Thursday, October 26, 2006

# 8 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler

In his conclusion to Walden, Henry David Thoreau mused,
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
This description of individualism has morphed and shrunk: we now
say, “He marches to the beat of his own drum,” about a creative character who doesn’t follow societal or group norms.

Thoreau himself was such a character, as was Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born author of Darkness at Noon. Published in 1940, this anti-Stalinist novel, in which a political prisoner is compelled to confess bogus counterrevolutionary crimes, is in some ways a companion to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Each an
autodidact, Thoreau and Koestler produced politically conscious literary works that were—and continue to be—internationally influential, and then largely abandoned such endeavors to engage in wide-ranging scientific inquiries. (Each experienced name reversal: the former was born “David Henry”; the latter was born “Kösztler Artúr”—Hungarian surnames traditionally come first).

The now common insertion of “marching” into Thoreau’s pacific phrasing emphasizes drumming’s military aspect. Today's thinkers and leaders still mull over the conception of ideological stepping to a normative rhythm. The present Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, listed this quote in his
“Rules,” which were publicized in The Wall Street Journal: “’History marches to the drum of a clear idea.’ -- W.H. Auden.”

In Africa drumming has for ages
contributed to the “emotional and spiritual preparedness of the population for battle.” In Europe and North America drums signaled troop movements and, before and between battles, instilled uniform precision. This last purpose was fussed over by a Founding Control Freak, George Washington, during the Revolutionary War in 1777:
“The drums and fifes of each are to be collected in the center of it; and a tune for the quick step played, but with such moderation, that the men may step to it with ease; and without dancing along and totally disregarding the music, as too often has been the case.”
Koestler was intimately familiar with the drums of war across Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s. We might describe him, with Washington’s accompanying fifes in our ears, as both a
whistleblower and a pied piper. As the former, he was from 1931-1938 a Communist until, after witnessing abuse, corruption and death, he turned avidly anti-Communist—Darkness at Noon is one resulting product. As the latter, he called a variety of tunes, years before many others would follow, on topics such as parapsychology, creativity, euthanasia, globalism, and nuclear disarmament.

Drumming isn’t always militaristic; it can be
communicative, and therefore consciousness-raising, or ritualistic and hedonistic, and therefore ecstasy-inducing. One insightful artist encapsulated all these senses while entertaining, confronting and educating contemporary America. Chuck D, the stentorian MC-activist for the hip-hop group Public Enemy, famously intoned “The rhythm, the rebel,” as he launched into “Rebel Without a Pause.” The phrase has become a ubiquitous tagline.

The best drummer the centathlete has ever seen live is
Jeff “Tain” Watts; the first time with Wynton Marsalis in West Palm Beach, the second with Branford Marsalis in Boston. A jazz virtuoso, Watts can cook and swing up-tempo, and he can gracefully punctuate a ballad. During one soft, slow number, the centathlete watched him tap up and down the cymbal stands as well as the sides, rather than the skins, of his drums.

Tapping plays a large role in Darkness at Noon. The political prisoners, unable to speak to each other, communicate throughout the narrative by tapping in code on the walls. One man refuses to divulge his name and is referred to as “Rip Van Winkle.”

Watts
related the origin of his nickname:
JTW: (Laughing) I know. I was in Florida with Wynton. We were driving rental cars from West Palm Beach to Miami and Kenny Kirkland and I were in a car. We drove through one of those outdoor safari things with the drugged up animals, bears and lions and stuff like that. We left there and went past a gas station and it was called Chieftain Gas. And he said, "Chief Tain, oh, Jeff Tain, that's going to be your name." And I was like, "Sure, right." And the rest is that's it.
Watts played with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland until the latter two joined
Sting for his initial solo albums after the break-up of The Police. Sting is a significant proponent of some of Arthur Koestler’s ideas.

The fourth Police album was inspired by and named after the 1967 Koestler
book, The Ghost in the Machine, which posited that man has a primitive, animalistic brain as well as an advanced, noble brain. As a result of intensified evolution, man has become automated; the detachment of and conflict between his two brains causes violence and war (ex. The Police’s “Demolition Man”). Koestler proposed a “peace pill” or other preventive medicine as the only hope against ongoing destruction.

Koestler became
aware of his musical influence:
"Look at this. Did you ever see a magazine called the New Musical Express? It turns out there is a pop group called The Police - I don't know why they are called that, presumably to distinguish them from the punks - and they've made an album of my essay "The Ghost in the Machine." I didn't know anything about it until my clipping agency sent me a review of the record."
In fact, Sting’s interest in Koestler wasn’t gratuitous or momentary; he wasn’t just making use of an idiosyncratic vocabulary to craft and enhance his pop songs. Consider these comments from an
interview in 1994, 13 years after “The Ghost in the Machine” was recorded, about Amazonian culture:
STING: I think the tendency for us in the West to call such lifestyles primitive, it isn't...couldn't be further from the truth if anything. We're more primitive than they are, in that they know exactly where every artifact in their lives comes from; every tree, where the furniture comes from; every blade of grass; they're responsible for their environment. We, on the other hand, have no idea where this plastic came from, or even how it is made; we have no idea; no. We don't know where the wood came from or the leather for this chair. So we're not as responsible. We tend to be irresponsible and therefore rather primitive.
This is a regurgitation of Koestler’s following
passage:
“Modern man lives isolated in his artificial environment, not because the artificial is evil as such, but because of his lack of comprehension of the forces which make it work - of the principles which relate his gadgets to the forces of nature, to the universal order. It is not central heating which makes his existence ‘unnatural,’ but his refusal to take an interest in the principles behind it. By being entirely dependent on science, yet closing his mind to it, he leads the life of an urban barbarian.”
Sting and The Police were not the only intellectual rock band, just as Koestler was not the only former British novelist (Koestler became a British citizen in 1948) who explored psychopharmacology and post-war society. Jim Morrison named his band “The Doors” after the 1954 book,
The Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley.

Whereas Huxley took mescaline and then praised its religious and mystical effects, Koestler took LSD in experiments at Harvard (under Timothy Leary’s direction) and at the University of Michigan, and then
disparaged its benefits:
"I profoundly admire Aldous Huxley, both for his philosophy and uncompromising sincerity. But I disagree with his advocacy of 'the chemical opening of doors into the Other World', and with his belief that drugs can procure 'what Catholic theologians call a gratuitous grace'. Chemically induced hallucinations, delusions and raptures may be frightening or wonderfully gratifying; in either case they are in the nature of confidence tricks played on one's own nervous system."
Before he tripped on acid, Koestler traveled to diverse locales. In the 1920’s, as a Zionist, he worked on a kibbutz in Palestine. In 1931, as a journalist in Germany, he flew on the
Graf Zeppelin expedition of the North Pole.

In 1932, as a Communist in the Soviet Union, he met the American poet, Langston Hughes, as
detailed in The Harvard Crimson:

“Hughes and Koestler met by chance in Ashkhabad in 1932, and it is interesting to compare their accounts of the weeks they spent together in Russian Central Asia. Koestler had come to inspect the accomplishments of the Soviet Five Year Plan in backward areas such as Ashkhabad, while Hughes was enjoying a free vacation at the expense of the Russians after the movie he had come to Russia to make had turned into a fiasco…

“’As I lay on the sheetless bed,’ Koestler writes in The Invisible Writing—‘enveloped by gloom and stench, counting the familiar stains on the wall which crushed bed-bugs leave behind, I heard the sound of a gramophone in the next room.’ It was Hughes, playing Sophie Tucker on his phonograph, not bothering to notice the dirt. While Koestler was disgusted by the filth and unsanitary living habits, and only briefly amused by a local purge trial, Hughes was enjoying lavish Turk hospitality and occasionally reading the voluminous notes Koestler took each day. What Koestler found most everywhere failed to meet his expectations, and Hughes, having none, was mostly satisfied.


