Yet on nights when, under all the arc-lanps, the little men of the rain come running, you’ll know at last that, long long ago, something went wrong between St. Columbanus and North Troy Street. And Chicago divided your heart.
Leaving you loving the joint for keeps.
Yet knowing it can never love you.
A tiny moment of confluence that I write down here just to remember as an articulated thought.
Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity: Writing on Writing I was yesterday morning reading. Ted Leo’s early solo single, work of supreme retro styling and contemporary reflection “The Great Communicator” I have now more than 8 years been repeating the act of committing to the grooves of my inconstant human memory.
The chorus of Ted Leo’s song runs something like this:
You get detached from what’s been going on/they feed you crap you can’t keep growing on/they give you stats that tell you nothing at all/about who you want to be
I have been deafening myself now and again with Dillinger Four’s catalog for near on the same amount of time.
Their very piquant pop song entitled “A Floater Left with Pleasure in the Executive Washroom” on 2002’s Situationist Comedy sports the chorus,
This isn’t what we want/this isn’t what we need/this is what we can afford
Ours no longer being the lonesome prairie’s desolation, but the spiritual desolation of men and women made incapable of using themselves for anything more satisfying than the promotion of chewing gum, a goo with a special ingredient or some detergent ever-urgent. Working one trap or another for others, the aging salesman of bonds or used cars, having made his little pile, senses dimly that he’s backed up into a trap of his own devising.
The tiger-pit of loneliness out of which there is no climbing. Alone at last with his little pile, the weary years in and the weary years out haven’t brought him a thing he wanted in his heart. It was only that which he was taught he was supposed to desire that he now owns so uselessly.
From the coolest zoot-suit cat getting leaping-drunk on straight gin to the gentlest suburban matron getting discreetly tipsy on Alexanders, the feeling is that of having too much of something not really needed, and nothing at all of something needed desperately. They both want to live, and neither knows how. That’s the trap.
The funny bankruptcy we brick ourselves in with is observed and trumpeted with clarion calls throughout the century by our artists, our artists who believe in keeping ideas in writing, in speaking, in singing.
The desperate traps we ensare ourselves in seemingly for lack of anything better to do, when in this short life we should instead be remembering how to live without insipid diversions and games of aging uselessly.
Among other interests and also things like work that are taking up my spare time, I’ve been reading Nelson Algren’s Who Lost an American? I started in on this hot on the heels of finishing Never Come Morning, a positively amazing book on the promises of the America received by the parents of a neighborhood of 1st generation immigrants’ parents’ that have turned out unredeemable. It’s Ilya Murametz in America, and in the New World the dragon eats the paralyzed Slavic giant, even after he’s finally found his strength.
I started this post to talk about Who Lost an American: Being a guide to the Seamier Sides of New York City, Inner London, Paris, Dublin, Barcelona, Seville, Almeria, Istanbul, Crete, and Chicago, Illinois. Dedicated to Simone De Beauvoir, whose husband, Sartre, translated Algren into French, it’s a very loosely associated book of essays, some reprinted from other places, on the author’s impressions of the aforementioned cities. It’s hit-and-miss. A few of the essays read like a Groucho Marx monologue with a sentence flow just as jarring. A few of the essays make the whole book worthwhile.
Algren is a precursor to Pynchon. Both authors share a penchant for a meter in the written word that is esoteric and hard to find. They strike off on flights of poetry and fractally compounding sentence structure bidden by internal cues, seemingly struck somewhere amid the work of building sentences by the thing they are really talking about- the thing they are going to bend the factual stuff and grammar of the sentence in a knot around, eventually describing the real issue’s circumference. Both men write as though no one has ever written before and nothing is expected of them except that which they expect of themselves. Both men are American writers, real moral voices who, though they may break into song or verse mid-story, or erect an addition to a sentence to house the meat of three or four more concepts than the reader could have anticipated being associated with the original subject, write with a unique and sympathetically motivated fervor, and eventual pity for the human condition as it remains bound and chained in a modernity that really hasn’t changed since the American Revolution. Hey, who can ignore, also, that both have drawn heavily on their experiences with the conscripted and laggard military bureaucracy as a primary introduction to the greater world.
Algren draws on his memories of the Europe he saw in WWII in Who Lost an American? to compare the places he is seeing presently with those things he caught the tail end of at the aftermath of the war. In doing this, sure, he is able to outline some of the changes that have occurred in the countries of Europe he visits, but also by revealing to the reader what he thinks he saw then, we understand his motivations as a writer better.
47 pages into the book, I had already found reason to photocopy a portion to give to a friend: the essay on Dublin, entitled The Banjaxed Land (You Have Your People and I Have Mine).
Very meaty stuff here from a land long embroiled in violence… and prescient, too. In it he meets with Irish writers Brendan Behan (former IRA operative, once imprisoned for being such), Patrick Kavanagh, and John Montague, and talks with an American voice about life in a world of “Coca-Cola Culture.”
In the essay, Behan is said to have sat on a televised discussion panel on “The Art of Conversation”, in which he states, according to Algren’s pen, “The art of conversation is dead and you Americans have murdered it as you are murdering everything else worthwhile in the world…”, a statement on par with Zizek or Baudrillard, a comment on the reversal of the meaning of being free to have conversation when it is an imperative to talk. Talking becomes simple repetition of approved and expected themes in a highly mediated culture when communication becomes not only commonplace, but expected in all cases. Take into account the idea of the environment in Ireland then, a paranoid police imperative to inform that often simply had the opposite effect: silence.
Algren shows, then, that this is not an American endemic trend, but a global one.
And he drives this home, too, when he shows up at the door of John Montague, Brooklyn-born first chair of the Ireland Chair of Poetry. Algren writes:
I was confident that my appearance at 6 Herbert Street would come as a complete surprise and I have seldom been so completely surprised. Mr. Montague greeted me with a warmth recalling the passion of Buster Keaton. “We don’t want your Coca-Cola culture around here,” he welcomed me; “our Ancient Nation is not on the market for cool sound.”
“That’s my ancient nation you’re talking about, Bud,” I informed Mr. Montague, as I consider it my mission to defend culture even in its most curious forms.
Culture in all cases is curious, and the things we fear in others can just as easily be found in ourselves despite the urge to fish for that red herring of xenophobia.
The last little passage I want to highlight is Algren’s conversation with “Mary, a girl of twenty, who was going to America to work as a domestic ‘In a place called Pasadena.'”
“I’m fed up here,” Mary told me, putting my cap on her head to pretend she was now having fun.
I might as well tell you right here that, when she did that, we both had the peak of the evening.
“I hope you don’t get fed up with Pasadena,” I voiced a hope while concealing a doubt.
“I’m already fed up with Pasadena,” she told me; “I hate the very sight of the place.” Under the cap her eyes turned inward to a dark hollow no Pasadena would fill.
Describing the ennui of the Irish during a time of depressed economy in a consumer’s world (already, even then) with nostalgia and wistfulness, Algren reveals the American’s ennui, as well. Just as Mary can’t be sated by any place or any idea anymore, but must have the next one, and then the next, so too does our American author-adventurer-carouser reveal in his sympathy and nostalgia for an Ireland gone by the ennui we all share in an accelerating modernity hungry for The Real Thing.
For there were no such things as they desired.
Yet the nameless lusts obsessed their senses no less fiercely for being phantoms: the quick young men were driven by phantoms as furiously as by any real and namable desire. … To Steffi, the terror of them lay in this: that they went to work and joked and lived sensibly with their mothers and saved their money and married and grew conservative and cared for their health by day, while practicing, all their lives by night, the madnesses of the streets as though their madnesses were the reward of being virtuous by day. … She heard them speaking innocently of innocent things; yet heard always, behind their voices, the tone of men locked in for life. They too were doing time on a bum rap: not one would be paroled.
When she wakened, she held a picture in her mind of another place: A great stone penitentiary with all the exits barred, and no sign of smoke or disorder without, no sound of crackling flame; but only the steady murmur of the machine shops within. Guards paced the wall steadily and regularly so that no one in the whole outside world could guess that the tiers within were blazing, tier upon tier within the very stone, that the smoke was in the lungs of a thousand chained men. That the very bars they grasped were melting within the stone.
There was no horror in the quick young men, no named or nameless horror. And in this lay the girl’s own dread. In this, to Steffi, lay their greatest unnaturalness: that they spoke of the unnatural, and acted unnaturally, as though it were all so natural. For in this they became alien to her own humanness. She did not fear their depravities, she could protect herself against those; but against a lack of humanness she had no defense. It was something beyond her feeling and understanding, and when she sensed such a lack she feared the man as she would fear a monster.
-Nelson Algren, “Never Come Morning”, Four Walls Eight Windows 1987, pp. 216-217
Steffi R., downtrodden female protagonist of Nelson Algren’s 2nd Novel, Never Come Morning, names for Algren the forced and then repressed break between the human and the inhuman in American manhood first, and through its effects the rest of American life. She sees and recoils, consciously and in dream, from the cycle of public morality and practice that pits a man against himself in the public space, so that all frustration with privation and the constant need to competitively fend it off is mislaid and addressed instead to the construct of vice. Steffi is a new whore who discovers that there is no bottom to the limits of depravity of men, nor any hindrance to the natural stride it will be taken in. Like the do-right daddies in New Orleans described in Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side, rich captains of political office and public decency and the common schlemiels like those moving in and out of the house Steffi R. works in alike need the ban on vice in order to violate it. Rich or poor, no one finds pleasure except in the construct of vice, violation of imagined rules, committing of “sins”. In the end no one finds pleasure at all, for it’s back to work for the working stiff in the morning to recoup the losses and gain ground. It’s back into the straitjacket of keeping up appearances for the moneyed gentry.
Sin and want are the twin dynamos of society, and Algren was able to voice this by giving us the human, circuitously reflective inner lives of the irredeemable poor. Sin and want demand more of the same. To sin, you must have lines to transgress. You must have full prisons of subjects to scapegoat, subjects who want, unreflectingly, what the city fathers appear to have and want never to sit behind bars again. People who will come out of those prisons and, in their hunger, make real the divide. People with nothing to lose and not enough sense to not use violence to take what they want, people who will necessitate the cycle.
And it continues so today, playing out in the bizarre case of the senator from Idaho. Publicly you must decry that which you take most pleasure in privately. The problem here being that, as Algren’s friend Vonnegut said, you become what you pretend to be. You really do lose your job if you’re caught trespassing against made-up convictions.
Does anyone remember the scandal that broke out momentarily over the fake reporter planted in the president’s press conferences, the fellow under an assumed name who could also be found online featured in pornography that violated the avowed party line on a certain form of sexual deviance?
If we had Algren with us today, such a load of grist we’d have for his mill, what?