Well I have been busy on my new YouTube channel The Anadromist with a lot of ideas that I just didn’t have time for here. Especially my thoughts on Time and how to live in it instead of against it. We live in a culture that positively reeks in its hatred of the effects of Time. We want everything to happen now. Instantly without waiting. And the more I have thought about our defective relationship to Time the more central a role I have seen it play it the insane dysfunctions of the 21st Century: the politics, the propaganda, the efficiency of technology, the environment, the waste, the virtual worlds we choose to inhabit, the surrender of our imaginations to the grinding gears of commerce, the imitation worlds we create for tourism, the sense of entitlement, the dullness of work. Not that these things have a simple one answer fits all panacea, rather they are all issues exacerbated by the desire have the convenient instant life, or in other words to live as though Time were an enemy that must be vanquished at all costs.
I started to see our faulty relationship to Time as a problem in the early 90s. I gave a lecture on the subject at Swiss L’Abri in 1993. I have been mulling it over ever since. In many ways this is connected to many of my other ideas about Texture, Beauty, Images and many other subjects. But these thoughts about Time are at the center of my view of the dilemma of life as it is now lived. Feel free to disagree. After you’ve spent time listening to what I have to say.
Now after delaying long enough I’ve decided to get my ideas about Time out there in some form that might be of use to someone else. I have tried to the best of my ability to live by these ideas since I formulated them back in 1993. If you do the math that’s over 25 years of practical outworking. And the one thing I have seen clearly, when you add the effects of Time to life it gets much deeper and richer.
I am not saying that we are allowed to do this at all points. Au contraire. Just in transportation alone it is nearly impossible to live within a human sense of the meaning of time. We are required to move too fast to stay sane. Still one can, for instance, still apply these principles to the planning stages of a journey. To stay longer in places, rather than just passing through. That’s a simple way of incorporating Time into the hustle of the tourism industry. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway there are four video discussions now. And if you are thinking that ideas about Time are probably going to be dreadfully boring, then these talks really are for You. So you can start at the beginning or jump around. The argument builds, but necessarily in a straightforward direction.
(And I’ll keep adding the videos here until the series is finished.)
Well I need to get back to my life in Tbilisi Georgia. Oh and by the way there will soon be a channel on my Georgian life so stick around.
Keep swimming against the stream
Hey! People who are contributing to my sites are getting extra content not available online. They are also keeping me alive in Georgia. I must honestly say without the gifts given to me thus far this experiment would have collapsed a while ago. No much keeps me going for a while. So give through PayPal. $10 a month or a one time gift of the equivalent of $50 US. Gets you another 15 hours worth of lectures.
And then all hell broke loose.
But what am I saying? That the Sixties folks were a bunch of hell raisers? Hardly. Hell is exactly what they didn’t believe in anymore. When people were tripping out at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in January of 1967 the concept was that the old corrupt society of war and repression and without a doubt religious notions of Judgment Day would be eliminated by good thoughts, by beatific visions, by sex and smiles and laughter and blissed out awareness of the sun and the music. The Fifties, it turns out, were the only the seedbed of new explosions of Fun. The psychedelic Gold Rush was on! LSD, grass, meditation, the Beatles, getting tuned in – it was all going to change the world.
And sadly it did.
The best ideas and ideals of the Sixties have long since been left in the cultural dust. The actual San Francisco Hippies weren’t nearly childlike as they wanted to be. They still clung to things like reading, like art, like Civil Rights, like Free Speech, like Art Films. They might get stoned and dance around like children but they were still reading Nietzsche and Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. They might be breaking down the sexual boundaries but they still tried to defend what they were doing to their parents with somewhat rational arguments. And though much of the intellectual content of what they were ingesting might have had a deeply Romantic post-Rousseau-noble-savage-anti-intellectualism to it nevertheless whether it was Gravity’s Rainbow, Frank Zappa or El Topo, the work from the late Sixties early Seventies still challenged one’s brain. But it proved to be nearly the last gasp of certain kind of Post-War educational boom time which would last into the early Punk Era and not much further. Ultimately the Fun loving philistines won the day.
I’m old enough to remember a conversation about morality in the mid-Seventies where Adolf Hitler was mentioned and a girl said to me, “Well I can’t get into that space personally but maybe if it was right for him who am I to judge?” An ill omen indeed. Disco, too, was a bad sign. But then again so was the slick commercial television of the Brady Bunch. Even Sesame Street did not provide for children the superior stimulation of an Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows or A Wrinkle in Time. Hallucinogens ceased to signify any sort of inner exploration of the mind, let alone the universe. Drugs instead became a recreational activity. So did nature. Though eventually the Rocky Mountain High allure of hiking and national parks would give way to cruise ships and extreme sports. Theme parks were becoming much more serious in delivering their services. Disney World in Florida and eventually the simulacra driven EPCOT Center opened. By the late Eighties Disney World had surpassed Niagara Falls, itself now a shabby theme park, as the number one honeymoon destination in America. How could a merely majestic waterfall compete with the tableaux of a faux pleasure dome? As the Seventies slipped into the Eighties Fun became a much more serious mantra.
Also somewhere along the way, in a thousand different compromises, the overly optimistic dreams of the counterculture began to blend into the teething techno-culture of the time, which created as well a new commercial culture inspired by illusions of Fun. The road from science fiction through Star Wars and E.T. towards the current digital landscape of pods and pads went from being an rarely used byway into the dominant highway of mainstream culture. Late 20th Century American society soon sloughed off the adult in favor of the adolescent and we have suffered profoundly ever since.
And people began to change their modes of behavior in accordance with their new belief structure. Fun being the number one hormone in a Youth fixated culture was reflected over and over in a great percentage of our activities. Clothing certainly reflected this change. For a while it looked as if rock music’s sassiness would predominate: Punk and Metal black leather and studs. Post-Deadhead jeans and hair. Yet a change was taking place in the Rap demimonde perhaps first of all – the emphasis on sports gear; A fad that would take over much of the clothing trade. Shiny long kilt-ish synthetic basketball shorts worn well below the place formerly reserved for belt loops. Running shoes of one stripe or another seem to have replaced any semblance of leather shoes. Post-Deadhead “hippies” now freely invest in the kind of shiny sports gear and outdoor wear that was once decried as plastic, artificial. New Age enthusiasts carry strange rubberoid yoga mats around. How much of our current society seems to dressed for some recreational activity? If one were a 1967 San Francisco hippie and were suddenly transported to this moment in time from 1967 to meet people who espoused a similar philosophy the words might sound familiar but the living style would seem completely hollow. One would be aghast at the amount of artificial materials worn and used by folks who claim to have the same ideals.
But of course those people are still with us. Many of them in their sixties and seventies. By golly it is a very quare sight in deed to pass a few aging organic hippie types on a road peddling their bikes garbed completely in plastic fabrics of one kind or another. They think they are living the same dream, with some modifications.
But really the sacred cow of Recreation cannot be questioned. It is in truth a species of the hydra-headed Fun. I remember when I first arrived in Alaska in the late 90s I was talking to a woman about the vast tracks of wilderness surrounding us. I said something like this: “It surprises me to realize how many people only see nature as a recreational opportunity.” She looked at me without blinking. My words had the faint aroma of blasphemy in her nostrils. She did not comprehend what I was saying at all. I was going to mentioned something about Tarkovsky and the vision of reality that bleeds through his films. Then I realized that I might as well be speaking Russian.
In this brave new world of Fun and Recreation there are no questions. Fun simply is the point. And yet you think there would be people who seriously questioned this idea. Perhaps those old stick in the mud Christians ,with their savior who bled and died for our sins (definitely No Fun), would challenge the new ideology of Fun? Many who aren’t Christian think that’s exactly what is happening in our times. Oh how deceived we all have been. No one has bit quite as deeply out of the candy-coated apple of Fun as modern American Christians.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading.
Please excuse me, I’ve been nice for a while now. The time has come to barbecue a few sacred cows.
Which might lead someone to say OMG! Are you really trying to offend Hindus?!
And which is precisely why I’m writing…
Bizarrely, after years of scorched earth counter-cultural products that have suggested all manner of nihilistic rebellions, we are left, not with black garbed existentialists crying over the alienation of humanity, but with an almost infantile culture of folks deliriously caught in a fast food playplace for endlessly emerging adults, who tend to see the world in fun, cuddly, positive terms as they giggle (LOL) through the endless global mall while texting extraordinarily blank verse into the universe.
I recently took a trip through Europe to investigate the meaning of puppetry, how perhaps, there might lurk in the humble realm of the puppet something real, something tangible that might aid humanity in its virtual addictions. And I did indeed find much that heartened me. The European puppet folk of my acquaintance were, in general, quite aware of what puppetry might be able to mean in such a high-tech age. The puppets themselves were inspiring as individual one-of-kind handmade artworks. Those learning the art of puppetry seemed to have a leg up on those in other fields of learning. And yet…
I remember more than one moment where I said to myself aloud, maybe its too late already. I remember the sinking feeling I had in Poland as I wandered through the massive seven story mall next to the Warszawa Centralna train station. And Poland is a country I love. Yet here was a perfect replica of what had once been a California styled shopping mall. And everyone seemed happy to wander through this emporium of material delight. Here were endless chain stores and franchise food services. Here were the big hollywood movies and the brand name off the rack clothes. Here was that same sense of credit emptying glut and spent detumescence. Here were the blank souls wandering lost and hopeless. And to think that the Poles gave up the tyranny of communism for this mindless 21st Century Woodstock of the Złote Tarasy (Gold Terraces).
Or then there was the moment in Hallstatt, Austria, when I found myself alone beneath a glowing full moon on All Hallow’s Eve wandering through the most haunted graveyard I’d ever experienced under the freshly frosted medieval town on a mirrored lake as the other guests in my pension stayed indoors because “there was nothing to do” and they would rather live scrunching their fingers over and staring into handheld digital screens. And I thought to myself, how can the real world compete with these pointless and distracting virtual gadgets? Actually what I said to myself is this… Is there any hope left?
