Monday, October 29, 2007

Logos Macabre

With Halloween nearly upon the non-Jewish world (its one of the few secular Western holidays which is essentially non-existent in Israel, presumably because its pagan roots are so blatantly obvious and so obviously foreign) I was drawn to this blog post by a fellow who doesn't particularly care for Stephen King. He seems conflicted about trying to explain why, since he adores the horror genre and appreciates King's often spirited defense thereof. I have to admit to being somewhat sympathetic. I also love the horror genre (at least, the best of the genre) and I believe it contains, in Poe and Lovecraft, two of the greatest and most consistently underrated modern writers. Nonetheless, I have to take an event less generous attitude towards the aforementioned King. The truth is, he is a terrible writer; and possibly the worst thing that ever happened to the horror genre.

In purely financial terms, this is obviously untrue. If King has accomplished anything, he's brought the horror genre out of the remainder bins and the pulp magazines and put it on the bestseller lists. Through the numerous adaptations of his work, he's also made horror cinema something more than a cult subset of genre cinema and turned it into blockbuster material. In the process, however, he has written some of the worst horror fiction of the 20th century.

When one says such things, it behooves one to be charitable at the outset. Not all of King's work is heinously bad. Some of his short stories (especially the early ones) are surprisingly brilliant, and are both genuinely frightening and stylistically interesting. The early collection Night Shift, in particular, contains some hidden gems, such as the hallucinogenic and marvelously manipulative "Strawberry Spring." His novels, however, and they have grown worse as he gets older, are barely readable, and reading them is often akin to literary root canal.

There are several reasons for this, one of them being King's godawful prose style. With the exception of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, he writes the most excruciating prose in the English language today. Replete with meaningless clich├ęs, belabored pop cultural references, desperate attempts to transcribe the vernacular, and a clumsy syntax which attempts to emulate interior thought processes through the redolent use of italics; reading King is one of those distinctly unhappy experiences in which the reader gets the rare sense that the author is not only dumber than he is, but isn't even trying to prove otherwise.

This shortcoming of King’s becomes particularly egregious when one considers his predecessors. Poe, for instance, created a prose style so original that he inspired, beginning with Baudelaire, an entire generation of French poets. Lovecraft’s pseudo-archaic style is equally unique; and in the moments of horror, Lovecraft’s torrents of rapturously heinous adjectives are so overwhelmingly terrifying that one barely breathes at the climax of his tales. To a great extent, the freedom that genre bequeaths to its practitioners allows them to anticipate innovations and perversions which mainstream writers will not achieve for decades to come. King, on the other hand, is not only pedestrian, but consciously and aggressively so. As such, he abrogates the one quality that makes genre literature so important and so bracingly original: because it is marginal, it is also liberated. King, I fear to say, is literature in chains of its own making.

To be charitable, however, King does have his virtues. As a friend of mine, and an ardent King fan, once put it; the man spins a great yarn; a quality often cited by his fans against his detractors. There is no doubt that it is sometimes difficult to put down a Stephen King book once one has started it. There is also no doubt, however, that it is sometimes difficult to pick up a Stephen King book once one is halfway through. The primary reason for this, in my opinion, is King’s insistence on character; an indication of his deference to conventional literary norms as well as, perhaps, a hint that he is not nearly as dedicated to his genre as he pretends.

The question of character is one of those literary phenomena which is accepted without thinking by most readers and most critics. Any great novel, it is assumed, must have good characters. In fact, character, or rather too much of it, is a dangerous thing, and should be dealt with cautiously by any writer; all the more so, in fact, when the literature in question is genre literature. And most especially, I think, in the horror genre.

The reason for this is that the horror genre is not about character. The horror genre is about fear. If it becomes about anything else; it becomes diluted, formless, and impotent. Consider, for instance, the shining light of the genre, Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” There are, for all intents and purposes, no characters in the story. Or, more precisely, there is a complete lack of characterization. The only named character in the story, Prince Prospero, is drawn in the sketchiest terms. We know nothing of his background, his psychological makeup, his possibly unhappy childhood, etc. We do not know this because we do not need to know this; and because were Poe to include it, it would turn his horror into banality. The truth is, it does not matter who Prince Prospero is or what he does, beyond his brief and desperate actions on the night in question. What is important, to Poe and to all the great practitioners of the genre, is, appropriately, horror; and the topography of horror, the architecture in which horror takes place. Poe’s primary concern in this story, as in most of his other masterworks, is the setting, the multi-colored rooms, the plague-ridden princedom, the macabre costumes of the doomed revelers, the clock inexorably counting down to the dark hour when darkness and decay and the Red Death will hold illimitable dominion over all. Poe understood, as did Lovecraft after him, that to impute character into horror would suffocate the horror itself. The lack of characterization allows the horror to breath; it allows fear to swell into the empty spaces of the tale, infusing it with the raw experience of terror. It is the violence of this immediacy that gives the horror genre its extraordinary power; without it, it is nothing more than macabre puppetry.

