“The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. This antagonism represents the most modern form of the conflict which primitive man must carry on with nature for his own bodily existence.”
–Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”
“Everybody in town’s got their story to tell.”
“There’s just not enough time to hear them all.”
–Milhouse Van Houten and Bart Simpson, “22 Short Films about Springfield”
Viewed in and of itself, “22 Short Films about Springfield” isn’t the funniest episode of The Simpsons, or its most character-driven, and it certainly isn’t the best. In fact, it doesn’t even earn these titles among the five episodes that accompany it on Disc 4 of the Season Seven DVD.* It isn’t as funny as “Much Apu about Nothing,” and it lacks the frequently poignant characterization of “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” or “Homerpalooza.” But within the entirety of The Simpsons canon, “22 Short Films” stands out as a unique, and, I’d like to argue, uniquely necessary episode of the series. This is because “22 Short Films” is nothing short of a thoroughly Modernist foundation and legitimation of Springfield as a metropolitan setting.
*If I could only keep one of my DVDs, it would be this disc. It has “22 Short Films,” “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish,’” “Much Apu about Nothing,” “Homerpalooza,” and “Summer of 4 Ft. 2.” It is amazing.
By this, I mean that the 23 minutes of “22 Short Films about Springfield” help establish, develop, contextualize, and yes, animate the world around the series’ eponymous family. And the manner in which it does this is steeped in what appears to be a distinctly Modernist tradition. My texts for backing up this assertion will be the episode itself (obvs), the aforereferenced “Metropolis and the Mental Life” by Georg Simmel, and two landmark Modernist novels: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and definitive Modernist tome of them all, James Joyce’s Ulysses.
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Bob Dylan did some amazing things and lived through some amazing times: He was labeled, by some, the voice of the 60s. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival. He met The Beatles. He converted to Christianity. He hung out with Allen Ginsburg and Johnny Cash.
Should we be surprised, then, that none of that stuff made it into the first part of Dylan’s planned three-part autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One? Should we be surprised to find out that Dylan has instead devoted nearly half of the book to recounting the creations of New Morning and Oh Mercy, two albums that are, shall we say, less than canonical? Not really. Dylan has never been one to conform to expectations, and he has never really played into the commonly accepted narrative of his own life. He ran away from being labeled “the voice of a generation,” he retreated from the spotlight at the moments of his greatest fame, and he has rarely been open about many things that fans seem the most interested in, like his conversion and disillusion with Christianity.
In fact, Dylan spends most of his autobiography talking about other people. He talks about Dave Von Ronk and Daniel Lanois and Suze Rotolo. He likes history too. Often, Dylan simply retells facts from history class, or relays the biographies of historical figures: Continue reading »
Back when I was a hard-working student, I took two very different classes. One was high school biology, and the other was on James Joyce. I got through the former by remembering one of the life sciences’ simplest platitudes: Form equals function. I got through the latter by pretending I understood what that meant when applied to literature.
Ulysses is the ultimate example of form overwhelming plot—of the how of the story transcending the what. Not quite coincidentally, it’s also widely considered the greatest novel of the 20th century.
Enter David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. The aim of this 344-page graphic novel is in many ways similar to Joyce’s in Ulysses: Mazzucchelli attempts to tell the story of his eccentrically named title character in a manner that reveals more about him that straight words or illustrations ever could. Asterios’ tale isn’t just what he says or how he says it; it’s also how Mazzucchelli portrays Asterios’ words and actions.
Of course, this is a little easier to do in a graphic medium than a strictly textual one. Mazzucchelli takes full advantage of that by giving each of his characters their own individual style. For instance:
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This is Part II (of…II) of our review of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. The first, which you can read by clicking here or scrolling down for about two seconds, focused on Bely’s use of an amorphous narrative voice to foster an atmosphere of instability.
Let’s go all the way back to the prologue, in which Bely established his earlier theme of narrative instability with his opening question, “What is this Russian Empire of ours?” Bely concludes the prologue by opening up another key theme: the relationship between fiction and reality. The prologue closes with the idea that “Petersburg not only appears to us, but actually does appear—on maps: in the form of two small circles, one set inside the other, with a black dot in the center; and from precisely this mathematical point, which has no dimension, it proclaims forcefully that it exists…”. Bely here states that Petersburg’s existence is affirmed by its appearance on a map; the map validates the city as more than just the construction of a solipsistic mind. This argument contains the implication that Petersburg’s actual appearance in brick and stone could be illusionary, could just be “cerebral play.” But make it a dot on a map, in a book, and the city’s existence is forcefully proclaimed, its buildings and prospects becoming real and tangible.
It’s the same argument Bely will make about the characters and events of his novel, albeit one complicated by the fact that those characters and events, unlike the city of Petersburg, do not actually exist and in fact are the construction of a solipsistic mind. Bely works around this by using his narrative voice to muse on the function of fiction through snide side commentary and metanarration. This conceit is best expressed in the novel’s first chapter through Apollon Apollonovich’s interactions with the “idle shadow” of the stranger. “[I]dle shadow” is a significant way of referring to the stranger by the narrative voice because the stranger does not exist: “The shadow arose by chance in the consciousness of Senator Ableukhov and acquired its ephemeral being there.” Our impulse is thus to disregard the stranger’s “existence,” to view it as reflective of Apollon Apollonovich’s mental state more than anything else. But the NV presses on by making the comparison between Apollon Apollonovich’s conscious construction of the stranger and Bely’s concurrent construction of Apollon Apollonovich: “But the consciousness of Apollon Apollonovich is a shadowy consciousness because he too is the possessor of an ephemeral being and the fruit of the author’s fantasy: unnecessary, idle cerebral play.” Note the repetition of “idle,” which serves to make the comparison more explicit; the senator’s relationship with the stranger then becomes analogous to our relationship to the senator.
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We’re pulling out all the stops for a two-part review of Andrei Bely’s little-known 20th-century masterpiece, Petersburg. The first will look at how Bely uses an amorphous narrative voice to establish an ambience of instability while the second will examine how Bely then uses this narrative voice to animate and validate his fiction.
The motivation for this review: While reading Infinite Jest, Josh asked me if there were any book that, if I saw someone else reading it, I would feel a compulsion to talk to them about it. My answer, after some consideration, was Petersburg. My motivation: Petersburg is the most underrated novel of the 20th century.
Released in two different versions in 1916 and 1922, Petersburg is an awful lot like James Joyce’s Ulysses, written around the same time (1922). There are three important differences, though: 1) Bely wrote in Russian, which means a lot of his wordplay simply doesn’t translate to English; 2) Bely wasn’t a flamboyant stylist who did as much as he could to mess with the reader the same way Joyce was; 3) Ulysses is generally considered the best novel of the 20th century. Petersburg is not.
Now I’m not here to say that Petersburg is better than Ulysses, but I do want to make this much clear: It’s a hell of a lot closer than most people realize.*
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