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Essais du Michel de Montaigne [Chicago-Neuf]
Voire mais on me dira que ce dessein de se servir de soy pour subject à escrire, seroit excusable à des hommes rares et fameux qui, par leur reputation, auroyent donné quelque desir de leur cognoissance. Il est certain: je l’advoue; et sçay bien que, pour voir un homme de la commune façon, à peine qu’un artisan leve les yeux de sa besongne, là où, pour voir un personnage grand et signalé arriver en une ville, les ouvroirs et les boutiques s’abandonnent. Il méssiet à tout autre de se faire cognoistre, qu’à celuy qui a dequoy se faire imiter, et duquel la vie et les opinions peuvent servir de patron. Caesar et Xenophon ont eu dequoy fonder et fermir leur narration en la grandeur de leurs faicts comme en une baze juste et solide. Ainsi sont à souhaiter les papiers journaux du grand Alexandre, les commentaires qu’Auguste, Caton, Sylla, Brutus et autres avoyent laissé de leurs gestes. De telles gens on ayme et estudie les figures, en cuyvre mesmes et en pierre. Cette remontrance est tres-vraie, mais elle ne me touche que bien peu: [Image 0293]
Non recito cuiquam, nisi amicis, idque rogatus,
Non ubivis, coramve quibuslibet. In medio qui
Scripta foro recitent, sunt multi, quique lavantes.
Je ne dresse pas icy une statue à planter au carrefour d’une ville, ou dans une Eglise, ou place publique:
I do not pass by the statue to ‘plant a kiss’ on a city, without so much as a church, or public place:
Non equidem hoc studeo, bullatis ut mihi nugis
No equality in “scholarship” [*scholarship* – Eds.]
Only “bulls” lacking mine own “nullification”
Of “page-turners” for the Smart Set
And “loquacious secrets” – –
A Biography of Donald Barthelme
By Daugherty, Tracy
St. Martin’s Press
Copyright © 2009 Daugherty, Tracy
All right reserved.
The America that Don knew as a boy and as a teenager, in the 1930s and 1940s, was a nation whose structures were beginning to be formed with messianic fervor. Or so his father believed. His father, Donald Barthelme, was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1907, the son of a lumber dealer. He learned, early, to calculate board feet, negotiate timber rights, and distinguish loblolly from other sorts of pine trees. These skills led him to a pragmatic view of building and of problem solving in general, a view his eldest son would inherit.
During the elder Barthelme’s childhood, Galveston was dominated by singular personalities who left indelible imprints on the city’s finances, institutions, environment, and cultural life. William Lewis Moody, Jr., the son of a cotton magnate, owned controlling interest in the city’s national bank; in 1923, he purchased the Galveston News, Texas’s oldest continuously running newspaper; in 1927, he formed the National Hotel Corporation, and subsequently built two of the city’s landmark inns; he organized what became the biggest insurance company in Texas, and bought a printing outfit and several ranches, though he had little interest in raising cattle. He used the land for duck hunting and fishing. A Gulf Coast Citizen Kane, he managed the city’s money and information, and shaped much of the public space. In 1974, Don would publish a story called “I Bought a Little City” about a Moody-like man who, otherwise bored with his life, establishes an amiable but unimaginative empire in Galveston, and presides over the city’s decline.
The other major figure in town, prior to World War I, was N. J. Clayton, a supremely confident architect with a love of high Victorian style. Even today, the generous loft spaces in many of Galveston’s commercial buildings bear his mark. He favored bold massing and articulate composition, and was fond of Gothic detail. That one man’s sensibility, if pushed aggressively, could fashion a city’s looks was a lesson absorbed, and cherished, by Barthelme senior. It was an example of idealism, optimism, and hard work that he impressed on his children.
Always short for his age, with red hair, fair skin, and fat glasses from the time he was three, the elder Barthelme felt as a boy that if he was going to get anywhere in life, he “wasn’t going to be able to just stand there.” “I had to walk into a room with a swagger, and talk loud, and tell ’em I was there,” he said. In their memoir, Double Down, his sons Rick and Steve said that, early on, their father adopted the attitude, perhaps modeled on men like Moody, that the “world was a place that needed fixing and he was just the man to fix it.”
By the time he reached high school, he was an assured and popular young man, always tweaking authority to win his friends’ loyalty, practiced at the swagger he’d affected, a hell-raiser.
As a college freshman, he enrolled in the Rice Institute, in Houston, but was asked to leave “for some indiscretion in the school newspaper, which he edited,” Rick and Steve recounted, “an indiscretion that wasn’t his, as it turned out, but some fellow student’s for whom Father was taking the fall.”
The elder Barthelme’s father approached school administrators on his behalf but found them unbending. Instead of waiting twelve months to reenroll, when his suspension would expire, Barthelme transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. There, he studied architecture with Paul Philippe Cret, and he met Helen Bechtold, whom he would marry in June 1930. They were introduced on a blind date when he went with a buddy to Helen’s sorority house. As Helen and a friend approached the boys in the house’s foyer, Helen whispered that she hoped she would get the “tall, dark, and handsome one.” Instead, her date was the “short, red-headed one.”
