Tag Archives: fall 2012


Karl Ove Knausgaard
translated by Don Bartlett
Archipelago Books ($18)

by Jay Orff

Jaded by memoirs that confess addiction, incest, and every other survivable trauma, American readers may find Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle merely a somewhat gloomy story of growing up in Norway. Indeed, Knausgaard doesn’t reveal any great horror or awful deed; instead he narrates the simple, even banal, details of his life—the conversations, the anxieties, the judgments—and the lives of those around him, attempting to present the reality of his existence. But the author has gone too far for some of his family and friends, who now refuse anything to do with him, and there is a segment of his homeland’s populace who are angry with his confession as well. Apparently revealing intimate details of one’s life has not become a part of Norwegian life the way it has in the United States, where we have a thriving culture of confession.

My Struggle is a hybrid narrative, the kind of collage of truth and fiction David Shields praises in Reality Hunger. In this first volume (there are six in all, totalling over 3500 pages), Knausgaard includes intricate conversations from when he was eight, conversations that could not be accurate (the book has thus been marketed as a novel), as well as philosophical digressions in which Knausgaard discusses how humans have created ideas about themselves and their civilizations. But most of the book is made up of overwhelmingly close attention to the details of everyday life, and as Knausgaard tries to get more reality into his story, it becomes clear that this reality is his. Time, for example, is handled on a personal scale. Nearly eighty pages of the first section is devoted to the youthful machinations of getting drunk and trying to hook up with a particular girl on New Year’s Eve, but then, in a prepositional phrase, years will pass. A moment in which something petty or mean-spirited is said, often by his father, can become bigger than whole decades.

An unavoidable question when approaching this work is trying to understand the literary allusion that is the title; a German translation would render it Mein Kampf (the book uses different names in various European editions). But in Book One, Knausgaard only ever addresses this foreboding literary predecessor metaphorically; in fact, he seems to try to ignore it as best he can (though apparently he does discuss Hitler’s book at length in volume six). The titular struggle—all consuming and subtle at the same time—is to escape the meaning of the past. To become an adult Knausgaard feels that he must disallow himself what he calls “soft emotions”: nostalgia, sentimentality, and sympathy. When he was young he felt everything was connected and full of meaning, a feeling he now distrusts and wishes to dismiss, questioning his emotional reactions in and to the past. Again and again in the book he tells us that some belief or idea he had no longer matters, that the stunning beauty of a Norwegian evening is the “purest form of meaninglessness.” He does this so often, however, and often while reacting emotionally to whatever he is trying to deny, that he sometimes comes off as a stubborn teenager saying he doesn’t care when it is clear that he cares very much.

This affected indifference is perhaps a central paradox in a work with many paradoxes, and the paradoxical nature of the narrative is where it gets much of its energy. The style of the book, for example, is at the same time off-hand and highly structured. For the most part, it is written in a simple, conversational anti-style, without worry about cliché or lovely sentences. But even if some of the sentences seem unmediated, even lazy, an orchestration becomes evident. The form becomes a model of Knausgaard’s thought processes—meditative, digressive, loose, and then suddenly focused.

The second part of Book One details the immediate aftermath of the death of Knausgaard’s father, who has drunk himself to an early grave. Knausgaard and his brother travel back to their boyhood home and discover that their father had been living in squalid conditions with his mother, their grandmother. They begin cleaning up his mess, hauling away moldy, shit-stained clothes and couches, throwing out bottles, scrubbing every surface clean. This seems a perfect allegory for Knausgaard’s own work of trying to get rid of the meaning of the past. As he cuts down the massive undergrowth in the yard, though, he can’t stop crying. Those soft emotions are not easy to escape and in his writing Knaussgard struggles to free himself from the ideas and meanings we have embedded in our culture through them.

Of course, we do have a deep faith in our ability to figure it all out, and we have created a universe in our own image using a system of representation, language, that we can not escape. But although Western civilization has moved progressively toward making our intellect the basis of our lives, this certainly isn’t the case globally; the mysteries of the gods are alive and well, for better or worse. One of the moments of apparent deep joy in the book is when Knausgaard meets the poet Olav H. Hauge, who reads a poem Knausgaard describes as belonging to the infinite. On the one hand he may be mocking the reaction of his younger self, but there seems to be some vestigial belief in the value of the poem, an example of art which is concerned with more than the merely human.

This seems to be the struggle then: how do we get beyond ourselves? How do we go about our daily business knowing the illusions, delusions, and confusions that are at work in ourselves and in our language, that tool we have created to try and get beyond ourselves? Many have told us (and it seems obvious) that we ultimately can’t get beyond these constructions, but this doesn’t mean we should dismiss the effort. Since completing this work, Knausgaard has abandoned writing, at least for the time being, perhaps due to exhaustion. But the record of Knausgaard’s struggle offers readers of contemporary literature a fascinating take on the ongoing discussion regarding reality and representation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Leanne Shapton
Blue Rider Press ($30)

by Justin Wadland

Swimming has appeared from time to time in Western literature, often as a test of manly endurance. Odysseus swam for two days in the wine-dark sea, while Beowulf made it for seven, wearing a suit of armor and battling sea monsters along the way. Ben Franklin stripped down, leapt into the Thames, and demonstrated his aquatic expertise all the way from Chelsea to Blackfryars. Lord Byron braved the Hellespont and survived to write a witty poem about it. F. Scott Fitzgerald even turned it into a metaphor: “All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.” And then there is that famous John Cheever story, “The Swimmer,” in which the protagonist follows a river of swimming pools though suburban Connecticut. Yet Swimming Studies may be the first literary book entirely devoted to the grueling agonies and occasional ecstasies of competitive swimming.

It is fortunate that someone with Leanne Shapton’s sensibilities and talent has plunged into the depths of the sport. In her teens, Shapton tried out for the Canadian Olympic team, and ever since, has been unable to leave the pool entirely. “When I swim now, I step into water as though absentmindedly touching a scar. My recreational laps are phantoms of my competitive races,” she writes. Willard Speigelman, in an essay published in American Scholar a few years ago, observed that the loneliness of the long-distance swimmer is much lonelier than that of the long-distance runner. Shapton precisely and accurately describes the state of mind a swimmer experiences as a result of the sensory deprivation: “As I swim, my mind wanders. I talk to myself. What I can see through my goggles is boring and foggy, the same view lap by lap. Mundane, unrelated memories flash up vividly and randomly, a slide show of shuffling thoughts. They flash up and fade, like the thoughts that float peripherally before sleep, either inconsequential or gathering momentum into anxiety before eventually dissolving.”

The book is composed of fluid associations, and it subtly moves from Shapton’s teen years as a competitive swimmer to her later years as an adult trying to understand how this obsession fits into her life. The individual pieces have titles like “Quitting,” “Goggles,” and “Bathing,” and often dramatically shift from past to present, as if the subject itself were refracting through waves on the surface of a pool. Along the way she meditates on the physical and metaphysical dimensions of swimming, churning together reflections on family, relationships, aging, death, and other heavy topics. The density often generates serious undertow. Her fascination with theTitanic, for instance, propels one essay. At a museum exhibit, she has the opportunity to touch a piece of the famous ship: “A hole about one and half inches is cut through the top of the plexi so a visitor can extend a finger down toward the scrap and, indeed, touch the Titanic. I look at the small grubby cloud on the black metal where people have stabbed their fingers. It’s a strange, morbid glory hole, a Blarney stone of tragedy; me, the doubting-Thomas tourist.”

The book itself is an object to behold; clearly Blue Rider Press invested much into its production quality. Interspersed throughout are photographs and Shapton’s own watercolor paintings of swimmers, pools, and other water-related things, usually presented with curatorial commentary and brief narrative that add another dimension of meaning to the overall work. One section titled “Body Size” displays her extensive collection of swimming suits. The accompanying captions and prose snippets explore the aging body and the drives of habit, working their way toward this telling observation from psychologist Adam Phillips: “Our excesses are the best clues we have to our own poverty; and our best way of concealing it from ourselves.”

