“I think this is a shattered time”

From an interview with William Gaddis, conducted by Christopher Walker and published in the Observer on February 27, 1994:

The Fifties was a fragmented time and I think this is a shattered time. And so, as I’ve gone on, the kind of shattered element that we live with is what has become more a part of the style. … [T.S. Eliot’s] “East Coker” condenses everything I am trying to say in about 20 lines:

a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating …

I think that America is a great country, but it has gone off the rails in a number of ways and those ways should be brought to public attention. There is this naive thing in many writers about changing things. Against all odds, I still harbor that silly notion that things might get better. …

I see myself as the rear-guard, as the last of something. … I don’t know what. My attempt is always to find order, to try to grasp for order, to try to restore order.

From Paul Griffiths’ review of The Letters of William Gaddis, published in the Times Literary Supplement on June 12, 2013:

Gaddis was always good at pessimism (“I’ve got rid of most of the despair & am now just desperate”), but he could have added — and implicitly in these letters often does — that we are distinguished also by our ability to protest, to parody, to frustrate the pattern and, in a word, to live, “every, every moment,” to add another of his favorite quotations, from Thornton Wilder. As he wrote to his daughter, “damnedest thing is people saying I’m negative whereas it’s these affirmations of life amidst its appalling uncertainties and setbacks that I most admire.”

Augustine’s “love” and William Gaddis’s Wyatt Gwyon

I said earlier this week that art was one of the things that led me to faith, and in a short essay last July which is published below, I wrote:

From Machaut to Messiaen in French music and from the Dream of the Rood to Eliot in English poetry, not to mention the other arts, Christianity has had an outsized effect on Western art; an astonishing number of Western masterpieces have been inspired (perhaps quite literally) by the Christ story. (And I often muse that Stanley’s final organ mass in that Italian cathedral may have sounded quite like Messiaen’s organ work.) Naturally, a spectator or critic does not have to share the theology or religion of the artist to contemplate, interpret, perform, and appreciate the art. But this has to do more with its inspiration, with the source and ground of the artist’s expression. There was clearly a historical Christ — and he’s been variously described as a radical, a teacher, a philosopher, and a madman by those who do not accept his divinity. That’s all fine. But there were hundreds of radicals, teachers, philosophers, and madmen wandering around Judea two millennia ago, and Christ may not have been anything special by these lights. What was it about Christ that made him stick, especially in the minds of artists? Or was it that Christ was special indeed, at least to those whose work constitutes the Western tradition?

In Reza Aslan’s 2013 book about the historical Christ, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he writes about the culture of Christ’s time in the Middle East of the first century CE. “The itinerant preacher wandering from village to village clamoring about the end of the world, a band of ragged followers trailing behind, was a common sight in Jesus’s time — so common, in fact, that it had become a kind of caricature among the Roman elite. … Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. … [The] picture that emerges of first-century Palestine is of an area awash in messianic energy.” And you don’t have to trust either myself or Aslan; the same culture was accurately and more entertainingly depicted in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979. (There’s even a 2015 book testifying to the film’s accuracy, among other things: Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian, by Joan E. Taylor.)

There can be many responses to the questions that end this post that don’t involve faith, that explain the enduring power and influence of Christianity in the minds and works of the great western artists. Perhaps the uniqueness of the Christ story and its archetypal qualities have had a special, continuing Jungian appeal to the Western world and the Western creative mind in particular. Perhaps the Christ story was manipulated in a variety of power plays among sects and elites to maintain their own social power, and that the story was particularly effective in doing so; the powerful knew this and commissioned religious art accordingly. But then one must ask: Why Christ, if he was only one of hundreds of similar preachers and prophets? Why him, and not others whom Aslan cites?

In 4 B.C.E, the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowed himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers. Another messianic aspirant, called simply “the Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome. … There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba — all of whom declared messianic ambitions and all of whom were killed for doing so.

There is historical evidence for the existence of all of these figures, along with Christ. But, except in places like Aslan’s book, they are not remembered, and certainly have not given rise to great art or churches.

