The Silence by Don DeLillo

This is Don DeLillo’s new novel, his 18th. It gives the impression that DeLillo, who is 83, has run out of gas.

Five characters confront an unexplained crisis in 2022, during which civilization, at least the parts that rely on electricity or the internet, suddenly stops. A man and woman on a flight from Paris to Newark run into trouble. They eventually make their way to a New York City apartment where two friends, a husband and wife, live. The husband was planning to watch the Super Bowl. The only other character in the novel is the wife’s former student.

Nothing much happens after that. The characters express their fear and confusion by talking in brief bursts, sentence fragments, all sounding the way Don DeLillo often writes (which I usually enjoy). From two randomly chosen pages:

“The semi-darkness. It’s somewhere in the mass mind,” Martin said. “The pause, the sense of having experienced this before. Some kind of natural breakdown or foreign intrusion. A cautionary sense that we inherit from our grandparents or great-grandparents or back beyond. People in the grip of serious threat.”

And:

She thought for a moment. “The painted ceilings. Rome,” she said. “The tourists looking up.”

“Standing absolutely still.”

“Saints and angels. Jesus of Nazareth.”

“The luminous figure. The Nazarene. Einstein,” he said.

It’s a very short book, only 117 pages, with plenty of white space on every page. Maybe it would work as a play. It’s formatted like a typewritten script in what looks like Courier New. There are only five characters. They talk a lot. The play would only need four sets (an airliner, a clinic, an apartment, a street). I’m sorry to say it doesn’t work as a novel.

Another Damn Book To Read

Just what I needed.

drunken-silenus.jpg!Large

I’d seen advertisements for The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality, a new book by Morgan Meis. Then I saw a review by Leanne Ogasawara for Dublin Review of Books. Here’s half of it:

A man finds himself in Antwerp with nothing to do. Then he remembers, among other things, that this is the town where the painter Peter Paul Rubens made his home. At first, this annoys him, because he has no interest whatsoever in the painter. But then he thinks, why not write a book about Rubens.

Why not, indeed?

Essayist and critic Morgan Meis sets out to develop a new style of writing about art, one that is informed by a passionate looking. . . .

So, what is the painting in question? Well, it should be said that Rubens’s Drunken Silenus is not even in Antwerp anymore, since the city is now much too small for its golden boy. The painting is now in Munich. Meis travels there and stands in front of it. . . .

Meis is a philosopher. And so, standing in front of the drunken, out-of-control figure of Silenus, he immediately thinks of Nietzsche. . . .

According to Meis, Rubens was bowled over by Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne   and who wouldn’t be?   in which the character Silenus can be found, playing a minor role in the back of the picture. You can see him slumped over asleep, presumably in a drunken stupor, being carried along on a mule. Rubens gravitates to this plump figure and brings him centre stage in his own painting, where naked Silenus seems ready to spring right off the canvas.

In case you don’t remember   and why would you?   Silenus was the tutor of Dionysius, and member of his wild and crazy entourage. He was also the goat-god who got tangled up with King Midas. Famously, the king asked Silenus to tell him what was the best thing in the world for men? “The best thing in the world for men is to never have been born,” declares Silenus. “And the second best thing is to die early.”

You get the idea: this is what my son would call a buzz kill. But this profoundly pessimistic message deeply affected Nietzsche. Nietzsche, who was so fascinated by opposing ancient Greek impulses – one toward order (the Apollonian) and one toward frenzy and the irrational (the Dionysian), could not help but be impressed. As Meis tells it:

All this talk (Nietzsche realised) of the measured and balanced Greek mind was sloppy. No, there is turmoil. Nietzsche saw it because he was willing to look. He didn’t listen to anyone else, the experts, the other scholars. He just took a look.

When I studied Nietzsche in university, we read Dodds’s 1925 work The Greeks and the Irrational. The book was revelatory, illuminating all that was irrational about ancient Greek society. We tend to idealise the Greeks for their devotion to reason   in law, in mathematics, rhetoric and philosophy, for example. But the Greeks, said Dodds, were also deeply driven by irrational forces expressed in religious and other social practices. . . .

According to Nietzsche, Silenus was the greatest hero because he embraced the violent irrational forces that are at our core. And indeed, this is the way he has long been viewed, even in Rubens’s sympathetic depiction.

But what is a goat-god anyway? Nietzsche responds to this question, in Meis’s words that:

God is a goat because God is truth and the real truth of the matter is that life is a matter of running and jumping in the forest and rushing after something to screw and something to eat and, according to Nietzsche in what he thought he learned from the Greeks, even the life of the mind, the intellectual life of the sad-thinking-creature known as man, this creature who must think and make art and make culture, insofar as man does those things, ought to be done with the pure life-expressing power of the goat.