Swimming Studies feels like a book that had to be written, but more importantly it contains an astonishing amount of grace. “Do I have a long-term goal?” Shapton asks toward the end, as she gets back into training with a master’s team. “If anything, it’s to figure out what to do with something I do well but no longer have any use for . . . The one thing that I am formally trained at is swimming. I’m aware that I rely on this training when I’m working . . . But I don’t know where to put the old skill, if I can, or even want to, incorporate it into my adult life.” Even if Shapton ultimately quits her master’s team in favor of the fine art of bathing, she seems to have found, by writing this book, what to do with swimming. The writing, the artwork, and the arrangement embody a discipline not unlike that of an elite athlete: the whole thing looks easy, belying no trace of the countless hours of training and hard work that went into making the beautiful seem elegant and entirely natural.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Daisy Rockwell
foreword by Amitava Kumar
Foxhead Books ($25)

by Evan Harris

For some years, Daisy Rockwell has been blogging and posting her paintings under the pseudonym “Lapata.” Rockwell’s new volume The Little Book of Terror is a selection from that material, a curating in which the reader will find essays written with an innovative voice and illustrated by color-rich paintings in a style that blends the complex and the quaint. With the availability of this book, readers have an opportunity to encounter Rockwell’s perspective outside of the currents of the Internet: in print, her images and writings gain a contemplative and self-contained space, an autonomy totally appropriate to the quality and strength of Rockwell’s efforts toward personal political expression.

In the first section of the book (entitled “Why Do They Hate Us?”), Rockwell writes about the atmosphere following the events of September 11, 2001. The reader learns that she was a University professor at the time, teaching Hindi-Urdu and South Asian literature. Some of her students were Muslim by birth, with families from India and Pakistan. Rockwell writes of suspicion being leveled at people with Muslim backgrounds with a keen criticism, and ends the section on a deeply probing note:

Why do they hate us, indeed.
And who are they?
And who are we?

The following two sections of The Little Book of Terror (“Blood Lust” and “The Best of All Possible Care”) present groupings of Rockwell’s paintings, including images depicting Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Iraqi premier Saddam Hussein, among others. Writing alongside her paintings, she develops her themes using extreme economy and restraint, and with an active withholding of judgment of the people she discusses. It is a singular and interesting style—a very intentional and controlled diction of remove, which acts as a light trained directly on the question of judgment itself: who is judging whom? And who is to judge? The book is a meditation on moral ambiguity, yet it supports flashes of certainty. It is a rejection, for example, of the fear mongering of war propaganda.

Following the interlude of a section entitled “Little Green Men,” the final section of the book, called “Rogues Gallery,” includes paintings of several terrorists, including John Walker Lindh (dubbed “The American Taliban”). Lindh is rendered in dark plum purple; he is bulky and shadowy, looking out in an intense way from beneath his eyebrows. In the background, like wallpaper, brighter purple and yellow flowers reach across a mottled but bright green field. The color in the painting has an intense brightness but also an intense depth. There’s a sense that overlapping and even contradictory lenses are being used to look at this subject.

In the text accompanying this painting, readers will notice deadpan humor, careful culling of the facts, and meticulous crafting of the right few words. Rockwell distills the form of the essay into something like the combination of a news report, pithy remark, and poem:

John Walker Lindh is the ultimate foreign exchange student.
He left the U.S. to study Arabic and ended up training with al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
His Arabic is reportedly quite good.

The Little Book of Terror is dissent at its most considered. Here, Rockwell speaks questioning to power; complexity to the simplistic, black and white militaristic stance of war; and ambiguity to the legitimacy of the so-called “war on terror” being conducted by the United States. By offering her point of view in a blend of discernment, humor, outrage, and ethical sense, Rockwell bravely makes a case for the value—the necessity—of personal political expression across the arts and beyond.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder
Penguin Press ($36)

by John Toren

Sometimes the best books are talked rather than written. This is because the challenge of facing an audience that might well fall asleep or leave requires that an author measure words carefully, avoiding tiresome digressions and tedious asides designed merely to cover some anticipated minor objection from academic colleagues—in short, to keep to the point. Some examples? Igor Stravinsky’s The Poetics of Music; Christopher Dawson’s Religion and the Rise of Western Culture; Italo Calvino’sSix Memos for the Next Millennium; Gabriel Marcel’s The Mystery of Being.

Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century falls into this category. It consists of a series of conversations taking place across several months between Judt and Timothy Snyder, an expert in the history of Eastern Europe (though he hails from the depths of Ohio) about the course of Western civilization during the century we recently completed. Judt, an English historian widely known for his articles in the New York Review of Books and his highly-praised history of modern Europe, Postwar, among other things, does most of the talking. But Snyder is no slouch, and he adds plenty of his own comments, insights, quibbles, and leading questions to move the conversation along.

In crafting the manuscript Judt didn’t face the challenge of keeping a live audience amused, but he faced a more considerable one—he was struggling with ALS at the time. No time to consult the notes or nuance the position. This is magisterial conversational history, off the top of the head, as it were.

The book’s title is a bit of a misnomer, however. It might better have been called Rethinking the Twentieth Century, or Talking the Twentieth Century, because that’s what Judt and Snyder are doing. Every chapter begins with a few autobiographical pages, as Judt describes his parents’ and grandparents’ backgrounds in Eastern Europe, his youthful infatuation with Zionism, and his career as an academic historian in England, France, Berkeley, and New York. These personal reminiscences are refreshing rather than self-indulgent; they give us an inside look at what the career of an academic historian might be like, and how his background and personal life might affect his career moves and choice of research topics. They also give us a rather scathing (and fairly accurate) critique of the pressure brought to bear on genuine historical scholarship by the onslaught of various “hyphenated” disciplines during the last half-century. Judt writes:

What happens, after all, when the proletariat ceases to function as an engine of history? At hands of practitioners of social and cultural studies in the 1970s the machine could still be made to work: you merely replaced “workers” with women; or students, or peasants, or blacks, or—eventually—gays, and indeed whichever group had sound reason to be dissatisfied with the present disposition of power and authority.

Which brings to mind yet a third strand to these wide-ranging conversations. Judt is not only rethinking the century and analyzing the shifting currents of academic fashion he was immersed in, and found himself swimming against more often than not; he’s also rethinking the ideas that populated the intellectual landscape during the twentieth century, and especially its early decades, when Marxists, communists, labor-socialists, syndicalists, Fascists, Nazis, and liberals struggled for control of their neighbors, comrades, constituencies, parties, nations—and the world.

These discussions are interesting, though as the conversation progresses we begin to feel, reading between the lines, that ideas per se had almost nothing to do with shaping the twentieth century, except in so far as they drove men and women to form allegiances with one another for the purpose of seizing power and destroying other similarly “committed” groups. After all, the logical deficiencies of Marx’s teleological theories of historical development had been largely exposed by the turn of the twentieth century. Marxism was theoretically dead. But that didn’t stop organizers, reformers, labor leaders and revolutionaries from making use of his pseudo-scientific prognostications to bolster their self-confidence and rally their cohorts. This is no longer a matter of thinking, however, so much as of persuading for political ends.

Yet Judt, like most intellectual historians of the era, loves to talk about Orwell, Camus, Antonio Gramsci, Koestler, the Spanish Civil War, and all the rest, as if it were a grandiose tale on the order of Parsival, or better yet, Orlando Furioso. He does it well, with erudition poking its head up in the midst of nearly every conversational aside. And many readers, myself included, enjoy reading about such things—up to a point. But halfway through the book, we begin to get the odd impression that Leon Blum is the twentieth century’s dominant figure. In part this reflects Judt’s focus, early in his career, on French intellectual history; it also reflects his estimable concern for social justice, and his desire to find models of exemplary conduct in a century replete with tyrants, ideologues, and mass-murderers. He could have done worse. Blum was France’s first Jewish prime minister. A Marxist, he distrusted the French communists but relied on their support. That was a mistake, though he would never had risen to power without them. During his tenure as leader of the Popular Front, the French government instituted the 40-hour work week, paid holidays for employees, and collective bargaining. It’s hardly a proletariat utopia, but a remarkable achievement under the circumstances.

