REMEMBERING DEREK WALCOTT

I studied poetry with Derek Walcott at Boston University during the 2004-5 academic year. It was a one-year M.A. program in Creative Writing; I was there to study with Robert Pinsky, whose poetry had captivated me a few years before. Upon arrival, I discovered that our first writing course would be taught by Walcott, whose name and I work I didn’t know.

DerekWalcott-1.jpg

This ignorance was, perhaps, partially excusable. My eyes & ears were open to all kinds of poetry in those days–full of an intellectual hunger,  since waned–but no one had introduced me to Caribbean poetry. There was, of course, no Google search (I wrote my B.U. thesis on a typewriter; this was also the year I met “web mail” and “the internet,” both of which, to my misfortune, I found uninteresting), so my first impressions of Walcott were, shall we say, untainted by prior information. (I’m trying not to be nostalgic, but O, how sweet was the world when a greater part was encountered in the flesh!)

Walcott was (in rough order of first impressions) intimidating, hilarious, sobering, enlivening. I was more intimidated by his mustache, tweed jacket and manner than by the Nobel Prize he’d won only a few years earlier (and which he was quick to discount, with sincere humility, the few times it was brought up). I’d become used to casual, friendly Professors (Pinsky was such); now we sat in a room with a man who demanded (rather than invited us to discuss) that we tell him what we knew about poetry, and who scoffed (rather than ate a sigh) at our ignorance.

There were twelve in the class; we sat at school desks in a circle around the edge of a small, tastefully decorated room on the second or third floor of a B.U. building overlooking the Charles. There was no syllabus, no books assigned. On the first day, Walcott assessed our ignorance, which was vast. He told us to show up for the next class having memorized W. H. Auden’s “The Fall of Rome.” I rushed to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop to buy a copy of the Selected Poems. Amy helped me learn the lines in the basement flat where I’d rented a room (close to campus, but otherwise a dismal affair owned by a depressed gay republican astrologer who kept four cats, a hundred fish, and a life-sized porcelain bust of Reagan above the toilet). I can still recite the poem at a moment’s notice. It begins:

The piers are pummeled by the waves;

In a lonely field, the rain

Lashes an abandoned train;

Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

 

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;

Agents of the fisc pursue

Absconding tax-defaulters through

The sewers of provincial towns.

As promised, the second class began with Walcott telling us to recite the poem, together. We tried and failed. Tried again, flailed our voices to bring them into sync while remembering our lines. “Pathetic,” was his comment. He told us to be prepared to try again, individually and together, the next time we met. He then explained the dense beauty of the poem, syllable by syllable. He liked how in the first line the l and d of “pummeled” visually mimic the slap of waves against the m’s of the pier; how the word “waves” withdrew, as though sucked out into the storm. “Lash” was the perfect word to describe what rain does to the surface of a wrecked train. “At what point in a nation’s history do outlaws fill the caves?” he asked. A dictator in power, the conditions for revolt at hand, but no organized rebellion. He taught us to marvel at the class antagonism that gaped in the space between the first and second stanzas. “Imagine what sewers at like in the provinces,” he insisted. “Now imagine the tax-man chasing you through them.” He asked us to imagine an equally difficult feat: writing a poem, in plain English, with rhymes that were half as sure-footed and profound. “I can’t do it,” he told us, “you sure as hell can’t do it. But it’s pleasant to imagine.” In my recollection, he asked us to think about the poem for more than two hours; at the end of which time, no one thought the poem to have been fully dissected.

Our next assignment was Auden’s “September 1, 1939”. It took perhaps three or four weeks for us to recite and understand the poem to a satisfactory degree. We next turned to Hardy; spent hours on “During Wind and Rain”: a novel condensed into four intricately crafted stanzas.  Twenty-two difficult years later, I teach these poems and turn to them frequently, companions now, grooves worn deeply into the synapses.

Walcott taught play-writing to another group of students in the afternoon. A few weeks into the term, he invited us to participate in a semi-regular ritual. After class, six or seven of us would walk with him three or four blocks up Commonwealth Ave to a Vietnamese restaurant near the theater. “Lunch is on me,” he’d proclaim.  He led the way, closely trailed by whomever was brave enough to make small-talk with ,him; he was irreverent and caustic, without forsaking his dignity. Once, he karate-kicked open the restaurant door, briefly showing us a sand-brown old man’s skinny shin. He scared us with a simple rule, introduced at the first such lunch: “You can order whatever you want. But you must give our waitress your order in complete sentences, without any ‘ah’s,’ ‘um’s’ or ‘err’s.’” He deployed the way U.S. schoolchildren were allowed to fill their speech with meaningless conjunctions. It was a symptom of white supremacy, the casual refusal of proper grammar when speaking aloud. The penalty for fucking up was you had to pay for your own lunch. This was a serious. Most of us had few bucks in our pockets and no credit cards; the nearest ATM was maybe three blocks away. The waitresses, I recall, were used to his antics.

