Butterflies in captivity

Morton Feldman once described his monumental Triadic Memories as “the biggest butterfly in captivity.” My lovely wife Marilyn Nonken recorded it several years ago for Mode Records, so it seemed appropriate for the Washington Post‘s Michael Andor Brodeur to ask her for her opinion on what Feldman’s music might mean to us during the current scare, when we’re all in some kind of captivity:

For Nonken, the power of Feldman’s music comes from the tension he generates between regularity and instability (sound familiar?), and his reluctance to suggest narrative through “artificial resolution.”

“The drama,” she says over Zoom, “is how is that instability going to manifest itself? When is it going to rupture? How is it going to rupture?” Indeed, you can be 80 minutes into a Feldman piece before something happens, in the traditional sense of things happening. Nonken compares the journey to a long hike that ends at a grand vista. …

“The monotony of these days,” Nonken says, “day in and day out, there’s a repetitiveness. We’re waiting for something to happen and we’re not quite sure what it is. Small details take on incredible significance.”

Mode will release her and Stephen Marotto’s performance of Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field later this year. In the meantime, you can read all of the Washington Post story — which also includes interviews with Marotto and other seasoned Feldman aficianadoes — here.

Air of melancholy

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve posted here — I suppose that the spirit is willing, but the flesh weak, especially working all day from home with the kids in what is laughingly called “school” and the better half also at work all day in a 1,200-square-foot space on the Lower East Side. Instead, in what little spare time remains, I’ve been amusing myself as I’ve had to. In a sense, I suppose, we all need some kind of escape from the stresses and tensions of the period.

In New York, this isn’t easy at the best of times, but I’ve tried. I’ve gotten a lot of reading done on the weekends. Catch-22 remains perhaps more relevant than ever (there’s more than one way to “raise the number of combat missions”; a pandemic and enforced isolation are two); Mark Twain remains a comfort as well, with Pudd’nhead Wilson in the outbox and A Tramp Abroad on the bedside table (nothing like late Twain to confirm one’s cynicism about the culture and the race); Ed Berlin’s Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History and Rudi Blesh & Harriet Janis’s They All Played Ragtime fill out a little knowledge about a music that I’ve come to love even more, even though it’s over a century old, in 2020.

The friendly postman brought around two CDs from the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra the other day — both fine recordings. The PRO Finally Plays the Entertainer is a collection of band arrangements of tunes by the big three (Joplin, Lamb, and Scott — and the package design by Chris Ware is splendid), but the most surprising pleasure was From Barrelhouse to Broadway, a collection of songs by the great Joe Jordan, who is very new to me. (At the end of this post you’ll find “The Whippoorwill Dance” for your listening pleasure.) I find in the best ragtime a quiet, elegant air of melancholy that suits my constitution well.

For some reason this early American music has captured the affection of several comics artists. Apart from Ware mentioned above, Robert Armstrong and R. Crumb are also smitten by these tunes (I’ve also been listening to a bit of the East River String Band, with whom Crumb has often sit in). Germany’s Christoph Mueller is fond of the period, though I’m not sure if he’s an enthusiast for the music; Mr. Mueller recently contributed a cover called “Shelter in Place” to The New Yorker, his first. Mueller is a post-Crumb artist and this, in an odd way, is an appropriate accompaniment to Crumb’s own “Short History of America.” Although the immediate context is the coronavirus, of course, I think Mueller’s evocation of the isolation of the individual and the isolation of nature in large cities speaks to a much broader solitude and loneliness that transcends the immediate moment. At the moment, Mueller is completing the artwork for the 39th issue of Mineshaft, due later this year. (I hope I don’t have to remind you to subscribe to this, America’s most indispensable magazine.) Mueller spoke with the New Yorker‘s art editor Françoise Mouly about “Shelter in Place” here.

I should also mention that among my pandemic reading was Hillary Chute’s recent history of contemporary comics, Why Comics?, highly recommended.

Finally, my Google searches have been taking me recently to the environs of Dublin, New Hampshire, the home of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. When I glance out of my window now, I often see a facsimile of Mueller’s perspective; how much I’d rather see Dublin. There’s a photo below, and here’s “The Whippoorwill Dance,” as promised, performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s maestro Rick Benjamin. I hope to kick up the pace here soon and write a little more about all of this. Until then, save me a place in Dublin.

Town center of Dublin, New Hampshire.

A toast to … misanthropy

Cafe Katja.

Well, folks, for the past 58 years I’ve been self-isolating from most of the rest of the human race and expressed both pessimism and cynicism about the race itself. Welcome to my world. I’m not necessarily delighted to be proven right, but these days I’ll take what I can get.

During these home-bound days, I’m re-reading a few of the books that led me to these conclusions: “comfort fiction,” let’s call it. Here are only three that I highly recommend:

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: By the end of Swift’s novel, Gulliver is self-isolating from human stupidity too. It’s an extreme but, once you get to the end, understandable conclusion.