Have you heard of the old joke that, Life is so terrible, it would have been better not to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!

More than anything, The Drunken Silenus is about the “tears of things” (lacrimae rerum). Underneath the beauty of Antwerp   underneath the beauty of all cities, he says, is the irrationality of violence, chaos, and war. A world of tears.

This is the deeper truth that Nietzsche uncovered in the figure of Silenus. And in Meis’s telling, as the Franco-Prussian War came to a head during The Birth of Tragedy’s original composition, this same impulse toward war and violence is what connects civilisations through history. This Dionysian horde that Nietzsche surely imagined battering the walls of the besieged city of Wörth in 1870 was the same Dionysian horde that devastated Europe in the Thirty Years War in Rubens’s time. . . .

In this telling, history is not a love story. But I do think there is something healthy about Nietzsche’s pessimism. To dwell on transience, in the tears of things, in decay and ruins, is ultimately an empowering practice. In Japan, it is referred to as “scattering flowers and fallen leaves” 飛花落葉 or . . . “dewdrop loves and our dewdrop selves”. The Lotus Sutra teaches that all that appears before us is as a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow. All is like the dew or lightning. It should thus be contemplated that nothing has reality. That everything is in flux and that all must eventually perish is a sad but inevitable fact . . .

Unquote.

And then a purchase was made.

Peter Paul Rubens painted Silenus another time. Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs shows Dionysus’s companion and tutor getting a little help from his friends. We all need assistance sometimes, especially in what Ms. Ogasawara calls “our current time of worry and sickness”. Am I right or am I right?

Two days.

71x5QVmhEiL._AC_SX522_

Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo

A book editor named Gerald Howard believes Don DeLillo deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature:

By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile. 

He says DeLillo’s case for the Nobel rests on four propositions:

1. “No American novelist has examined more broadly and with greater insight and originality our postwar history and experience”.

2. “The astonishing and unmatched string of four midcareer masterpieces: White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997). [All] permanently lodged in the record of American literary greatness.

3. DeLillo’s influence:  [His] work is currently available in forty-three languages and/or countries. He is a true global phenomenon. . . . In the anglophone and domestic spheres, there is no writer more revered than DeLillo.

4.  “The dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. . . . He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career”.

I’ve read the four novels mentioned above and several of his others. DeLillo is clearly worthy of the Nobel Prize. It’s too bad the Swedish Academy marches to its own peculiar set of drums.

Since DeLillo has a new novel coming out (The Silence), The New York Times interviewed him this month. They gave the interview this title: “We All Live in Don DeLillo’s World. He’s Confused By It Too”:

A permeating paranoia. Profound absurdity. Conspiracy and terrorism. Technological alienation. Violence bubbling, ready to boil. This has long been the stuff of Don DeLillo’s masterly fiction. It’s now the air we breathe. For nearly 50 years and across 17 novels, [he] has summoned the darker currents of the American experience with maximum precision and uncanny imagination.

The interviewer asked a question about DeLillo’s 1976 novel, Ratner’s Star. It’s not a well-known book, possibly because it’s been called “his weirdest novel” and “famously impenetrable” (which must mean “famously” among a small group of readers and critics). A footnote to the Times interview says it’s an “intricately structured semi-sci-fi romp”. That was enough for me to get a copy and start reading (I had a copy years ago but it’s long gone).

Untitled

For the first 275 pages, Ratner’s Star didn’t seem impenetrable at all. It’s about a 14-year old math genius who (coincidentally) has won the Nobel Prize. He is invited to a secretive, well-funded installation where lots of brilliant, generally strange people are trying to decipher what appears to be a message from an alien civilization. DeLillo writes beautifully and the plot is interesting. Will young Billy Twillig (formerly “Terwilliger”) from The Bronx (where DeLillo is from) figure out what the message means? Does it mean anything at all? I liked this part of the book and its amusing conversations and technical explanations and foresaw no problem reading the rest.

Then the plot takes a detour. Billy descends into a cavern far beneath the installation with a small group whose purpose is to create a purely logical, universal language. They hope to use this new language to communicate with the alien civilization (assuming there are aliens out there). Since the little group’s purpose makes no sense, the novel’s suspense disappears. There is frequent stream of consciousness. The point of view suddenly changes from one character to another. There are tangents and long passages that feel pointless, as if DeLillo is treading water. Billy becomes a secondary character.

