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Whatever happened to the happy modernists?

Eileen Jones – who is most famous for her iconoclastic, working-class brand of film criticism at The eXiled – has just put out Filmsuck, USA, a new collection of writing in ebook form, with a long introductory section that hopes to explain precisely why America’s cinema is in decline.

Her thesis is an interesting one: the inventiveness that at one time made Hollywood the ‘dream factory’ of the world came largely from the American working class, and neither studio nor independent filmmaking has gained much since by divorcing itself from the plebs.

US cinema, Jones argues, is no longer a working class entertainment, made by working class people for working class people. Instead, Americans have studio heads who underrate their intelligence and push for the lowest common denominator. The indie side of the fence, meanwhile, continues to suffer from a mouldering form of Frankfurt School snobbery, a bourgeois pseudo-Marxism that treats working-class audiences as stupid by default and views genre art as little more than a brainwashing tool, a vector for cultural hegemony. Most independent films, Jones laments, are not ‘wondrously bold, unique visions’ but mere ‘calling cards by people trying to get into “the system” as fast as they can’.

Amidst all this, a blue-collar golden age of American filmmaking has been forgotten – an era when former grocers, shoe repairmen, vaudeville actors and streetcar conductors produced films that were not only commercially successful, but intelligent enough to earn the envy of European avant-gardists.

Filmsuck, in a way, is Jones’ personal manifesto, her search for an alternative to both the undead Hollywood system and the stillborn indie movement. Her answer is not in the puritanism of Dogme or mumblecore, of unwatchable anti-films by directors who equate all sensory enjoyment with capitalism. Instead, Jones looks towards a happier Stoicism – the tradition of Have-not filmmakers relying on their wits to make original, highly inventive genre works using very limited resources.

‘Working people, especially, love the movies,’ writes Jones, ‘because they have real problems, they live daily with serious consequences. They’re tired; they need some relief from the intractability of the obstacles they face.’

It’s a situation Jones stresses often in her eXiled writing, as in this review of Spiderman:

I mighta mentioned this fact already, that a lot of filmed entertainment is made to be forgotten. People have a hard time with that concept. But it’s an important working class entertainment function, a way to blank your worried mind and lift your depressed spirits; you go into a theater for a couple hours and come out again refreshed and able to carry on.  Many affluent types meditate to get this kind of relief, but if you’ve been raised working class, you feel embarrassed trying to meditate. Sitting there, I mean, trying strenuously not to do anything or think anything, when you actually have a lot to do and think about. It’s so much easier to achieve, that restful lack of action or thought, if something big and bright and loud and dumb is projected in front of you.

A memorable movie can actually interfere with that mind-blanking process, especially a thoughtful bummer type of film that’s going to pile on a whole new load of worrisome things. Lately critics are tirelessly recommending this independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild, about some poverty-stricken Louisiana Bayou kid and her father who have to ride out the catastrophes wrought by climate change. Supposed to be magical and life-affirming or something. But personally I hate those fucking hardship films, and I hate even more the ones smeared with ‘magical, life-affirming’ lies.  Who the hell wants to see that? You want to see poor children ride out catastrophes, there are neighborhoods near you, guaranteed, in a permanent state of catastrophe, go watch that awhile and see how life-affirming it is.

The working class, in short, is the escapist class – it puts its own priority on social realism. Commercial cinema may be an ‘Opium of the People’, but not everyone has the financial security to survive without some form of opium or another. It takes a certain amount of luxury, Jones suggests, to endure ‘those fucking hardship films’ and find them exotic – or to crave a cinema that is stringently non-entertaining and hostile to visceral pleasure.

‘I can’t see why it’s judged to be so impossible,’ she writes, ‘to love being entertained while still seeing very clearly how fucked up the world is, socially, politically and economically. That, in fact, is one reason why one wants to be entertained in the first place, to forget the worst of what you know for just a little while.’

It’s rare you’ll hear this kind of frankness from a critic – even a working-class critic – about what cinema really means to working Americans, why genre films exist at all and the function they serve. Armond White, as far as I know, has never tackled the issue. Despite his own blue-collar roots, he takes a thoroughly joyless view to the movies and entertainment in general, attacking directors for being ‘brash’ (you don’t wanna get called ‘brash’ by Armond White!)  and dismissing TV and comic books as ‘static, juvenile media’. One wonders how White ever got dragged into criticising films to begin with. He never sounds particularly enthusiastic about movies as a medium – not when he’s kind, and not when he’s cranky.

But Eileen Jones is never dispassionate; she admits that films are her religion, the Opium of the People that soothes her existence. She’s just plain obsessed with them. Her eXiled comrade, John (‘the War Nerd’) Dolan, has a military thing. She’s got a movie thing. The War Nerd regrets that he wasn’t born in the time of Sherman, Grant or Genghis. Jones regrets that she was born into the Northeastern US working class in the wrong half of the twentieth century, when blue-collar New Yorkers could no longer migrate to Hollywood and make quick names for themselves on a (reasonably) level playing field. The War Nerd has to settle with war news and military history. Jones takes her comfort from ‘that nice restful theater darkness’. She has what you might call an authentically Morlock sensibility. Modernist, working-class and crepuscular.

And in place of ‘art,’ Jones argues, American filmmakers should aim for something closer to craft –for a democratic cinema where there is no arbitrary split between entertainment and artistic merit:

‘Craft’ is the right endeavor for us. It suggests working-class construction, deft ability, professionalism, and a certain mental sharpness – slyness, even.

It was a dark day when American entertainment figures started allowing themselves to be called artists, and an even darker day when they started calling themselves artists. Artistry by stealth –by accident, even – that’s our preferred style. Sneaky art. It should be a seemingly unintended byproduct of the main thing we’re trying to do, which is get laughs with a comedy, say, or scare people with a horror film, or wow people with spectacle. Those things are very hard to do well. But if you’re excellent at your craft, you might inadvertently commit art.

