The English novel is often thought to be realistic because it is about class: how Clarissa and Elizabeth Bennet find their ways to marriages beyond their station; how Pip, within the infinitely complicated world of High Victorian occupations and family lives, as those are so meticulously observed by Charles Dickens, will become a middle level bureaucrat even though he also had the Romantic ambition of regaining his first love. But that is to forget that the father of the English novel is Daniel Defoe, whose Robinson Crusoe is a figure on a desert island and so there is no class conflict at work there, only his interaction with someone who acts as his servant. It is therefore perhaps better to think of the English novel as being not about social class but about the virtues of the middle class: these people are ambitious and they are good at taking advantage of opportunities to improve themselves, even if those plans do not always work out. The middle class novel is engaging because it is filled with hope, people being capable of at least sometimes overcoming their adversities and making their lives what they want them to be. The protagonists act to improve their lives and so are neither pathetic, in that they are incapable of not being overwhelmed, nor tragic, in the sense that the gods or fate have doomed them to failure. The English novel therefore makes for a good read because in keeping track of the ups and downs of the fortunes of its protagonists. In the drama of whether or not they will succeed, the reader learns a lot about the social circumstances, the social reality, the protagonists must confront if they are to succeed. Success is itself a reality, not a feigned state, just as failure is a reality and not just the lack of appreciation for the inner workings of the protagonist, which are the two stories told by Camus (the first in “Caligula”, the second in “The Stranger”) and also by other Age of Anxiety novelists.Read More
Beware. There are spoilers in this article. Watch the series before reading.
I have binge watched all of HBO’s miniseries, "Big Little Lies", and I was very impressed by it. It is a very well observed and nuanced presentation of feminist themes. Here we have rich women living in beautiful Monterey, California. (The view from that wonderful bridge near Big Sur and other shots of dizzying cliffs in the area serve very well as both metaphor and plot device.) The three main families are quite different: a single mother, a remarried divorcee living in the same community with her remarried ex and so having to negotiate about children and mutual jealousies; a seemingly perfect couple where the husband won't allow his wife to work. The last two live in fabulous houses while the first is just getting by. What happens in their lives is very gripping.Read More
What follows is a primer on the relationship between culture and social class.
Culture is a set of objects and events that are fashioned or crafted so as to serve as objects of contemplation and so yield to their viewers or readers or auditors a variety of emotions, images and ideas. This is true of television, novels, operas, art installations, portraits and anything else elevated to a place where it can stand out as engendering aesthetic as well as other responses. This is the view of culture favored by the philosophical pragmatists of the last century, most notably John Dewey and Arthur Danto. It is very different from the view of culture that we might call anthropological because that view considers the culture of a people to be their entire way of life, including courtship behavior, religious rituals, the way they go about planting crops. The anthropological view does not distinguish very strongly between customs and choices. People do what they are expected to do, even if some warriors are braver than others. The pragmatic view of culture, as do other Western views of culture, thinks of culture as a way for people to lift themselves out of their immediate surroundings so as to have a sense of what is universal, of what is familiar or spot on, and of how an alternative to one’s current life might be.Read More
There is something mysterious, peculiar and profound about the existential relationship between audiences for art, literature, music, theatre and also the modern media of television and movies, and the objects of their attention. Critics from Aristotle to Northrope Frye have tried to turn the arts into the subject of a scientific discipline, and to my mind have been largely successful. You know how to evaluate a play or a novel because you have learned the type of thing it is and so apply the relevant criteria. Shakespeare does tragedies and he also does problem plays and you are simply mistaken if you expect to get the same thing out of both. That is what a scientist does. But people resist this impulse, if that is what it is rather than a wrongheaded attempt to make art into something that is not. Rather, what people do is evaluate first and then find reasons to back up their judgments. You think of Romeo and Juliet as a gushy teenage romance and then you find things in the plot or the poetry to back that up and simply decide not to notice or just fail to notice the dark side of the play: that these teenagers are obsessed with one another to the point of suicide. You don’t like Jane Austen because you think she repeats herself in every book when in fact she tells a different story and evokes different emotions in every novel, all in the service of her overall plot form, which is how a woman finds a suitable husband, the mystery being to discover what makes him suitable for her. It isn’t that a more callow interpretation is so much wrong, “interpretation” the right word to describe the way a reader makes sense of a book, as it is that a callow interpretation is a premature judgment that can be changed when a person gives a more sophisticated judgment to bear and so can more clearly see a book for what it is. The wise come around to Jane Austen; the rest never do, even if they are enchanted by Regency manners and the Regency setting. How does this world work, in which the audience’s prejudices and perhaps callow judgments take precedence over what is actually there, on the stage or in the text? How is it that we learn from literature by imposing our will on it rather than being its students?Read More
