Friday, December 27, 2013
DURING THE HOLIDAYS the online literary journal The Awl tweeted out the link to an essay they’d republished on 12/23/2013, “When Alan Met Ayn,” by Maria Bustillos. It was originally published 4/12/2011. The Awl’s editors apparently believe the essay is one of the best things they’ve published, or they wouldn’t still be hyping it.
The essay caught my interest for a couple of reasons.
First, because it’s by Ms. Bustillos. Maria Bustillos is a fan of Tom Bissell’s book of essays, Magic Hours. When the book came out she gave it a glowing review, and applauded in particular his hatchet man essay on the Underground Literary Alliance. She appreciated a cheap shot Bissell took in the essay at me and an underground writer. (More about that in another post.)
Second, I noted obvious intellectual dishonesty in the Bustillos essay. I’m not an Objectivist—then again, one never knows—and I disagree with the Ayn Rand philosophy on several points. At the same time it’s obvious to me that the established literary community has long tried to marginalize Rand and her writings—her achievements—as if they weren’t after all part of American literary history. As if they should preferably be banned from it; in the same way that same establishment has banned mention of the ULA. (In Rand’s case, it’s tough to ignore massive sales figures.) The Bustillos rant against Rand strikes me as yet another attempt to conform and homogenize American literature, to pare from it unacceptable styles and ideas.
What struck me in the essay as most misleading:
Where do I begin? Probably with Bustillos’ most fraudulent claim, that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was an Objectivist. You’ll have to read the passages in her essay yourself to see if Bustillos means this tongue-in-cheek. Her reasoning seems to be that Stalin was an egotist; Ayn Rand lauded egotists; therefore Stalin subscribed to Rand’s philosophy. This is twisted logic, but I find it used often in mainstream essays. It’s like saying that because all Spartans are soldiers, all soldiers are Spartans. Such backward logic throws over the bounds of sense. It allows the commentator to say just about anything.
Her bringing Stalin into the conversation struck me, because it’s the same game that was played by Tom Bissell in his essay on the ULA. Characterize your opponent as the worst kind of historical person imaginable, using the flimsiest thread of sense to do so.
In Bissell’s case, he characterized the Do-It-Yourself working class writers of the ULA as Bolsheviks, though our philosophy was the polar opposite of what the Bolsheviks advocated and practiced. The comparison was made and gotten away with likely only because we were, in the main, working class.
The Rand/Stalin comparison Bustillos makes is more ludicrous. What Stalin was, indisputably, was a Marxist-Leninist. His commitment to the ideology was lifelong. His actions were justified by the ideology. As Bustillos indicates, Ayn Rand’s family was dispossessed by the Bolshevik revolutionaries. Bustillos passes over this lightly—yet it’s the best explanation available for the extremism of Rand’s own ideas. Her philosophy, in its every tenet or novelistic character, was a reaction to what she’d experienced.
Stalin and his buds eliminated not just the wealthy. Anarchists were among the first to be silenced. With studied Marxist-Leninist rigor, millions of Ukrainian Kulaks—modestly wealthy peasants—were wiped out. Through his entire life, following the proper ideological maxims, Stalin sacrificed his people again and again to the interest of the all-powerful state.
Stalin was no Ayn Rand-style individualist. He rose to power as a member of a collective. He operated through his career as member of a collective. Stalin did what he did, in his mind, for the good of the collective.
A case can be made that Stalin wasn’t even much of an egotist. Churchill’s memoirs and those of others; descriptions of Stalin at conferences like Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam; show him to be in personality modest and self-effacing. Rather quiet. A good observer and listener.
We know he lived a modest, even Spartan lifestyle; usually in a small apartment or office in the Kremlin. His technique was that of power behind the scenes. A puppetmaster pulling strings. (As he did during the show trials; unobserved except as the red tip of a cigar behind an enormous screen.) For a long part of his tenure he allowed others to be front man head of state. Sure, he created a cult of personality about himself. He did this first with his mentor Lenin. In his shrewdness Stalin saw that the Russian people needed a god. Unlike Hitler, Stalin was not the kind of megalomaniacal dictator who required the adulation of his people. Famously, Stalin hid from the Russian people.
Stalin’s career stands almost as the triumph of a non-egotist. In person he was the most quiet and humble of the early Bolsheviks—which is why they trusted him and gave him power. His ascension over the vastly more dynamic, charismatic, and egotistical Trotsky was a victory of the quintessential bureaucrat. Of the Machine.
