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Philip Roth on the value of serious literature amid the hellscape of contemporary America

Philip Roth, 1973

Here’s Nathaniel Rich, writing for The New York Review of Books about Philip Roth’s Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013:

Between the interviews given in self-defense, the conversations with peers, and the exchanges with angry Jews, there emerges from Roth’s nonfiction a unified theory of the novel as a bulwark against the excesses of modern society. The assaults on the novelist come from two fronts. The first is the social chaos of a nation in political crisis and cultural decline. Roth began to speak about this danger in 1960:

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

This problem obsessed Saul Bellow too; it was the dominant subject of his nonfiction. “The noise of life is the great threat,” he wrote in 1970, “the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.” Bellow worried that the fervor of public life would destroy the private conditions necessary for the creation and appreciation of art. Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction?

Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now. American reality continued to overwhelm the imagination during the Vietnam War, which Roth likened to “living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky,” and under the administration of the “grotesque” Richard Nixon, the subject of Our Gang. And in Reagan’s Eighties, dominated as they were by “a proliferation of . . . media stupidity and cynical commercialism — American-style philistinism run amok,” a time when, Roth complained, it became “easier for even the best-educated people” to discuss movies and television shows than literature.

The threat continued in the 1990s, when Roth bemoaned to Ivan Klíma the obliterating influence of “that trivializer of everything, commercial television”; during the administration of George W. Bush (“we are ambushed . . . by the unpredictability that is history”); and in the final years of the Obama administration: “Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps. . . .” This year, in an e-mail published in The New Yorker, Roth worried about the newest manifestation of this threat: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”

Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture — an age-old pastime for aging writers. But in his earlier critical essays, he described literature as not only immune to the incursions of the “mass electronically amplified philistine culture,” but its most powerful antidote. What better refuge from the simplifying influence of mass culture than the richness of great fiction, with its openhearted embrace of moral contradiction and emotional complexity? As the shrill hue increases to an insane volume, fiction’s value grows ever more precious. “Where the mass media inundate us with inane falsifications of human affairs,” Roth wrote in 1990, “serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious of it.” In the current deluge, we have more reason to cling to that preserver than ever before.

Full article: “Roth Agonistes

Photo by Nancy Crampton (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The centering power of reading in an age of mass distraction

If reading is not always an act of liberation, it is at least an act of self-definition. It is an experience of solitude in which we become unavailable to those immediately around us. Even when we read to someone else, usually a lover or a child, or have them read to us, the effect is to be pulled together into an orbit defined by the book. In reading we make a public space into something private, and find a way to be private in public. . . .

What’s more, we are never just reading: we are always reading in a specific place and time, in a certain chair, at the window or in the basement, hot or cold, sleepy or wide awake, alone or in a crowded room. In an essay on Ruskin, Proust writes that when we look back on our favorite childhood days of reading, what we remember is all the interruptions that kept us from the book — the family that was calling us to dinner, for example, the very dinner that was ruined because we spent the whole meal wishing we were still reading. But now the memory of the reading is riddled with all its interruptions, and we look back on them fondly as part of the same event.”

Maybe that also describes what it’s like to watch movies or television shows. I don’t think it describes what it’s like to use a phone. It could be that in ten or twenty years I will look back fondly on these nights on the couch, where I panic over the headlines, compulsively like photos on Instagram, check my email, and return to the headlines on the great hamster wheel of contemporary enervation. Is this reading? Will I recall the interruptions that wrench me away from the latest political disaster with fond nostalgia, the cries of the baby intermingled with tweets about sexual harassment and rising sea levels? What I know is that on the nights when I force myself to open a book, I feel like a person, an individual engaged in an activity at once secret and communal, rather than a receptacle of mass information.