Jerry Lewis died just a few days ago at the age of 91. His obituaries focussed on his accomplishments as a film director after he broke up with Dean Martin. Like many others who follow movies, I regard all of his post Dean Martin movies as unwatchable rather than just merely bad, whatever it is that the French may think of Lewis as a filmmaker. To me, Jerry Lewis’ main accomplishment was as producer and star of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethons, a format for raising money for charity that he raised to being a kind of performance art. Let’s treat the genre of the Telethon as something worthwhile in itself.Read More
It is very difficult to figure out what makes a narrative, which is the telling of a sequence of events, into a story, which is a narrative shaped well enough to have a development and a point. Chronicles or lists of successive kings is a narrative that can become a story when filled out with anecdotes and contrasts. The best description of what a story is remains the one provided by Aristotle, who said that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but that is unsatisfactory as a definition because it doesn’t tell what are the minimum criteria for any of those three elements. Try to construct a minimal story and you wind up nowhere. Is the following sentence a story: “A robin fell out of a tree and died”? The robin in the tree was the beginning, otherwise known as the setting; falling out of the tree was the middle or the event of the story; and the robin’s death was the outcome caused by or juxtaposed with the event, and so the end of the story. But it is not much of a story. There is no point to it, no conflict, no twist whereby the middle and the end play off against the setting and one another. “Hamlet” is a story because a prince undertakes to overthrow a king and is foiled in his attempt perhaps because of circumstances and perhaps because of his own misgivings about himself, his setting, and his antagonists, about who is a friend and who is a foe. Now that is quite a story. Perhaps one way to deal with the question of what a story is is to look at a well respected writer who barely if at all writes stories that qualify as stories. Ambrose Bierce was a very popular writer during the Nineteenth Century, though little read now, except for his not quite story “Incident at Owl Creek” of which I will not give away the punchline because that is all there is to making it a story. Bierce was very good at sentences and had wit, and that is what carries him through, but are his stories stories or are they merely sketches, descriptions, that don’t add up to being any more than that? Let’s see.Read More
I recently attended a session of a book club whose members are well educated doctors who read everything from Thomas Mann to recent ethnicity centered novels. The book up for discussion was Sarah Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Cafe”, which tries to pull off the neat trick of being a non-academic history of existentialism. The book focuses more on the lives of the Existentialists than on their various doctrines, the book providing adequate but hardly inspired summaries of those doctrines, ones that are clear enough for this intelligent audience to pick up what they were about. What became clear during the discussion of the book was that the group had no handle on, no feel for, the issues that animated the Existentialists or the solutions they proposed to deal with fundamental issues of human existence, both metaphysical and moral. The session reminded me of how dead Existentialism was as a movement; it has no appeal even though it was so popular in its time, which was also the time when I was an undergraduate and much taken with it. Life Magazine, that emissary of high culture into working class life, covered coffee tables around the country with an issue showing black stockinged rail thin girls at a coffee shop in Paris parading around as Existentialists. What had been attractive about this philosophical movement that made it a cultural rage in the post-war era, a rage that died out by the Seventies? So I try to resurrect what it meant to me.
The Atheistic Existentialism, which is what the philosophers and intellectual historians call it, seemed to me to be a kind of liberation, though some of its roots did not seem very promising because they were about the limitlessness and priority of authority over all forms of freedom. Soren Kierkegaard recognized the inevitability of choice as a characteristic of the human condition, even though he always opted for the choice preferred by God, the ultimate authority, as when Kierkegaard thought it right that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son if God wanted him to. Dostoevsky recognized that the human condition produced murderers and saints and revolutionaries and the paradoxical fact that the church, established to rule by love, was also the great enforcer of morality.
