Friday, February 24, 2006

The Big One.

Feelings of guilt and ego aside, I’m posting again for the first time in weeks because I felt, finally, like I had something to say again.

Wait. Back up. Let’s do this right.

Hi. My name is Jonathan Bogart. I’m a twenty-eight-year-old data entry clerk who lives in Phoenix, works in Scottsdale, and has a social life in Cave Creek. That’s about all I want to say about my personal life; this blog is supposed to be more about reflections on things I’ve read, or seen, or watched, or listened to, or thought about. We’ll see.

Oh, and I’m Catholic. Which may or may not end up being important, but I thought I should throw it out there to get all the biases up front. It has a definite impact on what I’m pleased to call my philosophical outlook, and to some degree on my aesthetic opinions, insofar as I have any.

Now that’s over with, let me introduce you to the part of myself that this blog is concerned with: the (for lack of a better word) aesthete. The reader, listener, audience, critic, consumer, and dime-store philosopher. The easiest way to do this, I think, is to describe the things that are around me.

To my left is a stack of books. Closest to me, the Bible, with the Catechism of the Catholic Church on top of it. And on top of that, a burned CD containing a Spanish-dubbed copy of the first movie to pair Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Flying Down to Rio. Beyond that stack, there’s a stack of three DVDs: Top Hat, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance, the three best Astaire/Rogers vehicles. They are sitting on top of an 1857 novel about the American frontier of which I have only read, and probably will only ever read, the preface. (It’s called Bay Path, by J. G. Holland. It’s an 1899 edition, which is why I bought it; I thought it was actually from 1899.) Past that is a stack of burned CDs containing movies, animated shorts, and one-to-three-reel silent comedies from, roughly, 1910 to 1950. I’ve watched very, very few of them. The stack is on top of a copy of George Barr McCutcheon’s exuberant 1902 financial fantasy Brewster’s Millions. Beyond that are my CD racks. I won’t describe the entire contents, but I do want to point out what’s on the top shelf: the first Nuggets box set of 1960’s garage-rock gems; the Left of the Dial box set from Rhino covering the alternative 80s; a cheap-ass four-disc set called Full Spectrum Blues which is actually a really good sampler of pre-war recorded blues; another Rhino box set, Rhapsodies in Black, which contains music and extracts from literature of the Harlem Renaissance; the Faces box set Five Guys Walk into a Bar....; the Johnny Cash Unchained box set; a nine-disc set called American Pop: An Audio History From Minstrel to Mojo On Record, 1893-1946; a cheap JSP four-disc set of Hoagy Carmichael songs; a Rhino Handmade documenting the 70s all-girl rock group Fanny; a recent Kirsty MacColl box set, From Croydon to Cuba; a Johnny Thunders three-disc set which I bought because one of the discs was the classic Headhunters album L.A.M.F.; and ten small books which have The 100 Greatest Short Stories on the spine, published in the 20s, and divided into topics like Romance, Men, Women, Humor, and Ghosts. Above the CD racks are my DVD shelves, which mostly contain Hollywood studio efforts from the silent era to about World War II, with a few more recent things like Oceans Eleven and Gosford Park thrown in. These shelves also contain books on music, movies, and entertainment. Below that are some homemade shelves (planks and cinder blocks) which has four rows, in the following order: 1. Oversized graphic novels, comic-strip reprints, European albums, and anthologies; 2. Short, long books, mostly comic-strip reprints; 3. Comic-strip reprints and graphic novels that are about as tall as the average hardback novel; 4. Mass-market paperback books. (Should I perhaps mention that balancing on top of the oversized books is a stack of Jules Feiffer paperbacks from the 50s and 60s?) Thence, to another set of handmade-by-a-superior-craftsman bookshelves, which contains a lot of material in haphazard fashion. Skimming over them visually, books by Jasper Fforde, Anthony Powell, William Shakespeare, Lewis Trondheim, Paul Collins, Max Beerbohm, Jack Kirby, Umberto Eco, Dorothy L. Sayers, Seth, Jacques Barzun, and Mike Mignola catch my eye. Snuggling up next to those shelves is a stack of photocopies about two feet high. These are over a thousand short stories from old books and magazines in libraries which I’ve collected as part of a project I will probably discuss in detail later. Then, peeking into a closet, the top shelf is crammed full of records. About a fifth of them are 78s (inherited from a grandfather), and the remaining four-fifths are LPs — about two-thirds of which were released in the single year 1972. Another project, tabled for the nonce. If you go out of the room, down the hall, hang a left, and then enter the second door on the right, you’ll find another set of bookshelves which contain my haphazard collection of books from the nineteenth century up to about the 1930s, which are suffered to remain there because they’re old and interesting-looking. Back to the room I’m in, let’s take in the stuff in the center of the room, lying hodge-podge on the floor, on a footstool, on a chair. This would be stuff I recently acquired and have not yet filed away (which sounds like I have a filing system, but I don’t). The latest Belle & Sebastian CD — and, according to the liner notes and a post from Adam Clayton on their website, I share with Bono the dubious distinction of this album being my first Belle & Sebastian album — The Life Pursuit, stares up at me. So does Put the Book Back on the Shelf, a comics anthology of short stories inspired by Belle & Sebastian songs. (Yes, I’ve been on a kick.) The first issue of Sammy Harkham’s comic book Crickets, the 20th issue of Kyle Baker’s comic book Plastic Man, the sixth collection of the Fables comic book, the second issue of Michael Kupperman’s comic book Tales Designed to Thrizzle, the eighth issue (but the first professionally-published) of Anders Nilsen’s comic book Big Questions, and the second issue of Dylan Horrocks’ comic book Atlas peep out from various places, as do Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, the third copy of Milt Gross’s wonderful 1930 comic-strip novel He Done Her Wrong that I own (it’s the most recent edition, just published by Fantagraphics), and John Baldry’s 1971 It Ain’t Easy LP. Next to me is my mp3 player, which has recently been cleaned out in order to be filled with 1. a collection of singer-songwriter stuff from 1970-1974, 2. the Maestropolis discs which, yes, I will get back to cataloging if I can bring myself to give a shit again, and 3. creeping up on 450 episodes of the Lux Radio Theater, which was broadcast from 1936 to 1956, and which I’ve been listening to obsessively at work (where it’s okay to wear headphones, aren’t I lucky). And in front of me is my laptop, which contains some of the short stories from that stack of photocopies, several thousand mp3s, and four video files: a Chuck Jones cartoon featuring the cast of the Jack Benny Show as mice, a 1940s movie directed by Ernst Lubitsch called Cluny Brown, and the two most recent episodes of the current CBS show How I Met Your Mother, which I haven’t watched because every time I try Windows crashes. Oh, and on my desk above my laptop is a set of small books in green leather called Wit and Humor of America, a 1907 collection which is often as baffling as it is amusing.

