New Piece Up At This Recording

Steven Augustine’s Berlin


Comparative Studies in the Psycho-Politicality of Blogging


The distinguished black academic Henry Louis Gates found himself  “boyed” by a cop in his own home, recently, as many of us now know. An interesting (and distressingly typical) response, of “white” males, to the story… even the “liberals”… is to opine that Gates was unwise in (presumably) back-talking authority. Ed Champion, a blogger famous for calling people he doesn’t agree with “douchebags”, intervened (as he has with me before) in a comment thread debate, on the Gates affair, by accusing me of “trolling”. The thread in its entirety (as of 11:34 CET) as follows:

[…] Those Who Resist the End of Racial Profiling […]

Bat of Moon on July 22nd, 2009 4:23 pm

I was shocked by some of the comments to a Gates post on the LAT’s Jacket Copy book blog. There’s definitely an attitude out there that Gates deserved his treatment because he talked back to a cop, wasn’t deferential — didn’t bow and tug his forelock, I ’spose. The cluelessness is shocking. (And “clueless” is the most charitable word I can come up with for it.)


Andy on July 22nd, 2009 4:36 pm

There’s a more nuanced look, that draws a similar conclusion, here:

It is, I think, a dumb idea to provoke a cop.


Steven Augustine on July 23rd, 2009 5:13 am

“It is, I think, a dumb idea to provoke a cop.”

It’s pretty dumb to fuck with the Klan, or neo-Nazis, too. People should definitely learn to be more docile in the face of potentially lethal authority wherever it is encountered. Gates should have said “yes sir, no sir!” in his own house while being bullied by a glorified security guard: that’s a no-brainer. It’s obvious that Gates’ body language and speech patterns are those of a hardened criminal and that the centurions therefore had no reason whatsoever to *not* jump to the conclusion that they were dealing with a felonious black-skinned niggra. Kudos to our quick-thinking troops.


Andy on July 23rd, 2009 1:15 pm

Well, I’ll leave it to you and Ed to behave belligerently toward “potentially lethal authority,” Steven. It’s not an endorsement of the actions of the police, or of their tacit policies, to suggest that the sane posture to take toward aggressive and armed men with the legal authority to use force is not necessarily the principled one. Sorry, there’s no quicker way to get a cop to put his hands on you than to tell him not to put his hands on you. And any further resistance is a chargeable offense, period, fair or unfair. You don’t have to be a University Professor at Harvard to know that there are better places to take your rage and better ways to seek redress.


Steven Augustine on July 23rd, 2009 2:23 pm

Andy, if no one’s brave enough to call the heavily-armed centurions on their ever-spreading attitude that “disrespecting” them is in and of itself a crime, how will the behavior stop? I think you (and the police) have forgotten what it is the police are supposed to do: protect the legally innocent from abuse… not expose them to it.


Andy on July 23rd, 2009 4:03 pm

I haven’t forgotten anything, Steven. Like I said, if you want to “call” the responding officer on his behavior, that’s your choice. You’ll have his foot on your back in a twinkling. I don’t quite understand the principle you’re defending. It’s too abstract for me. When a civilian is ordered to do something by a cop, or two cops, or more, the civilian has absolutely no leverage, irrespective of whether the civilian is in the right or not. It’s asking for humiliation, at best, beating and arrest at worst. You can’t be right, because the police decide what’s right. I don’t agree with it, it’s absolutely Orwellian, but that’s how it is, and that’s how it’s been since long before concepts like “Miranda warnings” and “probable cause” were admitted via the thin slit through which things gain entry to cops’ consciousness.


Steven Augustine on July 23rd, 2009 6:43 pm

“You’ll have his foot on your back in a twinkling.”

Well, people have been fire-hosed or billy-clubbed, by the police, for sitting at segregated lunch counters or swimming pools, too. It’s a mistake to assume those days are entirely over.

“You can’t be right, because the police decide what’s right.”

Uh, no, Andy. No.


Andy on July 23rd, 2009 9:58 pm

Good for you, Steven. Go for it.


DrMabuse on July 23rd, 2009 10:08 pm

Steven: You are trolling here. Knock it off. This is not the kind of bullshit I want to have on my blog. Andy has the right to his opinion. There’s no reason to badger him like this.


Steven Augustine on July 24th, 2009 3:20 am

Of course, Ed. Because you’re so gentle, circumspect, and never, yourself, pursue an argument. If only I had the class to follow your example. Next time someone disagrees with me, rather than respond (please note the absence of ad hominems in ALL of my comments), I’ll just forget my point and write “LOL”. Because nothing really matters, anyway. You’re just *pretending* to be passionate in your beliefs; you’re only passionate about your ego, obviously. I get it now.

Don’t bother banning me, you phony. Hope your fantasy as a “crusading journalist” pays off. LOL.


Is it really “trolling” to call attention to the faulty (and chilling) reasoning in Andy’s statement that “You can’t be right, because the police decide what’s right” ?

I’ve been referred to as a “troll”, or otherwise ripped into, by Ed and his followers before.  I wonder if anyone without a chip on his/her shoulder, or a hidden agenda, can read the comment thread above and find anything (before my valedictory remark; yes, I was irritated) that would qualify as “trolling”? Is any form of contentious response, or dissent, to be labeled “trolling”, now?I take the time to leave intelligent, carefully-considered comments; I only comment on issues I  A) feel strongly about and B) know enough about, in the first place, to comment usefully. I was under the impression that the definition of a “troll” is a commenter who attacks/disrupts/slanders for disruption’s own sake. Well, it’s a protean word. Ed Champion isn’t a “troll” for calling dozens of people “douchebag/retard/dipshit”… but I’m a “troll” for sticking up for the notion of Civil Rights in a comment thread appended to Ed Champion’s posting on… Civil Rights.

In contrast to my nasty experience of Ed’s apparent Bipolarity, I participated in a comment thread at Shapely Prose on the same topic. As a BOC (blogger of color), I first left a brief, supportive comment. Part of that comment seemed to be dismissed by another commenter and I left a longer, very carefully worded response. It is, after all, a subject close to me; I spent the first thirty years of my life adjusting to North American racism. Checking back on the thread a few hours later, I found that there’d been no response to my longer comment, and I thought: the irony’s too much! In a comment thread of (mostly) white females discussing a black man’s run-in with racism, I’m being ignored! I commented to that effect.

Rather than being banned for “trolling”, I got, instead, a half-a-dozen sincere apologies. An astonishing first in my ten years as a tiny voice of literary dissent/politically-critical thinking on the Net. More importantly, by addressing my complaint, the commenters made it clear to me that it wasn’t as simple as my POV being ignored/marginalized/anathematized… there were all kinds of other dynamics at work (or play).

Which I never would have known if we hadn’t all discussed the issue. In detail, even.

Following is the tail-end of the Shapely Prose “This is what happens to black men in America” comment thread, starting with the very moving (to my mind) apologies; the point being that these women weren’t even in the “wrong”,  but took the time to respond with more than a STFU. I then enjoyed the luxury of discussing the topic in depth with brainy types who weren’t invested in owning the topic. Was the level of discourse higher than the one at Ed Champion’s literary tractor pull? By orders of magnitude.

A rare pleasure:

  1. Steven Augustine, I’m sorry. I appreciated your comments, but about 99% of my comments on the second half of this thread have been trying to keep people from going down the rabbit hole, as opposed to expressing gratitude for the people saying smart things and adding value to the discussion. And of course, we did, in fact, go down the fucking rabbit hole since your last comment.

    So yeah, the whole thing about how white women discussing white women tends to silence the voices of POC? Exhibit A, folks.

  2. But… some of my best friends are white women!

  3. Well certainly, the history of race relations in Europe is just all around different than in the U.S. I think it makes sense that your experience there is very different, and that the kinds of racism you experienced might have been easier for you to live with than what you dealt with in the U.S. I don’t think it takes away from how others have experience racism in Europe for you to point that out, either (but neither does it erase their experiences).

  4. I had an interesting conversation with my s/o last night on this topic. He said that he had read an autobiography on cops and why they become cops. The author (and I apologise for the lack of specifics) said that cops essentially see themselves as hunters, not enforcers of justice. They are hunters, and they catch their prey. The book said that the cops do, for instance, wait on the Florida line and pull over any Latinos driving the speed limit, because they consider it basically as easy hunting for drug traffickers. Regardless of the fact that the majority of the people they pull over have nothing to do with the drug trade.

    Is it any wonder that, having been raised in a culture where a POC is considered “prey” by armed figures of authority, that there would spring a natural suspicion and/or hostility towards the “hunters”? The most obvious evidence of institutional racism is when innocent until proven guilty is suspended at the most basic level, but only for a select few, and only based on the color of their skin.

    Some people want to leap at one or two anectdotal examples of fair play, just so they can have the privilege of not thinking about it. But hey, so what if that particular and personal panacea is just an illusion? As long as you can sleep at night, right?

  5. Steven, I’ve actually been giving a lot of thought to your comment about visceral disgust. It was a real eye-opener to me mostly because it reminded me of how people react with disgust to fatness. I think there may be a whole different set of complicated baggage attached to racial disgust that has roots in shame and fear more so than fatphobia. Do you suppose that (white american) shame and fear is why you don’t sense the visceral hatred in your part of europe?

  6. fatsmartchick, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:13 pm Said:

    Steven I hope you didn’t think I was dismissing what you were saying with my post. Volcanista’s last post reminded me that I was assuming certain things didn’t need to be said when they did. So what I was thinking in my head and what I should have said was ‘Hmm yeah, I guess his experience would be different. Most European countries outlawed slavery 150 years before we did. They essentially defined the descendants of African slavery as humans before we did.’
    But, I honed in on the comments about Turks and Arabs because, well truthfully, as an academic I get tired of hearing my colleagues talk about how much more superior Europe is… so I have a personal grudge against the whole continent of Europe. And I’m also knee deep in post colonialist literature. So I’m not trying to dismiss you or ignore you. I just have a bone to pick with Europe. 🙂

  7. fillyjonk, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:16 pm Said:

    Yikes, I was just so relieved Steven wasn’t a troll that I figured we could let the interesting and substantive parts of his comment stand on their own. Sorry for making you feel neglected, there, Steven. It’s Good Kid syndrome — you get ignored for being informed and polite while everyone scrambles to contain the chaos that bad kids can create.

  8. A Sarah, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:19 pm Said:

    Yeesh, Steven, you’re totally right. I’m sorry too.

  9. Definitely a first to get not one but a gazillion apologies in a thread like this. Deeply appreciated. I’m not high-maintenance or anything but I was starting to feel about Twilight-Zone-ishly invisible there (like: am I dead?)! Laugh

    And, of course I wasn’t saying that there’s no racism in Europe. But, for example, my friend P., a British lawyer of Nigerian descent, told me that he was actually *terrified*, for the first time, being black, during his first State-side visit: it felt as though the police had a mandate to execute him for the slightest offence. He never felt that in the UK, as bad as things are there

  10. Caitlin, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:41 pm Said:

    Steven Augustine, if it helps, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that when someone who isn’t white is talking about racism I need to shut the fuck up and listen. It’s not often that I manage that in any other arena, but I’m getting better in this one ;). So I paid a lot of attention to your comment, but I didn’t have anything useful to say back that didn’t sound like “Yes! And here is how I feel about that as Nice White Lady! You’re welcome.”

  11. Steven, that quick through-the-looking-glass snapshot of your British friend’s experience here is … I don’t know how to express it. I won’t say it opened my eyes, because I’m not notably oblivious, but I think it was its brevity that just flashed another kind of light here.

  12. Caitlin, on July 23rd, 2009 at 8:55 pm Said:

    Also, this

    it felt as though the police had a mandate to execute him for the slightest offence.

    is fucking terrifying.

  13. And continuing the comment-leapfrog with Caitlin ;), I agree with her comment that appears just above mine at 8:41.

  14. Anwen-with-an-N, on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:02 pm Said:

    Steven Augustine, if it helps, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that when someone who isn’t white is talking about racism I need to shut the fuck up and listen.


    Thanks Steven, your comments were really interesting.

