Notes for Today (2)

Something has been bothering me for the past three or four years while stuck here in the bowels of Berlin. I have already accepted the fact that Berlin is incapable of making itself into a true cultural mecca because it doesn’t really know what the fuck “culture” really is. Actually it has a set idea of “culture”–spelled with a “K” and minus the “e” on the end–an idea set in stone and worshiped at special shrines throughout Berlin. You know–the Deutsche Oper or the Volksbuehne or some aging gallery where one can see what the greats of decades and centuries past once achieved. In other words, people here subconsciously (or even consciously) think that true cultural achievement, cultural greatness, is yesterday’s news. Today, we’re lead to believe that everything “cultural”–and not just in Berlin–is just fucking finger-painting, mental masturbation, funny clothes and house/techno/rap crap, or gypsy swing minus the soul, to say nothing of the swing, much less the funk.

But the thing that has me irritated is not so much this phony-assed Berlin art scene. One can easily write that off. In fact mocking Berlin’s shortcomings is easier than shooting fish in a fucking barrel. One can get so wrapped up in making fun of this place that one can forget a more pertinent question, which is: how in the hell are we–we being SERIOUS artists, and not hipster/poser assclowns–going to go about creating a new, living, distinctive and vibrant culture of the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?

And another question–exactly which culture? A national culture? Or an international culture–a TRUE international culture, as opposed to fake mass-manufactured “global” kitsch-culture designed by Sony and Seagram’s and imposed upon us?

I can’t answer that question right now, and won’t try to.

Instead I’ll just throw some ideas around. Most of them are scribbled from my notebooks.

First off: what the hell is “culture,” anyway? It’s funny that in the whole time I have been preoccupied in trying to redefine (in my own way) Afro-American culture and identity through my own art, I really haven’t taken time to define just what “culture” means. So I simply looked it up on Google and came up with this:

A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.

Well hell, if what we have now is a “culture” then we’re fucking finished as a species!! Everything has to be changed fundamentally. Practically nothing of what we are doing now in America (especially) should be passed down to the next generation. As an artist I am responsible for either changing or redefining the behaviors, beliefs, values and symbols of my own group of people–Americans, and not just Afro-Americans. (After all, the American majority is always dick-riding off the African minority.) These changes and re-definitions are done on paper, canvas and keyboard. As for the current cultural ugliness, one has to examine it closely from afar, in order to turn it upside down and inside out, and make it irrelevant.

