Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, by Nick Hornby, Introduction by Jess Walter (2014)



So, what makes a great (or even a good) critic?  One would imagine breadth of culture, cultivation of taste, a reverence for great work from antiquity to the present day, and discrimination.

And then, you could be novelist/reviewer, Nick Hornby (born 1957).  He has none of the above, as he writes here:

Something has been happening to me recently – something which, I suspect, is likely to affect a significant and important part of the rest of my life.  The grandiose way of describing this shift is to say that I have been slowly making my peace with antiquity; or, to express it in words that more accurately describe what’s going on, I have discovered that some old shit isn’t so bad.

Hitherto, my cultural blind spots have included the Romantic Poets, every single bar of classical music ever written, and just about anything produced before the nineteenth century, with the exception of Shakespeare and a couple of the bloodier, and hence more Tarantinoesque, revenge tragedies.  When I was young, I didn’t want to listen to or read anything that reminded me of the brown and deeply depressing furniture in my grandmother’s house.  She didn’t have many books, but those she did own were indeed brown: cheap and old editions of a couple of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, for example, and maybe a couple of hand-me-down books by somebody like Frances Hodgson Burnett.  When I ran out of stuff to read during the holidays, I was pointed in the direction of her one bookcase, but I wanted bright Puffin paperbacks, not mildewed old hardbacks, which came to represent just about everything I wasn’t interested in.

This unhelpful association, it seems to me, should have withered with time; instead, it’s been allowed to flourish, unchecked … I soon found that I didn’t want to read or listen to anything that anybody in ay position of educational authority told me to.  Chaucer was full of woodworm; Wordsworth was yellow and curling at the edges, whatever edition I was given.  I read Graham Greene and John Fowles, Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe, Chandler and Nathanael West, Greil Marcus and Peter Guarlnick, and I listened exclusively to popular music.  Dickens crept in, eventually, because he was funny, unlike Sir Walter Scott and Shelley, who weren’t.  And, because everything was seen through the prism of rock and roll, every now and again I would end up finding something I learned about through the pages of New Musical Express.

So, for Your Correspondent, (self-confessed snob, aesthete and reactionary), this is enough to disregard each and any of Hornby’s critical assessments.  To us, his seeing the world through the prism of rock and roll is especially damming – as that is surely a sign of a severely arrested development.

And yet…

And yet, Hornby clearly loves literature and is besotted by books.  It’s almost impossible to read his criticism and not come away with a deep and abiding admiration for Hornby and his own, peculiar aesthetic.  Even more telling, it’s almost impossible not to like him.  Here is a man of real warmth and charm, with a lively intelligence, a big heart, and a detestation of cant.

The reviews collected in Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books were written for The Believer magazine between 2003 and 2013; many of then were collected in two previous books: The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, but the current volume collects everything in one handy book.  He brings to his role as critic a lively intelligence, a sense of what makes fiction work, and great good humor.  Here is the opening of a typical column:

The advantages and benefits of writing a monthly column about reading for the Believer are innumerable, if predictable: fame, women (it’s amazing what people will do to get early information about the Books Bought list), international influence, and so on.  But perhaps the biggest perk of all, one that has only emerged slowly, over the years, is this: you can’t read long books.

At the start of each column, Hornby lists the books that he bought (and, at times, it would seem that he is keeping the publishing industry afloat single-handedly), and books read.  The two don’t always tally, but he will always tell you what led him to read the chosen books that month, and if they lived up to expectations.

A successful novelist (we here at The Jade Sphinx are especially fond of About a Boy and The Long Way Down), Hornby is wise enough to know that different writers with different styles all bring something to the table, and his indiscriminate taste allows him to find and recommend many terrific books we would otherwise overlook.

Perhaps the most significant bow in his quiver is the fact that he does not engage in critical smackdown.  When he doesn’t like something, he’s more likely to leave the reader chuckling than quaking at the quality of his venom.  Here he is on a comedic novel that he found decidedly unfunny:

On my copy of Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, there is a quote from Anthony Burgess that describes the novel as “one of the few books I have read in the last year that has provoked laughter.”  Initially, it’s a blurb that works in just the way the publishers intended.  Great, you think.  Burgess must have read a lot of books; and both the quote itself and your knowledge of the great man suggest that he wouldn’t have chuckled at many of them.  So if The Trick of It wriggled its way through that forbidding exterior to the Burgess sense of humor, it must be absolutely hilarious, right?  But then you start to wonder just how trustworthy Burgess would have been on the subject of comedy.  What, for example, would have been his favorite bit of Jackass: The Movie?  (Burgess died in 1993, so sadly we will never know.)  What was his most cherished Three Stooges sketch?  His favorite Seinfeld character?  His top David Brent moment?  And after careful contemplation, your confidence in his comic judgment stars to feel a little misplaced: there is a good chance, you suspect, that Anthony Burgess would have steadfastly refused even to smile at many of the things that have ever made you chortle uncontrollably.