“He was a fortunate man,” Rick and Steve wrote in Double Down. “[Mother was] a prize that took some winning, according to the family lore, for while Mother was smart, talented, stylish, attractive, and sought after, our father was only smart and talented.” Away from school, Helen lived in Philadelphia with her mother and sister. Her father had died when she was twelve, leaving his family financially secure, but Helen wanted a teaching career and even made what she once described as an “abortive attempt” at writing. She was interested in acting at the time she met Barthelme.
On April 7, 1931, Don was born (he would later write, “What else happened in 1931? …Creation of countless surrealist objects”).In December of 1932, his sister, Joan, arrived. Helen Bechtold Barthelme abandoned her teaching, writing, and acting dreams; she hunkered down to become the “beloved mother” of a family that would eventually total five children, all of whom, swayed by their mother’s love of reading and drama, excelled at writing.
After graduating from Penn, Donald Barthelme, Sr., worked as a draftsman for Cret and for the firm of Zantzinger, Borie, & Medary (where he helped design the U.S. Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C.), but he was unable to find lasting work in Philadelphia. In 1932—just before Joan was born— the family moved to Galveston, where Barthelme joined his father’s lumber business. The company was best known for building a magnificent roller coaster near the seawall at the beach. Barthelme’s father, Fred, a New York transplant, was a prominent and successful member of Galveston society.
Barthelme was restless working for the old man and living in a garage apartment behind his parents’ house. He worked briefly for the Dallas architect Roscoe DeWitt, then, in 1937, moved his family to Houston, where he joined the firm of John F. Staub. In 1940, he branched out on his own.
At Penn, his course of study had stressed traditional architecture and conventional building techniques. On his own, he studied the Bauhaus movement in Europe and pored over Frank Lloyd Wright’s published plans; still, he didn’t chafe against Penn’s established pedagogy. He admitted his perplexity at the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, designed by Howe and Lescaze— this was one of most prominent modern buildings erected in the United States in the 1930s, and Barthelme didn’t get its austerity.
In Philadelphia, he encountered, once more, powerful personalities. In class one day, evaluating one of Barthelme’s designs, Cret asked, “Where did you get this idea?” “Oh,” Barthelme said, “I got it out of my head, Mr. Cret.” “It’s good that it is out,” his teacher replied. Temporarily, Barthelme worked for Cret in a Philadelphia firm that employed Louis Kahn. At night, Kahn would go around the office and leave critiques on his coworkers’ designs, including those of his bosses. People “laughed at him,” Barthelme said. “But he was teaching himself.”
Little by little, Barthelme taught himself modern architecture. He would pass his enthusiasm for learning on to Don. Though Don’s chosen pursuit would differ from his father’s, the idea of the modern and the aesthetic principles of modern architecture form the background of Don’s writing. A broad familiarity with what was at stake in his father’s world is essential to understanding what mattered to Don in his work.
Paul Philippe Cret, Barthelme’s mentor at Penn, accepted a teaching position at the university in 1903, which he held until his retirement in 1937. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, one of Europe’s oldest centers of art and architectural education, dating back in various forms to 1671. The Beaux-Arts basic design principles stressed symmetry, simple volumes, and lucid progression through a series of exterior and interior spaces; the outside was a rational extension of the inside. Beaux-Arts urbanism relied on visual axes with clearly marked meeting points as its prime ordering device; its most celebrated examples were Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s schemes for the reorganization of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. The Beaux-Arts approach was not seriously challenged in American academia until the late 1930s, when a second wave of Europeans came to the States, who were advocates of the International Style, and assumed positions of power.
As Cret’s career progressed, he absorbed elements of the International Style and began a process of simplification, minimizing the ornamentation of his designs. He reduced the number of moldings, which served to highlight the planar and volumetric quality of his work. Many of his earlier designs, such as the one for the Indianapolis Library, used Doric colonnades. By the early thirties, when he conceived the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., he had replaced the colonnades with abstract fluted piers.
At a time when university architecture departments felt the first ripples of a change, when, more than ever, competing ideologies dominated the field, Barthelme was excited to find a man like Cret, who bridged the gap between tradition and innovation. Cret was not bullying or domineering, but he was unflappable and firm. These qualities enabled him to perform the architect’s trickiest task smoothly: appeasing prickly clients and warring constituencies. He could “cut through” the politics, bad histories, “complexities and ambiguities” of a situation, wrote Elizabeth Greenwell Grossman, and “offer a design that seemed by its simplicity to reveal the immediate character of [an] institution.”
Initially, Barthelme followed this example to good effect, but calm, compromise, and diplomacy were not attributes he could sustain. Eventually, he would topple into the “excesses” of his profession, the “heroics and mock-heroics” exhibited by architects in general, as Don later reflected.