There are two passages that highlight what might be called the occupational shortcoming of Judt’s interpretation—an overemphasis on intellectuals. At one point he writes that “the biggest story of the twentieth century” was how so many smart people could have developed such astounding misconceptions about the destructive import of communism “with all the terrible consequences that ensued.” This could be considered the “biggest story” only by an intellectual historian who imagines that if “the intellectuals” had not been so blinded, everything might have turned out differently. As if the intellectuals were responsible for Stalin and Hitler murdering their millions—or could have done anything about it.

The second telling passage concerns a more recent generation:

The year 1968 is crucial because a new generation was emerging for whom all the old lessons seemed irrelevant. Precisely because the liberals have won, their children had no grasp of what had been at stake in the first place. Aron in France, Hook in America, Habermas in Germany all took a very similar view: the crucial asset of Western liberalism was not its intellectual appeal but its institutional structures.

There are some strange lacunae in this passage but the central point is well taken and needs to be reemphasized and expanded: intellectual appeal is never important except to academics who make their living by noodling out the details and ramifications of arcane ideas that are seldom acted upon; meanwhile, institutional structures—courts of law, legislative assemblies, labor review boards and all the rest—are important to everyone who falls under their purview. Property rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech, habeas corpus: such notions date back several centuries at least and there is little glamour left in them, but they mean far more to most people than what Camus said to Sartre one day at a theater in Montparnasse.

Timothy Snyder sums all of this up when he comments:

If Leon Blum has to muddle through his own Marxism in the 1930s and finds his hands tied, that may be something of a national disaster; if Blum is more confused than he should be when he finally gets into power, that’s a European problem. But after the war, when France matters least as a traditional power, then—at least I think this is your argument if one puts all the books together—discourse matters more because the French only matter in so far as people are listening to them or not listening to them.

To which Judt replies: “That’s very well said and summarized.”

But for Judt himself, French ideas came to matter less and less in the course of time, and he found himself drifting away from that field toward the recent history of Eastern Europe. He began making friends with Polish, Czech, and Hungarian scholars who were not merely students of someone else’s revolution—they were in the process of making a revolution of their own. And Judt was also, no doubt, relieved that in the context of Eastern European liberation, he no longer had to balance his socialist ideals against the brutal and repressive tactics of those who were ostensibly pursuing them. Marxist apologetics fall by the wayside, and we enter the domain of Vaclav Havel, the Helsinki accords, and the politics of “as if”:

The politics of “as if” could take two forms. In some places it was possible to behave as though the regime was open to negotiation, taking seriously the hypocrisy of its laws and—if nothing else—revealing the emperor’s nakedness. Elsewhere, particularly in states like Czechoslovakia where even the illusion of political compromise had been destroyed—the strategy consisted of acting at an individual level as if you were free: leading, or trying to lead, a life grounded in non-political notions of ethics and virtue.

In the course of their erudite stroll across the recent history of Eastern Europe, Judt and Snyder dump on Milan Kundera for a page or two—rather unfairly, I think—and proceed to describe Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor of the Polish magazine Kultura, as the most important Cold War liberal in the world. (Who?) The flow of analysis remains in the sphere of intellectual history, on the order of: “The Central Europe of Nicholar Kaldor, a Hungarian economist whom I knew in Cambridge, was still a German-speaking Central Europe. . . . But the next generation was writing in Hungarian. The only foreign language that they learned obligatorily was Russian . . .” And so on. By the time the Berlin Wall falls and the various colored revolutions take place, however, socialist rhetoric has taken such a beating that the only thing left standing to replace the decrepit Soviet model is a Thatcherite capitalist individualism.

Judt accepted a teaching position in New York City in 1987, and fell in love with the place. The way he describes its appeal underscores how unacademic his approach to scholarship is, yet how deeply committed to participating in the grand conversation that, in his view, might just lead us to a better world.

At one point he’s offered a job at the University of Chicago. He declines, and explains his reasoning:

From an academic point of view, New York resembles the continental European model rather than the Anglo-American template. The most important conversations in town are not those conducted among academics behind college walls, but the broader intellectual and cultural debate exchanged across the city and taking in journalists, independent writers, artists and visitors as well as the local professoriate. Thus, at least in principle, universities are culturally and intellectually integrated into the wider conversation. In this sense at least, by staying in New York I could also remain European.

Judt and Snyder then engage in an extended discussion of historiography—what makes history history—and the sorry state of modern history as an academic discipline. The whistle-stops on this route will be familiar to many—Gibbon, Michelet, Butterfield, A.J.P. Taylor, Quentin Skinner, Hannah Arendt—though an entirely different itinerary could also be adduced. It’s interesting stuff, though we seem to be slipping into a slightly less compelling key. Judt is also concerned that intellectuals at large find it increasingly difficult to exert any kind of influence on political events nowadays. And when they do, it often seems to be for the wrong causes. An outspoken opponent of the invasion of Iraq, Judt refers to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as “contemptible,” and after appearing on a panel with David Brooks, he offers the opinion that Brooks “knows nothing.” There are moments when Judt seems almost to be endorsing the centuries-old notion of enlightened despotism. You know the line: Voltaire influenced Frederick the Great; why can’t I influence anyone?

As usual, one-liners abound:

Thus, labels to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no such thing as a ‘global intellectual’; Slavoj Žižek does not actually exist.

If you look at the history of nations that maximized the virtues that we associate with democracy, you notice that what came first was constitutionality, rule of law and the separation of powers. Democracy almost always came last.

. . . Americans rarely encounter a foreign currency, nor do they consider themselves affected by the dollar’s relationship to other currencies . . . The United States therefore remains mired in a series of myopic considerations, even though it is still the only world power and exercises huge military leverage across the globe.

As for Washington: that is not a place in which dissent, or indeed intellectual activity of any other kind, is encouraged.

But just when when’re starting to wonder if we should have left this particular dinner party a bit earlier, Judt and Snyder come roaring back into the realm of economic theory with a discussion of Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, and how the British reformers of the nineteenth century began to ask, and answer, the question we’re still asking today: How do you manage the human consequences of capitalism? In England, Judt observes, the question was usually put in ethical, and often religious terms: What do you do with the downtrodden poor who have come into the cities to labor in the factories? In Germany, on the other hand, it was posed in prudential terms: How can a conservative state prevent social despair boiling over into political protest?

It seems we’re right back where we started from, though the story is made more interesting the second time around by the inclusion of the English example of intermittently successful reform without too much revolutionary crisis or ideological cant as accompaniment. The theories of William Beverage crop up repeatedly. The man is hardly on the order of Marx or Camus in terms of name recognition or cachet, but he was evidently more successful at reaching the desired end.

Summing it all up, Judt writes:

In this perspective, the great victors of the twentieth century were the nineteenth-century liberals whose successors created the welfare state in all its protean forms. They achieved something which, as late as the 1930s, seems almost inconceivable: they forged strong, high-taxing and actively interventionist democracies and constitutional states which could encompass complex mass societies without resorting to violence or repression.

He adds that we would be foolish to abandon this heritage carelessly . . . though he fears we may be in the process of doing so.

We leave this section not at all convinced that Judt has a firm grasp of the nuts and bolts of economics. The only specific reference to such matters that I can recall concerns the price of bread in France. Then again, those who profess to be economists have done little to inspire confidence either. Judt doesn’t think much, in fact, of the ascendancy of economics as an intellectual discipline. Those who practice it tend to ask the wrong question—whether a policy is efficient or inefficient—without pausing first to ask whether the end result is worth pursuing in the first place.

Judt considers himself, not an economist or even a social scientist, so much as a moraliste in the French tradition stretching from Montaigne to Camus. “My historical studies,” he writes, “no less than my journalistic publications, were driven by an explicit set of contemporary concerns and civic commitments.” He also shares with these writers another important quality: he writes well.