When film separates itself from popular entertainment, it also separates itself from the working class – the so-called ’99 percent.’ And it only gets more perverse when people shoot decisively anti-populist works in the name of ‘Marxism.’ Look at the stuff Chantal Akerman directs – it’s closer to a gallery video installation than a good time at the movies. Oh, of course, it’s alienating and disorientating. There’s no way the proles could possibly use it to get high. It has zero abuse potential. But, as the Wobblies proved with their sabotage songs, sometimes opiates can be tinkered with, until they’re both entertaining and subversive – both a populist morale-booster and a call to revolution:

 

Jones has a name for the aesthetic she loves – ‘Happy Modernism’. And her ‘Patron Saint’ of Happy Modernism is Buster Keaton, ‘a kind of Abraham Lincoln in slap-shoes and a porkpie hat’ who typified the humble, log-cabin birth of US filmmaking:

Over in America, someone like Buster Keaton wouldn’t have known much about Marxist theory, but by instinct he would’ve been on the side of the confident Soviet transformationalist filmmakers. Young Keaton was a happy modernist, and he loved his machines. The first time he ever met a film camera, he took it apart and reassembled it just so he could know it intimately, at once, and operate it in ways specifically designed for film comedy in a series of short and feature length masterpieces such as The General, The Navigator, Steamboat Bill Jr., Sherlock Jr., Our Hospitality, College, Cops, One Week, The Electric House, The Boat, The Balloonatic, and The Cameraman. […]

Contemplating Keaton kills high-culture prejudices and creates an appreciation for working-class cinema that can be both art and entertainment. His films are often preoccupied with film itself, how it functions, and how we relate to it, and how that can be funny. But his film narratives are generally about work, about craft, about learning how to box, build houses, direct traffic, steer ocean liners, drive train engines, fire cannons, run track and field events, tail criminals, herd cows, rig up handy labor-saving devices, operate a film camera—how, in general, to exist effectively in your own body in its relation to the often-daunting physical spaces, structures and objects of modern America. In each of his films, Keaton takes on the never-ending challenges of geography and physics that make doing anything in this world a mass of obstacles—weight, mass, space, distance, terrain, trajectory, velocity—and by the end of each film achieves an exhilarating, hard-won mastery.

Not everyone liked the working-class culture that surrounded early cinema, though. ‘Cultural reformers,’ Jones writes, ‘fretted about the deleterious moral effects of the movies,’ fearing ‘that, under cover of darkness, every working-class girl was liable to get pregnant… and every immigrant boy was liable to impregnate someone or steal something or knife somebody.’ The darkness that soothed Eileen’s fellow Morlocks was anything but soothing for the upper classes, who didn’t like seeing the plebs left to their own devices. A backlash began in the affluent 1920s, when movie houses were increasingly supplanted by respectable ‘picture palaces.’

But, as Jones relates, working-class Happy Modernists weren’t going to sit back without making a parting shot – especially not Saint Buster:

Slapstick comedy god Buster Keaton satirized this ‘elevating’ tendency of the film industry in 1920s America in his famous short film Sherlock Jr. (1924). In it, Keaton’s character, a film projectionist, dreams that he’s trying to enter the film that he’s screening, but the film keeps rejecting him, bouncing him back out into the audience. Finally Keaton is able to infiltrate the film’s narrative as ‘Sherlock Jr.,’ a world-famous detective who is also, apparently, a wealthy upper-cruster. He appears at the door of a mansion wearing a tuxedo and top hat, ready to solve the case involving the theft of a priceless rope of pearls (as opposed to the theft of a missing working-man’s watch that he had been trying to solve in ‘real life’). All of the other characters in the film-world of his dream are the people from his ordinary life similarly elevated in wealth, status, and glamor, the men in tuxedoes, the heroine swanking around in an opulent evening gown.

Sadly, the snobs and Puritans won. The Hollywood studio system built by the 1910s working class saw a few decades of wild creativity before entering a slow epoch of diminishing returns by the middle of the century. The rift between art and genre entertainment has deepened more and more and Happy Modernism lies buried under a pile of false dichotomies.

 

I’ve found Eileen’s argument intriguing for reasons of my own. The more I consider it, the more it feels like the interwar period was the single most culturally fertile time in the twentieth century, at least for the English-speaking world. And a very good deal of the era’s creativity came from the same working class that Jones credits with the creation of Hollywood.

Could Happy Modernism be our salvation – not just in cinema, but in everything? The question’s worth exploring.

It’s only when you study a relatively sedate medium like literature that a clean line of evolution from ‘modernism’ to ‘postmodernism’ seems to appear, and only then if you focus on the slow, serious end of the medium – the Modern Library Top 100. Yes, if you ignored every cultural product of the interwar period except for a few novels by Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence, it could easily look like the big achievement of 20s modernism was stream-of-consciousness fiction, which babbled on for thirty years until it got supplanted by a new, self-consciously artificial postmodernism. Since then, it’s all been about reflexivity, metafiction, pop-culture pastiches and genre-slumming.

But the aesthetic history of the twentieth century would look very different if you judged it by the development of animated cartoons, which evolved a bit faster than novels. While the richer, stuffier modernists were still wrestling with their pommy-Freudian sex pastorales, American cartoons were getting more and more sophisticated, all thanks to – you guessed it! – the East Coast working class.

Well by the middle of the century, US cartoon animation had done something extraordinary; it had become the perfect medium for metafiction, pastiche, reflexivity and self-conscious artificialness – perhaps the only medium that could pull them off on a regular basis without embarrassing itself.  Tricks that looked clumsy in High Serious postmodern literary fiction came easily to Bugs Bunny and friends.

Let’s face things. Most capital-‘l’ Literature couldn’t meta- its way out of a wet paper bag. It’s the worst possible genre, within the worst possible medium, for anything reflexive or self-aware about its own limitations. It’s a rare day that literature can draw attention to itself, for any period of time, and not annoy the hell out of me. This makes it the total opposite of Looney Tunes.

Want to see how bad it is? Here’s an example from Dalkey Archive’s Review of Contemporary Fiction. Dalkey Archive Press is a huge name in academic avant-garde lit, publishing big obscure swinging dicks like William Gass and David Markson and hunting the world for the hottest new experimental writing to put in its Review.

