Eccentric billionaire

Trimalchio is forever young. As we read about him in delighted shame, we invest him with all the immortality of our desires. Down the ages his name will change, but he will not. Look at the Jumbotron, reader! Have you ever been silly? High above you on the screen, the billionaire Paul Allen is now throwing money away on his yachts and his Science Fiction Museum. Henceforth, forever, your own silliness will be both known to the universe and safely dead with you. Have you ever been unreasonable? Because the display on the Jumbotron now shows the billionaire Howard Ahmanson bankrolling the creationists of the Discovery Institute, nobody will have to know about that time when you too denied to yourself the truth of death. There will be more billionaires to come, too, because desire will never die. Watching the forecast on the Jumbotron, we suddenly understand how good that news is. In Petronius’s original report, Trimalchio communed with his guests in meat and drink and then acted out his funeral. The guests escaped. They — we — had been returned to life.

We like that happy ending, and so it has become a genre. But some stories in the genre don’t fit well into any idea of a canon. What are we to do, for instance, with the tale of a billionaire who furiously buys multimillion-dollar house after multimillion-dollar house in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States, then partially demolishes his purchases and abandons their remains? The billionaire is eighty years old. Does he have long-term plans for a future that, in his case, isn’t going to arrive? And why has he used one of his now vacant lots as a dump for dozens of enormous garden statues, and why does he putter around with gardening tools among his ruins? What sort of Eden might this billionaire have in mind? He isn’t saying. As of the page we’ve reached so far, his story is unsatisfactory.

http://www.civilbeat.com/articles/2012/05/21/15568-land-barren-japanese-billionaire-is-raising-eyebrows-razing-houses/

http://www.civilbeat.com/articles/2012/05/22/15834-land-barren-who-is-genshiro-kawamoto/

http://www.civilbeat.com/articles/2012/05/23/15868-land-barren-since-2005-dozens-of-violations-at-billionaires-properties/

The story isn’t satisfactory and the billionaire isn’t saying, but we all want somebody to say. Therefore, in partial satisfaction of that desire of ours, the canon has authorized release of a term into the lexicon of journalism: “eccentric billionaire.” The term doesn’t explain anything, but at least it has the outward generic form of a characterization. It signifies “apparent violation of convention; mysterious character with plot function to be revealed later in the story.” Until the next Dickens comes along, that will probably have to do. In any case, it will equip us with some nomenclature to help us think the billionaire has been pinned down for us to observe. Of course, in what the media call real life and you and I call genre convention, the billionaire hasn’t been pinned down. He refuses to talk to the media, leaves town to evade confrontation, seems to have found a way to silence anyone who has dealt with him, and in any case can’t or won’t speak English. But the phrase “eccentric billionaire” grants us the illusion of control over those epiphenomenal details. The billionaire has his billions, but we have our word “eccentric.”

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

This poem, one of Stevens’s last, bears an uncharacteristically hopeful title: “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” It may imply that we can attain to knowing — knowing what the word “eccentric” might mean, knowing therefore what the billionaire thinks, knowing some answer to the question “Why?,” knowing — if we can just bring ourselves to unscrew the locks from the doors, unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs, and head outside.

But recent discussions of Gertrude Stein’s life from 1933 to 1945 remind us once again that of course there is no outside. Is it even possible to think of Gertrude Stein in, say, 1943, as someone with a life separable from the words she wrote then? Words that have successfully evaded genre, words that have no more concern for other people’s categories than a billionaire with a copy of Atlas Shrugged in his man purse has for other people’s laws? Bewildered, a blogger covering the controversy for The New Yorker reports that some of those other people seem actually not to want to know Stein — or, at any rate, seem be be making an effort not to want to know about Stein.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/06/why-wont-the-met-tell-the-whole-truth-about-gertrude-stein.html

The title of that post, “Why Won’t the Met Tell the Whole Truth About Gertrude Stein?” comes to us from the courtroom, where witnesses are formally asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” The title of Charles Bernstein’s recent study in archival scholarship, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight,” comes from the same venue. Both titles share the optimistic assumption that there is a god — that is, a stable source of meaning — and that furthermore this god is a helpful god, a cheerfully obliging setter-straight of records. After he got done laughing at the joke, Wallace Stevens might disagree, and so might the history that Gertrude Stein lived through and helped, with her outlaw words, to write.

Bernstein’s Stein and mine

My May 16 post about the cliché language of Charles Bernstein’s claim that he is “setting the record straight” about Gertrude Stein’s survival in Vichy France made the deconstructive point that if a record is a record, it can’t be set straight. It’s a point that Bernstein’s own poetry has always made, of course. The crookedness of the record is basis of the great ironic joke that is Language poetry. So when he picks up his crooked pen to write clichés like “setting the record straight” or “by hook or by crook” or “when push comes to shove” (in a text that bears unspoken reference to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the bicycle racetrack where Parisian Jews destined for the death camps were confined without food or water) Bernstein is writing out the joke once again, and this time with a punchline so funny that it achieves self-deconstruction.

http://theartpart.jonathanmorse.net/2012/05/push-and-shove-hook-and-crook-bernstein/

That was all I said on May 16. My post was about Bernstein, not Stein. But on the University of Buffalo’s e-mail list about poetics it drew a couple of responses about Stein and the record, so here’s the part of my reply where I do talk about Stein.