The end result is a literary package on the order of The Education of Henry Adams. It may not excite the academics or the pundits much, but it will give enormous pleasure to any reader who possesses even a passing familiarity with the ideas and events under review.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

C.G. JUNG: A Biography in Books

Sonu Shamdasani
W.W. Norton & Company ($65)

by Nor Hall

Bliss for a bibliophile, this “browse” through C.G. Jung’s library contains two hundred pages of photographed books that practically smell of stamped leather, ink, parchment, dye and paint. An exquisite visual presentation of volumes that Jung studied, as well as a number he made painstakingly by hand, benefits from the same high quality photography featured in The Red Book: Liber Novus (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), also prepared for publication by Sonu Shamdasani, editor and translator. Shot with sensuous precision, often floating on velvety black, the books and manuscripts appear graspable—in some cases, edible.

Shamdasani, a sort of detective in the history of science, is careful to say that this book should not be taken as an inventory or catalogue but rather represents a browse or serendipitous stroll through a library. It’s an intensely focused stroll, led by someone with enough experience in the territory to illustrate every turn by footnote or anecdote. His erudition and wit shape the text into an intriguing, quietly argued intellectual biography, beginning with Jung’s boyhood craving to read.

At sixteen Jung acquired a 1563 edition of Erasmus printed in Rotterdam, which appears here in three images: the spine looking like aged green cheese, a color-printed title page with woodcut, and a spread of page 432 in the Dutch humanist’s essay Necessitas (written in Greek and Latin) showing Jung’s pencil marks in the margin. Significantly, one of the marked passages is the Delphic oracle’s phrase “Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit”—“called or not, god will be present.” This phrase would later appear inscribed in stone on the lintel of Jung’s home on the Lake of Zurich and, finally, on his headstone.

Jung’s personal library is still intact. The author’s photos show warmly lit shelves overseen by busts of Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Caesar. There are notes to the architect explaining how he wants the room designed—to allow for his wife Emma to do her work in the library while he was in a nearby completely enclosed room doing psychoanalysis with patients. Of course there were books in that room too, close at hand.

Jung’s library was an essential adjunct to his analysis locus [as he called his study/consulting room], and there are not a few anecdotes of his reaching to his bookshelves to show something in a book that demonstrated a striking parallel to a patient’s fantasy in a therapeutic session. On the one hand, while the contents of the collective unconscious emerged spontaneously, on the other, the psychotherapist required scholarly knowledge and capability to recognize them correctly. The thresholds of the house, library, and book were openings to the illuminated, cross-indexed psyche of those who entered.

This philological approach to psychoanalysis by way of classical comparative scholarship attracted writers and scholars—among them, Herman Hesse, whose Demian, shown actual size in original sage-grey edition with brown and gold embossed lettering: Demian, Die Geschichte einer Jugend von Emil Sinclair, was written before he met Jung but after reading him.Siddhartha and Steppenwolf both came after encounters between the two men and their minds.

Jung collected in waves according to obsessions that lasted for decades: classical philosophy and humanism, folklore and mythology, alchemy, Eastern spiritual traditions. That last phase culminated in the Bollingen edition of Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching, a publishing phenomenon due in part to Jung’s last moment coup in a foreword that gives explicit direction for the ancient text’s divinatory use.

Shamdasani laces a description of the evolving library with annotated manuscripts indicating not only the etiology of Jung’s perceptions by way of Meister Eckhart, Kant, Schopenhauer, Goethe, von Hartmann, Janet, Flournoy, and Bleuler (among others—all photographed in manuscript or print editions) but also the trajectory of his thinking. Legible images of his hand and typewritten pages supplemented by quotes from letters, like one to Freud about an ecstatic foray into myth, document the development of his psychology. “All my delight in archaeology (buried for years) has sprung into life again. Rich lodes open up for the phylogenetic basis of the theory of neurosis.”

Alongside these images, there are extraordinary books displayed in first editions—Blake’s color-soaked Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the 17th-century Rosarium Phliosophorum, Dante’sDivine Comedy, and the original handwritten manuscript of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. Some of these items come from Jung’s collection and some from the collection of the renowned rare books collector Martin Bodmer whose Swiss foundation displays priceless reading matter from Egyptian papyrus to the Gutenberg Bible. It took reading the acknowledgements to figure out that the Bodmer collection is featured so magnificently here because it hosted an exhibition of The Red Book that was the impetus for C.G Jung: A Biography in Books. Each Bodmer book shown is one that informed Jung’s thinking. Thus Shamdasani’s widened sense of “personal library.”

Beautiful handwriting, calligraphy, letterpress printing and jewel-like painting carry the visual thread of the Biography. Jung—who once remarked “language itself is nothing other than an image!”—spent years articulating the experiences of a self-compelled interior journey. Traveling like a mad monk through his own Middle Ages, he religiously recorded encounters with dreamlike, full-fledged narrating forces that captivated his attention with their voices and startling appearances. Whenever he turned inward to attend these visions, in deliberately invoked imaginative sessions, he noted what transpired, eventually amassing a series of Black Notebooks, three of which are displayed in Biography as source material for his developing analytical technique, several volumes of his Collected Works, and for the colossal Red Book full of complex graphic artistry.

There is a line that passes directly from the illuminated manuscript of the monk in a 13th-century scriptorium through Jung’s paintings of his visions to the contemporary comic book. I am prompted to that thought by the story that when Jung published the large format Man and His Symbols in 1964, he insisted that it be issued by a popular press and chose Dell, a publisher of comic books. The mid-point of the archetypal line is clear in the drawing of a Herculean Assyrian statue from the Louvre (Roscher’s Lexicon in Jung’s library) next to the star studded epiphany of the superhero Izdubar adored by tiny man and phalanx of crocodiles (Jung’s illuminated painting).

Jung’s defining persistence and patience led him to solitary immersion in obscure projects for decades at a time. Despite his desire to reach the ordinary suffering human being, his quest took the long way around through a forest of ancient alchemical texts out of which he extracted a thousand terms recorded in an eventual lexicon. Seventeen pages of Biography are dedicated to handwritten, symbol-filled spreads of those never seen copybooks—prima materia for Jung’s volumes on alchemical psychology. Once he had wanted to be a man of the world and “hang up exact science and put away the scholar’s gown” (declared in 1912 as he was first distancing himself from Freud), but his search, wandering according to his “human heart,” always led back to the bookshelves and to his pens—used literally to figure out complex ideas in line drawings.

Reading Jung’s words about wandering I heard the echo of a final walk I took with Norman O. Brown, another scholar whose heart’s locus was among his books. We were walking along the cliff overlooking wide beaches north of Santa Cruz, very slowly due to his Alzheimer’s. He stopped above a particularly evocative vine-draped cave, and said, ”I used to go looking for Dionysus.” Oh, really, I said, where did you look? “In libraries.”

The arc of Shamdasani’s circumambulation around Jung’s library includes the well known—Paracelsus, Freud, Joyce—but also turns to focus on the unknowns, many of them women like the medium Helene Preiswerk and the scholar of hermetic sciences Mary Atwood. The signed photogravure portrait on her book’s title page shows a heavily cloaked Victorian woman in a white bonnet sitting in a garden. She has a book in her lap with a finger holding her place and looks up as if giving a lesson. This image of a hand pointing to a line in a book (we don’t know what it is) within a book (Atwood’s Dissertation on Celebrated Alchemical Philosophers) within a book (Biography) silently captures the magic of Shamdasani’s search into the layered reaches of Jung’s mind.