Full text: “Reading in the Dark

The Folio Society’s new edition of Lovecraft’s stories looks gorgeous (and eldritch)

The gorgeous-looking new edition of Lovecraft’s stories from The Folio Society, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, has this really effective (and kind of gorgeous in its own right) promotional video to go with it. Sadly, I don’t have $120 to spare. But with illustrations by Dan Hillier — who comes off quite well in the video, and whose work for this project looks amazing — and an introduction by Alan Moore, the book sure is tempting. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This edition, based on its sister limited edition [at $575!] marries Lovecraft’s best-known fiction with two modern masters of the macabre, the acclaimed artist Dan Hillier and author Alan Moore. In his beautifully crafted new preface, Moore finds Lovecraft at once at odds with and integral to the time in which he lived: ‘the improbable embodiment of an estranged world in transition’. Yet, despite his prejudices and parochialisms, he ‘possessed a voice and a perspective both unique in modern literature’.

Hillier’s six mesmerising, portal-like illustrations embrace the alien realities that lurk among the gambrel roofs of Lovecraft’s landscapes. By splicing Victorian portraits and lithographs with cosmic and Lovecraftian symbolism, each piece – like the stories themselves – pulls apart the familiar to reveal what lies beneath.

The edition itself shimmers with Lovecraft’s ‘unknown colours’, bound in purple and greens akin to both the ocean depths and mysteries from outer space. The cover is embossed with a mystical design by Hillier, while a monstrous eye stares blankly from the slipcase.

I find this all quite winning, personally, for the way it underscores Lovecraft’s growing prevalence and relevance in contemporary culture. For more about the new edition, see the write-ups at Tor (where several of the Hillier illustrations are shown), Wired (where the writer amusingly frames his encounter with the book as a harrowing Lovecraftian brush with forbidden knowledge and eldritch monstrosities), and The Verge. The latter presents an interview with Hillier. It also bears the best title of any of these articles, notwithstanding the slight misspelling of Great Cthulhu’s name: “A new collection of Lovecraft stories looks like an artifact from the Cthulu universe.”

What a shame the world isn’t just driving over hills and never coming to a town

The sun was gone. The sky lingered its colors for a time while they sat in the clearing. At last, he heard a whispering. She was getting up. She put out her hand to take his. He stood beside her, and they looked at the woods around them and the distant hills. They began to walk away from the path and the car, away from the highway and the town. A spring moon rose over the land while they were walking.

The breath of nightfall was rising up out of the separate blades of grass, a warm sighing of air, quiet and endless. They reached the top of the hill, and without a word, sat there watching the sky.

He thought to himself that this was impossible; that such things did not happen. He wondered who she was, and what she was doing here.

Ten miles away, a train whistled in the spring night and went on its way over the dark evening earth, flashing a brief fire. And then, again, he remembered the old story, the old dream. The thing he and his friend had discussed, so many years ago.

There must be one night in your life that you will remember forever. There must be one night for everyone. And if you know that the night is coming on and that this night will be that particular night, then take it and don’€™t question it and don’€™t talk about it to anyone ever after that. For if you let it pass it might not come again. Many have let it pass, many have seen it go by and have never seen another like it, when all the circumstances of weather, light, moon and time, of night hill and warm grass and train and town and distance were balanced upon the trembling of a finger. . . .

He woke during the night. She was awake, near him.

“Who are you?” he whispered. She said nothing.

“I could stay another night,” he said.

But he knew that one can never stay another night. One night is the night, and only one. After that, the gods turn their backs.

“I could come back in a year or so.”

Her eyes were closed, but she was awake.

“But I don’t know who you are,” he said.

“You could come with me,” he said, “to New York.”

But he knew that she could never be there, or anywhere but here, on this night.

“And I can’t stay here,” he said, knowing that this was the truest and most empty part of all.

He waited for a time and then said again, “Are you real? Are you really real?”

They slept. The moon went down the sky toward morning.

He walked out of the hills and the forest at dawn, to find the car covered with dew. He unlocked it and climbed in behind the wheel, and sat for a moment looking back at the path he had made in the wet grass.

He moved over, preparatory to getting out of the car again. He put his hand on the inside of the door and gazed steadily out. The forest was empty and still. The path was deserted. The highway was motionless and serene. There was no movement anywhere in a thousand miles.

