During the presidential primaries, I picked up a copy of The Art of the Deal. My financial exposure in the deal I made at the cash register was minimal—it was a paperback.
My underlying business strategy: I would read that thing in the unlikely event its author would win the Republican nomination. Who knows, it might be possible to gain insight into his mind. Also, quoting Donald Trump could become my parlor trick. And I could annoy my wife and children.
I ended up reading that book in the way fundamentalists read the scripture. I hate to admit this, but great fun can be had with The Art of the Deal and a sharp No. 2 pencil. As I did this, I reminded myself that things could be worse. Vladimir Lenin’s complete works are arranged into 45 hefty volumes and Joseph Stalin’s into 16.
The margins of my copy of The Art of the Deal are heavily annotated with exclamation marks, all manner of expletives, even miniature drawings. I didn’t just underline—I color-coded. Here is something one can use in daily life: “I like to think big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you are going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”
“Old man Goethe could not have done better,” I scribbled on the margins.
Also, this from Mr. Trump: “There are people—I categorize them as life’s losers—who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others. As far as I am concerned, if they had any real ability, they wouldn’t be fighting me, they’d be doing something constructive themselves.”
My response: “Does this not prepare you for pretty much everything that has happened so far and everything that is about to happen?”
And I would be remiss to neglect this: “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”
“Indeed!” I concurred on the margins.
Had these lines in The Art of the Deal been uttered by a character in a novel, what would you be able to say about that character? This can be a game. Any writer with a dog-eared copy of the DSM-5 can play. Perhaps a professor at a place like Bard could fashion a lovely workshop to develop this character—how does he live, what does he eat, wear, think?
After my fundamentalist reading of Trump, I resolved to make 2017 the year of reading masochistically. I didn’t plan to read dreck. The Art of the Deal was but my starting point. My next step was to torture myself with good stuff. Heeding the call of inner voice, or possibly an inner chorus, I went to my neighborhood bookstore and bought out the entire Bertolt Brecht lineup, figuring that as a Communist who has seen the rise of fascism in Germany and the heyday of McCarthyism in the U.S., Brecht might have something to say.
The Brecht selection at the bookstore was surprisingly light. So, I supplemented on AbeBooks, acquiring a stack of slender, pre-loved, pre-underlined tomes
Until this year, I experienced Brecht one play at a time. Having self-administered a high dose of Brecht, I felt more than my usual level of anger at the forces of darkness and more than my usual level of resolve to stand up and confront them no matter what the cost. It is with a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction that I must report that I plowed through almost the entire Brecht without even a faint urge to self-mutilate. Disclosure: I am not now nor have I in the past seven years been in therapy.
I emerged with confirmation of the not-entirely-surprising notion that political repression is good for literature. At least for a while, it’s good for journalism as well. Ipso facto, had I been voting to advance my professional interests, I would have voted for Trump.
My pile of slender tomes of Brecht included a rarely produced play, Schweik in the Second World War. Brecht took the Czech national hero, a fictional dim-witted World War I soldier named Schweik (spelled Švejk in Czech), and extended his life and adventures into World War II.
After going through that play, I found myself turning to the novel that inspired it: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Mine was a fine Russian translation, but I am sure there are great English translations as well. Just make sure you get the copy with cartoons. They are as good as the prose.
Is Hašek’s Švejk really a dimwit or is he pretending? We never learn, and it’s entirely possible that the author doesn’t really care about the answer. But we do learn that when the world goes mad, as was the case in World War I, it takes a thick coat of feeblemindedness to remain sane.
When Brecht extends the novel to World War II, his Schweik meets Herr Adolf Hitler in the snows of Stalingrad. In Brecht, the chorus always get the best lines:
The times will be changing. The intricate plotting
Of people in power must finally fail.
Like bloodthirsty cocks though today they are strutting
The times will be changing, force cannot prevail.
There you have it: “Force cannot prevail.” From Brecht’s chorus to God’s ear; yes? Few things are as comforting than determinism. For the record, I would support any proposal to have choruses roam the streets or stand on every street corner and just sing. There is no such thing as too much truth.
