Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 2018

A phenomenon to the tenth power

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Amidst the immense emotional excitement surrounding works of art, it is desirable that talk about art be marked by the greatest restraint. For the immense majority, a work of art is enticing only insofar as it illuminates the artist’s perception of the world. For the artist, however, his perception of the world is a tool and an instrument, like a hammer in the hands of a stonemason, and the only thing that is real is the work itself.

To live is the artist’s highest self-esteem. He wants no other paradise than being, and when he’s told about reality, he only smiles bitterly, because he knows the infinitely more convincing reality of art. The spectacle of a mathematician proclaiming the square of a ten-digit number without stopping to think about it fills us with a certain astonishment. Too often, however, we overlook the fact that the poet raises a phenomenon to its tenth power, and the modest exterior of a work of art often deceives us concerning the prodigiously condensed reality that it possesses.

Osip Mandelstam, Selected Essays

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September 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The cathedral of the self

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Michelangelo knew that the meaning of the Greek humanities for his time involved making Christ—the man, into Christ—who is God; that his plastic problem was neither the medieval one, to make a cathedral, nor the Greek one, to make a man like a god, but to make a cathedral out of man…I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of Euro­pean culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is how, if we are living in a time without a legend or mythos that can be called sublime, if we refuse to admit any exaltation in pure relations, if we refuse to live in the abstract, how can we be creating a sublime art?

We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of West­ern European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.

Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now”

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September 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

A lover’s lies

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Over the last month, I’ve been listening endlessly to 50 Song Memoir, the sprawling autobiographical album by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Like much of his work, it’s both technically exquisite and cheerfully uneven, with throwaway novelty tracks alternating with songs that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, but it’s clearly a landmark in the career of one of our indispensable artists. One of its best features is a thick accompanying booklet, in which Merritt walks his good friend Daniel Handler through the stories behind all five discs. It’s totally fascinating, both for its insights into craft and for its uncharacteristic moments of introspection. But it also includes an anecdote, which Merritt shares only in passing, that has been on my mind a lot, particularly in light of what I’ve been discussing over the last few days:

[The song] “Lovers’ Lies” is a boyfriend who, it later turned out, was a pathological liar. Dale Peck has a whole chapter about him. Apparently he went out with Dale Peck before he went out with me, which I didn’t know at the time…So he allowed everyone to believe that he was HIV-positive, because he was an AIDS activist, and it just seemed simpler. But he was not in fact HIV-positive, and eventually that got out, and he became a pariah, persona non grata, and had to leave the area.

Handler doesn’t ask for further details, and the conversation quickly moves on, leaving the story to stand enigmatically by itself. And the song doesn’t add much to the picture.

Merritt doesn’t mention any names, but he provides more than enough information to identify the individual under discussion, who is also thanked in the liner notes to one of his side projects. (I don’t particularly feel like naming him here, either, so I’ve quietly edited some of the passages that follow.) Dale Peck—a literary critic whom I previously knew best for calling Rick Moody “the worst writer of his generation”—tells the story in his book Visions and Revision, a long excerpt of which appeared a few years ago in Out. In his memoir, Peck recalls that the activist “was the first person I slept with who told me he was HIV-positive,” and that he also claimed to have been the son of a Holocaust refugee, a survivor of English boarding schools and mental institutions, and the victim of a beating in Boston. But after cataloging his friend’s remarkable background, Peck concludes:

Everything I’ve just told you is a lie. The Judaism—the Holocaust—the move to England and the nervous breakdown, the time spent in a mental institution and hustling on the streets, and above all the HIV infection: Every last detail—save, perhaps, his name—was a fabrication, invented for who knows what reason and perpetuated with some major or minor variations not just with me but with all of ACT UP…I don’t believe it was empirically necessary for [him] to adopt the identity of an HIV-positive person in order to become the kind of AIDS activist he became. But he did, and he immersed himself in his role to such a degree that he put himself at risk.