The man known as Joseph Stalin was skilled at handling individualistic egotists, as he showed at Yalta with his skillful negotiations with two men who had two of the largest egos in history, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Was FDR an Objectivist?
By Bustillos’ definition, everyone short of Gandhi and Mother Theresa can be classified as an Objectivist. Given their fame, we may as well lump those two into the category as well.
What of the rest of the Maria Bustillos essay?
Look at it closely and you’ll see it’s filled with distortions. The argument against Alan Greenspan, and the connection between Greenspan and Ayn Rand, is jerry-rigged.
Yes, Greenspan was a core follower of Rand’s. But when he took the Fed job, after Ayn Rand’s death, Alan Greenspan, in Objectivist eyes, joined the camp of the enemy. Objectivists are a species of libertarian. Like all libertarians, they seek the elimination of the Federal Reserve System. A tops-down all-controlling central bank is anathema to them. They see it as a Communistic triumph—not least because the establishment of a central bank is plank#5 of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Are not Maria Bustillos and the Awl editors aware of this? This alone discredits the essay’s argument.
One can see why Greenspan took the job—aside from abandoning, as others have done (see George Saunders) many of his youthful beliefs. He might’ve thought that by being inside the Beast, he could moderate its effects. There’s no doubt that if Ayn Rand were alive she would’ve banished him from the Objectivist community—and done it with style. Any economic collapse taking place during his watch would’ve been Greenspan’s just desserts, in her eyes.
But the collapse didn’t take place during his tenure. A financial panic did occur, but not the one in 2008. The stock market collapsed in 1987. Greenspan—and the Reagan administration—quickly limited the damage, and in short time put the Machine back on its feet; operating smoothly. It’s kind of unfair, don’t you think?, for Greenspan, having successfully battled the contradictions and inefficiencies of his own time, to be blamed for the failures of a later date.
Another problem with Bustillos’ argument is that she confuses monetary and fiscal policy. They are two different things. Greenspan may have wanted more deregulation—but he was in charge solely of monetary policy. He was answerable to Congress, and the President, for that. They weren’t answerable to him. Regulation is the domain of law and the enforcement of law. This is handled by Congress and the President. Not by the Fed chairman.
Bustillos uses several out-of-context quotes from Greenspan’s testimony before Congress, when he, like a lot of players, was called to answer for the 2008 fiasco. The fact remains that his only influence on the financial markets was as advisor and cheerleader. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is responsible for regulating the markets. The SEC is a creation of Congress and is answerable to Congress—not to the Fed chairman. Much of what the Congress did with their hearings (as with most congressional hearings) was for show. To evade their own responsibility in the matter. Or: politics, providing fodder for advocate commentators like Maria Bustillos.
As for what caused the 2008 collapse, there’s likely enough blame to go around on all sides, in both parties. An, er, “objective” journalist would see this. The creation of financial and economic bubbles might be instrinsic to the mega-Capitalist system we live in. How you handle them is as important as avoiding them. In both respects, the guy you’d want involved, in at least part of it, would be someone as famously tight as Mr. Greenspan. He did keep the massive bloated machine operating for twenty years, with all its dysfunctions, contradictions, and inefficiencies. No mean feat.
I wonder if Maria Bustillos and The Awl editors are as concerned about new financial bubbles being created, through the massive amounts of money—created out of thin air—currently being pumped into the Fed system. Do they care? Are they aware it’s happening?
Another point of Maria Bustillos’ attack is her condemnation of Wall Street. Of so much wealth being funnelled to so few, and at that, those who create nothing themselves, but merely manipulate paper—or numbers on computer screens.
Here again, Maria Bustillos is being unfair, this time to Ayn Rand, who would condemn the crony capitalist manipulators of financial instruments on Wall Street. In both of her big novels, Ayn Rand’s strongest scorn is for that affluent and well-connected layer of “parasites” who suck wealth from the system. Rand lauds instead the producers, the manufacturers, the designers—the actual creators of marketable products. Don’t take my word for it. Read the novels. See for yourself.
No, Maria Bustillos, like her friend Tom Bissell, isn’t a fair-minded journalist. Like so many other of her peers, she’s a propagandist. The objective is to construct a distorted straw man of your opponent so you can knock it down. The troubling aspect is that her mishmash of inept thought and misrepresentation is taken for legitimate journalism. At least when Ayn Rand put her propaganda onto the pages of novels, she made it coherent and compelling.
