Orwell, Kafka and Us or, It’s All Part of Der Process

Back in 2008 Roger Cohen wrote the following in the New York Times – the same newspaper that declined to use the word “torture” as a matter of editorial policy:

Of the 770 detainees grabbed here and there and flown to Guantánamo, only 23 have ever been charged with a crime. Of the more than 500 so far released, many traumatized by those “enhanced” techniques, not one has received an apology or compensation for their season in hell. What they got on release was a single piece of paper from the American government. A U.S. official met one of the dozens of Afghans now released from Guantánamo and was so appalled by this document that he forwarded me a copy. Dated Oct. 7, 2006, it reads as follows:

 

“An Administrative Review Board has reviewed the information about you that was talked about at the meeting on 02 December 2005 and the deciding official in the United States has made a decision about what will happen to you. You will be sent to the country of Afghanistan. Your departure will occur as soon as possible.”

 

That’s it, the one and only record on paper of protracted U.S. incarceration: three sentences for four years of a young Afghan’s life, written in language Orwell would have recognized. We have “the deciding official,” not an officer, general or judge. We have “the information about you,” not allegations, or accusations, let alone charges. We have “a decision about what will happen to you,” not a judgment, ruling or verdict. This is the lexicon of totalitarianism. It is acutely embarrassing to the United States. That is why I am thankful above all that the next U.S. commander in chief is a constitutional lawyer. Nothing has been more damaging to the United States than the violation of the legal principles at the heart of the American idea.

 

This weekend, courtesy of The Guardian, we now understand the CIA coerced doctors into torturing suspected terrorists. More here.

Let’s face it, Orwell has become kind of a cliché. (No fault of his own; if the most sincere form of flattery is imitation, the most flattering form of sincerity is to have one’s ideas transmorgified into clichés.) It’s not just that Orwell was, in 1984, writing about a futuristic dystopia; he was describing parts of the world that already existed. The best science fiction, of course, has always anticipated the future by channeling the present. History is obliged to repeat itself because the human beings who make history do so in such a predictable, patterned fashion. And so, Orwell has the curious fate of being over-quoted and under-read: everyone knows what Orwellian means because they’ve already seen what it means (in movies, in the news). More importantly, everyone understands that the horrors Orwell depicted are passé; totalitarianism is so 20th Century. Except for the fact that it isn’t, and never was.

(It’s tempting to point out another immortal text, one that is arguably second only to 1984 in terms of ubiquity and the type of cultural resonance that is so often invoked and so seldom analyzed. Nevertheless, it’s all there in Conrad’s fin-de-siècle classic Heart of Darkness: the dehumanization, for political purposes and/or the expedience of power, of the Other; an “other” who is assigned this designation necessarily from a position of powerlessness (powerless to protect, powerless to define). The naked will of brute force for the ostensible purpose of “exterminating the brutes” invariably involves religion or money, but either way, it always involves a struggle for power. Sadly, few seem to have actually bothered reading Conrad’s novella, but everyone has seen Apocalypse Now, so it’s a wash.)

But there is an exposed nerve running from Conrad to Orwell that might be best explained by considering the two Russian masters who connected the dots in between them: Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov. The former’s novel We (1921) and the latter’s The Master and Margarita (commenced in 1928, completed in 1941) deal directly with the dehumanizing repercussions of totalitarian rule. Focusing more on the (very human) consequences of identity destruction and the suppression of self–a paramount objective of those in power, and a necessary condition of remaining in power–these novels are quite literally notes from the underground, infused with the verisimilitude of an insider’s experience. They lived it and they wrote about it.

 

Orwell took that torch of truth and continued onward even as the scope of Fascism cast an ever-enlarging shadow over other parts of other continents: again, his work resonates because he is depicting (then, and now) realities that anyone who has lived inside an autocratic regime can easily recognize. And as Americans, we quickly apprehend the causes and effects of totalitarianism because, our history books austerely inform us, we did much to eradicate them. And so we did. But it was well before 9/11 that certain segments of society (usually the dreaded leftist types who work in universities or for newspapers –or even worse, the ones who write fiction or poetry or music) perceived the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which even this most democratic society has at times unintentionally and at other times willfully revealed a dark heart that contradicts its own Constitution.

 

Here’s the thing: people have read Orwell even if they haven’t (because the author of Animal Farm is a de rigeur point of reference for any writer, particularly a politically oriented writer, who hopes to be taken seriously), and they’ve watched Conrad (or at least a sensationalized action-epic that delivers visually even if it severely lacks the scope or coherence of its inspiration), and few people have any interest in reading dead Russian writers not named Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky (and those that do are already ensconced in English graduate programs).

