“Support for a Pro-Redneck Presidency”

by Sam Buntz

First of all, discussing a presidential election two years ahead of time is pretty distasteful. But, it’s happening, so you might as well go with it… Personally, I’ve been wrestling with my own political orientation: I understand what my ideals are, but I have trouble fitting them into concrete political realities or determining where they fit into party narratives. But, to my troubled mind, there is one particular, potential candidate in the tentative 2016 field who stands out: former Democratic Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. I like Webb not only because he’s written more books than many of his colleagues have read, but because he understands the working class; and by “the working class” I don’t just mean black people or white people or Hispanic people—I mean the whole working class. This is really important.

Liberals and conservatives have both been playing on racial and gender divisions at the expense of the actual economic fault lines: it’s easier to motivate people by playing off fears related to personal markers of identity, than by appealing to the real issues. This is mainly because it’s difficult to deliver on economic promises—especially when you don’t intend on keeping them. For instance, for supposedly liberal candidates, it’s easier to motivate young people by getting them stirred up about contraception coverage than by promising to stop imprisoning them in student debt—preying on the young in order fund cheap meds for the affluent elderly. The Obama Administration and Republican House have both totally failed to reduce student debt in an even slightly impactful manner, demonstrating that they’re completely concerned with padding special interests in the present moment, and not with protecting the future of America. I’ve seen too many liberal friends and acquaintances mock rednecks and Appalachian hill-billies for being gun-toting right-wing loons, when, in reality—and I say this as someone who’s spent a good amount of my life hanging out with working class people from the Rust Belt, where I’m from—rednecks and hill-billies frequently understand these basic, populist economic ideas far better than the Cambridge and Berkeley crowd ever will or can. The mockers and  snark-meisters can sniff at “white trash” in disdain before returning to their Pinot Noir.

But a Vietnam War Vet from Missouri, like Webb, isn’t ashamed of where he comes from. He understands the “cultural journey” of people from places like Appalachia, Northeastern Pennsylvania (my birthplace), the Deep South, and urban Chicago and Detroit, in a way no other Democratic or Republican prospective presidential candidates really can. He gets that the working class, regardless of race, really wants one thing: work that matters (and pays fairly).

A decent amount of liberals—including, I think, President Obama—don’t really understand that meaningful work is the lever: you’ve got to press it. I recall Obama saying that it would be great if everyone in America could get a college education—indicating the bias of the San Franciscan-style mentality. We’re never going to have that sort of upper-middle-class pipe dream, nor should we. Liberals who imagine that we can ditch our manufacturing base, and completely abandon professions like coal mining (without damaging the working class in a starkly regressive way), while gradually transitioning the American economy into being focused on information technology and services, are kidding themselves. Fuel and force are still at the basis of everything—the power that moves. People like Hilary Clinton and Obama just don’t get this. Neither do fantasist op-ed writers and intellectuals like Thomas Friedman. But Webb clearly does (his well-received official response to Bush’s State of the Union in 2007 proves it.)

One other thing: I’m fairly sick of candidates who feel entitled to be President. I think that’s pretty obviously the way George W. felt, and it seems to be the way Hillary Clinton feels: It’s her turn… It’s time… Isn’t it? But it’s not up to a bunch of PACs to tell us that—and wouldn’t it be nice to throw a wrench in the whole complacent business? We have yet to see if Webb will actually run, of course, but I, for one, would welcome it as a refreshing change of pace: also it would help prove that America is a democracy and not a pseudo-hereditary province, meant to be passed on or inherited.  The dude just gets it.

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“Through the 100th Window”

by Sam Buntz

This is the 100th post on The Muted Trumpet—and, in the spirit of the occasion, I’m going to write about the blog itself. This has the “pro” of allowing me to indulge myself, and the “con” of turning off everybody else: “We were expecting this to be about how the Kardashians are shallow or something! Why aren’t you excoriating the American Sheeple, anymore?” So howl the online masses, as they turn aside to look at a sub-reddit featuring people who’ve cut off their fingers while attempting to chop parsnips.