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek: During World War I, Hasek’s simpleton Svejk demonstrates that you can easily prove the incompetence and stupidity of your leaders by doing exactly what they tell you to do.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: More than an anti-war novel, it’s an anti-stupidity novel, offering only the thinnest of hopes at the end (though hope, I believe, it is).

Alas in these trying times, Cafe Katja is closed for regular business, so you won’t find me at the bar there this afternoon. But fortunately for all of us, the owners have instituted a take-out and delivery service so your Austrian food needs can be met during this difficult disruption. Follow their Instagram feed for details. I also recommend that you help out the staff at Katja by tiding them over until the doors can formally open again.

Until next time, prost! The liquor stores will remain open indefinitely (and, I understand, are doing just fine).

A toast to … self-isolating

Cafe Katja.

I was happy to write about an upcoming anthology of Shary Flenniken’s fine comic strip for the National Lampoon, Trots and Bonnie, earlier this week.

Self-quarantine and self-isolation are not new to me; I’ve been self-isolating since 1962, but instead of prudent caution I do it more because I hate people. Not that these are mutually exclusive. It could be that stupidity is even more contagious than the coronavirus, and we all must take steps to protect ourselves from infection. (Not to mention panic. Stress and anxiety will probably sicken more people than Covad-19 over the next few months.) But that’s the world we live in; the novelist Bruce Jay Friedman in the foreword to his 1965 anthology Black Humor put it best:

You hear an awful lot about the “fading line between fantasy and reality” in the modern world and I had better put that in fast or else I am not going to get to do any more Forewords. So here it comes. I agree. There is a fading line between fantasy and reality, a very fading line, a goddamned, almost invisible line … Then, too, if you are alive today, and stick your head out of doors now and then, you know that there is a nervousness, a tempo, a near-hysterical new beat in the air, a punishing isolation and loneliness of a strange, frenzied new kind. …

What has happened is that the satirist has had his ground usurped by the newspaper reporter. The journalist, who, in the year 1964, must cover the ecumenical debate on whether Jews, on the one hand, are still to be known as Christ-killers, or, on the other hand are to be let off the hook, is certainly today’s satirist. The novelist-satirist, with no real territory of his own to roam, has had to discover new land, invent a new currency, a new set of filters, has had to sail into darker waters somewhere out beyond satire and I think this is what is meant by black humor.

And that was before we started carrying around our own portable anxiety-delivery systems like the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter. (Today the New York Times even invites you to, as they put it on their home page, “play with a model of coronavirus in the U.S.“)

Friedman’s “new set of filters” is perhaps what is lacking in our satire now — the breadth of stylistic imagination and daring that you simply don’t find on The Daily Show and in The Onion, which can be very funny indeed, but limited by their narrowness of parodic form: the news show or the newspaper. To get into those darker waters beyond satire — and the art of our own age requires no less than that — you need to get beyond television and the internet.

There are still a few practitioners of black humor out there. Gary Shteyngart is one; to get beyond him, however, will require a bit of thought. So if you find yourself behind the closed doors of your apartment over the next few months, you might try to sail those waters. The novels of William Gaddis are a good place to start; maybe Catch-22 deserves another go; Terry Southern never disappoints; there’s Friedman’s own Stern; and, if you want to get all French about it, why not Journey to the End of the Night?

Me? As usual, I’ll be isolating myself at Cafe Katja later this afternoon; you’re welcome to isolate yourself with me. Prost! And wash your hands before you come. I may be misanthropic, but I’m not stupid.

Coming soon: “Trots and Bonnie”

Shary Flenniken‘s “Trots and Bonnie” ran from 1972 to 1990 in the late National Lampoon (Flenniken also served as an editor of that magazine from 1979 to 1981). “Trots” contributed a radical feminist and sexualized perspective to the comics styles of the 1930s and 1940s, right down to what Walt Kelly would call the “blunked-out” eyes of its main human character, Bonnie (itself a tribute to Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie). Well, you can now sell those old copies of the Lampoon on Ebay; NYR Comics will publish Trots and Bonnie: A Selection on September 15. Sez the publisher:

Bonnie stumbles through the mysteries of adulthood, as Flenniken — one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon — dissects the harsh realities of American life. Dating, marriage, sex, and violence are all confronted with fearlessness and outrageous humor, rendered in Flenniken’s timeless, gorgeous artwork. After all these years, they have lost none of their power to shock and amuse.

More information from NYR Comics here.

Although it’s true that Flenniken was “one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon,” it should be said that the female contributors to Lampoon, among them Anne Beatts and Emily Prager, were some of the most accomplished writers and artists in that magazine and take the edge off the justifiable accusation of sexism that is often hurled at the Lampoon. In addition, the Lampoon in 1978 published one of the few English-language collections of the work of Claire Bretécher, the fine French feminist cartoonist who recently shuffled off our mortal coil. So, as they say, there’s that.

Below, a few additional notes on the magazine, first published here in 2017.


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 begs 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 last 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 go from here is still something of a mystery.