Category Archives: Criticism

Choosing Optimism

Photo credit: Daniel Shumway

I haven’t been writing much lately, even though Heaven knows I have the time for it these days. I suppose the main reason is because I haven’t had anything positive to say for a couple of weeks. The political outlook, as well as the growing realization that social distancing will become the new norm for the next three to five years, has taken its toll on my usual optimism.

Having said that, I have to add that I must be the most cautious optimist who ever walked the earth. Several years ago, when my mother was facing a fairly dire medical diagnosis, I told my daughter that until there was definitive proof of it, I would continue to hope for the best. Granted, this was a conscious choice on my part; like everyone else, I can always see the worst possibilities, but on this occasion, I had deliberately decided not to panic. “After all,” I added, “I have absolutely nothing to lose by being an optimist.” Immediately after the words came out of my mouth, I started to laugh; I could not think of a more pessimistic way of expressing my optimism. It’s almost as if I was some mashup of Ernie and Bert, of Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore, existing in the same body at the same time.

(Incidentally, I turned out to be right: my mother was misdiagnosed and recovered, but not before a young doctor, visiting her in her hospital room on his rounds, said to her, “You’re doing so much better! And you’re looking very good for a woman who is 70 years old.” My mother smiled and replied, “Thank you! Actually, I’m 80 years old.” He checked her chart and nodded. “Yes, so you are. Well, you’re looking quite good, aren’t you!” It must have cost my mother a bit to have answered him in that way, because she’s self conscious about her age, but I assume the temptation to put the young doc in his place was simply too great for her to resist.)

This is simply a long-winded way of saying that I often don’t write for this blog unless I’m either outraged or optimistic, and I’ve been neither for the past week or so. But now I think I have something good, something positive, to offer my readers–whoever you may be. It’s not entirely good, but it’s a sunny day today, after several days of wintry weather, and for the moment, at least, I’m able to see some bright spots in our landscape.

It comes in a bad news/good news package. So, here’s the bad news: we’ve tanked our economy, globally, because of Covid-19, trashing productivity, jeopardizing livelihoods, causing mass unemployment. And now, here’s the good news: we’ve tanked our economy, globally, because of Covid-19. How is that good? Think of it this way: whatever happens from here on out, we should never forget that we were willing to sacrifice a great deal, perhaps as much as any generation has ever sacrificed in so short a time, not for a war, but to protect segments of our population that we might ordinarily never even consider: the aged, the infirm, the immunocompromised. This is remarkable–so remarkable, in fact, that we might think this kind of altruism has never happened before in the history of humankind.

But if we did think this, we’d be wrong, because it has. Over and over again.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said she considered the earliest sign of civilization to be a healed femur, because it demonstrated that compassion and caring existed within a society, since it takes at least six weeks for the thighbone to heal, and during that time the injured person would be totally dependent on others for his or her survival. And, despite our modern tendency to believe, along with Thomas Hobbes, that life in a natural state must be “nasty, brutish, and short,” we are gaining more and more evidence of the existence of compassion in prehistoric human societies. For example, anthropologists have discovered that Neanderthals cared for injured people, nursing them into old age–and this despite other infirmities that would have precluded their useful contributions to the group.

Like many other people, I’ve been taught that nature was a rough business, and that only the fittest survive. Americans especially have been nurtured on that old chestnut, it seems, even before Darwin’s theories were misappropriated and twisted to create Social Darwinism. We’ve been taught to see the world in this way because it fits our view of ourselves as “rugged individuals” who conquer the environment and make their own destiny. But the era in which this view has held sway is about to end, I hope, and we have Covid-19 to thank for its demise.

One thing we have to understand is that, Hollywood blockbusters and dystopian fiction notwithstanding, disasters don’t always bring out the worst in people; in fact, much of the time, they bring out the very best in humans, as many theorists have pointed out. At least in the early stages of disasters, people tend to act rationally and altruistically. In the last two months, many of us have seen heroic and caring actions performed by people in our neighborhoods and communities. It’s these things we need to focus on, I’d argue, hard as it may be when we are supplied with a never-ending supply of fear and anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m both afraid and anxious. I should, to be honest, add a few more adjectives to the mix: terrified, frustrated, angry, sad, antsy, hysterical. But I am learning to fight against the media, and perhaps my own nature, which has learned to feed on bad news and fear. In fact, this blog post is just my way of sharing my most recent discovery about the way we live now: We have been spoon-fed bad news for so long now that we are addicted to it. Like the teenager who loves to ride the scariest roller coasters or watch the most terrifying horror flicks, we want to scare ourselves with stories of the disasters that lie ahead of us, of tragedies waiting to jump out at us. Fear, it turns out, is just as thrilling in a news report as it is in a terrifying ride which we cannot get off of. I will leave it to another blogger, or to my readers (please comment below!), to explain why fear is so compelling and addictive. My point for now is that many of us cannot do without such fear; it has become, in the last ten years especially, part of the fabric of our lives now.

But it is dangerous to give in to our addiction to fear in the form of news reports and dire projections about the future, for at least two reasons. First, such reports and predictions may be wrong. Media reporting of human behavior in disasters often is wrong, concentrating on the bad rather than the good. Murder and mayhem sells: “if it bleeds, it leads,” according to an old journalistic saw. Second, these dark views, in addition to their potential inaccuracy, feed our desire for the negative, which I’d argue exists in all of us, even the most optimistic of us. If we think of this desire as an addiction, perhaps we can begin to see the danger of it and wean ourselves off of our negative viewpoints. We may not be more productive (and the very nature of productivity will be questioned and redefined in the coming years, I’d guess), but we may be happier, more satisfied, and ready to work hard to create a better world than the one that lies in shambles around us. After all, we have nothing to lose by being optimists about the future.

