"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Mary Gaitskill, author of the short story collections “Bad Behavior” (1988) and “Because They Wanted To” (1997) and the novel “Two Girls, Fat and Thin” (1991), and I have been corresponding by e-mail for some months on literature, sex and contemporary Western culture. Gaitskill is an incisive and fierce critic of what’s deplorable at present, and also a passionate protector of what she thinks might still work for writers and thinkers these days. Perhaps the two of us exemplify the problems at hand, in that this conversation never took place as a conversation; rather, it occurred only in the confines of an e-mail exchange. Yet we’re attempting to indicate the possibility that literature and other marginalized discourses might still flourish inside the machine of Western consumer culture. What follows, then, are excerpts from the most recent weeks of our epistolary tjte-`-tjte.
— Rick Moody
RM: I want to start with the hypothesis that there is a sociological basis for thinking that one should not be sad. This surely comes from the notion that capitalism can quench our thirst with the application of product. It is un-American to be sad, therefore, or at best, sadness is simply something to be treated with antidepressant meds and otherwise need not be spoken of. However, all the emotions are grand, and if sadness is among them, then I embrace sadness. This also reminds me of a great sentence from Foucault, from his introduction to “Anti-Oedipus”: “Do not think that because you are a revolutionary you must be sad.” Does sadness, for you, relate to sexuality in any way?
MG: A friend, in an e-mail, quoted from an essay by Robert Warshaw (“The Gangster as Tragic Hero”) on this subject of sadness, and he broadened it to include systems other than capitalism: “Modern egalitarian societies … whether democratic or authoritarian in their political forms, always base themselves on the claim that they are making life happier.” And so public displays of unhappiness and failure are seen as disloyal. I’d say, that is, that public displays of unhappiness and failure that are not reducible to supposedly soluble social problems — to some category like “poverty” or “mental illness” — are considered disloyal, or at least incomprehensible.
My suspicion is that this is an unavoidable human dilemma, that people will always want to avoid pain, to avoid those who are in pain, and so will be vulnerable to anyone or anything that seems to promise permanent avoidance. At the same time, I think people know that pain is part of our nature, that it cannot be avoided and that it should not be avoided. But capitalism in this country is focused on the idea 1) that life can and should be absolutely beautiful; 2) that beauty can be defined according to an ironclad objective standard; 3) that beauty can be held onto forever if only you do the right things perfectly enough; and 4) that it can be purchased. I don’t only mean physical, personal beauty, but that is a good enough example and metaphor. You look at a fashion magazine, or really any glossy magazine, and you see flawlessly beautiful women in fantasy lives of utter beauty and excitement, sometimes mixed in with a little cruelty. It appeals to what I think of as the upper layer, the part of us that wants that perfection so much because it is static; it pretends that life can be captured, controlled by us forever without the endless slippage of organic life, in which we are a mere piece of vegetable matter in a system that is as much about disintegration and decay as anything else — a system in which our personalities and egos do not matter, let alone whether or not we are pretty.
The fantasy pictures are never-never land, and yet you can feel a certain desperation in the way they deny everything that isn’t utterly beautiful, utterly light; paradoxically, the insistence on occupying that realm evokes all the more ungainly, “ugly” things that are being denied. People know there is something wrong with this denial, even if they want to buy into it, so “darkness” asserts itself in increasingly distorted forms, like anorexia, cutting, all kinds of emotional violence. Light and dark become so polarized that it is terrifying, and something like sadness can come to seem grotesque — and in fact become grotesque, like you see in somebody like [writer] Elizabeth Wurtzel, who I believe is desperately unhappy in part because she has absolutely bought into the idea that she should not be unhappy.
About your question of sexuality and sadness: I think they have a natural connection for everybody, which is why (and I know I’m talking out my ass here) I think people on antidepressants often lose sexual feelings. I don’t mean that I think sex is only about sadness; it is obviously about joy and vitality and birth as well. But I think it is our root link to the deepest part of ourselves, the part that goes beyond personality or even human identity. It goes down into a pit we can’t see into, and people tend to be scared of what they can’t see.
I don’t think “sadness” alone is in that pit; I think everything is in it, too much for us, in our human incarnation, to bear — so that a fully expressed sexuality does have that dark, earthen element that is profoundly sad, at least in human terms. I think it is in part about death, and is what menopausal women sometimes feel, an extraordinary despair that is about the breaking down of procreation and identity — which is now controllable by hormones so nobody has to feel anything icky. This is a part of sexuality that never shows up in advertisements, that rarely shows up in pop music, but everybody knows it’s there. And in our trying, maybe unconsciously, to find it, it gets expressed in some distorted forms.