What came to be called the International Style of modern architecture, in the years between the first and second world wars, valued lightweight materials, open interior spaces, smooth machinelike surfaces, and exposed structural components, airily clad in collaged metal sheeting or glass curtain walls. It was a craft test-driven in the Bauhaus workshops in Germany in the 1920s under the direction of Walter Gropius, who championed austerity and performance in the steel windows and door frames of the houses he designed, in exposed metal radiators, exposed electric lightbulbs, and elemental furniture. He believed that materials and forms should be celebrated for their independent, asymmetrical structures, rather than for their compatibility and relative invisibility in an overall design.
In the Bauhaus vision, all the arts joined to shape a splendid future. “Together let us conceive and create the new building …which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting …and which will rise one day toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith,” said the group’s 1919 proclamation. Beneath the document’s socialist zeal, one can still hear the trauma of war, and an uncertainty about whether any social order can survive the erosions of time and the violence of men.
The Parisian architect Le Corbusier expanded the Bauhaus model, promoting “house machines,” “healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful,” he said, “in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.” Mies van der Rohe, who began his career in Berlin, expounded a skin and bones architecture in the office buildings he designed. “The maximum effect with the minimum expenditure of means,” his projects proclaimed.
The schools of modern architecture were not uniform, nor were their practitioners always in agreement, but the field’s leading figures shared a belief that architecture should boldly reflect its time. Convictions about the character of the time conflicted wildly, but this did not blunt the energy with which Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies, and others set out to convert the world to their aesthetic aims. They were on a crusade. As large-scale turmoil scarred Europe more and more in the first half of the century, the tenor of the time, and appropriate responses to it, became harder to parse. One could argue that the only sane response to the Holocaust was emptiness and silence—not to build at all. But Europe’s upheavals had another effect: the flow of brilliant architects to the safety and relative openness of the United States, which Le Corbusier called the “country of timid people.”
If U.S. institutions were slow to accept the new architecture, young architects in the nation’s finest programs, schools, and firms were not at all timid about embracing change. A “tendency toward Oedipal overthrow” has always been “rampant in [the] profession,” says the architecture critic Herbert Muschamp. To survive, one must cultivate a strong personality.
During this pivotal migration of genius, Donald Barthelme, Sr., started his practice. Since childhood, he had worked to overcome timidity, to prove himself by staking out fresh directions. Later in life, he recalled meeting, early in his career, Mies van der Rohe, and criticizing one of the master’s buildings for its lack of human scale. “Mr. Barthelme, I find that I can make things beautiful, and that is enough for me,” Mies replied.
Barthelme’s first major projects straddled the battle zone between the future and the past. Zantzinger, Borie, & Medary’s design for the U.S. Department of Justice building, which Barthelme had a say in (though, as a junior member of the team, not a very large one), combined classical style with Art Deco detailing and an unusual use of aluminum for features commonly cast in bronze, such as interior stair railings, grilles, and door trim.
After his return to Texas, Barthelme inherited a project begun by Frank Lloyd Wright, which struck an early modernist blow in Dallas. The entrepreneur Stanley Marcus had commissioned Wright to build a house on six and a half acres of north Texas prairie. Marcus recalled:
We had told Mr. Wright that we could only afford to spend $25,000, which was a lot of money in the Depression year of 1934, but which he assured us was quite feasible.We invited him to come to Dallas….He arrived on January 1, with the temperature at seventy degrees. He concluded that this was typical winter weather for Dallas, and nothing we could tell him about the normal January ice storms could ever convince him that we didn’t live in a perpetually balmy climate. When his first preliminary sketches arrived, we noticed that there were no bedrooms, just cubicles in which to sleep when the weather was inclement. Otherwise, ninety percent of the time we would sleep outdoors on the deck. We protested that solution on the grounds that I was subject to colds and sinus trouble. He dismissed this objection in his typical manner, as though brushing a bit of lint from his jacket….
Additionally, Wright provided “little or no closet space, commenting that closets were only useful for accumulating things you didn’t need.” Frustrated, Marcus enlisted Roscoe DeWitt to serve as a local associate for Wright, who had returned to Taliesin, and to be an on-the-ground interpreter of Wright’s plans. Marcus clashed again with the great man when he asked DeWitt to be on guard against inadequate flashing specifications—Wright’s buildings were notoriously leak-prone, but he deeply resented this precaution.
Bad feelings got worse, cost estimates spiraled, and, eventually, Marcus turned everything over to DeWitt and his young designer, Donald Barthelme. “I couldn’t understand [Wright’s] plans,” Barthelme said. “He had a column that was in the shape of a star, and he had marked a little note that said, ‘stock column.’ So far as I knew there was no such stock column. He also had six panes of glass about six feet wide each that were slipped into adjacent tracks with no frame around the end. I can just imagine trying to slide those doors open.”