”When Koestler described those days in 1953, he apologized, ‘I found it impossible to revive the naive enthusiasm of the period.’ This was not Hughes' way. His enthusiasm stayed fresh because it was for people and things, not ideas, which date faster. While he protested violently against the Scottsboro decision and later against Franco's bombing of Madrid, his protest was not a Party member's but always that of an individual. As he was convinced by the discovery of a swank little restaurant in Tashkent: ‘The system under which the successful live—left or right, capitalist or communist—did not seem to make much difference to that group of people, in every city around the globe, who managed by hook or crook to live well.’”

Langston Hughes was a jazz lover and is now a hip-hop icon, recalling earlier tangents to Tain Watts and Chuck D. Koestler’s influence on music, aside from Sting, is spotty, though his theories crop up in manga and many other cultural forums.

In 1937, as a reporter in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler was captured by Franco’s forces. He expected execution and was
jailed in Seville.

The centathlete once visited that elegant city. On an August night he and a friend attended an expansive outdoor festival on the city’s outskirts. Several bands were playing simultaneously on stages positioned among dozens of stalls serving drinks and food. (One hospitable bartender gave the centathlete, because he was a New Yorker, a beer on the house—it was the only time in his life anywhere such identification got him a freebie. He will return to Spain someday.)

A group similar to
The Gipsy Kings played on one stage. The throng of hundreds became one canal of flamenco dancers; the women upraised their arms, pivoted and stomped, and the men clapped. Everyone knew the words, the steps and the rhythm. A Sevillana said the song was probably two hundred years old. The centathlete felt immersed in vibrant tradition.

Caught up in the moment, he clapped along—but only for a few seconds, as his hands were slapped down because he was hopelessly off-beat and disturbing the nearest dance. Sometimes you shouldn’t clap to the beat of your own drum…

Back to Koestler’s twists and turns. During World War II he was interned for several months in France because he was Jewish. He fled to England and then, after the war, returned to Paris, associating
very closely with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. From 1948-1950 he worked with the CIA and British Intelligence to promote anti-Communism among American and European intellectuals.

Now a disquieting note. A 1998
biographical study alleged that Koestler beat and raped several female acquaintances during the 1950’s, which was subsequently disputed somewhat by a friend of Koestler yet confirmed by one of the victims in her autobiography. These unproven, previously unrevealed crimes apparently took place in a European milieu of celebrity, power politics and libertinism. Koestler never learned of or had to defend himself against the charges, as he committed suicide with his wife (he was terminally ill yet she was healthy) in the manner he had advocated for years, in 1983.

A more recent celebrity, Mike Tyson, still
maintains his innocence for the rape for which he was imprisoned from 1992 to 1995. The centathlete attended Tyson’s first appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show in 1986; the boxer, who had yet to become heavyweight champion, was so timid and soft-spoken that the audience could barely hear him.

Tyson carried the scars of a turbulent, violent
childhood on his rocket-ride to fame and fortune. Koestler, in his early adulthood, witnessed political purges and occupied a veritable death row before he was idolized. History was forced on these very different, overly forceful, historic men.

The centathlon presents books, authors, ideas and actions. This particular running of the course might have been envisioned as a romp among columns and statues—the noble and the ideal of the last century—but even a cursory inspection of such figures reveals smears of mud on the marble. Life and Literature exalt and denigrate each other, making the course ahead even more real.



Coming soon…

Howards End
Appointment in Samarra

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Centathlon vs. Centathlon

The centathlete has marveled for years that Everyone has seen The Usual Suspects, The Shawshank Redemption, Clerks and Scarface, though none were initial blockbusters. If the post-post-modern brain is a computer, these movies are preinstalled, bundled programs in the operating system.

These programs are used as frequently as Microsoft Word. Snippets of dialogue such as
“Say hello to my li’l frien’!,” pop up in everyday conversations, eliciting communal enthusiasm. American cineplexes have spawned new memeplexes.

The transfer of these codes, the download of these programs, apparently takes place privately more than publicly. The average American sees
five movies in a theater per year, plus an untold number at home (the annual average of 1,456 hours of TV-watching, four hours per day, no doubt includes dozens of movies, if not more).

In comparison, the average American reads three books per year. 47% of Americans
read literature of any kind, down from 56% 20 years prior.

If you’re like the centathlete, coming across numbers in successive paragraphs makes you antsy, if not woozy. So, in a desperate attempt to be “
moved by statistics” à la George Bernard Shaw, in this case about books and movies, the spreadsheet-challenged centathlete opened a little-used program tucked away in his gray matter.

As his cerebellum creaked, he coaxed the microprocessor to import data (for kicks the centathlete likes to utter that word with the pinched, neutered tone of an antique cyborg—“day-ta”). The Modern Library Top 100 Novels migrated first and subsequently appeared in a primitive, chronological array:

Decade* Number of Top 100 Novels
1900-1909 14
1910-1919 9
1920-1929 16
1930-1939 18
1940-1949 12
1950-1959 12
1960-1969 11
1970-1979 7
1980-1989 1
1990-1999 0
* Programming note: the several series of novels that appear as one entry on the list are placed according to the year the final installment was published.

The
annus mirabilis of the centathlon was 1934, which saw the publication of six Top 100 novels, as well as the second book of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. No other year had more than three.

The weight toward the first half of the century is immediately notable (69), as is the paucity of books from the last 30 years (8). 1983’s Ironweed is the most recent list member. Is the centathlon essentially a multi-dig archeological study?

If you’ve written a novel and would like it to be acclaimed by serious critics, it’s best to be dead; only ten Top 100 authors are living. If you’re not so fortunate, you must be mature; Salman Rushdie (#90), age 59, is the youngest of the survivors.

Were novels better way back when? Should we sing
“Those Were the Days” like Archie and Edith Bunker? Maybe we should—as a child the centathlete thought the opening line, rendered Jabberwockyian by the actors’ Queens accents, was, “By the wigglin’ milliplay.”

Of course, a book is made great as it is reread by many, which requires time passing. And no doubt the authors and scholars who submitted their choices to The Modern Library were themselves experienced and mature in aggregate.

The centathlete has always preferred the novels of people older than he, without fully understanding why. For an explanation, he turns to an
interview with Martin Amis, the eminent novelist and son of another eminent novelist, Kingsley Amis:
“On the whole, you resist the younger writers. It's partly because with the older ones time has had a chance to separate the less excellent. With the young ones it's a bit of a lucky dip, isn't it? Who knows which ones will stay the distance? And there must be other causes for this reluctance. My father once said, and said it well, I think, that the trouble with younger writers is that they're telling you, "It's not like that anymore. It's like this now." Which of course you're very reluctant to hear, and maybe it's worse when it's your own son telling you, too.”
Authority looms over Amis’s dichotomy: “it was like this” vs. “it’s like this now.” Reading an older author is like taking instruction from a parent or an older teacher, manager or officer. This is natural when you’re in the bloom of youth or starting a new job; the lessons and perspective you receive are understood to empower you to forge ahead within a healthy or successful framework.

