Philanthropy as a Pathology

An essay on philanthropy that I began in 2009 at the request of Orion Magazine has at last appeared. But it’s not at Orion. It’s at the new intellectual organ of the Occupy movement, Jacobin Magazine. The backstory for the essay is below. The rest of the essay is now up at the Jacobin site.

In the fall of 2009 I was approached by Hal Clifford, editor of Orion Magazine, and asked to write an essay about American philanthropy, especially in relation to environmentalism. From the first I was dubious about the assignment. I said, “Not-for-profit organizations like you cannot afford to attack philanthropy because if you attack one foundation you may as well attack them all. You’ll be cutting your own throat.”

Hal assured me that while all this might be true someone had to take up the issue, and Orion was willing to do so. And I was the right person to write the essay precisely because I was not an insider but simply an honest intelligence. So, with many misgivings I said I’d try.

I interviewed about a dozen people on both sides of the field, both givers and getters, and some in the middle. The people I spoke to were eager to articulate their grievances even if they were just as eager to be anonymous. I also should acknowledge that the development of these grievances was no doubt colored by my own experiences as a board member and president of the board of two not-for-profit organizations in the arts.

After working for several months writing and revising the essay, Hal Clifford announced that he would be leaving Orion. My first thought was “uh-oh.” The managing editor, Chip Blake, took over my essay and at that point things got dicey. Ultimately he explained that he hadn’t been fully aware of my assignment, that he hadn’t known the essay would be an attack on “the oligarchy,” that it didn’t seem to be fully a part of the magazine’s usual interests, and that–fatally–from the magazine’s point of view publishing the essay would be an exercise in “self-mutilation.”

Which was exactly what I said at the beginning! They had come to their senses even if it had taken a long time and cost me a lot of work to get there.

But, secretly, I was pleased. This editorial catastrophe was the best possible confirmation of everything I argue in the essay.

Managing Despair

The essay below is in the March Playboy Forum. I’ve received their permission to post so that it could be linked to. So link away if it strikes you.

Managing Despair

After a national electoral beat-down like the one Democrats suffered in 2010, there is always hand-wringing over the “future of liberalism.” The anxiety behind such hand-wringing is, obviously, the possibility that liberalism might not have a future, that this time conservatives have really done it, they’ve succeeded in returning us to those days when the Titans of Industry roamed the earth and workers sank beneath their heels.

Unfortunately, the liberal response to this anxiety is never much more than: Compromise the hell out of what you claimed were your values, hope the Republican dummies over-reach, and try to win the next election. What’s pathetic about this response is that no one seems to feel the need for self-analysis. “What are we, exactly?” someone ought to ask. “Are we something that deserves a future?” I propose to help liberalism understand itself even if self-understanding turns out to be something it wishes it didn’t have.

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Crazy Wisdom: von Trier’s Melancholia

This is from the Great Grotesque Thing I’m writing, but it has some topical relevance now so I’ll post it. Basically, it’s a reading of the film as Romantic art (with a little Buddhism as well).

Crazy Wisdom

Melancholia announces its Romantic intentions immediately. The title itself claims a place alongside the great romantic spiritual laments, like Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode,” Shelley’s “Stanzas: Written in Dejection, Near Naples,” and Keats’s great “Ode to Melancholy.” But the film’s true romantic touchstone is a little later in time: the film opens with the ethereal gloom of the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

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Sorry Ass Devolution

This is an aside from a longer reading of Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode.”  It felt blog-like, so here it is.

For me, the saddest thing in the history of ideas is a noble idea so corrupted that it comes to mean the opposite of its first intention. I suppose, to be charitable, this corruption can come out of innocent stupidity, but it’s difficult not to recognize how convenient the corrupted version is for the regime du jour, especially when the original idea is dangerous or potentially destabilizing.  Christianity is probably the most notorious example of this corrupting tendency, as most of the Christians around us have demonstrated ever since the Nicene Creed declared war on the world, especially on Christianity itself.  But the ideas of Romanticism have surely endured another such traumatic corruption.  The sentimentalizing of the Romantic metaphor of childhood is a case in point. The innocence, the perfection, the general mindless adorability of children is one of the most enduring Romantic clichés.   Its admirable origin is in work like German Romantic Philipp Runge’s painting The Huelsenbeck Children.

Philipp Otto Runge, The Huelsenbeck Children, 1806

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I Talk to Kakutani

Part the last of my Kakutani demolition derby.

I had a telephone conversation with Michiko Kakutani once. In 1990-something I was co-directing FC2 (Fiction Collective Two) with Ronald Sukenick. We’d just published a novel (Separate Hours, as I recall) by Jonathan Baumbach, one of the Fiction Collective’s founders back in 1974. So, I’m in our office one morning and the phone rings.

“Hi, this is Michiko Kakutani with the New York Times.”


“And you are?”

“Curtis White. I’m one of FC2’s directors.”

“Hi, Curtis.  I’m just calling to say that I’m reviewing Jonathan Baumbach’s new novel, and I thought I’d have a word with you.”


I should say that this phone call was not entirely unexpected. I’d been told, probably by Jon, to expect it. Now, a call from anyone at the Times about one of our books was pretty rare though not unheard of. But that we should be so well aware of a pending review before the fact was unheard of, implying as it did inside sources. Which was exactly what was happening. Our inside source, but for this book only, was none other than Baumbach’s wife who worked at the Times, as I recall. Well, that’s how things work in New York City, the town without pity, the world’s most provincial capital.

“You must be very excited about the book!” she said.

