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by Miles Mathis

Art is upon the town!—to be chucked under the chin
by the passing gallant—to be enticed within the gates of the householder
—to be coaxed into company as a proof of culture and refinement.  —Whistler

I recently recommended a short book by B.R. Myers entitled A Reader's Manifesto, in which Myers includes some of the hate mail he received after publishing a long excerpt in Atlantic, criticizing well known writers. The author of one letter jeered, “You didn't have the balls to take on Joyce, did you?” We never learn what Myers thought of Joyce, so his balls remain known only to himself. But it gives me a chance to once more step up to the plate and drop my drawers. I don't like (late) Joyce at all, and you know what, neither did D.H. Lawrence, Robert Musil, Andre Breton, Henry Miller, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Annie Dillard, Ayn Rand, Carl Jung, Tennessee Williams, Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis, or Marshall McLuhan, among many others. What's more, I don't care what the committee at the Modern Library thinks (they voted Ulysses the greatest English language novel of the 20th century). When any committee says jump right, I dive left.

Actually, there are several people on the committee I sort of admire from a distance, like Gore Vidal and Antonia Byatt, but I suspect they were outvoted by the others. Honestly, I don't understand how Joyce came out on top, with a committee that also included James Frazier, Edmund Morris, Salman Rushdie, and Caleb Carr. These don't seem like the sort of people who would fawn over James Joyce. And, yes, I would call it fawning, since Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was #3, and Finnegan's Wake was #77. Maybe Richard Howard and his monocle were the only ones who sent in their votes on time—the rest were postmarked a day late.

While we are diverted by this list, I also find it odd that Lolita is rated so highly [#4]. The first half of Lolita is brilliant, but the second half is just a montage of destinations. Nothing interesting happens from the intermission till the shots fired at the end. And the ending is atrocious: after starting out moraline-free—as Nietzsche would say—Nabokov has to be sure Humbert gets his cosmic comeuppance, in the most absurd manner imaginable. As a short story, it would have been a smashing success; as a novel it is a failure. Only the fact that it has so little first-rate competition can explain its position. Nabokov vanquished most of the list with his first page.

Come to think of it, the first page of Lolita could trump thousands of pages of 20th century humbug: works like The Sheltering Sky and Sons and Lovers and and An American Tragedy. You know you have lived through a pretty poor century of literature when Sons and Lovers is #9. I would much rather read Byatt's Possession again than Sons and Lovers (I would rather have my balls pierced than have to read Sons and Lovers again), but unlike Rushdie, Byatt couldn't make the list despite being on the committee.

Amazingly, we don't see John Updike on the list. This is just the sort of list you would expect him to be on, since Saul Bellow makes it twice, and since Cheever is also there. Apparently the committee could stomach boring plots, but not boring plots underpinned, even slightly, by a Barthian Christianity. Still, I am surprised. We just left an American century where few men read, but the few that did were nerds who had never had fellatio: they had to read about it in Rabbit, Run. Yes, we just left a century where authors got famous for using the present tense, or the second person, or for being the first to bring one or the other form of sexuality into the “serious” novel. In this way I am only surprised that Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White didn't make the list, since he was the one who saw it was crucial to update Dickens with anal sex. Possibly he was passed over for Deliverance, since James Dickey beat him to the punch.

After that, we find a raft of completely manufactured and unconvincing novels, led by The Magus and Native Son and Invisible Man. Is it just a coincidence that Ellison and Wright are next to eachother at #19 and #20, or did they forget to shuffle? John Fowles, a man who can't write himself out of a paper balzac, actually makes the list. I had to look twice to be sure his name hadn't migrated over from the readers' poll, along with L. Ron Hubbard. I guess in a century like the 20th, it is hard to round out a list that long. Maybe they should have stopped at 50? Would you believe 25? With Ulysses as #1, they should have stopped at 1899.

Just imagine what Tolstoy or Twain would have thought of Ulysses. Well, that is precisely what I think of it.

To be clear, I like some of Joyce's early poetry and I like large parts of Dubliners. I find Portrait of the Artist to be a mixed bag, since while the language and imagery is good and at times very fine, the overall “portrait” is unconvincing: entirely too vignetted for my taste. It is clearly the work of a man in his early twenties: promising but thin.