I think if one is to genuinely keep an open mind about the matter, one must also consider, among the possibilities I mentioned above, that the Christ story is true: Original Sin, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, all of it, and that in some sense these artists’ imaginations were infused with something we can only call, in this case, the Holy Spirit. One can’t now question these artists to discover their inspiration, of course; most of them are long dead. But something of that inspiration remains in their art. And it may be, among other things, particular evidence of Christ’s truth.

The below was written in July 2016.


Wyatt Gwyon (also known as Stephen Asche), the central character of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, departs from the novel on page 900, when there’s about another hundred pages to go. He is in Spain carrying a box which holds earrings that belonged to his mother, who died when he was a young boy, and Wyatt/Stephen is preparing to give them to his own infant daughter. Steven Moore in William Gaddis glosses the episode:

Not until the last page on which he appears does he realize the importance of the earrings; by intending to pass them along to his daughter, he demonstrates his recognition of the emotions and especially the strongest, most liberating emotion of all, love. Not the sentimental love of romantics, nor the lust of sensualists: the kind of love Wyatt embraces is less eros than agapē — charity, attentiveness, caring. “–Charity’s the challenge,” Wyatt had admitted earlier, but not until the end of the novel is he psychologically prepared to commit himself to this challenge. It is crucial to note that the Augustinian motto Wyatt chooses reads “Dilige et quod vis fac” (“Love, and do what you want to”), not the more popular form “Amo et fac quod vis” — that is, Wyatt prefers the verb meaning “to esteem and care for” over that meaning “to love passionately.” This is the kind of love recommended in Eliot’s Four Quartets; for Wyatt it represents a new beginning, not an end, for as Eliot argues, this form of love never ceases to be a challenge. (Moore 52)

But in terms of mottoizing, Wyatt/Stephen isn’t quite done. As he slowly bids farewell to Ludy, an acquaintance, and the novel, he engages in a small bit of illuminating dialogue:

Stephen’s throat caught, looking down at the figure on the ground struggling to get up. –Yes … His eyes blurred on the figure older each instant of looking down at that struggle, and the hand where the blood lost all saturation. –Goodbye, hear? the bells, the old man ringing me on. Now at last, to live deliberately.

–But …

–What!

–You and I …

–No, there’s no more you and I, Stephen said withdrawing uphill slowly, empty-handed.

–But we … all the things you’ve said, we … the work, the work you were, working on … ?

–The work will know its own reason, Stephen said farther away, and farther, –Hear … ? Yes, we’ll simplify. Hear? … (Gaddis 900)

Wyatt/Stephen’s final motto, then — Love, and do what you want to; live deliberately; simplify — echoes those of Saint Augustine and Henry David Thoreau. Whether or not this makes him a Christian, though, he reaches it through Christianity. At the moment of his greatest despair about halfway through the book, he demands of his father, a Calvinist minister slipping into madness, “Am I the man for whom Christ died?” (Gaddis 440, italics in the original) He never receives an answer. The novel, though, as a whole, might be considered a response. Just prior to his disappearance, he considers his motto in light of the Incarnation. (I don’t have the novel with me at the moment, but turn to page 899 of the Dalkey Archive reprint — it’s there. In a 1986 interview, Gaddis said of that passage, “Wyatt’s line … says that one must simply live through the corruption, even become part of it” — which is Christ’s attitude towards his own suffering in the Gospel of John.) The novel itself ends 100 pages later, with a Roman Catholic composer, Stanley, performing an organ mass which leads to the collapse of a cathedral around him.

Moore’s citation of Eliot’s Four Quartets is instructive. Eliot is a major influence on The Recognitions, and not just his final poem. Perhaps the greatest influence on the structure of the novel is The Waste Land — a portrait of a Western culture in its final decline, corrupted by fraudulence in its intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic endeavors. (The novel and the poem have endured, in part, because things haven’t changed.) Though Four Quartets is undoubtedly a Christian poem, and Eliot a Christian — and passages from the poem are woven intricately through the novel — the same can’t quite be said for The Recognitions, Wyatt, or Gaddis himself. But it can’t be dismissed, either. “We come back to the Faust story and to the original Clementine Recognitions, which has been called the first Christian novel (I remember thinking mine was going to be the last one),” Gaddis told the interviewer as he discussed his intentions in The Recognitions. Though an off-hand comment to the Paris Review isn’t very much to hang an interpretation on, it does illuminate both the character of Wyatt Gwyon and the overarching satiric perspective of the book, at least during its composition.