Dude chill. It’s not that bad. There’s a lot of serious fun to be had. Lighten up! Get a life. If you see snow get a snowboard. You rocked that midnight medieval stroll scene. Don’t worry about those other peeps. They’re just hanging out. They’ll come out and play eventually. As long as everyone’s having fun, right?
Absolutely wrong. When did fun become some sort of foundational reason for living? Blessed are the funseekers because they shall rule!
And fun is not alone in this brave new world that has such people in it. Cute is another strange little sacred calf that has been slicing the rational portions of our culture away in more recent times. I mean if cute means something comparable to ‘baby-like’ how can anyone critique something that is like a baby! Heavens to Betsy!
And to critique, that just sounds so judgmental. Criticism doesn’t really help anyone. Don’t be so left-brained. Be positive. Try to get along with people. Do not hurt anyone’s feelings… ever. Certainly not by implying anything negative about them. Don’t tell them you disagree, even when you do. In fact you think all sorts of people are wrong. But you don’t have to hang with them because they aren’t fully… well one doesn’t really want to say human… but you know. Yet among the people, the real people, your online friends, do not criticize their beliefs. It’s just so wrong. Remain positive.
Positively… I hear the loudest most ominous holy moo coming from this direction.
But before we get there let’s have some Fun with a capital F first.
(to be continued…)
The Švankmajer Effect Comes to Life
In 2005 I traveled through Europe tracking down puppet theatres and talking with puppeteers. I spent several weeks in the Czech Republic and in Prague in particular. I was thinking about Švankmajer the whole time, half hoping to run into him. At one point I wandered through the library of the Strahov Monastery on the castle hill. I looked through the shelves and glass displays at objects like a desiccated baby dodo bird when I saw a portrait from hundreds of years ago of a face made of seeds. I knew that Švankmajer had seen this too and found inspiration in its pronounced Mannerism.
I had visited tourist friendly puppet shows on a earlier Prague visit so this time I was determined to find something a little closer to the heart of Czech puppetry and also if possible to the spirit of Švankmajer. Jakub Krofta, a director from DRAK in Hradec Kralove, had recommended I look for Buchty a Loutky (meaning Cakes and Puppets in Czech, a parody of Bread and Puppets) whom he said, along with the Foreman Brothers (both sons of the film director Milos Foreman) were making intriguing innovations on Czech Puppetry.
I descended into the brick walled basement of the Švandovo Theatre in the Smichov district, a 15 minute walk south of the Charles Bridge. Buchty a Loutky performed an absurdist take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles, retitled Pes Baskervillský. There was no stage as such only crudely constructed wooden boxes and cubby holes. Then I watched many strange things that I had never associated with puppetry before. At one point the puppets request tea. On the side of the ramshackle assemblage a Czech puppeteer pours liquid out of samovar into a teapot. Meanwhile the small Holmes and Watson puppets are given full sized teacups. The puppeteer steps up and pours the ‘tea’ straight down into the cups, liquid splashes out of the cups of course, yet some of the refreshment does indeed remain within the porcelain containers, upon which two suited puppeteers stand off to the sides of the little cage-like wooden puppet stage as the puppets and their life sized human doubles sip gently as the tiny figures do the talking. This doubling effect serves Buchty a Loutky as a sort of signature style. A puppet has a gun. Suddenly a human hand in another small box directly below the main puppet theatre is holding a gun as well. At another point we hear the sounds of train while a tiny HO scale train circles the aimlessly around the wooden boxes. Even the intermission midway through the show was handled in the most unpredictable way imaginable. One member of the troupe, Tomáš, began to read from a boring scientific textbook about swamps as an eco-system. He read this for perhaps ten minutes. The time it took a majority of folks to ken to the fact that this was indeed the break and that a small snack bar had opened up. I, of course, was one of the last.
In another performance entitled the Urbild Remix, a variation on one their older shows, a tiny, perhaps seven inch tall, crudely made puppet wanders out into a ‘stage’ about ten inches by fifteen, with a teensy beer bottle in his hands. He sits on a miniature bed drinks a little. And then falls to sleep. The rest of the show is his dream. And takes place in the multiple small boxy stages below him. Then all mayhem breaks out as a mermaid breathes bubbles in a large water filled jar, carnal relations ensue, one character is killed and very red stage blood streams off the already red stained set, enlargement doubles with weapons take place in the space below the dream stage, live acoustic music encircles the audience and an American Indian figure plays a sort of heroic role while a skeletal figure brings a warning. And this state of brilliant theatrical anarchy was as funny as could be even for a non-Czech speaker. Especially when Marek Bečka, the Buchtys de facto leader and founder stood up before the show and recognized a few English speakers. He told us he would explain everything. Then spent several minutes talking to the Czech audience who were sitting on bleachers then turned back to us and said “That was important information.” Then continued on in Czech.
In a discussion with Buchty a Loutky’s Tomáš Procházka, the director of Pes Baskervillský, I asked him about the groups connection with traditional Czech puppetry. He replied “We don’t feel such a strong connection between the puppet theatres and stuff. We are very interested in film and in bringing the film style into puppet theatre.” I was fairly certain I had seen a Švankmajer connection. He confirmed that, “Švankmajer is the only name we can say we all love it.” As I was still about to see the Urbild Remix he added, “You will see in this story the Švankmajer style. It’s made of rubbish.” Among the objects that caught my attention was a vortex shaped chunk of rusty iron that looked like it been unearthed in someones’ back yard. This was definitely not standard theatrical gear. Later after Urbild I observed that, like Švankmajer, they must be pack rats of odd artifacts. Procházka explained, “Our office is full of rubbish. When we find something that looks interesting we just keep it.”
This approached struck me as something I’d really never seen before in puppetry. And it was clear that that the Buchtys were using the junk and detritus of the past less in a postmodern spirit than in an almost entropic patchwork mode. Tomáš Procházka said “Now is the moment when (Czech) people need to find a new way to get the rich life of puppetry, to find some new way to do puppets, what is the modern theme for puppets, to say what is the use of puppets at all. And there are only a few people who really want a new direction. Otherwise it is very classical and conservative, it’s still the same from the 50’s to now.” That is to say that they were seeking something beyond the Modernism of the mid to late 20th Century. To me there was an affinity to Punk rock; not the rage, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic. Procházka concurred “It’s nice to say it. Because then we can say we do Punk. We do Punk Puppetry.”
In an age of artificial surfaces, hollow objects, virtual screens on every angle of perception, Buchty a Loutky had taken hints from Jan Švankmajer about the importance of the dense inhabited tactile object, perhaps what Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor called the l’objet pauvre, the poor, ruined, or miserable, object. Švankmajer’s film work and experiments in tactility open up the possibility for a breed of puppetry that is not interpreted through the artificiality of theatrical tropes. He not only breeches the fourth wall but the other three as well. It was seeing Buchty a Loutky’s version of this as well as coming across the works of some of the students of l’École Supérieure Nationale de le Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières in France that convinced me to hijack this style and to apply these principles to the puppet troupes we would soon form in Haines Alaska. But that is another story.
For more information about Buchty a Loutky read this:
Or to visit them in Prague:
or to find the Divadlo Švandovo:
When we think back on the actual Hippie dream we often imagine college aged folks prancing around in fields, flowers worn as ornaments, recreations of Eastern motifs, men’s hairstyles caught somewhere between a Native American tribe and the Wild West, women in long flowing ‘natural’ garments, stoned bliss, childlike and childish behavior. For many who weren’t alive then the drumming and mud fest as see in the filmed version of Woodstock often sums it up. (I had a few friends back then who did play in the mud tweaked as they were by their acidic visions.) For a few moments in San Francisco, between say 1965 and 1967, there actually was a dream, a fervent hope that through the use of psychedelics, free love (meaning whatever with whomever), and all that great new music, a neo-primitive community would be born, scrubbed clean of all of ‘the hang ups of straight society’. The Jean-Jacques Rousseau idea of being born free was taken quite seriously. It seemed to have bypassed most of the hip youngsters that all three aspects of this new liberated counterculture were based upon old school unfree major league technology. (Drugs, made in a laboratory. Sex, big thanks to the Pill. Rock, um, electrical amplification is indeed a key ingredient.) And not only that the ingredients of liberation were certainly not for free. You had to pay to get back to the garden. The return to noble savagery was merely a naïve dream or maybe just a pose.
And in fact well before the Sixties ended the bloom was off of those flowers placed into the barrels of National Guardsmen’s rifles. Already by the supposedly beautiful summer of 1967 the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was infested by hordes of the most lost and searching children the country could produce. The media descended to play it up. They dubbed it the ‘Summer of Love‘. Meanwhile the overdoses mounted, the abortions flowed, the music was being packaged and sold, the hucksters arrived, the false messiahs found acolytes. (Jim Jones and Charles Manson both did their San Francisco time.) By the early 70’s more religious factions, sects and cults could be found compressed into the San Francisco Bay Area than any other place on earth. All to scoop up the youth of America who had suddenly come to the conclusion that rational thinking was over. “I saw the great blunder my teachers had made, scientific delirium madness.” (The Byrds – Fifth Dimension)
Did anyone in the media notice the burial of the Hippie in San Francisco in the Fall of 1967? Did the mainstream media notice that the good vibes had seriously ended by the time of the Altamont Rock Festival in December of 1969? Did Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison ever get any kind of mass media frenzy that Kurt Cobain did when they died? Did anyone observe that the royal bummer of a film of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in England took 25 years to be released to the public? Did anyone apart from a few prescient individuals see that the Hippie dream of the psychedelic noble savage was over by 1970? The answer to all of these questions is the same. No. And so the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll dream continued. But something had to change drastically.
For one thing the very size of the movement of those influenced by the Hippie dream of a return to wild nature had swelled to global proportions. Yet what they were getting was something much more diluted, still filled with the basic gist of the idea, that rational thinking was fairly pointless, except perhaps in construction of our techno toys, and what everyone really needed in this massive chaotic world was ‘Fun’. And the very word Fun had been blown up into a teleological rubber dolly.
