Off The Shelves
In the Event of Rapture, This Car Will be Manned
Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible
(The Free Press, 2004)
Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet’s bible is not a monolithic mirror reflecting the state of religion in America post 9/11 but more like a disco ball: a dazzling, kinetic swirl of vignettes showing “a thousand glittering possibilities.” The disco ball analogy is used by Mary Dragon, a pagan Manseau and Sharlet meet in Heartland, Kansas, to compare monotheism and paganism. It’s an elegant metaphor, and if any spiritual community is favored by the book, it’s the zany but humane pagans, a diverse population that nevertheless seems to comprise a disproportionate number of single parents, Kinko’s staffers, and Denny’s habitués.
For nearly a year, Manseau and Sharlet bebopped across the States in a beater car they bought from a friend for a dollar, hunting Buddhas with an open-minded skepticism. “The God of my unbelief is magnificent,” reads the opening epigram, by Yiddish poet Yankev Glatshteyn, and both the current book and the Utne Award–winning website from which it sprang are products of rich musings by the merely religion-curious and the downright unfaithful. The challenge set by the Zen koan that names the book and website is to destroy false gods conjured by one’s own desire for enlightenment; but Manseau and Sharlet, more ethnographers than novitiates, kill their Buddhas with kindness. A (false?) prophet on the road gets a shake down; and then if necessary they buy him lunch, fill his gas tank, and send him on his way.
Interspersed with dispatches from the author-editors’ journey (billed collectively as “The Book of Psalms”) are essays, personal histories, and fiction inspired by Old and New Testament books. The thirteen authors include literary eminencies and newcomers; among them, A.L. Kennedy, Rick Moody, lê thi diem thúy, Francine Prose, Charles Bowden, Michael Lesy, and Melvin Jules Bukiet. The celebrity riff on a favorite scripture passage has been done (see the nifty Grove Press Pocket Canons editions of books in the King James idiom), but Manseau and Sharlet have given their contributors especially free rein to “remake, reveal, replace, invert, pervert…however the spirit so led them.”
In some cases the slack rein in the scriptural pasture spurs a vital creature, as in April Reynolds’s short-story response to Samuel, in which a gifted southern preacher is recruited to Harlem by twelve creepy, upwardly mobile deacons. And sometimes an unviable chimera stalls on the page, as in Eileen Myles’s vague young Daniel at a boozy Wasp Christmas gathering. The latter piece contains probably the worst pun I have encountered on the page, which I beg leave not to repeat here. I often found myself searching for the connection between the writer’s offering and the original text—a fun exercise with Rick Moody’s Jonah; better abandoned during Reynolds, or Bukiet’s Ezekiel, for the pleasure of immersion in the moment. lê thi diem thúy’s Ruth and Darcey Steinke’s Song of Songs are perfect performances of the Living Word, wherein they enact skillfully, beautifully, what we all do when we read sacred texts: merge them with our peculiar condition.
Connections between the contributors’ pieces and Manseau and Sharlet’s surrounding story are harder to determine, although I wasn’t troubled much to try. The overall thrust of The Heretic’s Bible seems to be the embrace of heterogeneous experience (theodiversity? Touché, Ms. Myles). The book’s typeface alternates between a typical serif font for the Biblical portions and a chiseled san-serif reminiscent of late-’70s church bulletins for Manseau and Sharlet’s texts. Their road trip begins in the New York City of October 2001, with a service at the West Village Episcopal church of St. Luke in the Fields, a place where high-church-pomp (incense, chamber choir, chanting) combines with an ultraprogressive congregation (leather-vested men “fresh from a night of clubbing” and a newly baptized baby girl with two mommies). The church and the sermon that day, on the concept of martyrdom, is a fitting starting point for a “Bible filled with heresy”—a spiritual scrapbook for a new America that shows the messiness of faith in practice.