Is Maria Bustillos an Objectivist, or a Marxist?
Likely she’s a little of both. But chiefly, Bissell and Bustillos are fashionable liberals who believe in little of nothing. They like the idea of changing this nation’s hierarchies—or of being perceived as liking the idea. They just don’t want to change the hierarchy they work in.
We live in an Age of Propaganda. A time when slanted opinions come at the reader or viewer from every direction. A time when being “well-educated” means having a superficial knowledge of subjects—as Bustillos has—having done some reading or research in the areas one proposes to write about, but (like Tom Bissell with the ULA) having no knowledge in depth. The glibness and facile ethics of the propagandists, and the ignorance of their audience, allows them to get away with it.
And so the essayist can belch up, from his-or-her depths, like a stage medium in performance, a long rant which connects with the prejudices of their readership, and at the same time is plausible enough to be believed by that scantly educated “educated” readership.
There are reasons, beyond those of ideology and politics, why Ayn Rand has been universally hated (hated not too strong a word) by the established literary community. This, despite her feminism. Despite the reality that most who inhabit the literary scene are not models of altruism, but are instead hugely ambitious, egoistic, often supremely selfish individuals.
That’s one of the reasons right there. Rand’s naked celebration of the artistic ego is too blatant. It conflicts not with the reality of these people, but their adopted face.
The other reason may lie in Ayn Rand’s attacks on artistic cronyism in The Fountainhead. Her depiction of literary dilettantes and fakes. Her satirical scenes are perhaps too close to the way the literary scene operates.
In her essay, Maria Bustillos refers to the gap in the Soviet Union between nomenklatura and the population as if it were Stalin’s doing, and not a natural process inevitable to Marxism; to any attempt to impose upon a people a tops-down controlling state. The inevitable rise of bureaucracy. The unavoidable proliferation of bureaucrats wielding maximum authority.
Isn’t a nomenklatura the affliction of American literature today? To have standing to speak on literary subjects one should be certified; legitimized by academies, or by gates and gatekeepers. The literary herd operates as a unit, intolerant of unfamiliar ideas. It’s a mindset the Underground Literary Alliance fought against. A mindset embodied in Tom Bissell and Maria Bustillos.
Bissell made his career by accommodating powerful literary individuals such as Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers. From his days as an intern at Harpers he played the cronyistic game, and has never stopped playing it.
Maria Bustillos, advocate of the downtrodden, was fine with Bissell taking cheap shots at the renegade writers of the ULA. Her own contradictions and the contradictions in today’s literary scene don’t matter to her. Power matters. The Believer/McSweeney’s empire, narcissistic and individualistic to the max, with its own cult leader, is a center of literary power. Would Maria Bustillos mess with these people? I think not. You’ll see no critical essays from her or from anyone about them. So much safer to beat up on outcast American rebels—or on a long-dead American novelist—instead.
Friday, December 20, 2013
IF I’m to do anything again with literature—God knows why I’d want to—it would be with the Underground Literary Alliance name. Using it would be the only chance I or a project of mine would have to cut through the noise. There remains some brand equity in the name, due to its explosive reputation and its unparalleled history.
This, and my own proven abilities, are assets which could be used by alternative writers—or for any attempt to renew the scene. They would also be assets for ULA opponents. Let’s face it—the current literary scene is stale. Static. It defines the word stagnancy. The ULA throughout its history represented excitement; would be there to be used by the adventurous, if only in the role of villains!
Points that I’m pondering, in this downtrodden town—during my temporary visit—for the rats or the pigeons.
(Merry Christmas to one and all.)
Thursday, December 19, 2013
I see three related problems with the established literary scene.
1.) CONFORMISM. As I’ve oft stated, from top to bottom in American literature there’s a herd mentality. No one will publicly buck the status quo and advocate for change. Everyone is infected with “go-along-to-get-along” disease. No one will point out the corruption and cronyism that does exist in the scene. Everyone prefers to look the other way. You’ll find scarcely one person of courage and integrity. I know this from experience.
2.) BUBBLISM. Most of today’s young literati are hipsters. Many of them have congregated in Brooklyn, or in similar Hipstervilles around the country. I’ve noted in my encounters with this crowd, off-line and on, that they can’t handle disagreement. Few of them have experienced the give-and-take of no-holds-barred debate. They rely on premises, assumptions, assertions that to them are laws, because everyone in their world accepts them. This isn’t a healthy situation for any art or intellectual scene.
