My Kansas City Public Library talk on the founders, class, and finance is now available any time at the C-Span Video Library.

I’d thought it went well — except for some mild nerves, messing with the banjo-vocal byplay — and it did go well, largely because, I am reminded by looking at it, the KCPL audience just seems to get me, and to enjoy my schtick. Crosby Kemper, who introduces me here in terms that could not be more pleasing, knows his stuff (history, for one thing) and knows his crowd and tees the thing up expertly. And Henry Fortunato, who has the thankless job here of trying to remind me to repeat people’s questions and make them to go the microphone, knows all there is to know about audience development, as far as I can tell. So, as I’ve noted before, KCPL remains one of the great places for me talk about my particular subjects.

… recorded giving a talk at the Kansas City Public Library back in April. C-Span 3 is a channel I don’t get, so I assume many others don’t get it either. The show can be streamed at 9PM here: http://www.c-span.org/Live-Video/C-SPAN3/. Also tomorrow afternoon.

Here’s the C-SPAN teaser for a talk I gave at the mighty Kansas City Public Library back in April. The whole thing airs this Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon on American History TV.

Back to more familiar topics for this blog. I’ve linked to this before, but in the context of today’s revelations — well, today’s decision to not keep lying about what everybody already knew — regarding the NSA and various secret surveillance operations, now might be a good time a take a look at Senate Report 93-549, produced in 1973 by the Special Committee on the Termination of the National Emergency.

Back when Congress, for one brief shining moment, tried to do its job, the committee reviewed the modern history of the super-powerful executive branch and what the report called the “aura” of ongoing, overlapping national crisis in which extensive power came to dominate the concept of the presidency — most interestingly, given today’s situation, by having that power delegated by Congress via new legislation.

The thing is even clearly written (I’d only remove the first comma): 

A review of the laws passed since the first state of national emergency was declared in 1933, reveals a consistent pattern of lawmaking. It is a pattern showing that the Congress, through its own actions, transferred awesome magnitudes of power to the executive ostensibly to meet the problems of governing effectively in times of great crisis. Since 1933, Congress has passed or recodified over 470 significant statutes delegating to the President powers that had been the prerogative and responsibility of the Congress since the beginning of the Republic. No charge can be sustained that the Executive branch has usurped powers belonging to the Legislative branch; on the contrary, the transfer of power has been in accord with due process of normal legislative procedures.

That’s the scariest part. We know about the illegal stuff. The key thing is the legal shifting of power from the representative to the executive. And that was 1973! So here’s something really painful:

It is fortunate that at this time that, when the fears and tensions of the cold war are giving way to relative peace and detente is now national policy, Congress can assess the nature, quality, and effect of what has become known as emergency powers legislation.

Forty years ago, they were looking back forty years, and they thought they were going to end the emergency.

Read the whole report.

[Having fielded a few cracks about the title, let me say it was intended as a joke. (Not saying a good joke.)]

It’s OK — the title is longer than the post will be.

Good discussion at BookCourt last night, led by Dan Bergner, regarding his new book What Do Women Want?, which I wrote about yesterday. A guy in the audience was reminiscing about his glory days in the late 1960′s, when women were all over him (proving I guess one of the points of Dan’s book, that women’s libido can be indiscriminate). The guy ascribed the sexual looseness prevailing at the time to the deleterious impact of recreational drugs on Judeo-Christian rules. Dan noted that the Judeo-Christian tradition — and actually he was emphasizing the Christian — involves a primary human fall from grace via the actions of of a wayward woman, and the resulting need for human redemption from that sin by a savior, both god and man (born, I’d add, not merely of a woman faithfully married but of a virgin, who is herself immaculately conceived!). Dan’s point was that these strictures regarding the dangers of unbridled female sexuality run as deeply as can be imagined into the roots of our ideas of civilization.