He started the car motor and let it idle. The car was pointed east, where the orange sun was now rising slowly.

“All right,” he said quietly. “Everyone, here I come. What a shame you’re all still alive. What a shame the world isn’t just hills and hills, and nothing else to drive over but hills, and never coming to a town.”

He drove away east, without looking back.

— From Ray Bradbury, “One Night in Your Life,” in The Toynbee Convector

A fascinating and important re-visioning of God and religion: “God: An Autobiography”

It was around 2010 that I first became aware of Jerry Martin’s book in progress titled God: An Autobiography as Told to a Philosopher. I was deep into blogging at the (now-defunct) Demon Muse site at the time, and I was developing A Course in Demonic Creativity from those materials. So thoughts about the experience of perceived communication from an external psychological or spiritual source were very much on my mind. And when I began reading excerpts and even entire chapters from the God book at its website, I was transfixed. The official description that accompanies the eventually published full version of the book will indicate why:

The voice announced, “I am God.” For Jerry Martin, that encounter began a personal, intellectual, and spiritual adventure. He had not believed in God. He was a philosopher, trained to be skeptical — to doubt everything. So his first question was: Is this really God talking? There were other urgent questions: What will my wife think? Why would God want to talk to me? Does God want me to do something? He began asking all the questions about life and death and ultimate things to which he — and all of us — have sought answers: Love and loss. Happiness and suffering. Good and evil. Death and the afterlife. The world’s religions. The ways God communicates with us. How to live in harmony with God. God: An Autobiography tells the story of these mind-opening conversations with God.

Jerry L. Martin was raised in a Christian home. By the time he left college, he was not a believer. But he was interested in the big questions and so he studied the great thinkers. He became a philosophy professor and served as head of the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to scholarly articles on epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and public policy, he wrote reports on education that received national attention and was invited to testify before Congress. He stepped down from that career to write this book.

So you can understand my interest. I got involved in some of the online communications with Jerry that appreciative readers were conducting through the book site, and it swiftly became evident that he and I shared a similar set of concerns, although my own experiences have imparted a decidedly darker cast to my thoughts and writings about the perception of divine and daemonic communication. Jerry and I also conversed through Facebook (to which I only recently returned, with a new account, after a multi-year hiatus), and I found him to be a very kind and generous-spirited correspondent. When the full, final edition of God: An Autobiography was published last year by Calladium, I was pleased to see it make slow but sure and steady headway as readers began to catch on to its import. Kirkus Reviews weighed in with a sparklingly positive (and nicely informative) response in which they called the book “a captivating religious dialogue for the modern age.” A writer for Reading Religion, the book review publication of the American Academy of Religion, praised God: An Autobiography as “the most path-breaking material for future philosophical and theological reflection I have come across in a long time.”

I concur with both assessments. Today I finally got around to writing my own brief review of the book. I posted it at Amazon a little while ago (making it only the second Amazon review that I have ever written; the first was for The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett). Now I’m sharing it with Teeming Brain readers, many of whom I suspect will find it, and the book itself, of interest. Read the rest of this entry

On the burning of manuscripts in the digital age

When we talk about burning books or manuscripts, we usually think in terms of a Nazi-like, Fahrenheit 451-ish circumstance of repression and censorship. But there’s a venerable and remarkable tradition of writers burning their own manuscripts, or expressing a desire to burn them, or talking about the value of burning them. Think Kafka (burned most of his life’s work) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (burned his poems before becoming a priest). Think Umberto Eco, who once said that “later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it.” Think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whose first draft was burned either by Robert Louis Stevenson at the urging of his wife Fanny or, according to some versions of the story, by Fanny herself because she thought it either artistically unsuccessful or so horrifying that it would ruin his reputation.

But what becomes of all this in the age of digital manuscripts? In a recent essay, Nick Ripatrazone offers an interesting meditation on the long tradition of manuscript burning — especially by writers themselves, but also at the hands of others — and its enduring value:

I’ve only burned one manuscript — the first draft of my first attempt at a novel. I had kept the printed pages in a cardboard box in the garage, deluded that I might return to them years later and finally discover why agents weren’t interested. Instead the pages sat there and collected sawdust and grass clippings. When my wife and I bought a new house, I decided to get rid of the box. I took the first twenty or so pages to the fire pit in our backyard. That night we roasted hot dogs and their oils dripped on my first chapter.