They’re in fact thousands of Bubble Boys from “Seinfeld,” who’ve carried their bubbles with them. Those they interact with at their hangouts look and think exactly like them.
If you study the hipster phenomenon, as one would a variety of animal, you see they’ve adopted protective coloration to try to blend in with their new urban environments. Note the beards and gritty working-class garb; the thrift shop affectations. Yet only the outer surface has changed. They’ve brought with them their gentrified upscale tastes—as seen in the new chic menus, designer beers, and upscale prices at bars and bistros which have sprung up or redesigned themselves to cater to them.
As it affects literature, there’s little chance of converting them to new ways of approaching the literary art, when everyone of them flees and blocks their mind from the slightest critique of what they see as wonderful and safe.
3.) INABILITY TO SEE REALITY. An example of this is the unquestioning believe in a pagan nature myth like global warming/climate change, which is a variation of Eve-eating-the-apple: mankind punished for its sins and hubris.
The inability to see reality applies to their art. An objective observer flipping through their literary flagship, The New Yorker, and glancing at the month’s enclosed story, should see immediately that this is a bad product; a poor entry point for readers to jump into the joys of fiction. Long paragraphs of dense prose, of hardly any dialogue or scene. (Like this blog post!) It’s as if the stories are created to be intentionally offputting to those not of the proper breeding. It’s no way to expand an art—in fact for the past several decades such stories produced by the thousands have narrowed it. Yet when you read the opinions of literati, high and low, in prestigious magazines or on on-line websites, these kind of literary stories are portrayed as tremendous achievements. Well, maybe they are—if one could read them. They’re terrible models, terrible examples of what the literary art at its best can achieve.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Ever watch a television commercial with the sound off? You become aware of how the ad is pure manipulation. Every shot is carefully planned. The laughing happy baby followed by a shot of an easily-gliding new car. Hundreds of hours of thought and expertise go into a one-minute advertisement. That one minute could be broken down into its constituent parts, to discover what effect is intended, and how that effect is arrived at.
The mainstream media, for all their supposed objectivity, create pure propaganda. The major outlets, from New York Times to Salon to Slate, do very much have a slant. Their journalists, in the mode of Tom Bissell, are hired for their ability to make the slant sound plausible. They’re not journalists. They’re propagandists.
Yesterday I noted a tweet from Slate regarding a business article by Matthew Yglesias. The tweet said, “Dividends are evil.” Not inefficient. Inanimate tool that they are, they’re “evil.” We’re not in the realm of economics, but religion. Agendas. Slants. The tweet’s author has apparently never read George Orwell on the topic of the corruption of language and thought. Or what the person read is long forgotten.
In view of the manipulation of TV commercials, what do we say about larger projects, like a two-hour motion picture? Is it propaganda? Does it manipulate the viewer?
Even a classic like “The Wizard of Oz,” as great a film as it is, is highly manipulative. Watch for the devices of plot, or the shots of Toto, or Auntie Em.
View a movie like “Jaws” with the sound off and you see shot after shot which manipulates you the observer to be properly thrilled, or concerned, or scared. To identify with the characters, or hate the shark.
To me, then, it’s ridiculous for purveyors of sadistic movies of no moral purpose other than engaging the senses in a kind of bloodlust—moviemakers like Quentin Tarantino for example—to claim their movies have no effect on members of the audience. Of course they have effect. We can only wonder or fear what that effect is.
If media didn’t mess with people’s heads, directing minds this way and that, there would be no television commercials; no billion-dollar industry catering to the manipulative whims of public service campaigns, politicians. and marketing departments.
Friday, December 13, 2013
MOST NOVELS take place solely on the surface. The author presents the thoughts of his conscious mind—but isn’t in touch with his own subconscious depths, let alone the irrational depth-expressions of society at large. Think Jonathan Franzen. What you see is what you get. At that, the conscious ideas of the man are embarrassingly shallow.
My two ebook novels, THE TOWER and THE MCSWEENEYS GANG, aren’t so much narratives as nightmares. The former in particular is filled with symbols, amid the plotting and expressions of characters’ thoughts.
The symbols are codes pointing the way into the subconscious mind. Markers. Read it and find out.
Monday, December 09, 2013
REFLECTIONS ON ANCIENT LITERARY HISTORY
THE THING TO KNOW concerning myself and any possible attempt to revive the Underground Literary Alliance is that the ULA exists within the culture in a kind of prison camp, surrounded by guards and watch towers. Not a physical camp, mind you, but a mental construction of one. The image of the ULA which exists within established literature’s mind is the creation of distorted narratives about us. No one can see the reality—or wants to see it.
