Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The promised land

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Over the next few days, I’ll be devoting a series of posts to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

On November 8, 1992, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles presented the second half of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. It premiered less than a week after the presidential election that seemed to herald the definitive end of the Reagan era, against a backdrop of change that led one critic to describe the play as arriving “at the very pivot of American history, when the Republican ice age it depicts has begun to melt away.” And it wasn’t just a matter of good timing. The themes of progress and historical transition were embedded right there in the text, starting with its title. When the lights went up at the beginning of the first act of Perestroika, the audience was treated to the sight of Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik, “unimaginably old and totally blind,” standing before a red flag as he spoke from the podium:

How are we to proceed without Theory? What System of Thought have these Reformers to present to this mad swirling planetary disorganization, to the Inevident Welter of fact, event, phenomenon, calamity?…Yes, we must must change, only show me the Theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory, and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour that text. Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent.

But after four hours of agonized searching, the play concluded with its central figure, Prior Walter, delivering not another theory, but a benediction: “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all…You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

Less than a year later, the Pet Shop Boys released their fifth studio album. Like Kushner’s epic play, it might well have been subtitled “a gay fantasia on national themes,” and its critical and commercial reception was mostly rapturous. As far as I know, however, few listeners have ever drawn a connection between Very and Angels in America, despite the fact that they emerged simultaneously from a confluence of circumstances that were remarkably similar. Both were wildly entertaining works of art that were also haunted by the AIDS crisis, and both seized on flamboyant theatricality as a strategy for conveying unconstrained emotion. In the liner notes for the album’s extended release, the journalist Chris Heath writes:

Arma Andon, their American manager at the time, had asked them why they staged these elaborate, costumed, theatrical fantasies in concert, but rarely explored the same kind of presentation in videos or for records, and they begun to wonder the same thing themselves. “Also,” says Neil [Tennant], “I think we thought we’d done to death the classic Pet Shop Boys thing, and it was finally completely summed up on the cover of Discography, Chris [Lowe] stony-faced and me with an ironically-arched eyebrow. We kind of thought: right, we’ve just completely done that now, let’s do something not real.”

The result was an explosion of color, texture, and science fiction imagery that extended to the packaging of the album itself, a pebbled orange art object that looked as if it might have emerged from an alternate universe. It was a reaction against years of ironic detachment, and it reminds me of Kushner’s notes on the staging of Perestroika: “The moments of magic—all of them—are to be fully realized, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion—which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.”

But the most striking similarity between Very and Angels in America has to be their unexpected obsession with Russia. In “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing,” the repressed narrator dreams of taking all his clothes off and dancing to The Rite of Spring, while the next track, “Liberation,” was inspired by Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. This was all fairly standard for Neil Tennant, whose most famous song includes the line “from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station,” but there had never been anything quite like the closing cover of the Village People’s “Go West.” As they later recalled in a retrospective interview:

Neil: “After it came out, we had the whole how-we-changed-Russia thing.”
Chris: “It does sound surprisingly like the former Soviet anthem, we have subsequently discovered. It’s remarkably similar.”
Neil: “We did bits in Moscow for the ‘Go West’ video simply because we were going to Moscow for the launch of Russian MTV. It was just a coincidence, and we thought, ‘Where do you go when you’re East? You go West.’ So we did some filming in Red Square, pointing. But according to this artist we know in Russia, people thought that we had done a song that was based on the Soviet national anthem, and these Hungarian fans wrote to us and said, ‘I hear this song and I am frightened’, because they thought it was suggesting that the Russians should invade Eastern Europe again, because they would go west. Maybe that’s why the Russians like it.”

And it’s hard to watch the ensuing video—with its rows of marching muscle men with red flags—and still believe that it was all “just a coincidence.”

So what exactly was going on here? Long before the premiere of Angels in America, Kushner told an audience at the Public Theater in New York: “There are moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels, and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible social change in short periods of time…During these periods all sorts of people…are touched by the spirit of revolution and behave in extraordinary ways.” They wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing. And in an interview at Northwestern University in 1995, Kushner came as close as he ever would to explaining his thinking:

Part of what I’m trying to get at with Perestroika, and what all the characters in it are wrestling with, is that we’ve earned the right now, after what happened to communism in Russia and the transmogrification of the ideal of socialism into Stalinism, that big theories are very dangerous things. I think that we absolutely need them. We have a responsibility to create them. But at the same time we also have to find perhaps theories that are less totalizing. We can’t really trust a total theory anymore.

Or as Tennant observed a decade later in “Twentieth Century”: “Sometimes the solution is worse than the problem.” (The same song also includes the lines: “Well I bought a ticket to the revolution / And I cheered when the statues fell / Everyone came to destroy what was rotten / But they killed off what was good as well.”) For a gay man of a certain temperament, it must have been tempting to take the upheavals in the former Soviet Union as a metaphor for another restructuring closer to home, with its possibility of revelation or liberation. “The world only spins forward,” Prior says at the end of Perestroika, and a year after the release of Very, Tennant came out, as the New Statesman later observed, “to the surprise of nobody.” But in the case of both Russia and gay rights, any notion of lasting change may have been premature, and in ways that wouldn’t be clear for decades. As Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov darkly warns: “If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. Without his skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence and die. Have you, my little serpents, a new skin?”

