Rassle-Mania: political activist Mickey Z versus apolitical quietist Tom Bradley
by Tom Bradley
[ opinion - may 10 ]
TB: So, Mick, to choreograph our bout of Lawrentian grab-ass, we can start off with some snappy back-and-forth, if you like, bouncing one-liners off each other's headbones. But eventually, I'd like to throw something like this your way...
You and I are comrades, joined at the hip by not one, but two publishers. We both have books out from Raw Dog Screaming Press and The Drill Press. But we occupy opposite ends of one fundamental spectrum: that of politics. Rather, I should say politicization.
I'm in awe of your political writing and speaking - and of the fact that you're the only person on the planet to have appeared in a karate flick with Billy Blanks and a book with Noam Chomsky. But, in the same removed way, hawks and dolphins amaze and chagrin me as they buzz and dive through their respective elements. I could never do that, either.
Studying Neoplatonism, Theravada Buddhism, the Zohar, and so forth, has given me a fair understanding of the concepts of racial, tribal and national karma, and helped me to verbalize what I suspected all along: anything, such as politics, that influences, or strains to influence, the lives of whole ass-loads of people, is to be treated as a spectacle for the soul.
That spectacle can be among the greatest delights of existence. But it can't go beyond aesthetics. I am floored by your political writing and speaking just as flatly, and in the same way, that I'm floored by Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet.
Take one example, upon which you are especially eloquent: America’s military adventures. As you point out, these are the functions of the nasty farting corporatocrats. Those bastards think of themselves as swashbuckling masters of their own and everyone else’s fate. They flatter themselves into believing they’ve transcended the demarcations of blood, geography and culture. But they’re merely the unconscious tools of Universal Balance in its tribal, racial and national manifestations.
This is the message of War and Peace. Politicized people might think Napoleon was the one guy in the world with the greatest autonomy, but Tolstoy, a great fan of the Upanishads, insists that he had the least freedom of any human of his time. He was no freer to waste this army, or to displace that population, than a novelist is free to develop artistically after he has become unduly famous and had the farming of a million imaginations shunted onto his shoulders. (You and I will no doubt face that challenge soon enough, with the help of The Drill Press.)
Entire populations do not kill each other because of the whims or ambitions of one man or group of men. To fancy that is to make the insane mistake of assuming the soul of a peasant or a prole is less important that a prince’s or a president’s. Each spirit is working out its own metempsychotic progress. When masses of them get interrupted in this all-important endeavor by untimely death, it can only be due to the moral debts of the tribe, or nation, or race to which they belong, as intertwined with other nations, races, or tribes.
When the time comes for such collective blood-dues to be paid, a Napoleon, or an Ariel Sharon, or an Obama shows up, and is pressed into service as the mere instrument of Universal Balance, meanwhile racking up dark stains of demerit for his own affiliations.
I'll bet dollars to dog-nuts you disagree.
MZ: Whether it be war, the destruction of our landbase, or any other component of our current global crisis, the precarious state of things is not the result of some preordained theology or unstoppable force of nature. We're in this mess thanks to human decisions. If different decisions had been made in the past, it's likely that we would've had different outcomes. If different decisions are made now, perhaps we'll have better outcomes in the future.
TB: Decisions, definitely. But the question is how much volition the decision makers are excercising. When a nail gets driven into a coffin, the hammer in my hand rings out with mighty self importance.
MZ: Who are defining as the "decision makers"?
TB: I suppose, in the case, say, of the secret war in Pakistan, with the CIA drones wiping out civilians - it's possible Obama at least consciously considers himself to be making the decisions. But the point is that, ultimately, no decisions are made, any more than this or that boulder decides to break off a Utah cliff and slightly alter the course of the Colorado River - to derive a metaphor from my own contemptibly provincial background.
MZ: Those drones are paid for by tax dollars and made possible by our silence. If Americans woke up tomorrow, refused to pay taxes, and shut down the country in protest...the drones would stop.
TB: And when the number of people doing one thing is sufficient to achieve results, it's like the tides or the winds. The result must be, and must recur cyclically, regardless of the superficial appearance of deliberation, or good or evil, our eyes see in it. Politics is the perfect sphere of activity to demonstrate my argument.
MZ: I must admit, I'm not exactly sure what your argument is.
TB: My argument is that any attempt to influence the lives of large loads of people is like sneezing into a tsunami. Demographers know this, and can predict the ebbs and flows and twitches of entire populations like flecks of sediment in a saline solution.
MZ: Depends on what you mean by "influence." If you want to influence large loads of people that they need cell phones, TVs and SUVs, you can. If you want to influence them to surrender their eating habits and adopt a deadly diet, you can. If you want to influence them to keep Africans as slaves or even to support genocide, you can.