The real operative words became intuition and instinct, in other words to ‘trust your feelings Luke‘. ‘Thinking was stinking’ was the way Charles Manson put it. The general impression was that thought, intellectuals, book learning had poisoned the well of Western consciousness and one way or another we had to get back to our primal selves. We needed to just trust our intuitions, our hunches, our stream of consciousness. This sounds like every song by Bjork. But she wouldn’t be alone by any means. One could argue that since the Sixties a majority of the pop music world, regardless of style, has emphasized this basic principle. ‘It’s your thing. Do what you want to do. I can’t tell you who to sock it to.’
Of course, most of this hope in thoughtless intuition, or instinct (that word we use to describe animal behavior that we have absolutely no idea about why or how they do what they do), is based around contemporary concepts, or should we say deconstructions, of sexuality: The ‘as-long-as-nobody-gets-hurt’ (Yeah right.) school of human relationships. But at a certain point when hippie, singer-songwriter, new waver, punky mom and dad, who had sewn enough wild oats for their entire antecedent family tree were confronted by a child who might say, “But I am doing what I feel! I hate their guts! I want them to die!”, the elder partners in the family firm might simply have nowhere left to fall back. The concept that following your feelings might lead back to real primitive urges hadn’t crossed their minds. Yet it certainly should have.
In 1974 the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a harbinger of things to come. For Tobe Hooper it was quite clear that the Hippie dream had failed. He references the dark side of the Aquarian dream as Saturn in retrograde, not a good thing at all. And now this was what returning to the wild was really all about! A family left to their own devices reverting to cannibalism, ghoulish fetish art, a world where rational thought and language no longer apply. And though, despite the phony warning at the beginning of the film, this really was inspired by the such a reversion in the back woods, not of Texas, but of Wisconsin in the 1950’s, it was not merely as film critic Robin Wood suggested, in a brilliant 1978 Film Comment article, ‘a return of the repressed’ (again referring almost exclusively again sexuality). This was indeed more a warning that the dream of a blissful return to the garden was the pinnacle of delusion.
Not that anyone seemed to fully get the point. Whether in the commercially coy New Wave music of Adam and the Ants lauding a return to the ‘wild frontier’. Or in The Virgin Prunes Goth manifesto accompanying their 1982 album Heresie where they rail against the cleanliness of society, advocating a return to the dirt and go so far as to recommend correcting one’s civilized behavior by leaving used menstrual pads around. Later in RE/Search #12 Modern Primitives, (the book that gave every one on earth permission to get tattooed and pierced), it was clear that the answer to the dilemma of hypermodern society was a return to the tribe. And yet as Texas Chain Saw and dozens of other horror films had foreseen, this reversion to a dark tribal past would not result in a more meaningful life. By dampening our rationality, we would not find answers, we would perhaps find rage, or perhaps an inchoate howl of distress as Kurt Cobain specialized in, but we would also be opening a door that leads to madness, the kind of madness French philosophers like Michel Foucault or Georges Bataille had dreamt of. The kinds of transgressive acts that Bataille in particular believe all religions eventually led to. And my own feeling is that if, massive if, there is no God, then perhaps they are right.
Such troubling reversions to our primitive state are not isolated incidents. Hundreds of examples can be culled from the news and history: Whether in the cannibal witchcraft cult of Matamoros, Mexico, on the Texas border in 1989 or in the individual feral children found in various parts of the world. The beautiful dream of returning to a primitive state dies pretty hard in the face of the facts. And in Lucky McKee’s dark film The Woman we are confronted with a stark collapse of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Romantic countercultural Hippie dream. There is no escape in the wild.
(Next the Conclusion of the Feral Life. We meet the Woman, wild children and learn to lose our language.)
As a puppeteer, with quite a wide definition of puppetry, I find often myself keeping an eyeball cocked onto the world of those close cousins of the puppet, dolls. Technically the basic difference between a doll and a puppet is this: you play with a doll by yourself, but get an audience and you are a puppeteer. Playing with dolls is an act of personal fantasy, the creation of a private world. When you turn the figure outwards everything changes, you now have to communicate something to someone else. Dolls and puppets both serve valuable functions. And there is some academic wrangling over the true ancestor of the puppet. Is it the doll or another strange homunculoid cousin, a more fearful relative, the religious idol? It is probably a mixture of the two. The puppet is a performer who can contain many a complex message. The doll is a figure that is usually outgrown as a playmate as a child discovers the outside world.
But what happens if the child doesn’t outgrow the doll? What happens if the child begins to treat the doll as something to emulate? What happens when the personal fantasy becomes a prison? And more to our point: What happens when the doll becomes a role model and object of desire? What happens if the doll’s lover develops a real case of agalmatophilia, that is a statue, doll and mannequin fetish?
I recently stumbled upon the phenomenon of girls becoming dolls. We have often the heard a girl compared to a doll before. But in this new trend to call a teenage girl a living doll has taken on far more than subtext. There is a girl whose real name I’m told is Venus Palermo, but who goes by the YouTube moniker VenusAngelic. Venus is about 15 years old as I write. She likes to dress up like a doll, to wear ribbons and frills and to compose her face with wide eyed innocence. Oh! Did I say wide eyed? I mean that literally. Not ‘literally’ as in ‘I literally fell on the floor laughing.’ when no such thing occurred. But literally as in this girl has a fetish for Japanese anime an is turning herself into a ball Jointed Doll (BJD in the doll world). In her video entitled: How to look like a doll (make up), Venus instructs her viewers how to achieve a porcelain like doll skin and even how to apply contact lenses to enlarge the size of the pupils. Giving her eyes a real doll effect. And VenusAngelic has about 80 videos on her personal philosophy of doll simulation. (She also speaks in a crazy doll’s voice that make her videos uniquely bizarre.) So think about this for a moment… A girl trying to become a doll.
As soon as I saw these photos and videos I knew I was looking at one of those weird trends that would catch on all over the place. It’s obvious to me that hippiedom, punk attitude, alternative piercings and tattoos all pretty much have the musty aroma of stale history to many teens these days. They need a new model. The revolutions of the counterculture are basically dead. (Occupy Wall Street not withstanding.) Here is the strange new thing. This is not my vote for a new paradigm mind you. I would hope for something more grounded, more questioning of technology, a bit more Luddite and much more fiercely intelligent. But as long as people are seduced by our wireless, app-worshipping, multi-screenal technocracy this is what we will get. I just knew I would see much more of this particularly curious blur between fantasy and reality, between plastic and flesh, between screen and quotidian existence.
And there certainly is more…
There are more doll girls already. Dakota Rose, a 16 year old, who goes by the name dakotakoti or Kotakoti is even more popular than VenusAngelic. (Between the two their videos have been watched by millions.) She’s a bit less extreme and some have said she tweaks her photos a bit to get the doll effect. She too comes across as a human BJD and creates her big eyed effect a bit more naturally. But the effect is the same. (She also reveals a connection to the Emo girl look on occasion.) And the doll look is certainly being copied. Japan? Absolutely. America? It’s just winding up. Globally? We’ll see.
But this doll/human interchange is actually a two way street. The doll itself has become a sort a laboratory for a kind of android aesthetic. Let’s consider the BJD. The unusual thing about the BJD is that they are anatomically more correct than most dolls. Some of these dolls are exquisitely crafted with incredible attention paid to detail. Not only that the costumes and accessories are even more elaborate. I first ran into the Ball Jointed Doll (though it wasn’t called that yet) in the mid-80’s through little Japanese doll books of Amano Katan. His Katan Doll: Fantasm was something I’d never encountered before. Beautifully constructed, yet disturbingly emaciated dolls, that seemed one step away from drawing a warm tub of water and contemplating a razor blade.
Since then the BJD has developed a cult following with artists vying with each other to create the most dewy eyed melancholic homunculi imaginable. In the hands of an artist like Russian/Canadian Marina Bychkova these dolls are anorexic works of art. They have a strange erotic power in their tangible realism. I’m impressed by the craft and dedication that goes into these dolls.
Oh yeah, by ‘anatomically correct’ I mean they show pink nipples and genitalia, which is quite unusual for a doll. Of course they aren’t really for children. But what is their function? I know that people get together at conferences to marvel over these BJD creations. Doll collectors consider them a real pinnacle of the craft. But there is a problem.
The Japanese have a word, ‘kawaii’, which roughly translates into English as ‘cute’. Now in English ‘cute’ a relatively recent word, means something akin to baby-like, when most people use it. Babies are cute. Bunnies are cute. Kittens and puppies are cute. Cats can be cute. A teenage girl might say that a boy is cute. (Here the meaning is slipping a little.) But generally baby-like things can’t be violent or pornographic. At least that’s our vision of things. Kawaii things in Japan can be. That is, big-eyed anime and manga characters can certainly be both violent and highly pornographic. I won’t follow this any further, but if you know the worlds of anime and manga you know exactly what I’m talking about. The BJD has evolved from the anime tradition. And like anime or manga the BJD, though fitted with the standard markings of cuteness, big childlike eyes, puffy lips, silky smooth skin. But in the very realistic, and stylized treatment, of human genitalia several categories are being blended in ways that are not only erotic but have an especially troubling kick. The moist childlike faces seem to beckon towards very forbidden fruit.
But there are further degrees of the human/doll interpenetration. If you remember the climax of the first Star Trek movie where man mates with machine you can understand that there has long been a desire to make the perfect erotic mate. One that isn’t bitchy, naggy or bleed once a month. Someone who will not ask uncomfortable questions. This curious desire goes at least as far back as the Greek myth of Pygmalion. I suspect that it even finds it’s expressions in various fertility idols of the remote past.
