In Search of the Unica

  Here is some depressing reading for you. “After the debacle of the book’s publication in 1955 I am only getting used to the idea that some people have actually read it,” would be a gloomy appraisal coming from any author, but now try imagining that you’re William Gaddis, the year is 1962 and you’re writing to man-of-the-hour Terry Southern about The Recognitions, the 976-page novel it took you seven and a half years to write. And “debacle” is actually putting it lightly. One of the kinder reviews called Gaddis’ novel “evil” and “disgusting,” and so the heart bleeds when he confides, “Already (in the arts) I look back on too many false hopes fragmented, lost.” The Southern letter isn’t even one of the most disheartening entries in The Letters of William Gaddis, recently published by Dalkey Archive. Refusing a blurb to David Markson, one of his earliest champions, on the grounds that the name William Gaddis is unlikely to sell anybody else’s books either, he takes cold comfort in the idea that “a book really goes out on its own, [and] for the human remains that wrote it to run along after it is suicidal since there’s clearly no separating them until the mortal partner drops.”

Of course, when The Recognitions’ mortal partner did drop, in 1998 at the age of 75, it was as a National Book Award-winning Godhead to American postmodernists like Markson. But it remains to be seen if the book’s vindicated defenders were any closer to the mark than its initial public. Hampered from the beginning by comparisons to Ulysses (of which Gaddis professed ignorance), The Recognitions doesn’t really seem designed to challenge the novel-as-form. With its gilded sentences, byzantine subplots and encyclopedic frame-of-reference, it still strikes me as exemplary rather than revolutionary. The sentences that enraged so many critics aren’t entirely different in character from Theodore Dreiser’s. They are merely better. The Letters reveal an earnest young writer doing his best; in other words, a honest hard worker, wresting wisdom from bitter childhood experience, top-notch literary forebears, and hard luck in the country and the city highlife, and fitting it to a structure that’s more or less straightforward, even if the delivery can be demanding upon first read.” Presented with a copy of The Recognitions, Ezra Pound griped, “Tell your friend Joyce was an ending, not a beginning.” Harsh! But it’s hard to disagree. In the war between modernism’s penchant for stylists and naturalism’s grasp on popular mobility, Gaddis’ first book reads like a bullet fired in the air, even if it made a crater when it finally landed. Its most formally inventive feature—the way speech is freed from dialogue so as to create a windy funnel of blurry voice—would provide Gaddis with the mode of his next novel, the more genuinely envelope-pushing J R, whose reticulate inner world is explored exclusively through talk. By the time it arrived in 1975, the landscape, thawed by postmodernism, was much more receptive and Gaddis was enshrined by a briefly ascendant avant-garde who have had his back ever since. Happy endings all around, minus the occasional bout of boorishness from Jonathan Franzen.

But sometimes I can’t help but wonder: what if The Recognitions really had been the book heralded by its howlingly absurd first press? A completely wasteful cultural object, the result of “a complete lack of discipline” and “a projection of private discontent” “bereft of kindness or sincerity or simple decency.” An actually inhuman work of art; what a thing that would be! But can it be? Has it been? When I asked a wiseass friend of mine what he made of Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 biopic of John Keats, he said it would have been great, save the ending crawl: “Keats died at twenty-five, believing himself a failure. Today he is recognized as one of the greatest of the Romantic Poets.” The poet’s ignominious death and vituperous reviews redeemed by reputation—my waggish boon companion realized it would have been a finer thing for the crawl to read, “And that guy was nobody.” Instead we’re supposed to take heart that any writer saddled with the label “difficult” or “challenging” in his lifetime finds his public eventually, while the limelight of more status-quo writers is lit by a briefer candle. I have no doubt that these two extremes are honorable, each in their way, and much of what is good in life passes somewhere between them. But there is enough art made for people. What about art that’s made—perhaps with skill verging on genius—for no one? Fiction, music, and film delineate the world and the people in it. But is it too much to ask for even one or two exhibits that live outside of it? Products that aren’t products, that appeal to no one and regard the fickle give-and-take of the market with rank and alien indifference? What I’ve been searching for is an unlovable act of pure self-involvement, incomprehensible but undeniably artful; an inhuman if not anti-human movement that proves that art can exist independent of taste.

My motivations for this quixotic desire are probably transparent. For a significant-if-actually-miniscule fragment of the population (and I’m speaking of myself) personal identity is staked on a series of affinities. ‘Liking’ and ‘not-liking’ this or that artifact of state-of-the-art cultural production nervously devours the conversation, in academia and print, as well as, more idly, the elk-motif bars that stud certain gentrified urban centers. It’s hard to know if the movie I’m watching or the book I’ve been preoccupied with is the beautiful thing it seems when enjoyment is undermined by the self-conscious fever to inject it into a personal pantheon. Things get even more impure if I’m called upon to deliver an opinion. Then there are suddenly other heads involved, stacking themselves according to the affinities that inform their identities along a track that disappears into the horizon. Meanwhile, the actual product, the poor and well-intended thing, is consumed until nothing is left. When taste is a concern, joy dissolves from the palette.