This book could be read profitably in tandem with Jung’s autobiographical Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, though interested readers might want to know about the missing chapters on Toni Wolff and William James discovered by Shamdasani in another of his archival foraging trips, Jung Stripped Bare by His Biographers, Even (Karnac, 2005). Jung read with a robust lifelong desire to equip his practice with a force of knowledge greater than the force of subjective belief that most early psychiatrists fell back on when meeting the disease of their patients. The legendary strength and physical endurance he relied on for building towers and carving stone also served long rounds of grappling with the angels of a new psychology. The texts we are given to almost touch add weight and wings to that accomplishment.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

JUBILEE HITCHHIKER: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan

William Hjortsberg
Counterpoint ($42.50)

by Mark Terrill

Two decades in the making, over 850 pages in length and four pounds in weight, printed in fine print and reaching a total of somewhere around 600,000 words, Jubilee Hitchhiker appears to be every bit of the epic, all-inclusive biography that Brautigan fans have long been anticipating. And things start off with a bang. In the very first paragraph of the first chapter the reader is plunged into the immediate scenario of Brautigan’s suicide on September 16th, 1984, at the age of 49. The Winchester Western Super X .44 Magnum hollow-point bullet fired from the nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 28 revolver explodes through Brautigan’s skull, splattering brains and blood across the stacks of manuscripts and notebooks on the work table in the living room on the second floor of his three-story house in Bolinas, California.

Hjortsberg spares no details in his grisly depiction of the scene, which reads in part like a forensic report, reminding the reader of the cold, exacting prose of the central section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The details do not let up as Hjortsberg describes the slow decay of Brautigan’s body until it was finally discovered on October 25th, well over a month later. The rest of the chapter is devoted to descriptions of the autopsy and cremation, interspersed with the responses to his suicide from his daughter and various friends, with quotations from many of the obituaries and newspaper articles that followed his death. Much like Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s great parable of alcoholic self-destruction and losing battles fought with personal demons (echoing in many ways Brautigan’s own tragic destiny), Jubilee Hitchhikerbegins with the ending.

How could it come to be that one of the most popular cult figures of the 1960s, author of such well-known and bestselling books as Trout Fishing in AmericaA Confederate General from Big SurIn Watermelon SugarThe Abortion, as well as several other novels and collections of poetry and short stories translated into more than twenty languages which went through numerous editions and printings, could commit suicide in his own home and lie there undiscovered for well over a month, as though the rest of the world had forgotten about him and was no longer concerned with his whereabouts or well-being?

Since Brautigan’s initial burst of creative energy in San Francisco in the first half of the ’60s, in which he wrote the above titles that secured his reputation as one of America’s most unique talents, and his subsequent rise to international fame in the early 1970s, Brautigan had gradually fallen on hard times. Alcohol, marital problems, dwindling book sales, lagging self-esteem, and increasing doubts about his ability as a writer further complicated those hard times. Add into this volatile mix Brautigan’s erratic social behavior, a notorious penchant for skirt-chasing, a chameleon-like personality with mood swings as extreme as the fabled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a megalomania that alienated even the best of his friends, a passion for firearms, and latent obsessions with bondage and suicide, and the long, lonely silence in which Brautigan’s body began to decompose in his house in Bolinas becomes easier to understand.

Following the sobering introductory chapter of Jubilee Hitchhiker, Hjortsberg takes the reader back to the very beginning, delineating the roots of Brautigan’s family, his birth on January 30th, 1935, in Tacoma, Washington, the splitting up of his parents (Brautigan never knew his father), and his youth in the Pacific Northwest with his mother and younger siblings in the aftermath of the Great Depression. The family moved several times, as Brautigan’s mother went through various jobs and relationships with other men, often experiencing near poverty and witness to alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Brautigan was an avid reader and a big fan of the movies, which he attended frequently. While in high school in Eugene, Oregon, he first read the works of Basho and Hemingway, two writers whose clipped, concise style had a lasting influence. Encouraged by the alert and intelligent teacher of his creative writing class, Brautigan began writing poetry and had his first poem published in the school newspaper in 1952. From then on he never stopped writing poetry.

After graduating from high school, Brautigan worked in a packing plant and pursued his two passions: fishing and writing. When he was twenty he fell in love with Linda Webster, who was only fourteen, and whose mother, Edna, became a surrogate mother and confident to the young budding writer. The love was not returned and Brautigan’s frustrated passion turned into a smoldering obsession. Periods of poverty, illness, and depression further exacerbated the irresolvable tension until Brautigan, in an act of sheer desperation, threw a rock through the window of a police station in order to get himself arrested. The arrest resulted in Brautigan being committed to the psychiatric ward of Oregon State Hospital for thirty days, where he was subjected to twelve sessions of electroshock therapy, and where he celebrated his twenty-first birthday.

After his release from the hospital, Brautigan lingered briefly in Eugene and then packed his meager belongings and hit the road, and after a short interlude in Reno, Nevada, arrived in San Francisco in August of 1956. Like a trout swimming instinctively upstream to spawn, Brautigan immediately wound up in San Francisco’s North Beach, home to City Lights Books and the then-bourgeoning San Francisco Renaissance, which had officially been ushered into existence less than a year before at the famous reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl on October 7th, 1955, at the Six Gallery. Brautigan soon met and befriended many of the key players in the San Francisco literary scene, including Michael McClure, Ron Loewinsohn, Robert and Bobbie Louise Creeley, Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and many others. Within a year of his arrival in San Francisco, Brautigan had integrated himself into the North Beach community, married his first wife, Ginny Alder, seen his poetry published increasingly, and been frequently invited to give public readings of his work. Despite being mostly unemployed and relying on selling his blood to cover his expenses, things were looking good for the new kid in town.

After the appearance of his first two poetry collections, The Galilee Hitchhiker (1958) and Lay the Marble Tea (1959), Brautigan became increasingly interested in writing prose and began making his first attempts in that direction, working on the fragments that would eventually become his first novel, Trout Fishing in America. Jack Spicer served as an important and attentive mentor to Brautigan, and typical for Spicer, his advice to Brautigan was somewhat oblique. As Hjortsberg recounts:

“Throw away the good lines,” Spicer said. “Keep the bad lines.” He wanted Richard to come up with something new. Ginny remembered the long silent hours of work. “He didn’t talk much about it. He and Spicer talked. We talked about it together. He’d say, ‘I’ve got a short story.’
“We’d say, ‘No you don’t. You’ve got a poem.’”

On March 25th, 1960, Ginny gave birth to their daughter, Ianthe. Gradually Brautigan’s drinking and mental instability increased and the relationship ended abruptly after Ginny let it be known that she was having an affair. After completing Trout Fishing, Brautigan immediately began A Confederate General from Big Sur, the main character of which was based on a new friend, Price Dunn, an eccentric individualist who worked as a caretaker in Big Sur, providing much of the same kind of inspiration for Brautigan that Neal Cassady gave Jack Kerouac, whose highly acclaimed novel, On the Road, had appeared in 1957. Like Trout FishingA Confederate General was a synthesis of real-life experience, various readings and studies, and Brautigan’s own fertile imagination. In fairly rapid succession there followed In Watermelon SugarThe Abortion, as well as the stories and poems which would make up the collections Revenge of the Lawn and The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. The first half of the ’60s had been very prodigious. It looked like Brautigan was on a roll.

Although technically Brautigan’s second novel, A Confederate General was published first by Grove Press in 1965, but due to poor sales they held back on the publishing of Trout Fishingand rejected his two remaining contracted novels, In Watermelon Sugar and The Abortion. At first exceedingly difficult to place with a publisher despite garnering much praise from all who read the manuscript (it was eventually published in 1967 by Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation, and again in 1969 by Delacorte Press), Trout Fishing went on to sell four million copies, securing Brautigan’s international fame and reputation as a unique American writer, as well as bringing in large sums of cash.

Hjortsberg’s depiction of the ’60s is more than just the usual scan, and he goes into great detail to portray the liveliness of the times as well as the intensely political background, an aspect frequently overlooked when trying to sum up the decade. Although the hippies stole most of the limelight with their colorful and bemusing antics, it was the actually the Diggers who were behind much of the more political and practical logistics of the free concerts, free distribution of food and clothes, and the free press, an aspect in which Brautigan was seriously interested—to the point that he briefly joined ranks with the Diggers and distributed some of his own poetry by way of their guerilla samizdat tactics. Hjortsberg’s in-depth writing on these various factions and their feuds and rivalries is one of the most interesting parts of the book, reminding us that there was much more to the ’60s than just Flower Power and the Summer of Love.