TB: When the time comes for genocide, it is the height of hubris for the politicized man to fancy he's "influencing" it one way or another. At most, he's Beach Boy Brian Wilson hanging ten at the crest of the wave, complimenting himself that he is at the forefront, when the whole twenty billion tons of salt water is about to shoot right up his ass.
Anyway, Mick, my pal, we are obviously appearing in stadiums at opposite ends of town. If we want this to be a proper match, is there any way we can move our acts into the same rassling ring? Do you have any topics in mind, other than this peculiar hobby horse of mine: the double doctrine of Karma-Rebirth that manifestly runs the universe and renders politicization a non-sequitur?
MZ: Maybe we should talk about our new books?
TB: Oh, yeah! Why didn't I think of that? No retail instincts whatever.
I could begin it by admitting, sheepishly, to abject un-hepness. When I first encountered Dear Vito's references to "hair metal music" I thought you were talking about the trace amounts of lead which the historico-pathologists have detected in a museum-hank of Beethoven's unruly 'do.
That didn't sound right, so I wound up googling and wikipediating "hair metal," and realized that I missed out on that particular sub-genre of top-ten hit-parade pop-rock because, at the time, I was having my eardrums turned inside out by Bill Evans' terminal trio. You know, with Marc Johnson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums, when he was moving ever deeper into the Shostakovichian modalities.
Bill had an interesting hairdo, come to think of it.
MZ: I happened to see White Lion at L'Amours in Brooklyn and that's how I became hep to the hair metal train.
TB: Amazing! Probably at that very moment, just across the bridge, within walking distance, Cedar Walton was performing with Billy Higgins and Buster Williams. I think I was stumbling around Oaxaca in those days, avoiding the mariachi bands and their slicked-down hairdos.
MZ: Late 1987 or so?
TB: Oh, I was thinking of the early eighties. That was the Mexico sojourn for me. The old abuelas fixing the psilocibin mushroom omelettes high in the mountainside jungle huts, you know. Before the friendly neighborhood dope peddlers started skinning people's heads and stitching their faces on soccer balls. Imagine the skill involved with the needle, not to puncture a perfectly serviceable sporting good!
MZ: Gives new meaning to the phrase "bend it like Beckham."
TB: Definitely. Speaking of handsome metrosexual idols, there's an interesting comparison-contrast that can be drawn between our respective oeuvres.
In "Ho, ho, ho: The End Of Racism And Sexism," one of your myriad virtuosic political essays (which I always read with a mixture of pleasure and envy), you speak brilliantly about the specter of sexism, and how it has "plagued mankind, uh, humanity since caveman, uh, caveperson days." Few of us scrotum-encumbered slobs are stauncher allies of women than you, Mick!
With this in mind, I happened to be reviewing my official writerly business correspondence the other day, and came upon the letter which I wrote to the great Jim Chaffee, our publisher at The Drill Press, giving your book my most orgasmic recommendation. Here's some of it:
"Jim, this novel should make The Drill Press the world headquarters for what has been called 'advanced sex.' Dear Vito's filled with it! Getting blowjobs off a chick while simultaneously doing body-building exercises and battling cockroaches - but being so polite about it that she doesn't even notice. That certainly is not Beginner or even Intermediate sex! Mick's your man!"
At the very moment in publishing history when I wrote that recommendation, my own Drill Press volume, Put It Down in a Book, was in production. In the last chapter I do a little supposing about the current Crown Princess of Japan, a brilliant linguist and career diplomat who somehow got coerced into marrying the nauseating grandson of blood-bloated Hirohito. I refrain from discussing her fellative proclivities, and choose instead to present one possible version of her reeducation in the Togu Imperial Palace upon her tragic betrothal.
On pages 261 and following, the strange old Head Chamberlain of the Board of Ceremonies describes to the princess the theophany that will result when she embraces her destiny as the latest reincarnation of the Sun Goddess:
"Most fortunate Empress-to-be!...stop pouting and welcome this mighty new apotheosis of yours! Hug it tight with all four youthful limbs!... I can say this to you without qualification... You are, quite precisely, the only woman on earth to whom genuine numinosity is still available. You are the embodiment of the last true religion.
"An economical three-color print of your benevolent face will more than fill any vacancy left by a VCR. The strains of the devout chanting your name in the corner shrine will drown out, once and for all, the profane stridor of the karaoke taverns...
"...when our humble and comely folk look up, who will be there to meet their gaze? They will behold none other than their own Princess, hovering at the eastern brink with, ah!, bright wings! Smooth and numinous in her Heian silks, gentle and soft-spoken in her persona, she shall glow with renewal in the old ways!"