As laughable as it would have been to most all planet Earth’s past inhabitants, there are vast swaths of contemporary life—class and education, obviously, but the minutiae of personality go deeper than these general demarcations—primarily understood in terms of the very high and the very low. For the competent critic or pop-culture maven, both have their charm: the high because it is what we want to be considered equal to, and the low because we can champion, elevate, rehabilitate—in other words, condescend to—it, both outsider art like The Room or Rebecca Black’s “Friday” (because we’re nobodies too), and juggernauts like Lady Gaga and The Hunger Games (because we are everybody as well). Don’t get me wrong, it’s exhilarating to sample the ranked raptures and choice infatuations of routine list-makers like Susan Sontag, Jonathan Lethem, and (arguably) Markson, but not everybody can be a Susan Sontag. And yet, in an age when nearly every arcane bit of print or video is available by and by, that is exactly what knowing too much about what we like reduces us to: an audience of professional amateurs. Whether career-critic or pro-bono blogger, ‘appreciator’ has become a lifetime occupation. And the unfortunate objects of our appreciation, could they exist without us? Does art always have to care about us so very much?

At some point, my case began to feel severe. Getting a ‘read’ on everything had overwhelmed my capacity for pleasurable ambiguity. I realized that, given the latest Houellebecq novel, Japanese horror film, or episode of Star Trek, I could pretty handily pinpoint the demographic likely to consume it and chart my distance from them accordingly. “Them” being other people. As for the work itself: my professed love for the best and disdain for the worst are compromised by the context that determines us both. I want to love romantically, not selfishly; lately I’ve come to question whether there’s any other way. How can I accept that my involvement with any given spectacle is genuine when there’s no control in any experiment that tries to do without ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’? For that we would need something special, a restoratively ugly cleanser for the oversaturated palette. Something that does not let itself out of itself, and not just because of any lack of proficiency on its creator’s part. I am looking for the door that lets me out of the ‘liking’ versus ‘not liking’ circle jerk. There ought to be more to life and I’ve become convinced that what a condition like mine requires is proof that art can exist without a single admirer, save maybe the demoniac responsible for it. I don’t pretend to have the answer yet. What I do have is the French.  

Much of the foregoing is imperfectly aped from Pierre Bourdieu, whose 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste conjectured aesthetic discrimination as determined by social class and the so-called high-brow as bent on dominating the common or working-class tastes. So my “The Well-tempered Claiver” beats your Gershwin, my wine is more prestigious than your PBR, my Slavoj Žižek trumps your Chuck Klosterman and my graphic novels are the better-bred cousins of your splashy comic books. But you knew all this and the idea—at least as I’ve simplified it—quickly breaks down outside the atmosphere of Bourdieu’s specifically French, specifically 1970s milieu. Especially when you factor in wild cards like nostalgia, perversity (which we’ll come back to) and irony. So if Bourdieu can’t quite give me the parameters I’m looking for, maybe it makes sense to turn to a more esoteric sensibility, like that of Henri Michaux, an artist and writer whose seemingly paradoxical aim, for most of his life, was to desensualize form and castrate language in search of some purer place beyond images and words. Too serious for surrealism, Michaux might be said to resemble the American Beats except that he used drugs (mainly mescaline) not to free the mind, but to banish it and distill the unconsciousness’s primeval artistry until “the miserable becomes the appalling miracle.” Miserable Miracle is the title he gave to his findings from these experiments; his conclusion being that “Sensibility on one side calls for insensibility on the other.”

Insensibility need not mean insanity, though mental illness was the unfortunate fate of Michaux’s great protégé, Unica Zürn. If you haven’t read her books, or seen her hypnotically detailed etchings, you must. Her best-known novellas in English, The Man of Jasmine and Dark Spring, were inspired by a mysterious 1957 encounter with Michaux that both galvanized Zürn’s imagination and precipitated the depression that ran in her family and became fatal in 1970. It is painfully clear, reading her eerily isolated—and, in the original German, anagram-filled—writing, that it arrives from the other side. Neither memoir, fiction, dream nor suicide note, it is also far from unpleasurable. But it is a good enough token example of art that emerges out of the artist’s own necessity that I’ve given her name to the solipsistic idyll I have in mind. The unica will be that which abhors interpretation.