Which sent me rambling back to topics I used to study fairly closely and haven’t really pondered in a long time. I now recall the earliest “promiscuous woman,” thousands of years perhaps even before the emergence of the Hebrew people, was the Queen, who took a consort, the King, honored as the Queen’s choice for about a year, honored as her son, brother, and husband, honored by being allowed to have sex with her, then honored by being torn to shreds alive, and consumed, becoming the dying god, who shows up everywhere in later classical-era “cults,” and of course even later in Christianity. He is reborn, both in the agricultural fertility resulting from his sacrifice and in the new annual consort, again chosen by the Queen. The new King, the new dying and returning god, because again she chooses and discards him. Some of the roots of “redemption” are there. The story is actually far from unfamiliar: its echoes are long in later classical mythology, literature, and art. (There’s an ancient Mesopotamian myth/ritual I recall, having to do with either the beer or the wine harvest, where the Queen goes away for a while, and the King takes the opportunity to sit on her throne. Big mistake. She comes back and that’s about it for him.)

This is the stuff the Hebrews didn’t like, when they saw it in Ishtar/Innana; the stuff the Sumerians must have decided not to like, so they invented literature in the story of Gilgamesh overcoming it; the ancestors of the Achaians didn’t like it, in what became Kore/Demeter, but the Greek ethos incorporated much of it in the pantheon [UPDATE: and tamed it, birthing tragedy out of the spirit of music]. Christianity clearly draws on its survivals within patriarchy in the “mystery cults” of the late, Hellenized empire. And Christianity doesn’t like it either. The Queen becomes a virgin, the sacrifice an occasion for pieta, with madonna and whore joined in mourning, etc. … Witches are an enemy. Etc.

The oldest back story: father-god culture (I’d except the Hebrews on that score, since their concept of deity was unique in the ancient world) besting mother-goddess culture.

Yes, that’s glib and sweeping — this is a blog — and not history, really, but based on close reading (not mine but many others’) of text. I used to poke around in it, via some of the authors in the title. I’m Freudeo-Protestant by inclination and experience, kind of anti-Jungian, and many of those authors are steeped in Jung, but there’s a lot to consider regarding the roots of male fear of untrammeled female sexuality, maybe because that’s where we came from. In this simplistic but possibly compelling reading, it’s not that civilization will topple if women are free to “aggress,” which simply means choose and discard men at will. It’s that the patriarchal civilizations beat the matriarchal years ago and, regardless of all changes in modern female status, have no intention of going back on that one.

Enough sex talk for today, kids.

My friend Dan Bergner has a book out covering recent and in some ways possibly startling research on women’s sexuality, specifically libido. Dan is a journalist, with previous books on the civil war in Sierra Leone and life inside Angola State Penitentiary; in this one, he interviews and depicts a number of women reporting various kinds of sexual dissatisfaction and distress, as well as a number of research scientists developing new theories of the true nature of female desire. Dan is discussing these issues tonight at 7:00 PM at BookCourt in Brooklyn.

The book ranges through a wide variety of experience and science, so I won’t try to summarize it or hype it. (A review is here.) What interested me especially in this book are what I see as some of its more radical psychological and social ramifications. It won’t come as news to a lot of readers, male and female alike, I hope, that femaleness involves sexual intensity, or that a woman can possess a sex drive at least as strong as a man’s. What the book really gets into and makes a case for debunking is the widespread idea — which has been advanced partly by conclusions of “evolutionary psychology” — that female sexual drive and intensity are linked, ineluctably, and supposedly in contrast to male libido, with closeness, intimacy, and monogamy.

Some of the research Dan covers suggests that female drive is if anything less discriminating and more promiscuous than male drive. From which I draw the tentative conclusion that if women weren’t restrained by punitive social norms, they’d stop all the “nesting,” and the getting men to nest, and they’d be out relentlessly seeking as much sex as they could possibly get from as many different partners.

