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The Good, the Bad, the Ugly of Charles Bukowski


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The Good the Bad and the Ugly of Charles Bukowski
For the multitude of works yielded and published and his reputation as the underground mystic of contemporary culture, one would expect his works to have attracted greater scholarly attention and an inclusion within the canon a certainty. However, most likely to the delight of the maverick poet, this was not the case. Bukowski’s work was deeply individualistic and sought not to pander to any crowds, conventional or non conformist. Akin to Sigmund Freud’s description of the artist, the writing was the channel for a clamorous and arguably perverse soul.
While the form of his writing subverted literary trends, Bukowski, as Harrison puts it, “is the only major post-War American writer who has denied the efficacy of the American Dream”. His disillusionment with such ideals of consumerism and family is largely attributable to a nightmarish upbringing in LA, a feature which implicitly resonates through all his work. Ham on Rye, dampens the extremities Bukowski suffered through his sardonic sense of humour, though is still very much characterized by derision for others, isolation, the wrath of the father, the toils of school and work, a horrifying case of acne vulgaris and the birth of his chronic alcoholism. The one light which bypassed such burdens was his discovery of the LA public library which sculpted his literary voice. He shunned traditional literary lore for darker more cynical texts wrought in emotion rather than pretence. In the preface to Ask the Dust by John Fante, Bukowski remarks the moment he encountered the text he was “like a man who had found gold in the city dump”. Writing from the 1st person, Fante documents the struggles in becoming a writer in LA through the psyche of an alter ego, Arturo Bandini, mirroring Bukowski’s doppelganger Hank Chinaski. This coupled with an existential sensibility triggered by authors such as Sartre and Dostoyevsky, inspired and permitted Bukowski to write freely and unapologetically.
It is this no holds barred mode of writing which makes Bukowski susceptible to the critics. Among the writer’s bevy of work is alleged hypocrisy, a lack of morality, misanthropy, misogyny, cynicism, the appraisal of alcohol and the refusal to work. Though one must take heed of the context he was writing from, these vices hamper his induction into the lineage of ‘great’ American writers. In tribute to Factotum and Post Office, he was cited as the voice of the proletariat, though the misanthropy ostensibly present in poems such as ‘the masses’ (Septuagenarian Spew) and ‘the genius of the crowd’ (The Roominghouse Madrigals) can undo such a statement. In the masses we see an uncharacteristic Social Darwinist approach describing the less fortunate as “totally unappetizing”…“cowardly and placid”…“swarming the earth with their grievances, their hatred” deserved of their fate. The genius of the crowd, on the other hand, does not reflect the dispossessed, but is a foreshadowing of the hatred and delusions capable in every individual: “There is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average/ human being to supply any given army on any given day”. This scepticism has the aptitude of offending many and his disengagement from the “crowd” could be conceived as elitist or self serving. However, is this not the function of the artist, the merciless observer of the surroundings? Bukowski’s tendency to explore and amplify unpleasant areas of human behaviour may cause offence to the cultural watchdogs of delicate sensibilities though for the urbanised disenfranchised living from the bottom his voice channels their constant plight. His misanthropic tendencies do not stem from an inherent loathing for people but culture. Julian Smith sees a satire critique running through all of Bukowski’s work of “capitalism, bourgeois morality and conventional culture”. His scorn for authority figures and conformity is typified in Ham on Rye, a semi autobiographical depiction of childhood which may excuse the belligerence which follows in his later life. Despite being espoused as a beacon for leftwing counter culture, a young Hank Chinaski demonstrates his resistance to authority in his tongue in cheek support of Nazism. Ham on Rye presents his endorsement as a reaction to the “white gentiles” who mindlessly condemn the Germans out of, according to Harrison, “a majority acceptance for liberal ideas”. As alluded to in “The Genius of the Crowd”, Bukowski was watchful of the self-seeking motives of the individual and therefore wary of the preachers of ideology. This insolence and apathy to idealism is however not reciprocated later on in the book Women, where Bukowski appears to endorse morality. “Morals were restrictive, but they were grounded on human experience down through the centuries. Some morals tended to keep people slaves in factories, in churches and true to the State. Other morals simply made good sense. It was like a garden filled with poisoned fruit and good fruit”. Though skeptical of the state, the myth of a morally reckless Chinaski living life on a whim is substituted for a man, who, with the cushion of financial security has developed a sensitive less brooding outlook to life. Ironically this arises out of shame after the series of sexual exploits he indulges in, coined by Bukowski as “research”.
Renowned for his obscenities and raucous humour, Bukowski and took freedom of expression to a new level. Writing from the social, economic and cultural milieu of downtown LA, Mardigan posits that Bukowski was concerned with “lives of rancorous desperation” which “condone – perhaps glorify – drug use, alcoholism, misanthropy”. In keeping in line artistic responsibility, the high brow scholars of the Norton Anthology of English Literature are cautious inducting such sensationalist content since it could be ethically wrong to thrust such profanity onto people.

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