(Visual) Notes on Culture
  Book Review: THE GATEKEEPER by Terry Eagleton

The Gatekeeper: A Memoir
Terry Eagleton
St. Martin's/Griffen
$12.95 Trade Paperback

I have been reading a good deal of Terry Eagleton's work lately. My first exposure to him (as with thousands of others) was through Literary Theory: An Introduction, which remains the standard text for making sense of the confusing world of literary study. Many of the key elements of subsequent Eagleton books are present. The prose is sophisticated, lively, and animated. Literary Theory distills the even the most maddeningly complex of ideas into a heady stew of humorous anecdotes, grotesque examples, and punny axioms. This does not in any way cheapen, or denounce, the work...in fact, it is made all the more serious and sustainable because of its slight irreverence. Beyond Literary Theory, I have also recently finished Holy Terror, his monograph on Marx for the Routledge Great Philosophers series, and am about to read his jolly The Truth About the Irish (me being, as with Eagleton, an Irishmen with some reservations about the Irish).

It has elsewhere been noted that The Gatekeeper is a bit of an "anti-memoir": Eagleton does not provide an wholly intelligible chronology of his life, seems under interested in telling us much about his wife and kids, and does not overemphasize too many life lessons. He certainly has quite a storehouse of life lessons, though, and the bulk of the book is dedicated to subtly illustrating how he came to think with such verve. His life, as best I can tell, was marked by seemingly vast contradictions. He was an Anglicanized Irish born in working-class Salford yet he read all of Dickens while most kids were still learning how to read. He served as a tutor and Don at Oxbridge yet also remained active in socialist organizations, handing out leaflets at factories and selling left-wing newspapers on the street. He came to be known as one of the most cogent humanists in the world, yet attributes his eventual vocation to his Catholic upbringing, his affiliation with the radical Catholic journal Slant, and a lifelong interest in theology.

In this case, the contradictions make the man. Eagleton certainly has obscured the autobiography, but in doing so, he was written one of the funniest books I've ever read. His descriptions of hypocrisy, eccentricity, and the disillusioned are worth the price of admission and more. He writes about some of his mentors in a loving way, yet at times in such language as one would describe a cat amusing itself with a ball of string. Eagleton's rise to fame and success (he would deny it) was peppered by the understanding that the old ways of the United Kingdom, with its rigid class hierarchies, codes of propriety, and gentlemanly virtues, was about to die. The old guard of Oxford and Cambridge was the last vestige of a dying way of life - too useless to survive, yet so grandly amusing that it was sad to see them go. He has choice words for Carmelite nuns, counter-cultural priests, and the aristocracy. The book is at its best when describing, in vivid detail, the colorful characters of his life. These people are now burned into my own memory, and I will never have a chance to meet them.

The Gatekeeper could work as a surreal screenplay, a series of disconnected, highly intelligent sketches linked in the manner of Monty Python. It is no wonder that Eagleton complains that a slightly clueless public often mistook him for Terry Jones and told him about how much they enjoyed The Life of Brian.
  Can Artists and Critics be Friends?
This can of worms has been opened before, but I finally feel capable of talking about it. Recent storm surges in the contemporary art market have yielded a flurry of "too good to be true" writings about the arts world today. Renowned critics from The Guardian have started blogging, and their increased output has had a visible effect on the amount of arts writing that circulates. Since London and New York are benefiting from more savvy (or more gullible) art buyers, it is only natural that the scenes begin to deconstruct themselves. The article in question deals with practicing gallery artists and widely circulated critics. One category - guess which one - is on a continuous rise, while the other category is in sharp decline.

I am a critic yet also consider myself an artist, though not of the plastic arts. I have participated in, directed, or conceived performance pieces that have been seen by hundreds, have worked in films to varying capacities, and have acted in front of thousands. It is, admittedly, hard for critics or academics to also find careers as artists. Peter Wollen is known primarily for his film theory, but he has also directed a number of groundbreaking films and has a keen eye for art. Norman O. Brown is best remembered for his studies in psychoanalysis and religion, but he was also a poet. For example, one of his fragmented poems, "Metamorphosis II: Actaeon" appeared in New American Poetry and is part of his anthology Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis - it befits Walter Benjamin's dream of a poem made entirely of re-assembled quotations. Many critics or scholars have participated in the production of art in some fashion and therefore understand the ego-aspect of being an artist. While some will hold that critics and artists represent opposite ends of the spectrum - to some, they are the veritable Eros and Thanatos of the creative world - I maintain that they are more similar than can be quickly deduced.

To both the artist and the critic, art matters. Artists subscribe to various different dicta, though it can perhaps safely be said that they create because of a perceived lack...that is, their talents, once carried to fruition, will provide the world with something that it would have otherwise missed had they not produced a work of art. Likewise, critics "work" because they feel that the art establishment, writ large, can do better. Art is important to them, so they wish to challenge it, engage it, and hope that it can continue to affect its audience.