Of course, the challenges that face us are enormous, perhaps greater than any other generation has faced. And I don’t always feel optimistic about the likelihood that we can change things substantially. But I know that change is possible, although admittedly it sometimes comes at a great cost. And I know as well that in order to create necessary changes, the work must start well before they actually occur, sometimes centuries before. In other words, we must often imagine the possibility for change long before we can expect to effect it. (This kind of imagining, after all, is exactly what Virginia Woolf does so beautifully at the end of A Room of One’s Own in regard to women’s writing.) In other words, incremental change is likely just as valuable as actual change, though it is often invisible, swimming just below the surface of current events. Without it, real change could never occur.

So I will just end by referring you to the last scene of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece of satire, The Great Dictator (1940, though begun in 1937), in which he makes fun of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Chaplin reportedly ad-libbed this speech he gave as the Hitler lookalike, which is perhaps why it rings as true now as it did 70 years ago, when the world was facing another catastrophe, one which it survived and continues to learn from to this day. Take a look at it and see if it makes you feel just a little bit better as you face the future that lies ahead.

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Miscellaneous Musings, Politics

Inappropriate Songs from the Past (brought to you by SiriusXM Radio)

BennyGoodmanandBandStageDoorCanteen

By Film screenshot – Stage Door Canteen film, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1194330

I am a fairly devoted listener of ’40s Junction, a channel on Sirius Radio that plays songs from the 1940s–except when they don’t. (To my lasting fury and frustration, I discovered this year that the station ceases its normal operations on November 1 and, for the next six weeks, plays “holiday music.” Now, I don’t know if the program managers decided that the people who listen to 1940s music are the same ones who enjoy endless Christmas carols, but if anyone from Sirius is reading this, here’s a hint: they aren’t.) One thing I’ve found out by listening to ’40s Junction is that  if one listens long enough, one can discover some real gems. I mean, we all know “Blues in the Night,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” and “String of Pearls,” but occasionally this station plays some songs I’ve never heard of, despite living in a certifiable time warp for my entire life. And so today I’m taking a break from politics and pessimism to discuss four of these little oddities from the past, complete with YouTube links, so that you can listen to them and judge for yourself. Above all, I’m curious about my readers’ reactions to these songs, so please do leave your comments on some or all of these songs.

I will start out with a song that has a catchy rhythm and some very interesting lyrics: “The Lady from 29 Palms.” It seems to have been recorded in 1946 or so, and there is an interesting reference to the explosive attraction of the lady in question, who is compared to “a load of atom bombs,” which, coming so soon after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is highly insensitive, to say the least. Yet it has a great sax line in the beginning, and with its really clever rhymes, I’d say this is a song that’s worth listening to.

Next on my list is a very odd little song that shocked me when I first heard it. Unlike “The Lady from 29 Palms,” “Who’s Yahoodi” is famous enough to have its own Wikipedia entry, which certainly  bears checking out. Hop over there, and you can read about the song’s origins on the Bob Hope Radio Program, when announcer Jerry Colonna got tickled as he introduced one of Hope’s guests, the young violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin. Colonna made fun of the name, continued his joke through later programs, and eventually, it became a popular meme, although memes hadn’t been invented yet.  In 1940, songwriters Bill Seckler and Matt Dennis made a song out of it. The U.S. Navy also got some mileage out of the situation, naming one of its research programs “Project Yehudi.” I’ve linked to the Cab Calloway version, but there are several other versions, including an astoundingly antisemitic one (I know–the whole thing’s kind of antisemitic, but this version is really takes the cake). As with “The Lady from 29 Palms,” the song itself is catchy, with the kind of finger-snapping rhythm that makes tunes from this era so appealing. In addition, the song’s many references to secretive, spooky people who are there, but not there remind me of those Dr. Who beings, the Silence, who watch and influence human events, but are never seen by humans. Added to these odd but intriguing lyrics, there’s some enjoyable big-band music, with the necessary saxophone solos and brass rhythms creating a memorable song. How it disappeared is a mystery–unless, of course, the Silence got involved in the whole thing and wiped it from our collective memories.

The next two songs are about body-shaming. In a way, I’m surprised they found their way on the air at all in the present day, given the changing climate and hyper-awareness about body images we’ve seen in recent years. The first, “Lean Baby,” was recorded by Frank Sinatra and was very popular. But the Dinah Washington version is even better, so you should check that one out, too. Clever yet brutal lyrics make the song interesting, and once again the music is quite catchy. On the flip side of this “appreciation” of thinness is “Mr. Five-by-Five,” arguably the most successful of the songs I’ve mentioned here. At least seven singers have recorded versions of it, the most recent one in a 2013 movie (Gangster Squad), according to its Wikipedia entry. Here’s a version by Ella Mae Morse recorded in 1942. Again, there are some devilishly funny lyrics that, inappropriate as they are, make you laugh out loud–if you’re by yourself.

So, readers, what do you think about these four songs? Politically incorrect, a fascinating trip down memory lane, historical footnotes, or just oddities? I’m not sure what to make of them, but I am grateful that they are preserved, inappropriate or not, for us to listen to, consider, and critique them. So, thanks, Sirius Radio, for the memories–even if I have to put up with two months of Christmas music to get them.

 

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Filed under Criticism, culture, History, Music, The Arts

Ecohats

Chief Petoskey sporting an Ecohat in Petoskey, Michigan.

 

We are facing an ecological emergency, and too little is being done to address the consequences of climate change. As individuals, our actions may seem inadequate. Yet every action, however small, can lead to something bigger. Change comes only as a result of collective will, and we can demonstrate that will by showing that we desire immediate political, social, and economic action in the face of global climate change.

Ecohats are not a solution, but they are a manifestation of will made public. Based on the pussyhat, a public display of support for women’s rights, Ecohats display support for immediate political action to address the need for systemic change to deal with climate change. They are easy to create; simply knit, crochet, or sew a hat in any shade of green to show your support for the people and organizations that are dedicated to addressing the issue of climate change, then wear it or display it with pride and dedication.

We can’t all be Greta Thunberg, but we can show our support for those people and organizations that are tirelessly working to address climate change, like  Citizens’ Climate Lobby, 350.org, Center for Biological Diversity, and others.

Please consider making, wearing, and displaying an Ecohat to show your support!