The following one-page story, ‘The Open Window’ by Ana Blandiana, comes from Review Vol. XXX (‘Writing from postcommunist Romania’) and is supposedly at the cutting edge of East European magical-realist fiction:

In those days, when a painter was arrested he was allowed to bring his kit of brushes and paints with him to jail. So it was that when he entered the dark tower cell, the first thought of the hero of this tale was to paint himself an open window on one of the outside walls. He got to work and painted, in fact, an open window through which the blindingly blue sky could be seen. The cell had thus become much brighter.

In the morning, when he came in to bring him a bit of bread and water, the jailer had to close his eyes, blinded as he was by the light that poured in through the painted window.

‘What’s going on here?’ he roared and hurried to close the window, only to run into the wall.

‘I opened a window,’ the painter replied calmly. ‘It was too dark.’

‘Ha, ha, ha,’ said the jailer, humiliated that he had let himself be taken in, then echoing the painter back with a sneer: ‘You opened a window? You painted a window, you scum! It’s not a real window. You only imagine that it’s a window.’

The painter replied calmly, ‘I wanted to make light in the cell, and I made it. Through my window the sky can be seen. When you came in, even you had to close your eyes because of the light.’

This time the jailer got angry: ‘I’m not buying it. This tower doesn’t have a single window. Anyone who gets put in here will never see the light of day again.’

‘And yet, in my cell, light comes in through the open window,’ said the painter.

‘Oh yes,’ the jailer sneered back. ‘Then why don’t you escape? That way you’d convince even me that we’re talking about a real window.’

The painter looked at him thoughtfully, took several steps toward the wall, and hurled himself out the window.

‘Wait!’ The panic-stricken jailer jumped forward to stop the painter, only to knock his forehead against the wall once more. ‘Sound the alarm! Prisoner escaping!’ he began to shout, while through the open window the body of the painter could be heard falling through the air and then shattering on the pavement at the foot of the tower.

So what we have here is basically a heavily padded Road Runner gag without any of the humour or the comic timing.

Remember the cartoon where Wile E. Coyote paints a fake tunnel entrance on the side of a rock face, hoping the Road Runner will crash into it? (I’m sure everyone’s seen it.) He waits behind a boulder. The Road Runner zooms into the painting; Wile E. Coyote dashes after it and hits solid rock. He reels around for a second. Then the Road Runner zooms back out of the tunnel and runs him over. Meep! Meep!

What makes the Looney Tunes version so much smarter? Well, there’s the trompe l’oeil painting itself. One quirk of cartoon reality is everything already looks so artificial that it’s hard to tell if something’s a painting of a tunnel or a real tunnel – in toon-space, photorealism is as easy as priming a fence! Now, in the hands of a Belgian Dadaist, this might be tiresome – just a snotty piece of conceptual art: Ceci n’est pas une meep! – but the Warner Brothers animators, fortunately, know it’s funny and play it for laughs in the sharpest possible way, by making the tunnel real for the Road Runner and fake for Wile E. Coyote.

A magic painting in a work of prose doesn’t work so well, though, because prose isn’t as good as cartoons at handling that kind of ambiguity. At most, the painting in the Romanian story becomes a trite (and wishful) allegory about the power of art. And there are few sub-genres in East European literary fiction more shamefully moth-eaten than the Persecuted Artist Story. Kafka could pull it off, but Kafka’s ‘Hunger Artist’ wasn’t a jolly painter – he was an anorexic circus performer who starved himself to death in the name of his art. Kafka’s heroes might’ve been creative souls oppressed by the world around them for having an imagination, but quite often they were also fucking scary. Addams Family scary! You could understand why the Normals turned against the Hunger Artist and Gregor Samsa, and that made the story richer. Unfortunately, not all of Kafka’s imitators figured that part out.

Today, of course, America’s best remembered animation pioneer is the good, wholesome, middle-class, Protestant Walt Disney. Yet Disney owed a great deal of his success to earlier, working-class animators, like Max Fleischer, a Jewish immigrant from Poland who started his career as a newspaper errand boy, before inventing the Rotoscope process in 1915 – the technique of tracing cartoons frame by frame from live-action footage. Think of it as a distant ancestor to the motion capture suits Andy Serkis used to play King Kong and Gollum; it gave cartoon characters a new level of fluid, realistic movement, which Disney happily exploited making Snow White.

But Fleischer, initially, wasn’t interested in anything close to the Disney brand of mimesis. He was, after all, the creator of Popeye and Betty Boop – a happy Modernist, like Keaton. He developed a surreal, irreverent, anarchic aesthetic, one that took advantage of animation’s massive potential for weirdness.

It may have taken Brecht some hard theorising to produce his self-consciously artificial ‘epic theatre,’ but American cartoons were self-consciously artificial from the start. Fleischer’s earliest character, Koko the Clown, was a homunculus who jumped out of an inkwell, frolicking around the artist’s desk. Several Betty Boop shorts begin with Fleischer’s hand drawing Betty on a piece of cardstock – who then comes to life, addressing her creator as ‘Uncle Max.’

And a year before Fleischer invented rotoscoping, another working-class American animator, Windsor McCay (the son of a Michigan teamster) created Gertie the Dinosaur, arguably the world’s first cute animated character. McCay’s film begins in live action, with him standing in front of a drawing of a prehistoric landscape in stage attire and gesturing towards it, promising the audience that: ‘Gertie – yes her name is Gertie – will come out of that cave and do everything I tell her to.’ The cartoon then becomes a parody of vaudevillian dog-trick shows:

This doesn’t bode well for the Brechtian theory that prole audiences were too enthralled by the spectacles in front of them to recognise the artifice of what they were seeing. Working-class Americans clearly did know that film magic was clever trickery, and this was especially true for cartoon film magic. Fleischer made it obvious that Betty Boop was a constructed character. He put his drawing-board infrastructure in open sight and found dozens of ways to use it for comic effect. In some ways, his cartoons achieved exactly what Brecht had hoped to do with epic theatre – produce a new, industrial, half-abstract kind of character that was recognisably human, but not fleshly enough to fully identify with.