As for Ulysses, I think it is possible to judge the entire book by Joyce's stated intention: “I put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." He also said he wrote it that way in order to attain "immortality." A novel written with phony intentions is bound to be phony. Ulysses reads like a novel written to confound the bourgeois, and it has done that. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, I don't know) it has also confounded some pretty good writers, like those in the Modern Library Committee. Quite possibly, Ulysses was written as a measure of all who read it, and it stands as a clear condemnation of a decade of decades.

Remember that it was written during the first world war, 1914-1918. This period saw the rise of Cubism and Futurism—the jelling of Modernism in all its forms. And Ulysses is now admired by the same sort of people who admired and admire Modernism, who admire novelty in all its various guises. Those who find Duchamp clever find Joyce clever, for the same reasons. Those who find Derrida profound because he is a difficult read also find Joyce profound, for the same reason.

But remember what Nietzsche—supposedly a precursor of Modernism—said:

He grasped with his very hands the only thing the Germans take seriously—“the idea,” which is to say, something that is obscure, uncertain, full of intimations; that among Germans clarity is an objection, logic a refutation.

Nietzsche was talking about Wagner, but this applies equally well, or better, to Joyce. As does this quote:

It was the enigmatic character of his art, its playing hide-and-seek behind a hundred symbols, its polyphony of the ideal that leads and lures these youths to Wagner.

We were a century of youths, of lastmen. What was Ulysses if not the playing of hide-and-seek behind a hundred symbols? In this way it is fitting that Ulysses is at the top of the list. It is symbolic of an entire century, a mannered and incomprehensible capsule of a mannered and incomprehensible century. It is the near-perfect incarnation of the literary pose—surpassed in gumption only by Joyce himself, with Finnegan's Wake. It gave the clue to others on the list, like Faulkner and Morrison, but allowed no surpassing. Like Warhol trying to surpass Duchamp, it couldn't be done. The apex of Modernism had already been reached by 1918, in fiction as in art, and the rest of the century was a denouement.

So while Joyce was probably the most representative and influential writer of the 20th century, he was far from the best. He was a great talent wasted by the requirements of the age. Like Picasso, he allowed his talent to be perverted by the market, by the critics, by the “professors.” No real artist allows his art to be decided by professors, not even a little bit, not even tongue-in-cheek, not even as a form of reverse-field imposture. No real artist writes for critics or publishers, which is why the 20th century saw so few artists. It saw the full spectrum of mediocrity, ambition, and misdirection, but only a few photons of brilliance. It destroyed beforehand any possibility of high art, by having no need for it. It needed the fizz of new forms, not the nectar of content. In this way it also quashed Nabokov, who rarely surpassed the clever. The 19th century might have nurtured Nabokov into a contender against Dostoevsky, but, chasing Joyce, he never got any deeper than the literary and nymphic perversions of Humbert Humbert.

The 20th century was like a callow youth who needs a new mistress each month, and cannot abide a woman without make-up. It pretended that its best acquaintances were a new nobility, but they were just higher-priced hookers.

So what is the greatest novel of the 20th century? The Grapes of Wrath. The Catcher in the Rye and Slaughterhouse Five are perfect in their own ways, but they don't have the weight of Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath is the only book on the 20th century list that doesn't wilt when you put it on the shelf next to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

You certainly can't say this about The Great Gatsby, which, read directly after a novel like Anna Karenina or The Idiot, only serves as a measure of the decline in artistic standards from the 19th century to the 20th. Fitzgerald, assigned to highschoolers, is transparent and tiresome even to the best of them; it must be a mystery to the Muses how he manages to place #2 on a list led by Joyce. What weird unmoored eclecticism could include those two on any list, much less sandwich them at the top? Fitzgerald admitted that he tarted up his short stories with coincidences and improbabilities, giving them “twists that made them into saleable magazine stories.” But no one ever admits for him that The Great Gatsby rests on another of these impossible twists. The car driven by Daisy striking Myrtle is a plot-carrying coincidence worthy of John Irving, and no one but an American voter would buy it. Without this incident, the book is a banal list of spiceless adulteries; with this incident, the book is a banal list of adulteries spiced with a miracle. But since the miracle is so obviously supplied by an intrusive and hamhanded author, rather than a god or muse, the spice is all cinnamon and salt. It leaves any sensible person in a pucker.

