Conjunctions:21 The Credos Issue

Beliefs Reasonable, Unreasonable Beliefs
The primary referents for Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo boxes, images of Mao and Marilyn Monroe, etc., etc., are either nondiscoverable or discoverable in an almost anecdotal sense, i.e., we “know” that there is, somewhere, a first print of the Mao photograph, but that we have never seen this first print does not in any way deny us access to the image. In that there are no primary referents, Warhol’s images are not imitations or resemblances but similitudes, in Magritte’s sense of the word. It is not altogether frivolous to suggest, then, that any Campbell’s soup can or any Brillo box in the commercial series of same has the identical artistic value as Warhol’s; this is even more reasonable when one considers that the artist’s appropriation of these images does not put an end to the series: a Warhol finds itself in the curious position of being but one in a literally numberless series of identical similitudes. Warhol was perfectly candid about his means and the valueless quality of his pieces, but nothing could stop the purchase of his products at prices astronomically higher than their supermarket similitudes.

Philip Larkin’s views on post-1940s jazz (bop and after) is yet another indication that writers have no corner on intelligence when not writing.

I have never read a review of a play by Samuel Beckett in which the reviewer’s ignorance of Beckett’s fiction was not made clear.

All popular culture is essentially the same, i.e., it cannot transcend its audience-attentive whatness, nor can it escape the universe of camp toward which it is pointed at the moment of its birth. Lawrence Welk really is the same as Mick Jagger and “Saturday Night Live” the “Ed Sullivan Show”‘s other face.

No fatal disease is privileged, and all disease is as natural as health. To believe otherwise is to believe that we are “supposed to” die in a certain, “reasonable” way, sans pain and sadness. This attitude toward mortality makes for a lot of misery.

Jenny Holzer’s signature piece might read: SUBVERSIVE COMPLICITY HAS ITS REWARDS.

Journalists are always bad writers because they think that fiction is an elaboration of reality, like reporting.

That Charles Olson made indisputably great poetry does not obviate the fact that he was also the Wizard of Oz.

There are few things more disgusting than a superior, mocking, self-important review of a trashy book by a hack writer.

Abstract love and generalized compassion increase in direct proportion to organized social viciousness.

To say that conceptual artists cannot, as a rule, paint is, of course, a cheap shot, but conceptual artists, nonetheless, cannot, as a rule, paint.

The relentless fear of assuming transitions has placed the contemporary film on a par, narratively speaking, with the nineteenth-century novel—and still moving backward.

The wry, cynical, smart, sophisticated and glittering New York depicted in Hollywood musicals and light comedies of the thirties and forties was really, in some magical way, what New York was really like up until about 1950. Nobody who was not there believes this.

Dawn Powell is a kind of disheveled Ronald Firbank.

It is a commonplace that career soldiers are held in contempt by American society, as if they are somehow less competent than, say, lawyers.

Criminals are, by and large, like unsuccessful small businessmen.

In the fifties, homosexuals in the New York literary world seemed remarkably cynical, gay and witty, while those in San Francisco displayed the demeanor of men who had just come from a long chat with the witch of Endor.

A common piety is that television has never realized its potential. But television is wholly powered by marketing demographics, and so it seems that it has not only reached but exceeded its potential. Television knows this, which is more than can be said for the film business, which still wears the tatters that it calls art. David Letterman is a supreme, a paradigmatic hack of the TV business, while Robert Altman, say, is an artist fighting the good fight in a philistine industry. Sure.

Frank O’Hara is the saddest of all postwar American poets.

My father didn’t speak English until he was eleven, at which time he left school and went to work on the Brooklyn waterfront. His letters, despite an occasional spelling error or grammatical gaffe, are written in a better prose than can be managed by most of the university undergraduates I’ve taught. He was far from unique.

To believe that “life isn’t fair” is to believe that there is a kind of contract between us and life, and that bad luck, unhappiness, misery, illness and so on “unfairly” break the contract. But there is no contract, and life is, simply, there.

If, as Goethe’s Mephistopheles says, all theory is gray, theory concerning theory is Joycean brown.

One of the more amazing feats of the painters of the New York School has been, apparently, to convince revisionist art historians and theorists that they had no aesthetic beyond romantic grandiosity.

Artists who pretend that they are no more than workers in the arts are neither artists nor workers.