In the early ’70s, when wealth and fame had finally caught up with him, Brautigan bought a ranch in Pine Creek, Montana. Brautigan’s introduction and invitation to Montana first came by way of Thomas McGuane, who had written a favorable review of Trout Fishing for the New York Times Book Review, and who had moved to Montana after selling the screen rights to his first novel, The Sporting Club. The “scene” in Montana, better known as “The Montana Gang,” who often collected in the big kitchen of McGuane’s (“Captain Berserko”) ranch, included other cutting-edge writers, actors, musicians, and artists (e.g. Jim Harrison, Peter Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Jimmy Buffett, Russell Chatham, and Hjortsberg himself), and Brautigan fell in with this hard-partying group, partially attracted by their ability to turn their art into money as well as the lure of Hollywood and the possibility of turning his own work into even more lucrative screenplays.

When Hjortsberg’s own character is introduced into the narrative, he maintains his third-person point of view, thus maintaining his critical objectiveness, and cleverly meeting the challenge of having to write about himself as a character in his own book. There are occasional anecdotes and asides—sometimes they exist as chapters unto themselves—in which Hjortsberg speaks in the first person, but these are so deftly edited into the larger narrative that they in no way detract or interrupt the flow in general. And although Jubilee Hitchhiker is Hjortsberg’s first foray into the field of non-fiction, he comes to this genre with all the skills of a seasoned writer and gifted storyteller, whose screenplay experience obviously enhances the dramatic structure and telling of this biographical epic.

During Brautigan’s first visit to Montana in 1972 he wrote The Hawkline Monster, his first novel since completing The Abortion in 1965. The Hawkline Monster was published in 1974, followed by Willard and His Bowling Trophies (1975), and Sombrero Fallout (1976), as well as the poetry collection, Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork (1976). None of this new work received the same sort of critical reception as his work from the ’60s, and as the ’70s wore on, Brautigan’s success and fame quickly began to fade. For Brautigan the ’60s were both a blessing and a curse, providing the fertile ground and artistic camaraderie in which his writing was able to flourish, only to be so closely associated with that period that for many he was the baby thrown out with the bathwater. For the most part, the novels of the ’70s were received as little more than experiments in genre-bending, and were unable to replicate the quirky genius of his first three novels. Plagued by alcoholism, insomnia, paranoia, and increasing megalomania, Brautigan was clearly in trouble.

In 1976 Brautigan made the first of many visits to Japan, where he was still able to cash in on his lingering fame. During this first trip Brautigan met Akiko Yoshimura and they were married the following year. These trips to Japan also provided the material that would be reworked into the poetry collection June 30th, June 30th (1978), as well as the collection of short stories, The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980).

By the time the 1980s rolled around Brautigan was no longer the darling of the critics and all but forgotten, divorced from his second wife, drinking heavily, frequently traveling and living in various hotels, and at home nowhere. His attempt to reconcile his desire to be a pop star with that of being a serious literary writer had failed, leading him into troubled waters which he was no longer able to navigate. So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away, his ninth novel and the last one to appear in his lifetime, appeared in 1982, ignored or dismissed by the critics. An Unfortunate Woman, Brautigan’s last novel, did not see print until 1994, ten years after his death.

After reading at the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam in 1983, there followed more travels in Europe, a last trip to Japan, and his final return to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1984. A last day in North Beach, vividly recreated by Hjortsberg, in which Brautigan visited many of his old haunts such as Enrico’s and Gino & Carlo’s, with chance encounters in the street with both his ex-wife Akiko and a former girlfriend, were just a few of the last dramatic occurrences that pushed Brautigan over the edge. The next day, on Sunday, September 16th, Brautigan picked up the Smith & Wesson .44 magnum and blew out his brains. In a grim twist of synchronicity (or perhaps not), on that same date in 1960, twenty-four years earlier, Brautigan made a note to himself about the significance of September 16th, it being Mexican Independence Day, and chose that date as the beginning of his work on Trout Fishing in America, jotting down the date on a piece of paper and tacking it on the wall above his typewriter. “I figured September 16 would mean something other than the date of Mexico’s independence. Perhaps some kind of independence for things inside myself.”

Hjortsberg has written a compelling narrative about his friend and former neighbor, solidly written, thoroughly researched, and ample enough to present a detailed portrait of both the writer and his times. And yet—although it seems like a moot point to address the issue of omissions in a work of this size—there is a lingering sense of incompleteness about Jubilee Hitchhiker. Obviously, judging by the scope of Hjortsberg’s project, one of the purposes of the book is to restore Brautigan’s credibility as a writer and debunk the myth of his alleged irrelevance; for too long, Brautigan has been regarded as merely a minor-league appendage to the Beats or a cultural mascot to the hippies. The problem that arises in Hjortsberg’s narrative is a proportional one.

Brautigan’s fame peaked at the beginning of the ’70s and then rapidly began to fade, his bright star becoming a burning fuselage locked into a tailspin from which there was no return. For this period of Brautigan’s life—1970 to his death in 1984—Hjortsberg has dedicated over 400 pages, more than half of the book, detailing in blow-by-blow accounts Brautigan’s slow but steady self-destruction. On the other hand, the critical window in which Brautigan was at the peak of his creative powers, from 1960 to 1965, in which he wrote his first four novels and many of his best poems and stories, is dealt with in a mere eighty-five pages. And although Hjortsberg supplies the readers with some of the many and varied sources of Brautigan’s influences (Sappho, Basho, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Kenneth Patchen, etc.), as well the names of his peers and mentors in San Francisco, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to how a kid from a rural, impoverished, dysfunctional family, with nothing more than a few high school creative writing classes under his belt, could suddenly break away and within a matter of years create works of such idiosyncratic genius and distinctive originality, which were to challenge and redefine the concepts of both prose poetry and modern fiction. Certainly there could have been more insights into Brautigan’s peculiar literary alchemy, a look behind the scenes of the process and procedure involved in the writing of that first wave of the author’s artistic output.

For example, after Spicer’s intense editorial involvement with Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan hoped to benefit again from Spicer’s editorial savvy for a new novel. But Spicer flatly refused, telling Brautigan that he was on his own now. Brautigan then went on to write In Watermelon Sugar, one of his most accomplished, imaginative and poetic works. Was Spicer’s refusal of editorial assistance a key factor in this sudden metamorphosis? Was it being forced to proceed alone, without a safety net, which forced Brautigan into new creative territory and allowed him to achieve full artistic independence? Or did he simply sign a pact with the Devil in the back room of Gino & Carlo’s? Allegedly the original manuscript of Jubilee Hitchhiker was around 2,000 pages, making one wonder what got left on the cutting room floor, and what the criteria were for those edits. A bit of condensing here, a bit of expansion there, might have created a more balanced picture of this very imbalanced writer.

As such, the exegesis of Brautigan’s Faustian transformation from country bumpkin to internationally acclaimed writer remains partly untold, and it’s easy for the reader to come away from Jubilee Hitchhiker with the impression of a deeply troubled writer who devoted more time and energy to destroying himself than to creating his art or cultivating his genius. As the Serbian proverb says, “The good reputation goes far, but the bad goes even much farther.” But as the subtitle of Jubilee Hitchhiker says, this is a “life and times,” and not necessarily a critical analysis of Brautigan’s oeuvre, which might have burst the confines of this already massive and detailed work.

