to reread this book. Trump in his RNC speech pounded away on the word “freedom”. His campaign would seem to be about American freedom and yet it all comes from a font of fear—fear of the Democrats, fear of the threat of refugees, fear of terrorism, fear of LGBT rights, fear of environmental restrictions on business, fear of lawlessness and domestic violence in many forms, fear of lost “greatness”. Combined with all this fear the RNC cried out for global “respect” and power. Their demand for respect comes from a loaded gun, both at home and abroad. The kind of freedom we heard trumpeted at the RNC is what Fromm described as “negative” freedom. It is based on profound anxiety and hatred and cannot be cured, Fromm tells us, with rational answers, but only when the individual tastes “positive” freedom, when “the individual becomes an integral part of a meaningful world”. The simple, easy, fast answers offered by Trump in his speech, full of bluster, lots of “I will do this for you” and chest-beating do not lead to positive freedom, but, at best, a suppression of the doubt that causes the unbearable feeling of powerlessness and anxiety so on display in Trump’s supporters. In effect, this suppression, which can only ever be temporary until it leads to another crisis, is an escape from the double-edged challenge of freedom. Real freedom, positive freedom, is real and ongoing work. Read Escape from Freedom to see how fascism can come in the form of an American call for freedom.

Jerry Lewis in Person by Jerry Lewis with Herb Gluck
What can I say, I’m a fan. I’m painfully aware that Jerry Lewis (at age 90!) is still too abrasive for some Americans. Sadly, some people have to die before their work achieves the kind of reputation it deserves. I suspect that one day Lewis will be seen as one of the best filmmakers in American cinema. Jerry Lewis in Person is a memoir published in 1982. The story of Lewis’s childhood—the first 80 or so pages—is the best part of the book. His relationship with Dean Martin is better told in the later book Dean and Me. Loneliness and poverty were two of the engines that propelled the young clown in the making. His childhood is in many respects heartbreaking. I hesitate to say more, thinking that only fans will read the book. But since I lose all interest in book blogs that purport to review books without telling me anything of substance about why they like the book, perhaps I will be forgiven for injecting a personal note here. Like Lewis I also had a sad childhood. But my problem was, in certain respects, the opposite of his. He was terribly alone, desperate for love and attention. I was trapped as if within a panopticon, and came to equate freedom with the solitude of my own thoughts. However, my child character and Lewis’s seem to me to be flip sides of the same coin of unbearable loneliness and pain. Perhaps this is why, different as we are, different as the solutions we sought out, I identify so closely with him. Some people see only stupid comedies in his films. I see a boy mutilated by pain and coming to terms with it and the world.

which leads me to…. Trouble Boys: the true story of The Replacements by Bob Mehr
The four founding members of The Replacements had troubled childhoods, marked by poverty, alcoholism, mental illness and abuse. However, this is a book that I think will appeal to fans as well as general readers interested in rock ‘n’ roll and cultural American history. Paul Westerberg sang in his 2002 song, We May Be the Ones, “We may well be the ones to set this world on its ear/ We may well be the ones; if not, then why are we here?” The Replacements were, they did that. And they had one of the most eloquent frontmen in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Westerberg’s prose poem that opens Trouble Boys might be the most cogent and beautiful thing ever written about the band. Trouble Boys tells the whole, rollicking, fucked-up, drunken, deafening, exhilarating and heart-crushing story of the band, as dramatic a story of a rock ‘n’ roll band as you’re likely to hear. As soon as I’d finished I wanted to read it again.

Selected Poems by Kenneth Patchen
It’s just one of those things. I found this old paperback in a thrift store and kept it lying around for years until I cracked it open a few weeks ago for no particular reason. The poem The New Being, originally published in 1949, surprised me, sent a little shock through me (read my poem response to it here). It struck me that someone who looked like Patchen (he’s a straight white American dude) could not write from this point of view today. There’s a somewhat accusatory, self-righteous tone to this and a few other poems in the collection. I had read somewhere that Patchen has always appealed to young readers and I can believe that the moral indignation he shows might be attractive to people of a more idealistic bent. But today a white straight American man pointing his finger and saying, “YOU!” doesn’t hold much water unless he is indicting himself. My response, by the way, is not a capitulation to what the right calls “political correctness”. I hate identity politics. But there are social realities that can’t be ignored. I’m more interested in understanding my place in the world than in telling others what theirs is. Not that Patchen was doing that exactly. Other poems in the collection are just as startling by their inclusion of the narrator in crime. Nice Day for a Lynching not only does so but also makes the statement, we are all one. It deserves to be heard:

Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick
It’s impossible to read Sea of Glory without thinking that the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 and its commander Charles Wilkes deserve to be better known. The fact that it’s not, and the reasons why, is the hook that Philbrick, a more than capable writer, uses to draw the reader in. The accomplishments of Wilkes and the Expedition are extraordinary. Equally fascinating are Wilkes’ deep flaws as a leader of men. In the end, Philbrick makes a case for the success of the expedition owing in large part to Wilkes’ character, of which his flaws are an inextricable part. Of particular interest to me, at this time, was the description of Wilkes, who had a brilliant scientific mind and was quite possibly a genius, as being ruled by his emotions. His profound insecurities, for example, compelled him to punish excellence and reward ineptitude. Anyone who has ever had a boss who acts this way might want to read about Wilkes. This is also of particular interest to me right now because we are in an election year, which means that countless rational, intelligent, sensitive people are exhibiting signs of being overwhelmed by their emotional minds. Degree of intelligence, reasoning ability and even scientific acumen count for very little (in terms of human relations and understanding, at least) when a person is inebriated by their emotional mind. Philbrick has shown Charles Wilkes to be a classic example of this.

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2 Responses to Some things I’ve been reading

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    This is a great post, Mark. There are so many lines and observations that resonated with me, personally. Your comments on the Fromm book, and negative and positive freedom, are of course immensely timely. Here’s another comment I’d like to highlight, while hastening to add that it’s only one of many that struck me. “I hate identity politics. But there are social realities that can’t be ignored. I’m more interested in understanding my place in the world than in telling others what theirs is.” It’s a hard balance to achieve–that is, grasping social realities that shouldn’t be ignored, while at the same time not rejecting associated complexities–one that must be tended to constantly. The last of your sentences expresses as good a path to maintain that balance as I’ve read anywhere.

    • It is very hard to achieve balance, I struggle with it every day, in writing, in social media and in everyday living. When in doubt attempting to be frank but also polite and respectful and giving others the benefit of the doubt–doesn’t hurt.

      Fromm’s book is very important. Another good one is Reich’s ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’.

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