RM: I’m pretty interested in this idea that the legendary side effect of Prozac, viz. diminished sexual appetite, is about the repression of sadness. It’s a fascinating hypothesis. I suppose for me the whole notion of sexuality is about triumphing over dissatisfaction with further dissatisfaction. I suppose I’m wondering if for you this connects, in some way, to the “death instinct,” which both Freud and Jung flirted with briefly, or at least with the complex formulations of Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” If so, this is surely the market to which capital cannot market, as it does not want to be placated. And maybe there’s a paradox to the Prozac fad, in that if happiness is nonsexual, then by marketing a particular product, a pill that purports to provide contentment, capital loses sexuality as a marketing idiom. No one would buy a car because it had a model in the commercial if they no longer cared terribly much about sexuality. But this is probably naive.
My other thought, from reading your note, was about the idea in continental philosophy that identity is not fixed, as in American ego psychology, but rather a system of tendencies or performances. Capitalism, in the realm of sexuality, I figure, thinks that we behave in specific ways, like a breast is always going to produce a hard-on for some product, whereas the truth is that sexuality is always a continuum, which can be characterized by reversals.
If capitalism really wanted to sell sexuality, it would have to have a talking head of someone saying, “Sometimes nothing gets me off at all, so I could hardly give a shit about this perfume or that car. In fact, I’m more interested in breaking things, and treating the people I love badly. Sometimes it’s just like this, and nothing helps for a while.” Then the General Motors logo underneath. It would be a rare example of credibility in advertising. Would your analysis of the sex industry be consistent with the above, that sexuality devoid of darker hues is contradictory?
MG: I don’t know if I was referring to the death instinct for sure because I haven’t yet read Freud, but the idea of a death instinct always made sense to me. I also realized that something in my last message wasn’t right, that death and pain as part of sexuality “never show up in advertising” — actually, they do, especially in cigarette ads. Back in the days of subliminal advertising, death images were routinely built into ads for cigarettes and liquor, maybe into other stuff too. I don’t know if that technique is still practiced, but I have certainly seen cigarette ads that were almost ghoulish in their imagery, just blatantly Goth, to use the pop term. It is probably arguable that advertising in some way addresses everything present in the psyche, in its own strange language.
However, and this is what I don’t know how to articulate, I still think that even if that “dark” part is there in advertising, the way it’s there is still static and obsessional and therefore superficial, in the way, speaking of the sex industry, that porn is. It still won’t go down into that “pit” I was talking about, the place I think actual sexuality gets to — it’ll just scare you with quick pictures of the pit. This static and obsessional thing — I don’t know if it’s about the death instinct or if it’s something else altogether. I am fascinated by obsession, but I don’t understand it; I don’t think anyone does. You’re right in saying that it does not want to be placated, but I don’t think that means it can’t be marketed to.
I think advertising and the world created in the fashion magazines are about desire, ever-inflating, ever-more-florid desire, and desire is the opposite of satisfaction. It’s like rubbing, rubbing, rubbing and never having an orgasm. It’s ideally meant for people who don’t know how to be satisfied. My thoughts about the porn industry are similar; in a way, everything gets addressed in porn — love, hate, contempt, neediness, violence, tenderness, you name it, it’s probably in there someplace. But it has that same repetitive, numb, obsessive quality that ads do. Even when the porn is very dark, there’s a way that it doesn’t get into that pit. I think the hilarious imaginary ad you came up with (“Sometimes nothing gets me off at all”) is closer, just because it accepts bad things without trying to fix them, and that’s why it wouldn’t run as an ad. Though if somebody did run an ad like that, they’d have the media talking about their ad and their product for several years.
Just in case I didn’t go on enough, I realized I didn’t say anything about what you found interesting, the idea of Prozac a) increasing happiness, b) decreasing sexual feelings. I have no idea what the connection really is between the two. I just had the thought because a few years ago I was on Zoloft for three days (which was as long as I could tolerate it). I went on it because people had told me it helped insomnia, which it did not do it my case. In fact, it did the reverse. But it was the strangest thing. It did make me feel happier, but in a way that was blatantly induced. I would just lie awake all night feeling these happy feelings coursing through me, very aware that they had nothing to do with me. I had this weird sensation of being floated up to the surface of myself, which was kind of fun, but unmoored feeling, uprooted.