He was one of few people I’ve met who possessed an actual eye-twinkle. He could bark scornful laughter, wrinkle his nose and brows in amusement, and scare up a devastating glare. But he could also generate a spark, slightly lascivious (as glee always is), that danced only in the eyes: a knowledgeable quickness, as though the Wordsworthian child in him had never been snuffed out. It said, “Wow! Can’t believe this shit! The world continues to surprise.”

After lunch, we were allowed to sit quietly in the audience to observe the play-writing workshop. This was his passion at B.U. He’d founded perhaps the most important counter-institution of the Caribbean renaissance, the Trinidad Theater Workshop in 1950. In 1971, Dream on Monkey Mountain had won an Obie. Ten years later, he’d organized the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, which allowed novice playwrights to work with actors and stage sets. Walcott would often sit in the audience, letting the students learn how to rewrite their scenes by watching them. Once I saw him intervene. With a few simple commands to the actors, he turned a scene that wasn’t coming together into a story narrated by one character to others from another scene. He placed the narrator and his audience downstage and cut the narrated scene into segments, performed between and often at odds with the narrator’s story. The original script’s incoherence was turned into itself, producing two or three new layers of meaning. A banal, middle-class drama became a stunning examination of class habitus. I learned two-thirds of what I know about modernism, deconstruction, and postcolonialism in that moment. I was becoming habituated to the logics behind these theories in other courses, but it was here that I encountered, for the first time and all at once, the practical aesthetics.

Wolcott once told us that, determined to “master the sonnet,” he got up each morning at five and wrote a sonnet before coffee, breakfast, and teaching. He did this for several years. I tried it, but after a week I gave up. I lacked stamina, or was it motivation? Wishing to understand formal verse–I’d been brought up on haiku, confessional poetry and the avant-garde–I brought a sonnet to our first one-on-one critique. It was a serious and humble poem, about the day I chopped a garden toad in half with a carelessly placed shovel, rhyming this event with my father’s death earlier that year. All the rhymes were in place. Walcott was unimpressed. “Do you compose on a typewriter?” he asked, giving me the glare. “Yes,” I confessed. “You can hear it’s clatter in the lines. The sound of the machine mars this verse. It’s rough and ugly.” “But the event was ugly,” I stammered. “Oh, poor you, killed a toad. Father dead. Who cares?” He dismissed me. “Next time,” he said, “bring me something you’ve written with a pen. The music has to come from the silence. Give up the typewriter; it’s distracting.”

As the term came to an end, and we’d  recited our Yeats, Walcott consented to discussing one of his own books. We read (his choice) The Arkansas Testament, published in 1987 and dedicated to Seamus Heaney, whose reading we’d all just attended. (What a thrill to sit in the audience with these other poets–readings by the Boston Circle of the time (Bidart, Pinsky, Glück, Warren, Hill and Heaney) were often attended by peers as well as students; Walcott was the only one we didn’t see read). I rushed to Grolier’s to get a copy before the rest of the class.

We tried to prove how much we appreciated him (not everyone did, of course) by reading his own poetry with the intensity that he’d taught us to apply to Auden and Hardy. He mostly sat back with a slightly embarrassed smirk. One hand on chin, listening, which is why I chose the above photo. Sometimes he leaned forward to intervene. He helped us to understand the politics of Caribbean nationalism behind “A Latin Primer,” which begins:

I had nothing against which

to notch the growth of my work

but the horizon, no language

but the shallows in my long walk

 

home, so I shook all the help

my young right hand could use

from the sand-crusted kelp

of distant literatures.

One sentence across two Audenesque stanzas; formal perfection justifies the explanation and boast. Each word a resonant knot: “the language” of “the shallows” is both waves plashing across the poet’s feet and the shallow culture of St. Lucia’s limited horizon; the “sand-crusted kelp” is not kelp at all, but the British tradition. The explanation is slightly defensive: what was a boy to do, but learn the tradition that provided immediate assistance? It’s counteracted by the mastery of said tradition. The poem continues for several pages, describing with Joycean precision the episodes of humiliation and pride that accompanied his quest for a culture he would have to make if it was to have true purchase. The epiphany comes when, one evening, depressed from teaching Latin lessons to students who “would die in dialect,” he sees a frigate bird and recognizes it in english, Latin and patois simultaneously:

[…]  named with the common sense

of fishermen: sea scissors,

Fregata magnificens,

 

Ciseau-la-mer, the patois

for its cloud-cutting course;

and that native metaphor

made by the strokes of oars,

 

with one wing beat for scansion,

that slowly levelling V

made one with my horizon

as it sailed steadily

 

beyond the sheep-nibbled columns

of fallen marble trees,

or the roofless pillars once

sacred to Hercules.

 

A sentence that stretches over four stanzas; “patois” rhymed with “metaphor,” “scansion” with the “horizon” that in the first stanza failed to “notch” his success. The “native metaphor” allows another flight–across modern English literature. It is a modernist move, the sudden shift in perspective as the bird sails into the classical tradition, crossing time and space to become a bird Homer might have seen, wading in the surf.