Something eventually happens in a section called “A Lot Happens”. Something else happens in the next section, “I Sit A While Longer”. But between those two developments, a peripheral character spends several pages exploring a cave because he’s fascinated by bats and a journalist decides her manuscript’s many blank pages are fine because she knows what words belong there. The plot resumes in the final pages; before that there’s rough going. Anybody interested in DeLillo’s work should start elsewhere, maybe with one of the four novels that would justify giving him the Nobel Prize.

A Bit of Chomsky, A Lot More Kubrick

Noam Chomsky and Stanley Kubrick were both born to Jewish parents in 1928 in big cities on the East Coast (Philadelphia and New York, respectively). I don’t know if they ever met. Chomsky, whom Wikipedia describes as a linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist, recently gave an interview to Truthout, the non-profit news organization. These two paragraphs are receiving attention:

What is happening in the U.S., India and Brazil . . . cannot fail to evoke memories of the early 1930s . . . . One common feature is the fanatic adoration of the Maximal Leader by his loyal followers. There is one curious difference. Mussolini and Hitler were providing their worshippers with something: social reforms, a place in the sun. Trump is stabbing them in the back with virtually every legislative and executive action, and seriously harming the U.S. in the international arena. The same is true of his companions in arm in India and Brazil.

Trump’s commitment to cause maximal suffering to the American population is stunning to behold. It goes well beyond his truly colossal crimes: racing towards the abyss of environmental catastrophe and sharply increasing the threat of nuclear war. In far lesser ways, once again no stone is left unturned in ways to cause severe harm to the public.

I think Chomsky’s analysis of our political situation is too apocalyptic, except when he warns about our inadequate response to climate change. You can read the whole interview at Truthout.

I found a Washington Monthly article about my favorite director more rewarding. It’s a review of a new biography, Stanley Kubrick, American Filmmaker, by David Mikics, that apparently analyzes Kubrick’s body of work in a way that sounds simplistic but makes a lot of sense:

In America, we are in a season of political rebellion. Throughout the country, protests have become a part of everyday life. Some of them are righteous (the Black Lives Matter movement wants to end police brutality and systemic racism); some of them are not (armed conservatives are pushing states to reopen before it’s safe). . . . And perhaps no artist has more frequently captured the essence of rebellion—whether personal or collective in nature—than Stanley Kubrick. 

Consider his body of work. Spartacus (1960) chronicles the eponymous Roman gladiator who led a slave revolt. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) reaches its climax when a sentient computer tries to kill off his crew once he learns that they plan to disable him. Barry Lyndon (1975) tells the saga of an incorrigible 18th-century trickster who rejects his family of Irish farmers to ingratiate himself in the British aristocracy. The Shining (1980) shows a man’s descent into madness as he plots to murder his wife and son. Full Metal Jacket (1987) takes its biggest turn when a Parris Island Marine trainee shoots his draconian drill instructor.

It’s fitting that Kubrick focused heavily on rebels. He was one. That’s one of the major takeaways from a new biography by David Mikics . . .  Kubrick did poorly in school—was simply “not interested,” he said—and didn’t go to college, much to the chagrin of his New York Jewish middle-class parents, who owed their livelihoods to their education. Instead of college, Kubrick spent his early 20s as a photographer and made extra cash by competing in chess tournaments. . . .

The rebellions of Kubrick’s characters, however, almost always came up short. In Spartacus, the revolt fails. In 2001, HAL’s scheme falls apart. In Barry Lyndon, the protagonist’s story ends in terrible misfortune. In The Shining, Jack Torrance freezes to death. In Full Metal Jacket, the Marine trainee, Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, kills himself.

Kubrick’s rebellion, by contrast, served him well. He refused to follow Hollywood’s formulaic filmmaking clichés and was unafraid to touch on outré subjects (this is the man who made Lolita, after all). His films still won eight Academy Awards (Kubrick himself only won once, for special effects on 2001). Many were international box office hits. The most famous actors in all of Hollywood, like Jack Nicholson, would drop whatever they were doing to work with him. In the latter part of his career, he had a unique arrangement with Warner Brothers that let him make movies on all of his own terms. He is now widely recognized as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers who ever lived.

In other words, Kubrick’s filmmaking life was marked by a fundamental contradiction. He was the consummate model of a rebel who succeeded, yet he spent his entire life making films about rebels who fail. 

. . . While taking photos for Look magazine in the late 1940s, he started going to movie screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, where he was introduced to foreign films. He . . . saw a lot of movies that didn’t meet his standards. “I know I can make a film better than that,” he would say. Soon, he started using the little money he had in savings—approximately $1,500—to rent camera equipment and make short movies.

