"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)
Jedediah Purdy is the fellow most American mothers prayed their own sons would grow up to be. Fresh-faced. Intelligent. Polite. Funny, not witty. And the author of perhaps the most heartfelt book a junior intellectual could write — the anti-irony manifesto “For Common Things.” It was published four years ago when Purdy was just a 24-year-old Yale law student pup.
Back then, as you may recall, Bill Clinton was president. We all had money. Many of us watched “Seinfeld.” Not Purdy. He detested the show’s cheap irony. Purdy, himself, stood far outside of all pop irony’s cultural circles. First there was his strange hillbilly name — is that what Jed Clampett’s first name was short for? Purdy himself freely wrote more than a few semicorny reminiscences of being home-schooled in redneck West Virginia by his ex-hippie parents. Most pro-”Seinfeld” readers felt uncomfortable with Purdy’s petition for a kind of neo-American sincerity. Even though he was better read than you or I, it secretly pleased us when even the critics who liked the book pointed out that Purdy couldn’t tell his Emerson from his Thoreau. And the critics who were against “For Common Things” really, really hated it. Time magazine just said the book was “really stupid.”
Then two short years came and went, and it was 9/11. Clinton and “Seinfeld” were long gone, and the World Trade Center lay in rubble. A national cry went out for an irony-free America. It turned out that Purdy was just ahead of his time (or Osama bin Laden’s).
Rather then gloat and write “For Common Things 2,” Purdy traveled to Africa and Asia and India to discover how America could simultaneously inspire both love and hate. In his new book, “Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World,” Purdy’s conclusion is more or less a wish for “plural modernities” of “various decent human cultures.” The getting to this point is what makes the book a pleasure. Purdy’s text merges thinkers like James Madison and Edmund Burke with the fact that in many circles, bin Laden is a pop idol — a Bruce Springsteen-in-a-cave.
In the end, it’s hard to imagine how a sincere Yank like Purdy could wander through bin Laden’s milieu and return home unscathed. Then you meet him in the flesh and see he possesses the eternal boyishness of Tintin, that classic French comic book boy-man reporter. Just as Tintin successfully dodged foreign bullets and exploding volcanoes to return home safe and sound, Purdy’s sincerity and the depth of his innocence likewise must have kept him from receiving a little Islamic justice in some dark Cairo alley. As for American irony, Purdy reveals that he is not against irony in principle. He is just against its practice during boom times. Now that everything in America is going to hell, even Jed Purdy allows himself a dark chuckle or two.
You recently traveled to Asia, Africa and India researching this book. Were you ever compelled to buy a bin Laden T-shirt?
I thought about it. I almost got one in Jakarta, but instead I just brought back a slim volume that shows bin Laden’s face flanked by a Soviet flag on one side and the American flag on the other. A shopkeeper gave it to me. I also have an Egyptian newspaper that showed bin Laden as the head of a leaping tiger.
Do you think he’s alive?
I guess so. Based on no more evidence than anyone else has. I also guess that even if he isn’t, he’s going to be vital in the global iconography of vendetta for a long time. In the Muslim world, all the way from Egypt to Indonesia, he has a Malcolm X cachet. He stands for masculine self-assertion of people who felt uncertain about their standing, regardless of the doctrine he was associated with. The spirit of defiance itself is what people find attractive in him. Then for Hindu nationalists — and in a less pronounced way, for the Chinese anatomists — he has become a way of aligning themselves with an idea of global civilization against Muslim barbarism. I mention in the book this moment when a Hindu nationalist I was with was getting progressively drunker and kept shouting out to people, “Now it’s either me or bin Laden and you have to choose.”
What’s China’s take on bin Laden?
China’s take on him is much more opportunistic and less emotionally exciting than almost anyone else’s. It’s opportunistic for the notorious reason that China wants to crack down on its weaker Muslim dissidents in the northwest. Otherwise, the Chinese are emotionally disengaged. Even though Chinese political culture and Chinese politics have a lot of anti-Western, anti-imperialist rhetoric, the Chinese identify with power rather than powerlessness, which makes bin Laden a very compelling figure for them. Bin Laden and terrorists in general have the appeal of a kind of existential defiance in a situation that you’re not going to be able to change systematically.