I remember thinking, no wonder people aren’t interested in sex on this stuff; sex is root based. But I also think even if everybody were on Prozac, and it did decrease their urge for sex, sex would still be effective in advertising, because I think sexuality and sexual attractiveness have become anxiety-driven goals as much as anything. People think they’re supposed to be sexy, whether they feel it or not. (Maybe this has always been true of boys. Maybe the new thing is it’s now also true of girls.) I was once with this girl (on Prozac, incidentally) who was supposedly so horny, wanted sex so much, and yet when we got our clothes off, her body was telling me she couldn’t care less. In fact her body was saying “Don’t touch me,” but it was desperately important to her to feel that she was “sexy,” so much so that the natural drive, or lack thereof, had become buried. Have you had that kind of experience? What do you think about it?
RM: I felt, initially, that you were defending porn above, and I suppose that I agreed with the defense in spirit. My own tendency is to fault porn for content, not for form. I don’t particularly have a problem with the sexually explicit, or even the blatantly calculating, appeal to the masturbatory impulse, because I think this is a practical acknowledgment of how (male) sexuality is practiced in the actual world, but I find a lot of porn cynical, which bothers me, and I imagine that this goes with the market-oriented aspect of the whole thing.
If porn were free, that is, it would be a lot more interesting, and that’s why, for example, “amateur” porn has more going for it than another 10,000 reels of Ron Jeremy and his hairy back banging away at some junky girl who’s not getting paid enough. So I imagine that this conjunction of sex and capital is also suspect, though, like you, I am more fond of it than I am of sexuality in advertising, as it tries to get closer to some idea of sexuality as it really happens. But maybe this is simply a male talking. You tell me.
As for sex and antidepressants, I have less experience of it than you, I figure, because I have been drug-free since before the existence of the Prozac family of medications. After my experience with major depression, which was mainly alcohol induced in my case, I was on an earlier antidepressant, a tricyclic, I think, called Norpramin. It didn’t make me happy at all, though in its maw I didn’t want to be dead, and that was an improvement. It had little or no effect on me sexually, but maybe that was because it didn’t elevate my mood but simply lopped off my extremes. However, I did experience something like what you describe when I was a practicing alcoholic. I would feel these surges of vast romantic and sexual need, and then, upon being naked, I would be completely useless. I feel like this condition gets very close to a sort of important American capitalist moment: yearning and nonsexual at the same time.
MG: My feeling about porn is pretty neutral. It’s a hard thing to be against somehow, even if the way it’s made is damaging to people. (I once saw a documentary about teenage-boy porn from the Eastern bloc that was really sickening. It actually showed a movie getting made and the way this bullying sadist was hectoring these guys to fuck and get fucked — it was really like he was making them into dolls or something.)
I guess I think it’s one of those things that will always be with us, no matter what. The marketing aspect is another thing … I wonder if the paying for it is part of the experience for some people? Because it creates a feeling of white noise or space around the fantasy that might be necessary for masturbators? I think masturbating is to sex like dreaming is to real life — it’s not worse, just a different category of experience.
But maybe to see amateur porn (which I have never seen) is too personal for some people — unless they felt they were seeing genuine shame or some other real stripping away of personality, which I think sex is in some sense. I once went out with a guy who was into porn, and he said he only liked the stuff that conveyed a sense of shame or ambivalence in the actors’ faces. He wanted to see the calculated, formula porn with the stock characters, a sort of generic foundation on which to hang his fantasy, and then the one real human feeling, shame, to come popping out in wet, red letters, isolated from all other feelings. That’s a difference between porn and advertising — in porn a bit of humanity just might appear and in advertising it really won’t. It’s there, but it’s all coded and coated with some kind of flexible metal.
Yearning and nonsexual seem like an apt way to describe the marketing part of America. When I read the phrase I pictured a pretty little girl clasping her hands and looking upward in a soulful way. Meanwhile, there is a squared-off lockbox in her crotch filled with worms — which she is totally unaware of except in certain semiconscious moments! I also picture this advertisement for Diesel jeans featuring an airliner filled with gross, sexual, rich older women waving dollar bills at gross Chippendale stewards while two cute, pre-sexual young girls held hands and looked longingly out the window.
How do you think marketing affects American literature?
