The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975)

For all his masks, truth-as-quips, posturing, disingenuousness, I feel some of Andy Warhol the person comes through in this book. It’s also really funny. He outs himself as a serious sugar fiend (being rich means having money to buy candy), often refers to his burning desire to have his own TV show called “Nothing Special” (why didn’t they give that man a TV show?!). He confesses a preference for “Talkers” over “Beauties” (Talkers do, Beauties are), for bad performances over good performances (it’s impossible for bad performances to be phony), an obsession with perfumes, trapping memories through scent.. I do think his love of all things American is genuine. (Wikipedia informs: “The Philosophy was ghostwritten by Warhol’s secretary Pat Hackett and Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello. Much of the material is drawn from conversations Warhol had taped between himself and Colacello and Brigid Berlin.”)

My favorite parts: a chapter on art, describing an heiress trying to live out her “art fantasy” with him by describing him as having taken serious risks with his art. He replies that anyone who cuts salami (for example) is taking a risk (of cutting themselves) and that she’s insulting stuntmen, babysitters, the men who landed on D-Day (etc.), because they really know what it means to take a risk, not artists. The last chapter, which describes him dragging one of his snobby young Factory employees with him to buy underwear at Macy’s is wonderful, too.

Sometimes he speaks in the poetic, and by that I mean he describes an idea centered on an image rather than on a rational, explanatory system. For example, on space:

“My ideal city would be one long Main Street with no cross streets or side streets to jam up traffic. Just one long one-way street. With one tall vertical building where everybody lived with:

  One elevator

  One doorman

  One mailbox

  One washing machine

  One garbage can

  One tree out front

  One movie theater next door

"Main street would be very, very wide, and all you’d have to say to someone to make them feel good is, ‘I saw you on Main Street today.’

"And you’d fill you car up with gas and drive across the street.”

Etc. This isn’t meant literally. People wanted to take him literally which is why he made them angry.

There is a cold-blooded edge to parts of it, the posture is that sex and emotions are a waste of energy, which is also him being self-deprecating in a way, funny. He describes himself as having hurried along his development (dying his hair gray at age 24) so that he could have old problems instead of young problems (which involve more sex and emotions). He puts it in terms of movies vs. television. Movies are intense real emotions; TV is always on, you are always doing something else when watching TV, it’s a drone. He prefers TV. He refers to his tape-recorder as his wife. He’s prescient about describing emotions in terms of chemicals. He never addresses his sexuality.

He has a chapter on Love, which is subtitled “The Fall and Rise of My Favorite Sixties Girl”. It’s a thinly veiled portrait of Edie Sedgwick (he refers to her as “Taxi”), and it’s really mean. He essentially paints himself as always having been simply been fascinated with her in a traffic accident sort of way & describes her as manipulative, selfish and dirty (literally). He puts down any sort of fashion acumen she may have had by attributing her style simply to her being cheap (hence the miniskirts) & attempting to shock her parents. His whole attitude is detached. But by preceding the chapter with the following, in a way, he’s owning his own lack of compassion:

“During the 60s, I think, people forgot what emotions were supposed to be. And I don’t think they’ve ever remembered. I think that once you see emotions from a  certain angle you can never think of them as real again. That’s what more or less happened to me.

"I don’t really know if I was ever capable of love, but after the 60s I never thought in terms of ‘love’ again

"However, I became what you might call fascinated by certain people. One person in the 60s fascinated me more than anybody I had ever known. And the fascination I experienced was probably very close to a certain kind of love.”

(Edie & Andy image I got here.)

Thoughts on Raymond Carver’s Cathedral

While reading fiction, I mark passages that strike me in a writerly way, but this didn’t happen while I was reading the collection Cathedral. I do think Carver’s a brilliant writer, but his genius is in pacing, dialogue. I admire his use of profanity. He has a way of inserting “Goddamn” that’s so funny. 