And of course, unlike men, when women go out looking for sex, they’re pretty much sure to find it. So we can imagine that without those punitive social norms, families, and thus society, would collapse in a spree of sexual immediacy. When men yield to their libidinous imperatives and go on a spree, there are some self-limiting qualities in play — and anyway, their “good” women are meanwhile keeping the home fires burning and feeling betrayed, hurt, abandoned, and morally superior, as we all (i.e., men and women) evidently think they’re supposed to; sooner or later, the lowlife slinks home. Or doesn’t. Either way, life goes on.

But if women yielded to urges that might, the book suggests, be at least as strong, all hell would break loose. We’ve long harbored various versions of the notion that women’s sexual connection to monogamy stands as a bulwark against male-induced chaos. But we’ve long wanted to believe that the connection to monogamy is innate to women. This book suggests the opposite: women’s sexual self-restraint in maintaining civilization is far greater than men’s. Because a) the stakes are higher and b) the promiscuity of her libido is greater. [UPDATE: Which goes some way to explaining the roots of patriarchy.]

And the particular kind of discontent demanded of women by civilization is something worse than discontent. It’s dissociation. [UPDATE: I.e., patriarchy is predicated not only on outright suppression but also on an insidious process of female dissociation? OK, maybe we did know this. But I think few have forthrightly connected that idea to the existence of a promiscuous female libido. Once you start thinking of it that way, you realize you may have known it all along -- I only now realize I've known it since high school (!) -- and that's what makes for an exciting book.] Men are allowed and indeed encouraged to feel the pain of restraining a promiscuous libido often described as naturally almost insurmountable. Men can stay faithful and pat themselves on the back for having inner strength and/or fall off the wagon and feel bad; either way, they know how they feel. But women — according to some of the conclusions I draw from Dan’s book — are not supposed to know they’re restraining a massive force. They have to deny it. Because it’s not only that if they gave in to it, civilization would crumble — it’s that even feeling it would have that effect.

And that’s a kind of oppression men don’t know about. That’s punitive on a whole other level.

Now, I’m sure many, many women are fully, consciously engaged with the elemental promiscuity of their own sexual drive. (In fact it even seems to me that back in the early 1970′s, that engagement was alive and well, on the table, within and outside of relationships, and so was its relationship to patriarchy, at least among youngsters counterculturally inclined.) And those women are no doubt channeling their desire as best they can, to their own best purposes. Channeling it into love and work. Even into nesting. Even into sexual promiscuity, which takes channeling too, since for adults, everything does. That’s life. Under those circumstances, society does not crumble; it thrives. But Dan’s reporting reveals a lot of female sexual distress, a lot of stuff not alive and well, and once you’ve started thinking about these issues this way, you can start to see examples of the problem everywhere. We’re not thriving.

Read Sam Tanenhaus’s recent review of Amanda Knox’s memoir. You don’t have to be a defender of the youth party scene in Perugia to note the reviewer’s revulsion not, most saliently, at casual sex but at female initiation of casual sex — reflexively termed “aggression” — with the foregone conclusion that such behavior, especially as then boasted about by the woman (adding insult to injury), damns her a priori

What gives with the prude-prurience, all these years into the 21st century? I think Dan’s book starts getting at some answers that are not, shall we say, pretty.

What to do with old work? I asked in an earlier post. One answer turns out to be:

Pull an old work out of the dusty files and apply everything you’ve learned to cutting the living hell out of the whole thing in a four-hour bout of violent revision. Thereby coming to a realization of what always was ineluctably wrong with it, i.e., wrong with you (me). Thus finally facing up to the self-destructive rage inherent in what, all those years ago, you were really doing. Realize the thing can’t be fixed because you couldn’t be fixed when you wrote it. End the day feeling a million pounds lighter.

Not for the faint of heart. But I do recommend it.

This is not about my unpublished novel, discussed in the other post, but about my second (and final) play, which actually did get a production one horrible summer in the late 1980′s. I was so blocked after my first play (it had an Equity showcase production in ’82 and a staged reading at Williamstown in ’83) that it took me many years and much painful effort to write the second one, and then the play was so off-the-wall that finding a production was almost impossible. A whole story there I won’t go into. At one point it had a third act that nobody could even read; a whole adjunct play, really, which in itself took more than a year of struggle to write; I had to cut it in its entirety.