    When I went on school trips to France, Germany and Italy, [about 10-13 years ago] as part of groups who were in the first instance around 15/16 and mainly black/Asian [Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi] and in the second and third instances around 17/18 and still a fairly high proportion of students who were of colour, there was a very different feeling in Germany as opposed to the other two countries, partly I suppose because the French and Italian trips were to relatively rural towns as opposed to Hamburg and Berlin.

    In France, except when we went on a day trip to Paris there was a strong feeling that wherever we went we (and specifically the black girls) were being watched in a suspicious sort of way. In Italy I was stopped, along with two girls (one black, one Chinese) and told that, I shit you not, “you look like a Benetton advert!” I mean, you know, points for trying, I guess, but jeez. In Germany, I honestly don’t remember a single incident (and the group I was with was at least as politically inclined as either of the previous ones, so it’s not like it would have gone unsaid…)

  15. A story: a very old friend of mine was in a middle class, two-job family; she owned a house in a nice neighborhood, with her husband, and it was with them that I stayed on a trip to the States in ‘95. She had a prosperous pet-watching business. One evening she asked if I could help the next morning by taking a few of the chores on… which would involve letting myself into about half a dozen houses, at the crack of dawn, in a tony (98%-white) neighborhood in order to feed pets while the owners were vacationing in Tuscany (or wherever).

    Well, exploiting their hospitality as I was, I felt like a total shit saying “no” to the request. And she accepted my “no” but told me I was totally wrong (and paranoid/hypersensitive/behind the times, etc). She assured me that people just weren’t like that any more… certainly not the NPR-listeners in that lakeside enclave. And it was terribly frustrating for me that I could *not* convince her of the rationality of my concerns. And to this day (they now live on a splendid 50 acres in a fairytale house about an hour’s drive from a “liberal” city), she probably still thinks I’m a paranoid.

    Unbridgeable gulf? Sometimes feels that way. I won’t even go into my recent experience of trying to explain my ambivalence towards the figure of Michael Jackson to white friends… (laugh)

  16. Anwen-with-an-N:

    “In Germany, I honestly don’t remember a single incident (and the group I was with was at least as politically inclined as either of the previous ones, so it’s not like it would have gone unsaid…)…”

    Well, that’s the irony, isn’t it? They’re on their best behavior now… after what happened last century. Not that they’re Post Racial, or anything, but I kind of like the fact that, for the Germans, plenty of “whites” are other “races”, too. And they actually often consider Persians (for example) superior to Germans.

    Another tale of my friend P. He walked into a Berlin bakery soon after the inauguration and the guy behind the counter goes, loudly, “Hello, Mr. President!”

    Still, it’s better than being Tasered.

  17. Alright, time to put my daughter to bed. Again: thanks, all.


  18. Gillian, on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:17 pm Said:

    If only the mainstream media weren’t so goddamned predictable. You gotta love the Boston Globe. With newspapers dying a quick death, they’re keen to jump on this story and milk it for all it’s worth. I especially love the coded language in this opening paragraph.

    “BOSTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama plunged his presidency into a charged racial debate and set off a firestorm in one of America’s most liberal bastions by siding with a black Harvard scholar who accuses police of racism.”

    It must be nice for the average white person to not have to think about race. How squirmy it must make them when some radical POC brings it up to make them feel all uncomfortable about their privilege. Didn’t you know, that’s what we POCs live for?


  19. On the other hand, I learned about several non-white grad students having a very, very hard time getting apartments in Hamburg. I know, anecdata and all that, and I can’t remember if any of the students were black (these were classmates of a good friend of mine, not people I knew). The impression I got from those stories was that racism was much less overt in many arenas, but it did crop up very obviously in certain situations. (Of course, I’ve also heard stories about non-German European whites being unable to get jobs in Germany, and non-French European whites unable to get jobs in France, etc. etc., so some of that is clearly not just race. There is some crazy nationalism shit there, too.)

  20. Emma B, on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:23 pm Said:

    From very limited experience with European racism (a year abroad in France), I noticed that as an outsider, it was often difficult for me to visually identify someone as being of a minority ethnicity. People of southern European and Maghrebi or Middle Eastern heritage often have similar features and hair/skin coloration (which is totally logical given that we’re talking about areas separated by no more than a couple hundred miles, with historical population overlap). Of course, there are French people of African heritage, who are obviously black, but the absolute numbers are much smaller than of Maghrebi heritage.

    Do you think that the “viseral disgust” common to American racism might have something to do with how easy it is to peg someone as being Other?

  21. fatsmartchick, on July 23rd, 2009 at 9:24 pm Said:

    I wanted to re-post this link for emphasis. Minerva posted it above and it went under the radar. It’s this project that’s been around for about 10 years. It tests people’s unconscious decision making in regards to identity and its very eye opening. It turns out I prefer Arab and Jews to white folks, have no preference for Asians or whites, and a moderate preference for whites over blacks- that’s changed for me since 2000 which was the last time I took it. It used to be a slight preference for whites over blacks. I don’t think its an accident that in 2000 I had been living with African Americans in the dorms and the last ten years have been in a pretty segregated city and a very white grad program.

    The point is that people can see the way in which the cop might have made the kinds of snap judgments that he did with Professor Gates. And in the privacy of your own home you can see some of the things that may be operating in your own perception of the world.

  22. Emma B:

    (we’ll see if my daughter stays asleep…)

    “Do you think that the “visceral disgust” common to American racism might have something to do with how easy it is to peg someone as being Other?”

    Oh, without a doubt. After centuries of blacks being livestock, essentially, in North America, there’s no way that the physical reality of so-called blackness will be accepted, on all levels of the psyche, across the board there, as truly “human”, any time soon.

    Whatever the attitudes of the strangers I interact with, superficially, in Europe (even the skinheads), they don’t seem to have a problem *looking at me*. Whereas, in North America, in even the best circumstances, being black feels like having a weird birthmark. There’s the aura (subtle or not) of embarrassment and taboo attached to it. And this is a heavy thing to experience every single day… I didn’t really notice it until it had stopped.

  23. (In case anyone is confused: my avatar is a joke; my favorite photo of a close, 34-year-old friend at the age of five. It could be worse: I have a black friend who refuses to give up her Homer Simpson avatar)

  24. fatsmartchick:

    (first I feel ostracized, now you can’t shut me up; I promise I’ll fade away soon):

    “The point is that people can see the way in which the cop might have made the kinds of snap judgments that he did with Professor Gates.”

    But if you look closely, you can see how reading H.L. Gates as any kind of criminal presence, or physical threat, goes beyond snap-judgment and slips into the realm of fantasy narrative. If Gates were huge and inarticulate and 20 years younger and dripping with gold chains, the profiling might still be rather unfair… but not entirely absurd. But H. L. Gates? He’d look like a harmless academic in his underwear. Where are all these fantastical layers of projection coming from?

  25. Oh no- did anyone get a load of this?

    Apparently the officer that arrested Professor Gates TEACHES DIVERSITY CLASSES TO THE POLICE DEPARTMENT.

    It is just like I said before- where on earth do the police get their information on diversity anyway if this kind of thing continues to happen?

  26. fatsmartchick, on July 23rd, 2009 at 10:06 pm Said:

    I agree with you. If you’ll see from my posts above, I think the whole idea of Gates being seen as a criminal is nonsense.

    The study that Minerva linked to allows people to essentially see what they prefer among headshots of white and black faces. Then they have another that tests how much you associate dangerous weapons with black or white faces. It gets some people past that point of “I’m not racist because I have black friends.” or thinking racism is something people consciously, purposefully do and thus ‘I don’t have to examine what attitudes I have because I don’t use the n word.” The cool thing is that it also allows POC to test their own perceptions and even see some self-loathing tendencies that come from living in a racist society. There’s also a test on there for fatphobia. I prefer fat people to thin people. hmm.

  27. fatsmartchick:

    I’ll be perfectly honest and admit that I have a lookist allergy to certain *dress styles*; I pre-judge the hell out of guys my age trying to dress in “with it” fashions (and wraparound sunglasses). But if they open their mouths and junk doesn’t fall out, I’m pretty sure I let the prejudice go.

    But my family/heritage is very, very mixed and I just don’t look at dark people or pale people and assume I know a thing about them. My range of friends is almost impossible… but I’ve constructed a fragile bubble of Post-Gender and Post-Race that I can only maintain by staying put. In many ways, it’s just a simulation.

    I don’t want my daughter to deal with that ugliness (she’s 3) but I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep her in a bubble about it.

  28. Stephen Augustine –

    As a Canadian and in a somewhat different racial culture – although not without racism, by any means, but with *differing* racisms – one of the things that hits me every time I venture into the states is that class and black/latino/white stratification seem really intertwined and obvious. The same can be said for Canadian society and our serious systemic oppression of the First Nations folks. I tend to see race and class intersect a lot.

    My impression was that Germany was a little less desperate on the lower economic rungs but I have no real sense of whether race and class are heavily intertwined with that. Have you felt a difference in class assumption in Germany?

  29. Sorry. STEVEN Augustine. Apologies. I PH’d you.

  30. Arwen:

    It’s my sense that race and class are *always* intertwined; especially if you substitute color for race where necessary (in places like Brazil or India). The difference between the US and Germany is, I think, again, down to the North American slave trade. And the whole people-as-cattle thing. You can’t treat people like literal cattle for longer than a place has been a country and suddenly start thinking of these “cattle” as people with the flip of a legislative switch. It just won’t happen. And so many of those antebellum tropes are still with us, in the form of popular entertainment… what’s a “gangsta rapper” but a modern embodiment of the Mandingo riff?

    Assimilation has always been the way for a subculture to ease its way out of these discriminations (no one considers the Irish or the Italians inferior or even non-white, in North America, any more). In the case of blacks, I think, assimilation is harder because of the sheer physical Otherness of being black. Even Asians, otherwise physically other to “whites”, have straight hair. Which could lead us to a discussion of hair-straightening in blacks (and Michael Jackson)…

    My theory is that the only hope is “reverse assimilation”… the rest of America getting a little browner, and curly-haired, as in Brazil, as lead by small vanguard of race-mixers. It’ll take a bit longer. And by then, of course, it’ll be something else: religion (as in Muslims) or class.

    I’ll go weirder here and say that it’s my theory that Negrophobia is a case of projection. The Nazis projected essentially German (or human) traits on the (German) Jews in a paroxysm of self-hatred and tried to wipe them out.

    I think it’s the same with Negrophobia in North America; I think whites, for the large part, live a fantasy life in which they identify themselves with impossible avatars of whiteness on movie screens, and find blacks repulsive by projecting their own rejected (human) traits on them. Blacks are looked-down-upon for being human (sweaty, sexual, smelly, violent, lazy, fat, etc) and whites think they’re Brangelina (sp?).

    Not all whites do this, of course; I’m talking about a Zeitgeist like, say, Bushism, in which it may only be the case that 52% of the people are doing it. But it’s enough to cause all the problems.

    Finding an enlightened thread like this one certainly helps to give me hope.

  31. fillyjonk, on July 24th, 2009 at 12:27 pm Said:

    I’ll go weirder here and say that it’s my theory that Negrophobia is a case of projection.

    It’s interesting that you say that whites are essentially asking blacks to accept their projected/abjected humanity. I would have interpreted it in basically the opposite way: as a literal scapegoating, transferring your sins and fears to (what you perceive as) an animal and then casting them out. Certainly that’s how I’ve interpreted Nazi xenophobia. I feel like the “animal” part is crucial there, since there’s a (symbolic or literal) sacrifice involved.

    Though I guess disagreeing over whether racism involves seeing people as “too human” or “too animal” is sort of moot… since humans are animals, and it sounds to me like when you talk about blacks being looked down on for “being human” you mean the particularly animal parts of it, which some people might want to abject in favor of a more… deified version of humanity, for lack of a better word.

    To get back to the main point of the thread, I’d put a finer point on your last graf: it’s not even that 52% of people are (necessarily) doing it; it’s that the culture is a priori racist (we’ve never had a zeitgeist where that isn’t the case) and only some percentage of people question and challenge that explicitly. Racism in this country doesn’t have to be something you perform. It’s something you’re already steeped in, and choose whether or not to resist.