People talk about Carver in terms of realism, telling working people’s stories in a realistic way, but I always thought his world is stranger, more dislocated  than that. Take the story “Feathers” about a couple going to another couple’s house for dinner – there are the grotesque teeth sitting on the TV, there’s a peacock named Joey, there’s a hideously ugly baby. Oh, there’s a good line: “Even calling it ugly does it credit.” Or “Fever”, a story of a man whose wife has left him, left him alone with their two young kids. He makes her sound a little crazy when she calls on the phone, yes, but she is also genuinely psychic in a way. The bereft husband never questions how she knows what she knows –  this is a conscious move on Carver’s part, it makes it eerie, almost, or more about the man’s psyche than what’s happening in reality.

Stories about marriages ending. A recurrent theme of children spoiling relationships (“Feathers”, “The Compartment”). The grip of alcoholism: in “Vitamins” it’s still kind of a lark, turning dark; “Where I’m Calling From” & “Chef’s House”, fully in the dark side. The couple seems to be the central figure, the couple relationship is at the heart of all of the stories, in a way.

Hard to pick a favourite, I guess “Cathedral” is the obvious choice, it may be Carver’s single best story – so funny, effortless, effervescent. The way he establishes the relationship between the couple – the husband (narrator) is doing his best, “on notice”. He loves his wife, he often disappoints her. She really wants her blind friend to like him, is hoping her husband doesn’t do anything embarrassing. The narrator places you on his side from the beginning, & it feels comfortable there (“A beard on a blind man! Too much I say.”) The use of exclamation marks. It suddenly goes to a metaphysical place, but from this wise guy’s perspective. How do you describe a cathedral to a blind man? It leads to a connection he didn’t think himself capable of.

Full ranking in order of preference:

“Cathedral”
“Feathers”
“Vitamins” (Hard to forget this story.)
“Where I’m Calling From”
“Fever”
“The Bridle” (How life kicks people when you’re down sometimes. The only story with a female narrator, interesting how she feels bound to the woman she’s describing.)
“The Compartment”
“Chef’s House”
“A Small, Good Thing”
“Preservation”
“Careful”
“The Train” (more like a sketch, a beginning of a story than a story proper)

The real artist is never concerned with the fact that the story has been told, but in the experience of reliving it; and he cannot do this if he is not convinced of the opportunity for individual expression it permits.

Anais Nin, The Diary, Volume 1. 

[She writes this in the context of her analysis with Otto Rank. How he, unlike other analysts, doesn’t seek to fit the individual’s story into a pattern in a textbook, a case of X or Y neurosis, but rather delights in each individual’s story, including the ways in which it mirrors an archetype or “textbook case”, in its own unique way. Her example – that he approaches like “an artist when he is about to paint, for the thousandth time, the portrait of the Virgin and Child”.]

Page 295

…an exercise in creation

My father left: love means abandonment and tragedy, either be abandoned or abandon first, etc. Not only the leap over the obstacle of fatality, but a complete artistic rehearsal of the creative instinct which is a leap beyond the human through a complete rebirth, or perhaps being born truly for the first time. To accomplish this it was not sufficient that I should relive the childhood which accustomed me to pain. I must find a realm as strong as the realm of my bondage to sorrow, by the discovery of my positive, active individuality. Such as my power to write […] the most vital core of my true maturity.

Anais Nin, The Diary, Volume 1

Moby Dick = Deadbeat Dad?

“For like certain other omnivorous roving lovers that might be named, my Lord Whale has no taste for the nursery, however much for the bower; and so, being a great traveller, he leaves his anonymous babies all over the world; every baby an exotic.”

Moby Dick, LXVIII-CXXXIV. Illustration by Rockwell Kent

[Every baby an exotic!!!]

Who is the husband?

“Old English did have a feminine word related to Old Norse hūsbōndi that meant ‘mistress of a house,’ namely, hūsbonde. Had this word survived into Modern English, it would have sounded identical to husband—surely leading to ambiguities.”