And RealDoll has achieved the next step. The old image of the inflatable love doll is now hopelessly antiquated. For about $6,000 one can purchase a female doll approximately the exact size and, more importantly, the weight of a real woman. And would you understand me if I said that these dolls are even more anatomically correct than the BJDs. They have certain replaceable parts and very pliant human textured silicon skin. Interestingly the movie Lars and the Real Girl, featured one of these lifelike dolls and yet did not find the concept all that creepy. Again, as so often in the movies, humans and machines were made for each other. The relatives of Lars find it getting a touch too weird. But the movie itself seems to plump down with that old saw ‘whatever works’. Well they do make porn films of these dolls too. And what is the nature of the actual relationship of the man (Girls don’t get too envious, they now make male RealDoll’s too.) to the simulacra? Have we crossed the line from fetish to idol?
I don’t know, am I being too much of a Puritan about this stuff? (Calvin did make some good points.) Or is this really the destiny of the human race? Predictably the media has recently been covering the Doll Girl phenomenon and of course the questions they ask go something like this: Are we sexualizing young girls again? Like that was the big issue here. It is indeed a problem. But I don’t think that’s the serious issue. Maybe we should ask; What are we sacrificing in our desire to blur the distinction between what we make and who we are? What are we losing in the bargain?
Too understand the answers to that line of questioning I think we can start by imagining VenusAngelic or Kotakoti twenty or thirty years down the road. What prosthetics will they choose to retain their status as living dolls? What surgical procedures will they adopt? We know that most organs can be transplanted now. What happens when they finally find a donor to give them a doll’s plastic heart?
I hope they learn to face reality long before then… But then again what in this society is really encouraging them to do that?
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 8 – Staring into the Dark River
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. Ascension Day? Evidently the day of Jesus’ ascent back into heaven is celebrated pretty widely across secular Europa while we more religious Americans hadn’t even been informed that it was a holiday. I felt gypped. (Hey wait a minute isn’t gypped from gypsy? Uh oh I feel something politically correct hovering about. Down damn you!)
Meanwhile back in Salzburg everything was closed except the Hohensalzburg Castle, which fortunately contained the small puppet museum of the Salzburg Marionetten Theater. I also discovered there that it would be impossible to interview any of the Salzburg puppeteers because the office was closed for the holiday. But I did have tickets for the theatre that night.
I found my seat in the Salzburg Marionette Theater, amid children and Japanese tourists, for an unseasonal (to my mind at least… Or maybe it fits the Ascension Day festivities?) performance of The Nutcracker. This was the most expensive puppet show I had attended on my entire trip through European puppetry: 28 euros (nearly $40 US) and hardly the best seats in the diminutive antique theatre. But after all the Salzburg Marionettes had toured the world. And when I saw their show I knew why. Their technique was elaborate, flawless. It was like watching a three dimensional film without the glasses. The use of lighting was particularly good. But it was the actual movement of the marionettes that was stupefying. Whether it was a parade of snowmen or a Middle Eastern dancer, the performance was truly lifelike. The puppets appeared to be actual miniature beings rather than mere pieces of wood, wire, fabric and paint. As the ballet concluded the possibilities of puppetry appeared nigh endless to me. Although it was curious that the group with the most refined style moved about primarily to prerecorded music. If Buchty a Loutky in Prague had this kind of technique what would they do with it? Indeed many of the students at Charleville would eventually have this level of technique and they were already beginning to move far beyond traditional concepts of puppeteering.
As I walked back to my hotel in the darkness over the Salzach River I stopped on the bridge and looked across to the lights Salzburg and the castle reflected in the dark water. I reflected on what a journey it had been. I could see that puppetry was still an untapped artistic treasury, from the folk art of Guignol to the philosophical experiments at the Institut International de la Marionnette and ESNAM, from the savage comic timing of Der Weite Theater to the gentle humor and earnest ideas of DRAK, from the pure displays of light and shadow at the Fuguren-Zirkel to the dark seriousness of play’s like Groteska’s Balladyna and from the perfect professionalism of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre to funky absurdism of Buchty a Loutky. And I could also easily see how much was left, acres, countries, galaxies to be explored in the puppetry matrix, including masks and objects. Puppetry had been a folk art for so long, with only tentative steps towards art having been made in the 20th Century. It was as though though this art form was still in its glorious silent movie stage awaiting the advent of sound.
I also had another reflection: I remembered back in Berlin going to a rock club to watch three indie bands play. I left before the third one started. Why? Well I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen a lot of music in my lifetime. And these bands were doing what so much music does these days. They were providing a rather predictable experience for the people who like that sort of sound. The club was full of the usual suspects: hipsters standing around looking coolly bored or the folks who invariably bob their heads in approval of the beat. But nothing surprising was occurring. And without some element of surprise nothing new can be said. The musical conversation that had stretched back into the mists of the 20th Century and before now looked to have become stale. (Yes I’m well aware that there is plenty of good music out there. The problem is that it has ended up as our personal portable soundtracks.)
But in puppet theatre after puppet theatre my mind was being blown all ways from Sunday. Puppetry, by retaining its tangible, tactile character, had stepped up to the artistic task of confronting the infernal virtuality of the 21st Century. The European puppets that I saw raised questions that most of the other arts could no longer confront in our maelstrom of hi-tech simulacra. Puppetry can be used effectively in films, but it is barely contained by them. And the best puppet films by Wladyslaw Starewicz, Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay or Genevieve Anderson throw us back upon the textures of the real world with its mysterious essence. But the only way to truly know why the once and future art of puppetry is able to speak into our dismembered reconstituted times is find a real puppet show (not some muppety kiddie show either) and get thee henceforth. And that’s the point puppets require our presence, which gets us out of our isolation.
As I stood on that bridge crossing the Salzach River watching the lights of Salzburg it occurred to me that everywhere you go there are endless musical bands, singers, organizations. But where were the puppet troupes? Why shouldn’t there be just as many? The punk puppets of Buchty a Loutky provided an excellent model. But why not shadow puppets? Marionettes? Toy theatres? Rod Puppets? Puppet films? Crafty automata? Reconditioned action figures? Recycled junk? And not just to make kids laugh either? (But then again why not?) And not just to make adults giggle? (And again why in the name of heck not?) But why not make versions of Shakespeare, Faust or Alice in Wonderland? Why not make versions of movies? Buchty a Loutky did Rocky IX why not The Maltese Falcon or Night of the Living Dead? Or my own personal dream – a live outdoor version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a small audience following the Stalker puppet to the Zone. Puppetry is an ancient art with a deep past that ranges from Punch to King Kong, from Captain Pod to Michel de Ghelderode. But it is also an art that is still discovering its grammar, especially since it is not just a language of homunculi and funny animals but of all objects. On my journey I saw stones, grapevines, electric trains, water and light all used as puppets.
And so I determined right there on that bridge that I would take on this art myself and see if I could get it to work back in Alaska, back in North America. And take it I did. And I believe it has worked… But that is another story. It was time to leave Europe and the rich panorama of faces and characters, both human and animated, I had encountered on this astounding journey.
In early May during my last stop in Europe I had one closing benediction related to puppetry. At my hotel in the Latin Quarter in Paris the desk clerk, whom I had known for years, told me that the man on the night shift, Jorge, was a Bolivian puppet master. He introduced us and I interviewed him. As he discussed puppets made out of paper in the shape of condors I realized how much more of the world of puppets I had yet to encounter. There were indeed puppet shows all over the world. I asked him if he thought puppets would have problems surviving in a world of televisions, computers, video games, etc. “No!” He replied with passion. “People need puppets.” “Why?” I asked him. For him all of puppetry came down to one word “Simplicity.” And after all I’d seen I couldn’t help but agree with him: simplicity and a tangible reality.
March 4th 2012
And if you are in Salzburg at the right time dig deeply into your pockets and see the Salzburg Marionette Theater. Visit their website:
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 7 – The City of Eccentric Dreams
Meanwhile Prague was calling. I had been traveling for a couple of months through Europe, visiting friends and hunting down puppet theatres in Europe. The entire time I had essentially been making a Fibonacci spiral towards Prague, the heart of puppetry in Europe. Švankmajer, Skupa, Trnka, Faust, Don Giovanni, Kašpárek, puppetry as history complete with heroic martyrs. The Czech Republic, the eccentric core of Europe, the Surrealist dreamscape, to quote Andre Breton: “Prague, wrapped in its legendary magic, is truly one of those cities that has been able to fix and retain the poetic idea that is always more or less drifting aimlessly through space.” I had come to Prague for the second time, in the second half of April 2005, a little more prepared to unwrap it’s curious puppet mythologies.
My first stop was the Švandovo Theatre to find Buchty a Loutky. Back in Hradec Kralove DRAK Director Jakub Krofta had highly recommended them. They were performing Pes Baskervillessky, their absurd version of the Sherlock Holmes mystery ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. The lights went down. Someone played slow music on a piano. A tall bearded long-haired gentleman in a suit began to read from Sherlock Holmes. Behind him in an exceptionally funky homemade stage Sherlock Holmes and Watson suddenly appeared. Watson and Holmes were full sized actors who had crammed their heads into the tiny puppet stage. Soon the actors were replaced by little string puppets. At one point Holmes requested tea. Suddenly two full-sized cups appeared on the stage. Water was poured from above. Splashing helplessly on the tiny figures as well as into the porcelain cups. It was then consumed by a couple of puppeteers from the side as the play continued. Suddenly the actors would be in front of the little stage duplicating the movements of the puppets. A model train began to roam around the makeshift stage at one point. At another a puppet is falling and falling and falling, the miniature stage curtain descends suddenly the play stops and the bearded guy starts reading a book on swamps through a microphone. This goes on for five minutes before it starts to dawn on everyone that this is the intermission. He reads for 15 minutes. The evening continued with humor, absurdity and inventiveness blazing away in full glory. Holmes does indeed solve the case. Eventually the play ends as a cello lonely tune is bowed offstage. And the players take a bow. I approached the guy with the beard… his name was Tomas Procházka. He is the director of the piece. We set an appointment to talk for later that week before their next show. I walked off thinking, laughing, obsessed with the play, my head positively exploding with ideas. I had seen much on this trip, but nothing had prepared me for this. I would return.