I mention all this as a casual meditation about the influence of Christianity on Western art of the past 1,000 years. From Machaut to Messiaen in French music and from the Dream of the Rood to Eliot in English poetry, not to mention the other arts, Christianity has had an outsized effect on Western art; an astonishing number of Western masterpieces have been inspired (perhaps quite literally) by the Christ story. (And I often muse that Stanley’s final organ mass in that Italian cathedral may have sounded quite like Messiaen’s organ work.) Naturally, a spectator or critic does not have to share the theology or religion of the artist to contemplate, interpret, perform, and appreciate the art. But this has to do more with its inspiration, with the source and ground of the artist’s expression. There was clearly a historical Christ — and he’s been variously described as a radical, a teacher, a philosopher, and a madman by those who do not accept his divinity. That’s all fine. But there were hundreds of radicals, teachers, philosophers, and madmen wandering around Judea two millennia ago, and Christ may not have been anything special by these lights. What was it about Christ that made him stick, especially in the minds of artists? Or was it that Christ was special indeed, at least to those whose work constitutes the Western tradition?

Drunk, stoned, brilliant, and still dead

Without satire no civilization can be truly described or benefited. We could name many names, from Voltaire to Swift, before we ran into the modern morbid playwrights and sex novelists, who are more interested in the sordid corners of life than in the human heart.

James Thurber
The Future, if Any, of Comedy or,
where do we non-go from here?
” (1961)
(Probably Thurber’s final completed work)

It appears that outrage-fatigue is beginning to affect American comedians as well as everybody else. After a few months of the Trump administration, SNL, after a promising start, is recycling rapidly aging caricatures of Trump and figures in his administration as they used to recycle sketches like “The Coneheads” and “The Bees,” each iteration becoming more tired; even John Oliver, in the first episode of the latest season of his otherwise laudable investigative-satire program Last Week Tonight, seems a little lost.

Earlier this week Marilyn and I turned to Netflix to watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s 2015 documentary about the late National Lampoon magazine, which flourished in the 1970s before declining to a state at which, currently, it’s the clearing house for a brand name that can be rented then attached to pretty much anything or anyone that has the money to purchase it. During its glory years — 1970 to 1975, more or less — it was one of the best-selling magazines in the nation. Deliberately positioned as a humor magazine to bridge the MAD Magazine-New Yorker age gap, it was always a commercial endeavor, but the stars so aligned that it also proved an outlet for some of the best, most outrageous literary parodists and satirists of post-Kennedy America. Its quick demise — and the quick demise of some of its brightest minds — begs the question that Thurber asks at the beginning of this column, as well as the question: What happened in the first place?

Some satire, like Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lasts, and some doesn’t. “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as the decidedly non-satiric American comic playwright George S. Kaufman once put it. Well, the bad sort closes, but obviously there are exceptions, and that’s because although most satire is directed at corrupt contemporary targets that are rapidly lost in the midst of time, those targets stand in as metonyms for the deeper corruptions of the human heart. The British/French military and political conflict that Swift parodies in the first book of Gulliver stands in for the arrogance and foolishness of nation-states; the attack on Leibniz’s philosophy which sparked Candide is also an attack on sentimental optimism itself; and Twain’s satire of race relations and clannish feuding in the pre-Civil War America of Huckleberry Finn is now read as a satiric exploration of the American ideals of democracy and community themselves. Eighteenth-century European politics, a philosophical dispute from the same century, and the socioeconomic situation of the American South in the 1830s have all become somewhat academic, but not the observations about the human condition that these satirists drew from these local circumstances.