RM: I suppose the way I’d answer your question about marketing and literature is to say that the model for all marketing is the marketing of pornography. All advertising aspires to the condition of porn, where the maximum pleasure is promised by the product — orgasm — and yet the minimum — bad production values, faked orgasms, prosthetic penises, etc. — is actually delivered. The intent is no different in any marketing situation, only the degree of deceitfulness. And the degree is not so different either. The push of marketing, as a practice in multinational capitalism, is always toward a semblance to the porn ideal, and this is the case in books as much as elsewhere.
In a way, Elizabeth Wurtzel, by posing en dishabillie on [the cover of her book] “Bitch,” is just an obvious example. But my theory, in recent remarks about sex and capitalism for one of the women’s magazines, was that the best example was Madonna’s book “Sex.” It was marketed as a limited edition, high-end coffee-table book, with an inflated list price for the time, I think $45 or so, and it promised all the secrets of Madonna’s sexuality.
The marketing was so aggressive that the book went right onto the bestseller list, but the fact was that the book itself was deeply cynical, as all porn is, having none of the shame that your friend liked in porn (and I would express a related appreciation in porn: joy; I only like it when the actors seem to be expressing joy, which is extremely rare in porn, as the guys are usually attempting to keep it up, and the women are faking), and all of the fascist imagery of fashion photography. I would say, in the aftermath of “Sex,” that all bookselling is about attempting to duplicate this merchandising success. Even in literature, which would seem, on the surface, to oppose all of this, the marketing arms of large publishers are arrayed in the usual way, so that the image deployed by a book is at variance with what’s in the pages. The original paperback of one of my novels was along these lines: It had lovely, comely faces on the cover that had nothing at all to do with the middle-class despair in the book. Looked like Natalie Wood and Elvis Presley on the jacket. My gloomy reply here leads me to wonder if the intention of literature can survive all this marketing.
MG: I don’t know if I agree that the model for all marketing is the marketing of pornography, mostly because I don’t a) know enough about marketing, b) know enough about the marketing of porn in particular. It doesn’t seem to me that advertising aspires to the condition of porn simply because porn is so heavily freighted with people’s feelings about sex — and that is a dark, heavy, tangled weight — as well as being strictly limited to a very narrow way of experiencing sex.
Advertisers don’t have that weight or that particular stricture within which they must operate. They can appeal to the allegedly higher levels of desire — to provide for your family, to make your world beautiful, to make a complex social statement about yourself, to attract a mate. From what I understand, advertisers now aspire to the condition of postmodern art; they often are art school grads with very sophisticated, socially complex points of view, and the prestige ads are often ironic, clever messages that sell by acknowledging to the viewer that selling is bullshit and that the advertisers know the viewer is smart enough to understand this.
Like this ad Nike ran a few years ago: Spike Lee appears holding a shoe to his face. He says: “You can buy this.” Michael Jordan (I think) is shown making an incredible dunk. Spike’s voice-over: “You can’t do that.” The ad is overtly stating that they know that you know that it’s stupid to sell a shoe by pretending that it will make you like Michael Jordan — yet the connection to Michael is there. Also, the connection is there to a kind of knowingness that is extended to the viewer, that he or she is living in a world of brightly colored bullshit that we know how to negotiate like Michael making his high-speed jump. I personally think it’s worse than porn, which as we’ve discussed is pretty odious. The only connection I would make between porn and advertising is that both refer to and play off deep needs, which are then translated into an extremely bland and superficial mass language where no depth is allowed — thus in a way violating the humanity of the need.
I’m not sure how all this applies to literature. I think it’s hard to market writing (regardless of its quality) in the way most things are marketed because it doesn’t offer the same high-voltage charge that other media do, like music. You have to be alone to read, it’s slow and it penetrates you slowly. Because of its nature, it’s hard to translate into that superficial mass language — even if it is superficial writing. The “advertising” is mostly in the way a particular spin is put on the book through publicity and reviewers, and that is not entirely in the control of the publisher, let alone the writer.
I too have had the experience of being presented in a way that had little to do with my work. My last publisher insisted on putting a large screwlike object on the hardcover of my book, right under the title “Because They Wanted To,” making a) a very funny joke, b) sure that the reader would think it must be all about sex. I’m sure a great many people were disappointed in the book as a result.
I think another way of marketing highly “literary” books is more old-fashioned snob appeal: making the reader think that reading this book makes him or her a serious person dealing with serious issues or a deep person or a clever person. And it isn’t my observation that literature is at all opposed to this. I recently read a review in the New York Review of Books, which, though generally glowing, spent a paragraph fussing over the fact that the author of the book in question had once allowed a magazine to print an attractive photograph of her next to her short story. The reviewer concluded that the story survived the presence of the picture, that it was a good story even if the photo was a grave mistake. It seems to me that the message of the paragraph was: “This is a literary book for literary people who do not sully the purity of literature with vulgar, attractive pictures. Liking this book will make you a serious and high-minded person — like I am.”