Written by nevalalee

September 24, 2018 at 9:19 am

Quote of the Day

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I am writing this manifesto to show that you can do contrary actions together, in one single fresh breath; I am against action, for continual contradiction…I am neither for nor against and I don’t explain because I hate common sense.

Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto”

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September 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

The border artists

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If we want to be makers of the culture of the nineties in a country that constantly pushes us to the margins, we have to constantly fight for the right to have a public voice. The European romantic myth of marginality has been shattered. We must try to speak from the center not the margins, and we must do it in large-scale formats and for large audiences…I feel a strong kinship with everyone in this and other continents who is trying to find new forms of interpreting and articulating the dangers and changes of the times: the true border artists; the Latinos, blacks, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, gays and feminists who are establishing cross-cultural alliances with one another, the performance activists, the non-aligned intellectuals and journalists; the post-earthquake Mexico City rockers, poets and cartoonists; the “Third World” collectives in Europe and the Latin American conceptual artists and writers who are so intelligently analyzing postcolonial relations, they all are my brothers and sisters of vision.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña, “The Border as Performance Laboratory”

Written by nevalalee

September 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The western steam engine

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[The] Western cast of mind [is] a compartmentalizing habit of thought which periodically selects aspects of human emotion, phenomenal observations, metaphysical intuitions and even scientific deductions and turns them into separatist myths (or “truths”) sustained by a proliferating super-structure of presentation idioms, analogies and analytical modes. I have evolved a rather elaborate metaphor to describe it; appropriately it is not only mechanistic but represents a period technology which marked yet another phase of Western man’s comprehensive worldview.

You must picture a steam engine which shunts itself between rather closely spaced suburban stations. At the first station it picks up a ballast of allegory, puffs into the next emitting a smokescreen on the eternal landscape of nature truths. At the next it loads up with a different species of logs which we shall call naturalist timber, puffs into a halfway stop where it fills up with the synthetic fuel of surrealism, from which point yet another holistic worldview is glimpsed and asserted through psychedelic smoke. A new consignment of absurdist coke lures it into the next station from which it departs giving off no smoke at all, and no fire, until it derails briefly along constructivist tracks and is towed back to the starting point by a neoclassic engine.

This, for us, is the occidental creative rhythm, a series of intellectual spasms which, especially today, appears susceptible even to commercial manipulation.

Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World

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September 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

The audio file

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When you spend most of your working life typing in silence, it can be disorienting to hear your own words spoken out loud. Writers are often advised to read their writing aloud to check the rhythm, but I’ve never gotten into the habit, and I tend to be more obsessed with how the result looks on the page. As a result, whenever I encounter an audio version of something I’ve written, it feels disorienting, like hearing my own voice on tape. I vividly remember listening to StarShipSofa’s version of “The Boneless One,” narrated by Josh Roseman, while holding my newborn daughter in the hospital, and if everything goes as planned, another publisher will release an audio anthology that includes my novella “The Proving Ground”—which was recently named a notable story in the upcoming edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy—within the next couple of months. And the most memorable project of all was “Retention,” my episode of the science fiction audio series The Outer Reach, which was performed by Aparna Nancherla and Echo Kellum. I’ve never forgotten the result, but listening to it was such an emotionally charged experience that I’ve only managed to play it once. (Hearing the finished product was gratifying, but the process also cured me of any desire to write words for actors. It’s exciting when it happens, but also requires a degree of detachment that I don’t currently possess.)

I mention all this now because an excerpt of the audiobook version of Astounding has just been posted on SoundCloud. It’s about five minutes long, and it includes the opening section of the first chapter, which recounts a rather strange incident—involving drugs, mirrors, and hypnosis—from the partnership of John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard in the early days of dianetics. The narrator is Sean Runnette, who certainly knows the territory, with previous credits that include Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and the novel that was the basis for The Meg. He does a great job, and although I haven’t heard the rest, which comes to more than thirteen hours, I suspect that I’m going to end up playing all of it. One of the hardest parts of writing anything is putting enough distance between yourself and your work so that you can review it objectively. For a short story, I’ve found that a few weeks is long enough, but in the case of a novel, it can take months, or even longer. And I’m not remotely close to that point yet with this book. Listening to this audio sample, however, I finally felt as if it had been written by somebody else, as if the translation from one medium into another had yielded the same effect that I normally get from distance in time. (Which may be the real reason why reading your work out loud might be a good idea.) I’m glad that this audio version exists for a lot of reasons, but I’m especially grateful for the new perspective that it offers on this book, which I wrote largely because it was something that I wanted to read. And so far, I actually like it.

Quote of the Day

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Defining one’s own professional identity implies overcoming ethnocentricity to the point of discovering one’s own center in the tradition of traditions. Here the term “roots” becomes paradoxical: it does not imply a bond which ties us to a place, but an ethos which permits us to change places. Or better: it represents the force which causes us to change our horizons precisely because it roots us to a center.