 

Ernest Hemingway is also wearing an Ecohat!

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Environment, Environmentalism, Politics, Teaching

Against Cynicism

scout and the mob

 

Like many other people, I have been very worried about the direction we’re going–not just the United States, but the world in general. Populism–which in its most innocuous form is little more than cheering for the home team but which can be so much more insidious and damaging–is on the rise, and partisanship seems to have infiltrated many western governments, causing us to question the efficacy of democracy itself. Couple this with the imminence of climate change, and the future of human civilization seems dire indeed.

So I understand why many of us might live in a state of worry, of fearful suspense. I know how it feels to wake up each morning, wondering what new terrible thing has happened while I slept, and how it feels to wait impatiently for the slow-moving wheels of democratic rule to right themselves, and to hope for a period in which government works for its citizenry rather than for corporations and billionaires. I, too, have lost hope at times, allowing myself to be convinced that the struggle against injustice and oligarchy is fruitless; like so many other people, I have frequently succumbed to cynicism and inertia, telling myself that any action is doomed to failure.

But that attitude is wrong. I know that now. More importantly, I feel it’s my duty to lead a crusade against this type of cynicism, even if I do so all by myself.

If you’re reading this blog post, excellent. We can work together. On the other hand, if this essay slips unacknowledged into cyberspace, read by no one at all, so be it–that doesn’t matter. The struggle is important, and it must be waged, even if by only one person, and even if I myself am that person. What follows, then, is my small own contribution in the war on cynicism–my manifesto, if you like.

The time for idle anger is over. The time for pessimism is past. We do not have the luxury to sit back and watch knowingly as the world falls apart, nodding as we say, “Of course, we always knew it would be this way. The system is rigged.” Whether it is or is not rigged is beside the point. This is a question that can be debated by future historians, much like the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Saints and scholars can debate such a question; they have that luxury. But we no longer have the luxury to debate whether government is or is not effective. We have to act, and we have to act now, if we want to save our way of life.

And actions start with beliefs, primarily the belief that when we act, our actions have effects. I believe–rather, I know, with certainty–that they do have effects. At the local level, our actions, indeed, our mere presence at meetings and councils do have an effect; I have seen this demonstrated in the past year in my role as a city councilmember. Government, at least at the most local level, works–but only if we work hard at it by electing the right people and by holding them accountable. In short, democracy is not compatible with either cynicism or complacency; yet throughout much of the last generation, our citizenry has been guilty of both these things.

Why? Because cynicism is easy. Cynicism is seductive. Cynicism is cool–so cool, in fact, that many voters in 2016 agreed that “draining the swamp” was the best thing going for a candidate who had no other ideas or attractions. So here is my advice: do not give in to the lure of cynicism. It leads nowhere but to the self, to an inflated view of one’s own cleverness and perception, to a self-satisfied egocentrism that congratulates itself on seeing the worst at all times, in all places. 

Close to the climax of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch prevents a lynching from happening merely by demonstrating her own naive lack of cynicism. As the crowd of angry white men encircles Atticus, who is guarding the innocent Tom Robinson in his cell, Scout does more than anyone else to quell the murderous mob and send it home. Her simple, naive words, her attempt to connect with Mr. Cunningham on a human and neighborly level, represent a belief in innate goodness and the power of community, and  it is just enough to disarm a group of angry men bent on taking the life of an innocent African-American man. (Click here to watch this pivotal scene; my apologies for the commercial at the beginning.)

That Tom Robinson ends up dying at the end of the novel for a crime he didn’t commit is part of To Kill a Mockingbird’s tragic impact. As readers, perhaps we can be cynical about that tragic message; but as actors, as characters in our own human drama and, most of all, as real-life community members, we cannot afford such cynicism. We must be like Scout if we want to survive.

Reader, I implore you: give up your cynicism. Today, I ask you to believe in something grander than your own cleverness in discovering the duplicity of others, and to act in good faith, even though no discernible good may come out of your actions in your lifetime. Be naive, if you have to. But say good-bye to cynicism today, this minute. I am certain the generation that comes after us will thank you for it.

 

 

 

 

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An Unexpected Masterpiece: Felix Holt

Turducken_quartered_cross-section

Turducken–Image from Wikipedia

 

One of the joys of being a retired English professor is that you never really leave your work behind: you just leave all the parts of it that aren’t that much fun. This means that while I don’t have to grade papers or go to pointless committee meetings, I still get to do what inspired me to go to graduate school in the first place: read.

And I do read–a lot. I read all sorts of things, but of course my favorite thing to read is (guess what) Victorian novels. I have taken a lot of pleasure in re-reading the Victorian novels that I studied in depth, like David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, but there is a special sort of pleasure in discovering a new favorite novel. It’s like finding a new star hidden in a constellation you’ve looked at for years, or in a more mundane manner of speaking, like finding that lost sock that went missing in the last load of wash you did.

My lost sock is, to mix metaphors, a turducken of a Victorian novel. We all know that George Eliot is probably the most brilliant of the Victorian novelists; if we didn’t, we have Virginia Woolf declaring, in her autocratic way, that Middlemarch is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” (The Common Reader, “George Eliot”). We also have New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead’s take on the novel in her book My Life in Middlemarch, which apparently qualified her to write a nice essay on the book in the magazine.

But then there are the Eliot works that are too seldom read these days: Romola, Scenes of Clerical Life, Daniel Deronda. And who among us has actually read Felix Holt, the Radical? I confess that I have had a copy of it on my bookshelf since 1999, yet I never opened it until last week. I am thankful that I did, because I now think it’s one of the best Victorian novels I’ve read, despite the fact that, according to Wikipedia, it is one of the least popular of Eliot’s novels–so unpopular, in fact, that although it would make a fantastic mini-series (PBS or BBC, are you listening?), the last time it was adapted for film was in 1915. Yes, 1915.

What makes the novel so wonderful are not just some fantastic statements that are eminently quotable, although the book does contain a couple of real gems. Here is one, from the Introduction:

“Posterity may be shot, like a bullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure from Winchester to Newcastle: that is a fine result to have among our hopes; but the slow old-fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other is the better thing to have in the memory. The tube-journey can never lend much to picture and narrative; it is as barren as the exclamatory O!”