In the 1970s and 80s, at the height of Caribbean cultural nationalism, critics and poets sometimes compared Walcott to Kamau Brathwaite in order to distinguish between an “old-guard” anticolonialism and a more radical, more Black, poetics. Neither poet made much of this distinction; they were obviously pursuing different literary projects for similar reasons. Brathwaite brought the patois into Caribbean literature; Walcott sought to challenge the colonial tradition from within. At it’s best, his poetry deconstructed the British tradition from within; lesser poems fail to pull of the mimicry. They become brittle when too self-consciously elegant, but glimmer with a joyful intensity when formal mastery allows him to reimagine the British tradition with loving irony, such as one finds in some of Kerry James Marshall’s landscapes, such as Gulf Stream (2003):

KerryJamesMarshall_Gulf Stream

Walcott’s Omeros, his version of the Odyssey, is rightly regarded as his masterpiece; for me, it was “The Arkansas Testament,” a narrative poem that recounts a visit to the home of the Confederacy. Riffing on Lowell, Walcott begins by touring a Confederate cemetery:

The young stones, flat on their backs,

their beards curling like mosses,

have no names; an occasional surge

in the pines mutters their roster

while their centennial siege,

their entrenched metamorphosis

into cones and needles, goes on.

This formal elegance honors the dead, but somewhat foolishly. Already by the second stanza, Wolcott brings us into his black body; exhausted from travel, he falls asleep on the cheap motel bed, awakening to feel, “through the chained door, / darkness entering Arkansas.” Brilliantly, the threat is palpable because it’s not there.

The next morning, before the sun has risen, with “Pajams crammed into my jacket, / the bottoms stuffed into trousers,” the poet hurries through the empty streets, searching caffeine. He waits

        for a while by the grass

of a urinous wall to let

the revolving red eye on top

of a cruising police car pass

Finding an open cafeteria, with whites glaring and blacks behind the counter, he orders his coffee to go. “I looked for my own area,” he writes, For several intensely written stanzas, his scrupulous attention to the formalities of English-language verse coincides with scrupulous attention to the culture of the post-Jim Crow color line:

The self-contempt that it takes

to find my place card among any

of the faces reflected in lakes

of lacquered mahogany

comes easily now. I have laughed

loudest until silence kills

the shoptalk. A fork clicks

on its plate; a cough’s rifle shot

shivers the chandeliered room.

A bright arm shakes its manacles.

Every candle-struck face stares into

the ethnic abyss. In the oval

of a silver spoon, the window

bent in a wineglass, the offal

of flattery fed to my craft,

I watch the bright clatter resume.

Coffee in hand, the sun rises as the poet walks back to his hotel. As “day broadened” the neighborhood into the “prose of an average American town,” he muses on on-going “racial rage,” the Confederate cemetery and the underground railroad. As the sunlight diminishes the sense of threat, internal, personal doubts emerge:

My shadow’s scribbled question

on the margin of the street

asks, Will I be a citizen

or an afterthought of the state?

His doubts extend to the “place” he was assigned in the critical controversy over Caribbean postcolonial culture:

Can I swear to uphold my art

that I share with them too, or worse,

pretend all is past and curse

from the picket lines of my verse

the concept of Apartheid?

The shadow bends to the will

as our oaths of allegiance bend

to the state. What we know of evil

is that it will never end.

The strong allusion to “September 1, 1939” in the last line above helps to convey Walcott’s stance. Like Auden, he insists upon uncomfortable compromise. We know what evil is; we see it all around us. We have to live with it. We have, somehow, to make the most of it. We are always “thrown” in the philosophical sense of always being in the middle of something we did and didn’t choose. We make our history, but never with the terms of our choosing.

So buoyed, I left B.U. determined to be the poet of my tribe–whatever that was. Walcott caused me to believe that by becoming masterful at a craft, one might also find a way to sing the truth. In the several decades since, I largely failed to become the poet and person I wanted to become. Editors don’t like my verse, and various attempts at counter-institutions floundered between the Scylla of No Money and the Charybdis of No Time. Derek Walcott had something to help with failure, too. Once he showed several of us three file drawers crammed with manuscripts. “These are the rejections,” he explained. I gaped. I had never thought there could be so many. I keep similar file drawers today.

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/23/17

Most Presidents use anaphora, a rhetorical device in which the repetition of words, phrases, or pronouns or nominal / verbal categories lends emphasis. Anaphora is the temporal / tonal equivalent of italics. Repetitions allow the auditor to reorient meaning and feeling around certain words that logical syntax inevitably levels. Lincoln used anaphora in his second Inaugural address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right,…”. As in this example, the words that receive emphasis aren’t necessarily those that are repeated. “Malice,” “charity” and “firmness” are the concepts imparted by Lincoln’s use of this rhetorical device. In terms of classical rhetoric, anaphoric repetitions belong to the beginning of sentences; epiphoria is repetition at the end of clauses or sentences, and symploce is produced by repetitions that end one sentence and begin another.