Sometimes it feels as though we are being asked to imagine cultural judgments as a whole bunch of concentric circles.  On the outside, we have the wrong ones, made by people who read The Da Vinci Code and listen to Celine Dion; right at the center we have the correct ones, made by the snootier critics, very often people who have vowed never to laugh again until Aristophanes produces a follow-up to The Frogs … If I had to choose between a Celine Dion fan and Anthony Burgess for comedy recommendation, I would go with the person standing on the table singing “the Power of Love” every time.  I’ll bet Burgess read Candide – I had a bad experience with Candide only recently – with tears of mirth trickling down his face.

Despite his critical liberality, there are some things that still fail to register with Hornby.  He does not understand the appeal of series characters (why read many James Bond adventures, he wonders, rather than just his greatest one?), and is immune to most genre fiction.  (Given the choice of a terrific science fiction novel, or a way-we-live now book about divorce, he’ll take the latter.)  But these foibles are few, and may even be evidence of his aesthetic maturity being great than mine own.

At any rate – Nick Hornby is a gifted novelist, and perhaps an even more gifted literary critic.  Readers interested in intelligent, thoughtful and amusing criticism could do no better than Ten Years in the Tub.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Waiting and Mad, by Charles Marion Russell (1899)



We finish our brief look into the internal workings of the mind of Charlie Russell, Cowboy Artist Extraordinaire, with this witty and wonderful picture, Waiting and Mad (1899).

People who have known Your Correspondent for some time have surely heard me say, “I’ve been married for 26 years and I’ve spent 23 of them waiting.”  As someone who regularly waits by the door, waits by the shower and waits in the car while my Much Better Half does whatever it is that he’s doing, the feeling in this picture is very familiar.  And I’m sure the look on my face is much the same.

Just to be upfront about it – I love this picture.   Though Charlie was merely a capable draughtsman of the human form, every detail of this picture speaks volumes.

The story is clear from the surroundings and the look of … sultry disgust on the Indian woman’s face.  Here is a beautiful and sexualized woman – notice the nearly exposed breast and the provocative curve of hip.  Her pallet is ready for company, but the fire in the foreground has grown cold (a witty joke), the dinner bowl is now empty, and the long pipe is cast aside and unused (ditto).  Like the wispy smoke from the dead fire, there is only a dissipating trace of something that was once hot.

Most delicious of all is the look on her face: a mixture of disappointment, fury, resignation and bored familiarity.  One has the distinct impression that this has happened before, and will probably happen again in the future.  And she knows it.

So … why do I like this painting so much?  Mainly because Charlie’s views on humanity were much smarter and commonsensical than the ways we are taught to think today.  Charlie knew many Native Americans in his time in the West, and genuinely liked them.  He was one of nature’s democrats – he judged people as individuals, and knew that, as groups, people are more alike than they are different.

Today, we are taught that our differences matter more than our similarities, and that our cultural peculiarities are some sacred carapace that protect us from being more like one another.  Charlie would’ve thought we were crazy (and I’m with Charlie).  This picture works so well because Charlie was able to capture the look of everyone who has ever waited for their wife or husband to show up.  It would be the same picture if the woman was in an Asian setting, or a Middle-European one, or in a contemporary American home: and that is Charlie’s point.  We’re all people, and we’re all more alike than we are different.

Charlies notions don’t have much currency in today’s world, but how much of commonsense does, nowadays?


Next week: New and Noteworthy Books  

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Loops and Swift Horses are Surer Than Lead, by Charles Marion Russell (1916)



Here is a wonderful action painting by our friend, Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the Cowboy Artist.  Charlie is a good saddle pal to us here at The Jade Sphinx, and Your Correspondent has been trying to get a sense of the man and his philosophy through his pictures. 

We can start with the obvious: the title of this work, Loops and Swift Horses are Surer Than Lead.  In the survey of Western Art we have done here over the years, we have had occasion to look at several pictures that include bears in an attitude of menace.  In fact, after Native Americans, bandits and over-zealous lawmen, perhaps the bear is the most frequently represented foeman in Western Art.

However, most any of Charlie’s contemporaries would take the obvious route, and paint a picture of Western figures shooting and killing the bear.  (Or, reaching for their rifles to do so, or putting them down after they have done so.)  Not Charlie.  His cowboy heroes, though obviously well-armed, rope and scare the bear away to safer climes.  Always more Roy Rogers than Clint Eastwood, Charlie didn’t see the West as a vast panorama of hardship and cruelty, but, rather, a boyish paradise of freedom and fun.

This is where Charlie differs most significantly from the artist frequently associated with him, Frederic Remington (1861-1909).  For Remington, the West was unending hardship, merciless desert and physical exertion, a battle for survival to be won or lost.  It is Remington, of course, who created in his work the now-familiar Western trope of the bleached steer skull that can still be seen in countless depictions of the West.  Make a wrong move, Remington implied, and you’ll end up the same.

If this picture is any indication, perhaps Charlie’s vision was the truer one.  Loops and Swift Horses now hangs in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and is based on a true-life incident.  This painting came about by way of his friends, the Coburn brothers of the famous Circle C Ranch in eastern Montana, where they described the roping of a giant brown bear. Artistic license was taken when Charlie turned the bruin into a Grizzly, but the rest of the story was true right down to the landscape in the background: the scenic Coburn Buttes.

