Pomo Novelist Curtis White Rants Against "the Middle Mind"
Rants Against the Middle Mind
Requiem is an unapologetically postmodern novel, a large novel with a lot of humanity crammed into it behind its pomo surface affect of disaffected high irony. Its structure is reminiscent of a Baroque Mass for the Dead, starting out with multiple strands of storylines that at first appear unrelated to one another but gradually intersect and interweave into one grand, elegiac fugue on the sad state of humankind today. Although it can be downright biblical in its weeping and gnashing, for a book called Requiem it's also wildly?if balefully?funny in many places. It opens with a tour de force exchange between an exasperated father and his mopey son, "The Modern Prophet," who develops into a stand-in for the author as the book progresses:
...You want something. But what is it? That's what I ask and, if you're honest, what you ask. The idea that you could think of accomplishing this "desire" with this hideous, frightening language is hideous and frightening to a much higher degree. It is a tortured thought that I can compare only to the thoughts I had when I tried to think about the leaders of those countries with whom we once made war. And I asked myself, what do they think? Hitler. What does he want? How does he explain this to himself? (Oh, I know, now you're asking yourself in that special introspectroverted way of yours, "My father says I'm like Hitler," and my answer is, yes, you are in some ways like Hitler for me. But please don't take that in the wrong sense.)
One narrative strand is a quasi-murder mystery that gradually unfolds without illuminating any of the mystery. Another is a mesmerizing, deeply melancholic description of a man who falls out of his little boat and drowns as his two dogs stand up in the boat and curiously, silently watch him go down. Later, this man will reappear in an afterlife, with the dogs as angelic figures representing God himself.
Several lighter storylines deal with Internet porn, including ongoing philosophical and religious exchanges between a lonely, raging academic and "Honeycomb," the proprietress of teenslut.com:
I've been reading the Bible recently and came across the following passage in 1 Kings 12:10-11.
"My little finger is thicker than my father's body."
Isn't that a wonderful thought? It really inspires me. It's Rehoboam, son of King Solomon (who was himself the son of David and Bathsheba). Speaking of whom, how does the wisdom of Solomon come from the adultery of his parents and the murder (essentially) of Bathsheba's rightful husband? I mean, the poor dead son of a bitch that no one much remembers. His name was Uriah and he was a fucking hero! David was tupping his wife (and he already had three hundred concubines!) and then David tells Joab (who was really not much more than a hit man to David's Godfather) to put the poor guy right up front in the next available battle (and there was no shortage of those, let me tell you). So much for David the underdog, eh?
And there's more:
"My father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions."
Beat you with scorpions! I'd like to see how that's done! I mean, where did they get this stuff?
There's an amazing vignette about a pretty young woman who fucks, sucks and jerks off dogs (who are either bored or uneasy and embarrassed by it) for her website:
She slowly strokes [the dog's] cock. It's rigid now and very pretty in a sort of colorful, abstract way. But it's also not unlike a prop from some science-fiction movie. Something that would pop out of the alien's mouth. Mark is snapping rapidly.
"I wonder what this means to them? Do you think dogs think you love them when you do this? Are they as dumb as men? And what does this mean in terms of dominance stuff? Am I the Alpha dog? I oughtta read a dog book or something. Seriously, I really do think it means, and I've put a lot of thought into this, 'I can't help myself, I need this feeling, and you can kill me when it's done, I expect to die but that's okay.' I really think that's what's going on in their little dog heads. I mean, to judge by the expression on their face. You know, it's strange but kind of lovely." She's pensive. "I really think dogs have a very remarkable attitude toward sex. They're really committed to it. They see the death all around it, but they're totally committed."
This young woman also offers what must be the best one-line summation ever for Internet porn: "This is what happens when you give reptiles access to digital culture."
