(August 24, 2009)
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A Refreshing and Honest Assessment: Louis Proyect's Saul Bellow In Retrospect (June 2005)
To the Editor:
I thank Louis Proyect for confirming my suspicions about Saul Bellow in his June 2005 retrospective. Following Bellow's reputation as a Nobel Laureate, I read several of his works: Herzog, Seize the Day, A Theft, Henderson the Rain King, and Mr.Sammler's Planet. I was dismayed with his flat, insensitive characterizations, his egoistic elitism, his reactionary diatribes, and his superficial intellectual trappings.
I think it is only obvious that he was a racist; the black pickpocket in Sammler, with his unexamined behaviour and mute aggression, represented in the most vulgar and stereotypical manner, and his supposedly sympathetic but in reality patronizing and cartoonish treatment of anachronistic Africans, can offer no other conclusion. His brusque dismissal of countercultural frustration and of women in general revealed a grotesque misogyny and bitter paranoia. And his manipulation of his stunted characters to satisfy his retrogressive sympathies reminded me of Ayn Rand -- this is by no means a compliment.
I found his sprinkling of literary reference to be supercilious and gratuitous. He must have known at some level he was taking promenades in emperor's new clothes and wanted to distract from that unappealing fact. If he had chosen to delve into Dostoyevsky or Melville or Lawrence with sufficient intellectual rigor, he would have noticed that these authors were grappling with existential themes, the careless treatment of which was responsible for many of the horrors of the 20th century that Bellow recalls for many of his characters, and the reason that literature has turned away from so many of the more positivist writers of the 19th century.
Don't get me wrong -- I am not an advocate of literary gimmickry or faddism. I find Barth's jolting me out of a narrative very annoying. Pynchon is a bit of an intellectual exhibitionist himself. Burroughs and Easton-Ellis are ghastly self-immolators. But Bellow's dream was the dream of an irritable old man's restive nap on an uncomfortable couch. And the defense of the bully and hypocrite Alan Bloom with Platonic regimentation and elitism is no answer.
After I had finished all I cared to of Bellow's body of work, I came away more puzled than ever at his Nobel honors and the lionizing reviews I have read elsewhere. But I could not find any intellectual objections to his social perspective or his literary stature. Proyect's assessment is refreshingly perceptive and honest.
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA - August 10, 2009
Guy Debord at the Bureau of Public Secrets
To the Editor:
Guy Debord's THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE, originally published in 1967, is easily the most important radical book of the twentieth century.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, Debord's book is neither an ivory tower "philosophical discourse" nor an impulsive "rant" or "protest." It is an effort to clarify the nature of the situation in which we find ourselves and the advantages and drawbacks of various methods for changing it. It examines the most fundamental tendencies and contradictions of the present society -- what is really going on behind the spectacular surface phenomena that we are conditioned to perceive as the only reality.
This means that it needs to be reread many times, but it also means that it remains as pertinent as ever while countless radical and intellectual fads have come and gone. As Debord noted in his later "Comments on the Society of the Spectacle" (1988), in the intervening decades the spectacle has become more pervasive than ever, to the point of repressing virtually any awareness of pre-spectacle history or anti-spectacle possibilities: "Spectacular domination has succeeded in raising an entire generation molded to its laws."
Debord's strategy is to cut through the mass of false solutions so as to open the way for real ones. His method may seem negative and abstract, but his aim is positive and concrete. No matter how many times you read his book, you will never really understand it until you use it. Which means using your imagination and experimenting for yourself. The purpose of the book is to help you do just that.
* * * * *
Ken Knabb's translation of THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE is online at http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord
The translation is also available in book form -- http://www.bopsecrets.org/cat.htm
A new PDF version is online at http://www.bopsecrets.org/images/sos.pdf
Debord also made a film of his book, which is available in various formats -- http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord.films/index.htm
Related texts by Debord and other members of the Situationist International are online at http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/index.htm
"Making petrified conditions dance by singing them their own tune."
Berkeley, California, USA - August 11, 2009
The Cash for Clunkers Scam: Gilles d'Aymery's Blips #88
To the Editor:
I want to compliment Gilles d'Aymery for his article on Cash for Clunkers. That was in Swans tradition given the purpose of the publication. I should not be surprised that there has barely been a word about the downside of the program -- and it needs exposure. In a private conversation, one person asked who are many of the people that partake, meaning taking on private debt as Gilles d'Aymery allude....and whether a fair number may default -- that's apart from the environmental side.
Watertown, Massachusetts, USA - August 15, 2009
Respite from Grim Reality: Art Shay's On Burrowed Time
To the Editor:
If there is a walking palimpsest, replete with layers and layers of erractic, esoteric and eclectic experiences, it has to be Art Shay. Every time I see him, he has a new old story to tell that happened five decades ago. If somebody can cage this relentless kinetic beast and extract all the minute as well as gigantic experiences that unfolded since his consciousness dawned, we would be looking at a 1,000-plus-page abridged compendium of a raucous life. I had implored him to get on his autobiography, if done, his bio could render Robert Capa's or De Kooning's experiences as sterile. His piece, along with Keeley "On Burrowed Time," is perfect evidence of the kind of out-of-the-box people and experiences Shay encapsulates, besides his unrealistic admiration for the undeserving Obama, his life and that acidic humor gives us respite from all that grim reality out there.
Des Plaines, Illinois, USA - August 15, 2009
Art Shay responds:
Thanks, but what's erractic? A congeries of erotic and erratic? Like, it was a big error fucking her on the wet spot made by her erotic husband? It reminded her that she was a respectable married woman. It also reminded him what a lousy housekeeper she was no matter how good at extracting DNA.
You've hit on my secret: Having many layers is a wonderful treasure trove to dip into in order to help understand our modern world. But, alas, the only gigantic experiences I've had were WWII and a six foot 2 inch English WAAF who insisted she had the best cockpit in the RAF. It wasn't exactly the sort of out-of-the-box experience you were kind enough to praise me for; it was really the opposite, but my point was well taken and the experience, and retelling it now, did in fact give me respite from "the grim reality out there."
I am so glad that my efforts are not lost on your generally heedless and politically benighted generation trying to scratch sustenance from a world you disadmire.
If I had as exotic a name and provenance as yours or your editor's, plus your critical faculties and his unflagging determination to whip our failed soufflé of a world into better shape, I would have been an even greater success by now.
Art Shay -- Palimpsest. (incest with Sarah Palim?)
Deerfield, Illinois, USA - August 16, 2009
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