The dominant color of the picture is blue, but Charlie manages to mute or pop shades of it to represent everything from trees to sky to mountains, to foreground scrub.  Yes, the color never becomes monotonous or gimmicky. 

Charlie was also the master of figures in motion.  His horses move.  Many of our greatest artists have been able to depict horses of majesty, of size, of monumentality, but Charlie’s horses are seen in dramatic action, twisting or jumping with a febrile life of their own.  I can think of no finer painter of American horses than Charlie Russell
Finally, Charlie underscores the tumultuous action of the picture with a rainstorm in the middle-distant horizon.  Like all Western landscape pictures, the view-horizon is vast, going on for miles.  Thus the far-off rain storm underscores the ‘storm’ of action going on between cowboys, horses and bear. 

Speaking of movement, take a moment to look at the bear.  It twists and pivots on unsteady ground … you can almost feel the weight of the animal as it is pulled and slides down the natural incline.  The cowboys, too, move as if in motion, alternately pulling or swinging their lariats.  And notice the cowboy on the right, looking over his right shoulder, with right leg raised as counter weight to keep in saddle.

This is a really good picture, and something mysteriously akin to the essence of Charlie – not only is his West a world of action, freedom and camaraderie, but it can be a fairly bloodless one, too.  Charlie loved the animals he found out West (when visiting cities, he always went to the local zoo, where he said he felt most at home), and it’s not surprising that he would depict his heroes scaring away the threat of a grizzly, rather than killing it. 


Perhaps we should all take a page from Russell’s notebook, and produce work that preserves the best parts of ourselves (or, at least, the myth of the best part of ourselves).  The more I look at Charlie’s work, the more convinced I become that we need more artists like him now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Laugh Kills Lonesome, by Charles Marion Russell (1925)



It’s no secret that we here at The Jade Sphinx love the work of Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the cowboy artist.  The boyish Russell went West in his early youth, and worked as a cowboy, watching the waning days of the American West with an artist’s eye.  He didn't seem to be very effective in the saddle, but it was all he wanted and he was happy.

Charlie not only loved life, he loved his life.  He wanted to be a cowboy in his earliest boyhood, and went West as soon a he had the chance. 

Charlie’s vision of the West was a boyish one, full of endless prairies and freedom.  His was an eternal boyhood – both promise and nostalgia at the same time.  The West (and his boyhood) became to him a Lost Eden which he missed and to which he could never return.

The sense of loss, though, was not a bitter nor astringent one.  In fact, it grew into some of a sweet wistfulness.  Charlie was too happy a man – too content with life and his place in it – to allow loss to play to great a part.  It’s a lesson we can all take from this maddeningly simple yet complex man.  The more I read about Charlie, the more I think I know him, the more I feel some vital core essence of the man is slipping through my fingers.

This week, we will look at three of Charlie’s pictures.  (I only think of him as “Charlie,” it’s almost impossible to think of him under his full moniker.)  They are not necessarily his best (nor most representative pictures), but they illustrate something of his philosophy, I think.

Exhibit A: Laugh Kills Lonesome, painted in 1925 and now in the Mackay Collection in Helena, Montana.  It was painted just a year before Charlie went to the Last Roundup, and if ever an artist painted an end-of-life farewell, it is this.

Charlie paints the figures in a markedly sketchy manner: it’s not verisimilitude he is after, but mood.  The sky and surrounding landscape are simply laid out in muted, cool colors.  The moon shines brilliantly in the distance, and the stars seem almost heavenly, but they do no wash the picture with cool light – they are distant and fairly unobtainable.

The realm warmth of the picture comes from the campfire, which brings a warm glow to the chuck wagon, a few simple tools, and the cowboys themselves.  There is nothing of particularly high mark in their attitudes or actions; it is simply a group of men content after a hard life of labor, loving the outdoors, their lives, and one another.  One of them smokes a contemplative cigarette, another pours the last of the coffee, and two of them share a game of cards.

But the arresting figure is the man standing on the right, hat back, coat open, body receptive to capture the campfire’s warmth.  Who is it but our old friend, Charlie Russell, the Cowboy Artist.  We have seen in the past that Charlie was not averse to putting himself into his own work, and there he is, holding his lariat, smoking a cigarette, and perhaps looking at the fire die down as his own life draws to a close.

Charlie was in ill health for the final years of his life, and he is evidently looking at his own past in this painting.  But it is not a look of regret or of loss; if anything, it’s a look of satisfaction.

Perhaps the truest nugget of the real Charlie Russell can be found in the picture’s title:  Laugh Kills Lonesome.

There, in a nutshell, is the essence of Charlie Russell.


Friday, September 9, 2016

The Spy Who Loved Me, by Ian Fleming (1962)



It is very hard for people who have never read Ian Fleming (1908-1964) before to dip into the James Bond novels.  And that is mainly because the movies have ruined our perception of Fleming and his world, perhaps for all time.

This is not to say that all Bond-films are bad.  Some of them – Goldfinger (1964), Octopussy (1983) and a few other come to mind – are delightful fun; and others – most significantly From Russia, With Love (1963) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – are almost real movies, films that pack an emotional and intellectual heft.  But from the best to the worst, there is very little of Fleming’s Bond in these films, and the rewards of reading Fleming have not yet been replicated in other mediums.