As befitting a Requiem Mass, in another thematic thread White recounts the sad lives of various great composers?Mozart, Haydn, Saint-Saens, etc. Here he describes the last movement of a Haydn Mass:
In it is contained the elements or pieces of his life. A boy sawing on his arm. The sorrowful voices of the castrati. An eyeless oboist. Haydn's curious refusal ever to write a part for a clarinet into one of his symphonies, in spite of the fact that the Prince paid the salary of always one and sometimes two clarinetists. The affectionate praise of his beloved Mozart. The shock and disgust he felt when his wife said hello to him. The "pus sack" that burst in Prince Anton Esterhazy's rib cage, killing him. The guilty joy of thinking the Prince had died a painful death. The phrase "I really don't care anymore." The endless flow of brilliant musical ideas, sixty years' worth. Over a thousand compositions. Each of them the result of the most serious and sincere concentration. Concentration. The idea that he was the Father of Harmony, and what that could mean. Beethoven's tears at the Vienna concert given in his name. Shaving every morning for so many years. Pulling on his socks, one morning after another. The cruel hideousness of his hard yellow toenails. The days when his enfeebled memory and the unstrung state of his nerves crushed him to earth and made him prey to the worst sort of depression. The stupid conclusion of music critics that his music was about "happiness." The curious idea that a soul could be paraphrased. What that meant.
Finally, with woodwinds and horns soaring, an angel approaches with the last question, the question meant for him alone, a question addressed to the most noble of human beings:
"Haydn, didn't you like clarinets?"
I'm skipping over a lot of the strands that comprise this book's richly patterned narrative. There are madmen and baritones and letters to the editor like the one that begins, "I read with great interest the letter from the woman whose husband's head had come loose. I think I can help her." White even makes room for some pet peeves. In one humorous nod to Dante, he has Congressman Pete Hoekstra, an NEA-bashing Republican from Michigan with whom White has tussled in the past (see below), slaughtered by Moses and offered up in sacrifice to the Lord. Elsewhere, he assigns Terry Gross, doyenne of NPR's Fresh Air, her own personal porn site.
White teaches creative writing at Illinois State University in Normal. His six previous books include Metaphysics in the Midwest and Memories of My Father Watching TV. He's long been a central figure in this country's unfortunately tiny circle of experimental and postmodern fiction writing, first through the avant-garde publisher FC2, currently as a board member at Dalkey, for whom he also edits the literary journal Context. I spoke with him last week.
Tell me the Curt White story.
I grew up in the East Bay of San Francisco, in the 60s. And then I went to school at the University of San Francisco from '69 to '73. Hippie culture and radical politics was a big part of my life, rock 'n' roll music and, obviously, the beginnings of avant, postmodern literary art. So all of those things kind of cooked together for me.
Who were you reading among the postmoderns?
Oh, the usual crew?Barth and Barthelme, Nabokov, Borges were my favorites in the late 60s.
So you get out of college, what do you do?
I went to a master's program in writing at Johns Hopkins.
Who was teaching?
Well, Barth was?that was his first year there. And oddly enough, it was incredible luck?because I had no idea these guys were going to be there?Hugh Kenner was also there. I didn't really share Kenner's politics, but boy was he great to read Joyce and Pound with. So I spent a semester on Ulysses and a semester on Pound's Cantos, and it was a hell of an experience.
Then I went to the University of Iowa, where I got introduced to theory and poststructuralism, especially Derrida and an awful lot of philosophy by Gayatri Spivak, and continued experimenting with strange ideas for structuring fictions in a context that was completely inappropriate. I referred to the writing program there as the Field and Stream School of Fiction Writing. Yes, the writing workshop is and always has been very conservative.
Cranks out all those people writing all those short stories.
For The New Yorker. Their criteria for someone who was a good bet to be a teacher there was how many publications did they have in The New Yorker.
So you come out of there with your PhD?
And after a year of doing short-order cooking and being a housefather, I got my job here at Illinois State. They'd never hired a creative writer before. They had nothing here, so when they hired me I was sort of allowed to invent the program, and that meant I had opportunities to bring in things like [experimental publishers] FC2 and Dalkey, and we're still working with those kind of marginal publishing organizations here. So I was able to help to create a pretty unique identity for the kind of fiction writing people could study here. It was a combination of avant-garde or postmodern fiction with an interest in theory and philosophy. It's not anti-intellectual like most writing programs. And then there are the publishing aspects. We were able to create something that offered three kinds of experience.