The next evening I decided to visit one of the unique Czech black light theatres, Ta Fantastika to see “Aspects of Alice“, a truly weird variation on Alice in Wonderland. Black theatres tend to be quite commercial in their production design and sadly proliferate largely for the tourist market. Nevertheless as they are tangentially related to puppet theatre I felt I should see another one. This one appeared to be the best of the current crop. In the presentation Alice follows a magician by floating, always lots of floating in these shows, across a day-glow version of historic Prague. She meets some tall Jewish ghost puppets that carry her around in her hands. It was doubly odd since most of Prague’s Jews had been exterminated in World War 2 and these gangly puppets were largely nostalgic characters. Then there was a fairly successful clown show to cheer Alice up after getting depressed by the Jewish specters: lots of floating juggling day-glow bowling pins. After the intermission things turned down right odd. For no discernible reason Alice was suddenly topless and reenacting the Garden of Eden, with the snake represented by another topless woman. Now I’m fairly familiar with the Bible and many interpretations of the GArden of Eve story but I’d never encountered this interpretation before. The magician then becomes Adam. Alice/Eve becomes pregnant. She prays for forgiveness to a triangle with odd lines in it. (Was that the Trinity?) And the show ends. I’m not sure what that meant, but it sure was slick and bizarre.
The next morning I went to meet Nina Malíková, daughter of famed Czech puppeteer Jan Malik, an intelligent animated woman in her fifties, editor of the noted puppeteering magazine Loutkář, who was already being interviewed by a French student, Rachele, doing a Master’s thesis on Czech Puppet history. Eventually Nina, Rachele, an interpreter and myself were deeply involved in a discussion about the meaning and future of puppetry. Nina was worried that there would not be enough good puppet shows for children, since in the Czech Republic everyone wanted to do work for adults. I could only dream of such problems for America. “What about DRAK and other companies”, I said. “They do work for children?” “Yes”, she said, “that’s one show once in a while, but I want to take my grandchildren to puppet shows every week. We are supposed to be the land of puppets.” She had definite and high standards. She lamented that increasingly puppets were becoming a purely improvised visual phenomenon. (Several other puppet theorists have pointed to same defect in so much contemporary puppetry.) She also wondered if the future of puppets was to be contained within various filmic or digital media. I pointed out the use of strong texts by the students of the International Institute for Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières France. Rachele added that there were writers in Avignon who were assigned to specific puppeteers. That was exactly what I saw at the Institute. I said that there had to be more of an emphasis on texts to bring puppetry to the next level. Nina looked at me and said… I want you to write about what you’ve been telling me for the next issue of Loutkář. We’ll translate it. And she also offered the same to Rachele. It had proved an interesting meeting indeed. (I did write something but I suspect it was too long. You are basically reading a variation of it write now.)
Not all in Prague was fascinating theatre and engrossing meetings. I couldn’t help noticing the predators of tourism as well: the strange bad tourist puppet shows and imitative black light theatres. Prague has so many genuine puppet attractions that it is also plagued by commercial puppetry trying to cash in on the Czech culture. There were so many cheap puppet shops that the authentic ones took a little effort to find. There are two Don Giovanni marionette theatres. The real one is at the National Marionette Theatre. I talked for a while to a Bulgarian girl who was passing out leaflets in front of the imitation Don Giovanni marionette play. She worked 12 hours a day six days a week doing little more than this. She was so bored with her job that she struck up a conversation with me when I turned around to walk away from a theatre foyer. She explained how a group of Serbians also ran many of the most exploitative black light theatres. She was stuck working for them a few years until she could get enough to go home.
Returning to the Švandovo on my last night in Prague I found Tomas Procházka from Buchty a Loutky. I told him that their puppetry reminded me of old school Punk rock. Not the rage, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic. “It’s nice to say it. Because then we can say we do Punk. We do Punk Puppetry.” He explained how the troupe took turns coming up with ideas for shows. The group of five or six people had been influenced mostly through the strange puppet films of Jan Švankmajer, also probably the reason I found myself wandering around Europe looking for theatrical homunculi. Referring to that night’s entertainment Tomas said “You will see in this story the Švankmajer style. It’s made of rubbish.” The stage for this show, entitled Urbild Remix, was actually indeed constructed exactly in the Švankmajer mode. It was made from wood you might have found in your backyard. There were three puppet stages and extra curtains besides piled on top of each other. The show was billed as an adventure. There were chases, murders, mermaids, skeletons, American Indians and stage blood that literally flowed from the middle stage into a teapot, again homemade music, plenty of strange humor and a great comic introduction by the play’s director, Marek Bečka. And it was all a dream! I can’t possible summarize it. Except to say if you ever go to Prague if you must hunt down the performances of Buchty a Loutky at the Švandovo Theatre. I hear Rocky IX is particularly good.
At one point in my two weeks in Prague I was exploring the Strahovsky Cloister libraries, particularly their surreal object collections, not too far from a desiccated baby dodo bird; it was then that I found I found a portrait, several centuries old, made entirely from seeds. As I looked at them locked behind the glass on a low shelf ignored by the hordes of high school students currently being herded through the place, I smiled to myself. This was exactly like one of the images in the short film Dimensions of Dialogue. Švankmajer had been here. And I promised myself that next time I visited Prague I would find the man himself.
Next time we conclude our journey in Salzburg Austria with the most polished and complicated marionettes of my whole trip.
And here is what you will need to explore puppetry in Prague on your own!!!
For more information on Buchty a Loutky:
or their haunt at the Švandovo: (Hint more shows are listed on the Czech version)
And to learn more about Jan Švankmajer begin here:
To see the authentic Don Giovanni puppet opera in Prague go to the National Marionette Theatre. This is an excellent place to begin.
And if you do want to see a strange if commercial black theatre presentation Ta Fantastika seems to be the best one I’ve seen so far. And they are still presenting Aspects of Alice! (They have a video here too.)
Other spots for real puppet shows Říše Loutek theatre. DRAK plays here on occasion.
Divadlo Minor is a good place for interesting children’s puppetry:
If you want to get more adventurous translate this…
Highly recommended The Forman Brothers – Film Director Milos Forman’s sons are experimental puppeteers and high on my list to catch:
To learn more about Loutkář run this through a translation tool:
To buy a serious puppet try:
And finally to have a puppet commissioned for you! (as Reckoning Motions did) write to Lenka Pavlíčková. She does an amazing job!
There are also puppet festivals!!
Get thee to Prague …
There are questions and implications that I have left dangling during this survey of various aspects of American Gothic Culture. And undoubtedly I have left a few confusions uncovered. Since this has been essentially an introduction to a subject that doesn’t really seem to have been dealt with before I’m well aware of how many other examples I could pull from a hat. There many discussions left to be had about what is and isn’t American Gothic Culture. There is also a fairly serious delineation to be made between this nascent American Gothic sensibility and what is often called Goth. I will attempt a little of that now.
One question that has been left unexplored is this: Why did American Gothic Music take so long to come into being? The short answer goes like this. Music has always been a part of that which links people together. Thus there has often been an underlying sense of confidence that often pervades the music. Music often has a joyful component to it. Or at least a simulacrum of joy as in the sterile ‘fun’ of so much pop music. Even the blues, as painful as they can be, often has an aspect of hope buried in the implications: The idea that “the sun will shine on my back door someday”. Or even the notion that by hearing the pain of these lyrics someone will change somehow.
As a result music hasn’t been the best vessel for expressing real darkness… until fairly recently. After years of exploring various musical phenomena I think I can fairly confidently state that it wasn’t until the 1960’s that a certain kind of philosophical darkness entered popular music with groups like Love and The Doors. This existential dread festered into real anomie with Iggy and the Stooges. (It is curious to note that all of these bands were on Elektra Records.) And finally the music erupted into explicit rage with the Sex Pistols in 1976. And this rage was new. I don’t just mean it was a new musical trend. I mean in all of the history of music there was absolutely no precedent for such blood curdling scabrous anguish as to be found in, say, The Birthday Party’s Fears of Gun where Nick Cave vomits out the word ‘Love’ as if being disemboweled. You can search all you want, I have, for anything that sounds remotely that angry… you will never find it, prior to that point in human history.
It takes that sort of bleak intensity to comprehend the American Gothic vision. And it is not Nick Cave’s spewing forth that is his American Gothic work. It came when he started to try to find answers for the questions he had posed about the nature of humanity. And this is one reason why American Gothic Culture is vastly different than the usual Euro-Goth scene. Goth is about the darkness. Goth is about vampires, funerary motifs, ghosts. It finds these images to be helpful as some sort of anodyne to the blandness of contemporary culture. Goth also dips into fetishes quite liberally; leather, rubber, corsets, etc. Goth Culture seems to say I am the darkness. I want to be a vampire. I want to be as spectral as a ghost. I want to be cool. Don’t dream it, be it.
American Gothic Culture seems quite Other, by comparison. Even the darkest of the dark within the American Gothic spectrum, for instance Ambrose Bierce or Joe Coleman seem to have other fish to fry. Instead of being cool, their work seems to scream, “Why is it so dark? Huh!” Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a fever pitched cry of black despair fuelled more by cosmic anger at the insanity surrounding him than by any desire to laugh at the rubes. Even the extremely sardonic and gory humor of EC Comics can be seen as a series of serious questions. The man who pulls the face off of an ugly woman with a hot body trying to get her to unmask says more about the mysteries and problems of beauty in this dark world than has ever been written in a fashion magazine.
In fact the hallmark of real American Gothic work is a recognition of the evil, the bleakness, the absurdity, the darkness of the human condition. And that’s the answer to another implication: Why don’t folks with an American Gothic perspective sell out to the commercial forces the way Hippies, Beats, Punks, Rappers, etc ad nauseum seem to do? It’s because there is no point in becoming huge. There is no progressive utopian Romantic goal to achieve. The end is already seen in the beginning. That doesn’t mean that Tom Waits, Cormac McCarthy or other successful American Gothic folks aren’t happy to be selling a few books and discs. But the truth is they aren’t driven by commercial imperatives. If they didn’t sell a thing their viewpoint wouldn’t really change.