What the Atheistic Existentialists did was take God out of this description and so leave the universe raw and bare with respect both to metaphysics and morality. Jean Paul Sartre, who was the most prominent of the Atheist Existentialists, never mind his German forebearers, gave a vivid description of this point of view about metaphysics in his novel “Nausea”. He describes a tree which is shorn of its category of being a tree and so standing in front of him as this gnarled, strange object, something out of dreams and nightmares. So seeing the world truly is to appreciate the experience of objects prior to them being enclosed in their categories, and there is much to be said for this point of view because it opens up the world to a wholly fresh kind of description, in which one can luxuriate in one’s perceptiveness, so that one can feel the “isness” of being rather than just rationalize about it. Sartre’s magnum opus, “Being and Nothingness”, published in 1938, the same year as “Nausea”, confronts us with a sense of the chasm, the void, of emptiness that precedes the filling up of that void with shape and choice and events. St. Augustine had also wondered what the void was like before creation, but even he was not as vivid as Sartre in giving his readers a feel for the absolute negativity of that state. Most philosophers seem superficial for not invoking that preternatural realm.
The liberation from conventional metaphysics, the metaphysics of the already created world of species and categories, also applies to morality, which is also no longer bound by the laws and maxims that guide most of human behavior. Sartre wrote an influential essay in the late Forties entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism” in which he cited his advice to a young man considering joining the Resistance who was worried about who would care for his elderly mother. Sartre said the young man should make the choice and that then the reasons for it would come into focus. You choose first and moralize later. This seemed very brave, launching each of us into a tragic drama every time a significant choice was made, each of us a warrior in that every choice is right even if people disparage it. Every choice is the source of a new wisdom. Did those who betrayed their friends before the House Un American Activities Committee engage in a new form of bravery? Is the adulterer who leaves his wife more courageous than the one who tries to repair the damage already done? There is no answer because there is no moral standard against which to measure the behavior. We have all gone beyond good and evil, just as Nietzsche predicted would happen.
But to engage in Sartre’s rhapsody is to beg the question. Is the young man, in that moment of decision, envisioning his mother’s aged face? Or is he contemplating a future in which he might be captured, tortured, and then put to death? Morality is made by consulting the past and the future, not just the knife edge of the present moment. A decision, whether impulsive or not, reflects on whether it is consistent or inconsistent with a person’s past character or what kind of person he or she wants to be. Wherever moral categories come from, whether they are found through faith in God or extrapolated from the nature of human interaction, one uses them. And the same is true of existence itself. To borrow Spinoza’s distinction, there is the world of ideas and there is the world of extension. Both are real, in their fashion, and you can’t do without either of them. To see a tree is to see the form of the tree as well as its content, its matter. To deny that is merely rhetorical.
And, indeed, Sartre, in the long run, proved longer on rhetoric than on a consistent standard of analysis. He became a Stalinist in the Sixties so as to pick sides between the Anglo American and the Soviet world. He said in 1960 in “Critique of Dialectical Reason” (which I did not read until a few years later) that he had neglected the social side of things in his earlier work. I found this, at the time, astonishing. Was he really saying that stripping down the human condition to its basic fundamentals, shorn of class and caste, down to what every person, slave and aristocrat, young and old, had in common because of their humanity, had just been a mistake? That confession on his part punctured any still remaining pleasure I took from his system because I did know something about the struggles of groups against one another and that did not invalidate a quest to find out fundamental things. I would not be taken in by Sartre’s new rhetorical turn and what shadow that cast on his prior clarity.