So, what, exactly, is The Muted Trumpet? What is its mission, its M.O., its “groove”, its “vibe”, its niche? Originally, in another self-referential post, dating back a few years to the infancy of this site, I credited Miles Davis with inspiring the blog’s title. He said that he preferred using a trumpet with a mute because it “sounds more human.” That’s still part of the title’s genuine inspiration—I wasn’t making that up. But I did leave out another half of the inspiration—Thomas Pynchon’s famous short novel, The Crying of Lot 49. I failed to mention it because I didn’t really enjoy reading it all that much—although I appreciated (what I took to be) it’s message. If you’ve read it (or if, as is probably more accurate and likely, you’ve been assigned to read it), you’ll notice a certain, definite, glaring similarity between the title “The Muted Trumpet” and the muted post-horn insignia used by the underground mail-carrier association, The Trystero, featured in Pynchon’s book. This was, of course, intentional.

The Trystero is a secret postal service—implicitly, it seems to be responsible for delivering the mail and the news we really need, the information capable of sustaining life, as opposed to all the spam dick-enlargement emails and sweepstakes junk letters out there. Through his frustratingly bizarre and intricate web of symbolism, Pynchon draws a parallel between this secret, saving current of information and the experience of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended and allowed the apostles to speak evangelically in any language they wished. In a non-religiously-specific way, the hidden information provided by the Trystero—and the knowledge and wisdom it supposedly contains—is supposed to be just as effective at saving and sustaining us as the polyglot whisperings of the Holy Dove (or is supposed to be the same thing).

So—with pretense suddenly oozing from every pore—that was part of the Idea. Like the Trystero’s various periodicals (or whatever it was transmitting), this blog was meant to be an “underground” publication, insofar as: A). No one would know that it existed, or ever read it. B). It would differ from the mainstream (Newsweek, Slate, Time, and all that crap) in terms of its perspective and dominating interests. C). It would arrogantly assume to elevate your consciousness. Now, in an insufferable way, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate myself on fulfilling those first two aims. Obviously, it is up to you, the Universal Invisible Reader, to affirm that I have met the third.

Continuing at random: now that we’ve further elaborated on the literary allusions, which ground the very concept of this blog (or does “blog” sound too cheesy and old-fashioned, these days? Is it really more of a “content portal”? I don’t really know what that even is: but The Trumpet certainly has content, at any rate. Debatably, it is also a metaphorical portal—though I know not whether it’s a portal to crap or to gold.), I want to explain a few significant things related to Post #100—particularly, a book tangentially related to it, in that it has the number “100” in its title. The book is The 100th Window—and I have never actually read it. I only needed to get its basic metaphor, which I discovered in an interview with Robert Del Naja, from British Trip-Hop group Massive Attack. He was explaining the title of Massive Attack’s 2003 album, 100th Window, stating that it was a reference to a cult book on computer hacking, entitled The 100th Window. Apparently, the basic gist of The 100th Window, is that there’s always a way in—any security system comes prepared with its own holes. That flaw is called “the 100th window”: the shield already has its method of defeat coded into it. Massive Attack intended to use that idea as a metaphor: there’s always a way into the soul, the heart, the mind, the collective unconscious, etc.

And so we intend to use the same metaphor here today—for that’s always been The Muted Trumpet’s goal. We (by which I mean “I”) want to find the 100th Window—the flaw built into the very system of the world… the inlet and outlet, the escape hatch. This Ahab-ian quest has its perils—and it definitely has its dense cloak of obscurity. But, in a small act of peaceful Cosmic Rebellion, here in a quiet corner of West Hartford, CT, we are re-dedicating ourselves to that original mission statement. There is a way in. And a way out.

 

Babylon will fall.

Bees of the Invisible: Review of ‘The Artist as Mystic’

Reviewed by Sam Buntz

[Yahia Lababidi and Alex Stein, The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi, Onesuch Press: 2012].

The Artist as Mystic is a form of modern-day “table-talk”, really—since it takes the form of a conversation between poet-aphorist-essayist, Yahia Lababidi, and his friend Alex Stein. There is no reason why interesting people talking about interesting things with one another shouldn’t be a common mode of non-fiction, and Lababidi and Stein need to be admired for breathing life into this previously moribund literary form—for making it new, and for broadening our conception of what’s possible in contemporary literature and literary criticism.