Did any of the radicals you met on your travels seem particularly evil?
No. I thought two things. One, they have an unrealized capacity to do evil because they are attracted to evil, which to them is charismatic because evil has the spirit of defiance about it. That leads to the central argument in this book. There is this idea where, as a kind of successor to the Cold War, there is a new war with radical Islam. There is something to that. But my question is what it means to be a radical in Islam, what field that war is fought on. And that field is the divided personalities of the people whose countries’ political futures are at stake in the next few decades. People from India to China to Indonesia to Egypt are charmed by this basic story about the lost greatness of their people, the humiliations and injuries they’ve undergone, and how modern politics is supposed to redeem all that in spectacular acts of self-assertion, violence and forms of religious chauvinism.
At the same time, they have an equal and genuine attraction to the things that most Americans think of as the obvious goods in life: personal security, personal liberty and material comfort. Those are ultimately incompatible kinds of devotion and orientations, and they can coexist in potential for a long time before they get political expression. I felt that I was talking to people who were intensively susceptible to evil but to whom it was an inchoate fact.
Are there evil people in Chloe, the West Virginia town where you were raised?
[Laughs.] Let’s try to sort out evil a little bit. A classic definition of evil is the Augustinian one that in some ways comes from the platonic idea of human motivation aspiring to forms of the good. The modern expression of this is that no one sets out to do evil, people only seek perverted and mistaken forms of the good. In some ways terrorism is a perfect instance of that idea of evil because it is perfect evil — it is a sure, willful destruction of lives in the name of what the people who bring the destruction seem to understand as a form of nobility. To describe it that way is not to make any form of apology of it, but to ask what sort of phenomenon it is.
In Chloe the moral drama of life was not such that people had the opportunity to be seduced by grand visions that lead them to do destructive acts. The nearest thing we have is the great small-town form of bigotry, traveling under the colors of self-righteousness. I don’t think that in most places in America, evil as this spectacularly destructive expression of a perverted idea of what your duty is and what you should do in the world has played much of a role in people’s recent experience.
I think the American blindness to evil is prompted by its connection to one of the most decent aspects of American civilization, and one of the things that makes it most attractive to people outside of it, and also most baffling: Our forgetfulness makes it possible at any moment in history for us to believe in our essential innocence. We don’t remember that we’ve ever done anything other than what we do now. It’s a great triumph to a civilization that it can go from being a white supremacist country in the late ’50s, when a substantial portion of the country didn’t believe in racial intermarriage, to racial egalitarianism. We can believe that this is just the triumph of what our essential values have always been. That’s amazing. Similarly, in 20 years we’ve taken — more through cultural and pop cultural development than through political developments — huge steps in terms of sexuality, of changing our sense of what’s expected and normal and decent.
So in Chloe, two guys can walk hand in hand down the street?
I don’t think they’d want to try it yet. Chloe will be a latecomer on these points. If you don’t believe in history you’ve lost the great repository of lessons about the human capacity for evil and all the places it comes from. And all the forms it takes. And how much of anyone’s history is caught up in it. It makes for a kind of terrible innocence.
Were you ever hassled because you were a weird kid?
When I was in high school in West Virginia there was a guy named Chris McFeeny. Chris came from a family of McFeenys who produced a lot of wrestling champions. And they fed their hogs on poached deer — “poached” in the sense of shot out of season. They all looked pretty similar, and they had the thickest Appalachian accents that I ever heard, one of the most impenetrable forms of pronunciation. Chris McFeeny used to sit behind me and my friend on the school bus, and he used to detail all the different animals that lived on my friend’s farm — turkeys, deer, squirrels, grouse, sparrows — and then finish with, “and I’m gonna kill them.” This McFeeny used to come up to me and throw back his shoulders like a big bird and throw his chest out and get his face up in mine and say, “I hate fuckin’ hippies.” I had a terrible moment of self-repudiation when he did that because I believe that I said — it’s embarrassing to recount and I haven’t actually told anyone this story — “I ain’t a hippie.” [Laughs.] Pretty unconvincing.