Despite the fact that Fleming himself sometimes denigrated his own work, it is clear that he was a novelist with ambitions within, and beyond, the framework in which he wrote.  He was initially influenced by the ‘hardboiled’ school of detective fiction, and professed a great love of Raymond Chandler (1888-1959).  But his earliest books, Casino Royale (1953) and Live and Let Die (1954), are little better than simple thrillers.  It was only with his third book, Moonraker (1955) that the unique fictive world he sought to create started to crystalize. 

Pop fiction can be written with various degrees of artistry, and such books as From Russia, With Love (1957), Dr. No (1958), and You Only Live Twice (1964) are written with a great deal of dash and more than a touch of something akin to a pulpy poetry.  When Fleming finally found that unique “voice” of the Bond thrillers, he was writing with a stylish purity that cannot be found in mere potboilers. 

Like the most vivid of thriller writers (Sax Rohmer comes to mind, ditto John Buchan and very early Leslie Chateris), Fleming wrote with complete conviction: once he finally found the voice of Bond and his world, he wrote with a complete and total emotional investment.  It is this authorial honesty that makes so many of the books work so wonderfully well.

But he was also acutely aware that the Bond novels were simply entertainments.  Expertly crafted and intriguing, but still simply entertainments.

And so, he tried, within the framework he had created, to transcend the disposability that was hardwired into character and the framework of the novels.  These experiments resulted in the terrific short story collection For Your Eyes Only (1960), and the only first-person James Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me (1962).

For Your Eyes Only consists of five short stories, and most of them are as “Un-Bondian” as one can imagine.  More literary, more anecdotal, more set in a recognizable reality, Fleming slips into Somerset Maugham territory with tight and psychologically sound short stories that humanize Bond.  I find For Your Eyes Only to be a terrific book with which to hook readers on Fleming, and it is highly recommended.

However, Fleming comes his very closest to a real, moving and genre-busting novel with The Spy Who Loved Me.  Initially dismissed by the critics (so much so that Fleming put the kibosh on paperback reprints in his lifetime) and usually shrugged off by hardcore Bond fans (more on that later), The Spy Who Loved Me is actually Fleming at his best: psychosocially sound, moving and profoundly real.

Spy is written in the first person by a young French-Canadian woman, Vivienne Michel.  She tells of her leaving her provincial hometown and the nuns that taught her, and, of her first love affair with a boy named Derek.  Fleming writes of a terrifying (and searing) moment when Vivienne nearly loses her virginity in a dirty cinema, and how Derek casts her aside once he uses her.  

Vivienne then steals herself against emotional involvement until later when she and her German boss, Kurt, become lovers.  Though cold and calculating, their relationship is satisfactory until Vivienne finds herself pregnant.  Horrified at the notion of marrying a non-German, Kurt fires her and gives her a plane ticket and an abortion as severance.

Finally promising herself that she is through with men, Vivienne then takes to her handy Vespa, and starts travelling down through Canada and into the United States.   It is in these passages that some of Fleming’s most pungent writing can be found: his disdain for tourist culture and kitschy roadside attractions drips from the page like rank battery acid.

Vivienne finds work in a soon-to-close for the season motel near Lake George.  On her last night there, alone and waiting for the owners to come next morning, Vivienne is assaulted and detained by two small-time punks, Sluggsy and Horror.  Rape and murder seem to be her ultimate fate … until the doorbell rings.

It’s Bond, James Bond, stranded with a flat tire.  At first, Vivienne thinks he is another punk:  At first glance I inwardly groaned—God it’s another of them!  He stood there so quiet and controlled and somehow with the same quality of deadliness as the others.  And he wore that uniform that the films make one associate with gangsters—a dark-blue belted raincoat and a soft black hat pulled rather far down.  He was good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way, and a scar showed whitely down his left cheek.  I quickly put my hand up to hide my nakedness.  Then he smiled and suddenly I thought I might be all right.

It doesn’t take a famous, world-class secret agent much time to deduce that there are problems in this little, out-of-the-way motel.  Before too many pages fly by (and they do fly by), Bond has saved Vivienne from the burning motel, eliminated the punks, and bedded our heroine.  More than that, he smooths matters over with the police, and ensures that Vivienne is on the road safe-and-sound in her Vespa as if nothing ever happened.  James Bond, professional killer and troubleshooter, restores her faith in male-kind.

Fleming plays a very canny (and very tricky) game here: Bond is, no matter how much one wants to parse his motives and methods, a hero.  But he is also a denizen of a darker and more dangerous world; a world that has no place for normal people with normal problems like Vivienne Michel.  But it is this compromised figure who saves her life and restores her faith in people.  Fleming is fully aware of the irony, and we, who know so much of Bond from previous books, know as well.

However, it is this very act of authorial savvy that prevents Fleming from elevating his tale into something closer to a real literary achievement, rather than merely executing a world-class entertainment.  Because the very presence of James Bond in the third act cheapens everything that comes before it.