There is literal, tactile messiness: a botched Shower of Blessings at a Tibetan Monastery in Maryland and a calf’s afterbirth oozing out of its mama on a pastor’s ranch in Texas. There is the dramaturgical messiness of sacred rites held in less than optimal conditions, as when a group of semi-nude pagans invoke their deities on a cold night. There is the dire, moral messiness of a Pentecostal congregation in Florida who, after one of their members is murdered, forsake Christ’s call to forgive and instead seek revenge. Pure and base motives cohabit in all the groups the authors meet. The deliberate and un-self-conscious contemporary merger of religion and commerce, a particularly American phenomenon, gets play in Randall Kenan’s story about a megachurch miracle worker (“Gospel”) and in Manseau and Sharlet’s visit to a strip club housed in a former Baptist church in Nashville. The authors bear witness to the failure of the ideal in their subjects and in their own working relationship—by the end of their trip they are thoroughly on each other’s nerves and wryly resorting to Wiccan magic potions to deal with it. If they have a research method, it is to throw themselves headlong into these communities—submitting to the terrors of charismatic prayer with a speaker-of-tongues, “stormgasming” with a tornado chaser, and dancing around a fire in see-through sarongs. Their observations are unshrinking and often hilarious.
Killing the Buddha gives us an America of mostly disorganized religion; a reassuring notion at a time when an Evangelical coalition seems to control our government and Islamic fundamentalism, like some agitated behemoth writhing beneath us, threatens to topple everything—or so we are told. In a megacorporate, multinational, conspiracy obsessed world, The Heretic’s Bible is a kind of antidote, rendering religion as a natural resource tapped by ordinary people in small, daily, idiosyncratic ways. Kids commemorate the ten plagues of Exodus with green construction paper and red food coloring (Francine Prose); the problem of human suffering is illustrated with Pac-Men and variations on the three-men-walk-into-a-bar joke (Peter Trachtenberg). And one great achievement of this work is that such makeshift efforts seem not trivial but profound: They show how we all are, in our nature and by necessity, in exile from the truth, away from home, constantly working our way back, stumbling on the way. “I reject the idea of special people with special truths,” writes Charles Bowden in “Isaiah.” “Babylon may be bad, but Jerusalem is fatal.”
Four Pilgrims’ Progress
Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, paperback 2004)
Based upon box office receipts and magazine covers, Mel Gibson is the most well-known Catholic artist in America. However, Paul Elie’s biography of four earlier Catholic talents, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, proves that the coalescence of spirituality and art need not revolve around crimson, movie make-up and graphic portrayals of martyrdom.
Four distinct literary voices emerge in this skillfully interwoven chronicle of lives devoted to questions of literature, philosophy, faith, and social issues. Writing during the mid-20th century, each figure witnessed debates over war and peace, civil rights, and radical changes in church policy resulting from the Second Vatican Council. Dorothy Day is the unwavering political activist fighting for the Lower East Side’s poor; Thomas Merton pens an unlikely confessional best-seller from a Trappist monastery in Kentucky; Walker Percy turns existential crisis into award-winning fiction; and Flannery O’ Connor, a unique prose stylist, creates fascinating, eccentric characters while raising peacocks on a Georgia farm.
Although residing in various American locales, the group, once dubbed “The School of the Holy Ghost,” corresponded through letters and literature. Among the written exchanges were O’Connor introducing herself to Percy, a kindred Southern spirit, as well as Merton writing to Day, questioning his decision to become a cloistered monk while other Catholics were engaged in fighting society’s ills.
Clearly, Day was the most socially devoted, famously declining a lunch invitation from novelist Evelyn Waugh at one of New York’s most upscale restaurants, asking him to “forgive her class conscious.” A fellow Catholic, Waugh eventually bought a less expensive lunch for Day and her staff at the Catholic Worker, where she was editor. Launched on May Day in Union Square, and sold for a penny, Day’s newspaper quickly became a movement, with groups forming in other areas of the country, and herself becoming a national figure. Merging left-wing sympathies with Catholic ideals, the pacifist publication was a critical voice during the years from World War II through Vietnam. Along the way, it included some of Merton’s anti-war writing that evaded his order’s censors.
Understandably, by spending his life at the monastery Merton could not assume the same urban, ascetic posture. A struggling New York City writer, he ironically achieved world-wide literary fame after supposedly rejecting the material world to become a monk. Edited by former Columbia University classmate, Robert Giroux, The Seven Storey Mountain detailed Merton’s spiritual awakening, and has been described as a modern-day Augustine’s Confessions. Although the New York Times policy forbid listing a religious book on the best-seller list, the book was a triumphant success, selling half a million copies. As a result, the outside world was brought to Merton. Throughout his life, the Catholic convert continued questioning his multiple roles of monk and writer; or with regard to Vietnam, as both hermit and peace activist.