  32. FJ:

    In total agreement. I think we can reconcile our last two comments if I clarify by saying that the abhorred “human” I’m referring to is the Animal reality, and that the etherealized version, up there on the screen in the form of Brangelina, is the Angelic that the viewer identifies with. It’s the difference, too, between the average “white” person’s vague notion of history as a Merchant and Ivory flick of pale sylphs flouncing around grand old English estates… and the reality of smelly, sometimes chancre-ridden humans taking dumps in lidded buckets kept in the wardrobes overnight. Laugh!

    As a child of the 1960s, I was well aware of white children taking pride in an imaginary patrimony that stretched all the way back to British actors mouthing plummy orations whilst posing in pristine togas in front of various landmarks of ancient Rome… while I was asked to imagine my great great great great great great grandparents squatting naked in bushes and ooh-ohh-ohhing like chimps. The mechanism of which is all just a fraction of the problem of racial self-image, and projection, we witness in a cop’s inability to treat HL Gates with “white” respect.

    “Racism in this country doesn’t have to be something you perform. It’s something you’re already steeped in, and choose whether or not to resist.”

    Right. On.

buttercup, on July 24th, 2009 at 3:39 pm Said:

“Racism in this country doesn’t have to be something you perform. It’s something you’re already steeped in, and choose whether or not to resist.”

That’s about the most apt thing I’ve heard all week. It deserves to be stitched into a sampler, made into a bumper sticker, printed on a tee shirt, and written by skywriters all over the world.

celeloriel, on July 24th, 2009 at 4:56 pm Said:

Thank you, Kate, for this excellent post.

And thank you, Shapelings, for an awesome discussion in the comments. (Steven Augustine, haven’t seen you ’round these parts before, but you rock, and your comments have been very, very interesting to me. Thank you.)

I’d comment more substantively, but everything I feel I ought to say has already been said. 🙂


In other words, the Literary Internet isn’t all just complacent white guys throwing beer cans at the pesky gadflies. Nice.

The Kong of Pap


Kong of Pap:1


 Multiple Choice


1. Is the overwhelming over-production of cookie-cutter encomia in the wake of a famous song-and-dance man’s death a sure sign of:

-a. the triviality of encomia

-b. the triviality of life

-c. the power of consumerist brainwashing


2. If The Subject (in his quasi-military uniforms, aviator sunglasses, security phalanxes and exotic-animal-stocked mega-compound of remorselessly bad taste) effectively impersonated the African “strong man” dictator archetype, why? Because:

-a. the African “strong man” dictator archetype meme is ever-present

-b. the African “strong man” dictator archetype meme is a racist stereotype best confronted via infiltration, co-optation and subversion

-c. he who can, will


3. Would The Subject’s apparent thing for little boys have been marginally less cringe-worthy if:

-a. society were more tolerant of alternative lifestyles

-b. The Subject’s affectation of pre-adolescent enthusiasms didn’t read like a blatant trap

-c. at least some of the little boys had been black


4. Which motto would best sum up the oxymoronic core of The Subject’s presentation?

-a. inspiration by intimidation

-b. protective predation

-c. the red-herring of so-called blackness


True or False


1. Ludwig van Beethoven was a genius = John Lennon was too intelligent to be a genius = The Subject was too talented to be intelligent. T/F

2. Paradox: after 50 years of being saturated in Mass Media’s radiation, the populace is not less naive/credulous about its machinations but infinitely moreso. T/F


Essay Questions 


Is it cheaper to bleach black skin or remove it?





Can we pity what we envy?

A: ________________________________________________________________




Are the popular prodigies the easiest type of prodigy to come by? (ie, a child who can do surprisingly well what many adults can do considerably better; eg, a four-year-old who can perform rudimentary algebraic proofs, impressing the masses as being a manifestation of genius on a par with Einstein’s, though the four-year-old’s work, submitted anonymously to an over-worked junior high school teacher with credit problems, might earn an unceremonious “B”)

A: ________________________________________________________________



Did Rock-n-Roll itself morph from being a gifted black youngster to a banal white hag in roughly the same amount of time it took The Subject to make the journey?





Kong of Pap:2



Folks, I’m goin’ down to St. James Infirmary,
See my baby there;
She’s stretched out on a long, white table,
She’s so sweet, so cold, so fair.  


When I went down to Old Joe’s barroom
On the corner by the Square
The drinks we all served as usual
And the usual crowd was there


Up to the bar I saw Big Joe beginning
With these eyes bloodshoting red
Gather round and now all you seen us
I’m gonna tell you just what Big Joe said


Now, when I die, bury me in my straight-leg britches,
Put on a box-back coat and a stetson hat,
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain,
So you can let all the boys know I died standing pat.



An’ give me six crap shooting pall bearers,
Let a chorus girl sing me a song.
Put a red hot jazz band at the top of my head
So we can raise Hallelujah as we go along.


Folks, now that you have heard my story,
Say, boy, hand me another shot of that booze;
If anyone should ask you,
Tell ’em I’ve got those St. James Infirmary blues.



Well, on my left stood Joe McKennedy
And his eyes were bloodshot red.
When he told me that sad story,
These were the words he said:




I went down to the St. James infirmary,
I saw my baby there,
She was stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, and fine, and fair.
Go ahead!




Yes, sixteen coal black horses
To pull that rubber tied hack.
Well, it’s seventeen miles to the graveyard
But my baby’s never comin’ back.



And if anybody should ask you who’s been singing
If anybody should wanna know who wrote this song
Just tell him Big Joe was here this morning
And he was here this morning, yeah, but now he’s gone






Ron Silliman is bashing Andrew Motion again. Although, think: it’s funny how little essential difference there is between what many of us can agree is erection-obliteratingly crappy verse and the stuff Silliman obviously considers good (eg, the verse of Ron Silliman). Silliman drubs the following hackneyed passage, from Motion, for being what it is:

Earth’s axel creaks; the year jolts on; the trees
begin to slip their brittle leaves, their flakesof rust
and darkness takes the edge off daylight, not
because it wants to – never that. Because it must.

… while failing to mention that he, Ron Silliman, is guilty of having written the following, so boldly hackneyed in its own standard crypto-narcisso, incest-enfeebled POOETREE way:

from NON

For Jackson Mac Low

Proto-mallie: the flaneur.
“The older I get the more
floors I discover
at Macys.” Little red
thermos looks like
fire extinguisher. Ants won’t cross
trail of
petroleum jelly. Hat
with no bill, cubist
leather beret.
Sore on my tongue, smell
of dung. Voice’s choices
sight’s relight. In gaol
they make you surrender
your panty hose
to prevent suicide.
The crowd of protesters
approach, chanting
“out of the boutiques
and into the streets.”
Seagull brushes
up against my cap.
Rude Work Ahead.
Velcro strap,
reusable cast.
Dog’s name
is Cutty.
Eco-Brutalism, Deep
Semiology. Sturgeon
General. Boot failure!
Odd trim
of the ear’s rim.
The neck seen as a tube is
seen incorrectly.
Post-its peeking
from a three-ring binder.
Dog snarls
behind window of
locked Rabbit.
Morning’s magic means
make my
daily bread. Ears
put head in
brackets. Hypervariables
in DNA show up
on screen like
Bar code
on a cereal box.
Rushed writing.
one is to words
always an outsider,
tho they invade your head,
colonize dreams.
Neither an Aram
nor Omar be.
Picking your teeth versus
picking your nose. Voice
echoes up the lightwell.
Reading to discern liquids
from the bottoms of used cups.
Place mats
map the table.
De Man who shot liberty: valence.
Blue sparks fly
in the dark tunnel
beneath the train’s wheels.
The sound of an egg cracking
against the bowl’s edge.
All sirens are narrative.
The brothers hover in the doorway
smokin’ their crack♣.
Powdery sugar
atop apple pancake.
Now that we have computers
liquid paper is doomed.
Pair of grackles
attempt to mate
perched atop
Amtrak arrow logo
till the she-male
jumps into flight.
Water fountain’s
cooling motor
hums on.
An odd john;
high urinals
and low basins
hard to tell apart.
Thimbalism. “JWs,”
he sniffed and sniffed he did,
“black Mormons.” yellow stone house
across the way, in which lives
Mrs. Florence Schneider
amid her treasures, rare china,
fine handspun cotton, a garden
of grape hyacinth–that odd
blue purple. Dump truck
pale blue filled with clay
atop which lays a shovel.
Black lores of the red cardinal.
Rounded shovel
is for cutting into
the earth, square ones
for piling it away.
Combination of
the swing and these
new reading glasses
quickly makes me seasick.
Back panel of greeting cards.

This POOUHM is beyond parody, no? An accurate parodist would only end up producing roughly the same and scoring a spot in the TPA (Thousand-Page Anthology) right next to Ron’s. One of the defining strictures of the Ahtform is concision, but meaning becomes imaginary (ie, a wholly reader-added value) under a crucial cut-off point having something to do with the author’s genuine will (or ability) to communicate. For example: reducing a sentence such as “the cat shat on the tea tray” to the lapidary Wiccan monosyllable “cat” might magnify the aura of allusion, while eroding the actual meaning to nil, but the temptation to do so, for most POOETS, would be pen-rendingly tough to beat back.

-At roughly the hundreth line of the POOUHM we find: Black lores of the red cardinal, for instance. This line is only required to appear to mean/evoke/deconstruct or adumbrate anything for as long as it takes for the eye to skip over it; it’s not even a gratuitous description because it does not describe: all it really does is mention something. In POOETREE, mentioning is all. (Try mentioning grackles the next time you write a POOUHM… it always works. Esp. good as a HAIKU’S title or in a CONCRETE POOUHM shaped like grackles).

♣-The brothers hover in the doorway smokin’ their crack is only required to seem hip/inclusive/ funny until it reveals itself to be a lame old honkie maneuver in the manner of the Coonshow crap Ray Carver often resorted to in order to borrow depth from the pit of his racism.


If any AHTFORM cries out for the mercy of a less lingering, foot-dragging (no pun intended) extinction, it’s POOETREE. Just like Jazz (to which it is often linked by a genealogy of Cold War cliches), POOETREE is only any good, any more, when it comes to us as a mocking gift from the dead. In the so-called West, I mean.

Are certain AHTFORMS era-contingent? Appears so. Think back to when Pottery (a near-anagram) was King. It once seemed inevitable that  even working class men would have no choice but to own kilns. Yet, one sweet morning we all woke up from the nightmare and this threat, like the draft (coterminally, in fact?), was over.

Think of it: just as cinema audiences once busted guts laughing at the spectacle of Charlie Chaplin rolling in doubletime down a hill, matrons once flushed (right hands pressed demurely to substantial satin bosoms) while reading The Wasteland.

A year or two ago I wrote a string of “poems” to supplement a chain of linked stories on a specific topic (Berlin) and despite the fact that I steered phobically clear of the twee, self-obsessed and uselessly obscure, it struck me, upon completion of the task, that in writing “poems” at all I might as well be bringing an acoustic guitar to a dinner party in case a jam session breaks out after dessert.

Aye, but: any of these futile “poems” of mine (image-rich, kinky, and demanding just enough Google to make them interesting) would shoot, stuff, mount and consign to the garage any particular thing in Silliman’s longevity-bloated oeuvre. Which is not to say I’m a great POOET; it’s to say I’m not, but I’m better at it than the soi-disant POOETREE CZAR Ron Silliman. (File this paragraph under DRIVEN TO TACKY BRAGGADOCIO BY EXASPERATION.  All hate letters will be published without editorial comment or editing.)