King, I fear to say, is the ultimate practitioner of such puppetry. He does have talent for the topography of horror. Whether it is the haunted townships of Castle Rock and Jerusalem’s Lot, or the hotel of horrors in The Shining; but these dark spaces are brightly lit by their egregious interlopers. King’s usual character, a dysfunctional writer grappling with his psychological demons through his experience of horror, is not only uninteresting; he is an obstacle to the true experience of fear. Obsessed as he is with alcoholism, loneliness, childhood traumas, and all the other banal neuroses of middle-class America; King seems perennially unable to simply allow the horror to do its job. The result, unfortunately, is that King’s novels are gripping until the moment they are put down or finished; afterwards, they disappear entirely, as though they never existed. The great ones, Poe and Lovecraft among them, grow more portentous and more horrifying in the recollection of them; and there are few indeed who will shake off Poe’s final image of the castle of corpses, presided over only by the omniscient hand of the final conqueror; or Lovecraft’s heinous revelations of other beings from the depths of infinity itself.

King, on the other hand, is instantly forgettable, not because we do not care about his characters, but because we do not care about his horror. The reason for this may be that King does not truly care about his horror either. His clumsy attempts at depth of character, psychological insight, and even the odd political theme, indicate an author deeply ambivalent about the virtues of his own genre, and a (barely) suppressed desire for mainstream respectability. This is perhaps, the secret to King’s extraordinary success, as well as his ultimate inability to escape mediocrity.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Inscrutable Angst of Little Round Headed Kids

Unlike some, I will not say that I was ever Charlie Brown. That is too easy a self-pitying look back across a troubled childhood. I was equal parts Linus and Snoopy, although I think some of my imaginative flights of fancy outdid even the great beagle. "Peanuts", thankfully, remains one of the few relics of my childhood which can still be enjoyed as something more than a guilty pleasure. Unlike the Star Wars trilogy or the Hardy Boys mysteries, which now appear mystifyingly dull and childish, there remains a marvelously deflated innocence in the "Peanuts" universe; one which often appears to me as some perverse, contradictory creation which is simultaneously utterly innocuous and near-terrifying in its implications. Looking at it now, it reads like an episode of the most odious, cliched sitcom imaginable which has been somehow rewritten by Samuel Beckett. Perhaps this strange contradiction is the secret of its wide appeal.

A new biography of the strip's creator apparently reveals a newly comforting look at the strip and its creator. The author of this review is disappointed by the destuction of her childhood illusions
Some readers may feel much the same after finishing Michaelis' biography. Not, however, about the affair with Claudius, which was heartfelt and, in its own small way, tragic. Schulz was no philanderer, though he was prone to crushes on "distant princesses" (c.f., Charlie Brown's little red-headed girl). Rather, it's learning about the depressive, anxious, detached, resentful, self-defeating and self-deceiving personality of the comic strip's creator that's likely to puzzle and sadden some of those who grew up with "Peanuts."
These revelations of lifelong unhappiness and extramarital dalliance may upset some, but I find them strangely comforting. It is somehow comforting to know that one's suspicions that there is something more than mere charming whimsy going on in a still admired piece of childhood literature are confirmed. Of course, some of these are not really revelations. Schultz never made much of a secret of the fact that the oft-noted despair of his work was deeply ingrained in his own psyche. Which was, of course, the secret to his creation's highly unusual success. Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of "Peanuts" success is the fact that it is nearly unique among the icons of American popular culture in that it is fundamentally pessimistic. While American literature has sometimes embraced pessimism, its popular culture is almost uniformly dedicated to optimism. Not only does "Peanuts" have no happy endings, it has no endings whatsoever. The Sisyphean cycle of missed footballs and kite-eating trees continues on infinitely. It is fitting that Schultz ended the strip without tying up any of its loose ends. A baseball game won or a Great Pumpkin seen would have untied the Gordian knot that made "Peanuts", even in its later years, a thing of mottled greatness.

Perhaps "Peanuts" remains popular because it touches on one of the unspoken anxieties of America, something that is rarely understood by foreigners: the sense of infinitude, of unendingness to a continent so vast that it can never be grasped or even truly concieved of. On the two coasts, perhaps, there is a sense of a world bordered by the sea. But in the vast, unknowable interior which is nine-tenths of the American land mass and thus nine-tenths of its soul, there is that sense of a horizon which never ends, of being wrapped about by an infinitude which echoes the infinitude of death and the universe beyond. Fitzgerald described it as the place where "the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night." Indeed they do, on midwestern nights, the land and the sky merge and one has the sense of traveling through an illimitable ocean without beginning or end.

To return to the mundane, it is clear that "Peanuts" takes place in that overwhelming interior, where the vast aimlessness of the land and the sky push the individual towards contemplation of a world which seems as indifferent and uncaring as it is impossibly enormous. The simple stone wall on which Charlie Brown and Linus regularly discourse on the meaninglessness of life's small degradations is a weak, artifical barrier against this feeling of an alien enormity.