Ultimately, the house, completed in 1937, bore no resemblance to Wright’s initial design. Barthelme designed a long, low-lying structure with cross ventilation and open living and dining rooms. Pronounced overhangs sheltered the windows. The result was too conventional to be a notable piece of architecture, Marcus said later, though it was unconventional enough to be “highly controversial” in Dallas at the time. “It proved to be a home which met our living requirements better than the Wright house would have done.”
That same year, for the Texas centennial celebration in Dallas’s Fair Park, Barthelme designed the Hall of State, which remains among the most monumental structures in Texas, and was then, at $1.2 million, the most expensive building per square foot ever constructed in the state. Originally, a consortium of ten Dallas firms had been hired to create the hall, but they failed to produce a plan acceptable to the State Board of Control. Barthelme synthesized their ideas and added his own. Faced with Texas limestone, with bronze doors and blue tile (the color of the bluebonnet, Texas’s state flower), the building is an inverted T—a structure in which Paul Cret’s influence is apparent.
Barthelme assembled a team of regional, national, and international artists to add Art Deco touches to the Hall of State. He conceived a symbolic seal of Texas to hang above the entrance, depicting a female figure, the “Lady of Texas,” gripping a shield and the state flag. Beside her, an owl, representing wisdom, perches on the Key of Prosperity and Progress. On the frieze around the building, near its top, the names of fifty-nine legendary Texans are carved. The first letters of the first eight names, reading left to right—Burleson, Archer, Rusk, Travis, Higg, Ellis, Lamar, and Milam—spell the architect’s name, minus only the final e. A playful touch, a buried secret: These would become hallmarks of his eldest son’s art, as well.
John Staub, for whom Barthelme worked from 1937 to 1939, was Hous-ton’s most eclectic architect. He made his career designing houses in a variety of architectural styles for the city’s elite. His houses were among the first in Houston to accommodate air-conditioning. While working for Staub, on a commission from the Humble Oil and Refining Company, Barthelme designed the company’s prototype super service station—an attempt to lure customers by making gas stations look dynamic and progressive.
Barthelme organized his own practice in Houston in 1940. “I told [Staub] I just didn’t like the fact that he didn’t change anything,” Barthelme said. “I didn’t mind his traditionalism, but I thought he should improve on it, use it as a taking-off place. I just can’t understand why you take something and slavishly copy it.” That year, Barthelme won eighth place in a national competition sponsored by Architectural Forum magazine for a house, “the qualifications of which,” according to contest rules, “should be the provision of a livable area so enclosed and organized by the materials used as to relate the elements of the building to one another, to the building as a whole, and to the land.” Barthelme’s non doctrinaire design, emphasizing spaciousness and light, was a personal exploration of modern materials and environmental sensitivity. He had now fully clothed himself in the modern.
In 1939, when Don was eight years old, his father conceived a house for the family in the newly platted West Oaks subdivision off Post Oak Road in what was then the extreme suburban fringe of Houston, well beyond the city limits. Completed in 1941, at 11 North Wynden Drive, the Barthelme house was unlike any the city had ever seen. A low-lying, dark-colored, flat-roofed rectangle with irregular projecting volumes and open interior spaces, it was “wonderful to live in but strange to see on the Texas prairie,” Don said. “On Sundays people used to park their cars out on the street and stare. We had a routine, the family, on Sundays. We used to get up from Sunday dinner, if enough cars had parked, and run out in front of the house in a sort of chorus line, doing high kicks.”
The Scene before the Prison in Gaza
A Little onward lend thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on;
For yonder bank hath choice of Sun or shade,
There I am wont to sit, when any chance
Relieves me from my task of servile toyl, [ 5 ]
Daily in the common Prison else enjoyn’d me,
Where I a Prisoner chain’d, scarce freely draw
The air imprison’d also, close and damp,
Unwholsom draught: but here I feel amends,
The breath of Heav’n fresh-blowing, pure and sweet, [ 10 ]
With day-spring born; here leave me to respire.
This day a solemn Feast the people hold
To Dagon thir Sea-Idol, and forbid
Laborious works, unwillingly this rest
Thir Superstition yields me; hence with leave [ 15 ]
Retiring from the popular noise, I seek
This unfrequented place to find some ease,
Ease to the body some, none to the mind
From restless thoughts, that like a deadly swarm
Of Hornets arm’d, no sooner found alone, [ 20 ]
But rush upon me thronging, and present
Times past, what once I was, and what am now.
O wherefore was my birth from Heaven foretold
Twice by an Angel, who at last in sight
Of both my Parents all in flames ascended [ 25 ]
From off the Altar, where an Off’ring burn’d,
As in a fiery column charioting
His Godlike presence, and from some great act
Or benefit reveal’d to Abraham’s race?