“poem” from the mentioned series of mine:

Malena’s Good Luck New Year’s Rabbit Stew


-Cada uno lleva su cruz-


skinning the rabbit, ted inverts
the inverted glove until the long
hand of muscle falls from its grip
of loose blood, clutching the grin
of this morning’s funniest
execution. slain by the sling ted’d made
of malena’s old hose, the bunny tumbled
with its fate-stone thrown
clear through dark bush to
headlighted street, ted waving
traffic to a halt to retrieve it
by deafwarm ears to malena
and dante’s cheering as for
a goal. the dawn dome
of planetarium rose
to a glow by sun’s flush
hole as they bore the corpse
like some world-leader with
eyes struck open

ted knifes the belly, scoops
its coils and jellies in a system
to the sink, the other two toasting
long life/short death as ted
decouples the head’s last
link. dante jumps

(he will always claim)
(the thing)


the candled air of the whole long flat
rubs the windows with its sweat:
ginger, clove and cardomon escaping the pot
towards the black rhyme of ted and malena’s hair
ted’s elbows on the table and dante’s perplexing
stare in the ruby swirl of wine malena’s got
she tells of the trouble with men and dante says
we know a willing lesbian
she shakes her head: i need something i can sink
these teeth into (with a wink)
hefting her breasts in the low-cut dress she jokes
what about these? don’t you ever miss them
on a winter’s night?
dante frowns i swear i even eschewed huge dugs as a whelp
i would not suck at mother’s milk
and father’s mams were black with glossy felt, he giggles
at ted who growls: not while i’m eating
malena says Cocho kept peacocks when i was thirteen
they would not breed, which made them twice
precious, bleating in the courtyard even earlier
than those ugly cocks, casting spectacular shadows like
beardsley engravings on the opaline gravel around
the villa, occasional prey to a fox our indian shot
presenting it to mother who wore it
to the opera like a (draining her wineglass)
(with seductive indolence)


driven by the spirit of the rabbit or by
the devil possessed, ted proposes a
contest: whoever kisses best
will follow ted to bed whilst the other
does dishes. dante hisses
you bitches and kisses
malena on the mouth, vomitting
chilean flags and

My excuse being that I never expect respect or pussy or cash for it. I made it, it’s there; I moved on. Shouldn’t that be on every POOET’S lapel/letterhead/headstone? If it were, I might begin to like them. I might even buy one lunch.

-I made it, it’s there; I moved on.™

To wrap now with another POOUHM of Silliman’s. Any number (ten Haverfords worth?) of beret-wearing sophomores have approximated this POOUHM, over the years, with slightly worse, or slightly better, results.

the nose of kim darby’s double

Canyons, paths
dug thru the snow
the walls as high as
The weight of it
when it begins to melt
& then, at sunset
still midafternoon
the temperature drops
wind over the ridge
so that by dawn
each surface
hardens into ice

Dams clog the drains
to turn the window
facing north
into a waterfall . . .

Driving north
past the mall turn, King
of Prussia, past Bridgeport
and the narrow brick streets of Norr’stown
the road eases up, what
was once country
into a more purely rural
suburbiana (golf course
blanketed in white

A gas station that has not yet
turned into a minmart

Swath cut
by the powerlines
right thru the old quarry, the pit
filled with water
is called a lake, each
new townhouse with its private dock
tho if you look upstairs
you will discover the doors to the closets
all made of vinyl

Someone in another room is singing the alphabet

Barely visible in the high slush
fog mixed with rain
a woman waits for her bus

The form of the flower
petals dropping away
to reveal a new, further flower
now red, now blue
each shape a perpetual
revision, this
leaf thick and milky, this
spiky, hard, this
covered with the finest fuzz

In his dream the boy
has dug a maze through the snow
complex, magnificent
that his parents want to dig up
(At four, to identify
the tension of generations

Glow threading
thru the woods at night,
headlights from an auto

Gamuk is kissing Ganuganuga

Resolution protocol:
song of a dot matrix printer

Casting text
across the listserv,
I write
until the first sight of sun
triggers morning’s hunger,
voices echo elsewhere in the house

in the form of
a sheep, black,
Dinosaur constructed
from wire and beads

A pennywhistle lies on the rug

Thru the poplars
just enough light
to cast the first silhouette.

A pennywhistle, a rug. The self-obsessed author of this vertical typography thought that by merely being touched by his magical mind, the banal substance of the material would transmute into beauty, feeling, meaning.


POOETREE is the pyramid scheme of modern Belles-Lettres. Silliman has thousands of readers who only read him because they want to become Sillimans; does anyone who doesn’t have a manuscript of Silliman-like vertical typography to hawk… read Silliman? As with all Ponzi cons, the trick is getting in early.

You did not get in early.

Buy a kiln.

On Violence

I recently participated in a blog thread discussion about filmic violence (over at Ed Champion’s place) which, you’ll see, speaks for itself:

20 Responses to “Review: Donkey Punch (2008)”

  1. Steven Augustine on January 23rd, 2009 7:59 pm

    Ed, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it at all. Gaspar Noe raped his audience as a supposed comment on rape (while being, in the process, *so* controversy-courtingly violent that his career arc bulged… a win-win move). Irreversible improved *not one jot* on films such as La Strada or Raging Bull or Nothing But A Man or even Lord of the Effing Flies as meditations on the atavism of modern man.

    I walked out of Irreversible before Bellucci’s big scene, but any kid on Limewire, that year, knows that that very excerpt was one of the hottest downloads of the season. That’s the highest compliment for a film of that nature, isn’t it? A few million adolescents wallpapering their libidos with Noe’s “statement”.

    And any “adult” audience that *needs* a blood-sopping, 9 minute rape, or to see a CGI skull bashed in with a fire extinguisher, in order to “get” the message (what was the message again? that ultra-violence puts asses on cinema seats?) is surely beyond redemption. Why not an anti-child-abuse flick with name actors and topshelf cinematography/FX featuring (as its 9 minute viral setpiece) a newborn boiled alive?

    It’s a question of calibration; of scale: in a film with no crushed brainpans or unzippered guts or geysers of plasma on display, great acting and mercilessly on-target *dialogue* is all the violence a *sensitive, intelligent* audience needs in order to be shocked, still, or haunted, an hour after leaving the theater. Dogville was fairly upsetting; it made a fairly strong point, as I recall; would the film have been “harder hitting” if Kidman’s character had been stomped to a quivering mess during the rape?

    Ed: connect the dots: Irreversible and 29 Palms (and the other slick yuppie “Art House” splatter films of the era whose titles I forget) aren’t a prophylaxis against future Abu Ghraibs, they help to lay the foundation for them.

    Gaspar Noe, is, in my sincere opinion, a careerist hypocrite with a lot to answer for. Noe and Tarrantino both.

    Seriously: go see Nothing But a Man (again). It shows up crap like Irreversible for the soul-leatherizing porn with CGItis that it really is. And “Donkey Punch”… sigh.

  2. JR on January 24th, 2009 1:26 pm

    “Irreversible and 29 Palms (and the other slick yuppie “Art House” splatter films of the era whose titles I forget) aren’t a prophylaxis against future Abu Ghraibs, they help to lay the foundation for them.”

    I didn’t know movies were supposed to act as a cure-all for what ails man. That’s news to me.

  3. Steven Augustine on January 24th, 2009 1:55 pm

    JR, read the comment carefully and take the time to absorb the argument (a dictionary might help; look up “prophylaxis”, which you seem to think shares a definiton with “panacea”) before breaking out the sarcasm, please.

    I’d appreciate a response to my actual point (ie, the hypocrisy of making a nauseatingly violent film as a supposed response to the problem of violence, which was Noe’s stated purpose).

    I put it you that Noe doesn’t take the possible *effect of the violence in his own movie* as seriously as I (and a few others) do. Here are a few questions and answers from an interview Noe did about the movie:

    Q: There was a moment after the rape and before the beating when Monica’s character could have run away.

    A: No, I don’t think so. I think he would have run after her.

    Q: Of course, the rapist is Jo Prestia, the professional boxer from France.

    A: He used to be the world champion Thai kickboxer. He’s very, very famous in France. Some people would come to the set and would be more impressed with his presence than the actors.

    Q: What did he do to prepare for the rape scene?

    A: None of us rehearsed anything aside from the kicking of [Monica’s] head in [the rape] scene, and the [revenge] scene [with the] fire extinguisher. And we didn’t rehearse the whole scenes, just those parts. We had to do tests before to make sure the actors would not be really hit. For the rest, we just went on the set and shot them six times over three days.

    Q: How did you simulate the rape scene?

    A: One aspect of the digital editing makes it seem realistic — his penis is added after the shoot. His fly was actually zipped in the scene. It makes the whole thing much more realistic. With his penis visible, Monica loved it. But you don’t expect that, and that particular detail makes the thing more dramatic.

    Q: Do you really believe, as the first line says, that “time destroys all things?”

    A: It’s very dramatic and it sounds good. There are two translations, and the original sentence in French is “time devours all things.” It’s a well-known Latin sentence, and I almost used that sentence, but it might have been too intellectual. I do believe it. Everything that happens is born inside time — so you can also put it the other way around.

    Q: But the counterpoint to that is the really nonjudgmental comment that follows: “There are no bad deeds, just deeds.” Can you comment?

    A: The guy talking is a good friend of mine, very bright. He changed his language for each take. That statement was his personal opinion, although I happen to agree.

    Q: How do you expect gay groups in America will respond?

    A: In France they love the movie. Gay people thought Vincent Cassel was so gorgeous and so sexy. There will always be people saying it’s homophobic. But the reaction of the gay community was better than the straight community. People most offended are really heterosexual men. Male dominants have problems identifying with a woman who’s raped.

    Q: Men can get raped, too.

    A: The fear disappears with men when you are 18 or 20. I wanted this movie to bring back men’s old fear to show them how it is to be raped. Remember, Vincent’s character almost gets raped, too.

    Q: Would the concepts work as well if the characters weren’t so young, beautiful and charmed?

    A: Monica and Vincent — playing the happy couple — are the perfect couple for most people. When you see them naked on the bed you think they’re so perfect together. It creates a fascination to see their intimacy, but also a jealousy; you know they will pay for being so young, so pretty and so rich. You cannot hate them, because you know their happiness will not last.

    Q: On a lighter note, who came up with the idea of a dress that makes Monica B look like her nipples are constantly erect?

    A: We were looking for the sexiest dress we could find for her. The best, most beautiful party dress we could find that would be something you could really wear in Paris. She had her own green silk dress, and then this guy from Yves Saint Laurent came in and redesigned the whole thing (replicated). We needed 10 copies of that dress, because during the rape scene, after each take, it would be destroyed by blood, etc. It was designed right on her breast. It fits her perfectly.

    Q: When you watch your own movie, can you understand why people walk out?

    A: When I see [the two violent] scenes, I see only special effects. But the ending gets me — I cannot see the kids [on the grass in the park]. I walk out one minute before the end because I feel like I’m going to cry. And it’s not because of the [scene], but because of the music, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7.”

  4. ed on January 24th, 2009 4:36 pm

    You’re assuming, Steven, that filmmakers are trying to solve violence with these films. That there is an underlying “message” to be had behind the results, rather than an exploration. I reject that notion, for we then enter into the regrettable territory of dogma (but not necessarily post-Dogme). I think Noe was, in the above interview, trying to get a rise out of anyone reading it by suggesting that “Monica loved it.” He tends to talk a lot of shit. I don’t know if Roth would make a similar claim to defend the Matarazzo rape scene. Both, of course, wish to present themselves as provocateurs.

    But it is the films that matter most. IRREVERSIBLE’s violence is defensible, because we are presented with the happy couple at “the beginning.” We at least get a sense, psychologically speaking, of what the characters are capable of and how the violence may be there within the “happy couple” makeup. But with Roth, we don’t get that chance at all with Matarazzo’s character. Aside from a mild dis to her two friends, she’s presented as a cartoon and is never given a chance to be real or present another side to this cartoonish template. She’s mocked for being geeky, for being earnest and inquisitive, for feeling, for having emotional moments in her diary. And she is punished with this despicable and defenseless scene, which does nothing to further our understanding of violence and torture in the way that Noe does.

    Violence and rape, unpleasant as they are, are realities. There are many ways to go about including them in film. And exploitation films have the potential to pursue these realities — as Ferrara does extremely well — in a way that causes us to frame explicit and uncomfortable scenes within the darker side of the human repertoire. But it needs to be presented WITH the repertoire in order to be justifiable. This can make for an unpleasant moviegoing experience, but then I happen to think that investigating the unpleasant is vital for any art form.

