Sacred Cows, Tinctures, Zombies and Chomsky

From reading a compelling review in TLS’s In Brief to tucking into Mark Dery’s I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts was an interval of three days. I’m one foreword, an introduction and a single essay in, and I’ve got that familiar, but rare, tingle. I know IMNTBT and me are going to pleasurably commingle.

Bruce Sterling’s foreword intrigues but Dery’s introduction promises thrills ahead.

The ethos of Thinking Bad Thoughts isn’t synonymous with the wilful perversity of Christopher Hitchens’s contrarianism, or with H. L. Mencken’s lifelong devotion to spit-roasting the sacred cows of the booboisie, or with the nothing-is-true, everything-is-permitted libertinism of William S. Burroughs, or with the liberators cynicism of punk rockers like X, or with Orwell’s ability to confront hard truths without flinching. Yet it contains a tincture of each.

Dery’s introduction is a manifesto for this intellectual onslaught on the ‘friendly fascisms of right and left’ and an outright refusal to ‘recognise intellectual no-fly zones’, inspires.

His first essay Dead Man Walking contrasts the reanimating of the zombie myth in contemporary literature and film to its previous incarnation in the 70s and 80s.

In the postwar decades, as suburban sprawl and mall culture metastasized across America, Hollywood cast the zombie as the decaying face of popular ambivalence toward amok consumerism. Implacable consumption machines, the mall-crawling dead of Georg Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) liberalised the infantile psychology of consumer culture, with its oral fixation, insistence on instant gratification, and I-shop-therfore-I-am sense of self-worth, indexed to how pricey your status totems are-the sheer bodaciousness of your insatiable orality implied by market capitalism’s redefinition of citizens as consumers-“wallets with mouths”, in the cynical parlance of Madison Avenue is instructive.

Now that the econopocalypse has thrown millions out of work,triggered an upspike in homelessness, and eaten the braaains of consumer confidence, the zombie has undergone a role reversal, incarnating American fears that the republic is a shambling shadow of its former glory, Left 4 Dead by the near meltdown of the financial system. Zombies are the Resident Evil of an economy whose moribund state confronts us everywhere we look in a landscape littered with dead males, “ghost boxes” (dark, shuttered big-box outlets), and “zombie stores”-retailers forced by dismal sales to reduce their inventory to its bare bones, with the ironic consequence that their emaciated stock and empty floor space scare consumers away, accelerating their death spiral.

Is that enough to tempt you to dive in and read along? I could just have quoted Dery’s listing of “Noam Chomsky’s Top 10 List of Things You Can’t Say on Nightline: “The biggest international terror operations that are known are the ones that are run out of Washington; if the Nuremberg laws were applied then every postwar American president would have been hanged; the Bible is one of the most genocidal books in the total canon; education is a system of imposed ignorance…” but that would be too easy, and I assume you’ve all seen Manufacturing Consent.

Influential Books

List time: books that influenced me. Influence is defined as either life-changing or transformative in reading patterns (which equates to the same thing). These are roughly in time order. Later I may explain what changed as a consequence. Here’s the list:

  • Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
  • Dicken’s Great Expectations
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
  • Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source
  • Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God
  • Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
  • Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums
  • J. P. Donleavy’s The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
  • Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Bruce Sterling’s Artificial Kid
  • Sartre’s Nausea and Being and Nothingness
  • Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
  • Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past
  • Roger Deakin’s Wildwood
  • Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night
  • Mann’s The Magic Mountain
  • Woolf’s The Lighthouse
  • Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?

Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis

Depending on the definition of the borders of Europe, the ancient city of Vilnius lies close to a site claimed to be the geographical centre of Europe. This strategic position presumably lies behind a disastrous sequence of wars and occupations that have beset the city since its establishment in the early 1300s. Set in 1970s, Vilnius Poker casts the city as unmistakable villain.

Vilnius suffers, oppressed by inactivity and somnolence, remembering the Iron Wolf like a dream. It should have howled through the ages, but grew decrepit long ago, sickened with throat cancer; its metastases eat away at the city’s brain too. Perhaps only we two, Vilnius and I, are still alive.