I am friends with artists of many different sorts. Some have immersed their talents in the realm of pop culture, while others make rarefied works for discerning audiences. Some are famous, others are not. Some create art as a career, others do not. For some, my relationship as friend precedes our professional relationship. In the past, I have approached artists professionally and have latter found that we got along well.

My point is that the artist/critic relationship can be symbiotic and need not be maliciously parasitic. Artists should challenge critics but should not be afraid to engage them on a personal level. Likewise, critics should understand that artists are both human and creative, and that the undesirable aspects of one need not necessarily affect the other.
This summer, I worked as a production assistant and lighting co-director for an independent television show called The House Between. Director John Kenneth Muir has released an internet-exclusive teaser/trailer for the series.

See his January 12th, 2007 post for more information!
  Zine Scene: A Quick, New Round-Up
Here is a quick selection of three different zines I've encountered in the last few weeks. One is brand new and the others go back a bit, but they each deserve mention.

Amish Otaku # 1
Edited by Dan Allen

Amish Otaku, as the name implies, is a review zine out of Central Pennsylvania. Laid out as a news periodical, it is packed wall-to-wall with columns, reviews, and op-eds on more recent video games, manga, and genre books. Allen has thus far secured some distribution and needs advertisers to off-set the printing costs. The website is here.

Omnibus of Fun # 12
Clownhead Productions, 2004
Edited and written by ("Creepy") Mike Ruspantini

My eye was drawn to this zine during several consecutive visits to Tower Records (R.I.P.). Omnibus of Fun is chock-full-o stories, interviews and a very impressive digest of other zines and comics. "Creepy Mike's Copious Cavalcade of Comics and Zany Zines" shows that he knows the underground better than I ever will, providing numerous points of departure for other "weird" publications. The design leaves something to be desired, but this is contentious knowledge at its finest, folks. I am unsure as to whether this is still published, but pick it up if you see it.

Kitchen Sink 14 (Volume 4, Issue 2)
A Publishing Project of Neighbor Lady Community Arts Project
Stefanie Kalem, Editor in Chief

Kitchen Sink is an incredibly professional zine of original fiction, opinion, and pop cultural criticism. It is somewhere uncomfortably between high brow publications like The Paris Review and accessible humor magazines like Mad. Graphic design is top-notch (this issue contains some input and content from Image Comics and a few practicing artists) but the writing is a tad too anecdotal for my tastes. Really excellent stuff on the whole, if you are in the mood for irreverence.
  The New Public Library: Great Works or Popular Preference?
Wisdom is the principal thing:
therefore get wisdom:
and with all thy getting
get understanding.

- Proverbs IX 7.

The above axiom appears somewhat ironically in Lindsay Anderson's films The White Bus (1967) and if.... (1968), as with here. I would like to first go on record by saying that I wholeheartedly support public libraries, but generally hold them to a high standard. As a playground for young intellects, they are essential in promoting, assisting with, or otherwise encouraging interest in the written word. I hate to see them neuter themselves.

I was shocked, though not exactly surprised, to read this article in today's Washington Post. Fairfax County Public Libraries (the biggest library system in the D.C. Metro area and the public libraries that I frequent, when I frequent such places) are conducting a massive campaign of "weeding" out their shelves. Their current computer system creates alerts or flags on books that have not been checked out in the last 24 months and suggests they be pulled. These books are then put on a grim looking cart, where their final fate will be decided by the circulation managers. Some books will be spared, given a second chance. Others will not be so lucky and might find their way to the Friends of the Library book sale, where they'll be sold for a paltry sum.

The case for this sort of inventory management is clear, if misguided - given a limited amount of shelf space and competing materials such as audio books, DVDs, and computer software, a library's core collection of books is inevitably going to take a "hit." This "hit" consists of unpopular books, but of course encompasses texts that are necessary for any respectable public servant and absolutely essential for a research library. What books might go? Here's a quick rundown.

The main article notes that some essentials (the tip-top of the canon, i.e. The Great Gatsby and works by Shakespeare) will always be on the shelves. What bothers me, though, is that this wholesale dismissal of important works will lend a decidedly anti-serious bias to an already anti-serious library system. Allow me to qualify. County and regional libraries are not research institutions. College students (or even hopeful college students) cannot find all the materials that they need to complete their courses or write their papers - the level of specificity is just not there. By getting rid of an even greater number of serious works, students interested in the humanities will have even less of a chance of understanding a) what the humanities are, b) what works comprise the "great" canon (problematic in itself, but still essential), and c) what to expect in their further studies. While many of these works will still be available in bookstores, their access will come at a cost. I feel that it is a public responsibility of provide the body populace with the sort of texts that will help them think, feel, and dissent their way to being better citizens.

Oh, and here is the list of the 25 most requested books. I don't recognize any of them, so I guess I am out of the loop. The same thing is happening at Blockbuster and Hollywood video - the great titles in world film are just not available, or are being tossed in favor of another row of the latest Michael Bay movie.
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