    Lay the foundation? You can’t be serious.

  5. Steven Augustine on January 24th, 2009 5:07 pm

    “Lay the foundation? You can’t be serious.”

    I’m extremely serious, Ed. But before I get to that, I’d like to get to this:

    “…And she is punished with this despicable and defenseless scene, which does nothing to further our understanding of violence and torture in the way that Noe does.”

    Ed, exactly how does Noe’s graphic, 9-minute rape scene “further” your understanding of violence and torture? Are you claiming that you were sitting on the fence on these subjects before Noe opened your eyes? Are you claiming that you didn’t really know that a woman could be raped and beaten into an irreversible coma before seeing the process, in explicit detail, as presented in a film?

  6. JR on January 24th, 2009 5:25 pm

    I wonder what movies Torquemada watched before he burned all of those heretics at the stake.

  7. Steven Augustine on January 24th, 2009 5:36 pm


    Resort to all the logical fallacies you like (influence A postdates behaviour X, is therefore irrelevant to behaviour B?); they won’t quite stand in lieu of a pertinent response.

    To save you the trouble of actually reading my first comment: I’m calling Gaspar Noe a hypocrite for claiming to address the matters of violence and rape in his film Irreversible. Any response specific to that… ?

  8. JoeBu on January 24th, 2009 5:41 pm

    While I tend to agree with the general attitude of SA with regards to this, if I may throw a bit into the discussion:

    First, I may be the only person in the world who feels this way, but the longer the scene went on (only saw the film once, in theater), the LESS disturbing I found it (still disturbing though; I’m not a sicko). In other words, for one viewer, extended exposure to the graphic attack had the result of desensitizing that viewer to the brutality onscreen. Regardless of Noe’s perhaps various intended effects, I’m guessing this was not one of them. (On the other hand, I found the fire extinguisher scene to be infinitely more disturbing, and I don’t think identification or a lack of it had anything to do with this difference.)

    Secondly, and I mean this in all earnestness, no snarkiness, how exactly does an extended graphic rape by one character inform/relate to the idea that “…Noé is interested in suggesting to the filmgoer that our quotidian gestures may very well be laced with savagery.”? I mean, if I’m writing a treatise on violence, then have scene where some random person commits an act of violence, while both my treatise and the scene are “about” violence, it doesn’t necessarily make them related or one relevant to the other.

    Despite my general misgivings about “Irreversible,” I’m willing to give you (or anyone) the benefit of the doubt regarding its worth, but I’m not seeing it. And, if SA suggested above, Noe is attempting to have it both ways so to speak, in my mind he’s failed at the one way so as to leave us with the other. He’s attempted a trick with a extremely high degree of difficulty, and in flubbing it, ended with a horrible crash.

  9. JR on January 24th, 2009 5:51 pm

    Yeah. He’s a hypocrite. So what? He’s also an incredible filmmaker. I can watch a movie and appreciate the techniques used to create a response. It’s one of the joys of great filmmaking. Apparently you have a hard time with this. Maybe you should stick to feel good movies and then you won’t feel bad. Hotel for Dogs came out this weekend.

    And I did look up prophylaxis in the dictionary. And in my dictionary, one of the alternate definitions was “self-righteous asshat.”

  10. Steven Augustine on January 24th, 2009 6:29 pm

    Great, JR! Are you, um, done now?

    To Joe:

    “In other words, for one viewer, extended exposure to the graphic attack had the result of desensitizing that viewer to the brutality onscreen.”

    Well, exactly. Question being: do humans pay a price for adjustments like these (which are near-constant, now)? Don’t laugh if I use the word “innocence” here, but is Noe robbing the viewer, nauseated by *his* violence, of a particle of innocence… only to replace it with what? “Understanding”? I don’t think so.

    I’m not presenting a case for censorship, mind you. I’m merely exercising my prerogative to call “bullshit” when I see it.

  11. Miracle Jones on January 24th, 2009 7:09 pm

    Until a beautiful Italian woman gets graphically raped by a swan on film, I’ll save my money for literature, where the real action is.

    Hostel. Pish posh pshaw. Sounds like the plot of a Roald Dahl story that he wrote and then tossed in the fire out of boredom with himself.

  12. JoeBu on January 24th, 2009 7:51 pm

    I should add, for Stephen or anyone else, that I’m not making the “violence desensitizes ergo bad” argument, and that I agree with Ed’s ideas regarding “exploring” difficult ideas. Some of my favorite films/filmmakers are notoriously violent (not that the violence is why I like them; I’m thinking Kubrick and Peckinpah). I’d contrast Noe’s film with “Salo,” a film I found extremely disturbing and yet, after recovering, consider a masterpiece, certainly technically, albeit a difficult one.

    I’ll also add that I look forward to seeing Noe’s previous (to “Irreversible”) film, the name of which escapes me, apparently very violent as well. Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of the Chicago Reader, found the previous to be truly a masterpiece; he subsequently found “Irreversible” to be reprehensible. I recall finding one or the other review (or both) very interesting, and despite my bad experience, I’m still willing to watch Noe.

  13. Steven Augustine on January 24th, 2009 8:35 pm

    “I should add, for Stephen or anyone else, that I’m not making the ‘violence desensitizes ergo bad’ argument, and that I agree with Ed’s ideas regarding ‘exploring’ difficult ideas.”

    Sure, Joe, but, again: it’s a question of scale: I want to know if Ed thinks that Noe’s strategy of ramping the level of graphic violence to *that* level accomplishes more in an “exploration” of violence than “Raging Bull” does.

    On a purely formal level, I’d ask what this “exploration” entails; frankly, I think that’s a convenient, apologist trope we’ve been given by filmmakers (and their distributors) who want to have their cake (go as far as possible and sell as many tickets as possible) and eat it too (justify the results as edifying). I also think we’re handling lots of other unexamined concepts here, not the least of which being the concept of the “Auteur” as applied to hundreds of directors.

    Now, I’ve watched Irreversible at home (skipping the rape scene), and besides the borrowed (from Memento) trick of reverse-chronology, the only truly stand-out things about the film are the violent setpieces, which are stand-out for *technological* reasons. As a drama, Irreversible is mediocre; the acting is solid-if-unremarkable; script largely improvised; Bellucci’s beauty is a big part of the movie’s lure. What’s left, minus Bellucci’s beauty, Memento’s structure and the shocking CGI? I can see the craft there (the sum total of scores of professionals at work); where’s the Art?

    Are we confusing the seductive power of ultra-slick surfaces with Art?

    And the “de-sensitizing” effect can concern us on an Aesthetic level (if it’s too unhip to worry about it on a social level), if we can no longer respond, for example, to the grief/betrayal/animal-will-to-live on Giulietta Masina’s face at the end of The Nights of Cabiria simply because we’re used to the knobs being turned to ELEVEN and she isn’t being decapitated.

    I’m arguing that ART is a matter of finely calibrated values and materials and the creepy CGI bombast of Noe’s torture porn in Irreversible has a nuance-obliterating effect. Plus a hook we’d rather not name: a lot of people *enjoy* watching depictions of torture.

  14. Steven Augustine on January 24th, 2009 9:05 pm

    Also at Joe:

    “I’d contrast Noe’s film with ‘Salo,’ a film I found extremely disturbing and yet, after recovering, consider a masterpiece, certainly technically, albeit a difficult one.”

    A contrast we can and should make point by point, I think. I have to get to bed (it’s 2 am here), but I’d like to discuss Salo tomorrow, if Ed is game…

  15. Jeremy Richards on January 27th, 2009 1:41 pm

    Hey Steven, since you aren’t brave enough to turn on the comments section of your blog, I thought I would come here and tell you that you’re a much better film critic than you are a writer of fiction, but I suspect you already know that. Figures. Now your patronizing tone and supercilious attitude makes perfect sense.

  16. Steven Augustine on January 27th, 2009 3:27 pm


    It took you *three whole days* to come up with *that*? Laugh.

    My comments are off because of angry (and only technically literate) little creatures like you, darling. Don’t be disappointed if your opinion doesn’t mean much to me. Ditto for your equals (for they are legion).



  17. Eli Roth – Continued « Geranium Kisses on January 27th, 2009 5:11 pm

    […] Champion serendipitously was exploring similar terrain to yours truly on Friday. In the context of thoughtfully attacking Donkey Punch, a new movie, Champion explores the justifications for ultra-violence in movies. In considering […]

  18. Steven Augustine on January 27th, 2009 5:15 pm

    Actually, JR: you’ve given me a pretty good idea. Anyone who wants to send HATE MAIL to the address provided on my ABOUT page will see it published, *unedited* and *without comment* (no matter how ugly/cruel/accurate or profanity-rank), on a new page I’ll link to (prominently) from my main fiction page.

    So, no more excuses if you feel the hate and you really, really want to express it!

    Isn’t that egalitarian?

    I’ll bet you feel better already.

  19. JR on January 29th, 2009 6:41 pm

    You got a big mouth, faggot. Talk like this to me while I’m standing face to face with you and I would smack you across your face. Why don’t you tell me where you live so I can come and show you what a little pussy you are. Watch what you say to people you prick. One of these days you’re going to confuse yourself and forget that you’re not hidden behind your computer screen and someone is going to shove their fucking fist down your throat.

  20. DrMabuse on January 29th, 2009 7:59 pm

    Alright. I’m closing this thread. This is not a place for people to threaten each other. It’s a place to carry on a civil discussion.




Why Famous Writers Should Never Self-Google

 or: adventures in the compulsively mediated, PC prison of totalitarian decorum


Unlike Zadie Smith¹, I really was just “passing through the book pages” (of the Guardian’s blog section) yesterday. What I found was a blog article, by Robert McCrum, titled Sebald, Hughes and Smith: three modern greats.  I sneered, of course, but it was a sneer devoid of passion. Not that the picture posted under the blog heading, of Zadie Smith, looking measurably less ugly than J.L. Borges, wasn’t nice. It was nice. Not (for me) write-a-hyperbolic-headline-about-her nice, but nice enough.

I scanned the comment thread and came to something by the writer Oscar MacSweeny. His comment (now deleted) was something to the effect that McCrum’s calling Zadie Smith a “modern great” was beyond the pale unless McCrum was “screwing her”, in which case the hyperbole would be understandable. To which I chipped in with the fatal qualifier (now semi-deleted), “…or would like to,” along with a sarcastic bit about some other commenter’s notion that Sebald is “boring” and Hughes is unread “outside the English language” (and therefore of no consequence), though Zadie is tops.

One incisive participant, a thing called “Greenball”, who then got the coveted pat-on-the-head from a tetchy Guardian Unlimited functionary who wields her modicum of power firmly, wrote:

“And shame on Steven Augustine for writing such offensive things. And shame on Oscar. You small pathetic men. I think it’s outrageous that the Guardian allow this kind of personal abuse in the name of journalism.”

Is a personal opinion “journalism”? Are comment threads comprised of “journalism” or personal opinion? Are all personal opinions, by decree, to be for the  “good” things and against the “bad” things consensus decides?

Was Oscar’s comment, accusing McCrum of positive sexism (or Luvism), a form of negative sexism? Only if said comment could only have been used “against” a particular gender. Was my addition, a comment on the possible spot where Robert McCrum’s possible libido intersects with his possible literary judgment, negative sexism? Again: only if I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have quipped exactly the same way about some blogger’s hyperbolic estimation of the value of Jonathan Franzen’s oeuvre.

I mention Franzen because of the controversy I remember about the glamour photo his publisher used for the jacket of early printings of The Corrections. The photo was a sexed-up (photoshopped?) confection that made Franzen look not just better than he had ever appeared to in real life (presumably), but better than most actors depicting crusading hot lawyers on primetime American television. The complaint (but why complain?) being that the book’s rapturous reception was, in large part, extra-literary. Imputations of wave upon wave of fainting Franzenmaniacs at book-signings and so forth.