But what happens when you reach a Certain Age and that manager is ten or twenty years younger? A new framework is implicitly erected. Insight and innovation trump experience.

The centathlete reads the odd novel by a younger writer—a David Mitchell, a Zadie Smith, a Jonathan Safran Foer—more for courage than for education. Content and style both seem bold, if not audacious. There’s a shock to the system in finding an edifying tale dramatizing the coping with 9/11 (Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) or projecting a futuristic clone-exploiting Korean society (Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), or one weaving a finely threaded multi-culti tapestry (Smith’s On Beauty).

Time flies or crawls; the younger innovators inevitably proliferate and the aging reader is left to assess his or her own authority in the continuum of storytelling: It was like this, it is like this, it will be like this.

Crack the neck, keep the blood flowing upward. Books thus processed, the next data migration took place: the American Film Institute’s
100 Best American movies of the century. Watching all these movies would constitute a centathlon, although a less rigorous one than the book-reading course—a Little Junior to the Big Papa. Another primitive chronology appeared:

Decade Number of Top 100 Movies
1900-1909 0
1910-1919 1
1920-1929 2
1930-1939 15
1940-1949 12
1950-1959 20
1960-1969 18
1970-1979 18
1980-1989 6
1990-1999 8

For an art form that began around
1895, it’s not surprising that 70 of these celebrated movies came out in the last half-century. With regard to years, 1939 claims 5 releases, although it was not as remarkable as 1934 was for publishing; both 1951 and 1969 claim 4 releases, and 6 other years claim 3.

The recent drop-off is not as steep as it was in the first, book-related list, suggesting that cinematic greatness remains a contemporary phenomenon. Perhaps the AFI keeps the truly “Modern Library.”

Whirrrr, the microprocessor strains. The screen flickers, the program lurches. The centathlete twitches. Gotta go deep, while there’s time.

As if it were an all-in-one
Ginsu, Jack LaLanne Juicer and Ronco Rotisserie, the program sliced, diced, liquefied and roasted these rival centathlons. In seconds (or perhaps a week had passed) an odd-looking casserole-file opened, steamy and aromatic. Five—or six—of the Top 100 novels were made into Top 100 movies:

The Grapes of Wrath
The Maltese Falcon
A Clockwork Orange
From Here to Eternity
An American Tragedy
(retitled A Place in the Sun)
* Heart of Darkness could be included with this bunch, as it was retold in Apocalypse Now.

This cross-reference shows that great books can be made into great movies and that the inverse process has yet to be successfully demonstrated. Johnny Carson
quipped about the relationship between the two genres:
“There was this billy goat at a movie studio who found and ate a can of film. When a nanny asked him how he liked it, he said, ‘It was all right but I liked the book better.’"
(“Ho ho ho!” Ed McMahon likely chortled.)

This “joke” plays on the accepted wisdom that a movie can’t do a book justice. While limping along resolutely, the centathlete has not seen a goat of either sex. The reference evokes the corny folksiness of Carson’s humor (the recollection of which always cues McMahon’s sycophantic buffoonery).

To be candid, the book-oriented centathlon has also seemed at times to be corny, outmoded, directed backwards into a time when stories and life lessons were experienced differently. Yep, movies and TV shows generate more interest and
discussion than books, bumming out lots of readers.

The centathlete (sniffle, sniffle), a page-turning minority member, can get glum because reading great books is waning, and nobody… WAIT! Or in the words of Lee Corso—former college roommate of
Burt Reynolds and current college football guru—Not so fast, my friend!

Reading is still Big Fun. “Only 1 percent of
respondents admitted to cracking a book—and liking it—in 1948. But today, that number has leapt to 12 percent,” according to a report in The Christian Science Monitor. Moreover, thanks in large part to Oprah, more people than ever are sharing the reading experience through book clubs, which now total more than 500,000.

Hope springs eternal (or at least for the time being) for the novel! It seems academics have always kept the faith that literature matters as much if not more than cinema, as Jesper Juul, a scholar of computer/video games, incidentally
noted, “In literary theory, it has always been presupposed that one has read perhaps 1000 books and seen a 1000 movies.”

The centathlete has to chuckle: only a literary theorist would give books such numerical weight in the face of contemporary leisure habits.

In
Half-Real, his book about video games (the average adult man plays 7.6 hours per week and the average adult woman 7.4 hours per week), Juul discusses his subjects’ incorporation of a fictional world, the essence of literature and cinema, with real, “fixed” rules, the essence of traditional card and board games.

The
first video game appeared in either 1958 or 1962; there are already many distinct types, as there are different types of books and movies. Juul notes,
“…The Sims mirrors the appearance of the realistic novel of the late nineteenth century, when, broadly speaking, novels began to describe everyday life rather than heroes and dramatic events. Art forms develop in part by shifting emphasis: The details of everyday life can be interesting; painting does not have to represent anything; rhythm can be as important as melody. Video games develop the same
way.”
Let’s add Reality TV to the pile of developing art. The show Survivor, like The Sims, combines rules and fiction—and viewers can’t get enough Tribal Council. The metastasis of such programming (Road Rules, Big Brother, The Apprentice, etc.) suggests that rules themselves have become a significant aesthetic dynamic in today’s fiction.

The centathlete recalls the 1996 flick, Scream, in which this dynamic was
explicitly dramatized:

Randy: There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. [crowd boos]

Randy: BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. [crowd cheers and raises their bottles]
Randy: The sin factor! It's a sin. It's an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, "I'll be right back." Because you won't be back.
Stu: I'm gettin' another beer, you want one?
Randy: Yeah, sure.
Stu: I'll be right back. [crowd cheers]
Randy: See, you push the laws and you end up dead. Okay, I'll see you in the kitchen with a knife.

And most of them do end up dead (making any novelists among them more eligible for the Modern Library’s next Top 100). The next year saw Scream 2, which continued to
emphasize rules:

Randy: [from the trailer] There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to create a successful sequel. Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate - more blood, more gore - *carnage candy*. And number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.

Reality TV and video games, due to their nature, in fact surpass the Scream movies in this emphasis and artistic manipulation. The
introduction or substantial variation of rules with each season is crucial to the enjoyment of shows like Survivor, as it is for each upgrade of games like The Sims. Once the game begins, the contestants animatedly debate the rules’ merits and discuss their strategic responses to them. The presentation of these discussions is an expected component of a Reality TV narrative. The perpetual, accelerated evolution and dramatization of rules indicates that they are not so “fixed,” complicating the “real” aspect of the game world.

What does this mean for literature? Many novels, such as The Da Vinci Code, approach cinema in narrative style and sensibility. The centathlete notes but has not read examples of the
increasingly popular literary subgenre, the novel based on a video game. These books appear to superimpose character development through the depiction of the “inner life,” that traditionally novelistic attribute, on icons of the newer, interactive medium.

Who will cross in the other direction? The future, ambitiously literary author will be tempted to approach the video game experience stylistically, with creative rule-making as important as characterization. It will be like this…

Now, if we re-sort all this data in order to—whirrrrrrrrrr. Freeze. The program craps out, the hardware shuts down. Agh, it’s just as well.

A few simple statistics can move you to giddiness and delusions of foresight. The centathlete gives the final word to Benjamin Disraeli via the always
quotable Mark Twain, who may never have seen a movie and definitely never played Space Invaders:

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."


