I went, yes, to see Key West, but mainly to do my level best to tape the concert. After Halloween I'd wanted to hear the music again and again. The mechanically prescribed computer code for the concert, printed in the top left corner of the tickets, was "STBOB," and this seemed fitting. Someone behind me had said, "I wish he'd do just one song straight," but that was just it. "Friends With You," "Baby Blue," even the oldest songs were new, so I couldn't put an album on and play "I Shall Be Released." Not the one I needed to hear, I couldn't. I ran an ad and got a tinny version of half of it from behind the stage. So I went and we got the tape and one day my friend was equalizing it in the stereo store where he worked and a kid from Orono asked what it was. He'd taped the St. Paul show from the eighth row on real equipment and wanted to trade copies. Full circle.
None of this would matter but for the "Thin Man" intro, which can seem insubstantial, especially tied to the hair thing (which it's easy to say now was no big thing and maybe you had to be there--LBJ retired to his ranch, grew his hair to his shoulders and said, "the kids were right"), but it ties to many things. A good idea how many can be had by reading Jack Cuddihy's The Ordeal of Civility,and much insight by standing it on its head. Resonance first: the book is a finger on the very pulse of history at a crucial juncture, one of many turning points but if we're looking for clues to how we got here, this is the place to dig. "The story of the exodus of the Jews into Europe is a case study in culture shock." As Cuddihy would have it, Jews emerged from every western backwoods, saw themselves in civility's mirror as ugly and projected their shame onto their betters, whose modernization ("What is modernity exactly, Jack?" and he nimbly but not quickly says, "Refinement.") was not delayed. The beauty they encountered they introjected, claiming for their own culture graces from way back (he puts it down to envy: shit, they all say that; Kemal Ataturk said his people invented the gentleman eight hundred years ago).
Modernity is that construct (with which many cultures have collided) of superior technology and "higher" norms of behavior inexplicably entwined: we got here first and make the rules, made them up so long ago already we forgot and take them now as given. Felt inferiority as the source of the indiscretion on principle Cuddihy sees wherever he looks plausibly correlates a broad and various range of data, and I must admit I'm discomfited in the presence of heads several levels subtler than mine. Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss are here and even Einstein, who apparently read Emily Post as humor, a fact I found charming and Cuddihy revealing. And the world of scholarly attribution, discourse, doctorates, reference, deference, publish, perish, perchance matter--never appealed to me.
Frost said poets and scholars "differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately--but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields." I'm all for the fields but, sadly, am no poet (nor a prophet's son) and even fiction is beyond me. What could be the use of me was more than I could see.
Come to think of it, in britlit in the fall of '69, apropos of "The Waste Land" and Jessie (bless her) Weston, a heroic (sic) couplet came to mind:
I think I'll go type up a list of questionsThat's a poem, but once could happen to anyone.
for Perceval to ask the Fisher King.
When I found myself writing in earnest, I realized that if proposing these notions entailed attribution, much less pausing often to cite someone, I wouldn't do it, and that if it called for an esoteric vocabulary or point by point formulations I wasn't interested. I decided to see necessity as virtue, make of this a stand, standard, guide, goad: if you can't say it simply and without leaning on the shoulders of giants, it's probably false. The prospect was intriguing as a reliable provider of assignments between grasp and reach: put this in plain English. Forgoing attribution and artifice left me with prose pure and simple to write, and a paradigm for a muse made composition technical rather than creative, enabling a detachment from process and product. How far I've come I can't say, but when a disembodied voice emerged I tuned my ear to it and became more entirely an editor. It's much later now and I swim in a sea of snippets. While the above is the first text into which all the central notions have been tied, some bits go way back and this is the umpteenth remix.
