Monday, October 29, 2012

Ondaatje, Carson & Nietzsche: Ressentiment

("Friedrich Nietzsche" by Edvard Munch, 1906)
Both Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Anne Carson’s "The Glass Essay" push poetry into new articulations in order to liberate content from old conventions. It's possible to read these works as expressions of what Friedrich Nietzsche refers to On the Genealogy of Morality as “ressentiment.” This is essentially an active or kinetic reaction to a repressive paradigm, or in this case, expectations about what constitutes “poem” or “poetry.” As Nietzsche writes:
The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, being denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge.
Ondaatje and Carson’s poems embody the aesthetics of a slave revolt, or a rejection of the status quo. But rather than turn inwards and dwell on “imaginary revenge,” they harness the imagination to create new alternatives. Both long poems can be read as an assault on the conventions of orthodox verse, a ressentiment against any suffocating paradigms that prevent new forms from emerging.

Ondaatje does something truly remarkable – he allows the reader to inhabit Billy's skin and see the world through this wild outlaw’s eyes. The mental and physical worlds of William “Billy the Kid” Bonney pierce the consciousness like a knife into flesh. Here's Billy observing a lover in his room:
traces the thin bones on me
turns toppling slow back to the pillow
Bonney Bonney

I am very still
I take in all the angles of the room
Throughout the poem Billy is imbued with an animal grace. Ondaatje has him sniffing around like a dog, acting on instinct, and seeing/hearing things others can't. These convergences blur the boundaries between species and raise questions about humanity. It's this decentering of the “human” and the emergence of the “animal” that provides the impetus for a ressentiment to reconfigure past orthodoxies.

Anne Carson’s "The Glass Essay" is an extremely personal work that lives up to its name. Like glass, Carson disappears and becomes transparent in the telling of the tale. Nothing is too intimate to be revealed. Here's the narrator describing her desperation for her lover’s affection:
…I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
 One of the compelling qualities of "The Glass Essay" is its bold approach to structure and its unique form. It embodies all the essential attributes of narrative prose fiction, non-fiction and poetry. While it looks like poetry and addresses a personal or subjective topic, it's called an “essay” and includes many of the qualities associated with one. It has a thesis, a methodology; it cites other critics and quotes directly from primary sources. The language resembles prose, but it's also infused with flashes of lyrical symbolism and metaphor. By blurring these genres together, Carson demonstrates the power and prolific malleability of poetry/prose. The poem is a prime example of ressentiment striving for new values to articulate an alternate vision of reality that old forms fail to provide.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Baron Black of Crossharbour: Plaguy Proud

"He is so plaguy proud that the death-tokens of it
Cry 'No recovery.'" ~ from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida
There's more to Canada than Nickelback and tar sands. With bloviating pomposities like former citizen Baron Black of Crossharbour ( Conrad Moffat Black) sprouting from our soil, Canada has so much more to offer.

His interview today with Stephen Sackur on the BBC's Hardtalk was truly a sight to behold. The Baron shared that he never once scrubbed a toilet while wallowing in the poky, only a shower stall. It was the closest I've come in a while to what Jon Stewart calls a "Schadenfreude-gasm."

(Mugshot from 2007)
The Baron's Order of Canada, awarded in 1990, currently hangs in the balance. Based on the self-pitying audacity on display in the Hardtalk interview, Canada should get down on bended knee and award him another. It was quite the performance. As the CBC reports today:
Former media baron Conrad Black's request to Federal Court for a hearing before a panel examining whether he should be allowed to remain an officer of the Order of Canada has been rejected.

Black was found guilty by a U.S. jury in 2007 of three counts of fraud and one count of obstruction of justice, but he was acquitted on nine other charges, including mail fraud, wire fraud, racketeering and tax fraud.

An Appeals Court later overturned two of his fraud convictions, but allowed a single fraud conviction and the obstruction of justice conviction to stand.
How the mighty have fallen. The Hardtalk episode isn't online yet, but this one with Jeremy Paxman from a few days ago in which he exclaims to the Baron's face, "You're a criminal!" will suffice.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dreamin' Wild: The Emerson Brothers

"'Baby' has been a staple on just about every playlist/mixtape I’ve assembled in the past 3 years. It is nothing short of sublime." ~ Ariel Pink
How could it fail? Start with a couple of rock and roll farmers from Fruitland, Washington, dress them up in Elvis leisure suits embroidered with their own names and - voila! - you'll set the world on fire. Well, sort of...or maybe not. Originally "released" in 1979, Dreamin' Wild by brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson didn't catch on until 2011 when collectors like Yoga Records founder Douglas McGowan started raving about it after discovering the LP in a Spokane antique shop. As he notes in the reissue from Light In the Attic records, "I love the Emersons because the album looks so goofy that you almost feel sorry for it - and then the music is basically perfect."