Clearly, a subtle sub-theme of this longish comment of mine is the Faustian pact that younger, cuter writers enter into with the Beelzebuboid PR wings of their publishers, though the logical conclusions of that implied essay (about petards and elevation) are too obvious to belabor here. So, back to my plea to famous writers (who, surely, are compensated in advance for the pain) to either, A) resist the self-Google demon or B) respond not snippily to what they subsequently find…

Mr. Franzen has taken quite  a “beating”, in the years since that photo flap faded, from “print” and “blog” critics alike. The criticisms are sometimes expressed with immoderate diction, as private opinions often are and public opinions sometimes are and political and/or corporate speech is very, very rarely. An important question emerges: is there a place for immoderate diction in this world?

Sarah Crown, some kind of higher functionary of the GU’s online business (the business of generating web traffic, no matter the content), claims not. She writes (emphasis mine):

“I’ll certainly be asking the moderators to remove the remarks from MrStevenAugustine and iamoscarmacsweeny. Absolutely no place for them on here (or anywhere, for that matter). Sorry they weren’t spotted sooner.”

So, now we know: there’s no place on Earth, and no possible situation, in which it’s proper to imply (or opine outright) that X commenter adores Y writer for any other than literary reasons. Especially if the extra-literary reasons are romantic/sexual and the adored writer is a woman. Because placing a woman’s name in a sentence or paragraph that also contains a reference to sex, no matter the gist of the sentence, is “sexist”, by default? One supposes. Here’s an experiment:

“Robert McCrum, ranking Jonathan Franzen’s work on a level with Rod McKuen’s and Robert Ludlum’s is only forgivable if you’re screwing him (or them)!”

Is that better? It feels less “sexist”.  But it’s still immoderate diction. The question remains: is banning immoderate diction a triumph of PC culture (that high-strung web of proscription and taboo, thickened and thriving during an arguably illiberal, anti-intellectual, crypto-fascist convulsion of the “West”)? Immoderate diction is banned unless the “good” are using it, of course: I’m quite sure it’s okay to refer to Oscar and me as “louts” and “idiots” and “bedwetters” and  “small pathetic  men”. I’ve just checked the etiquette book and it says, on page one, that it is².

Even Zadie Smith, having stumbled upon Oscar MacSweeny’s personal (if indirect) opinion of her work’s merit (and my quip appended to Oscar’s opinion), did not like it. She wrote, among other things (emphasis mine):

¹Hello. This is zadie smith. I know this is pointless, but I was just passing through the book pages, and found this thread and wanted to add two things…

(etc., etc., until)

3. Oscar and Steve Augustine: everyone is free to dislike whichever book they dislike. But read what you’ve written, below, again. Is this what women novelists are to expect? Would any male writer, no matter how poor a writer, be spoken of like this?

26 Jan 09, 9:03pm (about 7 hours ago)


“…unless you’re screwing her.”

Or would like to?”

This question prefacing Oscar MacSweeny’s/Steven Augustine’s evil work (Would any male writer, no matter how poor a writer, be spoken of like this?) is rhetorical. But what if the answer is “yes”?

As it turns out, that’s exactly what the answer is.

Which would mean that Zadie Smith’s wounded sanctimony, while still humanly reasonable, is rhetorically invalidated. The only fair thing from Zadie Smith, Sarah Crown and the hysterical bluenoses who enliven the thread with their dimwittish celebrity arse-kissing, at this point, is an apology to Oscar MacSweeny and Steven Augustine… and a generously inscribed copy of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty to both of us.

Actually, forget the book.




²What’s it like being lambasted savagely by a near-idiot not even known to exist before the onslaught? A little like having one’s leg humped by a muddy Spaniel growling fiercely as it humps. Here are my favorite rude comments from the irony-proof  decorum-enforcers on that thread:


1. Greenball

27 Jan 09, 1:58pm

Steven Augustine, your behaviour is truly shocking. You talk about people “screwing”, or wanting to, Miss Smith, and when she rightly expresses offence, you tell her that’s just like Franzen being compared to Svevo. That is so ignorant and aggressive I can scarcely believe it.

Though I just had the misfortune to look at your blog [ ] and I can see why you’d hate Smith. She has talent and success. You have nothing.

Sarah Crown, I see you said 4 hours ago you’d remove the offending posts. I suggest that you do before Miss Smith is sensible enough to contact her lawyers.

McCrumb, let’s indeed get some things straight. You wrote a stupid, ignorant piece in which you dangled Miss Smith over a moat and then pretended to be surprised when the crocodiles began taking pieces out of her. You haven’t the grace to then apologise, but instead grudgingly (even sardonically?) write that obviously, it’s all your fault. Well, yes, it is. It is an exceptionally stupid posting.

2. Naid

27 Jan 09, 2:11pm

McCrum – talk about hanging someone out to dry. Where’s your spine, man?

I like your choice of sebald and hughes. not read smith.

stevenaugustine, you’re a bed wetter of the highest order. if you don’t like something, have the balls to say so. “Gender assymetrical jape” aside (are you a writer? i’d give up. you’re cringeworthy), please spare us all your weasling words, they’re beneath you.

so many nasty snivellers on these pages. guardian readers make me despair..

to be fair, you are doubtless mostly a bunch of sub-editors and blog writers []  suffering rejected articles and novels.. still, no excuse.

3. Bruno62

27 Jan 09, 6:49pm

To MrStevenAugustine

I told you before to stop writing because everything you write is boring and now I see you did not hear my advice []. How can you be so low to insult the The Most Talented and Gifted Writer Zadie Smith? How many books did you publish and how much money did you earn with them? Zadie Smith, 3 books and literary star, this is too much to your liver, n’est pas? Today, Mr..(you dont deserve too much) Steve, our world became miserable with internet, because when you have no talent at all, you write a blog [] because it seems to ease your resentment and frustation. If you are gentleman, if you are really a british gentleman, you should apologise to Miss Smith. But if you are a member of the Muridae Family, stay in hole. Bruno da Silva, Switzerland



BONUS TRACK (a favorite, astonishingly rational comment of mine, deleted from the thread):



On the contrary – I’ve reported that comment too. Tut.”

I counted at least five (not the least of which being “bedwetter”… you’d think my wife or 3 year old daughter would’ve told me!). All quips (as dangerous as quips can be) aside: suggestion…leave them *all* as they are because they are merely *opinions* and a comment thread is supposedly comprised of things like that. Even the odd ranklers.


Alarming, old chum, I disagree with your characterization of Oscar’s original remark (and my quipped addition) as “schoolboy childish”. Anything but, I’d have thought: it’s wee children who think everything is all about white smiles, yellow duckies and chocolate bunnies. Oscar’s (clearly frustrated) remark struck me as that of a cynical adult’s disgust with the world. What’s “childish” about that? I’m hoping there’s room left, in the compulsively mediated, PC prison of totalitarian decorum, for grownups to be frank now and then… even if it makes the bunnies cry.

A Concerned Reader Writes



The person who write the website shoud stop writing.

It’s boring und really a shit. I’d rather read Jonathan Safran Foer.

-Bruno da Silva

Kill the Meme

Let’s preserve this comment over at Open Letters Monthly …

… before it’s deleted:


It’s absurd to critique this book with the self-aggrandizing zeal that debuts are too often punished with (”Amidst all this fumbling by the two inexperienced writers…”). The many typos and formatting errors on display don’t help; ditto with identifying Andrew as an “editorial intern” who has “worked” (in what capacity?) for…

Andrew launches a line-item critique: “The Hemingway/Dashiell Hammett imitation is obvious in the deliberately artless repetition of the word ‘bar’ in the two consecutive sentences,” introducing the next snippet with an unedited sentence at the core of which is a gratingly oxymoronic formulation: “The next page features a precursor to the casual hyperbole and outrage that powers so much of Burroughs later work”, and then *tops* it, in the field of unedited ugliness, with: “Of course, his later work would have probably substituted that Hemingway aping in the final line for something about the sailors’ ‘jissom soaked anal rampaging’ through Brooklyn or some such thing, but at this point Burroughs does not yet have the imaginative confidence to do any more than lay the foundation for his later.”

I could assume that premature full stop was an act of clemency, though Andrew goes on to write, “The weirdest thing about this plot development is that Burroughs actually was a private detective for a time during this period of his life—perhaps he himself was suddenly hired by an agency after forgetting he’d applied with forged documents,” betraying a “weird” obliviousness to the fact that it’s a circumstance of profound banality that autobiographical splinters and echoes often make their way into art.

I bought “And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks” as a curiosity on two levels: 1) as Burroughs/Kerouac juvenilia and 2) as a time capsule from early postwar Bohemia.

Any reviewer with the good grace to bear in mind that this is the early work of two (now dead) men who went on to write books of some interest to quite a few people (ie, the reviewer’s capacity as instructor-to-the-novelist is nil, here) and who can provide *little-known* tidbits (about the writers and the era) with which I can enrich my reading… is providing a genuine service and is most welcome. In contrast… (and so on).

Andrew, this review fails on many levels. The first failure, though, is its unearned smugness. Unearned smugness is becoming the critical default of the Litbloggerverse. Kill the meme, improve the content.


Indignation: A Sort of Review

A sickening strain of unearned smugness runs rampant on the Litblogs. This we know and accept. Still, when Mark Sarvas posted his review of Philip Roth’s “Indignation” (a review the best sentence within which could not come continent-close, in terms of beauty, or intellectual force, to the weakest sentence in “Indignation”; a review with a glaring factual error indicative of the tiresome possibility that Mark skimmed or skipped the final fourth of the book, if not the whole thing), I felt compelled to post a comment.


(Sidebar: Am I a prickly, opinionated arse-nozzle with no interest in playing nice, or in jiving and handjobbing my way to the, erm, “top”? Certainly.)  


It wasn’t just the poor quality of Mark’s delusionally gloating review that irritated me, or the fact that Roth deserves much more respect, after approximately half a century of constant work of such an undeviatingly high standard that he can’t possibly have had any kind of a life while producing it: it was the dimwitted, anti-Philip Roth commentary on Sarvas’s site, inspired by his review (and similar reviews, on various Litblogs run by ruthless literary super-geniuses around the Internet), that riled me.


So, having just read “Indignation” (with great pleasure), I posted a comment which lasted on Mark’s blog about 12 hours before he saw fit to delete it (following, by the way, a brief email exchange in which Mark implied that we were no longer necessarily secret imaginary friends). Fair enough: it’s Mark’s kingdom to rule as he sees fit.


My riled, profanity-free comment went (verbatim):


“Indignation” is a brilliant treatise on dissent (and the timeless dangers of non-conformism) delivered in a tragic little parable keyed perfectly (with the dramatic precision of anything by Sophocles) to this our own little fascist-lite era. Roth shows how Herd Law trumps mere truth and logic every time.


Yes, sure: riffs, memes, props and gags resurface from earlier works, but to infer from these resonances that Roth is therefore (and not even consciously!) repeating himself is a lazy, self-serving reading of a text that deserves respect on its own terms.


“Indignation” is a gem-pretty miniature, like “Everyman” and “The Dying Animal” (my least favorite of these three, btw); that readers keep harping on the “Jewishness” or “Sex” and “Death” in these three books illustrates how *easy* it is to miss the finer points when it serves our purposes to do so. Roth is a subtle, tricky, impeccably clarified writer. Read, and re-read, carefully.


The difference between my reading of “Indignation” and the negative reviews I’ve read of the book, thus far, seems to be that I picked it up *expecting* something good. Roth’s success rate in the minting of masterpieces affords me the luxury of giving him the benefit of the doubt when I open one of his books for the first time, and my good faith is usually repaid in spades. Just as Mr. Banville’s was (this time).


Roth’s work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (whose is?), however, like it or not, from a merely technical standpoint, he writes most everyone under the table (while making it look like casual work). We don’t have to “like” the Roth artifact to respect the brilliance of its design. And, at what point did Philip Roth become less knowledgeable about his job than every single one of these long-sufferingly hamfisted (and crypto-Oedipal) critiques?


Answer: never. 