Eliot goes on to explain that it is a slow, surface journey that allows the traveler to see and experience the varieties of life, not a quick, subterranean (we might add “aerial” here) journey. How prescient Eliot must have been to have seen what would happen to travel in the next generations, to have understood the way in which “getting there” is no longer fun or important. She makes us understand that the saying “it’s the journey that counts, not the destination” refers only to some kind of moral or experiential journey, and sadly, no longer a real, actual one.

Here is another famous quote, from Chapter 3, in which Eliot displays a remarkable sensitivity to social life:

“…there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life, from the time when the primeval milkmaid had to wander with the wanderings of her clan, because the cow she milked was one of a herd that had made the pastures bare.”

The insight revealed in this novel is remarkable, but these selected quotations are not the chief strengths of Felix Holt. What is absolutely amazing to me is that in this one book Eliot combines a variety of different Victorian novels and still manages to create an incredibly good story, one which pulls you back to it day after day because you cannot wait to find out how the characters will respond to the events they become caught up in.

Here’s a simple way of putting it: In George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (ironically, we are halfway through the book before we realize that Felix Holt is no Radical), we find a turducken of a novel, one which combines and recombines aspects of several different subgenres of the 19th-century novel, fitting many novels, miraculously, into one organic whole. For example, we see the re-education of Esther Lyon, in a Mansfield Park (Jane Austen) narrative; we have the political machinations that are redolent of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels; we have the emphasis on hidden secrets and parentage, on madness and eccentricity that Dickens loved to play with; we are treated to a look at a kind of Orientalism, which is worthy of Wilkie Collins; and we have a legal plot about long-hidden heirs and family trusts that blends both Trollope and Dickens with Thomas Hardy. And at the center of it all, we find a difficult love story, starring Esther Lyon and Felix Holt, who are clearly borrowed from some of Sir Walter Scott’s best romances.

With all these things going on, you’d think this would be a mess of a novel, but Eliot is a master craftsman, and she manages to create a wonderful story from these disparate threads, replete with excellent character depictions and some memorable scenes. In short, this is a fine novel, probably just as good as Middlemarch, and quite a bit shorter. It deserves to be read. I certainly wish I hadn’t waited almost 20 years to read it, but I’m very glad I finally have.

So go out and get a copy and read it. Or, if you want, you can always wait for the BBC Miniseries to air. Julian Fellowes or Emma Thompson, it’s time for you to get to work on the script!

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Filed under Criticism, Historical Fiction, Literature, Reading, Victorian Novel

Six Rules for Reading (and Enjoying) Julius Caesar

I have always assumed that the best example of my argument that most people get Shakespeare plays all wrong would be Romeo and Juliet. But I have to admit I was mistaken. In fact, I think it is safe to posit that no other Shakespeare play is so maligned and misunderstood as Julius Caesar.

I think this is largely due to the way we teach the play in the United States. Of course, because we do teach the play in high school, Julius Caesar has always gotten tremendous exposure: almost everyone I’ve met has been forced to read the play during their high school career. In fact, I think it’s still on high school reading lists today. But that’s probably also exactly why it’s so misunderstood.

I’m not blaming high school teachers, because by and large they’re told to teach these plays without any adequate preparation. I suppose if anyone deserves blame, it’s the colleges that train teachers. But all blame aside, before I talk about what a great play it really is, and what a shame it is that most people summarily dismiss  Julius Caesar without ever really considering it, let’s look at why this has happened.

julius_caesarFirst of all, it goes without saying that making someone read a play is not a great way to get him or her to like it. Especially when that play is over 400 years old and written in (what seems to be) archaic language. But a still greater problem is that there is a tendency to use the play to teach Roman history, which is a serious mistake. (American high schools are not alone in this; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, criticized the play for not being realistic in its portrayal of Roman politics back in the early 1800s.) In short, far too many people associate this play with a bunch of men showing a great deal of thigh or swathed in endless yards of material, flipping their togas around like an adolescent girl tosses her hair over her shoulder. It’s all too distracting, to say the least.

So, in order to set us back on the right track and get more people to read this fine play,  I’ve made a little list of rules to follow that will help my readers get the most enjoyment, emotional and intellectual, from the play.

Rule Number One: Forget about Roman history when you read this play. Forget about looking for anachronisms and mistakes on the part of Shakespeare’s use of history. Forget everything you know about tribunes, plebeians, Cicero, and the Festival of Lupercalia. The fact is, the history of the play hardly matters at all. Rather, the only thing that matters is that you know in the beginning moments that Caesar will die and that, whatever his motives and his character, Marcus Brutus will pay for his part in Caesar’s assassination with his own life and reputation.

Rule Number Two: Recognize that this is one of Shakespeare’s most suspenseful plays. Our foreknowledge of events in the play, far from making it predictable and boring, provides an element of suspense that should excite the audience. Here we can point to Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, in which he explains that it’s the fact that the audience knows there’s a bomb hidden under a table that makes the scene so fascinating to watch, that makes every sentence, every facial expression count with the audience. It’s the fact that we know Julius Caesar is going to die on the Ides of March that makes his refusal to follow the advice of the soothsayer, his wife Calpurnia, and Artemidorus so interesting. We become invested in all of his words and actions, just as our knowledge that Brutus is going to lose everything makes us become invested in him as a character as well. A good production of this play, then, would highlight the suspenseful nature within it, allowing the audience to react with an emotional response rather than mere intellectual curiosity.

Rule Number Three: Understand that this play is, like Coriolanus, highly critical of the Roman mob. Individuals from the mob may be quite witty, as in the opening scene, when a mere cobbler gets the better of one of the Roman Tribunes, but taken as a whole, the mob is easily swayed by rhetoric, highly materialistic, and downright vicious. (In one often-excluded scene–III.iii–a poet is on his way to Caesar’s funeral when he is accosted by the crowd, mistaken for one of the conspirators, and carried off to be torn to pieces.) It’s almost as if this representation of mob mentality–the Elizabethan equivalent of populism, if you will–is something that Shakespeare introduces in 1599 in Julius Caesar, only to return to it nine years later to explore in greater detail in Coriolanus.