But it is mistaken, and not merely pretentious, to see "Peanuts" as a kind of existential fairy tale. Existentialism proposes action before essence. "Peanuts" sees action as meaningless and degrading, a perpetual dash for a football which is always pulled away at the last moment. And really, if the football were finally kicked, what would it matter? Charlie Brown is beloved and heroic (he is undoubtedly a rare brand of hero, but a hero nonetheless) because despite his many humiliations, he is utterly and undeniably good. What saves "Peanuts" from being a flaccid morality tale is the fact that his goodness guarantees neither happiness nor success. Indeed, it often prevents him from achieving either of them. But Charlie Brown's goodness is unshakable. It is as real a part of him as his enormous, impossibly circular cranium. Charlie Brown's endless grief is nonetheless redeemed in the eyes of the reader because of how deeply touching it is to see good persist in the face, not of evil, but of emptiness and futility.

This futility is the source of the strip's humor. The truth is that "Peanuts" was never particularly funny. Its humor lies in the absurd; the absurdity of the situations and circumstances in which its characters find themselves. What gives the strip its primal force is the fact that, good or bad, each of its primary characters is possessed of an interior, incorporeal, unshakablesoul. They are, in short, undeniably and achingly human. The most prominent emotion in "Peanuts" is a sort of pleasurable sadness; a melancholy which leads us to a kind of warmth; a comfort which is all the more real for its unsparing despair.

In this sense, "Peanuts" may be the most truly American creation of the 20th century; and it is fitting that it should take place in such an aggressively democratic medium as the comic strip. Its fundamental image, that of a modest yet inescapable good faced with an implacable emptiness, may sometimes appear cliched, pat and arbitrary; but to rid ourselves of it would be a loss not only for the child within us, but also for the adult who has forsaken nostalgia without foregoing the willingness to look upon things with eyes not yet ready to accept a complete divorce from the possibility of a simple happiness.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Inevitability of Neoconservatism

Joshua Muravchik has a new article in Commentary defending the neoconservative movement from its many, often hysterical, critics. His argument boils down to this
In sum, the most persuasive criticisms of the Iraq war—that we sent too small a force, that we erred in dismantling the Iraqi state, that we would have been wiser to concentrate on Iran—do nothing to impeach neoconservatism. And as for the criticisms that do aim at the distinctly neoconservative tenets of the war—that we should have deferred to the UN, that we should have avoided resorting to force, that we should not have tried to bring democracy to Iraq—none is persuasive.
I'm not entirely convinced of this. There is certainly a case to be made that Iraq is not ready for and/or does not want democracy, which is their business to a certain extent. Of course, once that lack of democracy reaches the point where is foments terrorism it becomes very much the business of others who may be potential targets. But this does not really mitigate the essential issue, which is that the War on Terror or a war with terror is happening and will continue to happen. The neoconservative perspective on that war will likely continue to guide the policy of the United States -- and indeed of others who would be loath to admit as much -- because it is, in fact, the only stance that the democratic world can plausibly adopt.

A war such as the one we are now engaged in presents, if one looks at it honestly, with very few options. We can simply cease to fight it, which is what much of the anti-neoconservative argument boils down to, and take the inevitable consequences; none of which are particularly attractive. On the other hand, we can engage in a scorched-earth policy towards the Middle East, ending in either the total decimation of that region or the installment of various dictators who will use extraordinary violence to suppress terror and radical Islam as well. This option is not only doomed to failure but is politically and morally untenable for democratic societies, in their current form at any rate.

This leaves no option except, interpreted broadly, the neoconservative option; or, at least, the option now identified with the neoconservatives. That is, military action against terror and terror supporting regimes combined with a conscious policy of democratization in the Muslim world. This need not take place solely through mass warfare. There are numerous other, perhaps better, options. On the other hand, there will come points at which mass warfare will be necessary, and perhaps even preferable to any other course of action.

Ultimately, any war against terrorism is an intelligence war, and that is likely where things are moving in the post-Iraq era now taking shape. This will have its own challenges, and democratic nations are going to have to embrace certain policies -- such as targeted assassinations -- with which they are inherently uncomfortable in order to win it. Nonetheless, such compromises may not appear so daunting when we contemplate the reality of capitulation, which is not nearly so attractive in the real world as it may appear in the ease and comfort of the abstract.

Monday, October 8, 2007

To My Anti-Chomskyite Comrades

My apologies for my long silence.  The good news is that I have been recently hired as the new assistant editor of Azure magazine, an achievement that I owe, in large part, to my previous blog and your loyal readership.  For that, I thank you.  Unfortunately, between getting settled in my new job and moving to Jerusalem, it has left me little time for blogging.  I hope to rectify that in the near future.  I have decided to move all my writing to this blog, so that I can deal with issues above and beyond anti-Chomskyism.

Due to my other commitments, posts will likely be fewer and farther between than in the past.  But I will endeavor to keep writing them.  Everything I have achieved thus far has been due to the blogosphere and your loyal support.  I have no intention of abandoning what I consider to be the freest and most exciting form of writing in the world today.  I hope you will continue to read and enjoy my small contributions to it.