Word and Object

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January 23rd, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 3 Comments

Charles Bukowski recently released (posthumously, that is), a new book of poetry entitled The Pleasures of the Damned. It was poorly reviewed by somebody named David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times (Nov. 25, 2007). Mr. Ulin states, “it’s impossible not to ask some hard questions about his status and whether it is deserved. I’ve often thought his place in this city’s literary pantheon was more a matter of opportunity than of talent.” Citing John Fante (Ask the Dust) as an example, Mr. Ulin observes that Bukowski hardly was the first writer to write about Los Angeles. Mr. Ulin might as well have gone on to cite a half dozen others, such as Nathaniel West (Day of the Locust), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Raymond Chandler (Pickup on Noon Street, The Long Goodbye, The Little Sister, Trouble Is My Business, The High Window, Farewell My Lovely, The Big Sleep), Aldous Huxley (After Many a Summer Dies the Swan), Joan Didion (Play It as It Lays, The White Album, A Book of Common Prayer, Slouching Towards Bethlehem), and James Ellroy (Killer on the Road, Blood on the Moon, Because the Night).

Mr. Ulin’s criticism completely misses the point. It’s not so much that Bukowski “was” or “wasn’t” unique. Rather, he spoke in a voice that was tremendously evocative of LA as a place, not as an abstract concept, or even an abstract concept of place. More so than any of these other writers, he was responsible for the “De-Disney-ification” of Los Angeles experience. He substituted a real, gritty world for the fantasy world spoon-fed to us by pop culture and the mass media. It’s the antithesis of the American ideal, because it rejects any kind of juxtaposition between alternatives (i.e., this is good, that is bad). Rather, for Bukowski, the whole menu of alternatives is screwed up to begin with. Instead of choosing between unpalatable options, he simply opts out.

There is no evidence Bukowski ever read Derrida, or for that matter even heard of him, Bukowski, however, took deconstructionism to its lowest-to-the-ground, most-fully-parsed, most atomic level. In an effort to eliminate pretense and artifice from his writing, he arrived at a style that disassembled the world into its simplest, most granular elements. The key to his success was that he had no agenda, no theory to advocate, no aesthetic or point of view. He simply didn’t care. As a result, he was open to experience, and open to whatever happened, in its most unstructured, disaggregated, decompiled form.

In this respect, he was way beyond the beats, with whom he sometimes is compared. The beats stood in antithesis to 1940’s literary formalism. Whereas, Bukowski stands for nothing, not even in opposition to something, or anything. His work simply hits the pavement hard, flopping this way and that, like how a fisherman hits a salmon on its head to facilitate its already-suffocating death.Culturally, he gravitated to the lowest common denominator.

As with Derrida, it is highly unlikely Bukowski ever read the philosopher John Rawls, or for that matter even heard of him. Similarly, though, one of Bukowski’s over-arching themes was that a society – our society – should be judged not by what is the greatest good for the greatest number; but rather, how it treats its most downtrodden, its most unfortunate.

There are two ways to psychoanalyze Bukowski. Both are suggestive, because there is so much evidence in support of each. The first is Freudian – obviously he was deeply conflicted, particularly as a result of his pathological relationship with his father, who beat him constantly. The second is Phenomenologically – he writes as if he had no consciousness, that he fully was at one with his world. In order to participate in that world with him, and to partake of it, we need to understand his loathsome self-image, his mid-career of scrabbling hardship, his alcoholism, and his ability to put all of this into words.Here is why, particularly living in Los Angeles, Bukowski will continue to remain relevant.

1. Once I had lunch with a friend at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. As we were walking out, a woman jostled him, and then remonstrated him for not making way for her, as she exited the room. He replied, “In the country where I come from, the only question we ask a woman like you, is how much.”

2. Incidents of road-rage are common. I saw a blue corvette cut off another sports car on Sunset Boulevard. They raced around several hair-pin turns. At a stop light, the guy in the blue corvette stopped his car, opened his door, and pulled out what looked like a small-caliber weapon. I quickly turned up a side street, anxious not to get caught in the melee.

3. I was behind a driver, who happened to be a woman, who was behind a gentleman in a sports car, who in turn was behind a large truck. We all were driving up Laurel Canyon. She honked at the guy in the sports car, evidently because he wasn’t moving fast enough, or (sensibly) didn’t want to attempt to pass the truck on the winding road. He got out of his car, and went to the driver’s side of her car. By this time, another car had come up behind me, so I was stuck. Rather than having an altercation, though, she said to him: “Hey, do you want to fuck?” Not as in, have an altercation, but rather as in, have sex.

4. I saw a driver hit another car in a grocery-store parking lot, then simply drove off as if nothing had happened. The lot was crowded, and I was right behind him. Fortunately, it didn’t even look like a fender-bender; neither vehicle seemed to have suffered any damage. A woman, who seemed to be of foreign extraction, hopped out of the bumped car, and started yelling at the guy, who was in the bumping car. She ran around the entire lot, appealing to other drivers to assist her. I’m not sure in what respect they might have been of aid, as she clearly was not injured. The only thing I could think of is that she saw her big chance at a Southern California-style lawsuit simply driving away.

5. Grocery store check-out lines also seem to be common sites of frustration. I saw a gentleman arguing with the clerk, evidently on the premise the automatic scanner had not correctly calculated the correct discount to which he was entitled as a result of his membership in the store’s club. There was a long line behind him, and somebody started grumbling. He turned around, put up his dukes, and said, “You all better get out of here, ‘cause this is gonna take some time! All of you’d better leave!” He actually approached the person immediately behind him in what looked to me to be a threatening and belligerent manner. At least, I’m sure the guy was happy there was a shopping cart between them. As I left, I saw the clerk taking all of his groceries out of their bags, and rescanning them.

6. I went to a seminar at UCLA that took place in Dodd Hall, home of UCLA’s illustrious Philosophy Department. At some point, I went to the men’s room to relieve myself. The gentleman standing several urinals down commented, “Think of all the great philosophers who have pissed here.” There was a job opening for a new Assistant Professor in the Department, and somebody told me they had over 400 applicants. Ironically, the State of California probably lacks sufficient funding to fill the position.

7. Los Angeles, and Beverly Hills in particular, is known for its many cases of horrifically bad plastic surgery. Although it’s hard to decide, I think what annoys me the most, is the women with the big lips. They flubber, babble and drool, like ducks in a pond. While I don’t know for sure what it must feel like to possess such a physical attribute, I imagine it’s something like the Novocain wearing off after a trip to the dentist. Where in God’s name did they get the idea this was attractive?

These are just samples of the daily indignities, of which Bukowski wrote. He occasionally spoke of how he used to survive on PayDay candy bars, and how much he looked forward to consuming their peanuty goodness. I eat one in remembrance of, and solidarity, with him.

Pay Day bar