That was years ago. Now, like so many writers, most of my manuscripts live exclusively on my computer screen. Burnt manuscripts seem outdated. They belong in the days of typewriters. Yet writers are no less wracked with self-doubt, anxiety, and frustration than they were in earlier generations. We might not tear our terrible pages out of the typewriter, but we are still often unhappy with what we create.

The emotions that have led writers to burn manuscripts will never disappear. All that has changed is our medium. When I hate a story that I’ve written, I move it to a folder labeled “Writing” on my desktop. Then I drag it to a subfolder labeled “Old Work,” and let it sit there. Grow digital moss. Become forgotten. Yet that action is like stuffing old sneakers into a closet rather than throwing them in the trash. Part of me hopes that the story will be recycled; that a character or even a sentence will migrate into some later work.

If you burn your only copy of a manuscript, you are making a statement: it’s over. There’s simply not as much drama moving a file to the trash bin of your computer as there is watching a conflagration smother your words. So here’s my advice to contemporary writers. Print a copy of that story you hate. Drag the file to the trash bin and make sure the file is permanently deleted. Then take that printed manuscript to a fireplace, or better yet, a bonfire. Set it aflame. Watch the paper blacken and wrinkle. Sometimes we need to burn our pasts, literary or not, to move forward. Trust that your words and secrets are safe, clouded in smoke, soon to become part of the sky.

Full text: “Burn after Reading: On Writerly Self-Immolation

The serendipity of irrelevant reading

From biblical theologian Wesley Hill in First Things:

Irrelevant reading is the sort of reading you do when you pick up a book that, you fear, has nothing whatever to say to your present concern, the thing that’s driving you to want to read in the first place. Say you’re a teacher and you want to learn more about your craft. You may pick up Ken Bain’s marvelous book What the Best College Teachers Do and read it dutifully, annotating the margins and writing pieces of advice to yourself about next year’s lesson plans. But then, on your nightstand, say, you plop Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise down, since you’ve told yourself you’d read it ever since finishing its prequel The Chosen a couple of years ago. Late one night, you stay up and finish it. And you read that gripping scene in the yeshiva where the protagonist Reuven is quizzed mercilessly about arcana from the Talmud, and suddenly, you see not only the kind of teacher you need to be (Socratic, inspiring, relishing the mysterious complexity of your subject) but also find the inspiration you need to finish that next lecture. Your supposedly irrelevant fiction reading becomes more, or at least as, important to you as your allegedly more relevant textbook. And you grasp intuitively what my friend Luke Neff once put into a pithy saying: “Cultural omnivores make the best teachers.”

. . . Not all reading should be “irrelevant.” Some should be assiduous study of the key texts in one’s field. Other reading, the especially pleasurable kind, should be purely recreational. But when one is reading widely, there’s a special kind of delight that emerges when an evidently immaterial book suddenly intersects with what you most need to know in that moment. There’s no telling when such a moment may arrive, so it’s best to keep up a habit of irrelevant reading.

I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign.

MORE: “In Praise of Irrelevant Reading

A pall of uncanny corruption: ‘The Infusorium’ by Jon Padgett

The_Infusorium_by_Jon_Padgett

New chapbook. From Dunhams Manor Press. By one of my dearest friends. Softcover and signed hardcover editions already sold out. Only a few copies of standard (unsigned) hardcover left.

You should PURCHASE.  Update 04/20/15: The book is sold out.

About the book:

Dunnstown is in the midst of a strange season: the choking fogs of the “paper mill days” and the discovery of weirdly altered and elongated skeletons buried within Dunnstown’s sprawling Municipal Park. Homicide detective Raphaella Castellano — a three-year veteran of the DPD — and her partner, Detective Mike Guidry, are on the trail of the murderer responsible for these crimes, an investigation that will draw them both deep within the pall of uncanny corruption which inundates Dunnstown and its unfortunate residents.