But by ’87, say, I had a full-length two-act comedy, which was intended to dismantle itself as a theatrical act in the course of performance. Wittily and maybe even brilliantly, thought I. In what I now see as tortured fashion, that is, and from scratch, with no outline or idea to begin with, the play recapitulated everything I’d been doing since the mid-1970′s and brought it all to fruition.

And — now I think — ruined it.

Which made it an impossible piece of work. Written by an impossible piece of work, who had dedicated years of his retreating youth to failing, mainly, to write it. I get that now, only because I stopped occasionally reminiscing about the play and got busy re-writing it. I mean I just took an afternoon off from my real work a few months ago and set myself to “fixing” a decades-old script. You can’t learn anything about old work by thinking about it. You have to do something to it.

I think I started on that impulsive project because I’d had coffee a day or so before with an old, once-good friend I hadn’t seen in like thirty years. We ended up hanging out for hours, and I left full of memories, with some regrets, but also with the sense that I’d been carrying old business around for way too long without even noticing it. I mean I’d thought I was well over our having gone our separate ways decades earlier. I found that it would have been very unfortunate not to have reconnected. I was grateful. Getting older has benefits.

And that was someone I’d known and worked with in the years before I went down that road with that play. When we were young and full of ourselves and (although we were always careful to evince total skepticism about everything) optimistic, actually, about the future of our work in the world.

So I began an afternoon thinking, “What if I got this beloved old thing I keep reminiscing about to make sense? Would I want to try to produce it somehow?” I stumbled out, a few wild hours later, alternately mumbling and shrieking (only in my head, I hope) something like, “This thing was never meant to be produced. It’s about not being produce-able. It’s a huge fuck you. I never wanted this thing to work; I wanted theater itself not to work. It’s not a beloved old thing. It’s a work of rage and hatred!”

I was stunned, elated. The play’s failure had always wrankled, because as the last play I wrote, it meant my own failure as a playwright. Now I’d cut it down to its nub, cut all the bullshit, and I could see what it really was. After all these years, I could see in a living, bleeding form what I was once so supremely dedicated to doing.

I should note that I’d long adopted the line that it was the harrowingly awful production of that play that had finally sent me running from the theater, a production so bad (and, man, it really was horrible) that it drove me to prose fiction and finally (skipping a lot of steps here) to nonfiction. That’s the narrative I’d sworn by.

But of course it’s a specious narrative. Nobody ends an attempt to have what we used to call a life in the theater because of a bad production. The play itself was built to implode, to collapse the theater and me along with it. My way out, my way of noting I’d passed the thirty-year mark on this earth: self-immolation, taking as many people with me as possible. Mixed-metaphorically, of course — but the painted veil of this mixed metaphor feels a bit gauzy.

I wish there were lessons here for younger writers. But my experience got so, well, bad, when I was a younger writer that I can only hope others have better experiences and leave it at that. The only lesson, for those having a very bad time of it, is that if you’re capable of change, you might do something about changing, and if you change, you might survive, somehow. Artistically, I mean.

The play used to be called “A Blue Yodel for the New New Man,” and it used to have two acts. Now it’s called “Blue Yodel for the New New Man, or, 1985: a goodbye to the theater in the form of a one-act comedy.” And it comes with this note: “Warning. ‘Closet’ or ‘lyrical’ drama only. Do not attempt to stage.”

Closet or lyrical drama in the sense of an English-romantic dramatic-form poem like “Prometheus Bound” or “Cain.” Because that’s what the play really is.

Now having threatened, in that earlier post, to find some way to self-publish my novel, I might actually find some way to self-publish this play instead, or first, in its new form. As off-brand vanity projects go, I think it might offer something, maybe with this post appended as an intro. I think, that is, my new closet drama does say something about 1985. And I don’t write about myself any more, but I think it says something about me, too. And if it says something about me and about 1985, maybe it’s an okay piece of strange work. We shall see.


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