Coming soon…



Howards End
Appointment in Samarra

Sunday, October 15, 2006

# 64 The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

Above and left of the flat-screen monitor hangs a photo the centathlete took in the early 90’s of a movie-theater marquee announcing:

ALIENATION PRODUCES ECCENTRICS OR REVOLUTIONARIES

This particular artwork, part of the “truism” series by
Jenny Holzer, was on 42nd Street next to Times Square, a Manhattan district Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye visited. For the centathlete, Holzer’s message calls into question that fictional teenager’s celebrated alienation and his ultimate significance as an eccentric or revolutionary. Her use of the marquee mixes cinema with the written word…

And therefore literature. Reciprocally, the literary hero Caulfield himself can’t escape references to cinema despite the fact, he tells us on page two, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.” He elaborates on several later occasions, even while seeing a “putrid” film at Radio City. His sister Phoebe, conversely, loves The 39 Steps, and his brother D.B. is a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, which makes him a “prostitute.”

When Caulfield hires an actual prostitute, she says she comes from, of all places, Hollywood. She also tells him he resembles a young actor in a “Mel-vine Douglas” movie. One of the significant choices Caulfield makes in the narrative is to refuse to have sex with her. After his second reading of The Catcher in the Rye one year ago, the centathlete recalled the similar, ostensibly heroic refusal of Lester Burnham, the protagonist of the movie American Beauty, to have sex with Angela Hayes, the teenage temptress. Virginity plays a role in both decisions: Caulfield won’t lose his; Burnham won’t take hers.

Is Everyone Alienated?

Winner of many Oscars including Best Picture of 1999, American Beauty unabashedly concerns the transcendent search for an “authentic life in an inauthentic world,” as the screenwriter
David Ball stated. This is a familiar theme for certain readers and scholars of myth such as Joseph Campbell, who argued that the inauthentic world is the “waste land” where people are spiritless because they don’t or can’t do what they really want. The knight must traverse the waste land in his quest for the grail, which symbolizes the fulfilled, enriched “authentic life.”

In an unnamed, leafy suburb the Burnhams dwell in a generic white house with a modest lawn. Lester is “an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.” Daughter Jane is “a pretty typical teenager” and we’re meant to see all the characters and the setting as ordinary and pretty typical.

How typical are they? Burnham negotiates a severance of one-year’s salary of $60,000. If his wife Carolyn, a real estate agent, makes, say $30,000 to be conservative, that means the Burnhams more than double the
median household’s earnings in 1999, but hey, who’s counting? There’s no such pretense in The Catcher in the Rye: the “quite wealthy” Caulfields occupy a lofty socioeconomic perch, the top 1 %, we can safely assume. Holden’s father is a “corporation lawyer” who, on top of his other expenses such as his children’s tuition, liberally invests in doomed Broadway plays.

In American Beauty the waste land is Consumerist Suburbia. Lester Burnham is the knight combating the grind of his expendable job in media sales, his emotional estrangement from his wife, and his family’s drab, bitter communication at the dinner table. He feels “sedated.” He complains that “stuff is more important than living” and his “marriage is a commercial for how normal we are.”

Burnham is not alone in raging against the inauthentic—a
synonym of phony. Wait, doesn’t Holden Caulfield own “phony?” He uses the word famously throughout his story to describe the grown-up world and many other kids, so much so that it becomes his emblem, along with his red hunter’s cap. Each character is alienated in the inauthentic/phony waste land.

Rebel or Revolutionary?

Each knight’s quest is a rebellion, a dropping-out involving the assumption of another role. Caulfield (who first appeared in a short story called "Slight Rebellion off Madison"’) takes a “little vacation” between school and home. “Quite loaded” with spending money in hand and armed with his Upper East Side savvy, he acts like an adult. He’s free to take a hotel room, dance with a “stupid” 30-year-old, listen to jazz, hang out in bars, and hire a hooker. Burnham, the adult, quits his sales job to work at a burger joint, swaps his sedan for a muscle car, and starts exercising. He acts like an adolescent.

Caulfield can’t have sex with the hooker as an adult would. He is compromised by his limited knowledge and fear of adulthood. Burnham can’t have sex with the nubile vamp as a teenager would. The sly portrayal of his shenanigans (and the youth of the girl he desires) compromises the legitimacy of his own vacation.

Both rebels fail on their own terms: they can’t fall all the way into the other life-stage. Caulfield’s failure is consistent and episodic; it’s as if he presses the Reset button after each chapter. Burnham’s climactic pulling away from Angela Hayes, on the other hand, is a trigger toward transcendence, as he rejects the rebellion he incorrectly thought was meaningful.

Traditional religion enters briefly into The Catcher in the Rye and American Beauty, contributing to the symbolic knighthood of each hero. The grail, after all, is known mostly as a Christian icon.

Caulfield, a self-described “atheist,” encounters two Catholic nuns and recalls a Catholic schoolmate. Although he is not formally indoctrinated, he does show compassion (for the cheapness of their suitcases), he can practice good works (he gives the nuns ten bucks, the
equivalent of nearly $80 today), and he has a vague sense of the validity of orthodox spirituality even while he is suspicious of it. He deems the flashy, commercial production of a Christmas pageant invalid and considers how Jesus would want to be worshipped.

The Christian vocabulary in American Beauty is perhaps the only subtle aspect of the movie—Hollywood doesn’t attempt often to excel at Subtle, nor does it often espouse earnestly orthodox evangelism. Numerous candles at the dinner table confer an aura of desired domestic sanctity. Characters, especially Jane, appear through and against small-paned windows as if they are icons in a cathedral’s stained glass.

In one scene Burnham, after jogging, stands facing Ricky Fitts, with the garden hose extending serpentine between them, back to the house. Their position and the framing are held static as if we are looking at a
medieval painting or a tarot card; these new friends of spirit are at the garden of good and evil. The apple of knowledge is…the pot Burnham asks Ricky to sell him. Faced with the iconic “Lovers,” Ricky’s father Frank, who is very conflicted about homosexuality, unsurprisingly becomes suspicious and jealous.

In another scene Ricky, after resolving to leave his home for good, stoops and kisses his catatonic mother—and holds the pose. The lighting fixture in the background becomes a perfect halo over his head. After enduring his father’s beatings and speaking truth to power (“You’re a sad, old man”), he is cinematically beatified.

Who is this saintly Ricky Fitts? He’s a loner who has spent time in a psychiatric facility, like Caulfield. He can look death in the face—a pigeon and ultimately the murdered Burnham—as Caulfield looked at the fallen James Castle. Most notably, he has seen the “entire life behind things” while filming a plastic bag dancing in the wind. His movie is what Campbell calls in his conclusion to Creative Mythology, “…the guide without, the image of beauty, the radiance of divinity…” Because Fitts has had this epiphany, he’s far closer to the grail than Burnham. All he lacks is a heightened connection, a realized union with Jane.

Burnham himself ultimately achieves the transcendence Campbell advocates:

“…the courage to let go the past, with its truths, its goals, its dogmas of 'meaning' and its gifts: to die to the world and to come to birth from within.”
After rejecting Consumerist Suburbia, he rejects the temptress and the futile, illicit desire of recaptured adolescence—and therefore Consumerist Suburban Man’s false rebellion. Then he lovingly regards the photos, as if he hadn’t really seen them in years, of his family when they were happy and innocent.