Mark was insulted, obviously, and objected to being insulted. But I object to Mark’s insulting Mr. Philip Roth (just as I have objected in the past to his insulting Martin Amis, or James Wood’s insulting of any number of grandly talented writers, including Mr. Don DeLillo). Posting my comment (first at TEV, and now here), is the next best thing to telling him so to his face. Which I surely would, if he lived in Berlin (and with infinitely less agitation than he probably imagines).


“Indignation” sees Philip Roth in fine shape. If you’re a fan: read it. If not: abstain. For those undecided: it can’t much hurt to try this crafty little book out.


To read enjoyable-yet-painstaking reviews of “Indignation” more professional than either this or Mark Sarvas’s, go here:,0,311739.story



Meanwhile, Ted Gioia, at Blog Critics, skipped the last two chapters of the book (or the first page of the penultimate chapter, at the very least) in order to bring us the counterfactual news that “Roth’s strangest twist here is his introduction of a dead protagonist.”


Not true: the book’s protag is not “dead”, but dying, whilst narrating his story.  Am I naive enough to believe that the average book reviewer actually reads a book carefully before writing the review? Of course not. But a lacerating “review” in the manner of Mr. Gioia’s is rendered absurd by any evidence of a slapdash reading. Even worse if the review is full of awkward, amateurish riffs such as, “I now wait for the President of the United States to figure in every Roth novel I read, much like Hitchcock making a cameo appearance in his movies, even if (as in Lifeboat) it is only via a newspaper passing through the narrative.” This riff only works if Roth himself (the Auteur) has a cameo role in the considered text, obviously; otherwise the comparison is idiotic. Beyond that, the sentence (like much of Gioia’s review) isn’t even mediocre: it’s  talentlessly ugly. For more of the same:


Amusingly, Gioia wants to argue the point in the comments section:


“There is no mention on p. 225, or anywhere else in this novel, that the story is narrated while the protagonist is in a coma. Instead, we find:

Page 54: “dead as I am and have been for I don’t know how long.”
Page 200: “I knew without a doubt . . . would turn out to be the angel of death.”
Page 226: “Now he was well and truly dead.”


But when I tried to post the following response I was giving an “error [40] Banned word” message:



Page 225. The first two sentences of the  chapter read: “Here memory ceases. Syrette after syrette of morphine squirted into his arm had plunged Private Messner into a protracted state of deepest unconsciousness, though without suppressing his mental processes.”


Citing the line, from page 226, “Now he was well and truly dead,” confirms the point that Messner was narrating his story *pre-death*, until death well and truly put a stop to his narrative. When the new narrative voice makes its appearance on page 225, it is to announce that Messner is done telling the story, and to add a layer of exposition that Messner hasn’t revealed, due to denial or incapacity: his fate, location, and the horrific state of his body. When the new narrator takes over, Messner is finally dead. Before that point, the text makes clear (on page 225), he wasn’t dead. All of this information is available in the text.

Not only am I curious as to whether Ted Gioia knows what an unreliable narrator is; I’m curious as to which word, in my blocked comment (above), was banned. Was it “morphine”?




And, finally: what’s heartening about Carlin Romano’s ankle-nipping lunge at “Indignation”, over at the Philadelphia Inquirer (reproduced, following the link, at, is the proof it provides that smug, self-aggrandizing, half-arsed reviews aren’t peculiar to bloggers:


The comment I left (typo-corrected) in response to the above:


Heaven forbid that Carlin Romano should detect any themes in this novella beyond the banal autobiographical resonances easily available to the lightest reading (make that skimming) of it. A novella that features as its key set piece (the set piece in which the protag’s fierce precocity seals a doom foretold) a secularly Jewish freshman taking on the forbiddingly Wasp (paternal like Jupiter) dean of his 1950s-era college, with Bertrand Russell’s classic “Why I Am Not a Christian” speech… can’t possibly have any thematic depths greater than Shiksa sex farce, can it?


Romano admits, “As taut campus-novel narrative, “Indignation” is fast-paced, absorbing, disturbing.”


Roth is a very strange writer, one supposes, to be able to pull that off and still get such a sneering thumb’s down of a review. Romano then writes, “Roth makes Marcus’ feverish scrutiny of himself, his family and his new campus uniformly energetic, even funny. But figuring out how we’re meant to respond to the book as a whole is not easy….” as though that last bit isn’t, surely, the reader/reviewer’s sole responsibility?


Mr. Roth doesn’t need better reviews, one feels, but better, less hungry, reviewers.



POSTSCRIPT (from the Dept. of the Horse’s  Mouth):

PR: My intention is that he dies twice, as it were. When he’s under the morphine, he imagines he’s dead: he’s conscious of nothing around him, only his memory is active.

JM: And he feels like he’s in the afterlife.

PR: That’s right. He imagines he’s in the afterlife. Then he actually does die, and the memory shuts down. That was just my conceit.

Conversation with the Poet: Reginald Shepherd

In the fall of 2007, I began an interview, via email, with the poet Reginald Shepherd. The interview was to be in two parts; part one, about writing in general, and part two on Reginald’s poetry. Immediately after completing part one, Reginald took seriously ill and was unable to go any further with the project. It’s no longer possible to wait for Reginald to gather his strength before continuing with the interview, so I present what we managed to finish, along with another unfinished interview, with another writer, which I conducted a few years prior, in honor of the noteworthy (often poignant) resonances between the two texts.

SA: Recently re-reading Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer”, I was struck by its description of the fraught marriage between the great (fictional) novelist E.I. Lonoff and his long-suffering wife Hope; struck because it reminded me powerfully of Paul Theroux’s description of real-life V.S.Naipaul’s relationship with his first wife Pat… which caused me to reflect on the literary tradition of The Great Writer and His (or, less familiarly, Her) muse/helper/victim.

How does your partner cope with your calling as an Artist? Does your personal life pay a price for your public Art?

RS: Well, I’m not sure that I would call myself an “Artist” with a capital “A.” I take my art very seriously, but I don’t think the sort of religion of art that the capital letter applies is really viable today. Certainly there’s no longer a cultural space or validation of that sense of sacred vocation, and that’s not all to the bad. There are other important things in life besides art.

But to answer your question, my partner is incredibly supportive in every way, emotionally, materially, and intellectually. He is a cultural anthropologist with very wide-ranging interests, from bird-watching to jazz to history to (yes) poetry. Our conversations about all kinds of things, including art and aesthetics, are a constant stimulus and inspiration to me. I am a better writer and a clearer thinker for my relationship with Robert. He is definitely one of my muses (I doubt that any artist has just one), and it’s been an interesting experience to write love poems for a real lover instead of an imaginary or absent lover. Robert is also incredibly helpful in every area of my life, and has made me a better person for his presence. He’s not in any way my victim; he certainly doesn’t have to “cope” with my being an artist. We have a relationship of reciprocal love, trust, and respect. I don’t find any conflict between my personal life and my public art, nor would I ever sacrifice one for the other. Luckily, I don’t have to make such a choice.

SA: You say, “Certainly there’s no longer a cultural space or validation of that sense of sacred vocation, and that’s not all to the bad.”

Can you remember the sensation of there being such a cultural space? If so, can you pinpoint the moment of its disappearance? And, further, if so, do you have any theories as to why it disappeared?

The optimistic bit at the end of your statement (“…and that’s not all to the bad”) interests me as well; can you specify?

RS: I personally can’t remember such a cultural space, though I had a quite romantic/Romantic sense of the exalted status of Art as an adolescent, very much as distinct from the values of my actual surroundings. But the religion of art, the belief in art for art’s sake, and particularly of art as something set above and even against life, has been dead for some time, at least since the death of Robert Lowell, probably since the death of T.S. Eliot. The abstract expressionist painters were the last grand representatives of that tradition (or anti-tradition) in America.

The religion of art was a product of the nineteenth century. It was a reaction against the rise of capitalism, industrialism, and mass media, and against the erosion of art’s role as a mode of social and cultural legitimation. Artists had to find some new role for themselves and some new justification for their activities. As German critical theorist Theodor Adorno, among others, has pointed out, high culture and mass culture came into being at the same time and define each other by their mutual exclusion. The exalted ideal of autonomous art had and has a liberatory, utopian role, preserving a space not colonized by capital, not dominated by instrumental reason and the profit motive. But it was also a highly negative and insular ideal, circumscribed by that which it refused. Art as an escape or an evasion of life is very limited and limiting. A more open and flexible conception of the aesthetic, though still one that doesn’t just surrender to the tyranny of things as they are, might have more creative possibilities for our present historical moment. Though I am opposed to many things in our current culture and society, I don’t think that an assumed antagonism between art and life as such is healthy or productive.

SA: Upon further reflection on the very first question, I wonder why we haven’t been presented with many examples from this tradition (Zelda and Fitz/ Nora and Joyce / Bellow and many) when it comes to the black American literary artist. Is it due to a subconscious prejudice that the distance between a black writer’s subject and his/her actual Life is so slight that examining the tension between the two is seen as pointless? (In other words, is “black writing”, do you think, less often framed as Art than reportage?)

RS: I confess that I’m not very clear what you mean by this question. From what I can tell, any number of black writers, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, have had spouses and/or partners who supported, encouraged, and facilitated their art, emotionally and materially. In the case of jazz musicians, there seem to have been many mates who did all the work to keep their men together while they made their art (often while being alcoholics or drug addicts) and even, in the case of Alice Coltrane, seem to have suppressed their own artistic activities to facilitate their mates’. This is not necessarily the most positive thing, as the list of examples you present indicates. Artists shouldn’t and needn’t exploit others to do their art (except in the sense that one is always mining or “exploiting” one’s own experiences for materials, even if the end result of that process is very far from a personal portrait), and while I think that people should be supportive of their partners, I don’t think that they should subordinate their needs and desires to another’s. Any good relationship should be a negotiation between equals, in which both parties’ needs are taken into consideration.

As for the prejudice that the distance between a black writer’s subject and his or her actual life is so slight as to be meaningless, it is very pervasive and hardly subconscious. Black writing is frequently framed less as art than as reportage, and this is often seen as its mission. It’s not even a document of the writer’s life as an individual, but of his or her position as a “representative” of the race. This is of course the basis of the “positive images” school of thought about black writing, and of the idea that racial “dirty laundry” should not be aired in art by black people. Black writers are expected, by black audiences and by white audiences to embody and enact a recognizable and acceptable version of “blackness” for both black people and white people. Little space is allowed for personal and artistic individuality, or for the complexities of either real life or real art.

SA: I suppose my question about the paucity of Fitz/Zelda-style mythologizing as regards black writers relates to the second part of this answer. When you write, “Little space is allowed for personal and artistic individuality” (regarding perceptions of the black writer), that seems to encompass the fact that classical black writers come to us without the same sort of glamorous romantic mythology attached.

Is it possible that the image-apartheid of Hollywood’s two-class racial system of stars is fairly close, in concept and effect, to the division we see in Literature? In other words, would Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Miller, Sartre, Kerouac, Bellow, Roth, et al (all film-era writers, coincidentally or not), be thinkable as Literary Greats without their attendant romantic mythologies, and where are the equivalent black romantic literary myths?

(I refer to the extent that writers are not just known to academics, but are a part of the broader culture, defining the concept “writer” for Everywoman/man. Even sexual outsider Gertrude Stein had her Alice B. Toklas and the romantic myth of their dyad; even Pynchon and Salinger have the romantic myths of their gnomic isolation.)

Are the myths, in the end, important, or not?

RS: There is definitely a distinction between the writer as an artist and the writer as a figure, as there is in other fields of artistic endeavor. People know about Jackson Pollock the hard-drinking social rebel who died in a car wreck in the same way that they know about James Dean the hard-living social rebel who died in a car wreck. Their lives and especially their deaths are part of their mythology, and many have heard of them who have never seen one of Pollock’s drip paintings or one of Dean’s few films. (It’s not coincidental that a film was made about Pollock.) Many of those who know about Pollock as a figure would probably dislike his paintings. But Pollock and Dean are images, and it’s through their images, not their work, that they have a cultural presence. This holds true as well for more traditional figures like Michelangelo and Beethoven (about whom movies have also been made), known respectively as the tortured genius who sculpted the David by people who know and care nothing about art and as the tormented genius who composed even though he was deaf by people who know and care nothing about classical music.