Fascinatingly American Gothic Culture houses both Christians and Atheists quite comfortably. But by Christians I don’t mean the contemporary commercial mega-church consumers. I mean folks like Johnny Cash, Flannery O’Connor, David Eugene Edwards. Nick Cave has been seemingly close to Christian faith at times. And by atheists I don’t mean the Richard Dawkins variety of confident hucksters, I mean the bleaker, more honest souls like an Ambrose Bierce or H.P. Lovecraft. And it was Lovecraft who admired the Puritans for their darkness.
But the point is this: These aren’t the gullible folks. These folks don’t seem to have nice positive attitudes. They aren’t trying to boost anyone’s self-esteem. They aren’t Romantic in any sense of the word. (Another big difference with Goth Culture.) There is no collusion between Disney and American Goth. There is no cute version of American Gothic Culture. And most interestingly American Gothic sensibility is in no way Postmodern.
Postmodern Culture thrives on postmodern irony. It lives on the deconstruction of Marilyn Monroe into Madonna into Lady Gaga. It lives on surfaces, since surfaces are deemed to be the only reality. It takes style as substance, content as merely social conditioning. It laughs at seriousness as pretension. The old Modernism was way too serious, though in disassembling everything they paved the way for the ironic hordes. Who to say that Beverly Hills 90210 isn’t as good as James Joyce?
American Gothic trumps postmodern irony with bitter irony. And bitter irony is fairly impervious to deconstruction. Who can deconstruct the Texas Chain Saw Massacre? I don’t mean you can’t make fun of it. Sure you can. But you have to get into the dark EC Comics mode to do it. But I mean put the DVD into your machine tonight. See who wins? Leatherface or postmodern irony? There is no contest. Your most postmodern child will wither before such an onslaught. Why? Because although there is humor to be found there, ultimately this thing is too damned serious to be turned into a deconstruction of itself. Tobe Hooper really believed in the power of the chainsaw. The same goes for The Road (film or book), Winter’s Bone (ditto), Nick Cave wailing Saint Huck or Tom Waits who uses humor all the time, yet really can’t be touched be postmodern irony.
The reason that academic theoretical babble about appropriation or deconstruction don’t get to far down the American Gothic road is because instead of ironic appropriation you have junkyard salvage, instead of deconstruction, you are faced with a much older stronger concept: destruction. American Gothic Culture is entropic. It sees the limits of a culture, our own, that is based upon endless progress and positive vibes. American Gothic Culture sees the good effects of negativity: The meaning behind the word No.
This isn’t to say that every artist I’ve mentioned was consciously saying No to the mindless optimism of the larger culture. But I do believe a good many of them have. There is a sense of realism in the face of the endless facades. American Gothic Culture is not an active movement. There is no town I could recommend for you to hang out in for American Goth trappings. There is intelligence, sorrow, black humor, history and even sometimes deeper strands of questioning and faith to be found in American Gothic outlook. At it’s best the American Gothic sensibility is a lot like the character of Ree in Winter’s Bone or even Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is grit and integrity in the face of the American nightmare, which it projects as the growing dimming entropic reality of the American future.
We’ll leave this introduction to American Gothic Culture here. But it is obviously one form of Anadromous Life being birthed in our times, one culture going against the stream of endless propaganda and the hype, a real question mark in the face the growing fiction of the 21st Century.
Now we come to the infant of this breed: American Gothic Music. Compared to fiction, art and even film American Gothic Music is a recent phenomenon indeed, going back at most to the late 60’s, and even then only as a hint in the musical wing of this American Gothic museum, which is still under-construction.
It’s interesting to ask why. Why would the music take such a long time to develop when the literature began in the late 1700’s? One would imagine that with all of the other work that had been done in American Gothic Culture by 1950 that there would have been a serious attempt to construct some sort of decayed variation on the themes in American Music. In classical music only Charles Ives Unanswered Question seems to have any Gothic links, yet that seems somewhat incidental. Certainly there are spooky blues and country tunes just ripe for use in an American Gothic context. Think of Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’ or Hank William’s Ramblin’ Man or especially Tommy Johnson’s strange falsetto in Cool Drink of Water Blues. The context of these songs make them potent compost for the roots of an American Gothic Music, but they are only visions of personal trouble not the broader, sadder, vision of an America in decay. But make no mistake about it these are the roots of the tone of American Gothic Music to come.
Perhaps we can point to something in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins crazed Fifties sounds: Frenzy or I Put a Spell On You. He started his stage show by emerging from a coffin with a skull scepter and a cape. But this was more Halloween than American Gothic. He certainly is an influence. You can feel Hawkins in Tom Waits’ Eighties oeuvre.
The first real sense of American Gothic probably comes from what would also be considered the first band with real Gothic overtones: The Doors. Although one can indeed hear a Gothic funereal quality in their music, nevertheless most of the Doors references are philosophically European, only tinged by the blues. Nevertheless I think we have to consider their dark epic, The End, a true milestone in American Gothic Music. Lyrically Morrison refers to Greyhound buses, ‘the West is the best’, ‘weird scenes inside the goldmine’ all of which puts us directly in California and the ghost towns and hippie dreams of a golden consciousness. But the biggest shock in the song isn’t the Oedipal violence, rather it is the growing revelation that the singer is the killer and that the listener is the next victim of this Manson-like figure. The message of the song essentially boils down to this: Come to the West and be killed. And this was a huge record in 1967, during the hyped Summer of Love, two years before Manson’s cult followers would slaughter several Californians.
But musically the Doors are rarely American Gothic. They borrow from Modern Jazz, German Cabaret, Indian Ragas and Spanish Flamenco. And, of course, often borrow from the blues. But we will have to look elsewhere for a real American Gothic style.
The first American Gothic album has to go to the man who is seemingly so often first: Bob Dylan. After his motorcycle accident Dylan stepped back from the cultural upheavals partly unleashed by his own work. I have gotten the feeling that he never could quite stare into the heart of those changes. Many of them seemed repellent to him later on. So during the media fabricated Summer of Love Dylan hid out in Woodstock and played a lot of country-flavored songs with The Band. Eventually these recordings would come out in the 1970’s as The Basement Tapes. And one can hear a growing American Gothicism in songs like This Wheel’s on Fire.
But the real American Gothic Music was what came out next: his most enigmatic album, John Wesley Harding. An odd sort of country music, biblical allusions and a sense of humility haunted the album, which was released without much hullabaloo in December 1967. In a moment of psychedelic excess Dylan released this strange record of autumnally oblique fables: All Along the Watchtower, I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine and the extraordinarily puzzling The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. I think we can call this the first true work in the musical wing of American Gothic.
The Eagles bordered on American Gothic territory with songs like the Hotel California, which has a bit more of a rootsy approach to the music than the Doors. And of course lyrically Hotel California is nearly as fascinating as The End, especially the lines about not having had ‘that spirit here since 1969’. But the Eagles are far too commercial a band to really be considered an American Gothic band.
A mention must be made here of Ry Cooder’s haunted slide guitar sound, especially as heard in his scores for films like Southern Comfort and Paris, Texas. This is not a sound found directly in the blues. Cooder’s specialty was to translate the older slide guitar sound into something much more capable of capturing the desolation of the vast American landscape.
Tom Waits, an Asylum Records stable mate of the Eagles, meanwhile had been known mostly for his songwriting skills and his neo-Beat persona on stage. But evidently something else had been brewing beneath the surface. In 1983 for his first recording on Island Records Waits came out with the LP Swordfishtrombones. This was something quite else with a vengeance. With Waits in a carnival scenario on the cover, complete with midget, the album was a new template for a new kind of music that would take years for anyone to really emulate: This was a fully realized American Gothic album. The sense of musical decay was palpable. The dark carnival pervades the album as well as a sense of undefined queasiness. The music hovers between traveling sideshow and film noir with bits of rural morbidity thrown in for good measure: 16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six. The album occasionally detours towards pop standards and odes to bacon and eggs yet the central impression is of a lizard’s blue belly to the American dream. ‘I’m goin’ to whittle you into kindling’!
From here on Waits is never far from the seedy vision of a carnivalesque American nightmare. Albums like Rain Dogs and Bone Machine are drenched in the same sensibility. His carnival barker introduction to The Black Rider is as pure American Gothic as Nightmare Alley or the art of Bernie Wrightson.
Another of the pioneers of American Gothic Music was Australian Nick Cave. After the demise of the rabid Birthday Party, Cave moved into a style all his own. One can hear Jim Morrison and Johnny Rotten in there. But one can also hear the deep blues and chain gang music as well. After songs like Saint Huck showed up on From Her To Eternity Cave then released The First Born Is Dead: Perhaps the least appreciated of his Bad Seeds albums. I find it to be an American Gothic cornerstone. Scarecrows, blind blues singers, Mississippi flood’s and the myth of Elvis Presley all show up in heartfelt and heart burnt songs ranging from Knocking On Joe, Tupelo, The Black Crow King and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Stunning stuff.
And Cave, like Waits, no matter where else he wandered was ever too far from Gothic Americana. Even his novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, was pure American Gothic. That he would align himself with filmmaker John Hillcoat for Australian Gothic film The Proposition and later The Road underscores this.
The 80’s gave birth to another sound that would be instrumental to the growth of American Gothic Music. And that would be Folk Punk. What the Pogues glued together, traditional folk music and punk, has proved to be a rather hardy plant giving birth to bands like The Ukrainians, Gogol Bordello, Devotchka, and more germane to our point American bands like O’Death playing a kind of Country Punk. The fusing of traditional music with a punk spirit has done more than all the Folkies from the 1960’s to propagate the music of the past.
And in this spirit I think the work of Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes deserve a special citation as well. Much of the current crop of American Gothic bands can be seen as a triangulation between Tom Waits, Gordon Gano and Folk Punk. Gano’s reedy voice and occasional forays into traditional American music played with manic acoustic guitars have been highly influential.