Why was my breeding order’d and prescrib’d [ 30 ]
As of a person separate to God,
Design’d for great exploits; if I must dye
Betray’d, Captiv’d, and both my Eyes put out,
Made of my Enemies the scorn and gaze;
To grind in Brazen Fetters under task [ 35 ]
With this Heav’n-gifted strength? O glorious strength
Put to the labour of a Beast, debas’t
Lower then bondslave! Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him [ 40 ]
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke;
Yet stay, let me not rashly call in doubt
Divine Prediction; what if all foretold
Had been fulfill’d but through mine own default, [ 45 ]
Whom have I to complain of but my self?
Milton, Samson Agonistes—-
JERUSALEM (from ‘Milton’)
by: William Blake (1757-1827)
- AND did those feet in ancient time
- Walk upon England’s mountains green?
- And was the holy Lamb of God
- On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
- And did the Countenance Divine
- Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
- And was Jerusalem builded here
- Among these dark Satanic Mills?
- Bring me my bow of burning gold!
- Bring me my arrows of desire!
- Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
- Bring me my chariot of fire!
- I will not cease from mental fight,
- Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
- Till we have built Jerusalem
- In England’s green and pleasant land.
The Gangster as Tragic Hero
America, as a social and political organization, is committed to a cheerful view of life. It could not be otherwise. The sense of tragedy is a luxury of aristocratic societies, where the fate of the individual is not conceived of as having a direct and legitimate political importance, being determined by a fixed and supra-political–that is, non-controversial–moral order or fate. Modern equalitarian societies, however, whether democratic or authoritarian in their political forms, always base themselves on the claim that they are making life happier; the avowed function of the modern state, at least in its ultimate terms, is not only to regulate social relations, but also to determine the quality and the possibilities of human life in general. Happiness thus becomes the chief political issue–in a sense, the only political issue–and for that reason it can never be treated as an issue at all. If an American or a Russian is unhappy, it implies a certain reprobation of society, and therefore, by a logic of which we can all recognize the necessity, it becomes an obligation of citizenship to be cheerful; if the authorities find it necessary, the citizen may even be compelled to make a public display of his cheerfulness on important occasions, just as he may be conscripted into the army in time of war.
Naturally, this civic responsibility rests most strongly upon the organs of mass culture. The indvidual citizen may still be permitted his private unhappiness so long as it does not take on political significance, the extent of this tolerance being determined by how large an area of private life the society can accomodate. But every production of mass culture is a public act and must conform with accepted notions of the public good. Nobody seriously questions the principle that it is the function of mass culture to maintain public morale, and certainly nobody in the mass audience objects to having his morale maintained. At a time when the normal condition of the citizen is a state of anxiety, euphoria spreads over our culture like the broad smile of an idiot. In terms of attitudes towards life, there is very little difference between a “happy” movie like Good News, which ignores death and suffering, and a “sad” movie like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which uses death and suffering as incidents in the service of a higher optimism.
But, whatever its effectiveness as a source of consolation and a means of pressure for maintaining “positive” social attitudes, this optimism is fundamentally satisfying to no one, not even to those who would be most disoriented without its support. Even within the area of mass culture, there always exists a current of opposition, seeking to express by whatever means are available to it that sense of desperation and inevitable failure which optimism itself helps to create. Most often, this opposition is confined to rudimentary or semi-literate forms: in mob politics and journalism, for example, or in certain kinds of religious enthusiasm. When it does enter the field of art, it is likely to be disguised or attenuated: in an un-specific form of expression like jazz, in the basically harmless nihilism of the Marx Brothers, in the continually reasserted strain of hopelessness that often seems to be the real meaning of the soap opera. The gangster film is remarkable in that it fills the need for disguise (though not sufficiently to avoid arousing uneasiness) without requiring any serious distortion. From its beginnings, it has been a consistent and astonishingly complete presentation of the modern sense of tragedy.
In its initial character, the gangster film is simply one example of the movies’ constant tendency to create fixed dramatic patters that can be repeated indefinitely with a reasonable expectation of profit. One gangster film follows another as one musical or one Western follows another. But this rigidity is not necessarily opposed to the requirements of art. There have been very successful types of art in the past which developed such specific and detailed conventions as almost to make individual examples of the type interchangeable. This is true, for example, of Elizabethan revenge tragedy and Restoration comedy.
For such a type to be successful means that its conventions have imposed themselves upon the general consciousness and become the accepted vehicles of a particular set of attitudes and a particular aesthetic effect. One goes to any individual example of the type with very definite expectations, and originality is to be welcomed only in the degree that it intensifies the expected experience without fundamentally altering it. Moreover, the relationship between the conventions which go to make up such a type and the real experience of its audience or the real facts of whatever situation it pretends to describe is of only secondary importance and does not determine its aesthetic force. It is only in an ultimate sense that the type appeals to its audience’s experience of reality; much more immediately, it appeals to previous experience of the type itself: it creates its own field of reference.
