Author Don’t Preach

I like Michael Chabon, generally.  The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—my favorite, far and away—has a blisteringly vivid and authentic tone and trajectory, and one of the things I’ll be grieving this Yom Kippur is the Coen Brothers’ eventual decision not to make a film of it.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay was also a virtuoso performance, and for the young-adult market Summerland (fantasy world meets baseball) is at the heartwarming top of the heap.  The Final Solution was nicely crafted and elegant (though Gentlemen of the Road rather tepid), etc.  Chabon is someone whose work I’ve really enjoyed.

That said, when he writes in his own voice, it can go all wrong.  Exhibit A would be Manhood for Amateurs, a pathetic, narcissistic nerd-boy writer’s barroom tell-all (he’s drinking the Bud Lite his agent bought him, because he’ll never believe he’s over 21) under the guise of self-humanization.  Chabon the writer is so one with the novelist’s craft that his truest writing is found in the speech of his characters: all the goods the reader needs + a dialogue guy’s natural parsimony, and he almost always gets it right. Contrariwise, when he thinks he’s writing honestly (no, I haven’t read everything; I’m no completist), he sounds faux-authentic and hollow.  As there are currently no good bookstores in my town, I was unaware that he had a new novel out, and so—unaware of Telegraph Avenue—read Phil’s Apocalypse Music History post, with its lengthy quote from the G-Bad character, with interest.

With respect (that phrase is hippie-Buddhist-ese, right?  I mean that I don’t want this to become a fist-fight but I’m actually willing): I cannot imagine a superrich Black ex-football hero calling himself “G-Bad” who would deliver himself of a soliloquy anything like this.  We get, in short order, 1) thick cultural context about the relevant sociologies; 2) historical exempla in the form of foundational (and, conveniently, favorite) recordings; 3) the undergraduate professor’s traditional disclaimer of “I don’t have all the answers, but…”; and 4) that envoy about what happens to those who lose their culture: “Like those Indians down in Mexico nowadays, skinny-ass, bean-eating motherfucker sleeping with his goat on top of a rock used to be a temple that could predict what time a solar eclipse was going to happen”?  This is a tarted-up, upper-class white guy’s meticulously posed and calibrated O Tempora O Mores! lament, the Tradition’s cri de coeur, and it seems that the best Chabon could do was pepper his Blackface script with four-letter words and rage in a lame ploy for verisimilitude.  Really, this was prodigiously tin-eared.

The message itself, I assume, is what Chabon would say were he guest lecturing, and I suppose it would be OK in that context.  To the extent that I can judge it without having read the novel up to that point: in the mouth of a character—the character to whom the author has clearly given the responsibility of Preaching The Truth—it sucks.  I lived in Oakland for two years (yes, I know that Chabon lives next door in Berkeley with his family, but still—please) and didn’t hear talk like this.  For heaven’s sake, command-D!  Still, that doesn’t address the “musicological question” to which Phil referred, which for me is also a less-there-than-meets-the-eye matter.  Phil observed:

This is the great narrative of postmodernism, isn’t it? Living in the ruins, picking through the unmeaning fragments of a vanished high culture and sticking them together in alien bricolage, like Coke cans and Brillo boxes on a cargo cult altar. (And, very postmodernly, we’re not at all sure about the causes, or even whether things have causes, anymore.)

The point reads well and goes down smoothly…except for me, because I might just be the only one who thinks things are less fragmented now than previously, or at least that an equal number of anecdotal observations (all there is in the way of “proof,” really) can be brought to either view.  Think of German states, tribes, language groups, English dialects etc.—all heading pell-mell for homogeneity since at least the nineteenth century.  (I could be cheap and say “think of different philosophical positions in the Republican party, but—as the redoubtable statesman Richard Nixon put it—That Would Be Wrong.)  Global finance, multinational corporations, countries with global policies in addition to regional and local and internal ones…what, precisely, is fragmented, again?  Families?  As social historians and gender theorists rightly point out, the family has always been in flux, and what retrospectively looks like or is spun like unity and stability was hardly that.  Music, culture?  There were always borrowings and prismatic reimaginings, even pastiches of High and Low that subsequently became either All High or All Low, depending on cultural drift.  Our workdays, powers of concentration, and psyches?  Maybe less fragmented than now, but was ten hours at the same industrial-revolution task preferable?  For myself, I am disinclined to lament the cultural complexities facing and troubling us when they are put up against a wretched, liberty-poor life spent confidently believing the doctrines dictated by religious leaders and the propaganda political leaders and overlords commanded, and then…y’know, dying.  A little fragmentation or at least problematization of some aspects of life is not at all a bad thing by comparison, I think, and I’m not going to join the Expressionists and their Postmodern followers in an orgy of existential terror.

Weirdly, though, Postmodernism has become a kind of conventional wisdom, purveyed by Authority Figures (sometimes =intellectuals, cultural theorists, etc.) and slop-culture, TV- and Internet-type Friendly Friends alike.  But does the entire idea of postmodern fragmentation really stand up, if we put it next to the lives of previous generations—nasty brutish, and short? “Living in the ruins” (Phil’s fair characterization of this line of thought) is not new; it’s the unwelcome corollary of the millennia-old Golden Age Fallacy: since it was Good Then, it’s Awful Now.  As a label, Postmodernism has been vaguely and sloppily applied for decades—after something, skeptical something, resistantly read something, we’re the Generation Z-ers of, y’know, culture, and we’re special by virtue of being after the chimæric Modernism or whatever it was that came before that we don’t, y’know, really understand.  We’re after it, though.