If you and I, Mick, weren't solidly ensconced with satisfactory wives, it would be an interesting bet: which of us, on the basis of our contrasting presentations of the Ewig Weibliche (Eternal Feminine), is going to get more hum-jobs from literary groupies with big tits?
MZ: As Kurt Vonnegut once said: "No matter how broke or otherwise objectionable, every male writer seems to have a pretty wife." So let's not make it a competition. Let's say two cranky old timers like us could likely keep the planet supplied with happy humming for at least another decade or two.
TB: We might be able to extend our happy hum-lives beyond that decade or two by sacrificing a juicy pig to Ezili Danto, the Scar-Faced Voodoo Goddess of pretty wives, hum-jobs, grinding teeth and razor-sharp shivs.
Coincidentally, that entity manifests her formidable self in triple aspect on the cover of Put It Down in a Book, my new Drill Press title (3:AM Magazine's Non-Fiction Book of the Year), which, along with your own Dear Vito, we are presently discussing.
But hopping into the propitiatory fart-sack with the Black Madonna of Port-au-Prince tends not to turn out well in the long run, if we are to believe the Right Reverend Pat Robertson.
Meanwhile, in this context, it's interesting that you should mention Vonnegut. He happens to be the "unduly famous novelist" I referred to earlier, the farmer of a million imaginations. I suspect he entered into a pact not with Ezili Danto, but with her kid sister and hated rival, Iwa Freda, the bleach-blond Voodoo Goddess of Luxury.
At the peak of his terrestrial fame, when he was scribbling those booklets with schematic cartoons of anuses in the margins, Vonnegut publicly admitted that he wrote childishly in a calculated attempt to exploit the childish literacy levels of his time. In other words, he performed the literary equivalent of becoming politicized, kowtowing to the masses in an effort to sway them his direction. He adjusted his style according to demographic projections and statistical charts.
It must be impossible to shun the blandishments of the Goddess Iwa Freda when she deigns to ensure the flourishing of your physical organism with royalty payments, sales of spin-off rights, movie deals, etc. - you know, Mick, the sort of thing so alien to our experience as non-adherents to that blond bitch's cult. It's like the oedpipal conflict, so intense for the polymorphously perverted baby because nourishment is involved: the animal part of the brain kicks in and says, I need milk, so I'd better get that big prick away from Big Mammy.
Vonnegut hammered his peg deep into the hole of writing cutesy little words and sentences and paragraphs - in strict conformity to such slavishly politicized norms as the Raygor Readability Index, prepared by the National Council of Teachers of English, which delineated the standard kiddy-poo comprehension level (more popularly known as "Hemingwayesque"). That is to say, the author provides a specific maximum number of letters per word, words per sentence, and a minimum number of sentences per paragraph, and paragraphs per page.
Then came the last phase of his career, after the big money Slaughterhouse Five days had passed, when he wanted to write about Eugene Debs, but could only do it in dada-googoo terms. No wonder the sad guy tried to off himself in the eighties. He already killed his talent in the sixties.
It was precisely the dilemma that Ernest Hem-'n-haw, old Mr Newspaperese himself, chose to resolve by fellating that shotgun in Idy-ho. Poor Papa, hulking around the Moveable Feast, high-critical insights into the mysteries of Dostoevsky filling his mind, but constrained by his own public persona to express them in clipped monosyllables and simple declaratives. Ths is especially pathetic, considering what the great Roosky cried out when, prostrate with ecstatic exhaustion, he finished Brothers Karamozov: "I have finally expressed myself completely!"
Of all genres, the novel, in particular, from the very start, was intended for totalitarian expressiveness. The novel is suited to encompass everything encompassable with the alphabet - and even without, as in Tristram Shandy' s blacked-out page. The only way a novelist can justify being born is by expressing himself fully, and a grown-up can't do that without recourse to adult syntax, vocabulary, and so on: the full complement of resources available in this astonishing language and literary tradition of ours.
Put it this way: these days, the politicized writer who does not commit suicide cannot be a novelist. At most he's a practitioner of the lesser genres which were never intended for full self-expression. He's a short-story writer, or a prose-poet, or a Twitterer, or maybe just an essayist, like dead Bellow, whose hiccoughs are strung together by the members of the merchant caste to assume the superficialities of a novel.
Way back in Vonnegut's heyday it was a comparative golden age of American culture, and the national literacy average was a ninth-grade reading level. Today it's sixth or seventh, and sinking fast. So, if our wholly burnt oink-roast is accepted by the Caribbean Kali-Shakti, and she consents to liberate us from that little Bonaparte called death, and gives us that extra one or two decades you mention, by the time we're as old as dead Bellow, we'll be accommodating the masses with baby talk, finger-painting in excrement on the walls of the nursery known as the American "mind" - that is, if we allow ourselves literarily to be politicized, our stylistic choices to be ruled by demographics.