Thus the importance of the gangster film, and the nature and intensity of its emotional and aesthetic impact, cannot be measured in terms of the place of the gangster himself or the importance of the problem of crime in American life. Those European movie-goers who think there is a gangster on every corner in New York are certainly deceived, but defenders of the “positive” side of American culture are equally deceived if they think it relevant to point out that most Americans have never seen a gangster. What matters is that the experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans. There is almost nothing we understand better or react to more readily or with quicker intelligence. The Western film, though it seems never to diminish in popularity, is for most of us no more than the folklore of the past, familiar and understandable only because it has been repeated so often. The gangster film comes much closer. In ways that we do not easily or willingly define, the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects “Americanism” itself.
The gangster is the man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placade, like a club. For everyone else, there is at least the theoretical possibility of another world — in that happier American culture which the gangster denies, the city does not really exist; it is only a more crowded and brightly lit country — but for the gangster there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify it: not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world. And the gangster — though there are real gangster — is also, and primarily, a creature of the impagination. The real city, one might say, produces only criminals; the imaginary city produces the gangster: he is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.
Thrown into the crowd without background or advantages, with only those ambiguous skills which the rest of us — the real people of the real city — can only pretend to have, the gangster is required to make his way, to make his life and impose it on other. Usually, when we come upon him, he has already made his choice or the choice has already been made for him, it doesn’t matter which: we are not permitted to ask whether at some point he could have chosen to be something other than what he is.
The gangster’s activity is actually a form of rational enterprise, involving fairly definite goals and various techniques for achieving them. But this rationality is usually no more than a vague background; we know, perhaps, that the gangster sells liquor or that he operates a numbers racket; often we are not given even that much information. So his activity becomes a kind of pure criminality: he hurts people. Certainly our response to the gangster film is most consistently and most universally a response to sadism; we gain the double satisfaction of participating vicariously in the gangster’s sadis and then seeing it turned against the gangster himself.
But on another level the quality of irrational brutality and the quality of rational enterprise become one. Since we do not see the rational and routine aspects of the gangster’s behavior, the practice of brutality — the quality of unmixed criminality — becomes the totality of his career. At the same time, we are always conscious that the whole meaning of this career is a drive for success: the typical gangster film presents a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall. Thus brutality itself becomes at once the means to success and the content of success — a success that is defined in its most general terms, not as accomplishment or specific gain, but simply as the unlimited possibility of aggression. (In the same way, film presentations of businessmen tend to make it appear that they achieve their success by talking on the telephone and holding conferences and that success is talking on the telephone and holding conferences.)
From this point of view, the initial contact between the film and its audience is an agreed conception of human life: that man is a bein with the possibilities of success or failure. This principle, too, belongs to the city; one must emerge from the crowd or else one is nothing. On that basis the necessity of the action is established, and it progresses by inalterable paths to the point where the gangster lies dead and the principle has been modified: there is really only one possibility — failure. The final meaning o the city is anonymity and death.
In the opening scene of Scarface, we are shown a successful man; we know he is successful because he has just given a party of opulent proportions and because he is called Big Louie. Through some monstrous lack of caution, he permits himself to be alone for a few moments. We understand from this immediately that he is about to be killed. No convention of the gangster film is more strongly established than this: it is dangerous to be alone. And yet the very conditions of success make it impossible not to be alone, for success is always the establishment of an individual pre-eminence that must be imposed on others, in whom it automatically arouses hatred; the successful man is an outlaw. The gangster’s whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual, to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual; the final bullet thrusts him back, makes him, after all, a failure. “Mother of God”, says the dying Little Caesar, “is this the end of Rico?” — speaking of himself thus in the third person because what has been brought low is not the undifferentiated man, but the individual with a name, the gangster, the success; even to himself he is a creature of the imagination. (T.S. Eliot has pointed out that a number of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes have this trick of looking at themselves dramatically; their true identity, the thing that is destroyed when they die, is something outside themselves — not a man, but a style of life, a kind of meaning.)
At bottom, the gangster is doomed because he is under the obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful. In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success. This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is–ultimately–impossible. The effect of the gangster film is to embody this dilemma in the person of the gangster and resolve it by his death. The dilemma is resolved because it is his death, not ours. We are safe; for the moment, we can acquiesce in our failure, we can choose to fail.
The Contours of Fixation
The stoned dogs crawl back through the blood,
Through the conquered weather, through the wet silk light,
To disenchanted masters who are not quite dead.
Like severed heads of a dead age
They gasp in the square, in the alleys of dusk.
Explanations are posted on the shattered walls.
The moon illuminates a cenotaph.
“All is insanity”, the dogs conclude,
Yet the odor of blood has a certain appeal.
Their pain soaks eyes on every balcony.
“Forbear, refrain, be scrupulous” — dogs’ admonitions,
Sad and redundant, paraphernalia of goodbye,
Hang in the sulphured air like promises of girls.
