Mel Ramos: Two Works

I first came across Mel Ramos’ work at an art fair earlier this year. I had read about him before as a major proponent of the Pop Art movement much like Andy Warhol and seen some photos online but Warhol was my case study at that time.  

The two photographs here are very much representative of Ramos’ works in general where he paints female nudes which emerge out of consumer goods or are superimposed on images from mass media. In effect, doing what Andy Warhol described the pop artists as doing, “The Pop artists did images that anybody walking down Broadway could recognize in a split second—comics, picnic tables, men’s trousers, celebrities, shower curtains, refrigerators, coke bottles—all the great modern things that the Abstract Expressionists tried so hard not to notice at all.” Thereby, making a statement about the all pervasive presence of capitalist consumer culture in everyday life (though not necessarily criticizing it).

Ramos has time and again faced the ire of feminist critics for the unabashed way in which he employs the female body as an object of consumption. Also, I believe his assertion that his art is apolitical betrays the political argument which the conjunction of the disparate images from popular culture points at.   

Candy II - Snickers, 2004 

Candy II – Snickers, 2004 © Mel Ramos.

Lifesavers 2006

Life Savers, 2006 © Mel Ramos.

For those interested, his other woks can be freely viewed online and there are quite a few introductory books on Pop Art in general.  

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Manmohan and me: A Love Story

I was twenty three when I first discovered my passion. It was eating, eating myself to be precise. From the time I started chewing my own hair, one strand at a time at first, then a lot more, there was no looking back. Soon I was bald and had not much to do as a way of passing time. So, I decided to eat my feet, one at a time, the toes were the best, soft and crispy at the same time, then I would drink the blood that would ooze out of my thighs and my cunt to quench my thirst, that and to keep the carpet clean. My darling Manmohan helped a lot, he would come to me, lick his private parts as I ate my pancreas and drink the extra blood that fell. I couldn’t have been more grateful. His mouth would have a childlike blood line by the time he was done and we would just lie in each other’s arms under the fan, tired and content. I would clean his whiskers before we fell asleep. By the time I would wake up in the morning, he would have already gone. We have an understanding: he never wakes me up in the morning and I keep the window open so he can come whenever he wants. I wonder sometimes if I am spoiling his habits as I dip my Marie biscuit in my gooey stomach and chew on my left breast for breakfast. Who will give him blood and flesh after I am gone. There is not much left, anyway. I just have the heart left, the lungs I donated to cigarettes ages ago and the liver Manny wanted, he spent the whole day on it yesterday. In retrospect, I don’t think that was a good idea as I have a pool of blood the shape of Antarctica in the bed room which he was ‘too full’ to drink! Whatever. When death is near one shouldn’t worry about cleanliness apparently, or so I have been told. My veins are stringier than I thought, I can feel my tongue wrestling with my teeth. I am hungry and I am not sure if I should go for the left or the right hand first. My head lies on the floor so I just suck at it from inside. There is still no sign of Manny, I hope he comes before my eyes are gone. I hope to see him one last time. I hope he tells everyone that I now live in him.

Drugs and Addiction in Three Post-War American Novels. Part I: William S. Burroughs’ Junky.

By Sashank S. Das

This is the first in a three part essay on Drugs and Addiction in three post-World War II American Novels: William S. Burroughs’ Junky (1953), Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream(1979). Read on.

Junky cover-1 

Cover of Junky for the 50th Anniversary Edition, © with the Artists.

Critical evaluation of the post-war American novel is seemingly rendered a thankless task by both generic peculiarities and the uneven, even chaotic history of the United States after the Second World War. However, there may be found useful vantage points for such evaluation. Addiction and drugs are such a theme, for much post-war fiction dramatizes the restructuring of the self under, as it were, the influence of drugs. This describes a continuum across a complex historical era.

That this is peculiarly connected to the experience of the American city is established by the vast networks of interactions between subjects in this location, interactions based on and built around drugs, their use, commerce and effects upon the subject. After the Second World War, drug use (that of heroin in particular) gain unprecedented dimensions as a social and political issue in America, leading to what is popularly referred today as the “war on drugs.” Moreover, this was concentrated in the larger, “industrial cities and states” (Courtwright 149). Therefore, this burgeoning economy of drugs brings within the purview of analysis a vast urban map in which subterranean aspects of the American city are highlighted and surveyed.

However, texts like William S. Burroughs’ Junky (1953), Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream (1979) are not to be studied simply as sociological documents that present the mechanics of “drug culture” for an external observer. Addiction, as represented in these texts, is a set of practices that evoke certain responses from the subject in his urban environment; it comes to approximate a mode of subjectivity. To see it simply as a chemical-biological phenomenon is to overlook the range of experiences that define and situate the addict in society. Such a simplistic perception not only reduces addiction to an impersonal phenomenon, but also misses what touches it off, the social matrix within which addiction occurs and acquires its cultural associations.