Lababidi finds—or, rather, is found by—writers from the Continental European tradition. Kafka, Baudelaire, Rilke, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kierkegaard, Vilhelm Ekelund: these are the spirits to whom he turns. (This list happens to include most of the writers whom Harold Bloom, in Genius, deemed “ascetics of the spirit.” Also, although the book focuses on this Continental tradition, British and American writers like C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot are mentioned, as well.) He doesn’t approach literature purely as a source of amusement—whether as a popular diversion or as a high-class game for intellectual dilettantes. Literature, in his eyes, is primarily a form of communion: a way of exploring how consciousness relates to its world, and of breaking down the duality between consciousness and its environment. Emerson once wrote that there are only “two absorbing facts—The Self and the Abyss.” Lababidi’s favorite artists are pioneers who seek to cross the divide between these two facts, and—what is more—bridge it. They shine a light into that Divine Abyss, exposing wonders as opposed to terrors.

The book’s observations are cast in a personal light. Lababidi draws a connection between his own immersion in literature, as a reader, and the experiences of Kafka, Nietzsche, and Co. He’s not claiming their status for himself, but he is stating his aspirations as a passionate student of literature: he’s looking for the heights, for the same exalted vantage point that permits one to gaze into the invisible. He wants to discover what these artists have revealed—their higher intimations. This turns out to be a strenuous quest in itself. He writes: “I have sought such artists out, combed their thoughts for these instances, because, from very early on, they helped me to make sense of my own sometimes reluctant yearnings. Through them, I received confirmation and solace. In their lives and words I heard the echoes of my own submission to ideals that seemed at times almost too dauntingly resistant.” Again, this is reminiscent of Emerson: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” If I had to summarize what “The Artist as Mystic” is about, I would cite that quote and say that Lababidi’s book quests after the sources of the same alienated majesty.

Lababidi demonstrates that what the artist and mystic have in common is the manner in which they apply their attention. Both figures are attempting to yoke their minds to some starry chariot: but the mystic works in an entirely internalized medium, re-forming the core of the self, while the poet projects his or her transformation onto paper. The conversation swerves amiably, and (paraphrasing Thoreau) never attempts to turn what ought to be a meandering brook into a straight-cut ditch. The wandering nature of the book is part of its charm: it explores numerous avenues of conversation, all intersecting the wider boulevard of art-mysticism, the central thoroughfare of prayerful attention. For instance, Lababidi and Stein discuss how Kafka’s physical and mental ailments somewhat paradoxically allowed him access to a spiritual wholeness as a writer. Temporal weaknesses permitted an eternal strength to manifest itself. Their observations on this point reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s lyric from the song, “Anthem”: “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

Lababidi and Stein use the great 19th Century French poéte maudit, Baudelaire, as an example and a counter-example. Baudeliare has this strange urge to be a mystic—apparent in his poetry—but tended to spend a lot of time dandifying in front of the mirror and paying for prostitutes. He seems to be a failed case of the artist-as-mystic, though not of the artist-as-artist: he cultivated his worldly personality at the expense of the fully awakened attention (which, nonetheless, fascinated him). Instead, he fractured his attention, allowed the pieces to be swept away by the wind. Baudelaire tried to salvage it at the end—a process Lababidi discusses in intriguing detail, quoting passages from Baudelaire’s journals—but there wasn’t enough time for a complete transformation, for a full integration of the scattered self.

After some discussion of Nietzsche, the book turns to a more-genuinely mystical poet: Rilke. Although, like Baudelaire, Rilke had physical ailments and mental distresses, when sitting down to write, he left his bodily fragmentation behind. He reached towards the fullness of attention—this presumed contact with another plane—which Baudelaire wanted to realize, but simply couldn’t. Lababidi observes of this school of literary practice: “It is not so much writing, sometimes, as it is the recovering of the territories lost in what Christianity calls ‘the fall.’” The artist somehow manages to re-integrate the shattered image-of-God, broken during this cosmic catastrophe, which occurred outside of history. Rilke’s mystical art allowed him to speak with authority, and make the kind of spiritual statement quoted by Lababidi: “We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, and store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”

But whether it ends with the supreme satisfactions of art-mysticism or something less exalted (as in Baudelaire’s case), the path is not an easy one—as most of the book’s examples testify. One quote from Lababidi, in particular, sums up his characterization of the artist-mystic’s work: “The solitude seems to be the key to everything. For Nietzsche, for Rilke, for Ekelund. Solitude enough that they can hear the echo of their longing returning as a concentrated drop, direct from heaven. They want to catch it before it lands, before anything human mixes with it.”