In one of the greatest Betty Boop shorts, ‘Minnie the Moocher,’ we learn – surprise, surprise! – that Betty comes from working-class immigrant parents, vaguely Jewish ones who disapprove of her flapper lifestyle. Her father’s head turns into a gramophone as he argues with her. She runs away from home with her boyfriend – an anthropomorphic dog named Bimbo! – and gets stuck in a cave with a singing ghostly walrus voiced by Cab Calloway.

(Calloway played the role Andy-Serkis-style, creating dance moves in live-action which Fleischer then rotoscoped. A trace of the jazz singer’s zoot suit seems to remain in the walrus’ saggy figure.)

And Cab Calloway himself was a great Happy Modernist who did the musical numbers for several Betty Boop shorts, mixing jazz and blues with improvised scat singing. His aesthetic paired well with Fleischer’s. As a genre, the blues ballad had partly evolved from an older ‘Unfortunate Rake’ tradition of British and Irish cautionary folk songs about foolish young men and women dying of venereal disease – or coming to some bad end in general from drinking, gambling, roving and whoring. By the early twentieth century, the list of taboos had expanded to opium-smoking and coke-sniffing. It was a song-form ripe for parody. In 1927, an African-American blues musician (and occasional drag queen) named Frankie ‘Half-Pint’ Jaxon wrote ‘Willie the Weeper’ – a funny, sped-up, picaresque ballad about opium addiction. Hearing it inspired Calloway to produce ‘Minnie the Moocher’ shortly afterwards.

In very little time, Happy Modernism had turned the cautionary folk ballad on its head. In straight blues songs like ‘St. James Infirmary’ (and folk tunes like ‘The Unfortunate Lass’) the tragic philanderer was left to die namelessly in a hospital or a foreign opium den. Willie the Weeper and Minnie the Moocher, however, were larger-than-life sinners, epically antiheroic.

Ivy-League-educated Beat writers like Burroughs and Ginsberg would spend long careers trying to replicate that Jazz Age loucheness and never quite succeeding.

That said, Bob Dylan’s mentor, Dave van Ronk, did record a fucking ace version of ‘Willie’:

Decades later, Calloway made a memorable cameo in John Landis’ The Blues Brothers, singing ‘Minnie the Moocher’ just as energetically in his seventies as he had in his twenties:

Happy Modernism holds up pretty well – you’ll find – against both dreary High Culture modernism and the toothless, Nabokov-inspired postmodernism that now dominates English literature. Great art, to Nabokov, was self-contained and microcosmic; none of its greatness came from ‘human interest’ or political engagement or the work’s relationship to the social conditions around it. Dead Souls wasn’t a great novel because of the portrait it painted of Russian society or dysfunctional landowners. For Nabokov, it was only great because of its ‘irrational’ dream-logic and dream-physics, its runaway similes, its layers of transformations. (‘Transformation is a marvellous thing,’ he told his students at Cornell.) Nabokov’s own novels were full of characters discovering they were fictional while the worlds around them dissolved into self-referential puddles. Borges had a fairly similar strategy, as did Calvino and hundreds of weaker imitators.

In other words, Nabokov and his fellow postmodernists wanted literature to be a cartoon.

Not that they’d admit it. The Nab conceded that movies were art, but sneered at every other kind of pop culture. His successors were a bit more pop-friendly. But still, which’s the bigger breakthrough – being the first American novelist to namedrop Bugs Bunny (y’know, to keep it real) or creating Bugs Bunny himself?

Which genre – cartoon slapstick or ‘serious’ literary fiction – can pack in more internal dream-logic, dream-physics, rampant transformations, characters-knowing-they’re-characters and overall meta-jiggery-pokery?

Cartoons! It’s friggen obvious! That’s what they’re made for!

You want transformations? Watch Fleischer’s ‘Betty Boop, MD’ – it’s got more metamorphing going on than any given chapter of Ovid!

Impossible body contortions! An old guy turning into a giant baby! A baby turning into a miniature geriatric! Another old guy tucking himself under a quilt, which turns into a burial plot next to a smiling tombstone, then sprouts a smiling sunflower!

There’s no point even describing it in words, except to show how much clunkier words are –literature is – at doing everything Nabokov and Co. expect out of great works of art.

PoMo writers of all stripes love the shocker that language can’t ‘convey’ anything – or half of what they want to ‘convey’ – but here’s an even bigger shocker, the real shocker, the one Nabokov’s great-grand-brood doesn’t want to think about. (Prepare yourself.) What if language could convey anything and everything, but it just wasn’t that efficient?

That’s the problem literature has to deal with. It’s like that English start-up company that’s claiming now that it can make gasoline from fresh air, but only (fine print alert!) by sucking up more energy than it squirts out as Premium Unleaded. Whether something’s possible isn’t the issue; the issue is whether it’s economical.

And literature isn’t very economical at doing the things postmodernists want it to do. So un-economical it’s grating. A play-by-play description of a Betty Boop cartoon is always longer and flatter than the cartoon itself. You could describe it, sure; it’s not impossible; in a worst case scenario, you could write it out, pixel by pixel, in binary code; but it’s painfully fucking roundabout. Magical realism, as we’ve already seen, can’t even plagiarise the simplest of Road Runner gags without getting bogged down like a mastodon at the La Brea Tar Pits.

Writing isn’t useless, of course. Never said that. (You’ll see some of the things it can do when we get to our last Happy Modernist, Don Marquis.) But the things books can do better than slapstick cartoons – or at least do differently and competitively – also happen to be things the Nabokov Era steered us away from. And if the Nabokov era isn’t to blame, then it’s the stubbornly snooty belief that everything works better as literary fiction – that it’s never a question of the right medium or the right genre.

Betty Boop, sad to say, didn’t last half a decade before the Hays Code kicked in – sponsored by President Harding’s tight clique of oligarchs and Republican cronies – and forced Fleischer to tone his animations down. By the 40s, he’d fallen to making macho, patriotic Superman films, rotoscoping bodybuilders and trying to out-Walt Uncle Walt.

His successor in cartoon wackiness was Leon Schlesinger, another working-class Jew who started out as a theatre usher in Buffalo, NY, before moving to Hollywood in the 1910s and eventually forming Leon Schlesinger Studios – the birthplace of the Looney Tunes. (It would later get bought out by Schlesinger’s distant cousins, the Warner Brothers.) He hired Tex Avery – an animator from Dallas in his late twenties who was blind in one eye – and put him to work in a dilapidated Los Angeles bungalow nicknamed ‘Termite Terrace.’