You certainly can't say it of anything by Hemingway, another master of grade 10 level English. Has anyone ever considered that maybe it is not a good thing that the greatest American novels can be read by teenagers, without them having to consult a dictionary or any annotation? Must we either have a “muscular” prose, stripped of all commas and complexity, or a purposely puzzled prose like that of Joyce or Faulkner or Morrison, where tenses and times don't match and the speaker is not indicated? Has anyone ever imagined the possibility of a richness that is not faked: the natural complexity of a fertile mind, but with the budding stalks still rowed and labeled for the efficient transfer from mind to mind?

Nor can you say it for Henry James, who maintained the complexity of syntax and structure of the 19th century, but who managed them in chapters and plots of soporific pace and humorless narrative. James was a very good writer but a poor storyteller. He hits all the lows of a Tolstoy, but none of the highs. Like a banker with a felicitous pen, James attains a dry cultured craft, one sustained by an insight broad but not deep. He sometimes entertains us, if we are preternaturally bored, but he never thrills us. We aren't inconvenienced by bad sentences or poorly drawn characters or unbelievable action, but aren't awed by art, either. Emotion is not absent, but it rarely ebbs and swells, never crashes like a wave. James' writing is not a formal minimalism, it is an aesthetic minimalism, where the senses are allowed to lie dormant for hundreds of pages. We smell nothing, taste nothing, touch nothing, only seeing very limited vistas and hearing a flat progression of slowly undulating words. Despite all this, Henry James really is superior to his competitors, and must be near the top of any 20th century list. He makes both Joyce and Fitzgerald look small, though for different reasons.

But woe to the great mind limited to 20th century literature! Like the authors I will come to in a minute, James can't or doesn't want to create sympathetic characters. In the name of realism, and to distance himself from Dickens, James populates his pleasant sentences with pleasant frauds. To take just one example, of the three main characters in Wings of the Dove, none are people you would want to spend a moment with, and yet you spend an entire novel with them. Not even the cinema and three pretty actors (including Helena Bonham-Carter) and glorious locations could make this watchable or bearable. Apparently it takes E. M. Forster to make Helena bearable on film, and this only with great editing and cinematic fluffing and a vanfull of wigs.

Many of the other contenders on the Modern Library list are small novels like Tropic of Cancer, Deliverance, Portnoy's Complaint, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, all famous for sex scenes (and three of them banned). Again, we have a clear sign of the adolescence of the century. Modern criticism has been very impressed by the “transgressive” writer, and sex in the 20th century was always seen as transgressive, at least in the US and UK. Novels like this were never popular in Europe, since modern Europeans don't see sex as transgressive. This may be why Nabokov had to come here to become famous. He couldn't have hoped to get banned in France. Colette's Gigi, considered extremely tame and old-fashioned by the French, would have been banned here in the 40's and 50's, if the churches had gotten wind of it in its original form. It would be banned now, by the feminists as well as the churches, if anyone tried to make an age-accurate movie or play from it.

The French never found Henry Miller especially heroic for having sex, or talking about it. Despite being in Paris, Miller could not possibly be more American in his desperate attempt to “justify” sexuality and pleasure. Americans in the 20th century, no matter what port they were writing from, were either frigid or pornographic: there was nothing in between. They were not capable of honest reaction, because they were always in reaction. They were either running furiously away from sex or furiously toward it, so that they could never see it from a point of stillness. For the reader who has had a lot of sex and pleasure with people he actually likes, Lawrence or Miller or Nin or Roth or any of the rest could not be more tiresome or transparent. They are not tiresome because they are so freely un-Christian or anti-capital, they are tiresome because they are so shackled by their need to respond to culture, to “put a gob of spit in the eye of art.” A real artist does not spit in the eye of art, he makes better art. I admire George Orwell, but his praise of Miller can only be read as a clue to his own sexual problems. There is nothing to praise in Miller beyond sexual bravery, but sexual bravery only impresses those who aren't having sex.

