Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Kafka Was The Rage

As we move further into the future, the moment in which American culture indelibly changes seems less like San Francisco in 1968 or 1969, characterized by protest kids, free love, and the psychedelic movement spilling onto the shores of the American mainstream, but the era that immediately preceded it, in Greenwich Village from the close of World War II until, perhaps, the moment Bob Dylan plugged in at Newport. Perhaps my romanticizing of New York City underwrites this, but having read Prime Green, On the Road, and now Anatole Broyard's slim, personal, and wonderfully-observed memoir Kafka Was the Rage, it seems that from the GI's returning to New York to be taught by the exiles of WWII, to the beats and jazz, to folk and then the initial revved up dischord of rock and roll, downtown New York in the 50s and early 60s is where America really began to change.

The revolution seems simple: sex, drugs, a popular embrace of intellectualism, as a means to sex, an embrace of drugs, as a means to seeming intellectual, and the re-birth of American individualism, now manifest not on the frontier, but in the city, as a rejection of the corporate ethic of the 1950s. Here is the fundamental rift in popular culture, where both the darkness and the light slipped in. Here is the rift that opened, in which political protest (civil rights, anti-war) found voice, cultural change (embrace of sexual liberation and drugs, elevation of rock and roll to art and art to rock and roll, multiculturalism, rejection of wife, kids, house, job as an approach to living) began to be pervasive, and the spiritual center shifted (individualistic, psychedelic). Or so goes my half-baked thesis.

Anatole Broyard's memoir is an account of these changes, told at close-quarter. Beginning with Broyard's return from the war, his education, both personal and academic, in a new America, at the hands of a lover named Sheri and a host of emigre professors at the New School, continuing through a Greenwich Village obsessed with art, culture, and change, and never quite finding a conclusion, due to Broyard's death, the memoir still provides a shimmering view into a post-War New York City which launched many of the social trends that defined 20th century America, and are still reverberating across the world today.

A few selected passages, as encouragement for you to pick up this slim volume as accompaniment on your next train or plane ride of modest length:
"Auden lived around the corner on Cornelia Street and I often saw him scurrying along with his arms full of books and papers. He looked like a man running out of a burning building with whatever of his possessions he'd been able to grab. He had a curious scuttling gait, perhaps because he always wore espadrilles.

He came hurrying into the stationery store just as we were going out. Sheri was in front of me and he ran right into her. As he wrote somewhere, fantasy makes us clumsy. He also said that the art of living in New York City lies in crossing against the lights.

Sheri, who floated instead of walking, was easy to knock over, and Auden had all the velocity of his poetry and his nervousness. She fell backward, and as she did, she grabbed Auden around the neck and they went down together, with him on top. I was so concerned about her skirt flying up that I didn't even stop to think about whether she might have been hurt. She was lying on the floor beneath one of the most famous poets of our time, but I couldn't see the poetry or the humor of it.

She clung to Auden, who was sprawled in her arms. He tried desperately to rise, scrabbling with his hands and his espadrilles on the floor. He was babbling incoherently, apologizing and expostulating at the same time, while she smiled at me over his shoulder, like a woman dancing."
To fully appreciate that quote, I guess you need to know that Sheri doesn't wear underpants.
"For most of the people in Meyer Schapiro's class at the New School, art was the truth about life -- and life itself, as they saw it, was more or less a lie. Art, modern art, was a great, intense, but at the same time vague promise or threat, depending on how you looked at it. If civilization could be thought of as having a sexuality, art was its sexuality.

With the dim stained-glass light of the slides and the hushed atmosphere, Schapiro's classes were like church services. Culture in those days was still holy. If he had chosen his own church, it would have been Romanesque -- yet there was something fundamentalist in him, too. He made you want to get up and testify, or beat a tambourine."
While writing jazz criticism:
"I had always liked old jazz -- from Louis Armstrong to Lester Young -- but I hadn't made up my mind about Charlie Parker, who was everybody's hero at the time. While he could be brilliant, I found in Parker's style a hint of the garrulousness that would soon come over black culture.

Also, it seemed to me that jazz relied too much on improvisation to be a full-fledged art form. Nobody could be that good on the spur of the moment. And there was too much cuteness in jazz. It stammered and strained. It took its sentimentality for wisdom."
About emerging writers in Greenwich Village:
"They were writer-intellectuals in a sense that Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald -- and the generation before them -- were not. Not even Joyce was an intellectual to the degree that they were.

It worried me, this bookishness of theirs. I was afraid I would never be able to keep up with it. I didn't have the patience to spend whole days reading. I was too restless. And I was too much attracted to the world. I read only for what I needed to know, or what gave me pleasure; I never read out of any abstract hunger for knowledge. Also, I was suspicious of bookishness."
About 1947:
"To someone who hasn't lived through it, it's almost impossible to describe the sexual atmosphere of 1947. To look back at it from today is like visiting a medieval town in France or Italy and trying to visualize the life of its inhabitants in the thirteenth century. You can see the houses and the cathedral, the twisting streets, you can read about the kind of work they did, the food they ate, or about their religion, but you can't imagine how they felt; you can't grasp the actual terms of their consciousness."
Even if I have just quoted you the best passages, don't you want to read it?!

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