He dies and is resurrected literally, as a disembodied, floating narrator who experiences Fitts’s identical plastic-bag epiphany, the beauty of the ordinary, as he tells us. Letting the beauty “flow through,” he is fulfilled and enriched; he has “gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life,” and has tragically attained the grail.

Interestingly, two minor characters in American Beauty have reached the grail while they are alive and healthy: the two gay men named Jim, joined the way Ricky needs to be wedded with Jane, who embrace the ordinary suburban existence. The centathlete conjectures that, in overcoming societal prejudice against homosexuality (as demonstrated by Ricky Fitts’s father), and possibly coping in the past with inner turmoil over identity and conventionality, the Jims have quested already and are worthy knights in the eyes of the screenwriter and director.

Holden Caulfield also has visions that suggest he will transcend the phony and escape the waste land. His articulated view of himself as the catcher in the rye, the savior and protector of innocent children, is the first, the trigger. The second, culminating vision is of his sister and other children on the carrousel. Caulfield recognizes that he has to let go (like letting the beauty flow through), to let the kids reach for the gold ring and “…if they fall off, they fall off…”

But he doesn’t attain the grail. As an adolescent, he can’t make sense of his quest and his epiphany the way the adult Burnham can. Caulfield concludes: “The truth is, I don’t know what I think about it.” His breakdown is not as tragic and final as Burnham’s death. His prospects for a recovery are much better than they would be for most in his position, as his father will ensure that he gets treatment that the vast majority of Americans cannot afford. If all goes well in that facility near Hollywood, he can conform or he can rebel again.

Grail obsession aside for the moment, the symbolism of The Catcher in the Rye is
well-established. The higher meanings of the book make it very popular in schools. The centathlete has discussed this canonization with two supremely competent, insightful teachers who firmly attest to its allegorical, educational value. They have earned this opinion through years of experience. The centathlete is not a teacher—he’s just a mouth and hasn’t earned his opinion. But he doesn’t feel right about the value in question. Do we all only fall from innocence or grace—don’t we climb too? With all the falling crammed down our throats in this book, where is the climbing?

(There is a recent novel about a teenage boy who “climbs” and “falls.”
Black Swan Green presents Jason Taylor, a noble quester who is painfully aware of yet shuns the bad-boy pose. The narrative offers a complex—relative to The Catcher in the Rye—background of political and familial turmoil, as you might expect from a superb author like David Mitchell, who has written stunning novels about grown-ups as well.)

But the grail, the grail—what to make of these two rebellion-quests? A recent
review of a new book by the art critic Robert Hughes (whose The Shock of the New was both entertaining and informative in book and TV form), includes this:

“Hughes is contemptuous of the cult of unbridled "self-revelation”… The template for this "secular parody" of the Catholic sacrament is provided by Rousseau's "Confessions," in which all the "morally vile" things the author had done were "somehow redeemed" by being admitted and described.”
Burnham and Caulfield confess, though each stops short of the “morally vile” (the sexual consummation as the rebel each tried to be). Burnham is saved by opening his mind and tuning in. Is anything worthwhile in life, much less redemption, so easily achieved? All you have to do to appreciate divinely radiant beauty is…watch a movie? Can you snap your fingers and claim you’re a bona fide revolutionary rather than a cartoonish rebel? Absolutely, according to American Beauty.

Caulfield is not redeemed, although he might be in the fictional future as a self-styled rebel-savior if and when he matures. He is a failed knight, no rebel nor revolutionary, but he is not magically, disingenuously handed the grail, as is Burnham.

For the centathlete, American Beauty and The Catcher in the Rye are aptly described as secular parodies of the grail quest. With Hughes in mind, he dismisses the aesthetic and symbolic worth behind these works because the knights haven’t quested nobly through the waste land; they haven’t earned the grail.

How Does It Feel?

The centathlete initially saw American Beauty when it first came out and enjoyed it, with major qualifications. He was bothered by “Kevin Spacey” in his cubicle. The image instantly conveyed the insignificance of his job and made the viewer smirk—because he saw Spacey (by then a celebrity), not Lester Burnham, sitting back awkwardly on a cheap office chair with his headset on, in the exact manner of the centathlete and millions of other Americans. In its already announced context of “inauthenticity,” this scene insults rather than provokes the viewer as he looks at the “mirror” of his own life.

In contrast, we enjoy the long-running series of ESPN’s “This is SportsCenter”
commercials with athletes pretending to work at the ESPN offices alongside the comparatively unknown announcers (ex. Maria Sharapova eating lunch in the cafeteria.) This is good, funny stuff because it’s meant to be only good, funny stuff —there’s no mirror, no moralizing context.

When famous actors play overtly “ordinary and unhappy to be so” characters, the filmmaker’s condescension can get thick. In the centathlete’s opinion, the most egregiously failed showcase of celebs-as-schmoes was Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. This cinematic medley of short stories by Raymond Carver featured a host of well-known
actors and one musician (Lyle Lovett played a baker). Unfortunately, this casting subverted the central anonymity of Carver’s characters and thereby negated a crucial element of their appeal.

If you’re skeptical, read the heartbreaking story, “
A Small, Good Thing.” There is no way, no way, a recognizable, quirky celebrity like Lyle Lovett, whom the centathlete reveres and has seen three times in concert, should play the baker. Altman’s disservice to the story, Carver’s aesthetic, and the reader is unforgivable. Furthermore, the abrupt jumps between plots and the fast pacing completely disagreed with Carver’s restraint.

Ah, the sensibility of Hollywood. There’s no mistaking American Beauty as “Hollywood”: it was produced by Dreamworks and filmed in LA—and then came all those Oscars. The centathlete, while walking out of the theater, equated Burnham with Bill Clinton (the
Lewinsky scandal was still resonating at the time): likable, lecherous and heroic. Certainly Hollywood would have agreed and still would agree with that estimation.

In fact, the movie told us What Hollywood Thinks about many things besides Clinton. Let’s examine just a few:

Character/
Activity: Frank Fitts
What Is Symbolized: The US Military
What Hollywood Thinks: Gay-hating yet gay-obsessed, manic, dangerously hasty

Character/Activity: Pot smoking
What is Symbolized: Recreational, non-violent drug use
What Hollywood Thinks: Okey-dokey, beneficial

Character/Activity: Buddy Kane, the
Real Estate King
What is Symbolized: Successful entrepreneur, salesman
What Hollywood Thinks: Egomaniacal, shallow

When Hollywood shows us stereotypes, the centathlete gets squeamish whether or not he agrees with the judgments. Beware of big-budget features bearing generalizations and redemptive sermons…

To the book: the centathlete first read The Catcher in the Rye during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of college (making him slightly older than the protagonist), coming off professorial introductions to class-consciousness. He primarily perceived snottiness amid privilege and despised it.

Growing up in a suburban township of more than 100,000, the centathlete never met one kid who attended a prep school (religious schools were the virtually exclusive alternative to the public system). At college, prep school alumni abounded.

There were young men whose closets included three or four blazers, chinos galore, cedar shoe trees for multiple pairs of loafers and bucks, and tie racks. (Caulfield has his hound’s-tooth coat, fountain pen and Mark Cross luggage, the last two accessories admired yet derided as “bourgeois” by his roommate Slagle.) These guys had been drinking Johnny Walker Black for years. They were long-accustomed to living away from home in style. They casually threw around cynicism and disdain at the education system, authority figures, the social cliques they so easily demarcated and traveled among if they so chose, and themselves. They listened to Jimmy Buffet; they wouldn’t be caught dead near an album by Van Halen (the centathlete owned three and played them loudly), which was identified with mall culture.