How did McFeeny respond?
To “I ain’t a hippie”? I believe he said, “Well, fuck you anyway.” Which was irrefutable. Then he went on his way. He didn’t slug me. I never have gotten slugged. “Slugged” is a great word.
I’ve never slugged anyone in my life. I don’t know how to slug. Do you know anyone who knows how to slug?
I sure do. My dad worked as a carpenter for about 14 years. The guys he worked with were a tough breed. Southern white boys. They drank a lot. Some of them did hard drugs. They were incredibly sweet to him, though. One of them, Clark, really knew how to slug people. The last time I heard in detail that he really slugged someone was about two years ago. He was getting off a four-lane highway in his truck when a guy cut in front of him. Clark flashed his lights at him, and the guy tapped his brakes, in the vocabulary of automotive insult. And the guy pulled over by the exit ramp and got out of his car. Clark got out and beat the guy unconscious and rolled him under his car and left him there, which is pretty typical of how he deals with conflict. But the only people I know who know how to slug people are people who worked with my dad or went to high school with me, and they always thought of me as the nice but kind of weird smart kid who should be kept from slugging.
This may be wrong, but if you start slugging it’s hard for it to be an isolated incident. When you step out of that, suddenly you are on the other side of a whole nest of rules that have always been the implicit ecology of your mind. I don’t know that you can just step back in. All the rules change when you start slugging people. I once had a conversation with a lawyer, a very straight, law-abiding guy. Large cash deposits used to appear in his checking account. Deposits he hadn’t made. Eventually they stopped coming. I don’t know if he ever found where they were coming from. He speculated or tried to imagine what he would have done if he had decided to take the money and run. There was no scenario in which he could run. If you were going to take $800,000 and run, and not be traceable, you have to run into a whole different economy.
After 9/11, there was a credit union whose main computer had been in the World Trade Center. For about two weeks, members could withdraw unlimited amounts of money from cash machines no matter how much money was actually in their account. Then four months later they were busted. The great American temptation.
If you do that you have to change all your rules. You can’t slug people and then step back in. I think.
In your book you mention fate and luck and possibilities of influencing them. Are they the same thing, or are they separate attributes?
It’s like Calvinist grace. It just descends on you and there is nothing nihilistic about its arbitrariness. It’s just that grace descends.
What is grace?
I was thinking about the phenomenology of the slot machine. I was in Las Vegas for the first time this fall. What struck me about Vegas was that if someone had asked me, before I went there, “What is the charge of gambling?” I would have imagined something about the nihilism of giving money up to total random chance, a kind of pure surrender of any story of character or hard work or prudence or sound use of money. But what I found instead was that I, and everyone I was there with, almost immediately started believing these intense moral stories about what was going on. If someone won $120 at the slot machine, the immediate thought was: “He has some sort of virtue. Excellence of character.” And now he has to be emulated because virtue has to be emulated. Then you participate in the success of virtue, and really the sense of dignity and status and one’s own respectability was all tied up in the patterns of the slot machines. It took about 15 minutes for that to set in. You’re probably much more realistic about this than I, or less of a bluestocking. I think the lottery is a vile public policy. Our experience of this has this cool quality of grace. It doesn’t defeat its own arbitrariness. It elevates it instead.