The triumvirate of satirists who steered National Lampoon through its first five years — Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O’Donoghue — were, first and foremost, literary satirists. Kenney’s influences included Evelyn Waugh, James Thurber, and Ronald Firbank (the latter also a major influence on British playwright Joe Orton); Beard decided to devote his career to literary humor after his exposure to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, perhaps the greatest of post-war American Menippean satires; O’Donoghue’s background was extraordinarily wide-ranging as a habitue of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though he seems to have been most inspired by the novels of Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. The best of the short prose essays and other material that appeared in National Lampoon from those years, and the level of baroque style and parody, easily rank with and outshine those of Thurber, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman in their heyday, and unlike the pieces by Woody Allen and others in the New Yorker (however accomplished and of permanent value as some of these are), their work was tinged with the fire of outrage and a keen anarchic sense of the fraudulence of the time and the heart. Even more than Twain, their immediate satiric ancestor was Nathanael West, whose apocalyptic vision of an urbanized, trivia-besodden America in the 1930s, especially in the revelatory riot that closes The Day of the Locust, offered no hope or respite from the corruptions of the spirit.

The Lampoon‘s best work exemplifies all this. Kenney’s spot-on parody of Che Guevara’s diaries reveals the blind, insipid, delusional idealism at the heart of political revolution (especially in an age of celebrity); O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” is a masterful deconstruction of the savagery and sentimentality that exist simultaneously at the heart of American culture; and Henry Beard’s “Law of the Jungle” is a genuinely astonishing satire not only of the law but also of the human race’s relationship to the natural world. Later, the best movies under the Lampoon banner also transcended their initial subjects. Animal House (co-written by Kenney) explored the disasters that occur when naivete meets reality, Vacation laid bare the anxieties that the commodification of leisure time produces. (I apologize for all this, and thoroughly deserve some lampooning of my own for these interpretations for what are, after all, just barely grown-up versions of the funny pages.)

In 1975 or so, O’Donoghue left the National Lampoon for what he thought were the greener pastures of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which debuted in that year. Kenney and Beard were, in a way, luckier. Their friend Rob Hoffman in negotiating their contacts in 1970 schemed to include a clause in which publisher Matty Simmons could buy out their contacts based on a multiple of the percentage of the magazine’s value. Kenney and Beard opted to take the buyout, which made them multi-millionaires before they were 30. Kenney went Hollywood and, unable to negotiate the demands and successes of fame, died in a fall from a Hawaiian lookout (whether he jumped, slipped, or was pushed remains a matter of conjecture) in 1980; Beard retired into private life, still writing, and refused to discuss his career with the magazine until he resurfaced in Tirola’s documentary four decades later; the magazine itself had a few more good if not great years under the supervision of Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke and others before its precipitous decline.

Ironically, the reasons for its decline are more numerous than the reasons for its success. By 1975 the political scene in America was becoming more fractured and polarized, and students were increasingly irritated to be told by a bunch of white, upper-middle-class Ivy League elitists that their ideals were illusory at best (while several women were regular contributors to the magazine, including Anne Beatts, Emily Prager, and Shary Flenniken, the skin color in staff photographs of the time is as white as the driven snow); the sophomoric-tastelessness-for-the-sake-of-sophomoric-tastelessness that was always a feature of the magazine began to overtake the more ambitious satires as publisher Simmons strove to drive profits higher and higher; magazine circulations themselves became locked in a struggle against the growth of electronic media. And perhaps the most influential of early Lampoon staffers, Michael O’Donoghue, found that he was unable to tailor his own dark apocalyptic vision to the requirements of the entertainment industry — and O’Donoghue desperately sought commercial success — before his own early death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54.

So what of literary satire in the Trump age, given the great achievements of American satire in the half-century before it? Are irony and satire dead — has the future become so dark that we can’t joke about it any more? The same things were said after the Nixon administration, after 9/11, and we’re no closer to a response now than we were then. I doubt there’s an answer in the small shelf of books (and a documentary) now devoted to the history of the Lampoon, its influence, and its offshoots. (These include Tony Hendra’s still-indispensable Going Too Far, Ellin Stein’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, and Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is now being adapted into a film for Netflix.) But inspiration can still be sought in the best of its achievements, even if where we non-go from here is still something of a mystery.