In the 16 February press conference, Trump’s initial speech employs some important organizational anaphora. (All quotations from the New York Times fake news transcript). The speech-writers organized the initial statement around a series of opening repetitions using the third-person collective pronoun: “We’ve issued”; “We’ve stood up for”; “We’ve ordered”; “We’ve undertaken”; “We’ve ordered”; “We’re issuing”; “We’ve begun”; “So we’ve begun.” This was followed by another structuring anaphora, this one nominal and categorical: “Fiat Chrysler,” “General Motors,” “Intel,” Walmart.” In this case, repeated names of corporations implies thoroughness. Two car / weapons companies, an internet firm and the hugest retail outlet.

But this “official,” structural use of anaphora is hugely lost among the more frequent and strongly enunciated uses of this device that Trump deploys “naturally,” or improvisationally. Various rhetorical repetitions are key to his personal style, just as they were notably absent from Barack Obama’s press-conference style. (Obama used formal anaphora, but his carefully worded, drawn-out responses to questions often seemed at pains to avoid rhetorical flourish.) The above examples seem cynically formulaic when compared to Trump’s more frequent use of epiphora and symploce.

Trump repeats words to add affect; his repetitions usually take the form of afterthoughts, a habitual underlining that emphasizes various sentiments directed at various entities. Below are some of his most obviously improvised repetitions in the opening remarks and a few of his answers to questions. As a kind of short-hand, my analysis uses Silvan Tomkins’ basic categories for distinguishing between fundamental types of responsiveness. Tomkins theorized that primary affective states form a matrix of felt responses to (social and / or physical) environmental changes. These innate ‘triggers’ are used to co-construct / participate in emotional “scripts” and “scenes,” which are embedded within large-scale and immediate ideological networks, which are themselves generated by countless other scripts. Although the responses begin within the human animal, a kind of feeling machine, their meaning is entirely social. We learn how to feel what we feel about what we feel. Furthermore, Tomkins emphasizes the “freedom” of these feelings to combine with each other and with memories of previous events to produce emotions that help to organize subsequent feelings. Here, according to the transcript generated by the “liberal media,” are some of the affects generated by Trump’s anaphora:

It’s [unification] very important to me. I’ve been talking about that for a long time. It’s very, very important to me.

It’s [plan to reward women for being entrepreneurs] very important to me, very important to my daughter Ivanka.

We’re going to make trade deals but we’re going to have one on one deals, bilateral. We’re going to have one on one deals.

Obviously, Trump’s repetitions emphasize interest, excitement. He acknowledges an on-going concern. Such excitement is often desirable; it’s pleasant to observe someone’s ongoing engagement. Trump’s repetitions use this excitement to engage the press:

As a result, the media is going through what they have to go through too often times distort – not all the time – and some of the media is fantastic, I have to say – they’re honest and fantastic.

His hostility becomes affectively aligned with the participant’s engagement with an opposing team. They’re challenging each other because they’re playing a game. In animals, such as dogs, this signals trust expended by the powerful and potentially dangerous to a weaker opponent.

Although Trump uses many negative affects to support his painful and unpopular policies, he’s not without his enjoyment. These repetitions underscore hope and trust–the sharing of positive possibilities:

And I hope going forward we [the administration and the press] can be a little bit — a little bit different, and maybe get along a little bit better, if that’s possible.

In each of these actions, I’m keeping my promises to the American people. These are campaign promises.

In this passage, his repeats key words that support the argument that he’s making good on campaign promises:

to require American steel for American pipelines. In other words, they build a pipeline in this country, and we use the powers of government to make that pipeline happen, we want them to use American steel.

Those are a few of most positive affects I’ve found in Trump’s repetitions; others are not so nice.

He improvises anaphora to acknowledge shame or humiliation. In Tomkin’s view, shame is the feeling that accompanies the frustration of joy and a desire to master the situation. He conceives of it as a hiding and recalibration resulting from the interruption of positive affects. Trump’s boasts are Playboy responses to what he perceives as shameful situations:

We have made incredible progress. I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done.

Israel, Mexico, Japan, China and Canada, really, really productive conversations. I would say far more productive than you would understand.

I turn on the T.V., open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos. Chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite.

I just got here. And I got here with no cabinet.

Frequently, his repetitions signal distress or anguish: a feeling of being overwhelmed. His signature line evokes this feeling:

We’ve begun preparing to repeal and replace Obamacare. Obamacare is a disaster, folks. It’s a disaster. I know you can say, oh, Obamacare.

The same feeling is imparted in his defense of his Supreme Court nominee:

He [Coats] can’t get approved. How do you not approve him? He’s been a colleague – highly respected. Brilliant guy, great guy, everybody knows it. We’re waiting for approval.

