Wednesday, November 03, 2010


My first problem, of course, was learning how to spell the damn concept. I finally taped it to my computer monitor. BOURGEOIS. A combination of bourbon, geology and “is.” I’m sure all three are relevant, not just mnemonic devices. (Took me a while to learn to spell “mnemonic,” too.) Esp. the bourbon.

But try to find a decent definition. Now DECENT, that’s a very bourgeois concept. But a decent definition of bourgeois might be rather INdecent from their point of view. It’s not quite the same thing as the middle class, not quite the same thing as middle-brow, not quite the same thing as, you know, living in a nice house, washing your car often, and sending your kids to the state university. Or at least a good two-year tech school. But what do these people know about humanities? And though they listen to PBS (Garrison Keillor), what do they really know about opera? Everyone wants to be middle-class but few want to be called bourgeois. What’s the distinguishing marker? They need authorities to certify: Are you published? Are you ordained? Do you have a teaching certificate? Do you have a Ph.D? (Most aren’t exactly sure how one gets those things, so they need the marker. They DO know which markers are significant. They believe in Oscars and the lottery.)

The anthropologically interesting and un-Euro cultures or the mysterious cloistered very rich, very poor, or institutionalized seem to be out of consideration as bourgeois except for the media presenting the bourgeois with voyeuristic slices of those other lives. The bourgeois are supposed to be the normal, the norm. But above average.

I’m reading Peter Gay, which is a revelation: “The Education of the Senses” in which he slides the sheets off the marital beds to reveal that women loved sex all along and their husbands were often more tolerant and skillful than pictured. (He seems to ignore the fact that childbirth could be lethal for women -- sepsis, no anesthetic.) But also I read short pieces on economics (which are about all I can assimilate at one time) and the bourgeois seem to be about as much about capitalism as about sex, which is a river running through just about everything. The economy of sex. Not just pay-for-acts but the bondage of dependence. Labor gradients: you do the work, I sign the checks.

Today we seem to be shrinking, confusing and breaking up the bourgeois, which would be a good thing if it forced us to invent something better than capitalism. About time, in fact. But it’s terrifying, esp. for those inside the phenomenon, succeeding at it. Until now. There are still aspirants who are not getting any sex, money or security (forget education) but pretend that they are and have no defense except to throw tantrums. (I’m writing this on election day.)

Contending forces are in myself: “You shall be a major success that impresses everyone.” “You shall not be proud or boasting.” And underneath that are two other commandments: “You must be decent,” and “Do not get above yourself.” Both of those are seen as triggers for failure, though it seems evident to me that indecency and overreaching are just as likely to accompany success, in fact, are sometimes a prerequisite. I find that worrying about decency or whether I’m getting the big head are stumbling blocks. Just do it. Keep focus.

Mostly, it seems to me, the bourgeois idea is to stay in a group, maybe in order to be a voting block. Or to keep neighbors from thinking you are strange, which might mean they deny you help. Conformity is a high value, as much of an imperative as prosperity. But conformity means to me mediocrity. If the only way I can escape conformity is by foregoing prosperity, well, that’s what I’ve done. I’ll just be quietly eccentric and keep trailing Tim who has played the game the other way around: all the glamour of prosperity (at least in surges) and conformity only to the Grateful Dead.

I played some trump cards (Blackfeet, Bob Scriver) that won and threw in my hand on others (teaching, animal control, bureaucracy). In private life I had a tight immigration policy -- still do. Not at all race-based. What I see is that prestige and respect (which don’t necessarily go together) are not really controllable. One can die a great hero and success -- fifty years later, no one remembers your name. On the other hand, now and then someone is posthumously excavated from history and highly praised for brilliance. What counts most is right now: the bright moment. That is not a bourgeois idea, is it? I guess it depends on how you play it.

So, all right, I’m abstaining from all things bourgeois, including the Montana Festival of the Book. What are the alternatives? High intellectual? My prob with that is that lately the stuff has been such inscrutable theory that I can’t figure it out. And it’s a little like the discussion group I once belonged to in Helena. We spent an entire winter talking about Camus and how the heart and meaning of life was Art. So along in the spring I proposed that we each describe what art we had at home. They scoffed. “Oh, we don’t have time for such trivia,” they said. My last meeting. They’re all talk.

Maybe working class. What’s a good working class novel? In Montana. I resort to a resource from the Seventies in Missoula, a journal meant to explore alternatives, esp. the surreal. In what I suppose could be called an editorial in the Fall, 1977, issue of “Montana Gothic” (not the book but the literary journal then published in Missoula), Peter Koch says:

“It can be argued that there are two distinct categories of the REAL; that which is common and habitual, which I shall call ‘Reality,’ versus that which is suppressed by the first category which I shall call MARVELOUS. If one can believe the great thinkers of this century -- the suppressed will return to haunt the bright plaza of low contrasts called ‘reality’ like lava extruded from a fault in the earth’s crust. If ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’ then the imagination abhors reality (an opposition whereby what can be achieves achieves a clawhold on what is.)

“We have here in Montana a sterling example of the repression of the imagination by what can fairly be judged an unconscious agent, the Writing Program at the University of Montana. . . The state supports writers who express desire and dissatisfaction within a christian framework of good and evil that any Zane Grey novel will acquaint you with.”

Koch left Missoula not long after writing this in order to glory in the ferment of the San Francisco alternative community where Evil was truly life-threatening (viral) and Good was ecstatic. He earned his way with careful, tasteful, high brow letterpress printing, an enterprise that demands focus and calibration. Well, that’s not predictable or bourgeois.

As if that weren’t enough irony, Zane Grey has now been exposed -- though people hardly dare think about it -- as a guy who put his own pleasure before everyone else and routinely, with his wife’s permission and possibly collusion, slept with young girls, photographed his acts of prowess and kept track in a diary. There’s too much proof to blame all this on slander. He spent his days at sea with the girls while his wife wrote at least some parts of those bourgeois novels. Lassiter, ha!

So what does Peter Koch approve as worthy subjects in Montana? He provides a list at the end of this journal so I googled through it. Lee Steen came up as a subsidiary of Swain Wolfe -- a fascinating writer never featured by the Montana Humanities crowd. Steen made people and animals of wood, bringing organic shapes to life -- he ended up burning them to keep warm. Michael Poage (no one in Missoula mentions him though his bio brags of his beginnings with Hugo) became a Congregational minister in Kansas after earning his MDiv at San Francisco Theological Seminary. We echo. Jay Rummel occupied an unlikely triptich: Montana Historical Society, folk music, and fine ceramics. (Yes, Rudi Autio.) He’s my age -- where IS he?

“Blind Boy Bug” turns out to be a band and leads to Milo Miles, a coast-to-coast free-lancer of high reputation. David Thomas -- too many with the same name to figure out. Mary McLean, no trace of her and her “vitriolic tongue.” (Will I do?) Dirk Lee, erotic painter of naked ladies -- no one ever told me about this guy at the MEA English teacher meetings even though most MATELA attenders are female! Norman Boyce Jr. -- no results.

Some things on the list I already knew:
The megalomania of the Copper Kings. (Some of whom were Unitarians.)
The Disappearance of Governor Meagher. (And the horse he rode in on.)
The perverse relic of Club Food George’s foot. (One among the many, honey.)
Jim Welch and the high-line mythos. (I’m here.)
Anarchy in the Rocky Mountains. (It never ends. Sometimes it’s geological.)

Maybe local is the new universal. Recurrent. Will they all move back, leaving San Fran a ghost town? If there’s another big earthquake they might. More likely the money will run out in Missoula, leaving the underlying bohemians. Not a bad outcome.

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