Are you teaching undergrads? Grads?
Mostly grads, recently. I've really only been teaching a couple of courses a year, because I'm the chair of our academic senate, so that means that I'm doing a lot of committee work and administrative stuff.
What are writing students like in the year 2001?
Well, I don't know. I know what ours are like. Ours are very interesting. But there aren't many of them. At the most we have six to eight graduate students at a time, because we don't have an MFA, it's an MA. And they're real self-selecting. They come here because one way or another they found out about us, either by reading FC2 books, or reading Dalkey books, or hearing about me or Dave Wallace [David Foster Wallace, who's taught at ISU for a decade] and our work.
You guys are a beacon of the avant-garde.
Yeah, of all places! One of the things I thought was really funny, when I first got this job I didn't even remember applying to it. When you don't have a job you're applying to everything. I must've applied to 50 jobs that year. We had moved back out to California from Iowa, and I had just finished my first day of doing short-order cooking at a Denny's, and I came back to the house and my wife met me at the door and said, "You've got a job!" And I said, "Where?" And she said, "In Normal, Illinois." And I said, "Are you kidding?" But then once I got here I was embraced, which was another strange thing. I started to enjoy the irony and say, well, what if someplace called Normal turned out to be the place that people thought of in terms of the avant-garde and independence? That would be a wonderful irony. I have been rehabilitating the notion of Normal ever since.
How normal is Normal?
Oh, pretty damn normal.
I love the way you get your revenge on Pete Hoekstra in Requiem. Explain your history with him.
What was it, '96 or something, the last big NEA flareup. Hoekstra went after [FC2] and tried to get the NEA by using it as a stick to clobber us. I was on the phone for months. The whole story begins with a review of Chick-Lit [a collection of "post-feminist" writings] in The Washington Post. Carolyn See did the review of the book and didn't like it. She claimed it was pornographic, even though there was only one story in the whole thing that was about a kind of out-there lesbian couple that could be remotely described as pornographic. In the review, she said, Gee, if Jesse Helms ever gets a hold of this book and sees that it's supported by the NEA, that will surely cause a storm, won't it? I said at the time that that's really, really dangerous. A staffer for Pete Hoekstra started doing research on the Web to find us, and he started making phone calls to me, "Oh, can you send me copies of your book?" I said, "Why can't you go to the store and buy them?" We never did send them the books, so they finally broke down I guess and went out and bought them. Immediately there were investigations. The one that they got most irate about was Blood of Mugwump by Doug Rice. One of the Christian organizations, I forget the name of the damn thing, the one that went after Mapplethorpe, they got on us, too, and before you knew it we were in The Washington Times, and Jonathan Yardley went after us in The Washington Post, and finally my own congressman here in town, Thomas Ewing, paid a visit to my university president to see what was the university's relationship to FC2. He was just posturing. It was big front-page news around here. There was a big photograph of me with some of our books on the cover of the local newspaper sort of saying, "Pornography or Fiction?" As soon as the politics spun itself out and the NEA was safe again, of course they just forgot us.
Is it safe to call Requiem a postmodern novel?
Oh, I suppose. If the working definition of postmodernism is basically anything that insists that you see it as an artifice and doesn't allow you to see it as real, then it is certainly something that keeps its own artificiality constantly in your face?but I hope in a way that it has its own innate esthetic dimension. I think the way that I keep the artifice foregrounded is in part to call attention to the beauty of the artifice, because this one certainly has an elaborate structure.
Yeah, it's almost Baroque.
I really love just to look at the table of contents. "Wow, look at this! It's pretty complicated." Baroque is in many ways the right word for it, because the structure not only has a very typical Baroque subject, the Mass for the Dead, but it functions fugually, so you begin scenes and you begin other scenes and they all kind of continue in a parallel fashion.