While Percy did not have such a conundrum, like the others he wrestled with his own personal dilemmas. “If Day was a reformer and Merton a rebel, Percy was a searcher,” Elie writes. Leaving behind his medical career, Percy became a Catholic and a writer. His first novel, The Moviegoer, attempted to translate Percy’s existentialist yearning from essay form into a novel, similar to Camus’s The Stranger. Winning the National Book Award in 1961, it upstaged some of the great works of post-war fiction, Heller’s Catch-22 and Yates’s Revolutionary Road. Similarly, O’Connor also won the coveted National Book Award, although it was several years after her untimely death from lupus at age 39. Her first novel, Wise Blood, established her literary name, and Elie likens the book’s protagonist, Hazel Motes, to Bellow’s Augie March and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. Despite the book’s success, O’Connor felt distant from the glamour and intellectual banter of the Manhattan literary crowd, preferring to reside on her farm, spending her days at Mass, writing, and tending to her peacocks. Devastated by illness, O’Connor recognized her need to continue in spite of pain, and managed to finish her last work, the aptly titled The Violent Bear It Away.
As promised by the work’s subtitle, Elie concentrates on the notion of “pilgrimage,” or the journey each of the figures took alone as they contemplated life’s most difficult questions. The four writers, he says, “sought the truth personally—in charity, in prayer, in art, in philosophy.” At the same time, they also brought their revelations to audiences far and wide through their many successful written works. Elie offers no proselytizing, no fire-and-brimstone sermons, but rather a focus on the personal beliefs, both social and spiritual, that were essential components of these remarkable literary lives.
A Dubious Ally Alexander Sanger, Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century (Public Affairs Press/Perseus Books, 2004)
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last few decades, you know that reproductive rights are in trouble. Access to abortion has continually narrowed since 1973, the year Roe v. Wade was handed down. As a result, 88 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion providers and it is not uncommon for women to travel hundreds of miles for the procedure.
What’s more, 13 states presently subject women to 24-hour delays between scheduling an abortion and having the surgery and 33 states require teens under 18 to obtain the consent of, or notify, at least one parent before ending a pregnancy. Worse, Congress has curtailed abortion availability for virtually every woman who depends on the government for her healthcare: Medicare and Medicaid recipients; women in the military; military dependents; federal prisoners; Native Americans; and federal workers, including Peace Corps volunteers.
Clearly, the pro-choice movement needs new strategies if it is going to reverse these losses and garner broad-scale support for reproductive freedom.
Enter Alexander Sanger, grandson of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund, and Chair of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Sanger correctly posits the need to challenge the notion that abortion is immoral and attempts to make the question of when and whether to bear a child relevant to both men and women. Unfortunately, despite several cogent suggestions, Beyond Choice is achingly repetitious and shockingly misogynist.
First, the good stuff. Sanger correctly describes the anti-choice movement as homing in on babies and life while abortion proponents scramble to defend women’s rights, freedom and choice. It’s more than semantics. Babies and life are tangible, whereas lofty political concepts, no matter how noble, pale in the face of everyday struggles.
Sanger’s solution: “put reproduction back into reproductive freedom.” What he means is simple, albeit a rehash of arguments aired a century ago. “Life does not exist without successful reproduction,” he writes. “Successful reproduction involves a man and a woman, both of whom are capable of reproducing, finding each other, bonding, having sex, getting pregnant, and giving birth to a living child. Successful reproduction also means nurturing and raising the child, and having that child repeat the process.”
Forget for a moment that artificial insemination and other technologies allow us to avoid the male/female dyad. Most people do want offspring. In Sanger’s schema, pro-choice activists should focus on successful childbearing and use their energies to demand government policies that support these efforts. “To the extent reproductive freedom can lessen the danger of death in pregnancy and childbirth, it can lead to more reproductive and biological success,” he writes. “If a woman has control over the timing and spacing of her children, then both she and her children are more likely to survive.” On the flip side, when women lack control over childbearing—from whether to have children at all, to when, with whom, and under what conditions—both she and her progeny face increased mortality. “Early death before an organism can reproduce is reproductive failure,” Sanger concludes.
So far, so good. Where Sanger runs into trouble is in a chapter entitled “Enlisting Men’s Support of Reproductive Freedom.” Few will disagree that males have a stake in reproductive matters; differences emerge, however, over how these interests are manifest. In Sanger’s view, men are uneasy because they lack certainty about sexual encounters. Are they procreative or simply for pleasure? Fear of being “cuckolded”—his word—into having children they do not want has led many men to avoid forming lasting bonds with their partners or to support their young. “Men need to take back control of pregnancy and thus paternity in order to alleviate these negative social consequences,” he concludes.