Within the prison camp I exist as a Hannibal Lector figure. Confined to a straitjacket while strapped to a chair on an open concrete floor, observed by spotlights. The writer pariah, untouchable by the literary community. It’s an impossible situation, because the more you try to escape from the straitjacket, the crazier you seem.
I realized this over a year ago, when I attempted to counter gross distortions and lies about the ULA which were perpetuated by a republished essay about the organization. The essay was receiving glowing reviews from a score of reviewers—including in the New York Times—despite its inaccuracies. In the essay, the ULA’s grass roots DIYers are portrayed as would-be totalitarians, simply for wanting to have any kind of a voice in this hectic society. (The fate of the Underground Literary Alliance of course well proves who are the real totalitarians.)
As I contacted various editors to present the other (real) side of the story, I encountered in almost every instance a priori hostility. I knew none of these people, nor did they know me, but on the question of the ULA their minds were settled. The accepted narrative, false as it was, had become the hardened reality.
The conflict between the Underground Literary Alliance and the larger lit world was a difference of temperament and ideas. The warm morality of the ULA cause, our uninhibited freedom, versus the cold expediency of inflexible cultural conformity. Against indoctrinated system writers marching in lockstep and single file, there was and is no room for those who occasionally step out of line.
The flaw in the original ULA strategy was thinking that our actions and revelations would provoke the conscience of the greater literary community. We couldn’t comprehend that said animal has no conscience. That it’s an unthinking beast concerned only with its own survival.
If we play-acted as radicals, our opponents play-acted as persons of integrity.
The result was that we provoked the literati’s monstrous true face. We were quickly ostracized.
Banished! Which leaves me unable to aspire to any kind of a normal writer’s life. Should I begin any association with other writers, no matter how tame and innocuous, they would be tarred by the association. The paranoid fear of possible dissent existing within the established literary community would quickly again reach levels of hysteria. Anything we said would be received through a prism of mendacity and dishonesty.
Within the cultural straitjacket, then, my possible actions are constrained. The script has been written—”abandon all hope, ye who enter”—which means that if I’m to do anything it must be in the guise of the crazy. Extreme. Possible colleagues would have to be themselves outcasts, those with no possibility of being accepted themselves, for whatever reasons. It wouldn’t be the ULA which existed ten years ago, with its amateur theatrics and—when all was said and done—rather tame personalities. It would be the Underground Literary Alliance gone nuclear. With no quarter given, none would be asked. Balls to the wall writing and activism done on speed.
Not that this is going to happen. I’m simply saying that given the circumstances, the closed walls faced, it’s the only way of operating that could happen. A cultural scorched earth policy with intensity matching that of the ULA’s ruthless and unmovable enemies.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Alexander at Gordium in effect said, "Enough of this shit." He showed the boldness necessary to attempt the conquest of Persia, which at the time was civilization's status quo.
As I told moderate members of the Underground Literary Alliance ten years ago, there's no reforming a thoroughly corrupt, insular, stagnant literary system. The established lit world is as hierarchical and backward as was Darius's Persia. There's no correcting it. No baby steps. No carefully going along with literature's High Priests in hopes they'll give up a smidgen of power.
Only a complete break will do.
(Buy my ebook THE MCSWEENEYS GANG at Nook or Kindle. It's filled with pagan ghosts.)
Sunday, December 01, 2013
Will the Underground Literary Alliance ever return?
That thought popped briefly into my head—only briefly—after running into a former ULAer a couple weeks ago. Could the once-notorious literary organization come back? Should it?
Even the ULA’s opponents now must recognize that our arguments were right. The literary scene is as stagnant as ever. No controversy or excitement to be found anywhere. No contention. No new ideas. That the very uninteresting and unoriginal follow-the-status-quo Alice Munro won the Nobel confirms almost every point we made.
When I was directing the ULA, every move we made was exciting.
Likely, to bring the ULA back would require an entirely new team, with me overseeing it. I’d do little more than that—but I would do it. No one besides myself has the force of personality necessary to make the right amount of noise—nor a storehouse of tactics and polemics. One thing I still carry is my voice.
These are stray musings. The odds against such a move, such a restored movement, remain impossible.
One thing for certain: If the organization does come back, under new guise or old, this’ll be the last place where it will be announced!