Saturday, November 02, 2013

They Call it "Grunge": Mid-90s Time Capsule

Rooting around for some documents, I ran across a journal I kept from 1993-1996, when I was in my twenties, living in Chicago and commuting out to Notre Dame a couple of times a week to teach a course and meet with my doctoral committee.  A lot of the journal is wince-making to me now, but I couldn't stop reading it, since it seemed like such a perfect time capsule.  Here are a few excerpts from the first month covered in of the text.  Thrill as our protagonist discovers something called 'grunge,' stare in fascination as he confronts the New Historicism, gasp as neo-traditionalism in jazz makes an appearance on the streets of Chicago!


11 August 93

So there I was, flipping through a paperback selection of T.S. Eliot's criticism, soaking in the immense claw-and-ball bathtub that is one of the new apartment's finest features, when it occurred to me—if one wants, perhaps perversely, to swim against the flow, one could say that despite the mantra of diversity and plurality and the petit récit, there is within postmodernity a kind of return to what Eliot laments as the lost "unified sensibility," the cultural code held in common by the thinking courtly wits and the feeling orange-hawkers down in the pit.  For Eliot, this common code is both desirable and lost, a kind of Eden… In Eliot's view the modern condition is that of speaking difficultly, to a few, while the vulgar world takes no heed, neither able nor willing to understand the cryptic, wise, and morbid few.  Such is the curse of democracy, grumbles the possum, watching for fires over London in the nights of the blitz.  In postmodernity, though, the triumph of the vulgarity of the many brings about a new common culture, a new union of sensibility even while we're trumpeting diversity and polyvocality (Babel rises, a single tower).  The oppositional nature of art-the-secret, art as a separate culture (what Helen Vendler rather nauseatingly called the "golden robe" of modernism) is largely gone, and the vocabulary of art, its code, becomes that of the vulgar.  Jeff Koons' artistic vocabulary is that of Las Vegas and porn, the painter John Wesley's is that of the comic strips—which is not to say that they operate without sophistication).  In the detective story as literary novel, in Frederic Tuten's psychological novel of Tintin, or in Gus Van Sant's road movies, we see a knitting together of artistic and popular sensibility, a mending of the rift Eliot lamented, but a reunion he would never recognize or legitimate.  The irony some see and some don't in Brady Bunch art may separate the wits from the orange hawkers in a new way, but the cultural referents are held in common.

13 August 93

I think my mentor J.M. is right: put a number into the title of your course description, your dissertation title, or the title of your book, and no one will ask you any annoying questions about who you're leaving in and who you're leaving out: "Six Modern Poets," "Three Postcolonial Interventions," "23 Modernists."  Practical wisdom for the aspiring academic!

Undated (Summer 1993)

Sitting at a satisfyingly large and solid oak table in the coffee shop and listening in on the philosopher Alisdair Macintyre at the next table, as he explains the nature of understanding to an apostate physicist, who seems to want to make the leap into metaphysics, having concluded that empirical explanations will only get one so far.  Macintyre (who asked to look at my NYRB on the South Shore on the way in to Chicago for and never gave it back) says that most people feel that explaining something means reaching some kind of familiarity and comfort with it but that's not enough for him.  I wish I could have stuck around to eavesdrop more, but I had to run off.

19 August 93

Read an editorial by William Pfaff, who thinks that what we are seeing in Yugoslavia is the death of Europe, with Europe envisioned as bourgeois liberalism, capital, the democratic state, Magritte's man in the bowler hat, etc.

Sarajevo seems to be the place Europe goes to die.

1 September 93

Reading Brook Chandler's The New Historicism and Other Old Fashioned Topics and am pretty much over-awed.  He quotes Leo Spitzer on the historical study of literature that came into being in the late 1940s as potentially becoming "the gay sporting ground of incompetence," and that hits a bit close to home.  Thomas also talks about Spitzer's type of work as relying on the rhetoric of the synecdoche, where one can read from the part the whole of a society's codes or zerigeist.  I suppose this trusting of the text, especially the literary text, to speak for such a broad field is an element of greats like Auerbach, Curtius, and Cassirer as well—indeed, it is part of all of those giants Edward Said calls "idealist historians," those suns of historismus and great-grandsons of Hegel.  The synecdoche allows them to do things like write a history of mimesis in western civilization from a single trunk of books smuggled to Turkey from the Nazi's Germany.  It limits what you need to know to know it all.  Had to stop reading when a young guy on the El decided to ask me about my book.  He got to talking about Heavy Metal and the Loch Ness monster and getting chased down by skinheads.  Couldn't place his accent, so I asked him where he was from "Eng-u-land, actually" he said, "but mum's a Saudi.  Don't know who dad was."

September 5

Reading Tom Wolfe (The Purple Decades, The Painted Word).  He has a great Juvenalian sense of human vanity.  In a way his work anticipates much of what the New Historicism has been all about, but without the footnotes.  That is: he takes little anecdotes and turns them into general statements about the strange negotiations we all go through with forms of status and power.  Saw the results of some of those negotiations down at the Underground Café: M.V. was there, moping over a copy of Oscar Wilde, because St. Martin's had turned down his manuscript and he was no longer sure he was really a writer.

8 September 1993

Saddam Hussein accused of "crimes against humanity."  The phrase feels somehow old fashioned, like "blasphemy" or "heresy"—the notion of universality that undergirds it having been subjected to so much criticism for so long now.  But what other phrase has the same kind of utility and power anymore?

10 September 1993

A strong nostalgia for my teens, when all my laundry was done for me and there was always a stack of hardback Horizon magazines on the end table to browse in, the house silent in mid-morning except for the water boiling for coffee or tea.

In other news, I am suddenly fashionable: everywhere I look people are dressing the way I've been dressing for years: denim, flannel shirts, hiking boots, a palette of dark greens, grays, and blacks.  Like the man in Molière who realizes he's been speaking prose his whole life, I realize I have been dressing in a style.  They call it "grunge."

11 September 1993

Went out to see Spalding Gray last night in Gray's Anatomy. He calls himself a storyteller, not an actor or performance artist or writer, and that seems about right.  The story he told centered on his loss of eyesight and his attempts to cure it, which he knew all along were doomed to failure, but which were a way to avoid confronting the loss directly.  A great scream of HELP—an existential scream at the terrors of aging and death—is at the heart of the story, but the end comforts.  Having left behind the prohibitions and taboos and diets of the faith healers and health food freaks, Gray eats, drinks, smokes and otherwise partakes of "all the things that will make you blind."  D. and V. were there, later met with S. for music on the streets (the jazz fest is on).  A street band played an extended "Purple Haze" while a well-dressed Wynton Marsalis type looked on with disdain, muttering "fucking Hendrix, fucking Hen-drix…"