His first was a 16-minute documentary on a boxing match, Day of the Fight. He sold it to RKO Production pictures for $100 more than it cost him to make it. That inspired him to quit his job at Look and turn to film full-time. He made a few more shorts before his first feature, Fear and Desire, which was a commercial flop but received enough critical appreciation that he was able to continue making movies. 

It took his third feature film, The Killing (1956), about a meticulously planned racetrack robbery gone wrong, for Kubrick to come into his own as an artist. The noirish film follows Johnny Clay, a veteran criminal who wants to pull off a final heist and leave town. It ends with Clay trying to get on a flight to Boston with a bag full of cash. When he arrives at the airport, the gate attendant won’t let him bring the bag as a carry-on because of its weight. Eventually, Clay lets him check it. Then, while he’s on the runway, Clay watches as a woman’s dog jumps from her arms. The baggage cart driver swerves to avoid hitting it, and the suitcase falls off and opens. The money goes flying into the air, scattered away by the airplane’s propellers. Clay and his girlfriend quickly try to leave the airport but realize the futility of attempting to escape—and are met by cops at the airport entrance. 

This was the first display of what would become the classic Kubrick plot. As Mikics writes, the director was “drawn to macho revolt, and to anything else that makes well-laid plans screw up royally.” It was a subject that stayed constant even as Kubrick later became an incredibly versatile filmmaker, bouncing from genre to genre. The director went from an antiwar movie to a historical epic to a dark comedy to a sci-fi to a dystopian movie to a period drama. Then he made a horror film, a war film (not the same as an antiwar film), and an erotic psychodrama. In each of these movies, men (they were always men) rebel in some form or fashion against their reality and surroundings.

A few of them deserve to succeed. In Paths of Glory (1957), for example, Kirk Douglas plays a French colonel whose unit refuses orders to invade an enemy anthill, and then stands up against the military establishment for seeking to punish his soldiers (had they carried out the order, they would effectively have been committing suicide). But most of Kubrick’s rebels are far less noble. Many, like The Shining’s Torrance, are full of a kind of masculine rage that destroys their capacity for rational thought.

Dr. Strangelove (1964) is an especially powerful example. Sterling Hayden plays a general who becomes impotent, has a psychotic breakdown, and ignores the chain of command so he can order a nuclear attack on the Soviets. He uses the bomb to replace the sexual release. This is a tale not so much of failed rebellion—his plan does, in fact, work—but of rebellion as a form of mental malfunction. 

The connection between rebellion and malfunction is also apparent in A Clockwork Orange (1971). The film is obviously about a rebel: a conscienceless youth gang leader named Alex who takes pleasure in violence and rape. But the film reaches its apex when he comes in contact with another rebel: the government’s minister of the interior, who controversially tries to reform Alex through an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico technique. . . . Once he’s released from jail, however, his former victims find him and torment him until he can’t take it anymore—and he tries to commit suicide.

Pretty soon, the news media picks up his story, civil society is outraged, and the menace becomes the victim: the subject of the minister’s brutality. The government then has to “uncondition” Alex to save face. The state’s plan completely backfires. The film ends with Alex being re-released into society just as dangerous as he was before.

Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange were clearly political. But many of Kubrick’s revolts were personal. His final movie, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), is centered around the theme of adultery. The film—the last to star Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as a married couple—follows Cruise as he ostensibly sets out on a voyage to cheat on his wife after she tells him she once considered having an affair. That includes him infiltrating a secret society’s masked orgy. Complications, however, get in the way, and he never follows through. When he confesses his adventures to his wife, she seemingly forgives him (the final lines of dialogue are some of Kubrick’s finest). But it still becomes an archetypal Kubrick story of failed rebellion. As Mikics writes, the film is essentially “a piquant fairy tale: male defiance is quickly foiled by fate, which brings the man back to where he started.”

For today’s aggressive conservative protestors—the mostly male demonstrators who march on statehouses bearing arms—Kubrick’s macho plot lines could prove prescient. Try as they might to act against others and increase their power, the rebels in Kubrick’s films are rarely able to get their way, or at least what they truly want. 

This may also be the case for Dxxxx Txxxx himself. The president already seems like a character out of Dr. Strangelove. The question is whether [his] unsteady revolt against American political institutions will end . . . like The Shining’s Jack Torrance’s revolt against his own mediocrity—in self-destruction. 

A hallmark of Kubrick’s rebels is that they almost always lose control of the situation. Johnny Clay’s heist itself succeeds, but is upended by a swerving luggage cart. The minister in A Clockwork Orange manages to reprogram Alex, but his efforts are then undone by societal backlash.