My paperback edition of Spy runs to 180 pages, and James Bond does not enter until page 108.  What has been a straight novel now becomes a James Bond adventure.  Fleming had the confidence to stretch and try something new, but not enough to do it without the crutch of his most famous creation.  Could he have written a novel where Bond makes a late-page entrance and does not play the role of hero and savior?  Yes, we are convinced of it.  But, at the last minute, his nerve failed him and he went for something more tried-and-true. 

The Spy Who Loved Me is a terrific book that is let down by its ending, and a stellar James Bond novel that ultimately fails once James Bond comes into it.  As such, it hovers in a weird twilight within the Fleming corpus: an almost straight novel of real power and insight that is just a fair James Bond adventure. 

Ian Fleming was only 56 at the time of his death, and he was just entering the height of his powers.  What kind of novels would we have gotten from him had he another 10 or 20 years of life?  Would he have continued to grow and evolve as a novelist?  Would he have ultimately abandoned James Bond and written more literary novels?

We’ll never know.  But we do know that in the realm of pop fiction, Fleming was in a class by himself.

Readers interested in Bond are referred to these wonderful sites:  James Bond Memes at: https://jamesbondmemes.blogspot.com/ and Artistic License Renewed at: https://literary007.com/.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Batman Breeds Thoughts on Culture High and Low, Along with Musings on the Current Cultural Crisis



Yesterday we looked at Glen Weldon’s wonderful new book, Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, and that got us to thinking.  (Before we get to thinking, though, let’s reiterate that Weldon’s book is quite terrific and highly recommended.)  Is Batman art?  And is a deep engagement with Batman (or other facets of Nerd Culture) a worthwhile endeavor?

Before we start exploring, let’s set some ground rules.  We here at The Jade Sphinx have given serious consideration to pop fiction and film, along with kiddie books.  We have also examined literary, artistic and musical works by great masters.  Clearly, we think that pop fictions are worthy of serious consideration … but the mistake this discussion often makes is equating serious consideration with serious art. 

But that is not the case.  Kiddie lit and pop fiction can be crafted with varying degrees of artistry, but that does not necessarily make it art.  Oh, it can be art, but it does not transmute into art simply through virtue of its examination.  A doctoral thesis on Batman, for example, may result in a diploma, but the intrinsic quality of our pointed-eared friend and the body of work about him remains unchanged.

Now, the call to canonize kitsch is a relatively new phenomenon.  From the 1930s through the 1960s – a time of unprecedented media saturation – junk art for children was enjoyed by children.  In what seems was a more innocent time, there were whole industries creating art for children: comic strips and books, movie serials, radio shows, animated cartoons and hosts of literary options created expressly for everyone from beginning readers to teenagers.  Adults could sometimes dip in an appreciative toe to remember the sweet currents of youth, and may even enjoy much of the material, but to become an avid consumer of such was a sign of feeble-mindedness.

Pop fiction for adults also fully realized (and embraced) its limitations.  One well remembers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s dedication to his 1912 novel The Lost World (a masterpiece of its kind): I have wrought my simple plan/If I give one hour of joy/To the boy who’s half a man,/Or the man who’s half a boy.  That lovely and poetic preamble is suitable for so much that came before and after, everything from Fu Manchu and Tarzan, to James Bond and Indiana Jones.  Good pop fiction can be terrific stuff: insightful, bracing, engaging and amusing.  It is not to be sneered at; nor, however, is it to be overestimated.

We are not saying, to be clear, that it is impossible for a piece of genre fiction or popular entertainment to elevate into the realm of higher art.  Wind in the Willows, The House at Pooh Corner and Peter Pan are magnificent books, transcending the designation of mere kiddie lit to soar to literary heights.  And one need only to think of Poe, of much of H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, of Graham Greene or Dashiell Hammett, to realize that many classic novels could also be shelved in the genre sections of your local bookstore.  But, again, such company doesn’t elevate a genre en toto.

But over the last few decades what has changed in the culture at large is a flight from adulthood and complexity, from the challenges of great art and great beauty, and a retreat into comfortable and childish enthusiasms.  Worse than that, consumers of pop culture are demanding that attention not only be paid, but that entry to the Canon is fair and just.  And, in so doing, they debase the wonderful raw power of pop fiction, and the innocence of kiddie lit.

In the 1990s, I was frankly amazed at the adult craze for Harry Potter books.  This is in no way to say that these books were bad, but they were written for children, and a deep identification with them signifies a lack of seriousness.  Worse still, as more and more adults read them, the books lost more and more of their grounding in a child’s world, ending with what was to be the Gotterdammerung of kiddie books.  It became almost impossible to read the last novel in the corpus and remember that it all started with some kids playing ball from atop some brooms.

Much the same thing for adults who obsess over Batman.  It is adults (of questionable maturity) who have demanded the darker, brooding, psychopathic Batman.  It was the same adults who have consigned the sunnier, smiling, and more optimistic Superman into oblivion, insufficiently violent or complex and now hopelessly passé.

What these adults playing with children’s toys forget is that amusements made for children cannot bear the weight they wish to impose upon them.  We are supposed to move on from the amusements of our youth to more challenging, complex and elevating fare.  Enjoy them as palette cleaners, but then get onto the main meal.  The answer is not to make Batman relevant to adults (an impossibility), but to embrace the challenge of real adult art. 


