Tag Archives: David foster Wallace

Tea With Chris: Life is Deaf

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: Jeet Heer’s fascinating Comics Journal series exploring race and comics (ethnic caricature was routine in early strips) considers Harold Gray, the relatively enlightened, otherwise reactionary creator of Little Orphan Annie. He also notes evidence that contemporary black readers identified with certain atypical comics – Krazy Kat most of all, natch,  but it wasn’t the only one: “In 1928 in Baltimore, there was a ‘Polly and Her Pals Club,’ where African-American dancers wore chic, flapper dresses in the manner of [Cliff] Sterrett’s heroine.”

Someone filmed a Disneyland band inexplicably playing “The Internationale.” Or perhaps it is explicable, since this happened in Paris.

And speaking of strangely compelling mash-ups…

Margaux: Transparent headed fish! – thanks to St. Charles.

Good luck female Walmart empolyees from all over the world.

Speaking of heroes,  QUESTIONS for AYAAN HIRSI ALI, “The Feminist”.

Speaking of religion, How Christian Were the Founders? Good article by Russell Shorto about America’s constitution and educational system. Scary! From Kathy Miller (a witness to curriculum choices, mostly? made in Texas, for American schools): “It is the most crazy-making thing to sit there and watch a dentist and an insurance salesman rewrite curriculum standards in science and history.”

I read a list of movie production names and their origins. I can’t remember where I read it, but the origins for Danny Boyle’s company’s name “Decibel” stuck with me. It comes from the expression “knock hard: life is deaf.” I think it originates with the surrealists.

Carl: This CLICK THE SQUARES thing has reached lots of people before but it only reached me this week, via this link, and then I traced it back here. Essentially you click the squares and suddenly you’re making little kalimba-meets-techno silly symphonies. Pay attention to the math=rhythm, bass=best rules, and try opening multiple screens so you can switch various loops on and off. It lacks a record function, which is both irritating and kind of Zen. You are your own Buddha machine.

Speaking of Buddha, the later works of David Foster Wallace in many ways explore the necessity of those dharmas of detachment and service, particularly as received through the American 12-step movement, but with his own literary spin. Since his tragic death two-and-a-half years ago, more and more information on the place of that movement, addiction and depression in his life has become public, but there has been some sense of decorum, of respecting the feelings of the great writer’s friends and family, and his own dignity. So I have deep feelings of ambivalence about this piece in The Awl, which does the kind of deep literary scholarship on the collection of Wallace’s annotated books and papers at the University of Texas at Austin that normally takes place a generation after a writer’s death, not more-or-less immediately.

The piece is quite beautifully written (even if self-consciously so in places) and it’s really valuable for noticing that Wallace treated popular self-help books with great interest and respect – an insight that I’ve gotten from a couple of the smartest people I know personally (with the same argument: it’s not like you’re the first person with these problems, so why not look at the things that have helped other people?), although I’ve had trouble bringing myself to apply it, in much the same way the Awl documents Wallace having when he first encountered 12-step with his own literary snobbery.

On the other hand, I am put off by the invasive speculations about his very-much-alive mother and other family business, based on stuff I kind of wish they hadn’t had access to at this point – although grateful for the observation that his mom’s book on English grammar is basically the genealogy of his style, including the phrase “howling fantods.” Proceed at your own discretion.

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Tea With Chris: Control

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: John Darnielle and Kathleen Hanna, two of my cultural heroes, spoke/performed at a rally for the threatened women’s-health organization Planned Parenthood. Until reading Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front this week, I hadn’t realized just how urgent riot grrrl was in its political moment: the Supreme Court decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992.

Abortion rights aren’t imperiled to the same extent now, but slashing funding for birth control and family-planning programs suggests that conservative congressmen (sic, sic, sic, typically) are less concerned with “life” than control over the female sexuality that generates it. As Hanna makes clear, the group they’re targeting saves people. Just ask an abortion provider.

Geoff “BLDGBLOG” Manaugh interviewed novelist China Mieville about architecture and urbanity, with predictably great results, but their best exchange might be the one knocking around allegory:

“I’m always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won’t be deliberate.