Jacques Derrida provides such a conceptual expansion of drugs and addiction in his interview, “The Rhetoric of Drugs” (1989). He begins by stating that drugs are not to be classed simply as chemical substances that are harmful to the human body. Rather, drugs require “an instituted and an institutional definition: a history is required, and a culture, conventions, evaluations, norms, an entire network of intertwined discourses, a rhetoric, whether explicit or elliptical” (229). There is no essential, “natural” approach to drugs, and so Derrida advocates a careful awareness of their movement in the realm of cultural meaning.

He goes on to state that “drugs in general are not condemned for the pleasure they bring, but rather because this aphrodisiac is not the right one: it leads to suffering and to the disintegration of the self, in short, it desocializes” (250). Drug use here is enacted in and eventually envelopes the human body, but through the selfsame process, strips the body of human characteristics. An honest, nuanced literary representation of addiction cannot but confront this paradox.

Derrida’s analysis problematizes the very notion of the human, for it acknowledges that drug addiction has an ideology, which is shaped in interaction with its experience, and one cannot be sealed off from the other. The novels under discussion here attempt to negotiate these tensions embedded in the phenomenon of addiction, as they simultaneously address the social and juridical strictures prohibiting drug use, and the physiological and psychological constitution of the addict. They attempt to avoid both extremes: that of moral condemnation and prescription, and that of myopic celebration for the sake of pure shock value.

The addict, as pictured in these novels, also perceives the looming anxiety in American society in the period following the Second World War. This was the same anxiety in the immediate post-war period that spawned the Beat Generation, but had to vie with an imposed, insular official narrative: “the mass media and the White House promulgated the idea that America was a near-perfect society – the apogee of historical progress – threatened by evil communism and all its agents” (Raskin, 4).

In contrast, Burroughs, Thompson and Selby uncover a different America, one of marginal experiences and suffering, which counter this revivified American myth. The forms of their contestation are varied and respond to different segments of this myth, and this study will now attempt to comprehensively mark out these within the fictional frameworks of their novels.

I

Junky is William S. Burroughs’ first, loosely autobiographical novel, and chronicles his first forays into drug culture. It is not considered the equal of his more mature writing, but is important for unflinchingly setting the themes of drugs and addiction. These would preoccupy later novels like Naked Lunch (196) and much of the literature of the Beats.

However, the specificities of this depiction contradict many fundamental elements of that literature. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the other Beat writers attempted to mark out a community among themselves, bound together by its conception of the writer and the self; Burroughs does not see the same potential in addiction. Indeed, what is most remarkable throughout the narrative of Junky is its bloodless treatment of its subject matter. It consistently denies the hallmarks of Beat writing, its “aesthetics of self-expression,” its “romance of the marginal” and its “visionary narrative motivation” (Harris 54).

In defining junk as a “way of life” (Junky Prologue xli), Burroughs seemingly expands the very scope of addiction; indeed, its exactitude of detail is such that Junky can be read as an anthropological survey of this emergent drug culture. However, William Lee, Burroughs’ proxy in the novel, displays little confidence in both identifying himself and in relating his experiences of addiction. He states, in the introduction to the original manuscript, that junk or heroin is “transitional between living and dead matter, between animal and vegetable life,” and “in some way alive” (Introduction 139). As junk gains this animate quality and takes over the addict, the latter can no longer be perceived through the lens of normative humanism.

This dehumanization is enacted in the body of the addict, which is frequently described by Burroughs in non-human or fragmentary terms: “a shapeless, protoplasmic mass” (11), “a withered adolescent” (24), “insect-like” (48), “liverish-looking” (63), “a pile of bones” (77). The melding of biological junky and chemical junk is total: “They all looked like junk” (25). Junk operates internally, within the addict’s body: the addict is reduced to the level of cellular operations, a complex of junk-dependent cells and junk-free cells. So, drug use shrinks any native, inborn ideal of humanism attached to the human subject.

To Burroughs/Lee, the economy of junk is defined by a constant wanting, a search for purpose in the physical gratification of drugs. Yet, this gratification is problematic: how can a practice undeniably harmful to the human subject be spoken and written of as anything else? A key point is that the immediate effect of drug use is never depicted in detail by Burroughs: he pointedly states that “(w)hen you are hooked, the effects of a shot are not dramatic” (41) The high itself is styled as oddly neutral, and conveys a sense of neither pleasure nor pain.