Likewise with Roth. Only the repressed would want to read a list of someone else's habits, or write about their own. Just look at the definition of Portnoy's complaint: “A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” That the committee chose this novel to represent Roth proves my point: the greatest good in the 20th century was transgression, and Roth was following Miller into predictable fame among the adolescents. At least Miller pretended he was beyond this war between sex and ethics, claiming to have won it. But the Indians knew 2000 years ago that there is no such thing as sexual perversion beyond non-consent or incest, or any possible war between ethics and sex. The war is a false one, sold by Judeo-Christianity, and not less unsavory when sold tongue-in-cheek by a modern writer. Roth does not end the war, he extends it, and doesn't even broaden it in extending it. The Jewish and Christian religions used the fake war to turn the psyche, but Roth only cheapens the psyche. The method has been taken from the madness.

As for Deliverance, I am sick to death of seeing it on these lists. I think it wouldn't be there but for the scene of sodomy, and I see Richard Howard's monocle fogging over. This is supposed to be a manly novel, but it is the opposite. To begin with, modern straight men don't sodomize eachother at gunpoint in forests, “hillbilly” or no. The scene is completely unbelievable, except for those who want badly to believe it. Yes, men have consensual sex in forests, in which case it is happily gay; or they have violent sex in prisons, in which case it is unhappily gay; but they don't walk around in the wild with guns, looking for other men to sodomize. The novel is a ridiculous Freudian wishlist for closet homosexuals, complete with bows and arrows and lots of gratuitous violence. The modern novel is a sad commentary on the sad sexual lives people lead, straight and gay. The 22nd century will, I hope, look back on our centuries like we look back on the Victorians. We can't understand how Freud, among the most enlightened, could see fellatio as shocking and bestial, and they won't understand how we could be titillated by Women in Love and Tropic of Cancer and Deliverance.

Even Sophie's Choice, a better novel in many ways than these others, falls to this criticism. Kevin Kline tells us in the liner notes that he and Meryl wanted to do the pissing scene. He, like Styron, is showing us how hairy his balls are, and no doubt Meryl's are hairy, too. But the scene is gratuitous in the book and would have been twice as gratuitous in the movie, taking everything into consideration. Half the pages and ideas in Styron's book are gratuitous, but he can't leave anything out. He can't edit his “genius”. Novelists before Lawrence knew that you don't have to tell the reader everything. Hardy didn't need to tell us of Tess' every flush. Dostoevsky didn't have to detail Alyosha's every wet dream, Ivan's every jerk. A good novel is about mood as much as anything, and a complete realism at all points cannot maintain a mood.

Hardy himself died on these very rocks, trying to prove his modern grit by manufacturing unease in Jude the Obscure. In order to increase the tragedy he put all the murderous disease of the century into the mind of a child, where it could not possibly exist. In one disastrous scene, he destroyed the children, the novel and himself as a novelist. He never wrote another novel, and we may be thankful he didn't.

Unfortunately, others took over where he left off, and the modern novel has become a stringing together of manufactured disasters: murders and rapes and accidents of fantastic shape and feature, from Clyde pitching Roberta from the canoe to John's mother being killed by an Owen Meany line drive. What started with small casts of slightly loathsome characters, as in Wings of the Dove in 1902, became large casts of completely loathsome characters, as in you name it after 1920. The only thing that is more tiresomely inartistic than sexual bragging is manufactured tragedy, especially when it is not tragic. Clyde Griffiths, for example (in the mis-titled An American Tragedy, 1925), is not a tragic figure, he is an ambitious little punk and the murderer of his {common law} wife and child. Dreiser tries to manufacture “pathos” at the end with the letters to mamma, but doesn't even achieve bathos. One is left with no real emotion, except perhaps the desire to bash both Clyde and Dreiser in the face with a camera.

We could say the same of Appointment in Samarra, which, due to the choice of characters, produces no tragedy or pathos. We can't wait for the bastard to kill himself and we cheer when he does so. We only wish he had taken the rest of the town out with him, along with the author. O'Hara is trying to one-up Fitzgerald, and does so by creating a cast that is even less sympathetic than Gatsby's clan. A nuclear bomb could hit in scene one act one in either novel and save us a lot of reading time.