Eliot said it wouldn't matter that we didn't read the right books if we all read the same books--that that too would lead to poetry. Common knowledge will come soon and meanwhile I can only write as if it had, already. Allusion makes all the difference for density and speed, and it's not just to shared books but shared facts. It'd behoove you, for instance, to know the first few things about quanta and uncertainty: that observation, when you come right down to it, looking at single events, affects them and so is hardly observation; that we can't know the position and velocity (in physics, speed and direction) of a particle, can know one or the other but not both and this puts determinism not just beyond our reach but out of the question. As C.J.S. Clarke said, "on any conventional quantum mechanical theory whatever, it is always possible to set up a quantum mechanical 'state' which is a superposition of two other states which, on a macroscopic view (i.e. if they also had an interpretation in the other world), would be mutually exclusive. This is the heart of the conflict . . . "
So anyway, I committed this to standard English, writing rather than scholarly prose but this note was necessary so I'll quote away. Bergson this time: "the important question for the philosopher is to know by what operation, for what reason, and especially in virtue of what structure of the real, things can thus be grouped." Cuddihy's grouping is spot on: civility's indeed at the heart of the matter, resonating thusly, and what a group he's gathered, of themes as well as names. I found this in my notes from the first time through:
manners, mirrors, method, madness,The hat in question was a yarmulke worn by a witness at the Chicago Seven trial, so the decree (you are standing on neutral ground and you must) echoes the burning bush. We're on to something here, but is it just another case of culture shock? As Updike (not first, maybe) said, tentative positions tend to be lavishly overdetermined and maybe guilt and shame and the guilt of shame and experience and good sense and intuition, too, all coincided. Accuracy in an emotional map discredits the rational one not a whit. Welcome to quantum metaphysics. And the question remains, by what structure of the real?
decorum, compulsion, appearance, reality,
ceremony innocent, ceremony dark,
courtly love, courtiers, courtesies, court Jews,
civil rites, human rights, left and right,
order in the court and shame on you:
YOU MUST REMOVE YOUR HAT
On its head: as Shaw's Caesar says of Britannus, "He is a barbarian, and thinks that the laws and customs of his island are the laws of nature." The issue reduces to a social encounter between emblematic figures, civil and incivil, to a subtle, specific polarity between center and fringe, insider and outlaw. Reverse it. Dart in and switch hats. The geek is the good guy.
You hand in your ticketBut back to Cuddihy and the emergence of the Jews: "Exodus . . . into" is an odd way to put it; it was an entrance, rather, on a stage called "all the world," which we can date at 1870. For reasons which will become clear I needed, one night, something big to have happened in 1870. Nothing I knew of had, so I flipped through The Proud Tower,scanning for dates and my eyes fell on this sentence: "Although the Jews numbered about one per cent of the population, anti-Semitism was fashionable, stimulated by their rapid progress in science and the arts, business and the professions after legal emancipation was confirmed for the Empire in 1871." What happened? Cuddihy's take on it isn't antisemitic as such, maybe, though he says modernity is "objectively antisemitic" (and objectively anticatholic--it's antiparticularist). This isn't rabid Eustace Mullins spinning parasitism as a metaphoric web for history and describing Marx "wriggling back and forth on his hemorrhoids in the British Museum," though Cuddihy does say "gentile host culture" and I thought I smelled an animus, but he's nothing if not refined and Marx's hurt (Freud's, too, and the others') is a "painful self-disesteem." The eternal footman held their coats and snickered and, in short, they were ashamed.
and you go watch the geek,
who walks up to you
when he hears you speak
and says, "How does it feel
to be such a freak?"
and you say, "Impossible!"
as he hands you a bone.
Maybe not. Modernity's a master at inflicting shame and was the only game in town, so the drama had an element of that, but to take the construct at its own estimation is disingenuous at best, particularly lately. For a contemporary view we have a "salutation-speech from the Nineteenth century to the Twentieth, taken down in shorthand by Mark Twain":
I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking glass.A "grudge against the beauty of the West" indeed. And this was well before civility fell into lockstep with the Reich, providing no bar to malevolence, no hindrance whatever to unspeakable crime. Let Twain have the last word: "There are many humorous things in the world, among them the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages."