Sunday, February 1, 2009

American Apocalyptic Literature

From the late 1960s on, Leonard Bernstein held a rather apocalyptic vision of America. How interesting to realize that a certain variety of Jewish-American authors writing in the sixties and early seventies, including Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, and Barry Malzberg, also wrote in apocalyptic terms. (Mailer called his particular outlook "existential," but it was in this vein.) Was this genre a secularization of the Jewish prophetic outlook now turned onto American civilization? Of course not all secular Jewish writers, e.g., Roth and Bellow, were of that outlook: Roth at that time epitomized the turn inward; and while Bellow later on was remorseful about not planting his novelistic characters within the forcefields of history and power, Mailer, Heller, and Malzberg certainly did so. So my question has to be somewhat altered: by writing about power and its multiform effects on human life, was the apocalyptic style inevitable?

I e-mailed Barry Malzberg about this, asking him about the theme of his 1969 short story “Triptych,” creeping madness amidst high-technology, as if there's an inverse correlation between instrumental reason and sanity: the more the former grows the more the latter regresses. He wrote back, ”Exactly right. You've got it. That's precisely my point. That story was written 40 years and a couple of months ago at a time when no one seemed to be cognizant of that paradox. Now of course it is deeply infiltrated in the culture (astronauts wearing diapers the better to drive cross-country on a murderous errand without bathroom break) and the stuff of comic strips and television comics' late night monologues.”

As to my question about the apocalyptic, Malzberg wrote, “It is of course the question with which my work was engaged … and my answer was at least a qualified ‘yes’.“ He went on: “Bellow, great writer, was working corners...his best novel, Humboldt’s Gift, is a joy to read and I wallowed in its pages in sheer pleasure long ago but it's trivial, utterly unengaging and Herzog turns angst and the apocalypse into absurdity and impotence the way that the Roth of Portnoy turned the entire horrific Jewish odyssey into whacking off. (He opened the argument somewhat later.)”

Malzberg then referred me to an essay he’s just written in response to my question:

"At the time (1968-1971) I was writing my three Crazy Astronaut novels [The Falling Astronauts; Revelations; Beyond Apollo] (there were about ten short stories, I didn't feel like a visionary at all. What was going on, the human dehumanization of space, the asepsis of the overwhelming, seemed absolutely clear and so did the outcome. Any dummy could have seen this coming, I thought. The Apollo Program was oxymoronic; it was an exercise in institutionalized denial. Also it had been funded and propagandized by the government as a distraction from the increasingly unpleasant and unpopular business of Vietnam. When our Vietnam involvement inevitably ended, when the Moon had been "conquered", when the distractive purposes had been solved, the Moon was certain to be abandoned and Apollo would collapse. In thrall to the Government it had been meant by the Government to be about power, not exploration. The astronauts had to know that too. There had to be a little crazy as they perceived that fundamental contradiction.

"Seemed clear enough to me and overseas to J.,G. Ballard who was (in The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, "The Terminal Beach") working similar territory; the mad incapacity of our culture to deal with the maddening implication of uncontrollable technology. The increasing gap between human motive and sprawling technological capacity could lead to collective insanity. Certainly Ballard's "condensed novels" limned that and in the colonies I was reaching the same conclusions in my humble work.”

"After Apollo 13, after Watergate, after the flight from Saigon, I made an assessment in an Afterword to the 1976 reissue of my 1972 novel, Revelations. … the middle novel of that Crazy Astronaut Trilogy) … and in some ways the most ambitious, dragging in confrontational television as the laboratory for my crazy astronaut. … This was how it looked to me 32 years ago:

"How right I was in seeing that the structure of the program and its administration would drive many astronauts crazy we have only been inferring in recent years...because I _was_right about that. I knew from the beginning that my insights were correct, I knew that the men going into those capsules, ostensibly as operators, actually as cargo, would be forced to come to terms with the devastating fact that they could serve only by being machinery and that many of them, sensitive and reflective in our better moments would wish them to be, could not easily deal with this. Only years later did we learn of the divorces, the breakdowns, the lurches into mysticism, the scattered children, the pain that the bureaucracy had inflicted on some of those astronauts.