For thirty years, neocons have attempted to beat neoliberals at the deregulation game. Consequently, “government regulations” have become the most ideologically charged cry of distress. They are imagined to suffocate, constrict, depress, weigh down and otherwise make the world an ongoing challenge:

We’ve issued a game-changing new rule that says for each one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated. Makes sense. Nobody’s ever seen regulations like we have. You go to other countries and you look at indexes they have and you say “let me see your regulations” and they’re fraction, just a tiny fraction of what we have. And I want regulations because I want safety, I want environmental — all environmental situations to be taken properly care of. It’s very important to me. But you don’t need four or five or six regulations to take care of the same thing.

The world is felt to be “too much” with us, and we hope to alert others to our pain. A closely related sensation is that of fear or terror. Provoked internally, through the repetition / recognition of prior scenes of surprise or distress, or by external stimuli, the sense of an emergent / overwhelming source of distress gives us an adrenaline boost that can lend voice to distress and strength to anger. Trump evokes fear through the repetition of loss and by pointing to danger:

Depleted, it’s [military equipment] depleted – it won’t be depleted for long.

the defeat of ISIS, a group that celebrates the murder and torture of innocent people in large sections of the world. It used to be a small group, now it’s in large sections of the world. They’ve spread like cancer. ISIS has spread like cancer – another mess I inherited.

When the cry for help goes unanswered and flight seems impossible, anguish amps up into anger or rage. We seek our own way out of pain, usually with much screaming, stomping, shooting. We make demands; we take our stand. Trump doesn’t express anger very directly, leaving that to his supporters. In the following examples, Trump sublimates his anger into the promise of future might:

But our country will never have had a military like the military we’re about to build and rebuild.

And the wall is going to be a great wall and it’s going to be a wall negotiated by me. The price is going to come down just like it has on everything else I’ve negotiated for the government. And we are going to have a wall that works, not gonna have a wall like they have now which is either nonexistent or a joke.

The promise of more offensive and defensive weapons evokes the resistance to threats we can’t run away from, and which presumably the existing political order doesn’t care to respond to (this is the fantasy).

Rather than express anger outright, Trump uses repetition to express what Tomkins called disgust and dissmell. Both reactions–the wish to expel, the wish to remove–foster a sense of his sovereignty.  These repetitions signify contempt. Trump pushes away and looks down upon anaphora’s object, as though to prevent it from generating the more immediate sensation of disgust:

contracts that were terrible, including airplane contracts that were out of control and late and terrible;

One promise after another after years of politicians lying to you to get elected. They lied to the American people in order to get elected.

In this passage he evokes dissmell by suggesting that immigrants should be treated like animals (parasites) caught in a trap:

we have ordered an end to the policy of catch and release on the border. No more release. No matter who you are, release.

Like this “external” object, the “internal” object of national fear–suffocating regulations–is also treated with disdain:

They go in for a permit, it’s many, many years. And then at the end of the process — they spend 10s of millions of dollars on nonsense and at the end of the process, they get rejected. Now, they may be rejected with me but it’s going to be a quick rejection. Not going to take years.

The ultimate, oft-repeated phrase from the early part of the conference combines shame, fear, anger and disgust into a perception of the Obama administration as shitty:

To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country; you see what’s going on with all of the companies leaving our country, going to Mexico and other places, low pay, low wages, mass instability overseas, no matter where you look. The middle east is a disaster. North Korea – we’ll take care of it folks; we’re going to take care of it all. I just want to let you know, I inherited a mess.

The situational irony here, given the mess Obama actually inherited, and given what he did with it despite outrageous opposition (Republican b/anality) is almost overwhelming.

 

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/14/17

Despite several previous posts, many in the mainstream press continue to focus on the President’s gaucherie. Sad! His populist style is not the best point of attack; it’s not practicable, since this is his armor. He looks good in the eyes of quite a few Americans when he looks like a straight-talker. The center will hold onto Trump when he’s an Andrew Jackson: a rough-cut hero whose “so-called” atrocities evidence his resistance to Washington’s refinement, otherwise known as “bureaucracy.” For a shrinking but no doubt sizable population, his nominations from the private sector are what “draining the swamp” is supposed to look like. Plus, hey, he’s a New Yorker. We like ‘em rough around the edges. We’ve been giving New York cabbies, thugs, cops, and corporate raiders a pass on rudeness since at least Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (Stephen Crane, 1893). Furthermore, these critiques of style  implicitly seek to reform the spectacle, without tackling the more dangerous and abhorrent nature of his populist logic.

Trump’s brutality isn’t personal. He doesn’t deserve credit for his vulgarity. His world view emanates from the small but robust and well-situated culture: the eighties playboy. This subculture, nurtured by magazines, movies (not all of them porn), and daytime TV, continues to be the forest for trees in coverage of Trump’s foolishness. His attitude or demeanor, his projection / rejection of personal space (from pussy grabs to ugly bro handshakes), belongs to a macho subculture that thrived in the late 80s, early 90s. As the this video [WATCH BEFORE CONTINUING], from 1993, makes clear, this strained, uncomfortably jocular, overheated form of masculinity was a direct response to the AIDS crises, a celebrity-news backlash to Act Up.