“But the point is, those riffs don’t reduce. There can be perfectly legitimate political readings and perfectly legitimate metaphoric resonances, but that doesn’t end the thing. That doesn’t foreclose it. The text is not in control. Certainly the writer is not in control of what the text can do—but neither, really, is the text itself.”

Marvel once decided to publish this comic where the Punisher was surgically transformed into a black man before reliving the Rodney King beating. Oh, the ’90s.

Carl: Fans of David Foster Wallace are going to have reasons to be a little less sad this spring (and then, one imagines, a little sadder still). The first sign is this previously unpublished story this week in The New Yorker, which will only make us more impatient to read The Pale King. Though part of me wants to wait as long as possible to do that.

All right, now. So, sure, there’s a fascinating aspect to Charlie Sheen’s toxic sheen, especially the sort of hyperbolic transcendentalist poetry that is coming out of his mouth. But he’s still a misogynist, woman-beating, probably racist scumbag who’s never done anything to warrant all the attention. John Galliano at least has made some things worth looking at. But Cintra Wilson, swoon-worthily, gets the lesson right:

“In the lack of a dialogue about political economy and its effects on individual psyches, capitalist nations instead indulge the delusion that these things are unrelated. We are tacitly encouraged, as a society, not to see corruption as the product of elitism and power — not class-related, in other words — but accidental every time, a result of the personal weakness of the powerful individual, who we are encouraged to view as an aberration — mentally ill, an addict — an exception to the rule, rather than the norm.

“The super-rich are so over-engorged, so coddled, so disgusted with themselves, they are turning into demons, because they have lost all touch with reality and all faith in the boundaries of a sane world. And when tyrants and stars, nation-states and classes believe they are Nietzschean ubermenschen, beyond good and evil, there is, quite frequently, a body count.”

I’m reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids right now, which is a wonderful memoir, moving on every page, and it really makes you wonder how we get suckered into thinking about dickheads like Charlie Sheen when we could be thinking about Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith.

Because, sorry, Charlie, but this is what tiger blood really looks like:

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Mary Margaret O’Hara at Pop Montreal, Oct. 3, 2010

by Carl Wilson

Sometimes people speak of the “physical genius” of an athlete such as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky or Roger Federer – the way what they do, in the bugged-out eyes of self-consciously-more-mortal players and spectators, can seem beyond not just rational understanding but even instinctive possibility.

Malcolm Gladwell tried to define it as some kind of combination of practice and a certain breed of imagination, and David Foster Wallace more exquisitely wrote about “kinetic beauty” – “It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” And there certainly exists a parallel kind of performative genius in artists, which in cases such as Bruce Springsteen or Tina Turner bears a near relationship to that athletic quality, and in others such as Elvis or Prince a closer kinship to the preacher’s or shaman’s power. (And all of them, to contradict the great DFW for a moment, have plenty to do with sex and cultural norms – in fact, they’re a leading cause of both.)

But the most intense experiences of performative genius I’ve had, perhaps because of whatever kinetic handicaps I carry with me, tend to be of a slightly different stripe. I’d like to think that they would be equally universal if as many people could see them. On the other hand, most of the artists who bear this gift seem to become stuck in the “cult” category of the entertainment business, so maybe it’s not so. You might call it psycho-kinetic beauty, or Tourettic beauty: It’s a rendering of the mind-body problem without reconciliation but also without compromise. As if the mind and body were reversing their positions in the usual conflict, such that the body is thinking and the mind is dancing, or the body is writing a sonnet and the mind is having an orgasm.

Either way, it doesn’t exactly look like a person becoming more-than-normal, superhuman; it looks like a person becoming other-than-normal, extrahuman. With apologies to Wallace again, if any mode of human activity almost escapes sex and cultural norms, this would be my pick. Although that’s also what’s sexy about it.

David Thomas of the band Pere Ubu ranting and screeching; Ornette Coleman, his saxophone twittering not in musical notes but in the tongues of beasts; the Dutch band The Ex turning themselves into a collective star cluster or the bumps of a spine twisting in epileptic convulsion; Shane McGowan of the Pogues, his body wrecked, propped up against the mic stand like a sail hung on a mast or a patient on an IV stand, yet singing with the power of Prospero summoning a monsoon. Wherever it arises, when you’re in the room with it, you are very likely to feel that you are seeing the best performance that ever happened in the world.