And, again, read and look at what you want.  But a steady diet of aesthetic and cultural junk is much like a steady diet of junk food: it will significantly impair your physical and mental health, greatly diminish your quality of life, and, in the long run, it will kill you.

Now, we make our children’s entertainment for adults.  I can think of few more damming condemnations of us as a culture and as a people that we actually make Batman or Superman movies that are so violent … that children cannot see them. Stop for a moment and ponder how … impossible that would have been as little as 50 years ago.  The idea of a “serious” Batman movie would have been met with well-deserved derision.  But not today.  The cheapening of our culture since the 1960s (and the concomitant tenets of aesthetic relativity), have made this dumbing down not only possible, but inevitable.  The highest grossing films of the year are blockbusters based on 40 year old superhero comics.  This lack of adulthood has poisoned our language, our music, our political discourse. 

This corruption has bled into everything.  For example, in the just-released Against Democracy, a political screed published by Princeton University Press (!), author Jason Brennan breaks the body politic into three classes:  hobbits, hooligans and vulcans. 

Hobbits…?  Vulcans...?  Really?  Is that what 21st Century adulthood has become?

I love pop fiction.  And when pop fiction is working on all cylinders, it can be wonderful, terrific and … art of a kind.  But it’s like a twinkie: I’ll eat them, but it’s not my sole diet.  And if the very notion of adulthood is to survive, we have to get back to the business of serious art, or our emotional, intellectual and philosophical selves are finished.

Tomorrow: James Bond – it aint art, but nobody does it better.






Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, by Glen Weldon



We should start, as most any writing about Batman must start, with a confession.  As I write these words, I am wearing a Batman watch.  And, perhaps more to the point, I own two pairs of Batman socks.

Batman socks.

I know.  I know.

So it is with more than a touch of self-awareness that we read Glen Weldon’s funny, insightful and lacerating look at Batman and Batfans, The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.  If you are going to read only one book about Batman and the fanatical devotion he inspires, make it this one.  Weldon is the perfect guide through the world of Batmania: erudite, accessible, and more than a little snarky.  Even if you have only a fleeting interest in either Batman or the hermetic world(s) of fandom, you will find this book irresistible.

Weldon shares my sense of discomfort, as well as my submission to delicious junk.  While Your Correspondent has railed against cultural decay with a Batman watch on his wrist, Weldon looks at his toy reproduction of the 1960s Batmobile upon his desk, and wonders what his hardworking grandfather would make of a 45 year old man gloating over a Battoy.  Weldon justifiably dubs us The Lamest Generation, but the good humor of the jest does not sponge away the indictment.

Weldon works his way through the gestation of Batman, showing the many influences he co-opted en route to his final realization: The Shadow, Dick Tracy, and more than a bit of Flash Gordon.  He also takes a no-prisoners stance on the contribution of Batman “creator” Bob Kane (1915-1998), who, it seems, did little more than come up with the name.  Then, stealing art and layouts and harnessing the talents of various writers (and more gifted draughtsmen), Kane managed to mint a fortune in coin through his creation and ceaseless self-marketing. 

Weldon is crystal clear in his assertion that, as conceived, Batman is a protector of Moneyed Interests; it is not just tenor and tone that made early Batman the antithesis of Superman, but inherent philosophy, as well.  Kane, a poor Jewish boy from the Bronx, dreamt of a world of socialites, supper clubs and celebrity, and Batman delivered that to Kane in spades.  Oddly enough, Batfans tend to find Batman more “relatable” than Superman, arguing that most anyone can become like Batman though application, discipline and hard work.  Weldon dismisses those risible fantasies, arguing that one of Batman’s key superpowers is his incredible wealth.  Without it, the entire world of Batman would be impossible.  (Left unsaid: the strange irony that Superman has steadily diminishing cultural currency in a world of growing economic inequality.)

Weldon manages to touch upon every era and incarnation of Batman, from grim avenger in his first-year, to smiling scout master in the 40s and 50s.  His affection for the 1960s Batman television series is sincere and well-placed; and he chronicles how much of the Batman material to follow in comics and movies are a response against that show and its astonishing success.

The 80s saw the most dramatic change in Batman: he was more than just a grim avenger of the night, but an out-and-out violent psychopath.  The comics grew increasingly dark and nihilistic and, strangely, this is the stuff that hardcore Batman fans seemed to relish the most.  Batman fans were serious, and Batman was serious, and what better way to demonstrate seriousness of intent than a wallow in testosterone-driven, adolescent nihilism?  Or, as Weldon so wonderfully puts it:

What these fans saw when they looked at Batman was the object of their childhood love legitimized.  It was as if Winnie the Pooh had escaped the Hundred-Acre Wood and run amuck on the mean streets of New York.  Where he brutally mauled Piglet.  And ate Christopher Robin’s face off.

Because that would be real.  That would be badass.