 

The performance of true feeling exhibited here is painful in several ways. Trump performs his part poorly. The whole subject is embarrassingly handled, played for the cheapest of thrills. No one seems to know what they’re doing. The appropriate words escape them, so they thrive on innuendo. This style is ideological; it performs a macho world-view that continues to organize the Donald’s perception / response. Two phrases seem particularly salient today:

Trump: I don’t know. I tend to like beautiful women more than I like unattractive women. Maybe that makes me bad . . .

Mullet-headed Dick Interviewer: Join the club!

What’s Trump’s key-card here? How has he joined the club? The password’s not hard: women are beautiful or unattractive; sovereign feeling is the source of judgment. Trump knows it when he sees it. His access to the club is granted when he confesses this password: a public intimacy that responds to a crisis in confidence a few American men thought they were facing in the 80s, stuck between “gay-cancer” and “pus([s]h)y broads.” The logic of Trump’s responsivity is beautifully travestied by SNL when they send him to the original reality TV, The People’s Court. This sensibility belongs to the CDC (Celebrity Dick Culture) of the period when Trump, Arturo Ui fashion, began his rise.

Today, this logic dictates Trump’s response to court rulings on the short-lived immigration ban. He likes any judge whose rulings are attractive, and finds the rest “so-called” and “political,” i.e., “bad” or unattractive. Short-lived personal attraction actually forms the basis for a so-called “personality” here. It’s what I like, what I don’t like, that founds, like a cheap cement pile, the girders of his “reasoning.” This form of idiocy is not endemic to men. We find it also in rat creatures.

more-stupid-rat-creautres-dialogue

A second, equally pernicious phrase occurs a minute later in the interview:

Trump: AIDS, AIDS, can I tell you what?

MDI: AIDS attacks everyone.

Trump: AIDS is a disaster. It attacks everybody, and who knows.

The interview gets more gross and stupid, but I’m struck by this early use of “disaster.” Trump’s wall, his bans, his “extreme vetting” are condoms, it turns out. Trump views “threats / others” hygienically. This explains the attraction between him and the far right, for whom “cleansing” is also a national project. He wants to fuck (over) a clean nation. The border wall is a diaphragm, which is why he thinks it appropriate that our southern (as in under) partner pay for it. Extreme vetting is an AIDS test, free at airports near you.

This is what a puncture in an inflated public figure looks like. A slow motion disaster, only it’s not so slow for those hit by the falling infrastructure.

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/7/17

“A wimpy commute tonight,” the radio sighs. The late-afternoon dj, late in the afternoon, sides with the traffic jams and accidents. They’re ‘strong’; they give her something to report. A downgraded, democratized media increasingly finds itself siding with the disaster. Or if not that, with itself; disaster and celebrity collide in Trump, but these forms of publicity are brought together by a more general (yet not more diffuse) structure of feeling.

Later in the same episode, WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago, reported on a speech Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave to “MBA students.” It wasn’t the speech so much as honest answers that were delivered “a bit more freely” than normal, that our reporter observed. For good reason, as they revealed a stance toward politics that’s worth observing:

Winning’s everything. If you don’t win, you can’t make the public policy. . . Sometimes, you just gotta win, OK? [Cheers and applause.] . . . And our party likes to be right, even if they lose. . . I’ve never lost an election. It’s about winning because if you win you then have the power to do what you need to get done. If you lose, you can write this book about what happened. Great. That’s really exciting. . . . Schisms [in the Republican party] have to be wedges, wedges have to be divides and divisions. . . Take a chill pill, man, you’ve got to be in this for the long-haul.

Our Mayor is the exemplary neoliberal technocrat. The long-haul means, among other things, the closing of an unprecedented number of public schools. He’s Betsy DeVos all the way. A professional politician who’s never lost a race because he doesn’t care what it takes to win. Regarding politics as a contest (therefore a spectacle, in which nothing’s at stake) is akin to regarding traffic jams as news. Consequences are foreclosed upon as “tough choices” and “difficult decisions.” It’s not that politics shouldn’t / doesn’t require these bold words; it’s that politics must also be played for stakes. Rahm appears to borrow from Saul Alinsky’s playbook when he insists that “If you don’t win, you can’t make public policy,” but despite what the neo-fascist right may assume, Alinsky wasn’t writing a playbook. He wasn’t an NFL coach, plotting spectacular action because you gotta win and when you’ve won, you’ve won, so you gotta win, right? Right! That’s why we went out there and won that game. We wanted to win it, so we won it. You gotta do what you gotta do and what you gotta do is win that game, so you win it, am I right?