As Wallace says of Federer, this quality doesn’t quite survive transmission or recording by other media; finding out why not, whether by science or phenomenology, would make a good dissertation (title it “The Federer Paradox”).

The answer may have something to do with the career path of Mary Margaret O’Hara, who was introduced almost rudely not long ago by CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi as someone who is perhaps less famous for what she’s achieved (primarily, the 1988 album Miss America, which regularly appears on lists of the best pop records ever made) than for what she hasn’t (mainly, getting famous, or making any more albums since then).

It obviously has to do as well with the music industry’s discomfort with her sort of unclassifiable gift, with Canada on a bunch of levels (as experienced from within, as perceived from outside) and with her own eccentricities: Until this week, partly due to missed chances but mainly because chances are scarce, I’d never seen her give a full-length concert. Only cameo appearances at other people’s shows, where she’d sometimes be stunning and other times stunned — seeming as if she was totally unprepared, hesitant to join in, derailed by the whole situation. On occasion she barely sings at all.

It might be, as my friend Michael likes to think, that she sizes up the situation rapidly and thinks, “There’s no music going on here, nothing for me to do.” It might be modesty and spectacular shyness. Or maybe she is just prone to confusion.

Even then, Michael might be kind of right: At her show in Montreal last weekend, the kind of unexpected treat-out-of-pop-legend-history that’s one of the Pop Montreal festival’s specialties, you could see that she’s less tuned out than overly tuned in. She would notice someone dropping their phone halfway back the hall. She would catch a word in the middle of her own sentence – whether singing or speaking – and start free-associating hilariously on it.

She would seem to notice a half-hoarse intonation in a note she’d sung and jump on it, twisting it into an actual horse braying and snorting, then seamlessly return to the groove or the melody she’d been teasing around the stage a moment before. Remember that her sister Catherine O’Hara is part of (one or two of) the past few decades’ most important clutch of improvisational comedians. This is that, as music.

And as comedy too. The hardest part of writing this is to explain how funny Mary Margaret is. Telling us we were a great audience, she mumbled, “You’re all so nice, you should be treated like baby seals.” (Petted? Clubbed? Eaten?) When there was a call-and-response bit on a chorus, and the audience, uncoached, failed to come in the very first time, she immediately sneered, “Losers.” You maybe just chuckled now. We gasped, we literally fell off of our plush little cabaret chairs. It was the mass and velocity of the gesture and verbiage that was coming at us, like tennis balls being fired by some out-of-control pitching machine, that was overwhelming.

It all happened by micro-instants. It was like Koyaanisqatsi or some other stop-motion photographic film, compared to the linear, zoom-in emotional arc of most performances. It was everywhere if it was anywhere. As Michael said, as soon as you can guess where she’s going, then she goes somewhere else. She was throwing away ideas and emotions as quickly as she generated them, and while it could read as careless it was actually rigorous: Why keep them? They’re already done!

But then she would freeze the strobe and simply sing the heaven out of some ballad, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or her own “Dear Darling,” in a way that made you reflexively think “Billie Holiday,” not because O’Hara’s voice sounds similarly but because you thought this must have been what it would like to be in some 1940s club hearing Holiday interpret every syllable and note with such extreme musicality, humanity and particularity. At times, with her tendency to reticence, O’Hara would call up a guest, and then ask them later to come up again, and they’d call out from the crowd, “Mary, I think people want to hear you sing.” We were always so grateful.

Aside from Miss America tracks and the few covers I knew, I couldn’t tell which songs were her own (and her collaborators’, guitarist Rusty McCarthy chief among them for more than three decades), because she’s in the league of the standards composers as a maker of melodies and lyrics. That element’s often downplayed when Miss America gets praised, just because her voice is so conspicuously out-of-ballpark. Let’s do hope, in defiance of all sense and reason, that these new ones make it to another record.

It was all like an inside-out version of how you feel reading a great novelist, the kind – Dostoevsky, Robert Musil – who implicitly tell you that laughter and weeping are one and the same because, as Andre Breton said, “Beauty will be convulsive if it is at all.” It makes nonsense of their separations into genres or even into “beats” in a drama – scenes are “light” and then “get dark.” The body knows in its spasms that light and dark are part of one thing, the flicker of reality.