"The Apollo program, in the hands of a venal, cynical government, was made absurd. It did not want to be absurd, it had serious purposes, millions of dollars was budgeted for the public relations which would make clear how very serious it was. We were after all embarked upon the greatest of human odysseys, one which Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles had called the justification for our existence. That little clock which ticked inside us was our signal to carry to the stars. Kennedy had said, "We will go to the Moon." Agnew had said, "We Will Go To Mars." John Campbell had written in 1945: "First sale of Astounding on the Moon in 1960!" In the tent of our fathers, all mysteries were to be explained.

Malzberg continues:

"But meanwhile, "There is to be no cursing in space" Control advises the three astronauts in one of my earliest stories ("Triptych", 1969). The transmission is on all the time, control your language." No cursing in space! If the War On Pornography was to be carried from the offices of the Citizens For Decent Literature to the spaceways, if the spaceways were an Interstate to the suburbs of the Moon, if the Reverend Donald Wildmon and his good citizens could sanitize the limitless and if no one in the National Aeronautics and Space Agency or the United States Government could state that this was absurd...then the program was doomed. Devoid of humility or realism, it would end in an ash heap of motive. The astronauts and engineers trapped by this mad oxymoron would be either insensible or driven toward madness. Pass the diapers; pass the mysticism please. John Glenn went into space a second time at the age of 75 but he had nothing to say that time, either. That was perhaps the only way to deal with it: say nothing.

There’s a lot to digest in what Barry Malzberg has been writing over these decades, something in the makeup of such otherwise disparate personalities as Norman Mailer and Malzberg that gave their writing in that period that sense of apocalypse. Of course there was the War in Vietnam (and think of the film Apocalypse Now) that more than anything else showed the madness of imperial thinking that was manifest behind the grandiosity of American financial, expansionist, and military policies, a grandiosity and hybris that so belied, and were on collisions courses with, the norms and values that we thought we prepared to follow. It took a generation to repress the horrific implications of these imperial assumptions; and then they came roaring back via the works of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, and the financial barons. Now we stand face to face with the slouching beast.


Al said...

I guess my question would be:

What do you think Leonard Bernstein would have thought about what is happening now, both politically and technologically?

I'll limit my question to technology:

Would Bernstein have approved of the newest methods of music distribution (downloads) or would he have decried the lack of quality in current music distribution and dissemination (MP3s vs. high quality formats such as SACD). I also wonder about the role that politics and apocalyptic greed play in the dissemination of culture.

jjp said...

Interesting. I wonder how you would describe Bernstein's apocalyptic vision of America vis-a-vie his own compositions in this period (post 1965)? I was thinking how his close relationship with the works of Mahler - works which reveal something of their own cycle of destruction and re-birth -may have served as a reservoir for some of this sentiment. It's always struck me (correct me if I'm wrong) that B.'s works from the 60's and 70's seem to occupy several tonal camps from the socio-political MASS ("half of the people are stoned and the other half waiting for the next election"), THE EXCEPTION AND THE RULE (I believe he wrote music for this Brecht morality tale), 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVE, and the song "So Pretty" to the domestic tragedy of A QUIET PLACE. Do you find the apocalyptic to be creeping into his compositional works, or more through his increasingly international musical presence as writer, speaker, conductor and advocate?

Barry Seldes said...

Let me address Al first by arguing that of course Bernstein would be happy with Bush, and Obama in. As for music distribution: I'm convinced that Bernstein would have thought that anything that could make good music accessible had great merit. But one assumes that he would have deplored any technology that would distort the composer's and the interpreter's intentions.

Let me turn to jjp's question about Bernstein's apocalyptic vision. This arose in his political statments deploring the waging of war and other horrors that had proven catastrophic and seemed to be ready to unleash more catastrophe. And yes, he saw a harbinger of what was to come in Mahler's music. I'm not ready yet to find the apocalyptic in Bernstein's own music: where you do find it is in his public speeches. It seems to me, then, that the apocalyptic emerges in his public statements and his repertoire, but less so in his one comositios.

Nevertheless, I'd like to think about this matter, and in fact, ask jjp if he would be willing to expand upon and share his own thoughts on this matter.