What do you think about television as an influence on literature? Or do you think it is one?
RM: I don’t know what to do with television at all. It just seems like an incredibly wasteful and stupid medium, the art equivalent of vinyl siding or plastic covers for furniture. It does nothing for the culture, or very little, and the people who work in it, I have found, have a tendency to be breathtakingly dismissive of their audiences.
But I have no television, really, just a monitor for videotapes, so I sample its charms only when traveling. Most of all, television feels left behind now. It’s rail travel in the jet age, because of how fast things are happening on the Internet. And here there are, assuredly, parallels with what we’re discussing, because a) a major portion of Web sites are given over to pornography (and not free pornography, but profit-oriented, commercial American porn), and b) the Internet is hurtling toward centralization of our Western national discourses at an alarming rate, mainly funded by the inflated price-earnings ratios of Internet stocks.
So capital, here again, is driving us toward an instant-gratification model on the Web (with some carefully ghettoized political dissent) that will soon be downloadable on our television stations. Not surprisingly, many of the entrees on this particular bill of fare are pornographic. The Web, largely, is either pornography or advertising: slick, beautifully created pages for large corporations and seat-of-the-pants sites devoted to every paraphilia under the sun.
The question is where literature fits into this diet. As you say, it is best savored slowly and in silence, in retirement from all the promises of consumer economy. I have great faith in what written language can do, if you just allow it, if you just get out of its way. While the anxiety model of advertising (that you will buy this product out of a desire to avoid not having this product, because not having it would cause anxiety) is a kind of infantile desire, which, as [Jacques] Lacan said, always exceeds the object.
Where does it leave us writers but outside the homogeneity of all this centralization, like hungry kids of the village watching pies cool on the sills of the powerful, though the thing we make, as writers, is a major revenue stream for these very large multinational entertainment providers?
MG: I do own a tube, but since I don’t have cable I rarely watch TV shows; I didn’t watch at all from the age of about 16 to 36, when I finally got one so I could rent movies. But I asked because I recently watched a few episodes of “thirtysomething” as research (don’t ask) and was really perturbed.
I often am perturbed when I watch popular programs like “The Simpsons” or the one I just mentioned, and it is hard to put my finger on why I am perturbed. It’s like it creates a world where one can’t really do anything but take a stance of some kind — a lovable stance, a defiant stance, a feminist stance, a frustrated woman stance, a manly guy stance. Even though “The Simpsons” was really clever, it was still this world where everything was summed up and disposed of very fast, “signifed,” and everybody was always in this pissed-off, desperate stance. I feel that this has affected writing to some extent, or at least the way people read it.
I find that when I assign students older books, like Saul Bellow or other things from that era, they have a very hard time with them and complain that the characters are depressing; I suspect it’s because they are developed characters instead of stances, and that the weight of those characters feels too heavy to them because they are no longer used to it. I’m not sure TV is responsible for this; I don’t know what is. I’m not even sure I’m noticing anything new; I’m sure there have always been superficial and silly readers. But it seems that what passes for intelligence now is often mere knowingness or an ability to jump to a conclusion about something without really looking at it, and that is the kind of mind-set typical of TV.
I have faith in what written language can do also, which is why I think it will always be around in some form. It can simply achieve things that can’t be achieved on TV or movies or the Internet, just as those forms can achieve things that writing can’t. I think reading may become less popular (I think fiction may become like poetry, even in our lifetime), because it is less complimentary to the hyped-up way people live and think now, but it will always have its fans. It’s so great to read something really old, something like Ovid, and have it make you get up and pace around the room muttering to yourself, and then think of this person writing it all that time ago … I think that’s really dreamy.
I should admit, though, that I have had periods in the last five years where I did watch ghastly made-for-TV movies, mostly about crazy, violent middle-aged women going nuts and stalking people, and that I really enjoyed them. I especially enjoyed imagining the women of America watching them and inwardly exulting while outwardly deploring.
Mary Gaitskill is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent collection is "Because They Wanted To."More Mary Gaitskill.
Rick Moody is the author five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a collection of essays, ON CELESTIAL MUSIC.More Rick Moody.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)