And yes, dear reader, there is indeed a current crop of American Gothic bands. And it is that fact alone that caused me to write this whole American Gothic series. In fact, for those with ears to hear this is the moment for American Gothic Music. No it isn’t flavor du jour at what remains of the pop charts. (Interestingly it does come during a period where Americana is also one of the reigning trends.) But much of the most exciting music of the hour is coming from a decaying vision of America. Artists like the Blind Willies, the Whiskey Folk Ramblers, Nicole Atkins, Liz Tormes, The Born Again Floozies, The Black Heart Procession, Harmonious Wail, Ezra Fuhrman & the Harpoons, the astounding Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas and the great Reverend Glasseye have been making vital music for this lost American time.
I believe it was the bands forming in Denver in the mid-90’s that kicked off this wave (the first wave really) of American Gothic Music. 16 Horsepower and Devotchka were both quite influential. David Eugene Edwards from 16 Horsepower and more recently Woven Hand deserves real recognition here. Like a circuit riding preacher in a storm, his musical talents connect the worlds of antique Western Music, Christian hymns, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and the early American Gothic Music to the many bands of the present. His use of the unusual instrumentation, following Tom Waits, would become a hallmark of the new American Gothic bands. Listen to any of his versions of American Wheeze. Tubas, harmonicas, accordions, musical saws, trombones, violins and many other instruments not found in standard rock bands permeate the new music.
While all of these artists are worth a paragraph two stand out and need special attention: Reverend Glasseye and Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas. Glasseye has two albums to his name. His music is located somewhere between a Wild West saloon, a circus tent and a revival meeting. (Ry Cooder’s music for The Long Riders is a worthy antecedent.) His archaic lyrics and jaunty tunes have a demented Shakespearean grandeur to them. Sleep Sweet Countrymen is an American Gothic masterpiece.
Jessica Hernandez, from the Detroit area, is fairly obscure as of this writing. But I doubt she will remain that way. A combination of Mexican heritage (Detroit also gave us ? Mark & the Mysterians), a deep dose of Tom Waits and a swooping passionate vocal style, not to mention killer instincts in the dynamic tune department, cause Jessica’s music to pop out in 3-D. Find a recording of her singing Gone in Two Seconds or Moonstruck. She’s so good I hate to think of her getting discovered by the commercial machinery that so loves to suck the life from everything till dead. But I suspect she’s got as much musical integrity as she does talent.
Curiously not one artist who has ever made American Gothic Music has ever sold their soul for success. I wonder why? It might have something to do with the worldview that has to accompany the style to some degree.
Allow me the indulgence of trying to summarize this American Gothic sensibility… next time.
(Oh… I thought about connecting this to musical links. But you know your way around. Go listen!)
I am back working at the local radio station. I’ve been out of the music loop for five years, not that I had no idea what was going on; I just wasn’t fully plugged in. I was off investigating the music that actually engaged my attention; like Eastern European folk punk or baroque dance music. (Hint: Jordi Savall – La Folia!) Not to mention less musical interests like puppetry. And so now I’m taking a crash course in the kind of music that is on someone’s radar for the cutting edge in the present moment.
Carsten Hyatt warned me about this. He said things had gotten fairly spineless amongst the endless musical flotsam and jetsam of his generation, in that young twenties college aged world. My rather lackadaisical musical sonar had been guessing something like this. It had seemed back in ’05 that repetition was the order of the day. He told me he’d gotten fairly tired of the general played out music of various Indie microgenres. I tried to make up for it by passing on to him music that had more substance and passion: Sixties Garage Rock, the neglected oeuvre of Holly Beth Vincent and more recently the late great Russian folk punker Yanka Dyagileva. Then I reinserted myself back into radio work a couple of months ago as Music Director with a backlog of hundreds of CD’s in tubs from the last few years to go through. And what he had been saying struck me with the force of a truckload of hogs sideswiping a beer truck.
Or should I say, with the placidity of a marshmallow feather duster.
Twee! It’s just all so twee, so precious, so limp, so fainthearted, emotionally vague and just out and out wishy-washy. I kind of noticed this from a distance when I would hear certain DJs, intelligent people in their mid-twenties, spinning discs. The music seemed to have no definite emotion, no solid major or minor chords, and lots of smirk, ironic gestures. I chalked it up to the various tastes of the DJs. I went on listening to the Ukrainians, Gogol Bordello, Françoiz Breut, Radúza and the Warsaw Village Band. Astounding stuff was coming through a modified, punkified European sensibility.
And yeah there have been great bands beaming through the American Tower of Internet Babel on occasion: White Stripes was a stand out and now they’re history. The Decemberists aren’t too shabby. In England Imogen Heap has only gone from strength to strength. And, thanks to the likes of Lady Gaga or Die Antwoordt, the dance world seems to be becoming even more artificial and alien, which has it’s own repulsion/fascination as new anti-definitions of humanity are generated like a Twinkies conveyor belt in a post-Britney meltdown world. (Don’t think about that too long.)
Meanwhile the people responsible for being at the cutting edge seem to have disposable plastic forks. As I have sampled album after album, I keep waiting for something to hit me: the Zeitgeist, new forms of rebellion, cries from the heart, good music. Well musically these people can play. Suddenly it’s the 60’s, 70’s. 80’s, 90’s again. A beat might engage me, a nice bass line, the guitar comes in … then comes the vocals. And it’s pretty much over. It all feels so empty to me.
I was debating making a list of the names of the groups I’ve listened to… but why? Why prod folks to waste their time looking for this stuff to see if I’m right in my assessment. Occasionally I’ll hit something that engages me, yesterday it was the Twilight Singers, but even the more popular bands of the day like the Decemberists or the Black Keys have a kind of anemia to them, even at their best.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to Alina Simone or Yanka Dyagileva lately and I get tired of hearing people sing without actual passion after getting a straight injection of the real thing. No wonder Eugene Hutz’ Gogol Bordello is one of the bigger concert draws these days. I don’t agree with the libertine side of his ideas, but I know I could sit down and have a real freewheeling intelligent non-politically correct discussion with him. And he puts his guts out there on the line in his shows. The danger is that he becomes merely a symbol for that sort of thing over time. But so far he’s in no danger of doing so.
Meanwhile back in America we have a generation that I believe is afraid to really to think, to believe, to show courage. The history of music in the 20th Century helped bring us to the place. The various musical conflagrations of the last 50 years were truly a kind of war. Music helped to turn peoples perceptions inside out. And in many cultures it is still doing so. The Arabs are discovering rock as one incentive to the new thoughts inspiring pro-Democracy upheavals. Rap music has been adopted by nearly every group that sees itself as oppressed in some manner. But back in the west it all is a burned out zone.
Dissonant and Atonal Classical Music, Modern Jazz, Free Jazz, Rock and Roll, Folk Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Metal, Punk, New Wave, Funk, Rap, Disco, Techno, Electronica, Grunge, Alternative, Goth, Industrial, Noise the list goes on and on: These styles all contain varying degrees of modernist alienation and ironically a cri du coeur against it at the same time.
But after the desperate failure of the Sixties, then later Punk, and the deaths of so many musicians to drugs and despair, culminating in the shattering shotgun blast of Kurt Cobain’s desolation and the commodification of every ounce of rebellious noise imaginable, the reaction in the late 90’s was twofold.
The most obvious late 90’s track was to commercialize the angst of the early part of the decade; see “Alternative”, see Marilyn Manson, who is nothing if not a compendium of underground spite being sold on the largest record company on earth, see Nu-Metal (the style) or Insane Clown Posse (the act).
But the other track is what we call ‘Indie’, which no longer meant something put out independently. Indie became a sort of familial reaction to both commercialization of the early part of the 90’s and reaction to the loud howl of sound and fury signifying nothing much. And so bands in this line turned inward, while retaining certain aspects of the Alternative scene. So bands still played with noise, but now it was washes of spectral sound rather than and all out assault. Some instrumental bands were even dubbed Post-rock: Tortoise is a prime example. The line from Pavement, Guided By Voices, Slint, Neutral Milk Hotel, Palace (Will Oldham), Elliott Smith, Pedro the Lion, Eels, Iron and Wine, Sigur Ros, all vital music, eventually lead to the mood that pervades the music world today. What seemed almost like an elegy for the hopes of the 20th Century has slowly mutated into something that just seems like cowardice and resignation. It has diminished into the twee.
I know that is not the end of the story. But one thing is clear to me. The concept of rock as a force for societal change, for some oft dreamed revolution (Hutz not withstanding), as a spearhead to a new world is dead and buried. The next wave will have to come from another source. And hopefully without the same cargo of ideas that lead us to this destination.
Sometimes it seems that we live under the illusion that what is, what exists right now, is pretty much the way things have always been. Our movies help us to believe this prestidigitation. We see some contemporary actor in a historical setting and we automatically assume something like, “Right. That is how it would have been.” And of course what we now consider to be heroic prevails: usually someone fighting for the right to pursue their deepest desires against forces of containment and repression and to naturally in some way come out of it victorious. There is always the temptation to believe that we have at last come to pinnacle of history, or even better evolution, and can now look back at the miserable past with the confidence that at least we don’t have to live in that slop anymore.
Or perhaps we can imagine a Romantic epoch where the knights and princesses of old would be as clever and cynical as we are now and still, while eating our cake yet still possessing it, get to have all of the old trappings of royalty and nobility. The distant heroes in our fictional myths are always the people we would believe to be the hero now, in this quicksilver moment; the princess who understands medieval politics from a contemporary post-feminist perspective, the boy who fights to be himself no matter what others may think, the decadent aesthete who, while drenched in delicious vice and squalor, is far more admirable than the hypocritical religious folk who look down their self-righteous noses at him.
And so it is possible to both imagine the darkness of the past to be now safely behind us and paradoxically to feel that had we lived back then we would have changed everything, we would never have given into the blindness of that age.