And he was no ordinary fabulist. Peck tells us that he was “also one of the nine or ten most important AIDS activists in the United States,” and in David France’s How to Survive a Plague, we hear more about the scale of this ongoing act of impersonation:

It was thought that he was the sickest member of the HIVIP support group—he had testified as an AIDS patient under oath before Congress and issued a famous dictum to fellow activists, “HIV Negatives Get Out of Our Way”—but in fact he had never been infected at all. David Barr, the support group founder, pieced together the deception through inconsistencies in his stories, the vagueness about his doctor visits, his secrecy about lab results. I was incredulous when confronted with these facts…For almost a decade I watched him partake in some of the most instrumental skirmishes that revolutionized science and medicine. I watched his work save lives. He could have accomplished as much as an openly HIV-negative man.

And France’s thoughts on the reasoning behind this deception are particularly significant: “What drove him, I guessed, was a peculiar kind of thrill-seeking behavior. There was no more immediate battle in this epic war than the one to survive. For young men it was an almost romantic race against time. I can imagine, but not fully understand, a compulsion to feel those stakes very personally.”

Peck makes a similar point in his memoir: “From the beginning of the epidemic part of the fascination with AIDS was the desire to have it. To live with it? To die from it? I suspect it’s probably neither, which is to say, I suspect the HIV these men wanted was the phantasmic kind that brings ‘meaning’ to life rather than sickness or pain or death.” And it makes for a striking contrast with an argument advanced by Susan Sontag in AIDS and Its Metaphors, which was published toward the end of the eighties. After noting that such diseases as tuberculosis and syphilis have been romanticized for their associations with emotionality or creativity, to the point of creating “syphilis envy,” Sontag writes: “But with AIDS—though dementia is also a common, late symptom—no compensatory mythology has arisen, or seems likely to arise. AIDS, like cancer, does not allow romanticizing or sentimentalizing, perhaps because its association with death is too powerful.” Sontag was clearly wrong about this, and it’s even possible to recognize this impulse in more recent cases of activists who altered or embellished aspects of their identities—some blatantly, others less so—in what Eve Fairbanks of Buzzfeed calls a mindset “that makes having endured harrowing circumstances seem almost necessary to speak with any moral authority.” But it may have been something even more fundamental. As Peck writes of one pivotal moment:

[The activist] said he had something to tell me and even as I guessed from his tone what it was he said: “I’m positive.” I use quotation marks here because I know these were his actual words: I recorded them on a piece of yellow paper ripped from a legal pad that I later tucked into a new journal. I was a sporadic journaler at best, usually starting one when I felt that something momentous had happened, and I knew that something momentous had happened here. Not that I had slept with an HIV-positive person, but that I had met someone great. Someone about whom I need manufacture none of my usual illusions to love.

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2018 at 9:07 am

Quote of the Day

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A work is created when each of its parts works for the whole, whether or not the words appear free. It is situated when all its movements, resembling the others or not, take place elsewhere…Let’s be free in regard to the reader, not ourselves. Let’s chastise ourselves if we don’t want to be chastised by others. Let’s sacrify our own talents if we don’t want our words to be sacrificed.

Max Jacob, “Words in Freedom”

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September 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

A better place

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Note: Spoilers follow for the first and second seasons of The Good Place.

When I began watching The Good Place, I thought that I already knew most of its secrets. I had missed the entire first season, and I got interested in it mostly due to a single review by Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, which might be my favorite piece so far from one of our most interesting critics. Nussbaum has done more than anyone else in the last decade to elevate television criticism into an art in itself, and this article—with its mixture of the critical, personal, and political—displays all her strengths at their best. Writing of the sitcom’s first season finale, which aired the evening before Trump’s inauguration, Nussbaum says: “Many fans, including me, were looking forward to a bit of escapist counterprogramming, something frothy and full of silly puns, in line with the first nine episodes. Instead, what we got was the rare season finale that could legitimately be described as a game-changer, vaulting the show from a daffy screwball comedy to something darker, much stranger, and uncomfortably appropriate for our apocalyptic era.” Following that grabber of an opening, she continues with a concise summary of the show’s complicated premise:

The first episode is about a selfish American jerk, Eleanor (the elfin charmer Kristen Bell), who dies and goes to Heaven, owing to a bureaucratic error. There she is given a soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a Senegal-raised moral philosopher. When Chidi discovers that Eleanor is an interloper, he makes an ethical leap, agreeing to help her become a better person…Overseeing it all was Michael, an adorably flustered angel-architect played by Ted Danson; like Leslie Knope, he was a small-town bureaucrat who adored humanity and was desperate to make his flawed community perfect.

There’s a lot more involved, of course, and we haven’t even mentioned most of the other key players. It’s an intriguing setup for a television show, and it might have been enough to get me to watch it on its own. Yet what really caught my attention was Nussbaum’s next paragraph, which includes the kind of glimpse into a critic’s writing life that you only see when emotions run high: “After watching nine episodes, I wrote a first draft of this column based on the notion that the show, with its air of flexible optimism, its undercurrent of uplift, was a nifty dialectical exploration of the nature of decency, a comedy that combined fart jokes with moral depth. Then I watched the finale. After the credits rolled, I had to have a drink.” She then gives away the whole game, which I’m obviously going to do here as well. You’ve been warned:

In the final episode, we learn that it was no bureaucratic mistake that sent Eleanor to Heaven. In fact, she’s not in Heaven at all. She’s in Hell—which is something that Eleanor realizes, in a flash of insight, as the characters bicker, having been forced as a group to choose two of them to be banished to the Bad Place. Michael is no angel, either. He’s a low-ranking devil, a corporate Hell architect out on his first big assignment, overseeing a prankish experimental torture cul-de-sac. The malicious chuckle that Danson unfurls when Eleanor figures it out is both terrifying and hilarious, like a clap of thunder on a sunny day. “Oh, God!” he growls, dropping the mask. “You ruin everything, you know that?”

That’s a legitimately great twist, and when I suggested to my wife—who didn’t know anything about it—that we check it out on Netflix, it was partially so that I could enjoy her surprise at that moment, like a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire eagerly watching an unsuspecting friend during the Red Wedding.

Yet I was the one who really got fooled. The Good Place became my favorite sitcom since Community, and for almost none of the usual reasons. It’s very funny, of course, but I find that the jokes land about half the time, and it settles for what Nussbaum describes as “silly puns” more often than it probably should. Many episodes are closer to freeform comedy—the kind in which the riffs have less to do with context than with whatever the best pitch happened to be in the writers room—than to the clockwork farce to which it ought to aspire. But its flaws don’t really matter. I haven’t been so involved with the characters on a series like this in years, which allows it to take risks and get away with formal experiments that would destroy a lesser show. After the big revelation in the first season finale, it repeatedly blew up its continuity, with Michael resetting the memories of the others and starting over whenever they figured out his plan, but somehow, it didn’t leave me feeling jerked around. This is partially thanks to how the show cleverly conflates narrative time with viewing time, which is one of the great unsung strengths of the medium. (When the second season finally gets on track, these “versions” of the characters have only known one another for a couple of weeks, but every moment is enriched by our memories of their earlier incarnations. It’s a good trick, but it’s not so different from the realization, for example, that all of the plot twists and relationships of the first two seasons of Twin Peaks unfolded over less than a month.) It also speaks to the talent of the cast, which consistently rises to every challenge. And it does a better job of telling a serialized story than any sitcom that I can remember. Even while I was catching up with it, I managed to parcel it out over time, but I can also imagine binging an entire season at one sitting. That’s mostly due to the fact that the writers are masters of structure, if not always at filling the spaces between act breaks, but it’s also because the stakes are literally infinite.