Getting back to insensibility: I’ve pinned my hopes on a haruspex hiding in plain sight. Many students, book groups, and ambitious doctoral candidates have tangled with Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities at some point. In my experience, it usually winds up back on the shelf. Published the year after Moby-Dick, in 1852, and bearing an appealingly loopy synopsis concerning a young writer haunted by incestuous desire, poverty, and madness, it’s easy to ignore the warnings of Pierre’s universally hostile reception, as the White Whale itself toiled in obscurity for more than fifty years. But obscurity is what Pierre is all about. I will quote one sentence, chosen at random, for fun. You don’t have to read it.

              Thus sometimes in the mystical, outer quietude of the long country nights; either
              when the hushed mansion was banked round by the thick-fallen December snows,
              or banked round by the immovable white August moonlight; in the haunted repose
              of a wide story, tenanted only by himself; and sentineling his own little closet; and
              standing guard, as it were, before the mystical tent of the picture; and ever watching
              the strangely concealed lights of the meanings that so mysteriously moved to and fro
              within; thus sometimes stood Pierre before the portrait of his father, unconsciously
              throwing himself open to all those ineffable hints and ambiguities, and undefined
              half-suggestions, which now and then people the soul’s atmosphere, as thickly as in
              a soft, steady snow-storm, the snow-flakes people the air.

…the idea seems to be that a man is looking at a picture. Is this passage beautiful? Perhaps so. It certainly reads better than it did when I read it fresh out of college. At the time, it was the closest I had come to feeling that a piece of writing was actually trying to drive me insane. Thing is, the style above is totally unmediated and seldom differentiated throughout. The imagery is arbitrary and unrelenting. When a novel is packed with prose so hermetic that the meaning (not deeper meaning, but basic comprehension) isn’t just buried, but annihilated, and the story itself is equally opaque, we are talking about some seriously autoerotic squiggles on the asylum wall. Still, just because a novel doesn’t do what a novel is supposed to doesn’t mean it isn’t doing something else instead. The people most likely to read Pierre won’t find the ancient mariner they’re looking for, but baroque verbiage will always have its diehard defenders (in this case they include Leos Carax and William T. Vollmann). In the end, Pierre may only be uncharacteristic for Melville and therefore predisposed to disappoint. But as a book-length prose-poem—something along the lines of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept—it’s at least a serviceable dry run for Melville’s next most obscure project, the 18,000 line poem “Clarel.” Pierre might be a unica insomuch as it shows us an unquestionably brilliant author going for broke, but its difficulty is clearly just a question of audience. Henceforth, I will consider only works that William T. Vollmann is not known to admire.

Speaking of uncharacteristic performances, it turns out that’s something you can be sued for. In 1982, Neil Young was so dead set on milking his carte blanche contract with Geffen Records that he released Trans, an album that is two-thirds cheesy vocoder and synth and includes songs like “Computer Age” and “Sample and Hold” that have as much in common with “Cinnamon Girl” as actual cinnamon. For this noble escape from his fans’ expectations, Young was hit by a lawsuit that claimed he had produced deliberately uncommercial work. That last phrase ought to send a chill down the spine of any “dreamer of pictures” determined to outlive the era of his first successes. That’s not to say that Trans sounds typical for the 1980s. It didn’t sound like anything until pretty recently. If you listen to it now, it sounds like pretty much everything (except Neil Young). Defiantly indifferent to its original audience, it’s a near miss as a unica, if only because changing trends in popular music have rendered it unremarkable. Which still reflects well on Neil Young, if not so much on contemporary pop music.

But if you’re talking about legal loopholes and unlistenable music, you’re really talking about Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Let’s knock this one out quick. The accepted wisdom is that the four sides of career-suicide-by-guitar-feedback that is Metal Machine Music exists only because of a contractual obligation that Reed was eager to collect on while simultaneously proclaiming his indifference to the mainstream he’d accidentally found himself drifting toward in the mid-70s. A joke, in other words, but a joke that eventually backfired as, like Don Quixote, Metal Machine Music created the genre it parodied. When Industrial music came to maturity two decades later and looked back to Reed’s painful walls of sound, it was as an invective to harness nearly unlistenable noise and electric mayhem as an antidote to pop music’s insistence on melody.

And here’s where the unica faces the first proof of its impossibility—the enduring market for perversity. The group Throbbing Gristle formed the same year as Reed recorded Metal Machine Music with an M.O.—concerts featuring Holocaust imagery, frequent references to Thelemic mysticism—that was more like arty terrorism than music, paeans to darkness and anarchy that today, frankly, sound like disco. How could this be? The answer is that perversity is progress: Just as you can grow an audience based solely on not sounding like the accepted good taste, that new “bad taste” quickly acquires a dimension, as more people who don’t want to feel like other people or do the things they do wind up feeding the culture its own waste products again. This is not precisely the same as art that is rejected by its audience only to wind up with a retrospective and a world tour twenty years later because perverse art is not trying to be “good” in anyone’s mind. It’s just succeeding at it. And, as we’ve seen, the unica will not abide too much trying.