For a book called Requiem, it's awfully funny.
I'm not entirely sure how to account for that except to say that's how I operate. A lot of the humor comes from sort of my parody of jeremiads?the Bible is a big part of this thing?there's a lot of ranting. Ranting is an innately funny thing, it seems to me. To me the book is mostly mournful and sad. You have to see that baleful aspect through the humor.
Did the structure come first? Were you writing a bunch of different things and realized that you could be weaving??
Well, the genesis?if you will?of the book was that my daughter's stepfather actually died in a drowning accident out at sea, and there was a dog in a boat. I was so moved by his situation, and I do think that those scenes with the man in the boat and the dogs are the most meaningful to me. So I started writing about that, and I'd been harboring an interest in musical requiems for a while. And requiems and the Mass of the Dead made me think about the Bible, and then suddenly it just kept growing.
And sex with dogs?
Sex with dogs, well... That was the third part that came. The first part was the Requiem, the second part was the Bible and then the third part, what I needed to balance it, was the Internet. The way that I schematized it was that the Bible is about how people talked about or imagined themselves as human before the Enlightenment, and Requiems and classical music is about the Enlightenment and the creation of a certain understanding of what it means to be human. And computers are sort of the posthuman, the individual taken up into a global apparatus. And what occurred to me was, what more intimate part of being a human is there than sex? And what happens when you try to be a human sexual being mediated by computers? This has become an occasion for so many pornographic cottage industries, so many ordinary housewives out there parading their wares.
So I started looking at a lot of porn sites, and I was corresponding with some women, there was no shortage of them?I had to join some of the sites in order to get them to correspond with me. Very interesting conversations with these people who are just ordinary housewives with kids and families and I'm going, "Jesus, wouldn't this be sort of humiliating if someone happened across your site?" In the course of that I ran into what seemed to me to be the most extreme expression of that sort of thing, which was bestiality sites. It just sort of amazed me. I said, "God, no wonder the Republicans are upset about this thing." I went 50 years of my life without ever actually seeing an act of bestiality. I don't care if people want to screw dogs, but I'm not quite sure how a dog gets to consent to such a thing...
The bestiality rhymes perfectly with the Bible and all the prohibitions in the Bible against doing stuff with the livestock, and with the guy in the boat and all of those scenes. So, you've got the guy in the boat asking his dogs to forgive him for his sins, and then you've got all these examples of sins against dogs in the sections about bestiality?so I really got interested in the moral economy that was going on. But the thing I knew I would have to get around is that everyone is so riveted by the bestiality, by the scandalousness of it.
So the dogs are sex objects, they're noble companions, they're kind of angelic figures.
And they're God. It's that old dog/God joke. It was hard for me to figure out a way to have a God figure in this book, 'cause I'm just not a Christian. I'm just not.
And what do you have against Terry Gross?
Well, actually I think I treat her rather kindly in the book.
You give her her own porn site?
But she denies it [in the book]. I allow that, don't I? I have an essay in the next Context in which she becomes principal evidence for a certain problem in contemporary art culture. I call it the middle mind. The middle mind is different from being middlebrow, insofar as the middle mind doesn't see itself as between high and low, the middle mind sees itself as an expression of the highest culture. I think Terry is an example of someone who claims to represent the highest in art, while not understanding a fucking thing about it. Basically I argue that what she's really interested in in her show is the pornographic. She's interested in lurid speculations about the private lives of people who are supposed to be artists. Her take on books is always, "Where's the autobiographical dirt in this?" But she doesn't know shit about art, she doesn't know shit about music.
No one ever speaks about her this way. She's so revered. Like Charlie Rose.
I know. But she's just a fucking dummy.
This is not gonna get you onto Oprah's show.
You know, I was thinking, in light of what's happened with Jonathan Franzen, that in my interviews I should start saying what a shame that is and how much I admire Oprah. Help me out there, will you? I would really love to be on her program.
Actually, I would really love to be on Terry Gross' show. That would be a great midnight moment in our culture.
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