And the stakes apply to all of us. It’s hard to come away from The Good Place without revisiting some of your assumptions about ethics, the afterlife, and what it means to be a good person. (The inevitable release of The Good Place and Philosophy might actually be worth reading.) I’m more aware of how much I’ve internalized the concept of “moral desert,” or the notion that good behavior will be rewarded, which we should all know by now isn’t true. In its own unpretentious way, the series asks its viewers to contemplate the problem of how to live when there might not be a prize awaiting us at the end. It’s the oldest question imaginable, but it seems particularly urgent these days, and the show’s answers are more optimistic than we have any right to expect. Writing just a few weeks after the inauguration, Nussbaum seems to project some of her own despair onto creator Michael Schur:

While I don’t like to read the minds of showrunners—or, rather, I love to, but it’s presumptuous—I suspect that Schur is in a very bad mood these days. If [Parks and Recreation] was a liberal fantasia, The Good Place is a dystopian mindfork: it’s a comedy about the quest to be moral even when the truth gets bent, bullies thrive, and sadism triumphs…Now that his experiment has crashed, [the character of] Michael plans to erase the ensemble’s memories and reboot. The second season—presuming the show is renewed (my mouth to God’s ear)—will start the same scheme from scratch. Michael will make his afterlife Sims suffer, no matter how many rounds it takes.

Yet in the second season hinges on an unlikely change of heart. Michael comes to care about his charges—he even tries to help them escape to the real Good Place—and his newfound affection doesn’t seem like another mislead. I’m not sure if I believe it, but I’m still grateful. It isn’t a coincidence that Michael shares his name with the show’s creator, and I’d like to think that Schur ended up with a kinder version of the series than he may have initially envisioned. Like Nussbaum, he tore up the first draft and started over. Life is hard enough as it is, and the miracle of The Good Place is that it takes the darkest view imaginable of human nature, and then it gently hints that we might actually be capable of becoming better.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2018 at 8:39 am

Quote of the Day

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The lives of plants [are] more stirring than a detective story. The musculature of the back in motion dances a ballet. This piece of fabric should be set to music and that jar of preserves is a poem of ingenuity…You live. Eccentric. In integral solitude. In anonymous communion. With everything that is root and summit and that throbs, revels, jubilates. Phenomena of this congenital hallucination which is life in all its manifestations and the continual activity of consciousness. The motor spirals. The rhythm speaks. Chemistry. You are.

Blaise Cendrars, “Profound Today”

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September 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

The survivors

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Today I’ll be publishing the last in a series of posts devoted to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

Every subculture begins as a strategy for survival, although not everyone arrives at the same set of tactics. In the oral history The World Only Spins Forward, the author Madison Moore describes one possible approach: “Fabulousness becomes, if I may, a giant fuck you to the norms. People emerge out of that. You emerge because you’re tired of hiding. It’s so much easier to be normal, to fit in, to repress yourself.” Brian Herrera, an assistant professor of theater at Princeton, makes a similar point:

You could see the cues, the winks, ways to tell that someone was gay, and you could read that as speaking to you as a gay male person without ever having to name it. In that register, the realm of the fabulous became one of the ways that you could signal that you were in on the joke, you got the joke, you were in some ways making the joke. people like Sylvester. The Village People. Camp was a building of a vocabulary of critical connoisseurship that was celebratory, that was ours.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner refers to writing as a yoga, or a way of life in the world, and you could say much the same thing about the notion of camp, which was invented by men and women who had to develop superhuman capacities of mental and emotional endurance. As Prior Walter says as he hears the sound of beating wings at the end of Millennium Approaches: “My brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure.”