Structures of feeling, as the above sentence painfully enacts, depend upon certain grammars to set them free. The so-called “Trump Era” (as though everything were going to go as expected already) is built. in part upon the neoliberal relation to political events that Rahm describes. Politics as spectacle, stripped of cause and consequence. When people call this “politics as usual,” they don’t refer only to the obvious entanglements of capital and politics (such as the pass Trump’s been given on taxes, or the foul that sent Illinois Governor G-Rod to jail), but to a larger sense of politics as a gladiatorial battle.
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Frank Miller’s best-selling graphic novel, 300, supports this feeling’s structure. A rendering of the Battle of Thermopylae that  loves the spectacle of macho cunning and brutality more than its consequences. A small group of white, technologically elite warriors make heroic stand against dark-skinned Muslim hordes. The episode is constructed with a loving attention to the dramatic image. It’s the complexity of the cinematic scene, the angles and arrangement and postures that justify the slaughter This is the auteur’s approach to comic-book realities. 

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/3/17

One possible positive outcome of this fiasco would be public realization of just how easy it’s become to make money with money these days. The fat cats are back.

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In the progressive era, they were rotund men in formal wear, usually with cane, top-hat and cigar, as pictured here. Accumulated wealth was figured as an excess of appetites, accumulated in flesh and elite commodities; the gentleman’s club was the scene. They were corpulent because labor was doing the work. The same cultural scene frequently depicted the laboring class as, in Carl Sandburg’s phrase, “bo-hunks”: muscled titans, in lumberjack shirts and overalls. Here’s one on the cover of an Anarchist pamphlet by Mary E. Marcy, printed by Charles H. Kerr Press, which employed Sandburg until it was raided by authorities during World War I, it’s presses smashed and editors arrested.

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Since about the 1980s, U.S. tastemakers and social critics have preferred to imagine capitalists as trim, but over-indulgent go-getters. These new “titans of finance” are sleeker, hipper cats. They prowl through enviable offices and hotel rooms, sinuous and grossly obsessed or distracted.

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In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas sets the mold. He reprises it in the more interesting, The Game (1997). In The Aviator (2004) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Martin Scorsese casts Leonardo DiCaprio in this role. The runaway capitalist is still well-dressed and likes his cigars (or coke, whatever), but he’s the product of accumulated productivity, not wealth. He works hard, plus he’s brilliant. He’s on the phone with banks of computers to look at and rows of buttons to press. His appetites are voracious, but they provide a continual athleticism. This virtuous, heroic figure has been prowling the American imagination throughout the Trump years (1980s-present); our President is the latest ghastly embodiment of this figure.

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Steve Jobs plays the role with a little bit of Hamlet thrown in.

Current ideology would have it that these guys deserve big bucks because they’re smart and work hard. On the terrain of images, capital has stolen the previous era’s signifier of labor. They achieved this in the 1980s, when working out became a form of work. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an insane experimenter in this genre of capitalist machismo. (Mel Gibson a close second.)

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He will terminate you!

Now that we’ve got a Wall Street Wolf in the White House, a bona-fide billionaire (so he says), we might begin to realize that these guys are totally clueless. They’ve worked out but never worked hard. They’re idea of making decisions is to select their favorites among absurdly simplified options. The curtains and portraits and tile. The terrorists and migrants and Patriots.

They “run things,” but moving millions around is about a million times easier than the work the 99% do every day. Such as finding a daycare center that opens at five and is on the way to Au Bon Pain, and still greeting customers with a smile. Such as whacking the hell out of a frozen lump of steel for three hours with the wind from the north and no global warming in sight. Such as negotiating the intricacies of medical and auto insurance while negotiating the intricacies of maintaining a visa while teaching 18th C. British literature to students who have never thought of the 18th C., never mind Britain. Such as convincing rushed shoppers to purchase a newspaper because you have to pay for shelter in Chicago, in the winter, at night, no matter how minimal.

Nope. These guys don’t know work. They think a phone call takes an afternoon, and they never sit on hold. They don’t know “push back”; they don’t know tantrums and bureaucracy and getting onto the bus again today. They are creatures of appetite because the road to their desires is so easy. The imagination grows in the body; the fatcats don’t have it. They’ve been living in / submitting to celebrity realities. The spectacle is a vampire; it gives you life everlasting in exchange for corporeal reality.

Mainstream criticism of Trump falls into two camps: observations of his boorishness and observations of his incompetence. These are two sides of the same billion coins. But assessments of Trump’s temperament risk attempting to reform him, as though he could somehow get it right (because he’s a brilliant / hardworking businessman after all). Far better to discuss his incompetence, I think. He’s never worked a day in his life. He doesn’t know what it takes because he only taken. Even bankruptcy is a win-win for the idle rich. Time to observe what it takes to make it in corporate U.S.A.

 

WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/2/17

“This is the heart of the American idea…” the radio croons. “One of my favorites is actually President Reagan . . . that’s the America that I know and love and believe so many of us want to belong to.” Trump’s not looking back to the 50s; he’s thinking of the 80s, when coke was queen and Letterman king. Trump’s interviews on late-night and day-time TV, and stories about him in the New York Post are more revealing than the Pussy-grabbing tape. Like the latter, they narrate the core issue: we’re not dealing with an ordinary human, folks. Trump’s the most advanced form of celebrity ever to occupy the Presidency. He’s a virtual entity that’s temporarily assumed human form. Celebrity, when regarded, as Cintra Wilson does, as a “grotesque crippling disease,” consumes the brains and bodies of those in inhabits. Many celebrities kill themselves, others die from too many pain-killers, or go insane. Trump’s madness is a symptom of 35 years of getting himself on TV. 15 minutes just isn’t enough for some of us; twice 15 years isn’t enough for a narcissistic (homicidal) few.