Rule Number Four: Recognize that this play, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, is misnamed. It is not about Julius Caesar. It’s really all about Marcus Brutus, who is the tragic hero of the play. He is doomed from the outset, because (1) it is his patriotism and his love of the Roman Republic, not a desire for gain, that drives him to commit murder; (2) he becomes enamored of his own reputation and convinces himself that it is his duty to commit murder and to break the law; (3) he falls victim to this egotism and loses everything because of it. Audience members really shouldn’t give a hoot about Julius Caesar; he’s a jerk who gets pretty much what he deserves. But Brutus is a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, a character whose every step, much like Oedipus, takes him further and further into his own doom. The soliloquies Brutus speaks are similar to those in Macbeth, revealing a character that is not inherently bad but rather deficient in logic, self-awareness, and respect for others. In fact, in many ways, it’s interesting to look at Julius Caesar as a rough draft not only of Coriolanus but of Macbeth as well.

Rule Number Five: Appreciate the dark comedy in the play. Shakespeare plays with his audience from the outset, in the comic first scene between the workmen and the Roman Tribunes, but another great comedic scene is Act IV, scene iii, when Brutus and Cassius meet up before the big battle and end up in an argument that resembles nothing more than a couple of young boys squabbling, even descending into a “did not, did so” level. This scene would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high, and if we didn’t know that disaster was imminent.

Rule Number Six: Experience the play without preconceptions, without the baggage that undoubtedly is left over from your tenth-grade English class. Once you do this, you’ll realize that the play is timely. It explores some really pertinent questions, ones which societies have dealt with time and time again, and which we are dealing with at this very moment. For example, when is it permissible to commit a wrong in order for the greater good to benefit? (surely Immanuel Kant would have something to say about this, along with Jeremy Bentham). How secure is a republic when its citizens are poor thinkers who can be swayed by mere rhetoric and emotionalism instead of reason? What course of action should be taken when a megalomaniac takes over an entire nation, and no one has the guts to stop him through any legal or offical means?

In the end, Brutus’s tragedy is that he immolates his personal, individual self in his public and civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is the inability to understand this sacrifice and the conflict it creates, not the play’s historical setting in a distant and hazy past, that has made it inaccessible for generations of American high school students. Too many decades have gone by since civic responsibility has been considered an important element in our education, with the sad but inevitable result that several generations of students can no longer understand the real tragedy in this play, which is certainly not the assassination of Julius Caesar.

But perhaps this is about to change. In the last few months, we’ve been witnessing a new generation teaching themselves about civic involvement, since no one will teach it to them. And as I consider the brave civic movement begun by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I am hopeful that from now on it’s just possible that reading Julius Caesar could become not a wasted module in an English class, but the single most important reading experience in a high-school student’s career.

 

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Education, Literature, Politics, Reading, Shakespeare, Teaching

The Ideological Work of Television and the Zombie Apocalyse

I have long argued that television programs, particularly situation comedies, perform an important piece of ideological work in our culture. Far from being pure entertainment, they introduce ideas that society may not want to confront. Of course, no one who can remember All in the Family or Murphy Brown will dispute this; but we may well be surprised to realize that television has always done this, even from its earliest days.

The two examples I have chosen to demonstrate this theory come from The Honeymooners (1955) and Bewitched (1964-1972). Back in the 1950s and ’60s, these sitcoms had to code their messages, making them available only to subtle and clever television viewers. In fact, the entire premise of both series rests on the implicit understanding that while women may have to kow-tow to their husbands, they are in fact the brains in their marriages. After all, Samantha is presumably all-powerful, yet she chooses to remain with the awkward and pouty Darren. Alice Kramden’s situation is less enviable–she is constrained by the 1950s dictum that proclaims women to be subservient to their husbands–but at the same time, she demonstrates to herself, to Ralph, and most importantly, to the audience, that she is in fact much more capable than Ralph and that he is head of the household only because of society awards him this position.

Ideological work is hidden, or coded, in early sitcoms, but it’s still there. For example, in The Honeymooners, in Episode 4 (“A Woman’s Work is Never Done”), Alice decides to get a job after Ralph berates her for not being able to keep up with the housework, while telling him it’s easier to work outside the home than within it. Ralph ridicules the notion, but Alice succeeds quite well, and even earns enough money to hire a maid to carry out the household chores, a maid who turns out to be so efficient and sarcastic that Ralph begs Alice to quit and return to being a homemaker. The message here, years before either That Girl or The Mary Tyler Moore Show appear on television, is that women can indeed be successful in the professional world. This message might have been too revolutionary to appear without coding, but it is delivered nonetheless through this subtle means.

Perhaps more interesting is Episode 7 of the first season of Bewitched (“The Witches Are Out”), in which Darren’s work on an advertising campaign that features witches is critiqued by Samantha as being clichéd and, even worse, rife with prejudice. She takes to the streets to spearhead protests against the campaign, joining a picket line, clearly reflecting the actual protests that were taking place in 1964, when this episode first aired. Since it was too dangerous to talk openly about racial prejudice, the show used a fictional prejudice–against witches–that the viewers would still understand, though perhaps unconsciously.

Neither of these episodes were intentional about their ideological work: in early situation comedies, these shows’ writers merely reflected and refracted the social reality they observed. In other words, during the early years of television, shows didn’t consciously represent the women’s movement or the civil rights movement. They simply reflected and displaced the social trends that were present at the time of their creation and presented them in a non-threatening, palatable form for their viewers.

But by the mid-1970s and beyond, television changed and became more outspoken, taking on a more direct role in society, and at the same time becoming much less afraid to stand on a soap-box. The velvet gloves came off, and we grappled openly with all sorts of issues, from bigotry (All in the Family), to homosexuality (Will and Grace). However, I believe that television still uses coded messages from time to time, and I think I’ve found an example of one genre that horrifies me, and not for its intended reason.