And, having suicided our talents, like Vonnegut, we'll wind up doing the same to our bodies, like Hem-'n-haw before him. Might as well shun the blandishments of Iwa Freda altogether and render ourselves, instead, to the Hispaniolan Magdalen, Ezili Danto, and let the earth swallow us whole, then vomit us back up, then swallow us again, back and forth and up and down, as we ride a tide of full-tilt syntax and orgiastic sesquipedalianity!
MZ: Hmm...(long pause)...I just sorta write my novels by cutting and pasting a bunch of stuff that didn't fit elsewhere or never got published and voila: it's a book. If there's a voodoo goddess involved, she hasn't shown her face yet. I was just the kid in school who always chose the essay over the multiple choice test and one day realized I kinda liked staining pages with ink.
TB: (instantaneous response) Oh, but the voodoo goddess has shown her face, Comrade Mick; she's manifesting herself at this moment, as Florin Ion Firimita's uncanny "Black Pearls Madonna."
I was also that same kid in junior high who chose to write the essay test. And I always came reeling out of class feeling as though my head was shot full of lysergic acid - which it was, more often than not. Surely you recollect, Comrade Mick: that good old-timey Purple Haze, Orange Sunshine, Mr Natural blotter? The teacher would tell us to choose one of three topics to expatiate upon, and I'd demolish them all in short order, one-two-three, meanwhile revising nary a phrase nor striking out a single word.
Though, in my immaturity, I dismissed her as an hallucination at the time, the voodoo goddess Ezili Danto was on my elbow as I strode out of the classroom thirty minutes before anyone else. My poor teacher was left gasping behind her desk, soul-reamed in admiration, buried under the sublime rubble of my penmanship. "Aw shucks" is not in this rassle-maniac's vocabulary.
MZ: As for Vonnegut, I'm not so sure I'd take literally what he said, but there is something he declared about novels that always makes me smile: "I've said that to open a novel is to arrive in a music hall and be handed a viola. You have to perform. To stare at horizontal lines of phonetic symbols and Arabic numbers and to be able to put a show on in your head, it requires the reader to perform. If you can do it, you can go whaling in the South Pacific with Herman Melville, or you can watch Madame Bovary make a mess of her life in Paris. With pictures and movies, all you have to do is sit there and look at them and it happens to you."
TB: I can see how Vonnegut, in particular, would need his readers to perform. There are other writers who themselves perform with such vitality that their readers are blasted more thoroughly, and more passively, than the most sluggish popcorn-gorger at a screening of that piece of three-D crap about the wall-eyed turquoise pituitary geeks. Good writers leave their audiences face-down among the Ju-Ju boxes on the sticky theater floor, their butts sore.
On page 26 of my Put It Down in a Book, in the context of a discussion of Andrew Gallix's luxuriant fiction, I gently remind the Drill Press readership that no less an authority than Nietzsche distinguished between artists who wring their works from a deficit of vitality, and those who blast forth from sheer surplus will. Each type of writer has his own type of audience.
MZ: Then there's Noam Chomsky: "It is quite possible - overwhelmingly probable, one might guess - that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology."
TB: Isn't that obvious? Hasn't it always been? Even Freud bowed deeply to poets, acknowledging their precedence. He said, "Confronted with the creative artist, the psychoanalyst can only throw up his hands."
MZ: And William S Burroughs: "In writing, I am acting as a mapmaker, an explorer of psychic areas and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed."
TB: And, speaking of such psychic explorations, in the epigraph to my Put It Down in a Book, Rabbi Isaac Luria says, "Writing is impossible because all things are related. I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed. How then shall I express what my soul has received, and how can I put it down in a book?"
No less awestruck by the notion of authorship was Eliphas Levi, the great Kabbalist-magician-prophet. He said, "It is certain that, in the domain of intelligence, ruled by the Word, nothing that has been written can perish."
There have always been those who recognize literary effort for the gargantuan affront that it is, the indelible trespass upon the Akashic record. But regardless of their trust or trepidation in the activity, all of them, to the degree they're significant, at least unconsciously recognize the engagement of the Kali Shakti - whom I discuss in more detail on pages 93-107 of Put It Down in a Book, in the context of a paean to Sao Paulo Blues, written by another member of our very own Drill Press gang, Jim Chaffee. This passage also appears under the title "Kali-Yuga on the Rio Pinheiros" on the virtual pages of Exquisite Corpse, right alongside Florin Ion Firimita's iconic representation of her.
MZ: I can only sum up with some words from Marx...Groucho, that is: "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, of course, it's too dark to read." How's that for a blurb for both of our books: "Too dark to read"?
TB: You pinned me! Groucho is the ultimate referee we should appeal to. He stole the show at Eliot's funeral, right?