Black artists tend not to be accorded such mythological treatment, except when they are drug addicted jazz artists who died young, like Billie Holiday or Charlie Parker. Many more people know Parker’s image and nickname (“Bird,” as the film about him was called) than know his music or would appreciate it if they did. Proportionately more people know (and enjoy) Holiday ‘s music, but her music is heard as a reflection or even a symptom of her archetypically tragic life: her suffering is seen as the key to her music. At least in America, artists in general tend to be seen as naifs who produce art the way trees produce leaves (when they are not seen as egghead intellectuals who create work deliberately cut off from “reality”), but that is particularly the case with black artists, who are viewed as “naturals” who make their art instinctively, not as craftsmen who carefully work on and think through their work. That may be one reason why there is so much more mythologization of black musicians than of black writers. It’s harder to see writing in such purely instinctual terms, whereas music is seen as primal and visceral, something operating at an unconscious level deeper level than intellect. One even sees this dichotomy in sports, in which black athletes are seen as naturals and white athletes are seen as thinkers and strategizers.

The myths are important in terms of the cultural presence of artists as figures; they are the means by which artists make their cultural impact, by which artists circulate as cultural currency. However, the myths are often impediments to experiencing the work itself, smothered as it so often is under preconceptions and personal legends. It’s hard for the work to be taken on its own terms, and not as a reflection of the artist.

Nor is it coincidental that Gertrude Stein was independently wealthy, as both Salinger and Pynchon appear to be. The issues you bring up are matters of class and social position as much as they are of race, though obviously in America these three factors are intertwined.

SA: So-called “black culture,” as portrayed in the popular media and casually defined by most of the planet, presents a rather macho impression. One perceives that to be a black American Artist, or to be Gay and black, seem like steps along the same basic path. Is this an illusion, or does the black male Fine Artist read, by default, as more feminine than his “white” counterpart? To what extent do the gender values as applied to the “races” in modern America amplify (or distort) the Artist?

RS: This is a very interesting question. It’s not something I’d thought about previously, but it’s very insightful. There is a feminization to the idea of being an artist in America, a notion that art is “unmasculine.” This is one root of the macho posturing so pervasive in American art, from Jackson Pollock to Miles Davis to Norman Mailer. [Please not that I have deleted the mention of Richard Hugo, as that might not have been a fair characterization.] I agree that this sense is even more intense for black male artists, who, like black men in general, are expected to be tough, to be strong, to constantly be fighting “The Man.”

The popularity of gangsta rap and of the thuggish, brutish, violent, and misogynistic image of black masculinity it valorizes is a perfect (and perfectly depressing) example of this. Even to be educated and well spoken is often seen as “trying to be white,” as a denial of blackness. This model, in which every black man is a “nigga” and every black woman is a “bitch” or a “ho,” clearly embodies a huge amount of internalized racism and self-hatred. There’s little room in mainstream black American culture for a sensitive and intelligent black man, let alone for an artistic black man, let alone for a gay black man. Gayness is often seen as a betrayal of blackness, as “the white man’s disease,” as an abdication of maleness.

These values, if one can call them that, clearly distort black people’s behavior, self-image, and images of other black people (not to mention white people’s views of black people), and they certainly deform black popular art to the point at which I, at least, can barely listen to most contemporary black music or watch most contemporary black movies or television programs. Most black poets subscribe to some version of the identity politics aesthetic, though in general they focus on pointing out black oppression (which many of them have never experienced, coming as most artists of any color do from socially and economically comfortable backgrounds and having secure academic positions) and attempting to celebrate the positive aspects of black culture (including trying to salvage what they can of rap culture, in an attempt to feel connected to “the people”). Many black artists often turn to rather forced identifications with an idealized version of West Indian culture (hence the pervasive dreadlocks) and an even more idealized and reified “African culture” (as if African culture were unitary, as if there were any direct continuity between black North American culture and the various cultures of the regions of West Africa from whom the ancestors of most black Americans were taken, or as if East African Swahili language and culture, for example, had any connection to American black people at all).

SA: I’m interested in what strikes me as your fairly amazing journey. At what point did you begin to assert yourself as either a young Poet, or Gay, in surroundings that must have been hostile to both identities? How open were you about either? Did you have surprising allies?

And which was most jarring: being a “fish-out-of-water” among America’s urban poor, or being the same sort of unlikely creature in the halls of Academe?

RS: In one sense I could say that my journey began with my conception, as my mother bought me books before I was born, determined as she was that I was going to be smart and get an education that would take me out of the ghetto and into a better life. I read constantly as a child and was always good at what they used to call “language arts,” though it wasn’t until I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a ninth grade literature class that I encountered poetry and decided that’s what I wanted to do, that I wanted my words to have the effect on others that Eliot’s words had on me. My mother’s death soon after that encounter cemented the sense of poetry as a necessity for me, the only thing that kept me sane (to the extent that I was sane) for several years.

I realized/decided that I was gay fairly young as well, and that, like poetry, offered a sense of a refuge and an escape from the unwelcoming world around me. No one around me was gay, no one I knew was gay, and so the gay world I conjured up (from gay liberation books that were outdated by the time I read them and from soft-core gay porno magazines I bought from corner newsstands) provided an image of a place I could eventually go where I would be accepted, would find a home for myself.

In both cases, poetry and gayness, the indifference or hostility of my surroundings contributed to my commitment to them, because they separated me from those surroundings. My openness about being gay was an act of defiance, a refusal to be limited by my circumstances. This was especially the case when I moved to Macon, Georgia, after my mother’s death, living with eight other people in my Aunt Mildred’s three bedroom house, sleeping on a rollaway bed in the den. I clung to everything and anything that emphasized how much I didn’t belong there, how much I was not like them. And my relatives and the other denizens of Macon took every opportunity to remind me that I wasn’t one of them, and couldn’t be even if I wanted to, which I very much did not.

If I were to compare my sense of alienation from the ghettoes in which I grew up or from my mother’s boorish, often violent, and intensely anti-intellectual relatives in Georgia with the alienation I experienced as a scholarship student at various private schools in New York, as a college student (again on scholarship) at various elite institutions of higher learning, or as a faculty member in academia, I would say that it was much greater in the former situations. At least there has always been something I could get out of Academe–an education, a degree of social mobility–whereas there was nothing to be gotten from either my ghetto neighbors or my relatives. And while I have often experienced rejection of various forms, both subtle and more overt, in academia, including racism, homophobia, and even anti-intellectualism, it has never involved the threat or reality of violence which was omnipresent in my childhood and adolescence.

Though I hardly feel that I “fit in” in academia or in the literary world, I have done much better for myself there than I ever could have either in the Bronx ghetto or in Macon, Georgia. There was no place for me at all in those places.

2: Intraview with T. R. Dennis

T. Raleigh Dennis’s epic novel, “The Broken Word,” first came to my attention when I was a high school student, not quite ready for the “adult” world of literary fiction, yet vaguely disenchanted with the Sci Fi I’d had my nose buried in since first reading a book by Arthur C. Clarke at the age of nine or ten. I found a paperback of “The Broken Word” in a bargain bin, in a University of Chicago campus book store, drawn to it by its cover, which had a Sci Fi look about it, and took it home expecting to be treated to a space opera.

What I found in Dennis’s novel (his only novel; his only known published work; now long out of print) was the imaginative range that had drawn me to Sci Fi, but something else, too… the something I’d been missing in my reading until then: human life as I knew it. Even as I couldn’t quite grasp why the three main characters in Dennis’s book were doing, saying and thinking what they were, I recognized immediately that my confusion in their presence was identical to my confusion in the presence of my family and friends and everyone else; my teachers and the family doctor and all the strangers on the street. Reading “The Broken Word” produced my first epiphany: that human life is profoundly irrational, and only Art can really make sense of it.

I lost my original copy of “The Broken Word” and was delighted to find another copy in a secondhand bookstore specializing (ironically) in Sci Fi. Managing to lose this book yet again, I was given (by an unusually merciful deity of the random fates) a third chance approximately fifteen years later, happening across a German translation, miraculously, in Berlin.

The astronomically improbable luck of finding “The Broken Word” in Berlin (with its deeply Midwestern characters suddenly speaking in German, no less) sent me on a quest to track down the author himself, T. Raleigh Dennis. For two years I’ve been feeding the name into search engines and drawing blanks, the quixotic quest becoming a Friday night tradition of exceedingly low promise. For two years: nothing.

Two weeks ago, however, expecting the usual blank, I was surprised to turn up one result: a commenter on a Lit Blog, using the screen name “TR Dennis”, had left an interesting quotation. The screen name led to an email address and, to make a long-ish story short, I conducted this brief interview as a consequence.

SA: It wasn’t until you sent me a photo of yourself that I realized that you’re “black” or African-American. I have to admit that this “development” inspires another species of interview question entirely; in fact, I’ve thrown my original questions out the window. Do you mind if we follow this new direction of inquiry?

TRD: Not at all.

SA: As far as I know, “The Broken Word” is your only published novel.  If this is so, I can’t help being reminded of another, more famous one-off, Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” which came out to universal acclaim, only to precede one of the most notorious cases of writer’s block in the Twentieth Century.

TRD: Yes, it’s my only book, published or otherwise. The difference between my case and Mr. Ellison’s would be that whereas he tried to write another book after his first, I did not. I had no interest in doing so. I felt that I had said what I needed to, to the people I wanted to say it to. If I’d written a second and third book they would have been fraudulent efforts, because my reasons could only have been the desire for money or fame. I guess I mean here to defy what Sam Johnson said, “None but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” If I were to state my honest belief I would remove “except” from that sentence.

SA: In Ellison’s case, I always felt, it was the narrow range of the subject matter he was “allowed” to address, on top of the crushing self-consciousness aggravated by trying to follow up on such a massive literary success, which silenced him.

TRD: If I am permitted to be honest again, I wouldn’t know enough about Ellison’s work or life to comment on your observation.

SA: “The Broken Word” has been out of print for a while now, but it remained in print for quite a few years, despite being off the critical radar and enjoying what I would imagine was almost nonexistent publicity. Was the book’s relative durability… here we are discussing it in the 21st century, and it was written in 1952… a testament to the quality of the writing, and the mysterious karma of literature, which seems to dictate that no great book is every truly forgotten?

TRD: My book was helped a lot by its cover (here I am compelled to be brutally honest a third time, which makes me nervous). People often mistook it for Science Fiction because of the original cover, which was an image of the constellation Cassiopeia photographed by the observatory at Palomar. During the heyday of pulp genres like Westerns and Science Fiction, fly-by-night publishers would buy up genre almost literally by the ton. They would sell the books off in batches to be sold from revolving racks in outlets such as drugstores, record shops, bus stations and newsstands. The covers of these books were more important than their contents, and my book had a very evocative cover.

SA: Speaking for myself, the first line of “The Broken Word”, which I read before I was fully equipped to understand it, was like falling down a rabbit hole. It made such an impression that I still, to this day, know it by heart (although the German translation I have before me is somewhat different):  “After doing it, they agreed to never do it again, though they knew too well, deep down, that it wouldn’t be long before the urge to repeat the mistake imposed itself.”

TRD: Thank you. But the actual sentence differs by one word, which is “all”. After doing it, they all agreed to never do it again, though they knew too well, deep down, that it wouldn’t be long before the urge to repeat the mistake imposed itself. The version you remember is ambiguous. With the “all”, “they” go from being two in number, maybe, to being at least three. Which means the reader is being let in on a perversion or a conspiracy.

You can imagine how a reader expecting rocket ships or robots would end up scratching his head after such an intro. My book probably broke some kind of record for the number of times a copy was discarded after only the first sentence.

SA:  Was the cover photo deliberately misleading?

TRD: No, the cover photo is symbolic. The constellation depicted is Cassiopeia, and the myth of Cassiopeia is an ordering motif within the novel.

SA: What are some of the special problems that African-American writers face?

TRD:  Every writer’s problems are unique. Questions like that infuriate me.