Mikics suggests that Kubrick’s preoccupation with catastrophe stems in part from his New York Jewish upbringing. . . . “Gentiles don’t know how to worry,” Kubrick once remarked. 
That may explain why Kubrick, unlike his characters, was a perfectionist. He was an exacting director who demanded dozens of takes. For the Vietnam set in Full Metal Jacket, which he filmed near his estate in England, he refused to use plastic props and instead imported 100,000 tropical plants from Hong Kong and more than 200 palm trees. He would edit and reedit his films seven days a week. . . .

Kubrick’s perfectionism was an indelible part of his filmmaking identity. In essence, it was a manifestation of his belief in hard work—that the way to successfully overcome adverse odds when rebelling is through carefully considering every little thing. This was one of the reasons he loved chess. He once said the game “teaches you . . . to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good,” but to “think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.”

. . . He loved telling cautionary tales of how rebels can go wrong. In a speech during the final months of his life, the director paid tribute to Icarus, the great rebel of Greek mythology, who tried to fly higher than his father by creating wings with wax and feathers but who plummeted to his death when the wax melted in the sun. 

In most classrooms, the story is taught as a lesson on the dangers of overreaching and needless ambition. But Kubrick shared a different analysis. He said, “I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘Don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as: Forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.”

Smiles from 1967, 2004, 2011 and even 2002

After releasing Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” in 1966, Brian Wilson tried to keep it all going with Smile in 1967. Things didn’t work out, so Smile became rock music’s most famous, most well-regarded, unfinished, semi-existing album. Brian and the other Beach Boys went on to lesser things (as did Brian’s lyricist for the project, Van Dyke Parks), while the legend of Smile grew.

d93426a7-f061-49ab-8580-b35a48ebb43f-Van_Dyke_Parks_and_Brian_Wilson

I use the word “legend” because in this case it’s appropriate. The story was told again and again. Unreleased recordings were quietly shared. Speculation abounded among certain Beach Boys fans. Would the group ever finish Smile? What would it be like when we finally got to hear it? What would people have thought in 1967 if Smile had come out before Sergeant Pepper? The Beach Boys and Beatles were having a friendly competition in the mid-60s. We know how that came out.

Brian Wilson, having begun a solo career in the 80s, changed the Smile story in a big way in 2004. Overcoming considerable obstacles, he and his band debuted Smile at a February concert in London. From The Guardian:

So how good, finally, is Smile, the great lost song cycle that Brian Wilson kept the world waiting 37 years to hear? The only possible answer, after Friday night’s world premiere in London, is that it is better than anyone dared hope. Multiple spontaneous ovations were the reward for the former Beach Boy and his musicians, whose pristine performance breathed life into a 45-minute work previously known only through various shattered and dispersed fragments.

Seven months later, Brian Wilson presented us with Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Metacritic, a site that tries to synthesize critical opinion, has it down as the third-best reviewed album of the 21st century:

Well, better 37 years late than never. Originally intended to be the Beach Boys’ 1967 follow-up to their legendary ‘Pet Sounds,’ ‘Smile’ was finally recorded as originally intended in April 2004 by Wilson and his current band, including co-songwriter Van Dyke Parks.

“Originally intended” is a stretch, since nobody, including Mr. Wilson, really knows how he intended to put Smile‘s pieces together in 1967. (Not being able to put the pieces together was a very big part of the problem.)

In 2011, Capitol Records released a big set of Beach Boys recordings from the 60s, The Smile Sessions, also to great acclaim. And that was that.

gettyimages-86110974-612x612

Except that while we were waiting those 37 years, a number of us (hundreds of us? thousands?) created our own versions of Smile, using whatever pieces were available (legally and otherwise). I did one in 2002, two years before Brian did. If only he’d asked me for help in 1967!

Mine differs from the typical unofficial arrangement, mainly in two ways. I started with something someone put together from mostly instrumental tracks and called “The Elements”. I think it’s an excellent prelude to what comes later. I also used a version of the song “Wonderful” from the Smiley Smile album (what the Beach Boys released in lieu of Smile), not the original “Wonderful” with a harpsichord that most fans seem to prefer. I like the later one a lot more.

Anyway, here’s my Smile from 2002 in two formats up in the Microsoft cloud (YouTube objected due to copyright):

Audio only (MP3, 55 mb)

Audio plus unsophisticated video that identifies the tracks (MP4, 52 mb)

unnamed

(By the way, whether or not you watched any of that ridiculous “debate”, please vote and send the maniac back to private life and almost certain criminal prosecution.)