The full force of his description is instead concentrated on the tortuous experience of “junk sickness,” the withdrawal symptoms that follow when one ceases to use drugs:

A junkie runs on junk time. When his junk is cut off, the clock runs down and stops. All he can do is hang on and wait for non-junk time to start. A sick junkie has no escape from external time, no place to go. He can only wait (72).

The point here is that drug use is structured through desire, albeit one that is parasitical, for it is twinned with suffering. This desire is insatiable, and rejecting it of one’s own volition only induces the physical torment of junk sickness. The need to hold this sickness at bay determines every action of the addict, which is plotted along the progression of “junk time.” The self, too, in being oriented by this desire, is displaced and atomized.  Junk may be a “way of life,” but it is not a means of achieving community in American society.

This is a national condition: Burroughs’ narrative travels from New York to New Orleans to the Rio Grande valley in Texas to Mexico City. This peripatetic graph of the junky lifestyle cannot be said to decisively establish the same lifestyle in any specific locale, or even the larger, more accommodating cultural space of the American city. It is reminiscent of the travel narratives of the beat writers, especially Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). However, these narratives connect and define a community over America, whereas Burroughs’ junkies are truly flotsam, their encounters with other junkies, pushers and police no more than points on the quest for junk.

Burroughs’ addicts, physically mutilated and isolated, inhabit a city which is segregated in its own way. Their marginality in American society is also urban marginality, whether in New York, New Orleans, or even Mexico City. The state of addiction is mapped onto the American city, so that junk sickness and urban alienation become similar conditions. Burroughs illustrates this overlap in a striking passage:

Almost worse than the sickness is the depression that goes with it. One afternoon, I closed my eyes and saw New York in ruins. Huge centipedes and scorpions crawled in and out of empty bars and cafeterias and drugstores. Weeds were growing up through cracks and holes in the pavement. There was no one in sight (23).

This dystopian vision identifies the withered body of the addict with a bleak cityscape: the “centipedes’ and “scorpions” call to mind Burroughs’ withdrawal symptoms: “It seemed like ants were crawling around under the skin” (81). One also recalls that addicts in the novel generally conduct their transactions in “bars and cafeterias and drugstores.”

On his travels, Burroughs claims to be able to instantly identify the haunts of junkies. These are not usually marked as locales in themselves, but instead form a network along which junkies maintain their addiction. In New York, “103 and Broadway” mark “junk territory,” where the human presence is overwhelmed by “the feel of junk,” which “haunts the cafeteria, roams up and down the block, sometimes half-crossing Broadway to sit on one of the park benches” (24-5). Similarly, the subway is crucial for junkies and other subjects on the fringes of society. Here, they rob drunks to pay for their fixes, which are obtained from far-flung parts of the city to avoid the dragnet of narcotics agents.

Even for the addict, the city is a zone of unexpected intersections and unprecedented social diffusion. Burroughs’ pushers and users are both drawn from across different social strata, and bring about shifts in the retail drug economy. Prior to the Second World War, many drug pushers were Jews, and confined themselves to an upper-class clientele (Courtwright 107-8). This older generation is only encountered in William Lee’s tenure in the Lexington Hospital (Junky 53-5). Now, the trade has been commandeered by the Italian mafia (34). The user profile is also changing: late in the narrative, it is stated that “Lexington is full of young kids now. (125).

Burroughs eventually turns away from this situation as it becomes a “state of complete chaos,” bordering on “paranoid obsession, like anti-Semitism under the Nazis” (120), and escapes to Mexico. Like the Beat writers, his primary critique remains that of the system of surveillance and control in post-war America. However, desire and sensation are just as strong in their influence over the self. This desire cannot be disavowed or repressed: “Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh” (128). The quest to satiate it must be taken elsewhere, away from America, away from heroin.

© Sashank S. Das

The second and third part of the essay will be published in the coming weeks.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: A Review

Rudeness is merely the expression of fear. People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower.— Gustave H.

Grand Budapest Hotel   

Official Poster for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is visually a delight to watch. Set in a fictional town in Europe in between the wars, it traces the way the war impacts the personal lives of people totally uninvolved in it changing it forever in the process. Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur  Gustave H, the legendary concierge of the famous Grand Budapest Hotel and Tony Revolori as Zero Moustafa, the immigrant lobby boy, make the perfect team for a series of improbable adventures out of which emerges an enduring friendship.

The bubble gum pink Grand Budapest Hotel, which looks like a doll’s house with its extravagant exteriors and immaculate interiors and caters to the filthy rich, gives the sense of a  self sufficient and enclosed world but it cannot escape the war anymore than Europe could at the turn of the century. Anderson’s fictional Zubrowka, with snow covered Alpine peaks, is very much based on Hungary, a country which often found itself on the wrong side of history. The ‘Budapest’ of the title gives it away and deliberately so. It captures a world that is fast disappearing in the wake of the changing social, historical and economic realities in the twentieth century, the wars being one of its manifestations.

