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Friday, March 21, 2014

"CULTure" by guest blogheur, Jon Frankel

While doing some research on Philip K. Dick’s Valis I was struck by the fan response to even mild criticisms of his work. These fan comments reminded me of comments I have read on the Internet Archive for Grateful Dead concerts. I am not a Deadhead, any more than I am a Dickhead, but I do like to listen to mid to late 60’s acid rock when I write. The Internet Archive has about every Grateful Dead concert ever recorded, which you can stream for free. Occasionally (very occasionally) someone will say a show is not that good, and the response can be asymmetrical, to put it mildly. Dick and the Dead are examples of Cult Art. The Cult Art fan believes in the work the way a Freudian believes in Freud or a Communist Party member believes in Marx. The Dead are hardly the only cult act in rock history. The Velvet Underground also owe their success to cult fans, but the influence of the Velvet Underground is vastly more important than that of the Dead. But you can’t blame either of them for their fans, any more than you can blame Philip K. Dick.

PKD is a fascinating case because of course he was a cult writer, who was widely recognized within his genre (and, eventually, outside of it), whose fans are conspiratorial, paranoid, and fanatical, just as he could be. He wrote about cultic phenomenon, conspiracies and paranoia. He elevated them to world, even cosmic systems. But he was impish. There is always a sly look in his burning eyes. And the books themselves can be laughably bad and still, somehow, charming, funny, and intelligent. The Dead too, with their dimestore mysticism, psychedelic iconography, improvisational music, and connection to the most cultish of all the Beats, Neal Cassidy, encouraged a tribal worship of all things Dead.

There is also a cult of cult art. People set out to be cult writers and musicians because cult obscurity and eccentricity are cool. But most of the great, true cult artists set out to be successful. I’m sure Samuel Fuller wanted to make successful movies, he was just too wayward to knuckle under. Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford would have taken unabashed, big time success in stride. Thompson was probably limited by personality (and lack of charm, and ability, beyond the precise, minimalistic delineation of psychopathic violence), but Willeford was a cheerful, successful man. The Burnt Orange Heresy is a great book that few people will ever read, and those who do will probably love it immoderately.

I think Jonathan Lethem is a writer who would love to have been a cult writer, and ended up the darling of The New York Times set. Darlings of The New York Times set don’t get to be cult writers. Sometimes a cult artist will hit the big time. Scorsese started out this way, and he, like Lethem, really loved the cult movies of his childhood, and seems, with Mean Streets, to have set out to make a cult movie. Many of his less commercial work fits the feel: After Hours, The King of Comedy, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ. And Willeford had his Hoke Mosley books, brilliant, off beat Florida police novels that were published in paperback and marketed as mainstream work and were quite successful. He got tired of that success at one point and produced the ultimate, self-destructive, cult writer kind of book: he has his cop hero kill his own daughter! His editor (or agent) refused to publish it and sent him away to write another Hoke Mosley novel, sans child murder.

Freud and Marx are examples of the cult in social science. Freudians are renowned for reducing all criticisms to resistance. Marxist have all kinds of ruses for negating anything that would question their political dogmas, including the tantalizing, disturbing concept of false consciousness. But if the ‘ists’ have fetishized their masters’ theories, there is of course a sound, wonderful tradition of Marxist scholarship and thinking, and Freud himself is a nutty, but fascinating, and persuasive author of a descriptive anatomy of what it feels like to be human, solidly in the tradition philosophical and wisdom literature. Yet Freudians and Communist Party members continue to BELIEVE in a way that say, Darwin and Einstein don’t require of physicists and evolutionary biologists. And the effect in the real world of both theories, to the extent that they are cults, has been terrible. Freudian thinking exacted a toll on everyone who was ground up in the psychoanalytic machine. And the disaster of Marxist thinking enshrined in state power might be greater than that of those other massive cults, Christianity and Islam. I know both have produced great civilizations and important ethical, intellectual traditions. Both also converted with the sword and fire, for which there can be no forgiveness. In the end I suppose the cults of Marxism, Christianity and Islam yielded to the larger, pan-human cult, that of the Cult of Violence.

Cult thinking is warm and comfortable. I have always flirted at its edges. For years I was a Jungian. Jung is considered more cultlike than Freud because he was never picked up by The New York Times crowd. I don’t find his theories or ideas to be any more crackpot than Freud’s, but I can see now that he was not as great a writer or thinker, despite a feeling that he is in some sense ‘more right’. I think the Velvet Underground is a great band, beyond all measure, while the Grateful Dead played really cool fast amphetamine and acid music from 1966-1969, and that’s it. But Lou Reed and John Cale are not Gods, nor is Jerry Garcia. Genius in whatever thing, when somewhat or completely neglected, easily becomes cult. And sometimes, like Freud and Marx, the cult erupts into the world.

I’m sure I am someone who set out to write cult literature and failed, as one has to do, when setting out to accomplish something that is out of your control. I have however noticed that there are people, few in number, who really LOVE Specimen Tank, unaccountably. With cult work you succeed by failing. Cult work is a little like the difference between being educated and trying to be smart. You can’t really try to be smart or funny, and often only are unintentionally so. You set out to be Alfred Hitchcock, and end up as Ed Wood. But this is also a function of personality. I’m doubt the Velvet Underground would ever have been an arena rock act the way Bowie was. With John Cale and Lou Reed there was always one too many geniuses in the room. The Cult in Art has two faces, one benign, attractive, and one that of the Lothario.

Jon is a poet and novelist based in Ithaca, NY.  His novels include Specimen Tank, GAHA: Babes of the Abyss, The Last Bender and The Man Who Can't Die.  Please visit his "blogh", Last Bender, for more information about his work and his always interesting musings on art, literature, history and cooking.

Specimen Tank  
is available on Amazon.

As one (of two!) reviewer puts it: "There's more truth in this book than anyone in the biotech industries would care to admit. Plus, it's funny as hell. If you don't like it, hand-deliver it to my house, and I'll buy it back from you."

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