Speaking of music—let’s not forget that
Comin’ Thro’ the Rye, the quasi-eponym of the book at hand, is a song— there is a tune about someone very much like Caulfield, born into yet innocent among privilege, who went to “the finest school” and was “bound to fall.” How does it feel, the song asks its female addressee over and over with glorious, sneering fascination, to fall from privilege and lose your way? We could ask Holden Caulfield the same question.

Immensely popular and critically lionized like The Catcher in the Rye, this song from 1965 is considered a revolutionary force in society by
some, and the number one song by a certain magazine devoted to rock ‘n’ roll, the language of…rebellion. Thus a counterculture anthem about a dropping-out gone wrong has become the artistic epitome of a now dominant ethos, to be listened to and emulated for generations. The Catcher in the Rye has been similarly uplifted over time, as Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker:

“The book keeps acquiring readers, in other words, not because kids keep discovering it but because grownups who read it when they were kids keep getting kids to read it. This seems crucial to making sense of its popularity. The Catcher in the Rye is a sympathetic portrait of a boy who refuses to be socialized which has become (among certain readers, anyway, for it is still occasionally banned in conservative school districts) a standard instrument of socialization.”
Americans, the wealthiest people in the world, are continually enamored of rebels who reject American society—which presents the
“selling out dilemma”:

“Rock musicians and fans have consistently struggled with the paradox of "selling out"—to be considered "authentic", rock music must keep a certain distance from the establishment and its constructs; however certain compromises must be made in order to become successful and to make music available to the public. This dilemma has created friction between musicians and fans, with some bands going to great lengths to avoid the appearance of "selling out" (while still finding ways to make a lucrative living).”
So how does it feel for a rebel to make “certain compromises,” to struggle with authenticity and immense success? Kurt Cobain told us, in his suicide note:

“The worst crime I can think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having 100% fun. Sometimes I feel as though I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on-stage… I must be one of the narcissists who only appreciate things when they're alone. I'm too sensitive, I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasm… But I still can't get out the frustration, the guilt, and the sympathy I have for everybody. There is good in all of us, and I simply love people too much. So much that it makes me feel too fucking sad.”
The final sentiment sounds like Ricky Fitts while showing his movie: “There is so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it.” Overall, Cobain expressed what Caulfield couldn’t, but then he was an adult who climbed to the top from the bottom, not an adolescent who only fell from privilege and hangs suspended in his fictional narrative. Moreover, Cobain lived—the centathlete and the rest of us still live—in the American cyclotron knocking together ever-accelerating particles of rebellion, exaltation and emulation.

Back to the prepsters. Their humor was witty, often sarcastic and profane. Some were melancholy, in retrospect depressive, and some were sensitive, like other folks. The point here is that the centathlete had already encountered a robust subset of Holden Caulfields, although not one fully formed incarnation, when he opened the book. As a result the Pencey Prep chapters were unbearable and the protagonist, while alienated, did not seem eccentric.

For support, the centathlete turns to Jonathan Yardley, the book critic of The Washington Post, who attended schools similar to Pencey Prep and
contributed this appraisal:

"Why is a book about a spoiled rich kid kicked out of a fancy prep school so widely read by ordinary Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom have limited means and attend, or attended, public schools? Why is Holden Caulfield nearly universally seen as ‘a symbol of purity and sensitivity’ (as The Oxford Companion to American Literature puts it) when he's merely self-regarding and callow?”
America happily dismisses such questions. 250,000 copies of The Catcher in the Rye are sold every year. It’s the
favorite book of actors like Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder and Sara Michelle Gellar, and musicians like Billie Joe Armstrong.

In thinking little of this book’s protagonist, the centathlete is clearly out of step with cultural norms, so he could call himself, along with Jonathan Yardley, an eccentric—but he won’t, because he isn’t one.

In wishing to overthrow this “standard instrument of socialization,” this very imperfect secular parody, this allegorical template etched with condescending elitism, the centathlete could call himself, along with Robert Hughes, a revolutionary—but he won’t, because he isn’t one.

And he isn’t alienated. He feels connected. To you. Right now.


Coming soon…


Centathlon vs. Centathlon

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

# 46 The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

A serious topic like terrorism demands serious fiction, which Joseph Conrad, a Pole born in Ukraine, delivered in this short, grim novel written a century ago. His solemn tone, evident also in Heart of Darkness and Nostromo, reminds the centathlete of two other Humorless and Important Writers: Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann.

The centathlete’s temperament is not so serious and his attention span not so vast. He’s content to buzz and flit from sill to counter, from crumb to pane. Hopefully this stop on the centathlon will only appear haphazard, as a fly’s life-journey does to an irritated occupant of a one-bedroom apartment but not to itself.

In The Secret Agent TV lovers might be surprised to find an autopsy critical to a police investigation’s advancement. The book anticipates the
“CSI effect” by revealing clues on a corpse almost too quickly and easily.

Punk-rock
moshers might be surprised to read about their anarchistic forebears. There are different types of anarchists and subversives in this book; Conrad’s blending of labels serves his own artistic ends rather than political accuracy. The most formidable is The Professor, described as “the perfect anarchist” and “the perfect detonator,” who disparages the goals and commitment of his anti-establishment comrades by equating them with the society they attack:
“The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter moves in the same game, forms of idleness at bottom identical…I’ve got the grit to work alone, quite alone, absolutely alone.”
The centathlete thinks of another lone wolf, a more recent, now elder “anarchist,” John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols. He refuses to be lumped into a political movement and to this day
insists on being “an original”:
“Well, it's like this: Look, a true Anarchist doesn't need a uniform. In fact, a uniform would be a contradiction. And a lot of people who think of themselves as being Anarchistic are really anachronistic. Because they're still wearing the punk cliché outfit. Times move on. Situations change. And you've always got to keep ahead of the herd.”
In dramatizing terrorism and its consequences, Conrad was certainly ahead of the herd. The Secret Agent meditates on the necessary symbolism of terrorists’ targets, in this case the
Royal Observatory in Greenwich, location of the Prime Meridian and the acknowledged center of measured time. An actual failed bombing of the building in 1894 may have inspired this fictitious account.

The centathlete recalls a concert by
Billy Bragg in 2000 in Battery Park, Manhattan’s “prow.” During one of his habitual, verbose monologues between songs, the singer-activist looked up at The World Trade Center and remarked wryly about playing in the shadows of Global Corporate-Capitalism (his exact words have been forgotten.) The next year the towers were attacked for their symbolism. There is an enormous gap between calling attention to the publicly acknowledged import of a building and attacking it with the intention to perpetrate mass murder—and this distinction is played out and argued on several levels on several occasions in The Secret Agent. After that concert, standing next to his tour bus, Bragg chatted with fans, took out his wallet, and proudly displayed photos of his family. A genuine man of the people…

Conrad’s anarchists and terrorists despise the people. They uphold destruction as a moral force. The Professor says, “First the great multitude of the weak must go, then the only relatively strong.” This statement exemplifies Martin Seymour-Smith’s
argument that:
“The Professor's Nietzscheanism, if it is that—and there is every reason to suppose that to many of Conrad's readers in 1907 it was—is perverse, a distortion of Nietzsche's writings about the 'master and the slave morality'; but Conrad employs it as an evidently sincere, if terrible, example of extremism.”
In another introduction to The Secret Agent, Frederick Karl points out the philosophical differences between Conrad, who had, “a distaste for radical political action and [a] recognition that politics, whatever else it does, ravages,” and
Friedrich Nietzsche, who advocated a radical revision of morality and society (among many other things, with a breadth and complexity beyond the centathlete’s faculty) which had made modern man weak:
“Instead of man creating his own valuations of "good" and "evil," the "herd" gives them to him, denying man of his individuality. Therefore, man becomes a function of the herd.’”
There’s that “herd” mentality John Lydon so despises.