Fortunately, for better or worse, we nevertheless have an author (and text) that covers everything already mentioned (the fiction, the non-fiction, and the considerable overlap in between them both, otherwise known as History). The good news: his name is, if possible, even more incessantly invoked than Orwell’s. The bad news: even fewer people have actually read him. If that seems Kafkaesque, it’s because it is. Well, actually it isn’t; but that is the point: as an adjective, Kafkaesque is misused with greater abandon than Orwellian. Or, to put it slightly less pessimistically, it has been bludgeoned into submission. Put slightly more pretentiously, Kafkaesque awoke one morning from uneasy dreams it found itself transformed in its bed into a gigantic Cliché.

 

 

Listen: an unassuming citizen is informed, one day, that he is accused of a crime. He has committed no crimes that he is aware of, but that is all but irrelevant, since a description of the crime is not given. He spends the rest of his harried life making the futile attempt to exonerate himself or, short of that, have the specific charges explained to him. Immersed in a Byzantine maze that is at once inherently bureaucratic and at the same time nonsensical, his will slowly dissolves in this irrational paralysis. When, ultimately, he is executed, it comes almost as a relief. (That’s from The Trial, original German title, Der Process.)

 

Sound familiar?

 

Of course, it scarcely suffices to look at what we’ve wrought at Guantánamo and abroad and call it Orwellian or Kafkaesque. It is both of those, in equal measure, but it’s also something quite a bit more appalling. Partly because it’s true–this has actually happened; partly because we’ve done it before and claimed we would never do it again. Mostly because, while it was happening, there were actually people (quite a lot of them) who raised the alarm and found themselves scoffed at, or threatened. Some were actually disenfranchised; most were simply dismissed. Eventual (inevitable?) progress has been sickeningly slow in coming, but at least there is a miniscule crack in the one-way glass.

 

Once that hole gets bigger (and it will, as it always does) many of us are going to be disgusted at what we see (what we did, who was responsible for organizing it all, what was done in our name by others we paid to do what we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to do). Some will defend it all, naturally: the acts, the people who undertook them; it is, after all, just good business. Others will, obviously, decry the (demonstrably liberal) media that seems to take so much pleasure pulling back the curtain to reveal the cretins scurrying into the cracks. Same as it ever was. And finally, there will be the newly-awakened, who’ll shake their heads and lament that extraordinary times occasionally inspire atrocious activities. But never again, at least. At least we’ll have learned that much.

 

A cliché: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

 

A tragedy: those who do not read literature are doomed to inspire it.

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Joy Division and the Genius of Humanity

Transmission 4x.

Original:From the excellent movie Control:Playmobil Stop Motion:Caribbean steel-band:What else is there to say?

(Here is some of what I said last November):

If you are a Joy Division fan you probably caught Control when it first hit the screens (and streets) in 2007; if you still have not seen it, you should. If you are not a Joy Division fan, you should be. If you don’t believe me, believe this and this and especially this.

If you are still not convinced, try this:

Having just written in some detail about the sad, redemptory and mostly inscrutable life of Syd Barrett, it was impossible not to make several connections between these two extremely brilliant and deeply sensitive souls. Each of them gave us a lifetime of work in the most abbreviated artistic lives, and each was gone from the scene before most folks ever had a chance to catch up to them. Arguably, many folks are still struggling to keep pace with what they did more than thirty and forty years ago, respectively. And while there is no question that a cult of personality is inevitable when charismatic rock stars die early (Hendrix, Joplin, Holly and Stevie Ray), particularly if they die by their own hand (Cobain, Curtis and, to varying extents, Morrison, Moon and Bonham), there is still a difference between the ones who left too soon and those who may have changed the world –even more than they already did– had they managed to stick it out. Therefore, envisioning what Ian Curtis may have offered in the ’80s and beyond is…difficult. Far be it from me to fan the facile flames of myth-making, but Ian Curtis has more in common with Syd Barrett than a handful of albums that continue to influence musicians today.

Think about it: what would Syd’s music have sounded like in the ’70s? (And after?) I’m not suggesting or implying it wouldn’t have sounded incredible, but I also wonder. And I don’t think his enigmatic end justified the means, but I’m content not only with the handful of documents he did leave behind, but the import they accrue considering a would-be career cut off so bluntly. Likewise, was there anything else for Ian Curtis to prove? Changing the face of music (listen to these songs: even if you have never listened to a Joy Division song, if you were alive in the ’80s and have had ears the last two decades you’ve heard them channeled through the myriad acts who’ve absorbed them like oxygen) was, arguably, enough and quite well done for a two-year tenure. If Piper At The Gates of Dawn and Unknown Pleasures are not on the short list of all-time great debut albums nobody else belongs in the debate.