Did he say control? Sure enough.
And that’s not all. For Sanger, paternal uncertainty is exacerbated by women taking charge of contraception. Once birth control ceases to be “a mutual activity,” he writes, men are given a license to act irresponsibly.
He can’t be serious. In an era when DNA tests are readily available, it is simple to determine paternity, if this is actually the issue. And needless to say, female contraceptives—the pill, Norplant, the IUD and diaphragm—have never kept men from using condoms as secondary protection.
That Sanger is off the mark here goes without saying. But he also errs in other ways, most notably in his elevation of the nuclear family. Furthermore, by ignoring the failure of present-day sex education, he sidesteps the ways in which comprehensive training can challenge pervasive stereotypes about gender, sexuality, reproduction, coupling and parenting. Likewise, Sanger steers clear of communications enhancement, a huge chasm since the inability to verbalize sexual desires and preferences seems central to his argument about responsible fatherhood.
Instead, Sanger hammers away at the need to foster policies that encourage healthy, planned reproduction. He urges activists to push for social policies that encourage humanity’s propagation instead of policies centered around female control of fertility. Despite rational conclusions, his denial of women’s centrality to the birthing process rankles badly. “Being biologically pro-life means that one must be politically pro-choice,” he quips. Toward that end, he wants world governments to subsidize birth control, abortion, fertility services and genetic screening since all contribute to successful childbearing.
I agree that this is important. I also agree that moving “beyond choice” to promote an agenda that encourages human development, self-fulfillment and sound families—however configured—is essential.
Perhaps our differences are a matter of vision. As Margaret Sanger wrote in the inaugural issue of The Woman Rebel, a newspaper she published to promote birth control and feminism, a “woman is enslaved by the world machine, by sex conventions, by motherhood and its present necessary child rearing, by wage-slavery, by middle-class morality, by customs, laws and superstitions…The defenders of authority dread the advent of free motherhood lest it rob them of their prey. Who would fight wars? Who would create wealth?”
Sadly, Alexander Sanger lacks his grandmother’s spunk. His vision is neither fiery enough nor egalitarian enough to move readers to action. Despite some provocative assertions, Beyond Choice offers little of enduring significance.
The Krazy Kat Inside Kenneth Koch Kenneth Koch, The Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly without Pictures (Soft Skull, 2004)
I’m trawling through my memory, trying to think of a poet better suited than Kenneth Koch to drawing a book of comics. Don Marquis, perhaps? His New York Sun column was co-opted in 1916 by a cockroach named Archy, who expounded (pounding at night on Marquis’s typewriter) on the vagaries of human nature. Marquis’s poems are crawling with ready-made comic-strip characters. But then, his conversational verse with unpredictable line breaks seems to have found its most exuberant heir in Koch. The other usual suspects are Koch’s fellow New York School poets. With their anti-solemn ethos and cocktails of high culture mixed with low, poetic language mixed with spoken English, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler might produce a mean graphic novel, or graphic lyric poem, or what have you. Even T.S. Eliot, against whose high-art exclusiveness Koch (et al.) rebelled, could have illustrated his Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and called it a day.
But I giggled inwardly when I heard about Koch’s forthcoming comic book; it’s as though a syzygy of Krazy Kat and a poet were about to occur, and between them the reader could bask in an especially lucky alignment. Koch is himself a Krazy Kat of verse — nothing seems to get him down; even sorrow is somehow marvelous, unique, and worthy of admiration; bean him with a brick, and he swoons as if the universe had blown him a kiss. As he wrote in “Seasons on Earth,” “No way the Arctic/ Of death, disease, or pain had bent my being: happiness,/ I thought, was what life came to, more or less.” It seemed to confirm years of output when, in 1995, Koch told an interviewer, “Comics influenced my writing. I read them as sheep graze grass.”
That love of the form, and that Koch-like buoyancy that runs almost counter to the laws of physics are both evident in this collection, most of which was drawn in the early nineties (Koch died in 2002). True to their name, “Comics Mainly without Pictures” are not comics at all; they are visual puns mainly with diagrams added on, most of them fitting in a single frame on one page. Think of them as conceptual rebuses drawn by a precocious child who hasn’t learned to color within the lines. Visually, it must be said, these pages have the painfully crude look of Harvey Pekar’s ideas before artists like R. Crumb illustrated them.