Nietzsche (boy, it stinks typing that name) was famous and infamous for his concept of the Übermensch, or “Overman.” American comic books have thrust this ideal into our current mythology through superheroes like
Batman. In reexamining 2005’s Batman Begins, the centathlete finds many echoes of Nietzsche—and Conrad.

The flick’s arch villain,
Ra’s al Ghul, mentors Bruce Wayne with Nietzschean exhortations such as:
“You must have the will to act.”
“You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things.”
Director Christopher Nolan (a
fan of Nietzsche?) and screenwriter David Goyer have, as Seymour-Smith said of Conrad, reduced and distorted the philosophy for artistic purposes. Nolan himself said about Ghul:
“Well, in the comic books, Ra's al Ghul is often described as a terrorist. I would put him down as an extremist. What was important to me in creating an incredible frightening villain is that everything he says is true and at some level reasonable that also makes sense. The extremes to which he is prepared to go; to achieve what he believes is very threatening and very frightening.”
What Ghul and The League of Shadows believe is that modern life, as demonstrated in Gotham City, is corrupt and worthless, as he says, “…only a cynical man would call what these people have, lives… Crime, despair—this is not how man was supposed to live.” This assessment is comparable to Conrad’s bleak portrayal of London, as well as The Professor’s view that, “The world is limp, mediocre, without force.”

In
The Antichrist (Johnny Rotten “rhymed” antichrist with anarchist), Nietzsche elaborated on his indictment of modernity:
“…I understand rottenness in the sense of decadence: my argument is that all the values on which mankind now fixes its highest aspirations are decadence-values.”
In parallel, Ghul explains his reason for destroying Gotham City, “Every time a civilization reaches its pinnacle of decadence, we return to restore the balance.” Balance (ex. Between the Apollonian and Dionysian) is another Nietzschean concept, visible here in, again, reduced, perverted form.

As Ghul believes that his army of the few, the truly strong, must inflict itself on the world out of duty, “Nietzsche believed himself the only person of the new nobility in the age of decadence,” according to John Muraski Jr.

Ghul schemes to end decadence by unleashing hysteria-causing neurotoxin and make the world, “…watch Gotham tear itself apart through fear.” He also says, “When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.” His evil plan recalls the ultimate depiction of The Professor as, “… terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world.”

In The Secret Agent and Batman Begins, one distortedly Nietzschean anarchist belongs to London; the other to Gotham City. Inspector Heat combats The Professor while tolerating his freedom, within limits. Batman combats Ghul while sharing his drive for extremely delivered justice. Conrad’s ironic view of the symbiosis between such opposing forces still packs a punch.

In both works the conflict between “revolution” and “legality,” between “terrorist” and “policeman,” are contained in one city in the Western World. Today, the conflict is not so culturally contained, though Hollywood is
reluctant to express this reality, as articulated by Bridget Johnson of The Wall Street Journal. The artificiality, the non-reality of comic books will prove ever fertile ground for Really Bad Guys in the movies.

In confronting his own adopted city and culture, Conrad was prophetic in many respects. The Professor may not resemble a jihadist but he does resemble (and may even have
influenced) the Unabomber.

The Secret Agent actually condemns terrorism. The characters of Winnie Verloc and Inspector Heat attempt to battle enveloping destructive forces, the way Batman fights corruption, crime by crime. How Conrad would have dramatized this subject in this millennium we’ll never know, but we can guess he would have been solemn about it.

Having flown as a bat, the centathlete metamorphoses back into a fly and thinks of a bovine herd beset by winged pests. In the pasture most flies are tolerated; some are tail-swatted. Buzzzzz.


Coming soon…

Centathlon vs. Centathlon
# 64 The Catcher in the Rye

Monday, October 09, 2006

# 43 A Dance to the Music of Time – Anthony Powell

Some respond most to literature, some to music, some to painting, sculpture or movies. Even for the centathlete and others less enraptured by the visual arts, there is joy in simply regarding from a distance our books on shelves, in cases.

The spines of the four volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, aligned vertically and sequentially, display the Four Seasons suspended in motion and joined in a ring, excerpted from the
painting of the same name by the 17th century French artist, Nicolas Poussin. Kudos to the University of Chicago Press for the handsome and appropriate covers.

Poussin’s masterpiece inspired the 20th century British
author to publish from 1951 to 1975 a series of 12 novels, divided into four volumes according to the seasons, comprising one “duodecalogy.” The nature of this work is singular enough that searching the term itself yields primarily references to Dance.

Books Do Furnish a Room is the title of the tenth installment, incidentally supporting the centathlete’s aforementioned aesthetic satisfaction in looking at his bookcase next to his faulty, formerly high-fidelity stereo, underneath framed photos he took of a Montana roadside vista, a Costa Rican
cloud forest, and the Haleakala crater atop Maui. Without delineating the current symbolic month or season of his own life, as Powell’s series proceeds to do for its narrator, Nicholas Jenkins (and thus for the author and his generation), the centathlete plods along his route, briefly pausing to reflect on Dance, a marvelous, weighty piece of furniture, so to speak, to be displayed and treated respectfully.

Dance presents a collection of Brits who, through and after the two world wars, engage articulately in high-minded colloquies on Art, Nostalgia, Personal Myth and other Topics That Should Be Capitalized; love affairs; dissolution; internecine entanglement; and dubious or emotionally fraught activities.
Auberon Waugh, deceased, bilious son of deceased, bilious Top 100 author Evelyn Waugh, dismissed Dance as an “upmarket soap opera,” but the centathlete refuses to be a likeminded player hater. The pleasure in reading these novels was by no means guilty.

In addition to being Quite English, Powell’s characters are essentially aristocratic or loftily bohemian; Dance is replete with
peers by legacy or appointment, generals, artists, writers, composers and critics. Eton and Oxford also loom large. Joe Sixpack might be put off by this preoccupation with the elite and the near-total exclusion of the working man and woman. In fact, Powell is ready for this objection. Jenkins asks one American about another’s family history and is met with a laugh:
“‘Why do the British always ask that?’
‘One of our foibles.’
‘That’s not what Americans do.’
‘But we’re not Americans. You must humour our straying from the norm in that respect.’”
The centathlete doubts that most Brits, their Royals aside, share Jenkins’s and Powell’s obsession with genealogy and titles. Nobility literally occupied the author’s bed and visited his study: he was married to Lady Violet Pakenham and he himself declined knighthood in his later years. A social man and a prolific book reviewer, Powell was no doubt aware of a certain assessment of snobbery, as seen in Jenkins’s exchange with one of the few grungy personages of Dance:

“‘Why are you so stuck up?’ she asked, truculently.
‘I’m just made that way.’
‘You ought to fight it.’