I think when we talk about fate or karma we are putting a name to the transhistorical themes that we feel somehow implicated in. I think about those things in the same way that I think about reincarnation, as a metaphorical way to understand how things in people’s personalities carry on in larger dramas conducted throughout history. I have a friend who I think of as somehow instancing Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham and the Victorian adventuresses of the 19th century who traveled through the Sahara and Africa in hoop skirts. You can capture something about what eddies and currents you think people are caught up in by that kind of artificial incredible description of them. Maybe I’ll be shocked out of this into a kind of pure nihilism by whatever comes of this new book. But as of now I think that the books that we decide to write, and what happens to them — the things that we do so deliberately, so intensely — end up crossing history, and maybe linking us to ideas that even in their failures seem to have a kind of dignifying quality. Does that make any sense to you? Or is that gibberish?
Don’t you just wish you could do whatever voodoo is necessary to get good book reviews?
I think this new book is a better book. A more mature book. A more perfected book in the strict etymological sense of done all the way through than the first one was.
Was there much “Purdy bashing” after “For Common Things” came out?
There were two levels. The preponderance of it was positive. It was, on the whole, positive in the New York Times and Boston Globe and the public radio things. Salon got me on a really embarrassing slip and proceeded to give me a total schoolyard thrashing. I think the New York Observer was similar. One of the conversation magazines did something similar. Anyone who observed it from without would have said that on the whole it was positive. I definitely came away with an awareness of having been thrashed.
How thick is your skin?
Can I first talk about the new book? I think the question of what’s going to become of it is still uncertain, not only of who is going to review it and how assigning editors will see it but also as a matter of its relation to history. Before Sept. 11, to even talk about something like the “American Empire” was to be a right-wing cheerleader or to be anti-American in the Noam Chomsky vein. Now it’s become a matter of fact, a premise, so in that sense it’s moved from somewhere near the margins to somewhere near the center of political common sense.
It could be seen as a post-Sept. 11 book that got eclipsed by the war in Iraq. Or it could be seen as one of the first serious reflections on the country’s place in the world post-1989, and after neoliberalism and after the new awareness of the persistence of irrationality as a political motivation. These are specific ways of saying I really think what happens to it has to be significantly arbitrary. Whatever happens to the book, I am going to be almost overwhelmingly tempted to think about it as an expression of the fate of its themes in our times. The fate in our time of personalities inclined to think in those themes.
In late ’99 and the first six months of 2000, I had a kind of psychological rupture with my first book. What had been made of it in public was so intense and had such a personal cast that I had to disassociate myself from it in my own mind. I had to think of its misadventure and the misadventures of its author — of this imagined public figure — as completely different things from my own life. I only made my way back to it over a year or so afterward. I did very little writing in that period. I found it difficult to write. I don’t mean to sound like I’m whining. Or being self-indulgent, to have such a hothouse-flower response to mixed reviews of a widely reviewed first book. I was definitely buffeted, and I think I was buffeted because it was by design such a personal book, and it got slugged by some smart people.
[He knocks on wood.]
That’s it! Right now! You’re trying to influence fate!
Yeah. I knock on wood all the time. I don’t think it’s trying to harness extrahuman powers. It’s trying to not piss them off. My basic metaphysical hunch, which is just the shape of my temperament, is that when you feel some confidence, entitled to anything or even licensed to dwell on happy prospects, that’s when you get smoked. Probably “smitten” is the word I’m looking for. Knocking on wood indicates how radically dependent you are on something you can’t control.
It’s like the Calvinist belief that because everything is predetermined, prayers are never answered. Because that would make it like a financial transaction between you and God.
One of the tenets of radical Protestantism is that God owes us nothing. There is no way you can charm or blackmail God. No form of behavior can ever require God to do something for you, whether it’s prayer or good acts or anything like that.
I hated it when everyone was saying after 9/11 that surely God was “weeping.”
Are you literally religious or are you using it as a kind of metaphor? If I had been born into any tradition I’d be stuck in it in a tortured way. I use religion as a metaphor.
Religion is a metaphor — it’s just how seriously you take the metaphor.
Oh, man. The closest approximation to evil thinks you’re going to hell for that.
I’m going to hell?
Yeah. For thinking that.
You believe that?
