Richard Kostelanetz > Article: A Book of Kostis

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A Book of Kostis

Richard Kostelanetz  141 Wooster Street  New York, NY USA 10012-3163

CITIZEN RICHARD, designed by the author

Running approximately 200 pages, the book should have 
passages comparable to the following selections, yet divided into 
several categories, including Art, Literature, Autobiography, 
Sociology, Politics).  I prefer to develop an original design for 
such a collection, preferring, for instance, blocks of type in 
different typefaces and different sizes, perhaps with different 
widths, to the conventional form of a succession of horizontal 
lines. One implicit ambition, which will I hope be noticed, is 
revolutionizing the Look of such compilations.  I see no need to 
identify the original sources of the quotations, as each should 
stand on its own, apart from any reference.

   I'm little interested in what I already know, and not at all 
   interested in what everybody knows.

   It now seems clear that three distinct groups of people--
   generations, if you will--spent most of their twenties in the 
   sixties.  The first graduated from college before 1960, the 
   second matriculated afterwards; and the third consists of those 
   between, like myself, who were probably in college at the 
   turning date.

   Anyone who was at all idiosyncratic, which is to say conscious, 
   in 1960 can remember, I'm sure, his classmates and/or 
   teachers advising that his waywardness would be a handicap 
   in the "outside world"; yet most of these "nonconformists" 
   discovered, within a few years, that the society outside was far 
   more cordial than the imprisonment of school.  These 
   idiosyncracies often turned keys to unanticipated possibilities 
   and discoveries, as well as "education," that continued well into our late twenties.  Those of us who took the leap above convention often realized plateaus beyond our wildest dreams--not only could I write a piece of long prose, but I liked it, and it was published, and a book quickly followed, etc.; and the speed at which yet more possibilities were revealed, and then possessed, never ceased to amaze me.

   What distinguishes [Twenties in the Sixties, 1979] is the 
   comprehensiveness of its radicalisms--not just in politics and 
   esthetics but literary politics too.

   Our views of national destiny and war, bureaucracy and wealth,
   chastity and education, choice and necessity, etc., were formed
   by this experience of abundance, increasingly diverging from 
   those of our scarcity-minded elders, and this difference became 
   the root of the much-noticed "generation gap."  We assumed 
   that jobs would always be easily available and thus, 
   unconcerned about our "prospects," assumed courageous risks 
   without question or compromise.  By mid-decade, most of us 
   found the emerging anti-authoritarian optimism more congenial 
   than not, and identified, however vicariously, with the 
   unemployable hippies, the fans joyously amassed at the great 
   rock festivals, the protestors at Columbia and even Chicago; for
   it seemed that, reservations notwithstanding,"the kids" 
   represented us, both emotionally and intellectually.

   Much of my critical writing confronts the problem of "the new" at 
   a time when the most interesting culture continues to be avant-
   garde in more ways than one, for a key theme of Twenties in 
   the Sixties, as well as other works of mine, is change--not only 
   in art but thought, not just in subject or "content" but form.

   To an extent that would have been inconceivable before 1960, 
   we chose to sample extremes, just to see what might happen; 
   and this riskiness was founded less upon any self-
   destructiveness than an optimistic faith that whatever we did 
   would somehow "work out."  As children of prosperity, we knew 
   that setbacks were temporary and that even "failure," if 
   anticipated and acknowledged, could represent "success."  
   This preference for energy over measure partially accounts for 
   the great shifts in popular taste--away from slick pop music to 
   heavy rock, away from baseball and basketball to football and 
   hockey, away from above-ground movies to the "underground," 
   away from alcohol to drugs and then to amphetamines over 
   hallucinogens, and these increasingly popular dark pasttimes 
   shaped in turn the emerging consciousnes of yet younger 

   It has also been clear to me that, notwithstanding the necessity 
   of debunking, the prime task of truly contemporary criticism is 
   defining order in the superficial chaos of unprecedented cultural

   Shooting film is terribly boring, especially for a writer 
   accustomed to controlling his own time, because you spend 
   most of your day sitting around and waiting for everyone else to
   get his thing organized.  I don't ever want to do that again.

