Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Interlude #2

This blog post is (sort of) a further reflection on some of the ideas shared in Interlude #1. 

I first heard of Nelsen Algren because of Dillinger Four, where he pops up in the words to DoubleWhiskeyCokeNoIce:

Nelson Algren came to me
And said celebrate the ugly things
The beat up side of what they call pride
Could be the measure of these days

If Dillinger Four liked Nelson Algren, I figured that he needed to go on the ‘to read list’. But it was a decade and a half later that I borrowed Never Come Morning off of a band mate, having had Algren pop up in some reading I’d been doing. I don’t want to spoil it for you by giving away the plot but Algren’s 1942 novel is one of the bleakest, nastiest things I’ve read in a while. The protagonists get fucked. Horribly. Obviously since I find grimness strangely cathartic, I was well into it.

But it’s the interview in the Seven Stories imprint that I want to talk about here, specifically a quote from Algren. I’m not really one for passages sticking with me, so this one was a novelty, a gem hidden in an otherwise forgettable interview from 1963:

Innocence is not just the lack of something. Innocence is an achieved thing. You can’t be unworldly without first being worldly. I mean anybody can be unworldly, I mean just duck the world. But to be innocent in the best sense is to have the kind of unworldliness that comes out of worldliness, to be able to see how people waste their whole lives just to have security (p.295).

I posted these lines on Facebook without really thinking them through and a friend replied, prompting a back and forth that amongst other things underlined the deliberateness of the words Algren speaks. Posting a quote on social media has the strange effect of decontexualising the words and gives them a life apart from the text they originally appeared so perhaps this is inevitable; not only is it apart from the original text, it’s also not like the people posting are sat on the bus flicking through sources when they reply on their smart phones. This is a useful observation in that it underlines how easy it is for those memes that float around forever with a couple of ‘meaningful’ lines nicked from something could be quoted out of context or against the authors intended meaning like I ended up doing by accident.

Nonetheless ‘innocence’ is not the first word that springs to mind in the final line in particular – ‘wise’ or ‘wary’ make more sense. I wouldn’t pretend to really know what Algren means by this word (the interviewer acknowledges that he’s hard to pin down on this) and I wouldn’t pretend to be well read when it comes to his work. I’m also not a theologian or any other an, ism or ist who might have some sort of informed handle on the meaning of ‘innocence’. It’s not much of a revelation then if I reveal that I found myself pulling interpretations about why these lines are quote-worthy out of my ass...


Starting with the obvious, innocence is a minority position – to be innocent in the terms posed is an “achieved thing” and therefore presumably not something easily obtained. I would argue as well that by describing it as an achievement, in its “best sense,” innocence is something to be considered positive. Finally it sits in a vague contrast to wage labour, at least in its worst form, by having the power to see through “ people waste their whole lives just to have security.”

 If innocence is thought of in terms of naivety, then there could be a sort of tragic aspect to the quote. If worldliness is equated to having tried to get by doing something against ones nature and being experienced enough to move away from this, then innocent-as-naive means coming out the other side with the belief that another way is possible. It is unworldliness in the sense of a faith in another world and being of that other (better?) world.

Naivety is not automatically a bad thing – perhaps a certain amount of naivety is a required to try to live a different life than the secure one the innocent considers a “waste”. If we knew how difficult a path that could be, if the difficulty and failure was really understood, would we start to walk it with the same sincerity? Is it possible under a totalizing capitalism to sustain a consistently radical life at all? If this innocence was ‘lost’, would it become clear that the alternative route taken was a stitch up too? This negative interpretation feels true to the novel and the protagonists’ naive dreams of escape, although here it’s firmly in terms of personal rebellion/redemption rather than any revolutionary aspirations. It’s tragic in the sense of running towards a fire exit that’s bricked up.  

Taken to a logical extreme, the implications of this are fucking terrible - a kind of paradox where the choice is between knowing how life is wasted on false solutions and doing it anyway or looking for another way to live that ultimately is equally pointless but you just don’t know it yet. It’s knowingly wasting your time versus wasting it unknowingly, doing something hopeless knowing it’s hopeless versus doing it with false hope. This ultra-bleak reading seemingly puts the innocent outside of “ people waste their whole lives...” but it’s a false outside.



Since this is meant to be a blog about hardcore punk, let’s bring this back to DIY in its most radical sense. This interpretation seems to dovetail nicely with the academic concept of “productive failures” I referred in my previous post. It’s pessimistic and ideologically charged argument to proclaim there is no ‘outside’ of capitalism, the attractions of post-modernism not-withstanding. Certainly it won’t be found as a form of practice unless it’s searched for. Since I’m not super smart and I can’t be bothered to read any more right now, I also don’t understand how acts where different logic prevails fit into this argument, like all those Facebook Events promising that no one will be turned away for lack of funds. This seems to me to overtly challenge the underlying logic of profit-is-the-bottom-line/if-you-can’t-afford-it-fuck-off neoliberalism, albeit using a platform that seems more evil every day and in a venue that’s probably a profit making space. Is this just marking the limits of what can be currently done? COMPLEX.

It’s also important to remember that many critics of capitalism either try to live up to its demands and find them impossible or are hobbled from the start – it’s not always a choice position. Hope that fails is better than no-hope that doesn’t try, perhaps not materially but certainly in terms of the quality of how our lives are lived. If we only get one shot, might as well make it an interesting one. Regardless, no one’s going to find a better way of doing things unless they try and we might as well get tinnitus whilst we do it.

Of course, this reading assumes that we’re trying to tear down capitalism. The moving beyond meaningless labour could equally apply to setting up a vegan cafe (for example) and the naivety that this would be easy to do and always more enjoyable than a life of office temping. Naivety as positive is also an interesting inversion of infantilisation – if this means belittling radical ideas as ‘childish’, then this reading of innocence counters it by suggesting that a degree of naivety is needed to see an alternative path beyond a dissatisfying “security”.

Algren, meanwhile, thought he was talking about getting fucked over by Hollywood.  

 (Normal service will resume next month).