No! No! I just wanted to check how congruent our vocabularies were. The way that it makes some sense to me in the abstract to say “God is weeping” — there is this Christian idea that sin is made possible by free will, and the reason free will is granted is that creation is only made complete when, even with the grant of radical freedom, it chooses to subject itself to divine commands. Only if it loves God of its own free will. So if the children of Oklahoma City were killed because of someone’s misuse of freedom — a base defiance of the hope you suppose God had in mind when he granted us this freedom — then you can see it. God weeps. That’s the difficulty. You do think that on some level that human will is the one thing that stands outside of God’s literal determining power. But it does it only from special license from God.
I’m not sure of the difference between the First Great Awakening and the Second, but during the Second Great Awakening, Calvinism was stomped. Americans could save themselves.
The Second Great Awakening seems much more American, continuous of what we understand of ourselves. Mormonism came out of the Second Great Awakening, which is so American. Mormonism sanctifies the American landscape. That’s really cool. It gives America a sacred history. America never had a sacred history before. That was a problem for theologians grasping with the question of America: Where did it fit in? Did the American Indians have souls? And suddenly these people were Israelites. And Jesus was here. The cheek of it is really impressive. The sheer hucksterism and the combination of unworldliness and work ethic.
Have you spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C.? How do they deal with you there?
I saw a narrow circuit of Washington. I was hanging out at this place, the New America Foundation. They liked me but I think they found me a little puzzling. I didn’t have any real encounter with the broader Washington. I mostly did my own writing. I had a few friends there. My girlfriend was there. They probably found me charming but hopelessly impractical, because if you like to think about fate and the metaphorical function of reincarnation and the status of evil in history, people are only interested if you are providing an odyssey for market capitalism. If you’re one of those guys, they think about those things in a right-wing think tank. If you’re an independent eccentric that likes books, it’s not clear to them what species you are or what function that species performs.
Do you have peers?
I have peers who have unpublished manuscripts. I had one peer who has a book out, Adam Haslett, who published this collection of stories, “You Are Not a Stranger Here,” last year. He’s a really good guy. He’s a peer. I only have one nonromantic peer around, and he’s very unusual himself. He’s one of the people with an unpublished manuscript. His daddy is a Punjabi Sikh who came out of the Punjab during the partition, and his mom is an Anglo lady from California, and my friend grew up racially between two civilizations. He was confident of only not fitting perfectly in either one. In consequence, he became a very keen and self-confident observer of lots of worlds where he didn’t perfectly fit. I feel more comfortable with people who have the observer’s sensibility, but who don’t have the temperament of the flâneur — habitual mirror observers.
What word did you just use?
“Flâneur.” I’m probably mispronouncing it completely. It’s a French word that Baudelaire used to talk about the stroller on the promenade who is supposed to be a new type of person, a new type of aesthete, who takes advantage of the anonymity of the city to walk about and stare and make up stories about people.
Are you going to become a lawyer?
I have a law degree. I haven’t passed any bar. I will become a clerk, an apprenticeship where I try to assume the mind and voice of the judge that I’m working for. Clerks read everything that come into the court, briefs, exhibits and things. They research law and then advise the judge as to how the case ought to come out. Then the judge takes over. The clerk is an apprentice in judging. It’s thought of as a kind of a capstone in studying law. It looks at law from the perspective which is the most interesting to me, which is trying to come to a right answer within the bounds of a narrowly shaped tradition, both in the broad sense of the whole canon of legal briefs and in the specific sense of precedents and statutes that come into any case. It can sound boring, but to me it has this attractive quality of getting into harness. And a kind of aesthetic subordination of my own interceptive appetite to the rigors of the discipline.
What’s next? “Here come da judge”?
I think probably the best fit with my temperament and training and constitutional leads is to try to teach law. I like the act of teaching. Three of the semesters that I was in law school I taught under different capacities. I taught college students one semester, law students one semester and nonlaw graduates one semester. And I consistently liked it.
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
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)