This is as fitting an introduction to my magpie taste as I could think of.

Books I’ve read recently that affected the way I see everything:

What Good Are the Arts? by John Carey, which I bought on the basis of Nick Hornby’s recommendation of it in the latest issue of The Believer. I’m not convinced of Carey’s central thesis, which is that there are no meaningful yardsticks for measuring the arts because tastes differ. I wonder if he’s read C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, which I think addresses many of the same concerns in a much more satisfactory (if necessarily solipsistic and unintentionally snobbish) way. The old saying about a mind so open that it falls out is, I think, applicable to Carey’s conclusion — though not to his actual engagement with works when he tries. I’ve argued variations on Carey’s points at times, particularly here. It might be too flippant to respond to the title’s question with “None,” but I think one can be a highbrow aesthete and still believe that the arts are absolutely inessential. (Several months ago, in Borders, flipping through the Atlantic Monthly, I read an essay in which the writer said — or implied, anyway — that most intelligent, cultured people would gladly trade any lives Chekhov might have saved as a doctor for more of his great writing. If she’s right, fuck most intelligent, cultured people — and the Proustian horse they rode in on.) This may be where being Catholic gives my aesthetics a push: art < life, every time.

Which makes me think of those Lux Radio Theater episodes. I’ve been listening to them for eight hours a day for three weeks. There is now, built up in my imagination, a sort of alternate-reality past in which every woman older than forty is either a saint or a shrew, every child is disgustingly cute, songs always end on the highest possible note, and marriage is every woman’s true vocation. (Oops — I don’t actually want to talk about the program right now; that’s a later post.) Essentially, it’s a false history — but would reading thousands of history books, articles in obscure journals, statistical analyses, and social-realism novels be any truer? There is a sense, almost palpable when you turn the pages of any recent work of historical fiction (and there have been so many lately), that we are getting closer to channeling the past, that enough research, enough knowledge, enough detail, will finally do it, will trump Scott and Stevenson and Doctorow, will finally enable us to return to that past, rather than simply look at it from our own perspective. We read Gone with the Wind now (actually, we don’t, because it’s a terrible book; and I hate the movie, too), and we can see so clearly how the limitations of a 1930s perspective prevented Margaret Mitchell from truly inhabiting 1865. But we won’t do any better, no matter how many old photographs are reverently used as the covers of our hardbacks. In twenty or thirty or a hundred years’ time our own attempts at historical accuracy will be seem with the same pitying scorn. Ragtime now smells of the 1970s no less than Carly Simon does. And listening to actual ragtime records doesn’t help, either; industrial music and shoegazers have changed our understanding of the old pops, crackles, and hisses: they don’t obscure the music any more; they’re part of the music. Did people actually ever talk like that guy who announces the title, label, and act before each song? So stagey and fake-English accented? When we make even serious movies set in 1905, the characters speak with our cadences and our phrasings, and our grandchildren will find them as ridiculous as the Lux Radio Theater episodes set in 1840s England, where everyone sounds like they’re on the cusp of saying “gee, that’s swell.” (Did any adult ever really say “gee, that’s swell” with a straight face? The mysteries of the past yawn unfathomably.)

I’m rambling now. I’ll sign off now, because I have a Meredith Nicholson book to finish, and a Jean Harlow movie to watch, and a John Baldry record to listen to, and a Bill Willingham graphic novel to read.

And a world to create.

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