Considering the legacy of Syd Barrett, I suggested the following:

There was so much more for Syd to achieve… or was there? Do we dare ask for or expect more from any artist who gave so much? Is it both selfish and short-sighted to wonder what he may have achieved in the ‘70s and beyond when we consider what he’d already done? Did Syd pay the ultimate price for fame and artistic immortality?

I could have said the exact same thing about Ian Curtis. Watching the movie (and I also strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Joy Division, or that era in general, to check out the magnificent 24 Hour Party People, featuring the incomparable Steve Coogan), I mostly felt a tremendous sadness. Before he was an artist he was a father, a husband and a human being. On all of those levels, even (or especially) the prospects of fortune and fame could not quell the desperate gloom he struggled to keep at bay. (His offstage and onstage epileptic seizures are the stuff of Dostoyevesky, figuratively and literally.) It makes your heart hurt, and then the music helps heal you; if only it could have healed them.

Finally, I want to resist the urge, but since I also just wrote at some length about Bill Hicks, I can’t help myself. Comparing and contrasting the lives and careers of Ian Curtis and Dennis Miller on the same day goes beyond cheap irony and seems to suggest a sardonic reiteration of artistic inequity, as it’s tended to play out past and present: the great ones are too often hampered (and/or inspired) by their fragility and are inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder; the hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by the unreflective Hoi polloi.

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A Dose Of Dennis Miller With An Ian Curtis Chaser

I saw something the other night that really depressed me. It concerns a genius who, for a variety of reasons, could not maintain control. His implosion can be attributed to many of the usual ailments: self-doubt, self-loathing, self-aggrandizement, solipsism, projection, and a latent condition that medicine did little to ameliorate. Oh, and the presumptive intake of questionable substances probably didn’t help either. After some remarkable highs and a steady series of lows bordering on flatlines, he flamed out, career cut tragically and nonsensically short. It was incredibly tough viewing, but I hung in there and (barely) made it through.

And when Dennis Miller’s latest HBO special was over, I watched a movie about Ian Curtis.

More on that in a moment. First, let me attempt to articulate why I found myself –for the first and hopefully last time– actually giving my TV the finger. Boy has Dennis Miller left his lofty perch as one of the premier comedians (and minds) of his generation and careened down to the earth as a shambling cliché of craven opportunism, cynical hackery and anti-intellectualism the dishonesty of which is only exceeded by his shamelessness. And this is coming from a writer who already raised an R.I.P. on his career almost two years ago, begging the question: how much lower can you go than D.O.A.? The answer, alas, is: pretty fucking far. His latest routine, while having its moments (you would know –and be correct to– not take me seriously if I did not happily concede that the man is still capable of displaying wit and invoking laughs; he has a perspicacity that does not dissipate overnight; he is not quite the post-lobotomized Randall P. McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest but damn is he headed there at twice the speed of sense), is so bogged down by misplaced bile and blame-the-victim banality, the bright spots are sufficiently shit-stained that you just want to look away, after covering your nose and checking the soles of your shoes.

Remember This Guy? Neither Does Dennis Miller

When I wrote my review of his then-recent collection of HBO specials (in early 2009), I figured Miller had gone about as low as a once-sentient citizen could go, and perhaps once the economy revealed itself to be the bad hairpiece it was, even a suspiciously hirsute fellow like Dennis would see the error of his ways and maybe, maybe even offer up a mea culpa of sorts. Not a chance. He has double…no, tripled down, and he not only has no regrets about the Dubya debacle, it’s quite clear that he misses the man whose boots he used to lick on Fox News. Perhaps I should not be surprised by this (and I reckon I wasn’t) but it’s a testament to how much I once respected Miller that I can’t help being disappointed.

Here is how on-target his present-day political acumen is: he ridicules the health care legislation (“Obamacare” apparently is the agreed-upon G.O.P. code-word to denigrate the initiative) by suggesting that with young adults (some may still call them kids) allowed to remain on their parents’ health plans for a few more years (while they are busy looking for the jobs that don’t exist), we are turning this country into a bunch of medical marijuana smoking slackers. Aside from the inanity of this observation, I wanted to tell Miller it was still a tad too soon to be auditioning for Andy Rooney’s role as out-of-touch-asshole Emeritus. His riff on Guantanamo (“what’s the problem? it works!”), aside from being factually wrong, morally repugnant and farcical on purely logical levels, is on par with the Fox News ethos: hold your breath, put potato chips in your ears and, well godamnit, GO U.S.A.!