   It's practically impossible for a serious writer [in America] to set
   fixed prices on his work, because magazines pay such varying 
   rates.  So I've hit upon this principle: "From each according to 
   his means," which is to say that if theperiodical can pay, I'd like 
   as much as everyone else.  If they can't, I canusually be 
   conned into taking nothing more than a few contributor's copies.
   I estimate that most of my magazine publishing has been gratis
   --especially of my creative work.  Even when I get paid, the 
   money is rarely worth the time and effort--by standards of the 
   U.S. minimum wage; and my anthologies have not been 
   profitable either.  The real rewards and pleasures--and even 
   the vanities--of serious writing have little, if anything, to do with 

   I'm not really "free-lance," if I can be picky, because my 
   services are not for hire.  I rarely do anything on an editor's 
   suggestion--even journalism--in part because it takes more time
   to research an unfamiliar subject and then think about it 
   profoundly, but mostly because the ideas of another person 
   invite compromise, less of my integrity, than of my initial 
   purposes.  Almost everything I've written--from reviews through 
   essays and books--was done on my own initiative.

   As for overarching ideas, I think you'll find a recurring concern 
   with doing what has not been done before--as a critic and a 
   historian, and perhaps as a poet and fiction writer too; and this
   ideal would echo a predominant theme of my critical writing.  I 
   also try not to do any job that someone else can do better, and 
   if I'm asked to do a writing or editing project, my first questionis
   whether or not it really belongs, so to speak, to someone else.  
   And if it does, I'll offer it to him.  I've given away all sorts of 
   assignments, including several I originally initiated.

   What we call "absurd literature" embodies a very specific 
   literary convention: a series of absurd--that is, nonsensical or 
   ridiculous--events that suggest the ultimate absurdity, or 
   meaninglessness, of human existence.  At the end of Ionesco's 
   The Chairs, a particularly neat model of the convention, a hired 
   lecturer addresses a nonexistent audience in an indecipherable
   tongue. This is the absurd surface.  Since the lecturer's 
   message is supposed to represent the final wisdom of a ninety-
   five-year-old couple, the meaningless message becomes an 
   effective symbol for metaphysical void.

   The double paradox is that even anti-art inevitably reveals the 
   influence of previous arts, as well as creates esthetic examples 
   that shape future art. Perhaps because the ideas informing 
   Dada were in essence quite simple, although original and 
   unfamiliar to both art historians and most artists, its impact 
   upon functioning creative intelligences was liable to be both 
   quicker and more subliminal than the complex thought of, say, 
   Wittgenstein's philosophy or contemporary physics; thus, I 
   suspect that the Dada spirit has probably infiltrated all 
   contemporary minds whose sensibility were susceptible, 
   slipping, for instance, into the fiction of writers only dimly aware 
   of the original work.

   On second thought, however, this particular formulation of 
   unfettered possibility ["there really exist no limits upon the kinds 
   of fiction that can be put between two covers"] now strikes me 
   as needlessly conservative, if not compromised, in one crucial 
   respect; for if limits exist not to be respected but exceeded, why
   should fictions, even those created out of words, necessarily be
   printed on paper of uniform size and bound between covers? 
   And why should a writer piously accept the convention that all 
   his words be printed in type of the same size and style and then
   laid in evenly measured and modulated greylines?  Why should
   a work of imagination necessarily have a discernible beginning 
   and an equally definite end?  Why could not a narrative be 
   framed on a continuous sheet of paper wound, say, between 
   two rollers printed not perpendicularly, like the Torah, but in 
   lines parallel to the spindles' shafts?  Could not a writer create 
   a room rull of words cunningly chosen, expressively designed, 
   resonantly arranged, and artfully draped, that would evoke the 
   coherence of both enviromental art and literature?  (Maybe 
   such an environmental fiction could be mass-produced or 
   "published" on screens that the purchasing "reader" could then 
   circulate to his taste around his own home.)

   Like most prolific writers, I have more outlines and drafts in my 
   files than I could possibly finish, and I feel an intense and 
   steady internal pressure toget it all down and out.  Perhaps 
   because there is so much I could write, I simply can't afford to 
   start and then finish anything that does not fulfill a personal 
   commitment and perhaps a sense of cultural necessity.  My 
   major problem now is getting enough publishers to support the 
   projects I want to do most.