“Sure, we are,” I replied, my ardor perhaps chastened by my knowledge of what a sophomoric drama I was playing a role in.

She must have caught some of my reserve, for she then asked, her voice, as Henry James would say, “hanging fire”:

“You do think it’s good, don’t you?”

With a private roll of the eyes upward, I said, “Of course, it’s a great novel.”

She was jubilant. “It is a great novel, isn’t it? I’m going to write a very good review of it.”

And that was it. She wanted, in her college freshman simplicity, to be reassured by someone–even if the most partial someone–that the book was “good.” That we were “really excited.” Especially excited that the august Kakutani was going to review it in that monument to cosmopolitan fraud, the New York Times.

Because of critics like Kakutani, but especially Kakutani, there will soon not only be no art, there won’t even be any fake art. Soon, no one will raise an eyebrow when she reviews Code of Honor.27 and praises it for being an honest and tragic account of a typical American cartoon combat family. Historians (or the bloggers that replace them) will refer to this review as the final triumph of Generation Dummy.

From the Barbaric Heart: Kakutani: Death Star

This is Part 2 of my hit job on the most important literary critic in these theoretically United States.  It’s somewhere between a rant and Old Testament prophecy.  Part 3, the down and dirty of it, next.

“What we don’t know is exactly what we need,

And what we know fulfills no need at all.”


I have seen… and

I have lived to see Janice and Big Brother playing at a college dance;

In Hayward!;

And I have seen the posters in the dark forest where I lost my way directing me to the Avalon Ballroom;

And I have befriended the Family Dog;

And I was invited by the Mothers of Invention to a Freak Out!;

And I went to the Avalon and I went to the Fillmore and I went to Winterland;

And I freaked out…just a little;

You know, my hair got “good in the back”;

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From the Barbaric Heart: Michiko reviews my unwritten book!

I’m going to post three short things regarding the NY Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani.  They are mostly lies and venom, except one, the third, which is God’s truth.  All of my recent posts, including this one, are part of a 2,000 page (very much hypothetical, or 3/4 hypothetical) mega-novel/memoir/meditation.  I am so irritated by Kakutani’s hypocritical review of Dave Wallace’s posthumous book, The Pale King, that I’ve decided to share these now.  After all of her dumb reviews in which she dismisses boring postmodern “game playing,” she can praise Wallace now that he’s buried (or, as that self-serving punk J. Franzen reports in the New Yorker, spread around a wilderness site that he’d never visited and maybe never heard of (the more I think about this, the more appalling it is)).

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From the Barbaric Heart: Sufjan Stevens’ Vengeful Play

I was listening to Sufjan Stevens’ song “I Walked” on his new album The Age of Adz when it occurred to me how much in keeping his work is with the project of Romanticism. Like the Romantics, Sufjan is alienated from the values of the culture into which he happened to be born. He is so alienated from it that it doesn’t occur to him to “rebel;” rather, it is as if he has simply never heard of that culture. He says, “America? Christianity? Sorry, I’m from Adz. Things are arranged differently there.” This is the Romantic strategy par excellence: not a confrontation but a purposeful wandering away from the oppressive reason for alienation. Like William Blake, Sufjan creates his own religion in order not to be condemned to another’s. As the song announces, “he walked.”  He’s “down the road a piece.”

In this, Sufjan is both thoughtfully naive and innocently knowing. His work rests not only with Blake but with other straight-faced art-mystics who articulated their revolution with gorgeous nonsense. Nina Hagen’s Nun-Sex-Monk-Rock (the Antiworld of Cosma Shiva), Sun Ra’s Arkestra and their “Gods of the Thunder Realm,” Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love (“Just ask the Axis, he knows everything”), Piet Mondrian’s theosophical paintings (“Passion Flower,” “Devotion”), William Butler Yeats’ A Vision (The Subdivisions of the Wheel: Will, Mask, Creative Mind, Body of Fate), Blake’s Urizen, Los, and Orc, Jacob Boehme’s De Signatura Rerum (“if he has the Hammer that can strike my Bell!”), John’s “Book of Revelation” (the Seventh Seal, the Wrath of the Lamb), the salvific Arcanum of the Gnostics, Plotinus’ emanation of the Nous and World Soul, and, finally, Plato, nonsensical origin of all these blessedly daft spheres.

These are the folk what begat the folk what begat Sufjan.

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From the Barbaric Heart: A Story About Me and Lewis and the Late Great Island Nation of Japan

In the April, 2011, issue of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham has written an essay on Mark Twain’s Autobiography, Volume 1 of which appeared in the fall of 2010. It is, as usual, a gorgeous essay, written with an unapologetic richness of historical allusion, and the sort of energy of perception–a keeness of phrasing, a genius for metaphor–that makes human beings something more than a “sarcasm,” as Twain put it.

Lapham, like Twain, and like Twain’s German counterpart, Nietzsche, is a practitioner of the “gay science.” That science has two parts: honesty and play.  Lapham is indignantly honest because he knows that so much less than honesty is expected of him, and he is gay because the intelligence and playfulness that make honesty possible are such intense human joys. Regarding these joys of the mind, Lapham quotes Twain:

“Narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy Woodlands… a book that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of this circuit flowing within a yard [of] the path that it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law.”

Twain’s formulation has a Zen-like clarity: the law of no-law.  This is appropriate because it is not just a law for art, it is the law of life. As Shunryu Suzuki put it in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”

Watch them go. Life, especially that life form we call art, is the “play of energy in the void.”

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