Eileen Jones gives a better account than I can possibly give of Avery’s early cartoons, which were rough, lowborn and fearsomely anti-Disney:

Some indication of how rival animators must’ve felt about Disney can be gathered from an old Tex Avery cartoon featuring Screwy Squirrel—a short-lived, unlovely creature in Warner Brothers cartoon history, with shrewd eyes and a huge, perpetually stuffed nose that makes him talk like an adenoidal tough from Brooklyn. Screwy meets another squirrel in the forest and inquires, ‘Hey, what kinda pitcher is dis?’ The other squirrel is a Disney-esque animal with big round eyes and a tiny nose, coyly hugging its own fluffy tail, who lisps sweetly, ‘This is a picture about me and all my furry forest friends, Danny Deer and Sammy Skunk and Wallace Woodchuck and…’ While he’s still listing his friends, Screwy walks him behind a large tree, and BAM! POW! CRUNCH! the noise of a terrific skull-busting beating ensues. Screwy emerges alone, and says to the audience, ‘You wuddena liked that pitcher anyway.’

If Buster Keaton was Happy Modernism’s filmmaker, if Max Fleischer was its animator and Cab Calloway was its singing voice, then its Poet Laureate could only have been Don Marquis. (That’s pronounced ‘MARK-wiss,’ by the way.)

Marquis might seem like a strange choice here. He was half a decade older than Fleischer and nearly two decades older than Keaton; it’s hard to say if he ever did much blue-collar physical labour; by all accounts, he was less working-class than he was lower-middle-class. He had a low opinion of free verse and a xenophobic contempt for japonisme, Chinoiserie, Russian novels and seemingly everything else un-American. When America entered WWI, Marquis contributed jingoistic doggerel to Fifes and Drums, an anthology of ‘Poems of America at War’ by a loose grouping of poets who had ‘banded themselves together under the name of the Vigilantes.’

His poem, ‘The Pacifist’s Lament,’ was a single rabid couplet:

The world is so full of a number of thugs,
I’m sure we should all be as humble as bugs.

Today, this is the sort of thing you’d only read in Quadrant.

What’s more, Marquis hated Hollywood and didn’t last a year there as a screenwriter before quitting in disgust and denouncing Tinseltown in an angry, filthy Juvenalian poem (for private circulation only, of course):

City of sterile striving,
Where brains have not begun,
I sing thy Idiot Faces,
Thy leagued Commonplaces,
Bright in thy silly sun!

Thy Ballocks have no Semen,
Thine Udders have no Milk;
Ever thou seekest Bliss
With Hard-ons swoln with Piss;
Thy Gods are Bunk and Bilk

Fertile in naught but faking
Futile each season passes;
And scrutiny discloses
Thy most prodigious Roses
Are really Horses’ Asses.

Strange Cults are thine, strange Cunts,
Dry Nymph and arid Venus;
Or should a hymen bust
‘Tis but a puff of dust
Powders the satyr’s penis.

Diffuse, wide desert reaches
Where no Mind ever wrought!
Peer from thy cloudless skies
Demons with lidless eyes,
Scorching the buds of Thought!

Thy passions all pretended,
Thy pulses beat for pelf–
But should more Irrigation
Bring dustless fornication,
Go fuck thy Suffering Self

 

So what made Marquis the California-hater a modernist at all, let alone a Happy Modernist?

Because, like Keaton and Fleischer, he too discovered a way to make art by accident – as a side-effect of something else. And Literature, you have to agree, is always greater when it doesn’t know it’s Literature, doesn’t announce itself as Literature, and seems to be occupied with some other task – like WC Fields playing billiards.

Slapstick, when it’s done properly, is the purest analogy for the Happy Modernist ideal. It looks clumsy and distracted (think of Fields mumbling and staring at a cue ball) but its flurry of accidental movements (everything Fields does when he’s just not watching out) is fiercely coordinated and uncannily graceful. The elegance is everywhere and nowhere. It’s guerilla elegance.

And whether or not Marquis was ‘working class’ in any traditional sense, he was certainly poor. He struggled to make a living from his writing and died broke during the Great Depression, and only then after outliving his first wife and two children. Like any downwardly-mobile member of the middle class, he found himself in a painful position: poor, but not as well-adapted to poverty as the more stoic working classes, with few ways to earn an income except writing a tabloid column and a bunch of unsuccessful plays.

His situation left him with no shortage of resentment for the richer, hipper, vers libre poets of his era, and then the vapid, upper class salon-cliques that started sprouting in every corner of Jazz Age New York where there was idle money. So Marquis decided to satirise it all in his tabloid column, and created an amazing parody of vers libre that far surpassed the thing he was sending up and became its own universe.

That masterpiece was Archy and Mehitabel.

The conceit of it went like this – a free verse poet named Archy died and found himself reincarnated as a cockroach in the New York Sun newspaper office where Marquis worked. Every evening, once everyone had left the building, Archy would crawl up to one of the typewriters and jump on the keys, punching out free verse poems about his daily life as an insect.

This went on undetected, until one fateful day:

We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning, and discovered a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys. He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.

It’s an excellent comic invention; being an insect, Archy can’t operate the ‘Shift’ key, forcing him to write in lower-case, just like the real vers libre poets of the 1910s. And that’s how Marquis viewed the self-mangled style of the rich trendies around him – as the writing of cockroaches who deserved to reincarnate as cockroaches in a remotely just world.

But Archy became something more than an office joke or a simple object of hate. Marquis may have detested free verse, but he wrote a bit too well in the poetic form he hated to make it completely repulsive. In the end, he accidentally redeemed it; instead of using vers libre to ape French Symbolism and flat, sterile early Imagism, he created an earthy, down-and-out persona – a tough, no-nonsense cockroach who ‘see[s] things from the under side now’ and brings back gobbets of pure reportage from the insect world. It’s a modernist style most people associate with Bukowski, or the Beat Generation, or even WH Auden during the slummer phase of his career (‘I sit in one of the dives …’) but Marquis effectively invented it.