In a sweet touch, the word “comics” punctuates many individual titles in the book. Nonetheless, the comics aren’t all comedic; often they go down like a weak draught of melancholy. “Autobiography Comics” consists of a sketch of cards overlaid with the words “We played/ honeymoon/ bridge/ day and night.” “Flags of Different Nations Comics” features 11 blank rectangles drawn on the page, with the names of countries (U.S.A., France, England) written under each—the final country being Gowanaland. The most appealing comics echo words with diagrams, or are just baldly silly. For some reason, a comic titled “You’re Amazing” is very funny: all it contains is a big square drawn on the page, filled with the words “YOU’RE AMAZING!”
Yet even where Koch deploys a more intricate cleverness, it isn’t enough to pull you through 125 pages of doodling. “Opera House Comics” shows a gridlike map of an auditorium orchestra, with sections of seats blocked out and filled with words: the first three sections say “impediment,” and the rest of the sections read down as “from these seats/ we/ see/ pretty/ well/ but/ from/ these/ seats/ we/ don’t/ see/ at/ all,” with the final words positioned next to the “impediment” boxes. The effect would be funnier if you had been at the opera with Koch that night, and he had passed you the sketch on a cocktail napkin.
That of course is the appeal of posthumous marginalia: it brings your hand up to touch the texture of the artist’s life, precisely because it bypasses the gloss of his greatest work. And so Koch-philes may be grateful for any new trace of ink from the poet’s pen.
But for those who admire both Koch and comic books, The Art of the Possible is conceptually too pat and visually not pretty enough. Admittedly, given what Koch is trying to achieve, prettiness is beside the point—but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy countless pages of sloppy diagrams. It seems a funny coincidence that the art of the comic book underwent a renaissance (resulting in that much haughtier term, the graphic novel) right around the time Koch was exercising his Bic. No doubt in stores The Art of the Possible will be shelved with poetry, but if it ever stumbled into the graphic novels section, its visual deficits would leap out. In a genre grown sophisticated through the visions of artists like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine, any book filled with stick figures and lopsided circles will offend the reader’s eye.
The irony is that a culture in which comic books can become as seriously expressive as novels is just the culture Koch campaigned for in the 1960s with his colloquial, omnivorous, enthusiastic poetry. And so his similarity to Krazy Kat creeps back. If you tried to aim a personal blow at him, if you told Koch that his own comics look shabby beside the new breed of graphic novels (which are being turned into popular movies and being featured in the New York Review of Books) he might be truly happy to hear it.
A Hegelian Deleuze? Slavoj Zizek, Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (Routledge, 2004)
I last heard Slavoj Zizek speak at the Deitch Projects gallery on Grand street last winter. The place was filled to capacity with an NYC demographic perhaps best described as the Boutiquely Disheveled. All were tuned in to Zizek’s amplified voice: hyper, percussive, thickly accented, and capriciously oscillating between allusions to American popular culture and the big systems of Continental philosophy. As he riffed on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a DVD player, rigged up PowerPoint-style, projected frames onto the wall behind him. It quickly became clear that the images were out of sync with the theoretical spiel, at the same time a group of hard-core Zizekians who had been unable to get in to hear their man had begun hammering on the doors from outside. As James Stewart stood frozen above the Slovenian philosopher, mild chaos became the general vibe.
Of course, the gate-crashers and glitching AV threw Zizek’s skill as extemporizing lecturer into sharp relief, as he was able off-handedly to absorb these contingencies into his interpretive agenda (the banging at the door becoming something akin to the Lacanian “Real”), and still preserve their singularity as unassimilable disruptions. This is, in fact, what all of his books are about, each an enjoyably idiosyncratic re-staging of the great Western conundrum of how to link the general with the particular. The works too seem to associatively meander from one provocative disruption to the next, always managing, cliff-hangerishly, to drum up a dialectical synthesis in which all the disparate ingredients fuse into a tasty bon-bon of ideology critique. The books are thus not so much carefully pursued arguments around this or that theoretical hypothesis, but rather a series of attractively packaged speculative consumables.