There were calls toward the end, at the encore, for one of her best-known songs, “Body’s in Trouble.” She shrugged them off for her own reasons, but it is her manifesto, with its caressing but also battering rhythms and textures: not the reconciliation to having a body but the realization that the body’s will, its wisdom, its stubborn it-ness, means that “having” a body is not at all the right description – it has you, and that’s its problem.

Oh you just want to take somebody
Your body won’t let you
You just want to, want to hear somebody
And a body won’t let you
You just want to ride somebody
Oh a body won’t let you
Who do you talk who, who do you talk to?
Who do you talk to? Who?
When a body’s in trouble, a body’s in trouble
When a body’s in trouble, in trouble, in trouble
When a body’s in a trouble
Oh, when a body’s in trouble
Who who who do you talk to?
Oh who oh who oh

Some moments of Mary Margaret O’Hara – but remember Federer’s Paradox about reproducing kinetic beauty, much less the psycho-kinetic kind.

An early appearance with her first band, Songship – must be circa 1980? The host describes her, awkwardly but tellingly, as a “combination of a sex symbol and Howdy Doody.”

Classic performance of “When You Know Why You’re Happy” on Night Music, early 1980s.

The Body’s In Trouble video

A newer song

In 2007 at the Edmonton Folk Festival

At her annual Martian Awareness Ball (for St. Patrick’s Day) in Toronto

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Robin Hood (2010) – directed by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe

by Margaux Williamson

(My friend Lauren Bride invited me to the movies. She suggested “Robin Hood” or “Babies.” We decided on “Robin Hood” because it was summertime. At the theatre, when I saw Russell Crowe’s head on the poster, I was a little disappointed. He always plays the mightiest of virtuous white men, sort of like Doris Day but not as funny and more prone to unwanted and overly serious advice giving. I might have picked “Babies” had I known. How could such a can’t-play-anything-but-a-virtuous-man play Robin Hood? I also somehow made the mistake of picturing the time period being 1990s, and the stage, Hollywood – the time of Kevin Costner and well-laundered cloaks. So I was a little startled when the movie opened in the deep past. I think probably no one else was startled. Throughout the movie, Lauren and I whispered jokes to each other. When we walked home, we didn’t mention the movie. We talked about other things.)

I had no thoughts about this movie – other than an attempt at historical accuracy and a grittier aesthetic doesn’t add much to this big story that keeps collectively getting better (this movie excepted) 600 years after its origin. Also, it’s a war movie (?) starring a virtuous and victorious Russell Crowe (?).

But a month later, on an airplane, after reading an article on perceptual illusions, I fell asleep and had a dream that David Foster Wallace and Russell Crowe were on a panel together. Russell Crowe had his Robin Hood outfit on and his hat in his hands. He looked nervous. He had lost some weight and was finally sweating in all the wrong places. He kept looking at David Foster Wallace, and then, back at the audience. David Foster Wallace was relaxed and in jeans, looking out into the seated crowd. Neither of them were talking. The less they talked, the more nervous Russell Crowe got. Russell Crowe wanted to defend himself, to tell people he was a virtuous and good man, but no one was asking any questions. We all just sat there. It was different from that time I saw Russell Crowe on Oprah, when he gave her a book for her Oprah’s book club, “The Magus”.

If you really want to steal from the rich and give to the poor, it’s good to remember that your trial probably won’t come for a long time – if ever. You’ll have to be patient with being misunderstood, even by people you love. You may be glorified for the wrong reasons and disrespected at all the right parties. Understanding someone can take a very long time.

But it can be interesting to be misunderstood, and being misunderstood lets you be more flexible. Flexibility is important if you want to be an effective element in the big story rather than the respected author of your own story. It can be really fun to see how much one can affect the big story, becoming any character that proves most useful. And fun to observe what story we all begin to understand collectively.

When I woke up from my David Foster Wallace / Russell Crowe dream, there were a lot of people in line for the airplane washroom in the back and no one in line for the one in first class. A stewardess sent me back when I attempted to go to the one in first class, rolling her eyes at this move that had been tried a million times before. Sometimes it’s harder to change the big story than to be a hero of your own making.

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