And, what’s more, he dreamt up a surreal vermin universe to go with it, where some rats are ordinary rats and others are reincarnated human souls. But don’t think that having a poet’s soul makes a rat any nobler or nicer. Quite, quite the opposite:

most of the rats here are just rats
but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him
he used to be a poet himself
night after night i have written poetry for you
on your typewriter
and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet
comes out of his hole when it is done
and reads it and sniffs at it
he is jealous of my poetry
he used to make fun of it when we were both human

he was a punk poet himself
and after he has read it he sneers
and then he eats it

[…]
the rats name is freddy
the next time freddy dies i hope he wont be a rat
but something smaller i hope i will be a rat
in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach
i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then

This poem, I should add, first went to press in 1913, the same year Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis and two years before he published it. It’s a grim work. Marquis won’t pretend that poetry has any elevating effect on people. Or rats. In fact, a ‘big brute of a rat who used to be a poet’ is even worse than a normal big brute of a rat – literacy and high culture have only turned Freddy into a backbiting artist manqué. Archy has to live in a state of purgatory, atoning for his past crimes against literature, and hope the shoe’ll be on the other foot sooner or later.

Archy and Mehitabel is incredibly entertaining, of course, but the vermin-society that Archy lives in is effective on many more levels. Archy is very much a creature of his time – a product of early 20th Century modernity and its media infrastructure. (How could he have communicated with anyone before the invention of typewriters?) And Archy’s stresses as a cockroach – or a former human in a world of cockroaches – allow Marquis to tackle all the Big Topics: alienation, metaphysics, human nature, existential crises, religious belief and simply how to cope with life in a shitty world when you’re far from the top of the food chain.

But the comedy of the poems never wavers. Archy isn’t the solemn, preening grunge of the 90s, with its mirthless, ‘full on’ posturing over much milder loserdom and alienation than the world Marquis endured and still found the strength to laugh at.

No matter how dismal his poems get, or how bleak their picture of cockroachified human nature becomes, they’re always riotously funny. A perfect Happy Modernist wouldn’t stop the entertainment for anyone or anything – or ever dare to think that humour and seriousness were mutually exclusive.

The show must go on, even in a work like ‘the cockroach who had been to hell,’ with its terrifying treatment of superstition, religious bigotry and ostracism:

listen to me i have
been mobbed almost
theres an old simp cockroach
here who thinks he has
been to hell and all
the young cockroaches make a
hero out of him and admire
him he sits and runs his front
feet through his long white
beard and tells the story one
day he says he crawled into a yawning
cavern and suddenly came on a
vast abyss full of whirling
smoke there was a light
at the bottom billows
and billows of yellow smoke
swirled up at him and
through the horrid gloom he
saw things with wings flying
and dropping and dying they veered
and fluttered like damned
spirits through that sulphurous mist

listen i says to him
old man youve never been to hell
at all there isn t any hell
transmigration is the game i
used to be a human vers libre
poet and i died and went
into a cockroach s body if
there was a hell id know
it wouldn t i you re
irreligious says the old simp
combing his whiskers excitedly
ancient one i says to him
while all those other
cockroaches gathered into a
ring around us what you
beheld was not hell all that
was natural some one was fumigating
a room and you blundered
into it through a crack
in the wall atheist he cries
and all those young
cockroaches cried atheist
and made for me if it
had not been for freddy
the rat i would now be
on my way once more i mean
killed as a cockroach and transmigrating
into something else well
that old whitebearded devil is
laying for me with his
gang he is jealous
because i took his glory away
from him dont ever tell me
insects are any more liberal
than humans

Today it’s Craig Raine they teach in every course reader as the classic example of how poets use defamiliarisation. But Raine’s ‘Martian’ poetry doesn’t really have a Martian character, a Martian persona behind its estrangement – it’s an exercise in misinterpretation without a misinterpreter. Don Marquis does have a misinterpreter however, the nasty, fanatical ‘old simp cockroach’ who turns the fumigation scene into a materialist Hell – a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare of ‘things with wings flying and dropping and dying.’ The alien Hell-scape might be as scary and disorientating as Wilfred Owen’s gas-attack poem – even more so thanks to Archy’s ragged, unpunctuated lines – but the old simp’s mindset is very, very familiar. (You could almost call it human nature.)

Marquis continues the Hell theme in ‘certain maxims of archy,’ which shows off his talent for shorter compositions:

if you get gloomy just
take an hour off and sit
and think how
much better this world
is than hell
of course it won t cheer
you up much if
you expect to go there

[…]

if monkey glands
did restore your youth
what would you do
with it
question mark
just what you did before
interrogation point

yes i thought so
exclamation point

don t cuss the climate
it probably doesn t like you
any better
than you like it

many a man spanks his
children for
things his own
father should have
spanked out of him

that stern and
rockbound coast felt
like an amateur
when it saw how grim
the puritans that
landed on it were

boss the other day
i heard an
ant conversing
with a flea
small talk i said
disgustedly
and went away
from there

Archy wasn’t the only masterpiece Don Marquis produced. In 1916 he put out an amazing, painfully funny work that’s been out of print ever since, Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers. Not even the small community of Archy tragics who run various Don Marquis fan sites seem to remember it – which is disgraceful, because Hermione is a great satire that reads like a pure cross between Ab Fab and Bouvard and Pecuchet.

Hermione herself is a rich, twentysomething philistine who presides over a disgusting salon – her ‘Little Group of Serious Thinkers’ – filled with quacks, gurus, poetasters, crank philosophers, eugenicists, Nietzscheists and other wealthy unemployed idiots with nothing better to do than hold lectures in each other’s living rooms on the latest New Age causes and fads.

These people still exist. If Hermione had been born into Generations X or Y, she might be posing for box-wine-sozzled Instagram photos with the Proctor & Gamble heir who made that ‘ancient astronauts’ film, or having mumbly resolutionless debates with postgraduates in lumberjack costumes about raw artichoke diets, or how to ‘understand Zizzek,’ or the most ‘proactive response’ to the ‘dispiriting amount of snarkiness’ on Tumblr.