The old world charm and the values that the Hotel stands for and Gustave holds close to his heart and passes on to Moustafa have a painting like effect, depicting a moment in time which is lost even as it is being captured. Much like the Renaissance painting, “Boy with  Apple”  which disappears even as it is lurking in the background. Interestingly, Anderson uses a faux masterpiece created by a twenty first century artist Michael Taylor in the Renaissance style who claims he doesn’t know where the original “Boy with Apple” is anymore rather than a historical artwork for his purpose. In effect, creating another fiction within the fictional world of the hotel.

The humor in The Grand Budapest Hotel is often generated from silly situations which are elevated to the point that they become mock epic, a trait that satire lays claim to. In the process, depicting how human greed (for money, for power etc) can reach absurd levels. If in the fictional world Dmitry’s, the son of the rich widow, Madame D’s action in sending a henchman after Gustave after he steals the painting although he is in possession of the rest of the estate or Gustave’s in stealing the painting rather than taking legal recourse to acquire what was willed to him come across as ridiculous, it is only a microcosm of the absurdity in the world outside where Nazi Germany is invading countries and exterminating races just to prove a point while the world watches on. It is not surprising then that the murder of Madame D is never really solved even though it is of significant importance for the plot. Demanding or expecting poetic justice in a world where the very meaning of humanity is in question is as incongruous as the romantic poetry that intersperses Gustave’s narration, which no one understands or cares for anymore. it is only a matter of time before the doll’s house crumbles and Gustave never really survives the war even though Moustafa’s narration refuses to enter that zone, where his mentor and friend no longer exists, even in memory.

Fiennes’ Gustave is generous and selfish, caring and flippant by turns, has no compunctions about sleeping with octogenarians for profit but he also respects their last wishes, he might be ready to steal and run away with a priceless work of art or break out of prison but he will also put himself on the line to save his bellboy from SS (never named) officers and all these contradictions are brought out beautifully within the narrative. It traces Moustafa’s growth equally well from the loyal, if not very capable, bellboy to the owner of the hotel, capable of love and loyalty even in a world where such values are becoming outdated. If the Grand Budapest Hotel, despite the disappearance of its earlier grandeur and beauty, still stands in the 1960s It is because people like Moustafa do not let go off the vestiges of a the world gone by and live in the past, revelling in nostalgia, but for how long is the question.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has numerous layers of narration. The first level has the writer who wants to write down a story in 1985 which he heard in the 1960s from the then owner Moustafa who recounts the story of  The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave and Moustafa himself in the 1930s. The story begins even earlier (or rather later) with a young girl who goes to a cemetery to pay her respects to the writer and holds a book titled The Grand Budapest Hotel. Framing all these narratives within his story is Anderson himself as the Writer and Director of the movie. These layers tell as much as they hide, they are only versions of a (fictional) history and each one is as real as its author wants it to be or as its reader would like to believe, much like the chase scenes: leaping from one peak to another or walking in between cable cars within the movie.

Boy with Apple

“Boy with Apple”

Photo © with the makers.

Happy Birthday B!

There are worse things
than being alone
but it often takes
decades to realize this
and most often when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
than too late.
― Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) is one of those poets who said everything that needed to be said in his works and turned the most wry of words into poetry. Happy Birthday!

bukowski

A lovely/lonely photo of Bukowski.

 

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus- Pieter Bruegel

bruguel

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel (or a copy of the lost original made by him), 1558.

William Carlos Williams describes the Icarus of this painting as:

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning.

W. H. Auden, focusing on the inability of everyday life to appreciate the extraordinary, writes:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water…

She

I

She is neurotic but she will do
that’s what they all are anyway,
bathe in the spark till it lasts and
let the rest burn her dry bones away.

She is neurotic but tears turn to ember
when words touches her pen, confusion to cinder,
lust and glory in her veins she carries
which are drying faster than her womb. Soon
she will know it too if she doesn’t already.

She is neurotic and now they publicize it too
There are voices and there are murmurs
on the streets and in her head. They do not
let her sleep, not in a quiet country house and
not in a crowded city where sound never rests.

II

Husbands and Doctors and still other voices
dead for centuries, frighten her in her dreams.
They slide their cold hands under the blanket
and touch her not-yet-grown breasts

they ask her not to talk
they ask her to have patience
they ask her not to write
It is not yet time, they say.

She lays awake—

There will be someone who will want to hear her
there must be— she thinks

Only, they don’t.

She is mumbling again, they say
She speaks Greek, they say
She can’t find the way and therefore sits by the yew tree, they say.

She lays afloat—

Maybe they should not listen after all.
This is no place for a woman writer
This is no place for a woman at all.