About the author:

Jon Padgett is a professional — though lapsed — ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, their daughter, two cats, and a very old dog. Padgett is the founder and longtime administrator of Thomas Ligotti Online (www.ligotti.net), and has been the first publisher for a number of Ligotti’s prose works, including My Work is Not Yet Done and Crampton.

Official endorsements:

That imagination precedes reason in our lives is perhaps the most obvious truth of all. It is the foundation upon which the mind is raised. In The Infusorium Jon Padgett adeptly conjures the more terrible and, we should admit, blatantly captivating aspects of the imagination. What is not obvious is how Padgett has done this and done it so well. While the terrors of his story are imagined, they are no less real for that.”

–Thomas Ligotti

Only a few writers are able to distill the essence of some personal, primal nightmare and transmit it to others. Only a few horror stories are so artfully constructed that they generate an authentic sense of dreadful darkness and impending doom. Jon Padgett is one of those writers. The Infusorium is one of those stories.”

— Matt Cardin

Also check out this wonderful frontispiece, which will appear in the hardcover editions, and whose kabbalistic significance is explained in the chapbook itself.

The_Infusorium_frontispiece

 

 

Forthcoming from Richard Gavin: ‘The Benighted Path: Primeval Gnosis and the Monstrous Soul’

Gustave_Dore_Inferno25

Teem member Richard Gavin has a new book coming out this summer from Theion Publishing — and it’s nonfiction. Richard, as you know, has built a major reputation in recent years as a writer of exquisite weird fiction in a darkly esoteric and philosophical vein, and this book promises to be a kind of nonfiction distillation and amplification of the concepts and viewpoints that animate his stories. Here’s the scoop from the publisher:

Twisting beyond the placid boundaries of civilization is an ancient path. Its stalkers do not march the linear road of human progress but instead orient their souls to the luminous, haunted darkness of the Night Primeval. Many have glimpsed this realm, when sleep has delivered them onto the back of the charging Night-Mare, and recollections of these brief visitations survive in countless tales of terror and in the folklore of locales rumoured to be fey or cursed. Rare, however, is the individual who willingly pays the tariff and passes irretrievably through that twilight of existence in order to become Benighted.

Drawing upon the shadow aspects of a variety of traditions, including the khabit of Ancient Egypt, the Biocentrism of Ludwig Klages, Aghora, the Gothic, and David Beth’s pan-daemonic Kosmic Gnosis, all distilled through the author’s praxis,  The Benighted Path explores the breach through which the egoic self is slain in order to unleash the aspirant’s true Monstrous Soul. Only then may the Benighted offer their adoration to the Gorgon and partake of the Sidereal Feast.

More: “The Benighted Path: Primeval Gnosis and the Monstrous Soul

While waiting for the book’s release, you could do worse than to read the entries in Richard’s column “Echoes from Hades” here at The Teeming Brain:

Image: One of Doré’s illustrations from Dante’s Inferno. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Mummies around the World’ is a ‘truly rollicking blend of scientific and pop culture’

 

Mummies_around_the_World

During a week when mummies are on everybody’s mind because of that widely circulated news story about the mummified Buddhist monk found in a Buddha statue, it’s nice to see that Library Journal has posted a review of my recently published Mummies around the World, which contains a long entry titled “Buddhist self-mummification” that’s written by Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue, the scientists and mummy experts who used to host National Geographic’s Mummy Road Show.

LJ’s verdict, I’m pleased to say, is positive:

This truly rollicking blend of scientific and pop culture offers facts ranging from actual methods of mummification to an entry on the 1955 movie Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and includes trivia-fact boxes. VERDICT: An educational and entertaining compendium that is recommended for all “mummymaniacs” everywhere.

MORE: Review of Mummies around the World (scroll to the bottom of the page)

Remember, you can find the book in your local public, high school, or college library. You can also order it from Amazon, the publisher, and pretty much everyplace else.