His assessments of the Batman films are largely spot-on, though Your Correspondent disagrees with his dismissal of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), an arch gothic fantasia that seems to get better every year.  Weldon finds most of the Batman films of a piece – all rather dark and somber, but not necessarily good.  His affection for the animated Batman series is as great as his love for the 1960s show, though motivated by different aesthetics.  Weldon finds the animated Batman series to be the perfect fusion of obsessive, fannish desires, and the good, uncluttered story-telling necessary for non-obsessives.  More importantly, the animated series gave Batman back to the children, an audience that the comic book industry turned its back on long ago.

Weldon argues that Batman is very much an inkblot, and readers and viewers see in him what they bring to him.  He also posits that Batman changes with the times, and that the Batman of each succeeding era is both a reaction to, and a comment on, the times that generate him.  (In this regard, Batman is very much like Sherlock Holmes and Dracula – a core idea that can be continually reinterpreted in changing times.)  It is this protean quality that has ensured Batman’s longevity; and it is a crucial fact that hardcore Batfans seem to miss.

The key beauties of Weldon’s book are his chronicle of fannish reactions to each new incarnation of Batman, and how the Internet harnessed fannish power to be a powerful cultural force.

Weldon calls fans Nerds (a handy shorthand), and non-fans Normals (not quite so felicitous).  Nerds see the object of their affections as a deep and murky pool in which they happily swim, looking for inconsistencies, searching for new insights in the darker eddies, and creating little fiefdoms within the turgid waters.  Normals want to swim in a clean pool in which they can see bottom, then get on with their normal day.

For Nerds, Batman (or Star Trek or Dr. Who or ….. insert the nerdish obsession of your choice here),is more than a comic book and movie property, but a way of life, a religion.  And while they delight in his cross-cultural (and out-of-fandom) successes, there always remains an undercurrent of resentment.  A Nerd loves indiscriminately, but jealously.  Weldon argues that when mainstream culture appropriates a source of Nerd-love, he feels as if someone is telling HIS joke in a roomful of strangers, telling it badly, and still getting a better laugh.

Filmmakers now attempt Batman at their peril; as scripts, costume choices and plot points will be endlessly debated and the film judged (and often executed) on the Web before it’s released.  The proprietary feeling Batfans have for the Caped Crusader has been largely responsible for the manner in which the character has been stewarded over the last 35 years or so.  In short, the fans have been making the creative choices, and most of them have been dire.  Weldon believes this is finally beginning to correct itself as greater diversity in fandom is leading to a wider range of “acceptable” Batmans … but time will tell.

Perhaps my sole criticism of this involving and amusing book is that Weldon chronicles the rise of fandom, but fails to put it into any kind of perspective.  The first Comic-Con in 1970, for example, had some 100 attendees.  In 2015, that number was 170,000. What happened to us as a culture and a people to drive those numbers up so high, and what does it mean today to be a fan of anything?  And if we all love junk … do we have any passion left for weightier material?  Has online technology enabled us to trap ourselves in a perpetual adolescence?


Tune in tomorrow [same Bat-time, same Bat-channel; sorry, can’t help it] while we try to answer some of those questions.

Friday, September 2, 2016

An Annoying Autobiographical Interlude, Part III: The Dude is West



So, New Yorkers often ask about the people in Southern California.  I could think of no to better way to illustrate the tenor of the place than through the following vignettes.  Please note that in each and every one of them, I’m speaking to a very young man … say, 20-to-24 years old.  That, in and of itself, is extraordinary, as young people in New York do not acknowledge that people over 39 even exist.  That prejudice seems nonexistent here in Huntington Beach, and there are no barriers in striking up conversations with strangers.

The Scene:  A barbershop in Huntington Beach, where Your Correspondent is getting a much-needed haircut.

Young Man:          So dude, where you from?

Me:                      New York.

Young Man:          Dude, move to Cali.  You’ll live longer.

Me:                      Are you from around here?

Young Man:          No.  Chicago.

Me:                      What brought you here?

Young Man:          Dude – I’m in Southern California.  I’m living the dream.  You oughtta come.

Me:                      Sold.

The Scene:  A Trader Joe’s in Huntington Beach.  We are on line, with one customer ahead of us.  The store is otherwise empty.  A Young Man leaps to another cash register to accommodate us.

Young Man:          Sorry for the crowds, dude.

Me:                      Crowds?  You couldn’t get a game of solitaire going here.

Young Man:          This place.  It’s too crazy.  The pace is too fast.  I’m going to move.

Me:                      To a cemetery?  Seriously, where is the pace slower?

Young Man:          New Mexico.  They’re really happy over there.

Me:                      Well, we’re from New York, and think Huntington Beach is paradise.

Young Man:          New York?  Dude, I got to get there.

Me:                      (Looking around) Not if you think this place is crowded….

Scene:  Huntington Beach, on the beach itself.  We are walking along the beach and come across a young man fiddling with an enormous drone.  This thing is roughly the size of a human torso, equipped with a camera on a gyroscope in the lower body.  We stand apart, watching as he prepares it.

Young Man:          Dude, come over.

Me:                      OK.  That’s quite a drone.  Can you tell me about it?

Young Man:          (Provides considerable detail on how it works.)  Using it to shoot some B-roll. 

Me:                      Thanks.  Well, I’ll be off; don’t want to be in your way.

Young Man:          Dude.  Hang out.

Me:                       [Gobsmacked.]

