Pomo Novelist Curtis White Rants Against “the Middle Mind”

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



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:



To: Honeycomb@teenslut.com


From: Tom@english.nwfsu.edu


Dear Honeycomb:


Howdy!


Miss me?


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.


..