This has become the default mode of the modern novel. It is difficult to create likable characters, of the Copperfield or Little Nell variety, and is passé to boot, so why try? Far easier to juggle a cast of assholes, since this will be immediately pegged as “realistic.” When they all die or commit suicide or get gang raped at the end, we won't have to shed a tear, either. We will simply comment on the justice of it all, although we don't believe in that kind of justice.

“Serious” writers and critics always bemoan the fact that The Lord of the Rings is so popular, but Tolkien had a talent none of them have: creating characters you want to see alive on the next page. In the modern novel you only turn the page to see who will be bloodied or brutalized next, you rush from death to death, from murder to suicide, and greet each demise with relish: you can't wait for each sorry bastard to meet his maker in the gruesomest fashion imaginable. But with Tolkien you hope to see your friends on the next page, whole and safe. How retro! How backwards! How utterly un-modern and uncool and unrealized! How unrealistic! Realism is hoping everyone dies as soon as possible, with maximum pain and remorse.

Yes, the moderns have a very queer notion of realism. We can trace this all the way back to Flaubert, and the fame of Madame Bovary. Madame was not likable, and no one else in the novel was either, but the sentences were so perfect, and the French people so ahead of their time and modernly self-loathing, it had to be a masterpiece. Zola followed in this line, creating realistic portraits of despicable or boring people, and the English language novelists soon took up the torch. James inherited the boring part, and Dreiser inherited the despicable part. Sister Carrie, 1900, is just Madame Bovary in the new century. In 1900 as in 1856, being a “kept woman” was almost as good as anal sex, and the first edition of Dreiser's first novel was released in a textbook cover to fool the censors. Fifty years later the author and publisher would have begged to be banned, knowing what that would do to sales, but promotion was in its infancy then.

Now, almost 110 years later, Carrie looks just as naïve and backwards as Madame, since we have perfected the loathsome cast. Carrie's ability to transgress is relatively poor. Turn of the century Chicago looks like an episode of Bewitched compared to modern day New York or London or Los Angeles. Carrie's idiocies and shallownesses are nothing next to the sins on display in American Psycho or The End of Alice or Made in the USA. All in the name of realism.

But consider that the definition of “fiction” is "not real". Non-fiction is reality, and fiction is supposed to be the other category. As Whistler told us in his Ten o'clock Lecture, “Nature seldom succeeds in producing a picture.”

The sun blares, the wind blows from the east, the sky is bereft of cloud, and without, all is of iron. The windows of the Crystal Palace are seen from all points of London. The holiday-maker rejoices in the glorious day, and the painter turns aside to shut his eyes.

Whistler was not recommending fantasy or surrealism, understand. He was recommending an aesthetic arrangement of reality—“as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.” Realism in art and fiction is a mistaken goal. Tolstoy knew this before the modern age, and warned us of it in What is Art?

When we appraise a work according to its realism we only show that we are talking not of a work of art but of its counterfeit.

The painter should not compete with the photographer and the novelist should not compete with the documentarian. The iron sky is already there daily: why paint it? Sister Carries and Madame Bovarys can be met by the dozens, if one desires; why read about them? Clyde Griffiths was based on Chester Gillette, whose trial had already appeared in the papers. Why read a falsified account when you can read the true one? If realism is the goal, wouldn't you learn more from the actual events? What is realistic about a falsified account, trying to make us feel what we would not feel from the real events? This is not what Whistler meant by selection. It is one thing to arrange a harmony and an entirely other thing to dress a disharmony as a harmony. One is art, the other, propaganda.