So it is not clear to me how Postmodernism amounts to anything beyond privileging ME, the self, despite the absence of any actual belief, philosophical, or aesthetic movement.  So the character G-Bad’s admission, “I’m not going to blame nobody, and I don’t know what the reason is, because I haven’t studied it, and like with everything misfortunate in life, I bet there’s ten, twelve reasons for musical civilization getting wiped out by this here particular firestorm,” is an academic’s desperate protestation of fairness, delivered with all the believability of a ritualized, self-exculpatory “just sayin’” that follows any other rant.  “Postmodernism” is a more convenient and real-sounding label than “Plus ça change,” and the morbid self-awareness in current cultural thought militates against being for something risky if you can instead “critique” (scare quotes intentional) someone else, or a preexistent position.  (Academic satire of the past few decades has made this abundantly clear, as had academic criticism.)  Phil closes by summarizing two perspectives:

Guénon liked to say that modernity is the fulfillment of the Vedic “kali yuga,” the degenerate age of man in which the wholeness of meaning breaks into pieces. For the neo-traditionalists, that is the meaning vouchsafed by God and manifested in a static hierarchical social order; for modernists, the kali yuga of postmodernism represents the breaking of another kind of meaning, that of history and the integral Work. Either way, neo-traditionalist or modernist, we’re dealing with the apocalypse.

The best part about the Apocalypse On The Horizon is, you should excuse me, the urgency it lends to Me and My Work; I get to be the Seer, intoning great truths in my mystical and hermetic language of Cultural Criticism.  But seriously, folks: in which age could one have depended on a “wholeness of meaning,” and was Man not degenerate?  Precisely speaking, did “the integral work” as a concept really even approach a century’s currency, and even at that in very limited circles?  History as inviolate—how actualized was that?!

Admission: I have never, since graduate school, been able to convince myself that such criticism is serious, even to those writing it.  I can’t get past the feeling that Postmodernism seems rather too close to the highly theatrical and somewhat adolescent engagement with the hobbyhorses/dragons of one’s youth.  Look, he slew Authority!  Then, the Autonomous Artwork!  Then, High Culture!  But seriously, did such two-dimensional constructs ever really hold sway outside of pre-concert lectures?

I studied with no tyrants, and my parents weren’t tyrannical either.  So as I prepare for a new semester, the dragons others seem to need to slay are to me like members of a large and disparate family.  The creatures of the past are, in a sense, my world—or at least my discipline—but given historical realities I see no reason not to love the cultural future as I do the cultural past: some puzzlement, much criticism, but no rent garments, no apocalypse on the horizon.  Just Day 1: Monday, August 26, 2013.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to Author Don’t Preach

  1. philphord says:

    Did you just pan a novel you admit to not having read?

  2. No, I panned the crap out of the one lengthy passage I read because you posted it, and then I proceeded to other issues you raised. Did I say anything about the rest of the novel? Actually, I said I should read it. But the passage in which you found much to discuss did, indeed, set me off.

    So how is it that your comment is clocked “at 7:51 pm” and my watch tells me it’s currently 5:06 Eastern Time. Even were you in Halifax it would be 6:03. Are you in the middle of the Atlantic?

  3. philphord says:

    Well, the problem is this:

    “The message itself, I assume, is what Chabon would say were he guest lecturing, and I suppose it would be OK in that context. To the extent that I can judge it without having read the novel up to that point: in the mouth of a character—the character to whom the author has clearly given the responsibility of Preaching The Truth—it sucks.”

    It is a huge and unwarranted assumption that this is “what Chabon would say were he guest lecturing,” and you could only argue the point meaningfully one way or the other if you had the context that came of actually reading the book. This is why I asked people who had read the book whether they thought G-Bad was actually saying what he thinks, or saying what he thinks would flatter Archy, the guy he’s talking to. Because a few pages on, after G-Bad has tried repeatedly to convince Archy to come work for him — dressing the gig up as a kind of mission of cultural retrieval and then playing on the memory of the black servicemen who died in the Port Chicago explosion — Archy clearly is having none of it.

    “Giving me a history lesson,” Archy observed.” “Going to tell me now’s my chance to make history as the presidente for life of the Cochise Jones Department of the Oakland Dogpile Thang. And strike a blow for the race by bailing out on my white oppressor, on the Man who was forcing my grandaddy to load so many carpet bombs so fast that he came raining down in pieces.”

    “I might have been headed in that direction,” Goode said, rubbing his chin, little crooked smile. “Be honest, I was pretty much scrambling.”

    And all this seems to take back everything he had just said. (Unless the concession at the end is just a tactical concession, some deeper layer of obfucation of a player whose game is who knows how many layers deep.) So we actually have no idea what G-Bad thinks, or whether what his living-in-the-ruins stuff is supposed to read as deep-dyed bullshit or something real. There’s much more to say about this passage, and about the character of Gibson Goode (for one thing, whether he is supposed to be a realistic character any more than Marsellus Wallace was), and about the novel’s skein of motifs related to artistic quotation, quotation in a media age, record collectors and their hoarding of time, the cultural collections represented by the films of Quentin Tarantino, the echoes between QT’s films and this novel itself, etc., but until you read the whole novel, there’s no point in having that conversation.

  4. Pingback: Reading about postmodernism – a few thoughts… | i love this blog because it feels like home...

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