But not everyone reacts to pressure in the same way. In the passage that I quoted above, Moore continues: “A lot of folks, people who embrace fabulousness, are attacked on the street and feel the need to wear men’s clothing, ‘safe’ clothing, as a way to get from A to B, and then when they get there, they bust out.” Yet there’s something equally compelling about those who hold themselves in reserve. The Pet Shop Boys were defined in the early days by reticence and irony, which was wildly misinterpreted by listeners who took “Opportunities” and “Shopping” at face value. Part of this stance stems from what Nabeel Zuberi, as I noted here yesterday, calls “a repression that is part of that residue of English nationalism’s effect on the body,” but it also reflects something in particular about Neil Tennant. In his landmark interview with Attitude, he set himself pointedly apart from the kind of world that Moore and Herrera evoke:

I’ve never wanted to be part of this separate gay world. I know a lot of people will not appreciate hearing me say that. But when people talk about the gay community in London, for instance, what do they really mean by that? There is a community of interests, particularly around the health issue, but beyond that what is there really? There’s nightclubs, drugs, shopping, PAs by Bad Boys Inc. Well…I’m sorry but that isn’t really how I define myself. I don’t want to belong to some narrow group or ghetto. And I think that if they’re really honest a lot of gay people would say that they felt like that as well.

And no matter how you feel about this, the result was a body of work—at least for its first decade—about survival in plain sight. It was about getting from A to B.

The ensuing web of strategies—the detachment, the reserve, the use of technology to conceal overwhelming emotion—is a big part of why the Pet Shop Boys have always been important to me. I’m not gay, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable in my own skin, and the world that their music creates also speaks to a certain kind of introvert. More recently, I’ve been struck by its parallels to the science fiction community, in which many of the same qualities were channeled along somewhat different lines. Science fiction appealed strongly from the beginning to readers who saw themselves as outsiders, and with a slight change of label, it offered a secret inner life with affinities to what Stephen Spinella describes in The World Only Spins Forward: “Because it is something that can be masked and hidden, there are issues of a dual nature to your presence. You’re living a double life. There is something fabulous about that. There is something outside the norm of living in that mysterious mindset.” When you walk around the World Science Fiction Convention, you see a few fans at the extreme of fabulousness, along with others, like me, who look more like they might be treating everyday life as a form of cosplay. Both cultures also have a vested interest in technology. Science fiction has often been more comfortable talking about machines than about people, and Tennant, Lowe, and their contemporaries were drawn for some of the same reasons to the synthesizer. It was private, anonymous, a reaction against the cult of the self in rock music, and it offered forms of expression for people in solitude. As Stephin Merritt puts it in the wonderful song “Foxx and I,” his admiring ode to the original frontman of Ultravox:

Anyone can change into a machine
Girl or white, black or boy
Dull or very strange, into a machine
Come with me…

I’m perfectly aware, of course, of the differences between these two cultures, as well as the forms of exclusion that can develop even within a community of those who identify themselves as outsiders. But they both offer fascinating insights for anyone who cares urgently about the forms that cultural survival can take. (There are countless others, obviously, but these are the two that happen to have been most important to my own life.) I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’ve recently begun to realize how much of my view of the world was based on wishful thinking, and I’m starting to confront the real possibility that it will continue to get worse for the rest of my life. This only raises the huge unresolved question of how to live under such circumstances, and I’m still trying to figure it out. And while I’m not the first to take refuge in the consolations of art—my favorite books, movies, and albums nearly all emerged from conditions of existential crisis—I feel obliged to point to one possible line of defense that was designed to be overlooked. In my eyes, Tennant and Lowe’s music exemplifies a certain kind of courage that prefers to go unrecognized. Very marked the point at which those impulses were transmuted into something more liberating, and ever since, the subtext of their early songs has become text, perhaps because their audience now consists largely of the community in which Tennant was never quite sure he wanted to be a member. Some of these later albums are great, and hugely meaningful to me, but it’s the version from Please through Very that sticks with me the most, and which seems to have the most to say to us now. Wryness and understatement may not seem like weapons, but like AutoTune, they have their place, and they served their users well enough at a time not unlike our own. The sense of liberation expressed by Very strikes me now as premature, but not wrong. And I hope that I can hear it again one day.

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