Nonetheless, we can be entirely grateful for the long awaited appearance of this warts-and-all portrait of one of America’s most unique writers, whose legacy is easily on the same footing with all those other great West Coast writers and poets, including Ken Kesey, Charles Bukowski, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, John Fante, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Robinson Jeffers, to mention just a few. As Kesey himself said, “Five hundred years from now, when the rest of us are forgotten, they’ll still be reading Brautigan.” Thanks to Hjortsberg, Brautigan’s place in that literary pantheon is relatively secure. What’s needed now to cement that reputation into place and finalize Brautigan’s rehabilitation is a definitive edition of his collected poems. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another twenty years.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012


Peter Sotos and Jamie Gillis
Feral House ($69)

by Cory Strand

The appearance of a new Peter Sotos text is generally something of an event. Usually published in ridiculously small editions (his last book, Mine, was limited to a mere 100 copies), Sotos’s material speaks to a particularly narrow demographic. His work is a psychedelic amalgamation of true crime, personal memoir, societal critique and “fugue state” fiction exploring aberrant psychologies; often concerned with the private lives of pedophiles and the bizarre, lonely culture of gloryhole trolling, Sotos has carved out a niche virtually unexplored by any other contemporary writer. The sexual violence Sotos details, while explicit and often disturbing, is only a vehicle for a deeper exploration of humanity’s most nihilistic tendencies. His books offer up an eradication fantasy more on par with the arrogance of Nietzsche than the narcissistic pleasure questing of de Sade.

Pure Filth, then, a collaborative work between Sotos and pornography icon Jamie Gillis, seeks to navigate the blurry divide between the lowest point of human imagination and the reality of perceived degradation. As in any Sotos book, interpretation becomes key. Made up of transcripts from a selection of Gillis’s films, the book effectively becomes a black hole of self-images destroyed in the name of capitalism. Gillis is a legendary figure in the porn industry, having appeared in hundreds of films. He is considered a pioneer in the “gonzo” style of pornography, mostly due to his influential On the Prowl series in which porn stars are limo-ed around to various locations (usually adult bookstores) and offered up for free to average men. A number of the On the Prowl films are transcribed in Pure Filth, and while not entirely misogynistic (at least when weighed against some the more underground videos Gillis made, some of which appear here as well), the interplays between Gillis and his starlets become noticeably more condescending as the series drags on. “She was maybe the biggest pig slut whore of all the girls in this book,” Gillis writes of Joelani, one of the stars of Back on the Prowl 2, before conceding “of course, I mean that in a good way.”

This sort of duality informs the majority of the book. What Sotos attempts to find in Gillis’s work isn’t the terminus for depravity but rather the point where art and reality collide, regardless of that art’s supposed worth. There is a terrifying honesty lurking in the films Gillis made, a tendency to identify his female actors as persons even as they’re subjected to revolting sexual brutality (the final transcript, Eve, features the titular starlet being coerced into eating her own vomit off of Gillis’s penis after Gillis has asked her if she wanted to do something else with her life.) Gillis maintained the idea that the films he was making were pure fantasy, and that everyone involved knew it and were free to stop at any time. The transcripts paint a very different picture, though, one in which notions of self-respect are dissolved through financial domination and sexual humiliation. Sotos locates Gillis’s truth as residing “in the difficulties in his personal definition of fun.” Gillis writes in his introduction that his films “contain sexual situations that were taped with as little structure and planning as possible in hope that a little humanity in all its murky glory might get to shine through.” Reading through the films transcribed here, one wonders what sort of humanity surfaces from one person being browbeaten into eating the feces of another by the promise of an extra five dollars. Even Sotos feels compelled to comment, writing that Gillis’s proclivity to attempt to humanize his subjects as opposed to simply objectifying them “continues to strike me as very cruel.”

Ultimately, the point of Pure Filth becomes difficult to ascertain. It’s easy to read it as one provocateur glorifying another, or pornography as a self-perpetuating cycle of human loathing. The parade of defeat the book showcases defies such simple readings, though. Gillis is nothing if not intelligent, and his belligerent directions to his female stars throughout the transcripts betray an intimate knowledge of human psychic endurance, as well as a frightening charisma. “The importance of Jamie Gillis’s vision versus the artistic service of an elemental greater good is yours to play with,” Sotos writes. That may be true, but the book is as exhausting as anything Peter Sotos has published: reading page after page of Gillis dehumanizing his subjects becomes tedious, a sorrowful expression of pleasures at the outer limits.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

TINY HOMES: SIMPLE SHELTER – Scaling Back in the 21st Century

Lloyd Kahn
Shelter Publications ($24.95)

by Niels Strandskov

In the thirty-nine years since he published Shelter, his first compendium of alternatives to the standard American way of building, Lloyd Kahn has created a movement that defies easy categorization, but is instantly recognizable to its adherents. His latest work, Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter, Scaling Back in the 21st Century, focuses on houses under 500 square feet, but his books Homework and Builders of the Pacific Coastinclude many fairly large structures. Some are hand-built, without even a cordless drill on site, while some are put together using the normal techniques of journeyman carpenters. Some are relatively expensive, others built almost for free, with material scrounged from the trash or cut fresh from a forest. Scanning through these works, however, the gestalt of houses that make people feel good to look at or live in is immediately apparent.

Kahn came to publishing almost by accident. A devotee of Buckminster Fuller's popular geodesic domes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kahn found few resources available to the DIY dome-builder. So he, with a few collaborators, put together some primers on dome construction. After selling out many print runs, however, Kahn soured on the whole concept of domes, which were too often drafty, leaky, and inefficient in their use of space. He turned his attention to traditional methods of building (with a few starkly innovative designs thrown in) and published the briskly selling guide Shelter, which prophesied a return to the ancient traditions of building by hand, with mostly natural materials.

With Tiny Homes, Kahn brings his gaze to bear on the elegance of limits in contemporary architecture. Far from the McMansion-filled and heavily foreclosed suburbs of the car culture, we find a distributed community of small builders, self-builders, and bricoleurs who want to keep their dwellings at a human scale and in a funky aesthetic. As with his previous work, Kahn is committed to letting his subjects relate their own stories. While a significant amount of the text and photos in Tiny Homes is by Kahn himself, a large part of this volume highlights the builders' own narratives, which are often heartfelt stories of the philosophies that propelled them to begin building. Although this makes for a slightly disjointed structure, it does allow the reader to experience the emotional drama behind each beam in a way that a standard architecture text might not.

While Shelter and Homework meandered around their subjects with a countercultural lack of concern for specificity or linear explication, and Builders of the Pacific Coast narrowed the focus to a very limited set of possibilities, Tiny Homes explores the rush of small homebuilders in exhaustive detail. A large section of the volume is devoted to listings and descriptions of small house builders for hire, with contact information and price ranges. Kahn is very openly an advocate for the builders and designers he admires, but his tastes are catholic enough to give the reader a fairly wide range of possibilities to consider.

The real joy of Kahn's work, which comes through admirably in Tiny Homes, is in his lively full-color photographs. While Kahn's self-taught style might not always provide the most architecturally accurate view of his visual subjects, his informed discernment tends to bring out details of emotional form that a more polished photographer might miss. He often creates collages of several different shots at various angles, with the edges of the amalgamation left rough. These panoramic views cleverly evoke both the funkiness of the designs and the piecemeal nature of their construction processes. Kahn's idiosyncrasies here provide a treat for the puzzle-solving reader, as the exact relationship of some of the shots is a bit obscure. Turning the book this way and that to visualize the three-dimensional experience of the rooms and exteriors Kahn shoots leaves the reader with a far more holistic understanding of these constructions.

Tiny Homes celebrates the small and the beautiful in a way that few architecture books can match. Lloyd Kahn's verve for his subjects, and their mutual respect for his inspiring works, create community out of the prosaic rap of a hammer on nails and the exultant scent of freshly cut pine. Resurgent nature, rebuilt communities, and resistance to the hum-drum pressures of the Rat Race find their apotheosis in this big, lovely book of little houses.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

BEAUTIFUL SOULS: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

Eyal Press
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ($24)

by Edward A. Dougherty

It is always a dark time, and so this book couldn’t be more relevant. In it, Eyal Press deals with individuals who followed their conscience during the Nazi nightmare, the Yugoslavian atrocities, the current stalemate in Palestine / Israel, and the moral swamps of multinational financial companies. Unlike most typical investigations of dissenters with deep-seeded faith—either political or religious—who are already at odds with the prevailing cultural drift, Beautiful Souls presents insiders who must break with the very group they are part of in order to resist. And because of this, Beautiful Soulsis an important book. But it is Press’s ability to infuse the narrative with an obstinately optimistic view of humanity that makes it such a readable and enjoyable book.