  1. American architecture is UGLY. The street layout is UGLY. Everything about an American city–well, just about everything–screams cheap, makeshift, brutalist, inelegant, stupid and just fucking ugly. Like in some ex-commie country, everything is strictly functional in design with virtually no thought at all to beauty. Somebody should consider rebuilding ruined cities in America in a truly elegant and dignified way, like a medieval African, European or Asian city. But I guess that’s a tall order for an American city (outside of San Francisco).
  2. Speaking of behaviors: the current snarky, falsely ironic “hipster” pose has nothing whatsoever to do with the true “hipster,” who is a hep-cat and usually black. The old “hep-cat” had a hard-won cool and detachment if he didn’t get it through shooting smack (heroin). The detachment was necessary to not lose your cool in a society that was (and still is) always trying to grind you down into nothing.
  3. The same rule would apply today. Don’t get involved in mainstream shit if you are serious about making a 21st century culture. Culture is not about money. Cultural arbiters’ main goal is not to sell units–it is to help shape people’s minds and attitudes in such a way that is spiritually beneficial to them, individually and collectively…unlike these coons running around snapping at each other about the number of “units” 50 Cent sold in contrast to fat, greasy-ass Rick “Warden” Ross. Who fucking cares? I can’t listen to royalty statements!!
  4. The “mainstream” Kanye West/Pharrell Williams/Will.I.am stuff is not hip. When the mainstream co-opts something (duhh) it isn’t hip anymore–it’s square. You want something hip? Make it your goddamned self, and do it right. Be creative and put feeling into it. And as usual, you need to keep your eyes and ears open; you need to see things as they are and not the way you wish to see them. You have to do the hard work of looking past the gaudy curtain (re: Milan Kundera) and observe what is really going in America and the rest of the world. You need to know people and what makes them tick; don’t just assume you know them based on stupid stereotypes or hearsay.
  5. Of course if you don’t have any feeling or drive to do these things, you should get into a different line of work.
  6. American “art” music has already crossed a certain threshold, pushing it some ways beyond the limitations of European classicism and Romanticism. Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in spots merely hint at the possibilities of what Afro-Americans achieved in jazz and its predecessor ragtime. The trouble with American musicians is that, 9 times out of 10, they have no idea what they are doing with their own music; they don’t really know how to play it. And if they do, they simply cannot approach this music with the dignity and respect that this music (American classical music) demands. Even if they try to do so, they still fail, since true dignity, true respect and above all true feeling, is simply not in most American classical musicians. In other words, the American is psychically cut off from his own folk heritage.
  7. American singers, and the non-American bitches who cunt-ride off them, all sound more or less alike. Why is that?
  8. African American culture–I prefer Afro-American–has become outdated, parochial, stereotyped, and just plain corny. In its current attempts to be highbrow it becomes  ponderous and pretentious in the extreme; when it tries to “get back to the roots” or “to the people” (whom these black artists usually barely know; they barely know themselves) it becomes nasty, vulgar, insupportably stupid–a virtual parody of the worst sort of KKK fantasies about black people.
  9. The fucking “cultural nationalist” wants to go back to an Africa that exists only in his head. Let’s make one thing clear: Africa never was a wild jungle full of gorillas and spear-chucking negroes. It had empires stretching back thousands of years. We know that, or should know it. What we refuse to know is that these empires were just like all other empires the world over–that is, riddled with empire problems such as maintaining control over subject peoples, feudalism and other banal details. Most people could not read, let alone vote. We were not all “kings” and “queens”–most of us are descended from the subjects and slaves of those very same kings and queens. We don’t need to return to a feudal African empire where guys like myself would be condemned to being blacksmiths or shoemakers for life simply because I happened to be born of a blacksmith, or a shoemaker, or worse yet, a slave. (Note: in Ancient Egypt and Meroe, Medieval Mali and Renaissance Songhai or Kanem-Bornu (just to name a few empires), occupations were hereditary.)
  10. The block boy (or block boy middle-class wannabe*) wants to “keep it real” while not knowing a goddamned difference between what is truly Afro-American and what white liberal paternalists concocted and passed off as “black.” Naturally, Mr. Keep-it-Real prefers the white liberal fantasy of the Noble Savage which, no matter how noble it sounds, is simply not who or what he is. In fact white liberal fantasies about blackness are merely the flip side of what the KKK thinks about blackness, but Mr. Keep-it-Real is so embroiled in concealing just who he is and what he thinks about life that he might as well stay backstage and not torture us anymore with his confusion. Mr. Keep-it-Real wants to be ignorant, primitive, corrupt, base, BAD, because that’s what he thinks “blackness” is. He sees himself as the white man’s shadow and can’t function without him or knowledge of him.

To be continued…

 

The New Absurdism: the emergence of an American literary sensibility (or, don’t conceal the real)

Absurdism is not the cheap toilet-paper irony of white school children who have just learned to masturbate. Absurdism is rooted in a blues sensibility and a blues aesthetic. Once again, it must be made perfectly clear just what we mean when we define a “blues aesthetic” in neo-modernism and absurdism. It is not merely “singing the blues,” let alone wearing Ray-Ban sunshades and pork-pie hats and playing bad imitations of Son House. The “blues aesthetic,” for us, is rooted in an acknowledgement of our historical and contemporary struggles to stay afloat in a hostile universe. Fiction, like the Blues, is a vehicle by which we give expression to our anger, our sense of confusion and outrage; it is a vehicle by which we keep alive the “jagged edges” of the experience and by which, we transcend that experience, at least through art. To quote Elif Batuman in “Get A Real Degree,” her rebuttal of Mark McGurl’s defense of “program writing”:

At a certain point in the history of the novel, Jewishness, having ceased to be a merely comic or villainous attribute, had come to operate as a reality principle that exposed the machinery of social life. Swann’s way – the prosaic way of the narrator’s half-Jewish next-door neighbour – revealed the truth about the Guermantes way, and Jewishness became, to an extent, identifiable with the mechanism of the novel itself: the comic, slightly vulgar exposure of the world as a place where would-be knightly heroes have to eat, sleep and carry money…. To justify its perpetuation, the novel itself had somehow to become Jewish. Jewishness, which had once been a codeword for the changing of the times, came to represent a kind of tragedy that would never change, no matter how much time passed. (Italics mine)

As with us, the American and/or modern novel, if it is to exist, must become Black. Our fiction requires distillation, rejection of the academic aesthetic and creation of and/or appropriation of older techniques and aesthetics in expressing what is real to us: we, the so-called “marginalized,” whose thousands of deaths each year barely get an inch of space on some off-beat web-blog. It should be understood that the academies of the West, or even the non-West, are not going to take us seriously; they have trained themselves not to take us seriously, except when we function in the capacities they have created for us. And these capacities, of course, have nothing whatever to do with so-called “high” art.