Then silence. Down the street the lights go dead.
One waits. One waits. And then the guns sound on another hill.
Now on to the actual, classical purpose of philosophy. As its Greek name “love of wisdom” indicates, philosophy is a propaedeutic to rhetoric: the purpose of “Socratic” or any other kind of philosophical method is to teach you how to discourse, not opine or ordinate. Philosophers are often very talented writers, but actual philosophy always fails to satisfy the reading eye: there is never enough to it, one wishes it was better, more understandable, more “practical” — and then out of the reading-room, and on to the street. This is, shall we say, intentional: as a result of attempting to gain “absolute knowledge”, the experienced philosopher learns to have a taste for quotidian life (though the parameters of this may vary with political affiliation).
In fact, if we must have a “logical theory of philosophy”, we might begin by categorically rejecting Nietzsche’s dictum “We shall never get rid of God as long as we believe in grammar”. Philosophy is both practised and practicing atheism, and a great work of philosophy is a model of a new grammar for ordinary speech: right down to orthography, the lessons taught by a standing work of philosophy (!) inform the discourse of the succeeding period to a great degree. Unfortunately, one cannot always be an enthusiast for the lessons taught: I myself have rather less respect for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche than Simmel, and rather more respect for Simmel’s “Kantian Marxism” than his respect for them has allowed for some time, but worse cases do exist.
I would say that, from a “grammatological” perspective, the worst philosopher of all time was the German Counter-Enlightenment *Denker* Johann Georg Hamann, the “Magus of the North”. Part of Hamann’s magic was getting you not to notice that his written German was atrocious: the scansion of his pages is painful, indicating modesty forbids he reveal the hidden wellsprings of his wisdom — however, when you begin to consider his disgusting anti-humanist values, you forget all about the fact his philosophical “targets” had something other than logical proofs to treat as love letters (Although Schopenhauer himself perfected the art of the “philosophical takedown”, his extensive sentences contain something of an “implicit parody” of Hamann’s pro lix).
Second worst “philosophical grammar”? That of Pascal, whose Franzh fails to be, as per modern standards, “ironized for your protection” and which can simply break off in midthought because the true reality and aim of the Church is just such a pressing concern for all. Since Pascal was such an important social and scientific figure, We all would like to consider his theological philosophy of theology of philosophy something more than a “self-swallowing snake of reason”: however, really the truth of the matter is that Pascal’s philosophical inadequacy reveals that bad philosophers teach us about the need for new science: if all is so occluded that new concepts of probability (i.e. modern statistics) have to be invented, the lessons learnable from “J-C.” and the crew will perhaps not be the only ones necessary for life: and maybe Hamann “jump-started” the modern science of linguistics, even as a puzzled attempt to find out just what he was saying.
The third worst philosophical writer of modern times is the German mystic Jakob Boehme (the name was once written this way in America, since republican Germans tended to use the umlaut and scharfes s as little as possible). Boehme is absolutely unphilosophical: Christianity, the experience of God in all its stages and phases, is absolutely going to be enough for the Boehmian and any consideration of classical legacies like “nature or creature” is not necessary. A “popular favorite” among the piet here in the U.S. of A: however, perhaps its “failure to thrive” worldwide led to something quite wonderful — the establishment of the modern science of medicine, a realization that saying “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be drunk with the Spirit” and other, lesser homilies do not cure every ill and a promise of something more for some.
“Analytic philosophy” is a difficult intellectual enterprise to understand. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about “Analysis”:
Analysis has always been at the heart of philosophical method, but it has been understood and practised in many different ways. Perhaps, in its broadest sense, it might be defined as a process of isolating or working back to what is more fundamental by means of which something, initially taken as given, can be explained or reconstructed. The explanation or reconstruction is often then exhibited in a corresponding process of synthesis.
However, a focus on “rigor in logic and argument” that exceeds the resources of theoretical logic and rhetoric is, like Operation Market Garden, “A Bridge Too Far”: an impossible thing that hapless peons were made to do precisely for the purpose of studying them fail with extreme prejudice. The true character of “philosophical analysis” derives from the faint witticism present in the German word Analyse: it is to “explain away” some un-understandable pseudo-problem of intellectual life without remainder: this was an essential task in the Austria of the Vienna Circle, and although there is often some point to “synthesis” the idea has not lost all utility on account of new intellectual movements.
Let me apply the tools of analytic philosophy, such as I understand them, to the underlying Problematiken of English (both its British and “Irish” versions). The “initial conditions” for the creation of the English tongue were other than is commonly thought: rather than being a pure expression of Anglistik, Old English is actually an archaic version of Danish. Like all non-Greek, non-Indian “Indo-European” languages Danish is actually Latinate: however, it is a somewhat funny version thereof.