One question drives these accounts: “What caused this person to disobey?” Examining the power of these people’s resistance, it’s easy to put them into a category that’s beyond us, but that’s as dangerous as seeing perpetrators as “monsters.” It’s essential to claim the humanity of both sides, and see ourselves in it. Psychologist François Rochat is quoted as saying that it was rare for people to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, and therefore “one is tempted to think that they were indeed outstanding people, some kind of saint, or heroes of goodness, which in turn means . . . that they are not like us.” This mindset removes them from us, he says, because “they are great people, outstandingly good, which we don’t think we are.”

On the other side, we also don’t see ourselves as ruthless and cruel, people capable of inflicting pain on others. And yet, Press shows that ordinary people who go along with the flow have the capacity for just such things. One factor in this process is what Bibb Latané and John Darley call the “diffusion of responsibility” (the title of their book, the Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? which Press cites, asks another important question). Whether it’s Milgram’s disturbing experiments or the analysis of Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the social dynamic in which we decide is critical. Bauman boldly states that “cruelty correlates with certain patterns of social interaction much more closely than it does with personality features.” The farther away we are from the victim and the more we can pin responsibility for our actions on “higher ups,” the more likely we are to obey and the less likely we are to intervene.

Pair those distances with a more immediate force—the power of conformity—and it is easy to see why there are so few resisters. Conformity pulls at us all because we feel the “pain of standing alone” which is another dimension of the social dynamic. In chapter one, Press presents a Swiss state police commander named Paul Grüninger as an example of someone who breaks the law. It’s important to note that upholding the law, even immigration statutes, was part of Grüninger’s job. His colleagues did not presume to take the law into their own hands, did not risk job loss and reputation loss (and Grüninger did lose both); they didn’t make the law, right?

Press shows why Grüninger’s actions were rare. He does the same with Aleksander Jevtić, a Serb who found himself rounded up by fellow Serbs and crammed into a shed and told to gather up the other Serbs. The remaining Croats would be tortured or killed, and having been beaten in a gauntlet on the way to the barn, the end was clear. Jevtić casually started picking men he knew, on the spot calling them Serbian names, and sending them to safety. Press says that he “stopped only when no more bodies could be squeezed into the area designated for ‘Serbs.’”

The last cases were not spur of the moment choices, but long, slow agonized decisions. In one, an elite Israeli soldier wrestles with his training, his values, his family history, and his national identity. Avner Wishnitzer says the physical demands of his unit set the bar high, but disobeying the army was “ten times harder.” And in the final chapter, a broker for a US bond dealer decides to blow the whistle on shady dealings. Even the epilogue profiles Darrel Vandeveld, a military lawyer who eventually worked on one out of three Guantánamo cases. Through his own painful journey, Vandeveld arrives at the brink of his own decision: refusing to prosecute what had appeared to be “a perfect case.” To do so, he had to not only buck the system but the memories of those lost in battle.

In our own dark times, with issues ranging from bullying to corporate malfeasance, from immigration questions to military actions, each of us must remember that our decisions at school and at work have a moral dimension. Someone is at the other end of the “return” key. Someone is subject to the laws we vote for. Someone is trusting us to do the right thing.

The author helps us understand the simple, everyday ways we justify keeping our heads down, crafting each story in such a way that we begin to wonder, why did this person disobey? And the answers are just as simple. These factors make this a book of hope, a hard-won and clear-eyed hope. The ideas that Press identifies linger long after the details of the stories fade, in part because they are profound. And so, I won’t spoil the grace and thoughtful rewards of Beautiful Souls by itemizing them here. Buy it, read it, use it in book groups and faith communities. Give it to friends and enemies alike. Then sit down and discuss what you encounter.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

Riding Fury Home

Chana Wilson
Seal Press ($17)

by Scott F. Parker

“Maybe if I loved her enough, my mother would heal,” the young Karen (later Chana) Wilson thinks to herself after a visit to the mental hospital. It’s two years and countless electroshock treatments before Gloria is discharged and returns home to her husband and daughter. Not long after, Wilson’s father, the source of stability in her life, leaves the family to spend a research year abroad. In a role reversal that will prove a recurring theme for the remainder of Gloria’s life, the fifth-grade daughter is now largely responsible for her mother’s health and safety, seeing that she doesn’t burn the house down while smoking in bed sedated with sleeping pills. The toll this takes is enormous:

There is a phrase I clearly remember telling myself in my childhood, repeating it like a mantra, a vow, a motto: “I am so strong, I can get through anything.” I had no idea of the cost of such survival, the suppressed longings, the anxiety that became like a second skin. The alternative, to not cope, to possibly let my mother die, was too terrifying.
. . . It wasn’t until adulthood that the immensity of the desertion occurred to me. My mother had left me, a ten-year-old, alone in a house in the middle of the night in the middle of the winter and jumped into the icy Millstone River. She left no note, not even the barest goodbye. Did my mother even think of me as she plunged herself into a cold death, or was her despair so great it overshadowed all other thoughts?

Over her remaining school years, Wilson will see her mother through several suicide attempts. The whole time, her condition remains largely a mystery. When Wilson leaves for college halfway across the country, she does so knowing that if her mother makes another suicide attempt, there will be no one there for her.

The narrative takes a turn when Wilson lands at Grinnell, as she finally has the time and space to attend to some of her own developmental needs. She becomes involved in theater and politics and art, which interest her more than her coursework. Her painful stumblings through the college-dating scene reveal what today would be shocking naïveté. Some of this is due to the repressive sexual attitudes (especially for women) of the early ’60s, and some of it to the author’s low self-confidence. When she and a friend drop out after freshman year and move to San Francisco, it’s no surprise that she quickly joins the feminist movement. “Suddenly, I found myself immersed, gobbling the feminist analysis of the cultural myths we’d all been raised with. And then—bang! —I was thunderstruck. Here was my life, my experiences given name:women’s oppression, patriarchy, male chauvinism.” The men in her life have been selfish disappointments, but women have valuable knowledge to impart: “My God, this is why fucking had been so uninspiring—I had a clitoris!”

For Wilson, the political becomes personal. After rejecting male sexual relationships, she writes, “Logic told me that left only two options: celibacy or lesbianism. It was an intellectual concept, because I wasn’t aware of any erotic feelings for women.” Before long this intellectual frame opens into sexual identification as well and Wilson begins dating women. These affairs, many of which follow the pattern of passionate beginnings and heartbreaking endings, are of interest to the reader mostly insofar as they disclose the political atmosphere of the times.

When Wilson comes out to her mother, the two parts of the book join in a neat synthesis: after brief discouragement on the grounds that lesbianism will make her daughter’s life difficult, Gloria herself comes out. She’s been a closeted lesbian for years, and it was for “treatment” of her condition that she was institutionalized and shocked and drugged when Wilson was a child. Her psychosis is long gone when she joins a thriving New York lesbian scene. Mother and daughter are supportive and encouraging friends to each other in these exciting years, but Gloria’s dependency returns. She joins Wilson in San Francisco and becomes an occasional drag on her daughter’s relationships. As age and illness beset Gloria, the old caregiving dynamic reasserts itself. The difference now is that Wilson—thanks in part to Dana, her wife—has gained confidence and maturity (as well as age) and can relate to her mother with love and maturity.

As the book proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear how unorthodox this memoir is. Instead of relating defining events from the author’s life in order to articulate an aspect of her mature self, the events serve to elucidate the differences between the lives of author and mother. Wilson’s life (her sexual liberation, foremost) becomes a rebuke of the societal wrongs done Gloria and a vindication of her personhood—but Gloria’s life and her suffering amidst an inhospitable political climate are the primary story here. Riding Fury Home, then, is a final gift for a woman who needed so much from a woman who has so much to give.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012