Since the mid 2000s, zombie-themed shows and books have proliferated. I first noticed a fascination with zombies among my students in about 2005, and I found it strange that a genre that had lain dormant for so long was coming back to life (pardon the pun, please). Since then, we’ve had World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and The Walking Dead. Ever the cultural analyst, I wondered what this preoccupation with zombie infestation might represent: just what kind of ideological work is it performing? At first, I thought it might indicate a fear of contagion, of a swift-moving and deadly pandemic. After all, we’ve seen, in the last twenty years, outbreaks of swine and bird flu, SARS, and Ebola. It would certainly make sense for a fear of virulent and lethal illness to express itself as a zombie invasion.

But recently it dawned on me that the imagined zombie invasion might represent something far worse: an invasion of migrants. And, before you dismiss this idea, let me pose a question: Is it possible that the populist rhetoric directed against immigrants is connected, through a subtle, ideological sleight-of-hand, to the rise of the zombie genre in film and television?

After all, so much of zombie plots resemble the imagined threat of uncontrolled immigration: the influx of great numbers of threatening beings who are completely foreign to our way of thinking, who are willing to fight for resources, who will not give up easily, who make us just like them–and who must be destroyed at any cost. I think it’s just possible, in other words, that the present social climate of suspicion, of protectionism, of hostility towards outsiders, has been fostered and cultivated by our ideological immersion in the genre of the zombie plot. Again, as with early television situation comedies, I don’t think this is an intentional linkage on the part of the writers; but intentional or not, the ideological work gets done, and suddenly we find our culture and civilization hostile to the very force that made us what we Americans are.

About ten years ago, I had a student who adored horror films and books. I asked him how he could stand to be made frightened by what he loved and spent so much time on. His answer haunts me today: “This isn’t what frightens me,” he said, pointing to a Lovecraft novel. “What frightens me is the day-to-day things, such as how I’m going to pay my rent.” In the same vein, I’ll end by asking this question: what if the really frightening thing about zombie shows isn’t what happens to their characters, but what happens to us when we watch them?

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The End of Democracy

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Chief Petoskey might agree that democracy is a failure.

It may be my bad luck, and my generation’s bad luck, to be alive at a time when we are witnessing the limits of democracy. We’ve had a good run–over two hundred years now–but it may be time to call it a day and start over with some new form of government.

I suppose I am as patriotic as anyone. There are two times in my life when I felt tears well up in my eyes solely because of my pride in being an American. One was after a three-week trip to Iceland, Scotland, and England in 1996, when I returned with my young family to Houston Intercontinental Airport. Waiting in customs, I noticed a babble of languages, and looking around, I saw myself surrounded by people of color, dressed in a variety of ways, many with headscarves or turbans. At that time, it was easy to imagine that these people, if not Americans themselves, would be welcomed as visitors to the United States, or perhaps as potential citizens. That was enough to make me sentimental about the diversity of my country, to be thankful to live in a country that valued all people.

(I will pass over for now the very real possibility—indeed, the near certainty—that this was simply a fiction, even at that time. My belief, however, was real enough to draw tears of pride from my eyes, which of course I quickly wiped away.)

The second time I became emotional with pride in my country was in about 2003 or 2004, when, as a union member from the local community college I stood in solidarity with nurses who were striking at the hospital. I was proud to do so—it is our right as Americans to stand and protest, as so many of us have recently found out. I was proud to be a citizen of a country that allows its citizens to congregate for such a purpose, despite the inconveniences that may be caused by it.

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen protests, but I haven’t taken part in them. I’ve supported them, but I have not been able to make myself participate in them. During the Women’s March, I stayed home, dissolved into a teary mess most of the day. But these were not tears of pride. Perhaps there was some pride mixed in, and admiration for the women who dedicated themselves to the cause, but there was also a feeling of profound despair at the need for such a march. It was the same thing with the March for Our Lives. What a beautiful expression of solidarity, but why should the people of this country need to march in order to protect our children, in order to stand up against an organization that should have no part in our electoral process, to protest the very electoral process that has been shown to be corrupt—not only because of foreign interference, but because of outrageously large campaign donations that fund and sway our elected officials?

Don’t get me wrong. To those of you who are participating in these movements, I want to say that I admire and love you for what you are doing. Yet I cannot help but feel that the need for such movements marks the decline of democracy, the end of this glorious experiment in civic rule that began over 200 years ago.

(Again, I will pass over the fact that this glorious experiment probably started, as so many others have, with the desire for personal gain on the part of the architects of the experiment.)

Democracy cannot work when it is corrupted by the desire for financial gain. It cannot work when the electorate is divided along the lines of hard-held, incontestable beliefs that brook no argument or discussion. It cannot work when our elected officials are, like the people who elect them, small-minded, fearful, and utterly dependent on large corporations who try to direct every facet of their lives and thoughts and are free to do so if they spend enough money on licit and illicit media campaigns.

Recently, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens called for the repeal of the Second Amendment. It may in fact be time for such a step. But I fear it may be time for a more drastic step: to admit that our democracy, such as it is, has failed, and that it is time to go back to the drawing board to find a new, more equitable, more humane way of living together in this world that we have created for ourselves.

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On the Relationship of Myth and Story

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Image from the lotr.wiki.com

Please note: This is a very long post. It is based on a talk I gave yesterday (October 28, 2017) at the C.S. Lewis Festival in Petoskey, Michigan. Consider yourself warned!

 

The study of myth seems to me to take three different paths:

  • Anthropological / Archeological: the study of classical mythologies (Bulfinch’s Mythology, Edith Hamilton)
  • Religious / Transcendent: the spiritual meaning of myth (Karen Armstrong, Joseph Campbell, Sigmund Freud)
  • Structuralist: the study of the same structures that recur in myths (Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, Roland Barthes)

This is all interesting, but I would like to back up a moment. I feel like I’ve arrived a dinner party, and that somehow I missed the first two courses. I feel as if I might get some kind of mental indigestion if I don’t start over at the very beginning.

