Archive for July 20th, 2020

Morgan Meis’s “The Drunken Silenus” and the way the mind works – and sometimes doesn’t

Monday, July 20th, 2020
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To understand Silenus, Rubens first had to make a moral of him.

A review of Morgan Meis‘s The Drunken Silenus appeared in Art in America, and it’s so much fun – lively and insulting and laudatory at once (in the spirit of the book) – that I thought it would be a great way to wind up a very long Monday. Here’s how Jackson Arn’s piece ends, by comparing Morgan Meis with Nietzsche: 

If there’s a progenitor for this kind of writing, it’s Nietzsche. This is a strange thing to point out, since Meis spends much of The Drunken Silenus insulting Nietzsche. He says The Birth of Tragedy was the only totally worthwhile book Nietzsche ever wrote. He says Nietzsche was full of shit. Mostly, he says Nietzsche was crazy. He calls Nietzsche crazy, or insane, or stark-raving mad at least a dozen times in the book, until it becomes a kind of gangster nickname, like Fat Tony or One-Ball Riley, at once a put-down and a term of endearment.

Name-calling, of course, was a Nietzsche trademark, and Meis is never more Nietzschean than when he’s slinging mud at a dead man. He has Nietzsche’s skepticism of progress, on both a historical and an expository level, as well as Nietzsche’s gift for making arguments in brief, brilliant flashes. His ideal form is the compressed, Nietzschean aphorism. Some of these will change your perception of Rubens so utterly that they are likely to seem perfectly obvious in hindsight, like Meis’s observation that in order to understand Silenus, Rubens first had to make a mortal out of him. Other aphorisms work the opposite way, flirting with obviousness from the outset—for instance, “A terrible father can produce a great son or daughter. A great father will produce terrible offspring just as often as not.” To borrow from the comedian John Mulaney, someone else who tells stories in spirals, “Well . . . yeah, that’s how all of life works.”

He specialized in name-calling.

Loose, strange, essayistic books live or die on a single question: are their various parts connected because they actually have something to say to each other, or because the author has forced them together? The clutter of ideas and subjects doesn’t necessarily have to cohere into a thesis, but at some point it should gain enough momentum to turn of its own accord, suggesting something more than what the author uses it to show. Meis achieves this tricky feat, and does so in large part because his book is really about, per Mulaney, how all of life works.

How humiliating, to write that last sentence—how pretentious, how arrogant! I can’t even imagine writing a whole book like The Drunken Silenus, but I’m glad Meis did. He’s willing to risk redundancy and pretentiousness, because he knows he has something worth risking them for. For all his casual displays of brilliance, his goal isn’t to introduce readers to stunning new ideas but to remind them of a depressing old idea: existence is long, painful, and pointless, and while art can do a lot to lessen the load, it can’t carry all of it. An unsexy point, which he makes very sexily.

Read the whole thing here. It’s fun.