That last bit about the music may be true, but if you were coming of age during the late 70s and early 80s in suburban North America, the "goofy" part actually looks pretty cool from this vantage point. It's because that's what the hip kids in my town looked like and aspired to do - date Marcia Brady and star in our own episode of "Kids Are People Too".

The magic of this homespun gem is that it embodies a motley panache of yacht rockers like Pablo Cruise and Chuck Mangione, along with MOR castaways the Hues Corporation ("Rock the Boat") and Boz Scaggs ("Lowdown"). It's not surprising that Ariel Pink has been performing "Baby" for a couple of years and even included a cover of the "sublime" tune on his latest, Mature Themes.

Ghost melodies and rhythms haunt the album like vapor trails dripping from some gauzy horizon or rhizomes sprouting between the grooves. It all amounts to a hauntology that is both seductive and elusive, and above all, ever-present.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Someday: Kabuki In The Japanese Alps

Nothing says "yokatta" quite like "free." This past weekend the Japanese Consulate in Alberta hosted a free film festival at Edmonton's historical Garneau Theatre. Yuko and I went to see Someday (Ōshika Mura Soudouki), a film based in Nagano, the prefecture Yuko grew up in and where we first met when I was living there in the mid-1990s.

Nestled deep in the Minami Alps, Ōshika is over 200 kilometers west of Tokyo. The film is a love story between Zen, the owner of a restaurant that serves deer meat ("Deer Eater"), and Takako, his estranged wife who returns after having left eighteen years before. The village is famous for its 300-year-old tradition of staging Kabuki performances and Zen happens to be rehearsing for the lead when Takako unexpectedly shows up.

Takako is suffering from Alzheimer’s, but is able to remember her lines from her last Kabuki performance before she left. This transformation into her younger self enables the old couple to reconcile while the trees in the surrounding mountains blaze in their gorgeous autumnal glory. It's a moving and partially true story - Ōshika is actually well-known in Japan for its Kabuki tradition.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Anil's Ghost: Allegory Of Enlightenment

"The reason for war was war"
Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost can be read as an attempt to address the jagged dichotomy that separates the universal from the particular, or in the lexicon of the novel, the international from the local. Anil Tissera is a forensic anthropologist from Sri Lanka who was educated abroad in the US and Britain and has returned home to begin working on a UN funded investigation into human rights abuses. She arrives in Sri Lanka at dawn, literally the lightening of the world, or the enlightenment. She is 33-years-old, the same age Jesus was at his crucifixion. She is about to embark on a journey that will leave her frequently disorientated as she tries to adjust to her place of (re)birth.

(c/o The Guardian)
Anil represents Kant’s notion of the sensus communis in her capacity as a United Nations envoy tasked with investigating war crimes using the instruments of universal justice. Her challenger is Sri Lanka, the obstacle embodying Jacques Rancière's concept of the "distribution of the sensible." Local customs, beliefs and relationships fragment the assumption of a sensus communis by sinking Kant’s transcendental method into immanent context. At the heart of this event is Anil. She is local and international, subjective and objective, immanent and transcendent.

(Squares with Concentric Circles, Wassily Kandinsky)
Rancière’s "radical egalitarianism" is also at play in the novel's attempt to have local issues addressed by native Sri Lankans. This is why Anil was chosen for the job, we are told, because she was born in Sri Lanka. The hierarchy of the UN is supplanted as a local sense of order is imposed from the bottom up, not the top down. However, on closer inspection this is merely a hollow gesture as Anil is actually hired by bureaucrats in Geneva.

Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic is also relevant. Sri Lanka can be read as an untamed wilderness that the UN, with instrumental logic and reason, is attempting to subdue through its notions of universal justice. Rather than allow Sri Lanka to mend itself and discover an alternative justice (and thus undermine UN authority) it must be brought into the fold, or the jurisdiction of the international system of human rights law.

(Guantanamo, Amas, Amat, Rita Duffy)
Onaadtje has avoided any easy conclusions. Anil’s relationship is not only with Sri Lanka; it is also with Sarath, a forty-nine-year-old widowed archeologist from Colombo who is assigned to work with her. Is this a strategy on the part of Ondaatje to suggest that others often introduce variables (love?) into our lives that can upset the most controlled of experiments?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Talkin' Tree Planting: Tramautic Blues #1

Here's an original song I wrote, "Talkin' Tree Planting Traumatic Blues #1," about a season spent screefing in the wilderness of northern British Columbia. Some of the images are intentional, some not. You figure it out.