The fact is, I want to know something more fundamental about myth and its function.

  • I want to know what it is and how it works.
  • Specifically, I want to know what distinguishes myth from other forms of story-telling.

Because for me, Story-Telling is what distinguishes human beings, homo sapiens, from all other species on this planet, as far as we know.

  • Studies have shown that crows have memories
  • Studies have shown that chimpanzees use tools
  • Philosophers are now beginning to agree that animals do indeed have consciousness

But we—we should be known not as homo sapiens (wise man, the man who knows), but as homo narrans—the speaking man, the man who tells, who narrates—story-telling man.  Because it is clear to me that we humans communicate largely through story-telling, and this story-telling function, this tendency to rely on narration, is what makes us human.

I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a little while as I tease this out. I’d like to say that by the end of this essay, I’ll have some answers to the questions I posed (what is myth, and how does it work, and what is the difference between a really good story and a myth)—but I’m pretty sure I won’t. I may, however, ask some more questions that might eventually lead me to some answers.

So here goes. To begin with, a few people who weigh in on what myth is and what it does:

Roland Barthes, the French post-structuralist literary theorist, says that myth is a type of speech, a system of communication, a kind of message. In a way, Barthes and JRR Tolkien are not really different on this point, incredible as it is to think of Barthes and Tolkien agreeing on anything at all, much less something so important to each of them.

  • They are both incredibly passionate and devoted to the concept of language
  • Barthes, in his book Mythologies, which I have shamelessly cherry-picked for this essay, says that the myth’s objective in being told is not really important; it is the way in which it conveys that message that is important.
  • He says that “the knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations” (119).
    • But this isn’t as bad as it sounds, because myths actually don’t need to be deciphered or interpreted.
    • While they may work with “Poor, incomplete images” (127), they actually do their work incredibly efficiently. Myth, he says, gives to its story “a natural and eternal justification…a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact” (143).
    • Myth is a story in its simple, pure form. “It acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences…” (143).
  • You can see how this view of myth kind of works with the myth-building that Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings, which works with simple efficiency, whose very images are incomplete to the point of needing clarification in Appendices and further books like the Silmarillion. Yet even without having read these appendices and other books, we grasp what Tolkien is getting at. We know what Middle-Earth is like, because the myth that Tolkien presents needs no deciphering, no real interpretation for us to grasp its significance.

Tolkien, I think we can all agree, was successful in creating a myth specifically for England, as Jane Chance and many other scholars have now shown to be his intention. But is it a novel? Some might argue it isn’t—myself included. In fact, what Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings is less a myth (I would argue that we only use that term because Tolkien himself used it to describe his work and his object—think of the poem “Mythopoeia,” which he dedicated to C.S. Lewis) than it is a full-blown epic.

For my definition of epic versus novel, I’m going to my personal literary hero, Mikhail Bakhtin, a great thinker, a marvelous student of literature, a man who wrote with virtually no audience at all for many years because he was sent into internal exile in the Soviet Union. In his essay “Epic and the Novel,” Bakhtin attributes these characteristics to epic:

  1. It deals with an absolute past, where there is little resemblance to the present;
  2. It is invested with national tradition, not personal experience, arousing something like piety;
  3. There is an absolute, unbridgeable distance between the created world of epic and the real world.

The novel, says Bakhtin, is quite the opposite. It is new, changing, and it constantly “comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed” (27).

I think the three characteristics of epic described by Bakhtin do in fact match up nicely with The Lord of the Rings: absolute past, national tradition, distance between the actual and the created world. But here’s another thing about epic as described by Bakhtin: “The epic world knows only a single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences” (35).  It would be hard, indeed impossible, to imagine The Lord of the Rings told from a different point of view. We need that distant narrator, who becomes more distant as the book goes on. As an example, imagine The Lord of the Rings told from Saruman’s point of view, or from Gollum’s. Or even from Bilbo or Frodo’s point of view. Impossible! Of course, we share some of the point of view of various characters at various points in the narrative (I’m thinking specifically of Sam’s point of view during the Cirith Ungol episode), but it couldn’t be sustained for the whole of the trilogy.

The interesting thing here is that in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took the novel form and invested it with epic. And I think we can say that against all odds, he was successful. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis, in his last book Till We Have Faces, took a myth (the story of Cupid and Psyche), which is certainly more closely related to epic than it is to novel, and turned it into a successful novel. This isn’t the time and place to talk about Till We Have Faces, although I hope someday that we can come together in the C.S. Lewis Festival to do that very thing, but I couldn’t help mentioning this, because it’s striking that Lewis and Tolkien, while they clearly fed off each other intellectually and creatively, started from opposite ends in writing their greatest creative works, as they did in so many other things. It’s almost amazing that you can love both of them at the same time, but of course you can. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

But I’m losing the thread of my questions here. What is myth? Can we actually have modern myths? Can someone actually set out with the intention of creating a myth? And can a mythic work spontaneously just happen? Another question needs to be posed here: if this long book, which is probably classified in every bookstore and library as a novel, touches on myth but is really an epic, can a novel, as we know it, become a myth? This forces us to tighten up our definition of what a myth is and asks us to think about what myth does.

Karen Armstrong, I think, would say yes, to all three of these questions. In her book A Short History of Myth, Armstrong follows the trajectory of myths through time and argues that the advent of printing and widespread literacy changed how we perceive and how we receive myth. These developments changed myth’s object and its function—and ultimately, it changed the very essence of myth.

Armstrong points out that myths and novels have similarities:

  • They are both meditative
  • They can both be transformative
  • They both take a person into another world for a significant period of time
  • They both suspend our disbelief
  • They break the barriers of time and space
  • They both teach compassion

Inspired by Armstrong and by Bakhtin, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a stab at answering my questions. And I’ll start by defining a modern myth as a super-story of a kind: a novel (or a film, because let’s open this up to different kinds of story-telling) that exerts its power on a significant number of people. These stories then provide, in film professor and writer Stuart Voytilla’s words, “the guiding images of our lives.”