To say that most book reviewers are lazy, ill‑read and addicted to the banal is like saying “war is hell” or “greed is the root of evil.” These remarks hide their truths behind the deadening familiarity of their verbal representations; but they are truths nevertheless.

Popular art reflects and flatters popular culture, or, if you prefer, the Zeitgeist. In retrospect, it sometimes seems as if it leads and influences the true culture, or the innate wisdom of a people, but this isn’t so.

Small-time grifters work harder to make fifty dollars than they would washing dishes, but they don’t think they are working.

The derelict’s patter, his con, his aggressive, humiliated, defiant, abject, insulted and insulting language and demeanor is precisely all that is left of him; it has become his personality.

The essential problem with the literary scholar is that he thinks, deep down, that the sort of labor he expends on a book on, for instance, Faulkner, is the same sort of labor that Faulkner expended in writing his books. The difference is, apparently, merely one of intent.

An academic being interviewed on a radio talk show is speaking of Balthus’s paintings: “They are supposedly erotic …  erotic to whom?” Is it too obvious to remark that they’re erotic to the painter? But then the painter doesn’t count, he’s an occasion.

What do writers mean when they say that their characters “assert themselves,” “take on lives of their own,” “start doing what they feel like doing” and so on? Are they suggesting that they can’t destroy all these words? Are they suggesting that they can’t control their narratives?

There is no sexuality in Raymond Carver’s stories—or, I should say, his story.

For all of its rigidity and the Jansenist meanness of various of its interpretations, Roman Catholicism is full of gaiety and even frivolity. Grace, for instance, is conferred directly by a sacrament, ex opere operato, with no consideration for the moral state of the minister or the recipient. We can imagine a drunken and debauched priest confessing the Marquis de Sade, and all is OK. This is, surely, a reproach to allthings puritanical, an understanding that flesh is only flesh, and that God is God and not part of us. There’s a kind of lively discretion about such a faith.

There are few things more reassuring than a decent supply of “fuck you” money.

Artists who mock or denigrate brand-name products in their work are advertising them.

Women who wear trousers, jeans, man-tailored shirts and jackets, etc., etc., are generally presented to society as either sexually attractive or sexually neutral; while men in skirts, high heels, makeup, etc., etc., are, by and large, figures of general hilarity. This is an infallible indicator of male power and privilege. Women, so to speak, don’t even have to be denigrated, because they have no true sociocultural authority. What is most interesting about this stylistic “wrinkle” is that women have been somehow persuaded that their mundane transvestism is an instance of liberty. Perhaps it is.

During the heyday of the big bands in the forties, they regularly appeared, as the stage entertainment, at all the first-run movie palaces in New York. To my recollection, the only white bands to play the Strand were those of Charlie Barnet and Louis Prima. Barnet’s band played charts that were distinctly different from the other white bands of the day, and the band had a dark swagger to it. Prima’s band, loud, energetic and slightly undisciplined, had an odd, Moten-style sound, which was particularly strange in combination with its repertory of novelty numbers, the latter usually heavily laced with Sicilian-Italian lyrics of the “low” and vulgar variety. Both were rogue bands, so to speak, in the world of white swing, and it seems clear, at this remove, that they were thought of as black bands, and so treated by booking agents.

One of the defensive strategies of the poor is to pretend, to outsiders, that poverty is mysterious, exotic and difficult to understand. But as anyone who has been poor knows, poverty is the simplest of all things to understand: its victims are ciphers sans money, goods or power.

NB: Rap performers, whose appearance, lyric messages and publicity presentations serve to place them outside the norms of middle-class society, are enlisted in the army that displays corporate logos so as to sell corporate products to young people whose exclusion from middle-class society is partially defined by these rap performers’ personae. The performers, whose labors insure a financial success that places them squarely within the norms of middle-class society, gather about them an aura of affluence and success that is, flatly, beyond any attempt to ironize it. The exploitation of performers and consumers is, quite weirdly, perceived as an assault upon the corporate establishment that coordinates the interaction of product and consumer. This is a dream of capitalism come true, i.e., to make the marks feel as if they have attained power.

Artists, in old age, should not appear eagerly grateful for belated attention to their work. A decent courtesy is more than sufficient.

Gilbert Sorrentino (1929–2006) was the author of Mulligan Stew and Aberration of Starlight. He was a great talent and is sorely missed.