Friday, 6 April 2018


(I’ve called this post ‘belatedness’ since that’s what it’s about but it should really be called ‘belabouredness’, since I fear that’s what it is. Anyway, you go do your Rain Man thing on it, break it down into whatever constellation you fancy. I’m just here to belch up the materials.)

After I put up that tossed-off post last week about the things Facebook has decided I’m interested in, I kept thinking about Ghost World – no doubt in part I was reminded of it because I finally managed to say something about how much I dig Lunch Box and the various other work and projects of Lennon and Skoog. I found that difficult to do because it’s complicated. As I tried to say, they interest me as writers and I also like them in the same way one likes one’s friends, in particular one’s internet ‘friends’ who one feels intimately attached to while also being uncomfortably aware that it’s a one-way relationship.  The connection with Ghost World is that I remember a throwaway reference in a past podcast episode to some music or other as being ‘Blueshammer’. And I liked that because I knew exactly what species of depressing travesty they were talking about, and also because I enjoyed coming across a Ghost World reference without it being accompanied by a commentary on everything which Ghost World has wrong with it.

I found this index card in my copy of
Daniel Clowes's comic. 82 is the mark I 
gave when I was unenthusiastic about an 
essay but it was probably good 
enough for an A.
Ghost World the movie came out in 2001, so it’s now the same age as Enid and Rebecca. It was my Cinema Studies tutor, a great person and a huge grump, who shat on it for me. He had taught me in 1993, 1997 and 1998, and the ruining conversation probably occurred in 2007 which was the first time I coordinated the big first-year English and Cinema subject. I put Ghost World, comic and film, on the syllabus for the first and last time that year. How he poisoned it was by saying, in that savage, bitterly convincing way he had, that it centred, normalised and valorised the desires and position and perspective of the weary obsessional single middle-aged nerd / weirdo, when in the natural order of things, the story needs to unambiguously centre the girls and the middle-aged man’s day as an interesting figure in his own right is well and truly over. It was hard to not be swayed by this account, particularly as it came from someone who was himself the person most like a real-life Seymour of anyone I actually knew. But it really did make me unhappy because, you know, I adored that movie. The liking had nothing at all to do with any putative identification with the way the movie represents a particular quizzically-minded species of adolescent girlhood exploring taste & culture. It was much more general than that. It was all about the inexhaustible richness and variety of the delight the comic and the film took in all the ways that people are contemptible arseholes and how having to share space with them is unendingly grotesque and banal. Thank god for the miracle of Illeana Douglas as the art teacher. She will be with me for the rest of my life.

Now, though, I have to admit that it’s not so easy for me to like everything about Ghost World. I think it does concentrate on the one time in a person’s life when that voyage of discovery into the back catalogue of the world can permissibly be an uncomplicated undertaking. Through Seymour, Enid finds out about rich and hard realities of American culture –appropriated art and mainstreamed racism. Having grown up on the whitewashed imitations, she’s now learning that they were preceded by potent originals which they now replace and suppress. So her immediate response to the originals is, rightly, entirely visceral and aesthetic. That gives the work its due. She’s captivated by the old blues record and she’s disturbed by the racist advertising, and her first use of these discoveries is to pit them against the junk she’s been fed up till now. But she can’t continue to do that. If she’s going to avoid becoming just another amnesiac appropriator, she’s going to have to put aside that innocence and pay attention to her own place and role in the cultural history she’s just begun to observe.

That moment of cultural innocence is such a brief one but we make such a suspiciously big deal of it. When it was me standing in relation to the literary-critical tradition as Enid stands in relation to race and art in America, Harold Bloom was one of my big discoveries (and it pissed me off that some of my lecturers wanted to belittle him). It wasn’t the latter-day reactionary old canon-defender I liked but the inspired young person who threw Romanticism, psychoanalysis and Kabbalah into the pot and cooked up A Map of Misreading and The Anxiety of Influence. I still think it’s a paradigm-making insight to see that this feeling of belatedness that the young artist has to have when encountering the overwhelmingly complete and accomplished work of the precursor is a necessary feeling – a spur - not a disabling one. So, innocence of powerful art is not an Edenic state, it’s enervated, deadly, idealised weakness. Bloom’s model of the creative artist is Lucifer, the angel fallen into knowledge and experience and with some strong things to say about his condition and the elders who threw him into it. (In other words, fuck spoiler warnings: texts that are only good when encountered in innocence aren’t worth even that much effort.)

Another feature of Enid’s situation that doesn’t apply more broadly is also that her ignorance is a simple thing which doesn’t need to be accounted for. As my life trundles on I find that I can feel okay about fewer and fewer instances of my own continuing ignorance and belatedness as they manifest themselves in the cultural spheres which matter to me. (I don’t know anything about sport and I don’t give a shit.)  I find out about new things all the time but usually they’re not new enough to be surprising. This is good, mostly – other qualities than novelty become important. There are exceptions, naturally, and variations. I finally got around to reading Annihilation last week, after hearing of it when it was published several years ago, and I fucking loved the book and also somewhat enjoyed the interesting and mildly confronting sensation of feeling highly guilty and furtive about hopping onto the heres-a-movie-on-Netflix-now-read-the-novel bandwagon. Being weirded out by the novel satisfyingly matched being weirded out by my own lateness to its cultural moment.  (When I finally found my way to LCD Soundsystem a couple of years ago it was the same sort of deal.)  And, then, there are still occasional unlooked-for starbursts of illumination. Also last week I went to Castlemaine to hear music played by Michael Hurley, about whom I knew absolutely nothing beforehand, and when I saw and heard him he was so great, and in such an immediately intelligible way, that I spent a lot of time afterwards wondering how it was that I’d never heard of him before. This still strikes me as an almost supernatural omission. One doesn’t often get the opportunity to make such a complete personal discovery and to have the delight of something reveal itself which you never knew was missing. 

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