Although Zizek is trained as a Lacanian analyst, his most definitive intellectual progenitor is G. W. F. Hegel. The methodological coupling of a nineteenth century German idealist philosopher and a twentieth century French psychoanalyst is not as syncretic as it might seem. Lacan’s only explicitly acknowledged “master” (besides Freud) was Russian émigré statesman and scholar Alexadre Kojève, whose seminars on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in the 1930s at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes left a deep imprint on Parisian intellectual life for the next fifty years, most legibly upon Lacan’s own psycho-linguistics of the Other. And so it is around the figures of Hegel and Lacan that Zizek’s book on Gilles Deleuze finds its polemical angle, as Deleuze was as emphatically “anti-Hegelian” in his philosophy as he was anti-oedipe.
The book’s title dialectically inverts the Deleuzian concept of the “body without organs.” The phrase first appears in Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense (1969), but receives its most detailed treatment in his collaboration with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, in their acidy libidino-Marxist manifesto Anti-Oedipus (1972). In the context of the latter work, the term describes the undifferentiated ground or “recording surface” over which flows of desire coagulate into forms of organization or “desiring machines” (this “surface” could be anything from an underlying mode of production to the terrestrial materiality of the planet Earth itself). Zizek’s first gesture, then, is to negate this Deleuzian term, by re-defining it through Oedipal mechanics and the phallus (the dialectically re-privileged “organ” of his title).
For Zizek, Lacan’s transformative re-casting of Freud’s schema, far from naming the stopping up of the flow of polymorphous libidinal desire in the mom-dad-me matrix (the argument of Anti-Oedipus), in fact points the way out of such normative protocols through the freeing abstractions of the signifier. Thus for Zizek, Oedipus is itself already—to invoke another of the D+G slogans now burned into the vocabularies of American graduate students—the movement of “deterritorialization.” Whereas for Deleuze this term describes the dissolving of the regulative taxonomies (such as “Oedipal conflict”) that shore up the flow of affirmative (non-reactive; non-dialectical) becoming, Zizek calls his modified Oedipus, “the operator of deterritorialization.” In his version, the passage through the Scylla and Charybdis of mother/father brings about an “explosive opening up onto the social space,” in which the rigid architecture of the family is freely displaced toward liberating “abstractions of sense.”
Deleuze would no doubt call Zizek’s Lacanian linguistics a Transcendentalism, or even a Platonism, of the signifier. In describing the scenario by which a child emerges from the Oedipal conflict as a free manipulator of symbolic abstractions under the Name of the Father (that is, as a language user), Zizek appeals to models Lacan lifted from Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In Saussure’s Cours, the production of meaning is described as a differential relation between adjacent terms within a signifying system (“cat” is “cat” because it is not “bat”), and so Zizek essentially re-names “deterritorialization” as a linguistic dynamic of negativity. This, then, is precisely the opposite—again, the Hegelian inverse—of how Deleuze and Guattari read the Oedipal triangle—i.e., as the repressive partitioning of an undifferentiated “body without organs.”
As in his separate engagements with the notions of “quasi-cause,” the “virtual,” and “repetition,” Zizek again and again re-routes the particular Deleuzian inflections of these terms into predictably Lacano-Hegelian territory. But it should be pointed out that Organs Without Bodies is only ostensibly a book about Gilles Deleuze; mostly, it is another opportunity for Zizek to work through his own increasingly eclectic preoccupations. An incomplete list of items in the book only tangentially related to Deleuze might include: quantum mechanics, cognitive science, the Christian trinity, the double-speak of George W. Bush, Japanese tamagochi toys, fist-fucking, Zion vs. Palestine, Wagner vs. Meyerbeer, Good vs. Evil, Paul Robeson’s version of “Ol’ Man River,” surfing, cyberspace, and the ongoing (and apparently interminable) analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Alas, this drama of the kooky example repeatedly derailing the over-aching design (that old chestnut of general and particular), never really becomes anything in Organs Without Bodies. Zizek always pours his materials right back into the dialectical blender—and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze is just another example.
- Paul Grimstad
An Ongoing Experiment
Daniel Kane, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s
(University of California Press, 2003)
The St. Marks Poetry Project has long served as the neglected wife of literary history– faithful, performing her essential tasks weekly, maintaining the family and community spirit, but overlooked in favor of more glamorous muses. She was loved, yes, gone home to during holidays like New Years day, turned to in times or war or crisis, but nonetheless under appreciated. That is, until Daniel Kane took the matter into his own capable hands and revealed what a thing of beauty and lyricism she really is.