Trump isn’t the first celebrity President, of course. But he’s way up there.

The Hill:

President Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office on Tuesday, The New York Times reports, an apparent nod to the populist sentiments of the new administration.

Trump’s rise has often been compared to the populist election of Jackson, including by some of the new president’s own team.

Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon called Trump’s inauguration speech on Friday “Jacksonian,” saying it struck the populist and patriotic tones Jackson was known for.

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Check out the double-collar on this guy. Check out the hair. A romantic, like Napoleon… 

Bannon’s Jackson is the patriot who put Indians in their place (several thousand miles away) and opposed the central bank. Breitbart reports that

Jackson did all this while accomplishing something almost equally rare in the advancement of nations: he intentionally decentralized the government, vetoing wasteful infrastructure projects and sending them back to the states where they belonged.

Sounds like he approved the contemporary Republican opposition to Obamacare. As Raymond Williams observed, traditions unfold backwards in time; they are made in the present. Lacking this present reconstruction, that fail to exist in the present, therefore fail to be active traditions. Trump is not resuscitating ancient verities. I suspect that his Jackson is someone else, someone more “present-tense”: our first celebrity President. He would appreciate the simultaneous rise in fame and power exhibited by that half-literate land-speculator and militia leader who parlayed his spectacular victory in New Orleans into public office.

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Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower did the same. But Reagan was Jacksonian in a new way. He wasn’t in the war, exactly, although he filmed the hell out of it; it was B-movies and cigarette commercials that put him before the public eye.

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A culture-industry celebrity who parlayed his status in the virtual nation (plus strong ties to the anti-communist unions, later the Christian Right) into public office.

Trump outdid them both. His ability to catapult from Reality TV to within Electoral Advantage of the Presidency should tells us something about our relation to televised drama.  
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In Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Superman responds to Reagan’s warning. Trump regards himself as such a man.

See also Joseph Stalin (Wikipedia):

Like other Bolsheviks, he became commonly known by one of his revolutionary noms de guerre, of which “Stalin” was only the last. “Stalin” is based on the Russian word сталь stal, meaning “steel”, and the name as a whole is supposed to mean “man of steel”.[344] Prior nicknames included “Koba”, “Soselo”, “Ivanov” and many others.[345]

In bridge, that game of the New York elite since the Gilded Age (Dummies.com),

When a suit becomes the trump suit, any card in that trump suit potentially has special powers; any card in the trump suit can win a trick over any card of another suite

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WE WANT FREEDOM; I WANT TO BE FREE

2/1/17
In populist times, political battle-lines are redrawn: “old” arrangements (however new) partially erased. Borders blur; people switch foxholes; the terrain’s rearranged by new weaponry: heavy shells, grapeshot, gas. Populist moments challenge “official culture,” “politics as usual,” the “mainstream,” but what this means depends upon where you stand. The new culture wars are coming. Multiple terrains revised, others reactivated. Law v. order. Migrant v. resident. Environment v. resources. Love v. hate. Everyone enjoys the disorder (enjoyment v. fun).

In populist times, heroes emerge. Cowardly lions; bold Suffragettes. Anarchists give beautiful speeches; fat cats capture the headlines. “For every nine parts Moses, you need one part Jesus,” sings the radio’s vaudeville. “If you zoom out, this is a strategy that seems woven into the fabric of the cosmos,” the so-called rational voices croon.

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Peter Bagge predicted this condition in Hate and related titles. His ordinary working-class partial dissenters suffer the contortions of cartoons. They don’t explode, except when they kill themselves. Alive, they bend and bulge, bounce, bubble, fold, collapse. Comic-book realities: bodies subject to extreme forms of fantasy. The airports are full, but it’s not the Thanksgiving rush.

In populist times, the spectacle overwhelms rational discourse. It wasn’t so rational to begin with; it just got worse. When, in the face of this, we fall for rationality, we justify the old regime. Already, numerous critiques of Trump stack him against Obama AND Shrub, legitimizing the latter. George W. Bush, a ‘normal’ president. The “alternative facts” mostly bend us; sometimes we break. A new puncture replaces the old, but leaves the tire weaker. Fortunately, human culture isn’t my bicycle. We get to do more than absorb our punctures. More kicks than pricks; more pricks than kicks: everything’s reversible.

How avoid the spectacle? The marvelous helps. A marvel is like a miracle, but made by us (the world), not god. The OED: “such as to excite wonder or astonishment (chiefly in a positive sense).” We need more of that in Trump’s Twitter Empire, I think. The marvelous distracts us with the glamour of our own creation. It may be rude; it may be graceful. The marvelous is like an angel of indecision that confronts us in the garden of our betrayal and delight.

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