We see this again with Native Son, Richard Wright's bastardization of Steinbeck's vastly superior Of Mice and Men, published just three years earlier. Seeing how Steinbeck created sympathy for Lennie, Wright tried to do the same for Bigger Thomas, but it fails miserably. Wikipedia says, “While not apologizing for Bigger's crimes, Wright is sympathetic to the systemic inevitability behind them.” No, Wright tries to manufacture this “systemic inevitability”, but cannot because we know that almost all poor black men in Chicago's South Side ghettos did not and do not “accidentally” kill white ladies, saw them up and burn them, and then rape and kill their own girlfriends. Unlike Steinbeck's murder scene, Wright's is not believable. The action is not credible, much less inevitable. The plot is so poorly executed, Wright's story comes off as an insult to black men, not as an excuse for them. The black man, as represented by the large and stupid Bigger, can't help but be a criminal, even when he has no intent to be. The violence, rather than being tragic or cathartic or poignant, is again gratuitous. Since the violence is gratuitous and the inevitability manufactured, the moral of the story is ungrounded, which makes it propaganda. We have not learned a lesson, we have been pushed over a fake line by pure force, by the inability to stop reading.

I think I have now bludgeoned, raped, and suicided a greater part of the list and can feel somewhat avenged for the weeks and months of my life wasted reading this critically acclaimed garbage. We think that our children are warped by TV and Hollywood, but consider the high school and college English classes, and the reading lists we assault them with. I say this not as a Christian moralist, but as an artist. The only consolation I take is that at least the lists in high school don't include Roth or Miller or Lawrence or Dreiser or Ellis or Faber or Homes or Letts: the kids go straight to internet porn, and thank god for that. If they are especially healthy and lucky, they skip the porn and find a nice lover, but, American teenage life being what it is, that is rare. Most don't have a chance of that until college, and many never find it.

I maintained sanity as a teenager not by reading transgressive novels but by lusting naturally after Samantha Stephens or Jan Brady, and if I had been privy to Jan or Sam nude, in life or photos, so much the better. It is not being introduced to sexuality that is warping for kids, it is being introduced to propaganda posing as art, and bad art posing as good art. Henry Miller and his promoters are the ones who deserve a gob of spit in the eye, not for being immoral but for passing off formless journals as something special. The entire artistic and literary establishments should be shunned, not as transgressive, immoral, or perverse, but as boring, inartistic, and false. They should be shunned because the museums are empty of real art, the poetry journals are bereft of poetry, and the novels don't tell interesting stories or contain interesting ideas. You might as well buy a car that that doesn't have a steering column, tires, or a gastank.

Tom Wolfe predicted we would see a reversal of this at the turn of the century, but he was wrong. We have seen no reaction, no return to sympathetic characters and well told tales. No return to beautiful paintings or inspired poems or any displays of real genius. Just more effort to shock and transgress, more montages of nothing, more solipsism, more mental masturbation, more rehashed plots, more stale platitudes, more remakes of things never properly made to start with, and more absurd critical claims of relevance. Yes, the margins contain a few blips here and there, as always, but the mainstream refuses to notice them and they quickly flicker and pass. They pass while the major outlets continue to press us with a million forms of propaganda and fake art. We have to hear a long loud drumroll for each new infinite jest, but hear not a plink for any new finite seriousness. Robert Hughes can complain of a Schnabel, but he can't locate a new Chardin. Wolfe can promise us a new Renaissance, but cannot find anything to promote but himself. Schjeldahl assures of the continued brilliance of culture, but confirms it only with a re-show of Ryman's white canvases from the 60's. Feminism brags of the rise of the female, but then offers us Eve Ensler as proof. In truth there is no rise of anything, male or female, in the mainstream, only a quick decline to newer and newer negative numbers. Charles Demuth, alive today, would be painting ever larger negative fives, and Jasper Johns should be painting gray noughts and sub-noughts. John Currin has graduated from unintentionally illustrating Charles Bukowski's Women to accidentally illustrating Portnoy's Complaint. As for literature, the novel is far from any nadir, and we can only expect worse. Yes, Dubuffet gave us the completely fake book in 1962, but that was considered visual art, not literature. No one has yet done a John Cage sitting-on-the-piano cleverness with the novel, and we have the blank poem and novel to look forward to: the white page or stained page or slashed page or cum-splattered page as the New York Times bestseller in fiction. The novel that opens physically like a Bruce Nauman skit, with a pie in the eye or squirt of piss or a looped laughtrack. Thirty bucks in hardback for a coffee-table book that proves you are avant, by containing only sheep's entrails or a used condom or Hunter S. Thompson's left testicle.

So much to look forward to! "Vere do vee begin?"

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