I am ending the year on a genuinely masochistic note: Ezra Pound.
I had the neighborhood bookstore special-order me a copy of The Cantos. As the specter of fascism pops up in places like Charlottesville, it may or may not be relevant to know that it’s possible to be both a fascist and a great American poet.
I am still on the early pages, but I am putting my No. 2 pencil to good use, and I picked up a copy of The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, by Daniel Swift, to inject some reality into the situation.
Here is what I am able to report so far: The Cantos are incomprehensible, but I am finding some priceless lines.
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Have you ever had a beautiful experience that was suddenly marred by something ugly and unexpected? Have you ever walked the beach hand in hand with your beloved, waves lapping at your toes, only to have a hovering seagull squirt shit across your arm? When your firstborn was presented to you at the hospital, the child’s face full of unspeakable possibility, did he or she vomit in your hair? Piss in your lap?
I ask — crudely, I know — because of what you did to the copy of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset that I recently checked out from my local library. What you did — in case you’ve somehow forgotten — was this: while reading this sad, lovely tale of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final days, you picked your nose. As O’Nan’s Fitzgerald drank his way through Hollywood with Humphrey Bogart and Sid Perelman, you explored your nostrils for the treasure within. And you didn’t stop there.
Instead of doing what a decent person does — cleaning one’s fingers with Kleenex or toilet paper, or rolling the evidence into a ball and flinging it behind the couch, wrongly assuming it will eventually disintegrate — you wiped it directly onto the pages of West of Sunset. And — not that this would excuse your barbarism — your boogers weren’t off to the side, limited to the margins, but directly across O’Nan’s glowing prose.
The effect of your wipery — on myself and anyone else unlucky enough to have borrowed West of Sunset after you — was this:
She was just leaving the floor, sweeping gaily along the fringe of the parquet in an ash-gray evening dress with a red velvet sash that accentuated ** BOOGER! **
His money was gone and there was blood on his jacket, and when he called Sheilah, before he uttered a word, ** BOOGER! **
They nattered on, Zelda mimicking Sara’s sleepy lilt, drawing out her ** BOOGER! **
Every 15 or 20 pages, I was ripped from the story by your nostril-rubbings, forced to grimace and soldier on. It’s a testament to O’Nan’s skill that I was able to finish the book; a lesser novel might have gone back to the library unfinished, me hesitantly returning to the stacks — now a little scarred, a little gun-shy.
How do you live your life, Booger-Wiper? My first instinct is to imagine your home as a mucus-smeared nightmare hovel, mold at the corners and suspicious stains everywhere. But upon further reflection, I think your home might actually be fairly tidy — seeing as how you so freely deposit your filth on things that don’t belong to you. If I lent you a pair of socks, what would lurk inside of them when I got them back? If I left a piece of Tupperware in your kitchen after a dinner party, would you return it to me, empty and clean? Or would it ruin my day?
Part of what’s so galling about your crime is that you chose this book to besmirch. West of Sunset is so elegant, so elegiac, so worthy of respect. If, unable to escape your foul pathology, you have to do this to a library book, why not do it to more deserving title? Try Fifty Shades Freed or Trump: The Art of the Deal. You’re obviously sick — that much is clear — but at the very least, don’t drag down Art with your slimy fingers.
To read West of Sunset — and I know you read it all, because your vandalism is evident to the end — while boogerizing its pages combines the high-minded and the gutter in an intriguing way. Putting aside my disgust for a moment, I must ask: Is there a pattern to your transgressions? When you go to the opera, do you ease out silent, queasy farts as the aria swells? When you enjoy a glass of long-cellared cabernet, do you drool into it first? Do you go unwashed for days, letting your armpits ferment, then revel in their stench as you stroll through a rose garden?
What the fuck is wrong with you?
I finished West of Sunset, despite the harm you inflicted upon it, and I’ve moved on to another library book: Mo Beta Blues, Questlove’s music-focused memoir. The odds that you’ve borrowed both seem slim to me, though I haven’t yet flipped through to check for your handiwork. But if I find so much as a flake of one of your awful rocks in Questlove’s book, you will hear from me, you repugnant snot-monster. That much is certain.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.