Last Night by James Salter: “Bangkok”

One of the most interesting things about working my way through a collection of literary short stories has been the obviousness of the author’s ideological assumptions. Most of the short fiction I have read between now and the end of my schooling has been science fictional and genre writers have grown quite adept at cloaking any personal beliefs in a combination of irony, abstraction and re-iteration. The majority of genre authors may be left-wing but most of the genre’s tropes are right-wing and so you often have to pay attention to the background or the words of secondary characters in order to gain a glimpse of what the author actually believes. This type of deep-reading and second-guessing is not necessary in Salter’s fiction: His assumptions about the nature of the good life are right there in the foreground of everything he writes.

Like most people, Salter is clearly no monolith. His ideas about the benefits of passion vs. the benefits of emotional control wax and wane with every story and so a story like “Comet” can unambiguously champion the idea of a life devoted to hedonistic passion while “Eyes of the Stars”, “My Lord You” and “Give” can strike notes of caution. All of the stories in this collection are about the wealthy and middle-aged and most of these people are being quietly devoured by regret and yearning for that one moment where they might have given themselves over entirely to pleasure. Though occasionally dismissive and judgemental of the people who live under a cloud of permanent regret, Salter does try to sympathise with the people who simply aren’t capable of living that type of lifestyle. In fact, “Platinum” and “Palm Court” are both quite explicitly about the quasi-Darwinian forces that exclude the weak and un-committed from Salter’s idea of the good life.

I use terms like “weak” and “un-committed” advisedly as while Salter does recognise that not everyone is going to pursue his idea of the good life, he struggles to understand why anyone would turn their back on it except as a result of trauma or timidity. In fact, I am almost tempted to say that Last Night is Salter’s failed attempt to write his way into an understanding of people who value emotional stability over passion, hence the number of stories that turn out to be about regret.

In the comments to my piece about “Palm Court”, Brendan C. Byrne says:

I think it might be better considered as a pair with the following entry, “Bangkok”, another two-hander with the same themes, though more bare and bitter. Together they ruminate on the “lost” love which animates the man’s history but which seems far more slight to the woman, and what the return of the fetishized figure of the past creates (mostly just an unsuccessful challenge to the pathological).

I mostly agree with this reading but I think that it’s the bareness and bitterness of “Bangkok” that makes it the more interesting story of the two: “Bangkok” and “Palm Court” are both about a woman trying to rekindle a relationship that she once sabotaged and a man who refusing to commit to the demands of a passionate life and hating himself for it too. The difference between the two stories is that “Bangkok” strips away the narratives that the characters tell about themselves. This story is Last Night boiled down to a thick black paste, you take your shot at a life defined by amazing sex or you sit on the side-lines resenting your decision forever.

 

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The Girlfriend Experience (2009) – The Best Things In Life Aren’t Free

As anyone who has seen Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self (2002) documentary series will doubtless agree, one of the most important developments in 20th Century psychology was the creation, by Abraham Maslow, of the hierarchy of needs.  The hierarchy of needs is one part pop psychology, one part classical philosophy and one part mysticism.  It presents us with a series of levels to human flourishing.  If you can sort out survival then you can work on security.  If you become secure then you can work on your emotional health.  Once you have healthy relationships you can work on esteem and after esteem comes Self Actualisation.  The beauty of Maslow’s hierarchy as it is not only a model for the growth of the self, it is also a justification for a rigid class structure.  Not only must the poor struggle to feed themselves but the fact that they are struggling to feed themselves suggests that they’re somehow less evolved as people than the rich people who never worry about skipping a meal.  Indeed, Curtis suggests that Maslow’s hierarchy maps directly onto the advertising industry’s ABC model of class.  When you market at rich, successful people, you are also marketing at Self Actualised individuals and you should treat them as such.

Obviously, Maslow’s hierarchy is deeply flawed.  If you want an insight into how Self Actualised the poor can be then I urge you to go and see Martin Provost’s Seraphine (2008), a film about the creative life of Seraphine Louis who, until she found a patron, washed dirty linen and scrubbed floors in order to buy art supplies.  However, Maslow’s hierarchy does demonstrate how easy it is to start talking about relationships in very capitalistic terms.  This is an idea that is powerfully explored by Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience.

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‘Fuck you Pay me’ – Money and the Arts

A few months ago, The Guardian’s pet right-wing columnist Simon Jenkins wrote a piece about funding for the arts.  In his piece, Jenkins attacks the government for spending billions on high-end pieces of capital investment while the cut and thrust of British cultural life is mostly self-sustaining and subject to the laws of the marketplace.  Jenkins wants us to take away from his piece that British cultural life does not need state funding but what I take away from it is the fact that the government has failed to focus on the right thing.  A cultural life is not necessarily one based upon consumption of high-end artistic products such as the output of the Royal Opera House (which recently received a £2.4M recession bail out), but one based upon creation and participation.  Which would benefit the most people?  £2.4M so that the Royal Opera House can continue charging £60 instead of £80 for seats with only partial views of the stage or £2.4M for small theatre companies, amateur opera productions and magazines drawing attention to both?  Culture is something that is there to be participated in.  A healthy amateur scene not only gives future professionals a means of perfecting their crafts, it also makes it easier for people to try their hand at art and engage with it in a way other than through consumption.

The problem is that while scenes (whether they are theatrical, operatic, musical, artistic or anything else) are funded largely by good will, they do frequently depend upon people who demand rather more concrete remuneration than good will and social capital.  These demands create over-heads.  The higher the over-heads on artistic production, the greater the drain on good will.  This leads to higher ticket prices, expensive membership subscriptions and greater and greater demands upon those people who are willing to contribute for the good of the scene.  These demands are part of an attitude that can only be described as “Fuck you Pay Me”.

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