The Iron Wolf howled in the dreams of Vilnius’s founder Grand Duke Gediminas. Freud may have diagnosed repressed homosexuality, but a pre-Freudian pagan priest interpreted the Iron Wolf as the castle (now called Gediminas Castle) and city that the Duke would establish as the capital of the Lithuanian lands.

Only the ancient castle in the new city is unavoidably real: a lonely tower, emerging from the overgrown slopes of the hill-the phallic symbol of Vilnius. It betrays all secrets. The symbolic phallus: short, stumpy and powerful. An organ of pseudo-powers that hasn’t been able to get aroused in a long time. A red three-storey tower, a phallic NOTHING, shamelessly shown to everyone, Vilnius’s image of powerlessness. The great symbol of a castrated city, of castrated Lithuania, stuck onto every postcard, into every photo album, every tourist brochure. A perverted, shameless symbol: its impotence should be hidden, not acknowledged, or it should at least pretend it’s still capable of a thing or two. But the city has long since lost everything-even its self respect. Only lies, absurdity, and fear remain.

This lonely tower in Vilnius embodies the central themes of this extraordinary book: powerlessness, fear, impotence, absurdity, corrupted sexuality and dissimulation.

The book’s translator, Elizabeth Novickas, describes Vilnius Poker succinctly as follows:

When asked to come up with a summary of what the book is about, or a single section that could characterize it, I find myself groping at so many things that I’m completely at a loss. Yes, I suppose one could summarize something of the plot: there is a murder, a love story, four narrators, a number of characters, a more or less concrete time frame, and most certainly a concrete place, but how to include that time also goes around in circles, and on two occasions actually stops? And what to do with details of the plot that get told over and over, so that in the end you hardly know which version to believe, much less how to describe it? The best I can come up with, without writing a doctoral thesis on the subject, is also the simplest: this is a piece of fiction about life. The four narrators are all flawed people, but they are all people nevertheless, including the last narrator—the reincarnation of one of the characters as a dog. They make us squirm at their rawness, cringe at the depth of their self-deceptions, laugh at their stories, and in the end, when we see what cards they have been dealt, break our hearts.

Behind the story, with its reverberations of The Matrix, Orwell’s 1984 and a dose of David Icke, is also a potent commentary on modern culture and modernism.

I saw how playfulness, fantasy, and metaphysics disappeared from European literature-the kanukized throngs demanded block-headed descriptions of everyday life. Painful and tragic dreams disappeared; their place was taken up by idiotic realia, a hundred Zolas and Dickenses. The throng was concerned about bread, so literature had to write about bread. The soul slowly disappeared from it, the body came to rule over everything: how the character is dressed, what house he lives in, how much money he has. After Vivaldi, improvisation disappeared from music; music slowly lost its depth of meaning. Hegel, drowning in alcohol, blathered about his trinomial dialectic, and Europe immediately fell behind a thousand years, since even the dialectic of the ancient Chinese I Ching is many times more complex and real.

The influence of Kafka is palpable, Gavelis references Kafka directly and subtly throughout the book, but also draws into the narrative Camus, Sabato, Plato, Joyce and Beckett.

I could tell her why I can’t stand Beckett, the most moral writer of our times. (I can’t stand Beckett, even though picking up a book of his I feel a quiver of respect. He is perhaps the only one who was able to look at a man with God’s indifferent eyes. He quite honestly showed the sorry state of the kanuked man the way it really is.)

Of course, as in any work of almost five hundred pages, there are deficiencies. The first part is more essential than subsequent sections, where Gavelis feels the need for expository narrative. Part Three,  Stefa’s narrative, is powerful, but if I had closed the book after Part One I would consider Vilnius Poker superlative, rather than merely brilliant.

My introduction to Ričardas Gavelis’ Vilnius Poker is thanks to Emily’s suggestion for the “non-structured book group.”