Or mingling with other deep-pocketed Serious Thinkers at TED conferences more exclusive than most yacht clubs.

Marquis makes it plain. Hermione is ‘Hermione the Deathless’ – she ‘whom Prince Platitude has kissed’ – and her idle salon culture will flourish forever, endlessly regenerating, hopping from fad to fad and failing its way to success. It’s easy to guess why so many imaginative working-class New Yorkers preferred to migrate West in the 1910s to take their chances with a new medium if Hermione and her ilk were the gatekeepers guarding the older artforms.

Still, let’s be fair; compared to Millennial salon philistines, WWI-era philistines were at least more exuberant. And Marquis did a fine job of shaping Hermione’s chatty, melodious, upper-class speech patterns in each chapter where she discusses her Little Group’s latest crackpot interest: ‘Vibrations are the key to everything. Atoms used to be, but atoms have quite gone out.’

Hermione – like Archy – is a column character who makes regular reports on her life, not in verse (though she does dabble in poetry) but in superb comedic monologues where Marquis builds on layer after layer of empty cliché: ‘Don’t you just dote on the Japanese? They’re so esoteric – and subtle and all that sort of thing, aren’t they? Just look at Buddhism and Shintoism, for instance. Could anything be more subtle and esoteric? We’ve been taking them up – our Little Group of Serious Thinkers, you know – and they’re wonderful, simply wonderful! Not, of course, that one would be a Buddhist or a Shintoist – but it’s broadening to the mind to come into contact with the great thought of – of – well, really of people like Shinto, you know, and all those other sages?’

Or: ‘Have you thought deeply on Interstellar Communication? It promises to be one of the great new problems.’

Hermione thinks of herself as a great social reformer, too – much like her upper-class contemporaries who didn’t want the Morlocks enjoying their nice, restful, movie-house darkness – and has more than one scheme to ‘uplift’ the great unwashed.

‘The Working Classes would be so much better off without liquor,’ she announces. ‘And we who are the leaders in thought should set them an example.’

We learn soon enough what setting an ‘example’ actually entails:

Of course, a cocktail or two and an occasional stinger, is something no one can well avoid taking, if one is dining out or having supper after the theater with one’s own particular crowd.

But all the members of my own particular little group have entered into a solemn agreement not to take even so much as a cocktail or a glass of wine if any of the working classes happen to be about where they can see us and become corrupted by our example.

The Best People owe these sacrifices to the Masses, don’t you think?

Of course, the waiters, and people like that, really belong to the working classes too, I suppose.

But, as [Hermione’s poet friend] Fothergil Finch says, very often one wouldn’t know it. And who could expect a waiter to be influenced one way or another by anything? And it’s the home life of the working classes that counts, anyhow.

Hermione continues babbling – like a fin de siecle version of Alain de Botton – about ‘sweetening’ the home lives of the proletariat and how she ‘preached the doctrine of fresh air’ to a ‘dreadful woman’ raising five children in a dingy, overcrowded flat who wasn’t ‘at all grateful’ for the advice.

And, in one of her funniest TED lectures, Hermione thunders against working-class ‘Parasite Women’ (that is, blue-collar wives and mothers) and hopes to start ‘[her] own little Mission’ to emancipate them – with her father’s money, of course:

The Parasite Woman must go! Our Little Group of Serious Thinkers took up the Parasite Woman last night in quite a thorough way. One of the most interesting women you ever listened to gave us a little talk about the Parasite Woman, you know.

And we decided that the Parasite Woman has nothing to Contribute to the Next Generation.

Oh, these Parasite Women! It just simply makes my blood boil to hear about them! I don’t know when I have been so indignant!

With the world so full of work to be done for the Cause—for all the Causes, you know—they just sit around selfishly at home all wrapped up in their own families, or children, if they’re married, and do nothing at all for the Evolution of the Ego and the Development of the Race, and the Conscious Guidance of the Next Generation, or anything at all like that.

Thank goodness I could never be a Parasite Woman!

And, yet, I pity them, too. I’m thinking quite seriously of starting a little Mission of my own for the purpose of appealing to and reforming the Parasite Women among my acquaintances.

Of course it will take organization, and that means I will have to have money to start it and keep it going.

But Papa will give me the money all right. That is one thing about poor, dear Papa—he doesn’t understand the new movements at all, but he will give me money. And he never asks what I do with it.

Now and then, of course, he scolds a little—he told me the other day I cost him nearly as much as a war. But I can always jolly him, you know, when he gets that way. Men are so easily managed and flattered.

Everything is ‘little’ for Hermione and her Little Group, but her littleness isn’t Archy’s littleness – the littleness of New York’s down-and-outers whom Marquis immortalised as eloquent, big-dreaming bugs, rats and cats. It’s the small-mindedness of cocktail-drinking slummers who carelessly squash proles under their feet – who can’t imagine the Have-Not perspective any more than they can imagine how the world would look to a cockroach.

And it’s a smallness that turns up very sharply in Hermione’s wince-inducing forays into Symbolist poetry:

Poppies, poppies, silver poppies in the moonlight, poppies!
Silver poppies,
Silver poppies in the moonlight,
Youth!
Poppies, poppies, crimson poppies in the sunset, love!
Poppies, poppies, poppies!
Black poppies in the midnight,
Death !
Three colors of poppies!
One color is silver,
The second color is crimson,
The third color is black,
And if there were a fourth color it would be green!
Alas! Why is there never a fourth color?
Poppies, poppies, poppies, but no Green Poppy!
I asked the little crippled girl who sells poppies to buy bread for the drunken father who beats her,
And she said, ‘I, too, seek the fourth color!’
I asked the boy who drives the grocer’s delivery wagon, the old apple woman without teeth, the morgue keeper, the plumber, the janitor, the red-armed waffle baker in the window of a restaurant full of marble-topped tables and pallid-looking girls, the subway guard and the millionaire,
And they all said,
‘Poppies, poppies, poppies,
We have never known but three colors!’
I am a Great Virile Spirit;
I, with my Ego,
I will give the world its Desire !
I, the strong!
I, the daring!
I will create a Green Poppy!