“As to my own biographical take on Stein, I hardly have one. She was hardly the only American author of German Jewish descent to feel embarrassed or distressed or even pained by her genealogy. The ironist Nathanael West had that problem and dealt with it interestingly, by donning a mask and proceeding to wear it until it killed him. (Nobody expects a man named Nathan Weinstein to be a reckless driver, so when Nathan Weinstein changed his name he also started driving so recklessly that his friends refused to get into his car. Not long afterward, as these things go, he drove through a stop sign, and that was that for Nathanael West. He was 37.) By contrast, Walter Lippmann, the highly serious father of modern media punditry, was merely uninteresting. He attempted to pass like Anatole Broyard, and to even hint to him that you knew he was Jewish was to break off all communication with him, forever. Considered as a Jew with a biography, Stein may have been personally either interesting or uninteresting, but of course her language is always interesting. That is (among other things), it helps us understand the difficulty of attaching the word “problem” to any human being.

“Which is to say that Gertrude Stein was a great poet. But surely (this is a modest enough idea, isn’t it?) none of us is going to claim that being a good (i.e., competent) artist is the same as being a good (i.e., virtuous) person.

“And surely the example of Bernstein’s language means that we aren’t warranted in reading Bernstein or Barbara Will or Stein or anybody else as if they were journalists, uttering clichés but asking us (because — what’s the cliché? — their hearts are in the right place) not to pay attention to them. If only the sign that Nathanael West drove through had said not ‘Stop’ but ‘Aporia.'”

 

Push and shove, hook and crook, Bernstein

When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale. Jewish, female, homosexual, elderly (Stein was 66 in 1940), living in occupied France, Stein and Alice Toklas successfully escaped extermination. That is something for which we can be grateful. And I’m also glad that, by hook or by crook, Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis. In the end, Stein was able to go on to write her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.

— Charles Bernstein, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.” http://jacket2.org/commentary/gertrude-steins-war-years-setting-record-straight

Text 1: “When push comes to shove, as it has.”  Writing in defense of Gertrude Stein’s politics of survival in Vichy France, Charles Bernstein opens with a cliché (“setting the record straight”), then doubles down. “When push comes to shove” is another cliché, and a bad one: a dead metaphor, one that won’t bear being brought back to life in the same body language as Vichy words like “Drancy” or “Vélodrome d’Hiver.” But Bernstein’s giggly postscript “as it has” deconstructs the corpse. “Of course I know better,” says that little verbal tag. “Notice how wittily detached I am from any simple-minded idea that words can have a non-verbal reference. Of course I know that if the record is a record, it can’t be set straight.”

As a career move, that has been a winner for Bernstein. Romping through fields of crumpled newsprint, Bernstein texts like “Of Time and the Line” or the sublime “this poem intentionally left blank” (which I have now quoted in its entirety) bestow on their readers the great gift of knowing laughter. There’s no guilty “but” to follow that happiness, either. Bernstein’s poems are language in its pure animal function, eating and sleeping and reproducing and then lying down to die in unafraid unconsciousness. Bernstein’s is a poetry with its own “The End” built in.

Text 2: “By hook or by crook.”  Art is inseparable from art collecting, and art collecting is inseparable from crookery. That’s how the Elgin Marbles got to England. At smaller scales, of course, the crookery can get uncomfortable. It may even involve pushing and shoving. Some of Gertrude Stein’s coreligionists discovered that when they returned home after the war and tried to move back into their looted houses.

Kielce, Poland, July 1946

Text 3: “Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis.” Some kinds of looting, some kinds of pushing and shoving, are preferable to others. Lots of women had to suffer for Pablo Picasso’s art. Lots of men had to die for Andrew Carnegie’s libraries. Presumably the suffering and dying wound up with a market value after all. The cliché under the surface of Bernstein’s sentence is something like “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs.”

Punchline: “How am I? Oi, don’t ask.” Specifically, don’t ask why the collection wasn’t looted, because the answer will only be another cliché. This one will just lie there on the page, too: unmeaning because unconscious. It has been spoken by many thousands of people over the years, sometimes in complete sincerity, and yet not one of those thousands could think through to a definition of any of its terms. In that sense, it is dead language — that is, language which was born unmeaning, language which therefore can never be a poem.

But since you have asked, reader: Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis because it was under the protection of a powerful Nazi crook named Bernard Faÿ. Together, Faÿ and Stein collaborated in their own special translation, from one dead language into another, of the text “Some of my best friends are Jews.”