In short, a modern myth has these characteristics:

  1. It belongs to a certain place and time. Like epic, it is rooted in a time and a place. It might not be far removed from the actual, but it cannot be reached from the actual.
  2. It unites a group of readers, often a generation of readers, by presenting an important image that they recognize.
  3. It unites a group of readers by fostering a similar reaction among them.
  4. It contains identifiable elements that are meaningful to its readers/viewers. Among these might be important messages (“the little guy can win after all,” “there’s no place like home,” the American Dream has become a nightmare”).

In other words, a mythic story can be made intentionally, as Star Wars was by George Lucas after he considered the work of Joseph Campbell; or it can happen accidentally. Surely every writer dreams of writing a mythic novel—the Great American novel—but it’s more or less an accident. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a mythic novel of American, until it was displaced by To Kill a Mockingbird.  And I would note here that having your novel go mythic (as we might term it—it is, in a way, like “going viral,” except mythic stories tend to last longer than viral ones) is not really such a good thing after all. Look at Harper Lee—one mythic novel, and that was the end of her artistic output—as far as we know. A mythic novel might just be the last thing a great writer ever writes.

Anyway, back to our subject: a  modern myth gets adopted rather than created. Great myths are not made; they become. So let’s’ think of a few mythic novels and see how they line up with my four characteristics:

  1. Frankenstein
  2. Star Wars
  3. The Wizard of Oz
  4. The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman—take your pick.
  5. Casablanca
  6. The Case of Local Myths—family or friend myths, references you might make to certain films or novels that only a small number of people might understand. A case in point would be the re-enactments of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that take place each year around Halloween.

In essence, my answer, such as it is, to the questions I posed earlier comes down to this:

Modern myths are important stories that unite their readers or viewers with similar emotional and intellectual reactions. Modern mythology works by presenting recognizable and significant images that unite the people who read or view them. As for what distinguishes modern myths from other forms of story-telling, what tips a “normal” novel or film over into the realm of “mythic”—I don’t have an answer for this. I only have a couple of vague, unformed theories. One of my theories is this: Could one difference between myth and the novel (“mere” story-telling as such) be that myth allows the reader/listener to stay inside the story, while the novel pushes the reader back out, to return to the actual world, however reluctantly?

And let’s not forgot what Karen Armstrong wrote about myth: “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum [created by the loss of religious certainty and despair created by modernism] and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past” (138).  Armstrong’s closing sentence is perhaps the most important one in the book: “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world” (149). With this in mind, perhaps it’s time to go and read some more, and find more myths that can help us repair and restore ourselves, our faith in our culture, and in doing so, the world itself.

 

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Three Things I’ve Learned from Kazuo Ishiguro

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Image from the New York Times (October 5, 2017)

 

I had actually planned this post a couple of days before my favorite living writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Nobel Prize in Literature (announced on on October 5th). So, along with the satisfaction and sense of vindication I felt when I woke up last Thursday morning and discovered that he’d been awarded the Prize, I also felt a sense chagrin at being late in making this post. After all, I could have gone on record about Ishiguro’s talent days before the Nobel committee made its announcement. Still, better late than never, so I will offer my belated post now, and explain the three most important things I’ve learned from Ishiguro over the years.

The most important thing I’ve learned from Kazuo Ishiguro is this: great writing often goes unnoticed by readers. (This point, of course, is now somewhat diluted by the fact that Ishiguro has indeed won acclaim for his work, but I think it deserves to be made all the same.) I remember reading Never Let Me Go about eight years ago and being gob-smacked by its subtle narrative brilliance and its emotional resonance. And yet I’ve met many readers of the book who, while affected by the narrative, seemed unimpressed by Ishiguro’s writerly achievement. It’s almost embarrassing that my reaction to the novel was so different than other people’s. Could I have gotten it wrong, somehow? Was it possible that Never Let Me Go really wasn’t the masterpiece I thought it was? While I considered this, I never once really believed I had made a mistake in my estimation: it is a tremendous book. The fact that few other people see it as such does not change my view of it. It simply means that I see something in it that other people don’t. Hence my first object lesson from reading Ishiguro: genius isn’t always obvious to the mass of readers out there. Perhaps it just isn’t that noticeable with so many other distracting claims for our attention.

The second thing I’ve learned from Ishiguro also stems from Never Let Me Go: genre doesn’t matter. When you really think about it, categorizing a work based on its plot is a silly thing to do, and yet we are firmly locked into that prison of categorization, since almost all bookstores and libraries, as well as readers, demand that every work fit into a narrow slot. I commend Ishiguro for defying the convention of genre, incorporating elements from both science fiction and fantasy into realist narratives. In my view, the sooner we break the shackles of genre, the better. Good, responsible readers should never restrict themselves to a certain genre any more than good, imaginative writers should. A certain amount of artistic anarchy is always a good thing, releasing creative juices and livening things up.

And finally, the third thing I’ve learned is this: a good writer does not hit the bull’s eye every time he or she writes. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are truly wonderful books. An Artist of the Floating World is promising, but not nearly as good as Ishiguro’s later works.  The Buried Giant, I’d argue, is a failure–but it is a magnificent failure, one whose flaws emanate from the very nature of the narrative itself, and thus it transcends its own inability to tell a coherent story. I’ve learned from this that a writer should never be afraid to fail, because failing in one way might be succeeding in another, less obvious, way. This is as good a place as any other to admit that I have never been able to get through The Unconsoled. And as for When We Were Orphans–well, the less said about that disaster of a book, perhaps the better. I can’t imagine what Ishiguro was thinking there–but I will certainly defend his right to fail. And I am thankful that even a writer with such talent as Ishiguro does, from time to time, fail–and fail big. It certainly gives the rest of us hope that while we fail, we can still aspire to success.

I will close by saying that I am grateful to Kazuo Ishiguro for the wonderful books he’s written. If you haven’t read any of them, you should–and not just because some panel gave him an award. But I am just as grateful to him for the three important lessons he has taught me about the nature of writing.

 

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