An excellent way to consider “Danish English” is through thinking of Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher. We have heard tell of many stories about the theologian and gadabout, intellectual seducer and arch-conservative: we have heard tell of them, and the real message of the Kierkegaardian work is that we know nothing of him at all. In other words, the greatest Dane relieves us of the need to understand his paramours, his finances, his enemies or his political commitment; there is only writing, writing pleasant enough to all.
After a Conquest hardly deserving of the name, a Norman element was introduced into English by some people: the basic idea was this. “Hi, we’re Archie Bell and the Drells of Houston, Texas and we not only sing, we dance just as good as we want. In Houston we just started a new dance called the ‘Tighten Up’. This is the music you tighten up with.” In other words, Anglo-Norman English is resolutely unphilosophical: as can be seen in the work of Chaucer, there is no idea worth validating at the cost of one’s life. However, it is true that certain condiciouns of happinesse were set down for certain people and this resulted in manifold unhappinesses eventually solved en style radicale by
New English, whicha incorporates many concepts from other countries, literalmente through allowing their definition to be controlled by agients of foreign state power. In Britain the “neatest” form ov this was the “stock Latin phrase”, which one would never truly grasp the meaning of: in America a pastiche-parody of “confusion of tongues” in lieu of sing-song, and then a rigidified tribute to pensee republicaine in the form of What Everyone Does Unless They Don’t Care To, Dig, and then Nō English at all — a variant on the “ultramodern” elements of written French, where punctuation tells various stories about why sense must make way for art. However, why feel compelled to speak an unspeakable language instead of saying just exactly what you want since you couldn’t possibly speak it wrong, or something entirely different?
From: Jeff Rubard
To: Dominic Fox
Date: Sun May 31, 2009
Subject: The Inconsistency Theory of Shakespeare
I was wondering if I could explain something I said a while back about
Shakespeare. My theory as regards “Shakespearean symbolism” is that
Shakespeare was just so damn mad about Elizabethan England that the
plays are roiling cauldrons of inconsistent elements, every little
“language-game” he could think of to include or imply. Consequently,
the standing (American) practice of an invocation of Shakespeare
serving to forever define you is exactly wrong; better to mix it up
any way you feel like. (On the other hand, the English works from that
master of schoolboy Latin verse Milton are steel traps: the symbolic
principles are razor-sharp, an infernal machine designed to root any
Say hi to Nina for me, or don’t if you judge it would be bad to.
tis gar houtôs huparkhei phaulos ê rhaithumos anthrôpôn hos ouk an bouloito gnônai pôs kai tini genei politeias epikratêthenta skhedon hapanta ta kata tên oikoumenên oukh holois pentêkonta kai trisin etesin hupo mian arkhên epese tên Rhômaiôn, ho proteron oukh heurisketai gegonos,
Can any one be so indifferent or idle as not to care to know by what means, and under what kind of polity, almost the whole inhabited world was conquered and brought under the dominion of the single city of Rome, and that too within a period of not quite fifty-three years?
Nec ulla, annalibus, praeter Cannensem pugnam ita ad internecionem res legitur gesta. Ammian. xxxi. 13. According to the grave Polybius, no more than 370 horse and 3000 foot escaped from the battle of Cannae: 10,000 were made prisoners; and the number of the slain amounted to 3670 horse and 70,000 foot (Polyb. l. iii. p. 371, edit. Casaubon, in 8vo. [c.117]).
— Calcutta but, fuckin wogs eh, Gillman rasps, — what dae ye expect. They cannae fuckin well run the country without us, ye dinnae expect them to tae be able tae dae a funeral without fucking things up.
Irvine Welsh, Filth
If we must study, let us study something suitable to our condition, so that we may answer like the man who, when he was asked what was the purpose of these studies in his decrepitude, replied “To depart a better man and more content.”
A point about literature. The literary, as a category, is inconstant speech: apart from the pure truths of pure philosophy, total enunciations of logic, rigorized wonders of business communication, and consciousness-relating of song, the literary work just cannot possess all the “virtues” it appears to have. It raises our hopes, then reveals itself to lack the didactic value we counted on: our politico-literary heroes turn out to be so compromised they are even good guys, and the literary female has something to say concerning something other than “wiles”. Aprioristically free from a stable meaning by virtue of the inescapable character of signification and the “in-escapable” system for dissemination of literary signs, the work of literature does not exist to be read interpretando: nice work if you can get it, I guess, but any reading is close enough for normal purposes.
In the essay to which I allude, Montaigne says: “We may continue our studies at all times, but not our schooling: what a foolish thing is an old man learning his A B C!” The great French humanist is not, we might say, an ultimate authority on all topics — but the point does hold in an era of “lifelong learning”, where people are encouraged to acquire degrees that would even make sense, but for the fact they are not supposed to. Politics is a young man’s game; “metaphysics”, the science of explaining problematic views of the world away, a lucrative pastime for the old. Middle age is a time for “acts of literature”, deriving from an exactly imagined purchase on the consciousness of the reader and effecting a completely adequate grasp of reality. Really, not much justification is required.