St. Marks Church is of those institutions that make seem New York invincible, with its troika of Dance Space, The Ontological Hysteric Theater and the Poetry Project, but that wasn’t always the case. Like any child, the Poetry Project had its moment of conception, a bout of the terrible twos, made its first hesitant steps, went through a mind-bending phase of rebellion. It has now matured and is presided over by one of a second generation of Berrigans, Anselm Berrigan.
Kane explores in great detail the prequel: the emerging Lower East Side readings at the Tenth Street Coffee House and Les Deux Mégots Coffeehouse poetry scenes that developed along with 1960s radicalism and political action as alternatives to the conservative and dominant academic poetry world. He chronicles the explosion of over 50 mimeographed magazines (precursor to ‘zines) like Ed Sanders Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts featuring Sanders, Ginsberg, the Fugs, W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound and the irrepressible Tuli Kupferberg; Umbra, which showcased the work of Lorenzo Thomas, Ishmael Reed, and Tom Dent, and once featured David Henderson’s scandalous piece, “The Ofay and the Nigger,” attacking white hipsters co-optation of black experience; Jerome Rothenberg and Poems from the Floating World, exploring Pound’s Imagism; as well as Ted Berrigan’s C: A Journal of Poetry and the many other collaborations between Grove Press and Evergreen Review (published by Grove). Along the way, Kane covers censorship, the Beats, and the “outlaw” mentality that came to dominate the movement. As the poet Bernadette Mayer said about St. Marks, “People used to make love in the church belfry and on the pews. You know, it was a lot of fun.”
The title of Kane’s book, All Poets Welcome, refers to a June 1961 ad in the Village Voice for an open reading at the Deux Mégots Coffee House, named after the renowned literary café in Paris, Les Deux Magots. As Kane writes, the styles of reading encompassed “Deep Image, Black Mountain, Beat, [and] 1920’s” every Wednesday night. The scene later shifted to Le Metro on Second Avenue and reached out to a wider, younger community organized by Paul Blackburn. Those café soirées included members of the New York School, which Blackburn acerbically referred to as “MoMA/Edge of the Big Money School”.
Between 1964 and 1968 the counterculture exploded and the Lower East Side became its East Coast nexus. But the reading series got into big trouble when New York City started cracking down on “unlicensed” entertainment, or that performed without a cabaret license. Jackson Mac Low, Allen Ginsberg, Allen Katzman, Ed Sanders and Carol Bergé set up a “Committee on Poetry” to get those restrictive laws changed and even met with Ed Koch, the future Mayor of New York and then an influential City Council member. What they found out was the police were buying weekly issues of the Village Voice and selectively targeting poetry readings to bust. The ACLU jumped in for a well-publicized battle with the corrupt Department of Licenses and the case was eventually dismissed (in court, a License Department inspector actually testified that he had seen people “saying words” at the café). But Le Métro imploded through a series of in-fights and racial tension, and by the winter of 1965 the poets were homeless.
St. Marks pastor Michael Allen saw the 60s cultural and political ferment unfold before his eyes with publications like The East Village Other, as well as performances by Andy Warhol's Electric Circus at St. Marks, Allen opened his door to those shut out from Le Metro five months before the official start of the war in Vietnam. Fortuitously, St. Marks had accepted $200,000 in federal funding for “the socialization of juvenile delinquents” from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The program was given the moniker “Creative Arts For Alienated Youth.” According to Kane, “During the early years the Project sponsored parties featuring free LSD punch, and broadcast an illegal pirate radio station run by the poet John Giorno,” not exactly what the government had in mind. It also spawned Theater Genesis (featuring a young Sam Shepard) and The Millennium Film Workshop.
Under the direction of Joel Oppenheimer, a poet, the Project expanded its programs. Free workshops were given in the late fall of ’66 with prose being taught by the likes of Seymour Krim and Ishmael Reed, and poetry by Ted Berrigan, Oppenheimer and others. Sam Shepard taught playwriting. Anne Waldman also came on board with her own mission—that “the new poetic community must invite women’s writing”—which Bernadette Mayer upheld with her legendary poetry worships of the 70s. The scene became a rallying point for alternative and anti-war politics, a mission lasting up to the present. As discussed in her recent interview in the Rail (February 2004), Waldman was instrumental in the Project’s development. She was involved with The World, producing mainly collaborative texts, as well as the magazine Angel Hair. Much of the activity centered in Waldman’s and her then-husband Lewis Warsh’s apartment on St. Marks Place, which also functioned as a informal salon. The underlying spirit of “don’t take yourself too seriously,” served as a backdrop as literary lions and the not so famous traipsed through their doors.