He continues to ridicule global warming (“hey, this means I can play golf in December”, etc.) and shrugs off the national debt (which, obviously, Obamacare and neither voodoo economics nor those moderately expensive –and, naturally unmentioned– wars has wrought) by saying “Hey, we’re America: let’s just not pay it!” For a man who is ostensibly concerned about the next generation being a bunch of Bill and Ted’s on a government-sponsored not-so-excellent adventure, he sure sounds like a man whose mind has been hijacked by Keanu Reeves. In a particularly grotesque bit of starstruck sycophancy disguised as an anecdote, he rambles on about getting to meet the great Frank Sinatra. Ironically, this is in many ways as revealing as the political shtick: at this point in time even the most sentimental saps who love the Old Blue Eyes legend –as well as his music– can acknowledge that the man himself was a bigoted, bullying shmuck. What then does it say about someone who is already famous drooling over the opportunity to spend time with the then-senile and increasingly misanthropic crooner? Maybe they had the same scalp surgeon. Or perhaps it has something to do with getting old and washed up and increasingly falling back on jingoism and nostalgia for the good old days when white bread was what you ate and who you ate with.

Remember This Guy? Neither Does Dennis Miller

Here is a Cliffs Notes overview of my lengthy, aforementioned assessment from two years ago:

Miller was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News. It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later.

The devolution was slow and increasingly brutal: by the time an HBO special from ’96 rolls around, he spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens (if they ever see) that one. By 2003 it was all-ugly all-the time: (when) he starts in on the Middle East…things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing. Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Bottom line: at issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was among the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedians in the country.

All of which has to be the oddest segue ever into a discussion of Ian Curtis. If you are a Joy Division fan you probably caught Control when it first hit the screens (and streets) in 2007; if you still have not seen it, you should. If you are not a Joy Division fan, you should be. If you don’t believe me, believe this and this and especially this. 

If you are still not convinced, try this:

If you’re still not convinced, isn’t there a Dennis Miller special you should be watching?

Having just written in some detail about the sad, redemptory and mostly inscrutable life of Syd Barrett, it was impossible not to make several connections between these two extremely brilliant and deeply sensitive souls. Each of them gave us a lifetime of work in the most abbreviated artistic lives, and each was gone from the scene before most folks ever had a chance to catch up to them. Arguably, many folks are still struggling to keep pace with what they did more than thirty and forty years ago, respectively. And while there is no question that a cult of personality is inevitable when charismatic rock stars die early (Hendrix, Joplin, Holly and Stevie Ray), particularly if they die by their own hand (Cobain, Curtis and, to varying extents, Morrison, Moon and Bonham), there is still a difference between the ones who left too soon and those who may have changed the world –even more than they already did– had they managed to stick it out. Therefore, envisioning what Ian Curtis may have offered in the ’80s and beyond is…difficult. Far be it from me to fan the facile flames of myth-making, but Ian Curtis has more in common with Syd Barrett than a handful of albums that continue to influence musicians today.

Think about it: what would Syd’s music have sounded like in the ’70s? (And after?) I’m not suggesting or implying it wouldn’t have sounded incredible, but I also wonder. And I don’t think his enigmatic end justified the means, but I’m content not only with the handful of documents he did leave behind, but the import they accrue considering a would-be career cut off so bluntly. Likewise, was there anything else for Ian Curtis to prove? Changing the face of music (listen to these songs: even if you have never listened to a Joy Division song, if you were alive in the ’80s and have had ears the last two decades you’ve heard them channeled through the myriad acts who’ve absorbed them like oxygen) was, arguably, enough and quite well done for a two-year tenure. If Piper At The Gates of Dawn and Unknown Pleasures are not on the short list of all-time great debut albums nobody else belongs in the debate.

Considering the legacy of Syd Barrett, I suggested the following:

There was so much more for Syd to achieve… or was there? Do we dare ask for or expect more from any artist who gave so much? Is it both selfish and short-sighted to wonder what he may have achieved in the ‘70s and beyond when we consider what he’d already done? Did Syd pay the ultimate price for fame and artistic immortality?

I could have said the exact same thing about Ian Curtis. Watching the movie (and I also strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Joy Division, or that era in general, to check out the magnificent 24 Hour Party People, featuring the incomparable Steve Coogan), I mostly felt a tremendous sadness. Before he was an artist he was a father, a husband and a human being. On all of those levels, even (or especially) the prospects of fortune and fame could not quell the desperate gloom he struggled to keep at bay. (His offstage and onstage epileptic seizures are the stuff of Dostoyevesky, figuratively and literally.) It makes your heart hurt, and then the music helps heal you; if only it could have healed them.

Finally, I want to resist the urge, but since I also just wrote at some length about Bill Hicks, I can’t help myself. Comparing and contrasting the lives and careers of Ian Curtis and Dennis Miller on the same day goes beyond cheap irony and seems to suggest a sardonic reiteration of artistic inequity, as it’s tended to play out past and present: the great ones are too often hampered (and/or inspired) by their fragility and are inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder; the hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by the unreflective Hoi polloi.

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