From the American Heritage Dictionary 

Somehow or other I always lose my guide halfway up the mountain, and he becomes my child. Even my father.

Anais Nin, The Diary, Volume 1

This has always amused me. Men can be in love with literary figures, with poetic and mythological figures, but let them meet with Artemis, with Venus, with any of the goddesses of love, and then they start hurling moral judgments.

Anais Nin, The Diary, Volume 1 (commenting on how Antonin Artaud tried to slut-shame her after she turned down his advances, circa 1933…)

“Give up bearing children and bear hope and love and devotion to those already born”

“Henry [Miller] understands me when I say: ‘I have known motherhood. I have experienced childbearing. I have known a motherhood beyond biological motherhood – the bearing of artists, and life, hope, and creation.’ It was [D.H.] Lawrence who said: Give up bearing children and bear hope and love and devotion to those already born.”

–Anais Nin, The Diary, Volume 1

She did not have children, and I don’t sense any anxiety about this in her diary. She felt in touch with her maternal side, nonetheless, and channeled it into generosity and support for her brother and mother, her unstable, broke writer and artist friends… (For example, it seems she was actually quite influential in editing Miller’s books, pushed him to take out incoherent rants, accounts of bickering with his wife. Supported Artaud, both financially and morally, etc.)

Brilliant take-down of Michel Houllebecq

in this week’s New Yorker. I don’t believe in criticism for the sake of showing off how clever you are. I also think if you are interested in the arts, you will be more satisfied at the end of your life if you worked to support artists rather than take them down. But I also don’t believe solid criticism shouldn’t exist and that negative opinions should never be stated.

Michel Houellebecq’s books have garnered enough attention that they won’t be destroyed by close, critical, rather devastating examination. James Wood isn’t intimidated by Houellebecq’s Frenchness. He exposes his writing as misogynist, pseudo-philosophical, and worse, not that well written:

“Is Michel Houellebecq really a novelist, or is he just a novelizing propagandist? Though his thought can be slapdash and hasty, it is at least earnest, intensely argued, and occasionally thrilling in its leaps and transitions … But the formal structures that are asked to dramatize these ideas – the scenes characters, dialogue, and so on – are generally flimsy and diagrammatic. Characters, usually women, are killed off with flippant dispatch, backstories pencilled in with bald strokes, scenes cursorily sketched, conversation often ludicrously implausible or monotonously self-therapeutic.”

Ouch… I get the feeling people read Houellebecq because of the dramatic nihilism and the “pornographic fervor of his writing and for the theorizing he likes to do around his sex scenes”. It makes you feel cool. And it’s translated from French, he’s a compatriot of Barthes, Lacan, Foucault…

James Wood became my critic-hero when he took down Paul Auster in The New Yorker a few years ago. I had always thought Auster was overrated and formulaic, so much post-modern posturing. I got tired of seeing his books around – so many better novels people could be talking about! I suspected he was big in Europe because his translators were better writers than he was and because they take place in New York City. I kept scouring the web for like-minded readers, to no avail. Wood wrote a wonderfully lucid, analytical and devastating critique of Auster, the essay I had been hungry to read.

Other vastly overrated novelists (in my humble opinion): Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart, Ayn Rand (right? NOT GOOD WRITING, plotting, dialogue, etc.), Tao Lin, Brett Easton Ellis (though I’ve only read Less Than Zero, so perhaps that’s unfair).

Incidentally, there’s another brilliant take-down in this week’s issue. Peter Schjeldahl on Damien Hirst: “Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That’s not Old Master status, but it’s immortality of a sort.”

He has two very incisive sentences (on Hirst’s spot paintings) that could apply to so much contemporary poetry I encounter: “His work comprehends all manner of things about previous art except, crucially, why it was created. It smacks less of museums than of art-school textbooks. What may pass for meaning in the spot paintings is the sum of their associations in the history of abstraction. The more you know of that, the cleverer the paintings might make you feel. Buying one, you can hang it on your wall like a framed diploma from Smartypants U.”