By 1976 the scene became glamorous and the poets got anthologized. The Summers of Love had faded and political violence escalated. The grant that funded The Poetry Project dried up. Michael Allen left for Connecticut, new administrators like Larry Fagin stepped in and Bernadette Mayer taught workshops on the Language Poets. The final chapters of Kane’s book trace the ongoing work of Bob Holman (now of the Bowery Poetry Club) and the Nuyorican Poets Café to adapt the poetry scene to current styles and interests.
But the Poetry Project remains the church of the word, the place where—as the title of Kane’s book suggests—all poets are still welcome.
The Truth about Black Mountain Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art, edited by Vincent Katz (MIT Press)
Black Mountain College, the experimental art school located in a peaceful hamlet in North Carolina, existed for only 23 years (1933-1956), but it is one of those phantasmagorias of the modern art world: you’ve heard about it, read about and maybe even saw a piece or photograph of a work from it, but what, exactly was it? Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where each man who touched the creature declared it a different type of animal, it all depends on who you listen to. Now, thanks to a defining exhibition by the Museo National Centro de Arte Raina Sofia in Madrid, Spain, and to this lavishly illustrated (470 color and black and white pictures) book by Vincent Katz, the world can finally see what all the fuss was about.
The list of teachers and students reads like an academy made in creative heaven and would take up this entire review. The school was born from the Bauhaus, the art movement that migrated to the United States from pre-war Germany. The painter Joseph Albers and his wife, the textile designer Anni Albers, moved to North Carolina and founded the school. The book documents the informal yet personal instruction students received in a plethora of art disciplines: painting, drawing, art criticism, architecture, sculpture, crafts and textile design, poetry, dance, choreography, and music composition. Among other products, this cross-meshing helped launch Abstract Expressionism, the very first “Happening” (courtesy of John Cage and Merce Cunningham), as well as original contributions that lasted decades from each field.
Exhaustive in its depth and illuminating especially because of the voluminous examples of photographs that show individuals, their work, and their shared life together, the book also contains synopses of the fabled Black Mountain Review, as well as essays and personal reminiscences. The collection serves as the gold standard in chronicling the development of an idea that became an enduring and influential reality.
Michael Calderone is a writer based in Brooklyn.Eleanor J. Bader
Paul Grimstad's songs and original scores are featured most recently in the films, Happy Christmas (2014), The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014), and Stinking HeavenEmily Votruba
Emily Votruba is the copy chief at Cargo magazine.Jana Prikryl
Erika Doss’s Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists and ReligionBy Daniel Kraft
MARCH 2023 | Art Books
Through case studies investigating the role of religion in the lives and works of four 20th century American artistsJoseph Cornell, Mark Tobey, Agnes Pelton, and Andy Warholand through a short closing chapter discussing Christian imagery in more recent art, Doss demonstrates how reductive this dismissal of spirituality really is.
Mirror Image: A Transformation of Chinese IdentityBy Barbara A. MacAdam
SEPT 2022 | ArtSeen
The seven artists in this exhibitionall born in mainland China between 1979 and 1987are represented by nineteen works that range from video to performance to installations, digital art, painting, and more. Each tells a different story with wit, curiosity, techno savvy, painterly skill, and/or sociability.
Jasper Johns: Mind/MirrorBy Amanda Gluibizzi
DEC 21-JAN 22 | ArtSeen
At the Whitney Museum of American Art, Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror starts off with such a strong installation that its nearly impossible to pick a favorite piece.
J.V. Martin: Something is Rotten in the State of Everything EverywhereBy Hunter Braithwaite
JUNE 2022 | ArtSeen
In March 1965, a bomb ripped through the apartment of J.V. Martin, painter, provocateur, and leader of the Scandinavian chapter of the Situationist International. In what was rumored to be an attack by the Danish secret service, the bomb injured Martins five-year-old son, burned out the entirety of his apartment, and destroyed the bulk of his work and archive up to that point, including his Thermonuclear Map paintingsheavily loaded canvases documenting the landscape in the hours after a nuclear Armageddon, their savagery evident in a materials list that included diapers and chunks of rotting cheese.