Hermione’s vacuousness is more than just a bit reminiscent of The Great Gatsby’s two airheads, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, especially Daisy with her vapid, Long Island speech patterns: ‘I’m p-paralysed with happiness.’

But Marquis had more reason than F Scott Fitzgerald to hate the Toms and Daisies of Gotham. Unlike F Scott, he never got his big break – his chance to cruise in and out of the French Riviera, moping that money couldn’t buy the love of his high-school sweetheart. He was stuck in white-collar poverty, supporting a family he’d end up outliving, while rich trendies around him found success in countless faddish ways and rubbed it in.

And he found a much sharper way to satirise those rich trendies than Fitzgerald would, nine years later. F Scott could only suggest Tom and Daisy’s emptiness with snippets of dialogue. Marquis could shape the emptiness of his era into an extended solo, juggle between meaningless turns of phrase (Hermione explaining why ‘the Exotic’ is ‘quite different’ from ‘the Esoteric’ or ‘the Erotic’) and arrange pieces of hollow jargon, layer upon layer, until they collapsed in puffs of self-defeating irony.

Just watch how he shreds half-baked Nietzscheism and upper-class Social Darwinism in this Hermione monologue, with the hilarious title, ‘Will the Best People Receive the Superman Socially?’:

We’ve been taking up Metabolism lately—our Little Group of Serious Thinkers, you know and it’s wonderful;—just simply wonderful!

I really don’t know how I got along for so many years without it—it opens up such new vistas, doesn’t it?

I can never think in the same way again about even the most trivial things since I have learned all about Protoplasm and—and—well, all these marvelous scientific things, you know.

Isn’t Science delightful!

There’s the Cosmos, for instance. It had always been there, you know. But nobody knew much about it until Scientists took it up in a serious way.

And now I, for one, feel that I couldn’t do with out it!

Although, of course, one feels one’s responsibilities toward it, too, and that is apt to be rather trying at times unless one has a truly earnest nature and is prepared to make sacrifices.

If the Cosmos is to be improved, what is there that can improve it except Evolution?

And unless we who are serious thinkers give Evolution a mark to reach, how can we be sure that Evolution will Evolve in the right direction?

I have worried myself half to death at times over the Superman!

You know I feel personally responsible, to a certain extent, about what he will be like when he gets here. If he isn’t what he should be, you know, it will be the fault of those of us who are the leaders in thought today—it will be because we haven’t started him right, you know.

Mamma—poor dear Mamma is so unadvanced, you know!—has an idea that when the Superman does get here he won’t be at all the sort of person that one would care to receive socially.

‘Hermione,’ she said to me only the other day, ‘no Superman shall ever come into my house!’

She heard some of my friends, you know, talking about the Superman and Eugenics, and she has an idea that he will be horribly improper.

‘I consider that the Superman would be a dangerous influence in the life of a young woman,’ said Mamma.

‘Mamma,’ I told her, ‘you are frightfully behind the times! There isn’t a doubt in the world that when the Superman does come he will be taken up by the Best People. Anarchists and Socialists go everywhere now, and dress just like other people, and you can hardly tell them, and it will be the same way with the Superman.’

What Mamma lacks is contact. Contact with—with—well, she lacks Contact, if you get what I mean.

So many of the elder generation do lack Contact, don’t you think?

Although, of course, it would be very hard to have Contact and Background at the same time.

And if one must choose between Contact and Background, the choice is apt to be puzzling at times.

Although, of course, it is useless to reason too much on things like that. Intuition often succeeds where reason fails, especially if one is at all Psychic.

Well, I must go. I must hurry to my costumer’s.

I’m having a special costume made, you know. We’ve been taking up Spiritualism again—our little group, you know. And I’m going to give a Spirit Fête, and of course it will take a great deal of dressing and arranging and decoration.

Papa says it will be a Ghost Dance, but he is so terribly frivolous and irreverent at times.

Don’t you just simply loathe frivolity?

Marquis, let’s remember, was a poet, not an animator or a film director, and poetry is one of the oldest media forms there is. Still, his Archy and Hermione have all the hallmarks of Happy Modernism: a playful awareness of their medium and mode of production, a sense of ‘art by accident’ wafting from crafted entertainment, an earthy low-budget Stoicism that exploits its own raggedness for artistic effect, and, most importantly of all, a sense of humour! A tough, confident sense of humour that can tackle any amount of grimness and existential angst without surrendering its lightness of touch. Tragicomedy that floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee – and speaks like a cockroach!

But you won’t spot Don Marquis on many uni reading lists. It’s Gatsby we all remember the Jazz Age by. Betty Boop is still a familiar face, but only on seat protectors, steering-wheel covers and other trashy car accessories. Hardly anyone today knows who the Fleischer Brothers were, but every fool knows the story of Walt Disney. It’s the slow, stuffy Modernism of TS Eliot – and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Uncle Walt – that made it into the history books, the Eng. Lit course readers and the Western Canon.

And it’s left us all poorer for choice.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ramon Glazov is a Perth-based writer and journalist. His writing has appeared in Jacobin, The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. He is the translator of Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin (Liveright, 2017).

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Comments

  1. interesting thoughts. might i offer a suggestion about the size. i think it would work best as a two parter. scrolling down and down and down you lose the momentum of the arguement at times. other than that it’s left me with some thoughts to ponder and respond to.

  2. Loved this – hope it is part of a larger project and we can expect to read more. Assume you have read Berman’s book on Times Square which reads Betty Boop in relation to the ‘Times Girl’, who embodied both the vulnerabilities and resourcefulness of young women trying to make their way in the modern world. My response to the provocation within it would be to say modernism is both for and against modernity, and the optimistic, energizing, “happy” strain (no matter how it also registers certain forms of hell) only acknowledges half that story and runs the risk of a kind of lyrical celebration of modernity, popular culture etc. By contrast there is a kind of ‘melancholy’ modernism — also containing certain types of danger of elitism, pessimism etc — that importantly problematises certain ideologies of progress and development, registers certain kinds of defeat and so on (thinking here of Walter Benjamin) and not sure I want to give that up. I’m guessing the trick is to hold onto both of these things simultaneously.

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