Scene:  Once again, on the beach itself.  I am alone, and walking along the famous pier.  There are three young men with palm fronds, twisting them into the shape of roses.  Before them is a sign:  FREE OR LEAVE ONE DOLLAR.

Me:                      [Taking one and leaving one dollar.]  Many thanks.  I’m getting this for my husband.

Young Man:          Your husband?  Dude – that’s so cool!


After just a few short weeks, what I find amazing is not that people live in Southern California, but that anyone would dream of living anywhere else.


Next week:  We return to our regular reviews and overviews.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

An Annoying Autobiographical Interlude, Part II: Getting Settled in Southern California

Huntington Beach Library!

New Yorkers walk.  They walk everywhere.  They walk every day and they walk a lot.  In just a few weeks here in Huntington Beach, we have clocked dozens of miles … and have been the only pedestrians on the sidewalks.  Oh, yes, we have seen people getting in-and-out of their cars, but walkers in Southern California are regarded with something curiously like suspicion. 

So, clearly we need a car to live here successfully.  We sold our Old Reliable in New York before heading West (a painless operation thanks to Craigslist), and are on the hunt for new transportation.  We also needed to change our New York drivers licenses from East to West Coast, and our AirBNB hostess graciously took us to the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles.  What can I say, other than all DMV offices are much the same, even in paradise?

The office was clean and airy (at least), and having an appointment got us to the front of the line.  But, the fellow who initially waited on us learned all of his ninja techniques from an extinct sloth with sleeping sickness.  When we were through with that fellow, we moved on to another window to have our photos taken.  Thanks to our new license photos, my better half now looks like a wax figure slightly melted, while I look like a morose basset hound. 

Finally, we get to the window to take the written test (now done at computer terminals).  I have been driving for more years than I can count, but the thought of taking the written test again frankly terrified me.  My mood was not improved when I arrived at the testing area.  This was commandeered by an officious dominatrix with anger management issues.  She barked at me for standing on the wrong line and screamed at my better half for checking his cell phone --- after taking the test. (“I’m going to fail you!”)  I finished first, and when my better half arrived at her desk two people later, where she wanted to know, “Why did you come back?”  When he explained that I was myself, and he only himself, she demanded to know why we looked alike.  It’s impossible to make this stuff up.

Following that ordeal, we went to the Huntington Beach library.  This place is paradise!  We got new library cards from a lovely and gracious clerk … who loaned me a scissor so that I could demolish my New York card.  (Done with relish.)  It would be hard to imagine a more beautifully appointed library: the HB branch has three stories, elaborate fountains and grounds, ample study space, and more than enough books to keep even myself happy.  Better yet, they do a brisk business in used books, so if bibliomania should ever overtake me again, I can do it inexpensively.


To celebrate, we walked on the beach to watch the sunset … because we can.  And, by jingo, we will do it again today.


Tomorrow:  The Dude is West

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

An Annoying Autobiographical Interlude, Part I: We Leave New York

We left here....

Well, last week marks a three-month absence from these pages.  Concerned readers have asked, where have you been?  Where, indeed.

Your Correspondent has spent the last three months in an epic move from Gotham to Southern California.  The move was a long time in coming, and completely necessary.  However, amassing a 40 year (and counting) collection of books, autographs, historical documents, pictures, paintings, art materials and curiosa for selling or packing and shipping was no easy task.  (We won’t even begin to talk about packing 50 hats…)  We have been safely ensconced here for three weeks now, and things have settled down to the usual state of fevered activity.

Nor are our adventures over.  While we have settled into Huntington Beach for the next few months, that is only the first step prior to finding a new, permanent home, exploring professional opportunities, reaching out to the various artistic communities, and generally getting on with life.

During the past few months, I haven’t been able to give The Jade Sphinx the attention it so richly deserves.  However, I’m delighted to find that my readership has inexplicably increased (some 12,000 reads in July alone!), and that the total number of reads has reached an impressive 363,512!  That number amply demonstrates that the public is hungry for an in-depth examination of great books, theatre and art.  To each and every one of you who regularly reads these pages, I thank you.  For those of you who are new here, keep coming – there is more on the way.  (Or, better yet, start reading earlier posts.  This blog has covered a broad array of topics, and there is something of interest for most everyone.)

.... For here!

In the coming weeks, we will return to book reviews, art analysis, and thoughts on our current culture (or lack of it).  We will also make a comment or two on the efforts of two hard-bitten New Yorkers to become laid-back West Coasters.  The change in lifestyle, quality of life, and overall enrichment of experience is staggering.  When people in New York ask what Southern California is like, I say, “remember the view outside my window, and imagine the exact opposite.”  It is quieter, cleaner, the people friendlier and more polite, there are no undercurrents of anxiety and aggression, and the endless stream of perfect-weather days provides a sense of timelessness.  I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.

So, while my life has fundamentally and happily changed, The Jade Sphinx will be providing the mixture as before.  Let us know what parts of this blog you most enjoy, and what needs work.  Remember that while The Jade Sphinx largely exists as a mode of developing and exploring my intellectual and aesthetic appreciations, it is an experience that I want to share with you.   

Tomorrow: Getting Settled In Southern California