‘I can’t see why.’”


If you find humor, albeit dry, mannerly and English, in the above two passages, then you will appreciate the main appeal of Dance. Imagine bumping into an old friend, as Jenkins does, who says, “You must inspect my future wife,” instead of, “Meet Peggy.”

Powell further spices his tea by saddling his characters with tragicomic flaws and idiosyncrasies. They combat alcoholism, licentiousness, cynicism and melancholy. The effect is a view of the second tier of England’s Finest, making the rich brew easier on the
tongue.

Many of the dozens of significant characters in Dance were modeled partly or wholly on real people. Only two such historical figures would be familiar to Joe Sixpack: George Orwell and Aleister Crowley. The former, two years older than Powell, attended Eton College with him, and they were friendly for years despite divergent political beliefs. Interestingly, one Orwell expert (if not, one wonders at times, a self-styled psychic Orwell
channeler), the formidable, indefatigable polemicist Christopher Hitchens, did not see the resemblance of Orwell in the character of Erridge Tolland—as do members of the Anthony Powell Society—in his essay on Dance. A qualified admirer of the saga, Hitchens critiqued Powell’s conservatism for the way it omitted dramatization of key historical realities such as British fascism.

For an American there can be a smug and hypocritical tendency to simplify a foreigner’s politics, even more so when the subject is dead. In this line we boil down Powell as a Tory and therefore “reactionary,” “pro-establishment,” and “upper-crust-clinging.” The centathlete, conscious of his own limitations and detachment, notes an author’s political perspective only as it aids textual digestion and regurgitation.


With cud in cheek, he recalls that North America’s first great literary humorist, Thomas Chandler Haliburton, “…was a Tory of an old and rigorous school—a school so completely overwhelmed by the subsequent triumphs of labour and democratic thought as to be almost a museum-piece now.” That appraisal comes courtesy of Robert McDougall’s afterword to Haliburton’s 1836 uproarious satire, The Clockmaker which the centathlete purchased at the worth-visiting Haliburton house in Windsor, Nova Scotia, a town known as “the birthplace of hockey.”

Haliburton was a Canadian, a judge, and, ultimately a Tory Member of the House of Commons in England. He is considered “the most frequently quoted author in America” on account of
aphorisms such as “Death and taxes are inevitable” and others.

Seeking to strike a Tory-Labour balance, the centathlete thinks of
Martin Amis, a one-time crony of Hitchens, and his left-ish but acerbic take on writers and their affiliations in his 1995 novel, The Information:

“‘Novelist and politician are both concerned with human potential.’
‘This would be Labour, of course.’”

The bitter protagonist, also an author, goes on to observe:
“All writers, all book people, were Labour, which was one of the reasons they got on so well, why they didn’t keep suing each other and beating each other up.”
Amis’s sarcasm notwithstanding, the centathlete recognizes the political tension and bias in literary criticism and appreciation, especially when he dimly recalls his own undergraduate classes…

Returning to the Dance floor,
Aleister Crowley, the second referenced real-life model, will be known to headbangers via Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley,” a message to the English occultist. That song features the six-string sorcery of the late Randy Rhoads, a trailblazer in “hammering,” the technique of fingertapping up on a guitar’s fretboard as a keyboard player might, now a requirement for any heavy metal axman. In jazz, Stanley Jordan almost exclusively plays in this manner. Listening to his 1985 recording debut, “Magic Touch,” you can’t help but enjoy the elegant adventurism. His web site discusses his current participation in Music Therapy. The centathlete happily conjectures that the practice of this alternative anodyne would have surfaced in a more current version of Dance.

The work’s engine is the perpetual cycle of themes, motifs and situations, as the characters or their proxies meet again and again as they age. These encounters occur by design through balls, chateau weekends and other society gatherings, or, more dramatically and seemingly as frequently, through coincidence. After questioning the likelihood of this recurrent serendipity, the centathlete will defer to Hitchens, who writes,
“…it is very far from improbable that a small and highly stratified island society should find its more educated and leisured members running into each other at successive conjunctures.”
The centathlete also grants that half of Americans
live within 50 miles of their birthplace. However, it his experience that many, if not the large majority of, friends from childhood and young adulthood and even later, move apart and lose touch. Geographic dislocation, suburban traffic and twelve-hour workdays hinder the will to suspend disbelief on this subject and therefore Dance seems accordingly alien and antiquated.

Jenkins, the stand-in for Powell, naturally participates in most of these meetings. His ubiquity and his retention of names, faces and more, would make a Society Page editor envious. He knows Everybody, which ultimately turns absurd, as in the final novel when he meets a mature woman at a wedding and it is prompted that he knew intimately and independently her brother, her first lover, her deceased daughter, the daughter’s widower, and many of the daughter’s lovers including the man present at her death.

Powell’s style is
belletristic (apparently there’s a new, aggressive kind of belletrism), formal and elongated. Like Haliburton, Powell astutely generalizes on aspects of human experience, but he usually shuns the brevity required for an “aphorism.” For example,
“When it comes to recapitulation of what is known of a dead friend, for the benefit of a third party (whether or not writing a biography), remnants transmissible in a form at once lucid, unimpeded by subjective considerations, are astonishingly meagre.”
With regard to grammar, he perplexingly employs
colons, rather than commas or semicolons, in a series (ex. “The Stourwater passages had by now acquired the smell common to all schools: furniture polish: disinfectant: fumes of unambitious cooking.”). This usage appears throughout Dance and, if elsewhere in modern literature, the centathlete has not yet encountered it. Then there is “rôle,” which Powell insists on adorning with a circumflex; the symbol serves as a synecdoche for the author’s overarching traditionalism. Think of an older gent who wears a cravat at an office where no one has worn a tie for years.

The narration also carries a curious degree of circumspection. Jenkins introduces us to hundreds of people, typically with intricate description and incisive development. Yet he won’t tell us what his own wife looks like, and she is allowed only infrequent, terse statements in concordance with his own sensibility. We vicariously attend weddings and other ceremonies, but not his own. His parents figure in a flashback and recede offstage. Even allowing for tact or loyalty to authorial “objectivity” (apparently achievable only when discussing those outside the immediate family), the centathlete wished for a modest, if subjective, airing of the Jenkins household.

In Dance classical and renaissance images and themes are sounded, considered, and then played out. Other relics—passages from centuries-old texts, song fragments, cars, buildings—resonate for the honestly aging Jenkins, who comments,
“The other mild advantage [of growing old] endorses a keener perception for the authenticities of mythology, not only of the traditional sort, but—when such are any good—the latterday mythologies of poetry and the novel.”
Cultivated retrospection—into personal history and beyond— brings resonance to a life. Throughout Dance Jenkins admires artistic creators or
mystical aspirants, tortured as they might be, provided they are building on foundations of well-considered tradition. What was written about Poussin seems to hold for Powell, “For him, the one thing that truly sustained creation was the inseminating authority of the past.”

The evocation of Time in the title of the duodecalogy calls attention to the daunting amount needed to read this complete work, the longest leg of the centathlon, an engrossing, erudite, tasteful yet occasionally racy, comedy. Now, the attractive volumes stand, Seasons outward. Looking back at them again, the centathlete is gratefully edified that he had the legs and the time to place them there.




Coming soon…

Centathlon vs. Centathlon
# 64 The Catcher in the Rye