We writers need to assess for ourselves what constitutes “high” art. How any form of art became “high” in the first place is cause for careful examination. Students of Dante Alighieri often forget that the Divine Comedy was written in what was considered a “low” language of 13th century Florence: Italian. Before Pushkin Russian literature, as a rule, did not exist; the Russian elite wrote and spoke in French. Russian was considered a “rude” language.

*

The African American is in more of a disadvantageous position than he or she realizes. The main disadvantage has less to do with the sorry state of the American publishing industry and more to do with actual matters of craft–or, to be more specific, matters of language. Each black American writer (providing he is serious, and not a hack) has to reinvent the American literary language in his or her own way. He must virtually reinvent the Black vernacular by reclaiming it, by taking it out of the hands of rednecks and clueless minstrel rappers. This is not an easy task. Much of the so-called Black vernacular defines African-Americans in ways that are just as trite, just as stale and stereotyped, as that of the dominant American vocabulary. (Which is tantamount to saying that no true Afro-American language really exists!!) Furthermore, the Vernacular itself often comes off as sounding really hackneyed–the whole “whassup, nigga” thing is more than just played out. Enough should be enough: it’s time to step outside of the narrow confines of the American and Afro-American vocabularies and at last give a true account of what it means to be black and American in the world today.

The African or Arab writer, by contrast, has it easier: armed with his or her own language, he or she is already in an advantaged position over the poor native black writer: the Ghanaian-American or Nigerian-American–unlike the native black–already speaks a language that does not define him as a nigger. This is not to say that African or Arab writers don’t have their own hurdles to jump over. The Nigerian novelist, by and large, writes in English, not in Edo, Yoruba or Hausa, nor in any of the dozens of languages of Nigeria. The “Arab” writer, who in reality is an Egyptian, a Yemeni or a Moroccan, writes in a language that virtually no Arab speaks anywhere in the world. This is tantamount to saying that Egyptian literature, for example, doesn’t really exist…

African-American literature doesn’t really exist, either: when Amiri Baraka proclaimed “Negro Literature” to be a “myth” he was not necessarily hyperbolic. There are a few examples but by and large, African American literature has been deformed by the expectations and demands of American publishing editors, almost exclusively white, who think they know what “black” writing is supposed to be like. “Black” literature has been largely tailored to the expectations of a reading public that wishes to see what it wants to see of Black America, and the end result is that there is a distinct unreality about most Black writing, as it is for Latino, Asian and Native American writing. (For white writers, the problem is virtually the same, save that ethnicity and race are more or less out of the question. There is a 180-degree difference between Raymond Carver in book form and Raymond Carver on manuscript. “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” was not written by Carver; it was written by Gordon Lish. Carver merely handed in the manuscript.)*

*

Today, in place of Absurdism, we have polite writers (largely white and upper-middle-class) who–to be concise–are in the business of concealing more about life on this planet than revealing it. To genuinely reveal anything in literature one must be willing to face reality: our inner reality, our true feelings and passions as well as the sorry state of the world outside of ourselves, outside of our neighborhoods, outside of our cities. Reality is often unpleasant and unnerving; it all to often provokes feelings which make us, in some form or another, extremely uncomfortable. Contemporary Anglo-American literature functions in much the same way as cutesy-poo cat designs on the panties of Japanese schoolgirls: cheap kitsch to conceal the real.

American literature does not exist. Maybe it had existed in the past, but it does not now. In order for American literature to exist the point-of-view must change; the cultural referents must be considerably broadened to take in the Asian as well as the African, the Latino as well as the Native American, the Jewish as well as the Arab, and so on and so forth. Meaning that from now on the American writer, if he or she is to be a writer, must have a lot more on the ball than before. No more of that cozy provincialism of the past decades, slumming in one’s own ethnic ghetto writing only of Puerto Ricans or Jamaicans or Italians or Jews or Jordanians. And no more of that phony inclusion, writing of Puerto Ricans, or African Americans, or Jews, or Irish, or Armenians, as mere gaudy novelistic decoration to make the book “colorful.” A thorough grounding in the concerns and problems of each group is necessary before any real American literature is to be written, and as always, the viewpoint must be that of an outsider, one who has rejected the national fantasies.

*I will make more personal observations on Raymond Carver later.