There have also been cases of unpopular or largely indecipherable artworks actually serving political ends. In 1958, the musical theorist Milton Babbitt’s often-anthologized primer “Who Cares If You Listen?” called for the specialized study of contemporary serious music—Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, atonality or integral serialism—without being beholden to the tastes of a public that would never, and should never, embrace it: “Deviation from [popular music] is bound to dismiss the contemporary music of which I have been speaking into ‘isolation.’ Nor do I see how or why the situation should be otherwise. Why should the layman be other than bored or puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else?” Of course, this brand of applied elitism exactly what came to pass, as Princeton oversaw the implementation of musicology departments that, as a number of glosses on Babbitt’s essay have observed, served a distinct purpose in light of the Cold War: another Western science for the Soviet Union to envy, not to mention a refuge for American intellectuals whose political leanings might otherwise have endangered their public standing. Here we have a perfect, sustaining circuit between unpopular, difficult art and the University specialists who both legitimize it and shield it from having to maintain public interest. This is clearly another defeat for the unica, to which we can now add the following injunction: it must not be in any way useful.

At this point, however, what are we left with? Whichever way we turn, we seem to create a niche, making a hole instead of a pit. Since I hadn’t had any good ideas lately, I decided to capitalize on the trend and outsourced the question to Facebook. At first, most of the suggestions I got were for famously difficult works like Finnegans Wake, 120 Days of Sodom and Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor. Or else they were for sui generis works of weirdness like Yeats’ occult experiment in automatic writing A Vision or Godard’s four-and-a-half hour Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Each could form the basis of their own essay and I thank my friends for them. But if we subjected each to the unica test, one of the rules I’ve determined above would almost certainly be violated: they would stand up to interpretation (Finnegans Wake), they would be perverse (120 Days of Sodom), trying (A Vision), or useful (Histoire(s)), or William T. Vollmann would like them (Ada or Ardor).

As the thread started getting, for a near-Facebook illiterate like myself, an unusual number of responses, I picked up on a surprising correlation. People began to name works that they clearly enjoyed, or were at least fiendishly smitten with, as often as works they didn’t—they were daring anybody to dig Coltrane’s Ascension, splitting hairs over Beckett’s The Unnamable, or seeing if they could lure somebody into defending Heaven’s Gate, David Lynch’s Inland Empire or The Cremaster Cycle (for once, I restrained myself). It was, then, a pretty reliable—and perfectly friendly—Internet social courting ritual. I don’t know what I was expecting, but connection was definitely occurring, and it was occurring over the discussion of what were supposed to be dead circuits. Although I’m extrapolating wildly, it seemed that everybody had their own personal black holes, works of art that existed not to be read, enjoyed, or taken indoors but that nevertheless did precisely what the prevailing definitions of art maintain they ought to do: connecting the unknown planetoids known as other people. Here it was doing so in a reversal of the usual affinity groups, as the fence-posts individuals used to contain their expectations of art inevitably wound up running straight through another’s backyard (‘Nobody really reads Finnegans Wake, do they?’ ‘I read Finnegans Wake for breakfast!’).

The upshot, for me, was that the books people didn’t read, the films they didn’t see, the music they found impossible, were just as important to them, sort of, as the ones they openly enjoyed and served much the same purpose in determining the bounded topography of where they ended and other people began. That, and that my question was deeply stupid.

Where art is, civilization is. Where the most gnomic, difficult, self-saturated, and oddball art is, there the settlers will come in droves. My mistake was in thinking that this was a bad thing and in wanting to get out in the first place. As for taste, without it we might not know we had mouths. For now, I’m content to conclude that there cannot be a unica because human beings are incapable of making things that don’t retain some spark of being. And being craves being. “Good” and “bad” shouldn’t determine anybody’s identity—if there was ever a hipster’s lament, it would run something like this—but they’re useful to a point, just as “difficult” and “unreadable” are. In my case, it means something that’s going to make me curious, but for other people it might be synonymous with “evil” and “disgusting,” and that’s not so much a difference between us as it is a way of navigating the space between. Maybe ghosts walk the earth, reading what no one else will or can, but among the living, even the lowest art serves a higher purpose. One of the first comments I got after posting my—we can all agree—ill-fated proposition was the same passage I had had in mind as well, from The Recognitions: “He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.”

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