And indeed every era does have a blindness to it, especially our own. And while it is impossible to entirely escape all of our ‘sightlessness’ nevertheless we can actually use the past to call into question the blindness of our times. Things that seem obviously self-evident to us at this moment can be called into question by using the past as a measure of the present, much as we measure the past by our current beliefs
Here are a couple of examples: People today take it for granted that there has always been music that expresses existential anger or rage. Punk, Metal, forms of Industrial or Rap often specialize in this kind of expression. But I can tell you this with certainty, prior to say Iggy Pop or the Sex Pistols,depending on how you reckon the origins of Punk rock, there was never such a thing in music… anywhere: no tribes in Africa or on the Amazon, no Jazz nor Pop, no obscure Russian folk styles. There were tribes who might use music to stoke the warriors for war. But it was not the bellowing inarticulate rage of the postpunk world. There was no sense of bewildering aimless raging loss. (Feel free to challenge me on this.)
Or take another example: It is easy to think that cuteness is an eternal concept; that people have always looked at creatures with big eyes and said “Awwww how cute!” But again, the concept really isn’t that old. The word ‘cute’ in English hardly goes back two hundred years and then it was closer to the word ‘acute’. ‘Cute’ in contemporary usage means something more akin to ‘baby-like’. And what am I doing even suggesting that there is something off with ‘baby-likeness’? I’m sure there are a few people who might read this who are already wondering why I’m even going on about the word. But that is exactly the point. ‘Cute’ things are beyond the pale of discussion. It’s like questioning a baby. What sort of sick monster would suggest there’s anything wrong with a baby? And I’m sure the Disney Corporation came to exactly that conclusion when they changed Mickey Mouse from looking like a rodent to looking baby-like by giving him a round head and huge eyes. And my what big eyes so many cartoon characters have! The better to smuggle ideas in with!
Disney stands in a preeminent position here in raiding the past and changing it. Starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and moving on through much of their oeuvre they have consistently deformed the past by making it both a wonder land and a commodity. It’s hard to convince many people today of how brutal many fairytales were in the past before being bowdlerized by Walt and company. Read the original Grimm’s Brothers. But then again those fairy tales came before the concept of ‘family friendly’ entertainment. Many folks today, of many religious and agnostic stripes, simply give all ‘family entertainment’ a free pass because, well, it’s just so ‘cute’. Never mind that some of the propaganda concepts buried within them are amongst the most self-serving and selfish that could possibly be imagined. The message can often be summarized as, “You can be whatever you choose to be.” Or “Don’t let anyone ever tell you ‘No’ ”. But has anyone in the past ever had such messages so relentlessly driven down the gullets of their young?
The answer would be no. Those old fairytales did more than just warn you about the dangers of the forest. They told you that life had darkness in it. And that in order to get through the dark forest, you’d better not leave something as silly as bread crumbs.
The past was truly different than the present. The people living there, while subject to the same lust, greed, envy and pride as we all are, did not have the same outlook on the world that we do. Jane Austen was not a contemporary woman just waiting for the 21st Century so that she could escape the 19th. No one had a ‘geeky’ ‘fanboy’ mentality about anything collectable prior to somewhere in the late 20th Century. We folks today are far more self-conscious than anyone ever has been in the past, thanks to all of the equipment we have for recording voice and image. And it is quite possible to see that not that long ago people had a fuller understanding of how to make music than we do. There were people who knew how to eat together, how to hold discussions, how to make shoes. These things are often lost or problematic to us.
In the last very few years things have already disappeared that once seemed like part of human nature. Whatever happened to letter writing? Serious book learning is imperiled in many quarters. The relationship to music is changing yet again as people enter a sort of record and erase mentality. CDs, interestingly enough, will probably die out, but in a rare streak of good news the vinyl LP will probably survive as a kind of specialty artifact.
For me the thing to keep in mind in all of the chaos of rapid change is that the past can come to our aid in helping to both measure what is lost and to strengthen the good things that remain and inspire us to experiment anew. Maybe dinnertime has become a media feeding frenzy for you and yours. But with a little thought and a few simple rules you can probably bring good discussion back to your table. Maybe you live now in a highly distractible world. Well turn the stuff off and read an actual book. There are dozens of ways to begin to reclaim human existence from the swirl of technology and the bloated media illusion.
But first an foremost I would suggest that you turn off the drone of the present on occasion and discover that the past is a country with rights of its own and it has words for us that we would do well to heed.
I will let C.S. Lewis have the last word from his essay entitled: On the Reading of Old Books
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”
And a little further on he writes…
“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”
It’s a Russian word, samizdat. Sam = “self, by oneself” and izdat is from, izdatel’stvo, = “publishing house”, so roughly samizdat means “self-published.”
Writings prohibited by the all seeing eye of the Soviet state were clandestinely passed around often at great risk to the copyists and readers. Those taking on the task of reproduction worked without reward in a laborious fashion. They typed whole books out with perhaps a sheet of carbon paper for duplications. Sometimes whole manuscripts were copied by hand! There were no copy machines in the 1950’s, no faxes, no one was cutting and pasting. It was done for one reason alone: Someone else has to read this! The truth has to be told. This forbidden poetry (poetry was highly suspect) must be seen. This novel is worth reading. That’s how Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago was read. That’s how Bulgakov and Brodsky found an audience. That’s how foreign works were smuggled into the country. Eventually slightly more sophisticated methods were used: surreptitious printing machinery, copy machines and even computers were used for duplication by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
There is another interesting category of samizdat: magnitizdat, things copied onto magnetic tape, which would include lectures, poetry and above all music. And actually this proved to be a bit of an Achilles heel to the vast Soviet state. The Communists cracked down hard on any means of paper reproduction with stiff penalties. But since every citizen could own a reel-to-reel tape recorder much was passed around this way; especially all of that rock music being churned out by the decadent West. And Russians could be ingenious about how they smuggled in their music. Eugene Hutz, of Gogol Bordello, talks of “music on the bones”, recordings transferred from magnitizdat to plastic x-ray plates with holes punched in the center to play on record players. The legendary Vladimir Vysotsky’s gravel soaked voice was disseminated mostly by cassette. Although he is considered the greatest Russian singer/songwriter of the late communist era he was never allowed by the Melodiya machine to make a full-length album in his lifetime. Yet when he died in Moscow in 1980 his funeral was a major event. People left the Moscow Olympics to attend his funeral. An older Russian man in New York City once told me of the tens of thousands of people who lined the streets such to get a view of his coffin. Not bad for a man who had to wait until the Gorbachev years to get an album released in the U.S.S.R. A similar even more haunting tale surrounds folk punk singer Yanka Dyagileva, who died tragically at the age of 23 in the 1991, the last second of the old Soviet Union, leaving behind a small, poorly recorded body of work that puts to shame much of the music spit out by the world music industry since then. (I’m going to devote much more time to Yanka in the near future.)
It sounds a bit like the Punk idea of Do-It-Yourself. And while there are several crucial similarities I would point out some very serious differences. Samizdat functioned as a means to hear forbidden truth. The government was actively involved in squashing the literature involved and at times the music.
The work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a good case in point. After an accidental breach of the Stalinist wall during Khrushchev’s all too brief thaw, that allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in 1961, the book was quickly allowed to go out of print. It then was strictly a samizdat production as were the rest of his novels. So fearful were the Soviets of Solzhenitsyn that anyone merely possessing a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, his massive literary expose of the gulag system, was guilty of a grave offense. Only Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize saved him from another lengthy nightmare in the camps, but not from being booted out of the country. As Walker Percy once remarked, modern Western writers would kill to have their literature taken that seriously.
The D.I.Y. aesthetic of Punk and the Alternative culture of the late 80’s and early 90’s never produced anything so perceptive or piercing. The D.I.Y. scenesters were desperate to have their obsessions and fixations cause some kind of upheaval. But, no matter the provocation, the rants and raves of the alternative world did not cause the commercial and political authorities to tremble. They either ignored them or co-opted them. Interestingly many of the current crops of cutting edge television series are now being written by screenwriters who spent much of the early 90’s pickled in the alternative scene. In the late 80’s early 90’s zines and alternative comics flourished.For a little while there was a modicum of inquisitive life through these channels. Yet what seemed transgressive then now seems commercial. The crude little cut and paste zine featuring badly photocopied photos of rock bands or serial killers has now turn into a stale looking website. The countercultural dream has largely dissipated and isn’t coming back.
And yet it seems that in this postmillennial culture, so addicted to the virtual, some kind of samizdat is required. It is quite clear by now, however, that the old countercultural line running from the Beats through Techno Raves, including pretty much every anti-mainstream trend since the 60’s, has truly failed. But that doesn’t mean that that no counterculture can now exist. It just means that the moribund ingredients that caused the failure of those movements need to be placed in the sociological coroner’s office and dissected to note the pathological elements.
Certain features stand out immediately and certainly should be examined in much more detail later. Top of list is the entire emphasis on intuition and instinct; usually most cheaply stated in the idea to follow your heart, be yourself, follow your dreams. The number of songs and movies containing these sentiments and their kin are legion, innumerable. This road leads straight into the maw of the commercial establishment. This is an underlying tendency that dooms every anti-authoritarian movement to end up as the consumer software to the hardware of mainstream culture. This first occurred to me when I visited a Sex Pistols exhibit in a small New York City museum about 1990 or later the Gap ads featuring Jack Kerouac or the way any death metal song can be used as background music for promos advertising Monday Night Football.
If there is to be a new samizdat that goes against the current in a truly anadromous fashion it can’t be anti-intellectual. Brains have to start working again. Real dialogue has to be reengaged. In order to interrogate the coming society it won’t do to make a big loud angry noise. Noise is the nature of the beast. But it will certainly be essential to understand the chaotic sounds of our recent past. It will also be much more imperative to study history; learn a foreign language; to recognize how propaganda works; to use the aspects of past cultures and countercultures that can be applied in a wise manner. (Wisdom; now there’s a word you don’t here in popular culture much anymore.)
We can understand then what a samizdat for our spewing dervish of an age might be if we go back to the samizdat of that antique Iron Curtain. There are lessons there. Might I suggest thumbing through a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to the chapter called The Ascent and starting there?
“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…a small unuprooted corner of evil.”