Eugenio BarbaThe Moon Rises from the Ganges

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Order of St. John’s

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When I think back on my personal experience with the great books, as I did here the other day, I have to start with the six weeks that I spent as a high school junior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. As I’ve discussed in greater detail before, I had applied to the Telluride Associate Summer Program on the advice of my guidance counselor. It was an impulsive decision, but I was accepted, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it one of the three or four most significant turning points in my entire life. I was more than primed for a program like this—I had just bought my own set of the Great Books of the Western World at a church book sale—and I left with my head full of the values embodied by the college, which still structures its curriculum around a similar notion of the Western Canon. Throughout the summer, I attended seminars with seventeen other bright teenagers, and as we worked our way from Plato’s Cratylus through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, it all seemed somehow normal. I more or less assumed that this was how college would be, which wasn’t entirely true, although I did my best to replicate the experience. Looking back, in fact, I suspect that my time at St. John’s was more responsible than any other factor for allowing me to attend the college of my choice, and it certainly played a role in my decision to major in classics. But it’s only now that I can fully appreciate how much privilege went into each stage in that process. It came down to a series of choices, which I was able to make freely, and while I don’t think I always acted correctly, I’m amazed at how lucky I was, and how the elements of a liberal education itself managed to obscure that crucial point.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times, who paid a visit to the sister campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He opens with a description that certainly would have appealed to my adolescent self, although probably not to most other teenagers:

Have I got a college for you. For your first two years, your regimen includes ancient Greek. And I do mean Greek, the language, not Greece, the civilization, though you’ll also hang with Aristotle, Aeschylus, Thucydides and the rest of the gang. There’s no choice in the matter. There’s little choice, period…You have no major, only “the program,” an exploration of the Western canon that was implemented in 1937 and has barely changed…It’s an increasingly exotic and important holdout against so many developments in higher education—the stress on vocational training, the treatment of students as fickle consumers, the elevation of individualism over a shared heritage—that have gone too far. It’s a necessary tug back in the other direction.

More than twenty years after I spent the summer there, the basic pitch for the college doesn’t seem to have changed. Its fans still draw a pointed comparison between the curriculum at St. John’s and the supposedly more “consumerist” approach of most undergraduate programs, and it tends to define itself in sharp contrast to the touchy-feely world around it. “Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac,” Bruni writes. “For you it’s Kant.”

Yet it isn’t hard to turn this argument on its head, or to recognize that there’s a real sense in which St. John’s might be one of the most individualistic and consumerist colleges in the entire country. (The article itself is headlined “The Most Contrarian College in America,” while Bruni writes that he was drawn to it “out of respect for its orneriness.” And a school for ornery contrarians sounds pretty individualistic to me.) We can start with the obvious point that “the stress on vocational training” at other colleges is the result of economic anxiety at a time of rising tuitions and crippling student loans. There’s tremendous pressure to turn students away from the humanities, and it isn’t completely unjustified. The ability to major in classics or philosophy reflects a kind of privilege in itself, at least in the form of the absence of some of those pressures, and it isn’t always about money. For better or worse, reading the great books is just about the most individualistic gesture imaginable, and its supposed benefits—what the dean of the Santa Fe campus characterizes as the creation of “a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy”—are obsessively focused on the self. The students at St. John’s may not have the chance to shop around for classes once they get there, but they made a vastly more important choice as a consumer long before they even arrived. A choice of college amounts to a lot of things, but it’s certainly an act with financial consequences. In many cases, it’s the largest purchase that any of us will ever make. The option of spending one’s college years reading Hobbes and Spinoza at considerable cost doesn’t even factor into the practical or economic universe of most families, and it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise.

In other words, every student at St. John’s exercised his or her power in the academic marketplace when it mattered most. By comparison, the ability to tailor one’s class schedule seems like a fairly minor form of consumerism—which doesn’t detract from the quality of the product, which is excellent, as it should be at such prices. (Bruni notes approvingly that the college recently cut its annual tuition from $52,000 to $35,000, which I applaud, although it doesn’t change my underlying point.) But it’s difficult to separate the value of such an education from the existing qualities required for a high schooler to choose it in the first place. It’s hard for me to imagine a freshman at St. John’s who wasn’t intelligent, motivated, and individualistic, none of which would suffer from four years of immersion in the classics. They’re already lucky, which is a lesson that the great books won’t teach on their own. The Great Conversation tends to take place within a circle of authors who have been chosen for their resemblance to one another, or for how well they fit into a cultural narrative imposed on them after the fact, as Robert Maynard Hutchins writes in the introduction to Great Books of the Western World: “The set is almost self-selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it.” And that’s fine. But it means that you rarely see these authors marveling over their own special status, which they take for granted. For a canon that consists entirely of books written by white men, there’s remarkably little discussion of privilege, because they live in it like fish in water—which is as good an argument for diversity as any I can imagine. The students at St. John’s may ask these hard questions about themselves, but if they do, it’s despite what they read, not because of it. Believe me, I should know.

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2018 at 9:02 am

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