I think that what I felt was part of the general cultural rejection of Existentialism during the Sixties. There were other fish to fry. There was the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement (both against the Vietnam War and the ever impending nuclear Apocalypse). These were about politics, pure and simple. The ideology that became important on the Left was that of Herbert Marcuse, whose disdain for both consumerism and Stalinism I, for my part, also found to be rhetorical. Marcuse’s was cavalier in his rejection of Bill of Rights protections for free speech and he made it seem that Madison Avenue was more a danger to America than what Michael Harrington at the time called “the invisible poor”: the whites of Appalachia and the Blacks of the urban ghettos and the Deep South. I was a Franklin Roosevelt New Dealer, which is something I still remain. Bah and humbug to those who do not want to fashion programs to help the poor and other downtrodden. And as for metaphysics? All its problems are reducible to those of social structure, whose character can be read in Shakespeare and Jane Austen and in sociologists too numerous to mention. Existentialism, in a word, is an adolescent hangup.Read More
Literature is wonderful even when it does not nearly qualify as literature, at least according to the standards of most literary critics and most viewers, playgoers, or readers. But even then it can be gripping and so one has to turn to that great scientist of criticism, Aristotle, putting aside judgment so as to establish what is going on with this particular piece of junk that goes through the moves of being a narrative and so has to be understood as such, according to the elements of narrative first so elegantly laid out by Aristotle, who is the first and best of the Formalist critics, meaning by that the one who describes the mechanics through which a piece of literature or potential piece of literature creates its effects. I want to use as a case study a television series, “Grey's Anatomy”, which I have been binge watching over the past three days. I have clocked over fifty episodes, which means over 33 hours of viewing, which is enough time in which to read half a dozen major Shakespearean plays, though those are so taxing that one would have to slow down rather than switch to the next episode of an evening soap opera as quickly as the prior one ends. You have to concentrate more to get Shakespeare’s plot much less the complexity of the emotions he is depicting. I have gone through the binge process with other series. I watched what may well be the best television series ever, “The West Wing”, episode by episode, which means less than an hour a week, when it first came out, and then, years later, when discs became available, i watched the whole thing through, all six years of it, and thought it better than ever, its last season a spectacular prediction of a President who was a man of color running against a McCain type. But “Grey’s Anatomy” doesn’t come even close to that standard, and so I have to inquire carefully about what makes it gripping by coming up with Aristotle-like categories.Read More
“Words and Music” is an MGM musical of 1948 that chronicles the lives of the composer Richard Rodgers and his lyricist Lorenz Hart from when they met to when Hart died in 1943. It is one of a series of films, biopics, that depicted American popular composers, partly in order to provide the occasion for elaborate production numbers, hang whether they got the biography straight. Each of these borrowed from the others and altered the biography to make it more acceptable. George Gershwin’s 1945 biography “Rhapsody in Blue” provided him with a girlfriend who it was never clear why he did not marry her, when, in truth, he had many girl friends. Gershwin’s movie also provides the ending for the Rodgers and Hart biopic. A lead character dies, and you go through an elaborate death scene, Mickey Rooney, as Hart, dying as many times as Wagner’s Isolde. “Words and Music” also borrows the idea of using a post death gala as a way to sum up the accomplishments of the fallen musician, just as had happened with Oscar Levant playing “Rhapsody in Blue” at a concert soon after Gershwin’s death. The Jerome Kern biopic, “Till the Clouds Roll By”, made in 1946, is not so fortunate in its ending because its hero was not yet dead and so the movie had to settle for a long series of production numbers featuring any number of MGM stars singing Kern’s greatest hits, though the picture shoe horns in at the beginning a highly abbreviated version of “Show Boat”, Kern’s masterpiece, his signature musical, and the climax of the musical tribute to Kern is Frank Sinatra, wearing a double breasted cream tuxedo, singing “Ole Man River” in front of a full orchestra. The Cole Porter biopic “Night and Day”, also from 1946, does not allude to his homosexuality, but also has memorable production numbers and “Words and Music” does not allude to the fact that the cause of Hart’s discomfort in the world may have been that he was a closet homosexual rather than just subject to headaches that come from nowhere.Read More
Students of Shakespeare from William Hazlitt through Harold Bloom think of Shakespeare as someone who embraced the new philosophy of individualism by making each of his characters a unique personality, responsible to noone but his or her self. But a late medieval mind or an early Elizabethan one might have appreciated Shakespeare differently, his characters embodiments of abstract virtues and vices, Polonius of self-importance and pomposity, Macbeth of ruthless ambition, Romeo and Juliet of love heedless of its surroundings, very much like Dante’s Paolo and Francesca who swirl around as the winds of Hell will carry them because they have no anchors. If that is the case, then Shakespeare stocked his plays with characters who acted according to the types of characters available to a playwright of the time. A way of bringing those two ideas together and which enhances not only our sense of Shakespeare but of modern psychology, is to realize that Shakespeare presented each of his characters as true to their own essence and, moreover, that they were each, deep down, what they each appeared to be.Read More
Reading is a very complex process as the following examples try to show.
Every book is a genre all its own. It is a combination or play on some combination of other types of books, and so lives up to what is taken to be Polonius’s over the top statement in Act II, Scene ii of Hamlet about the players:
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
As usual, Polonius knows what he is talking about. Nobody composes afresh; everyone adapts the genres that are there. The writers of the Gospels were fresh in that they reworked the tale of a man going to meet his fate, as that might happen in a Greek tragedy, to Oedipus for example, into an exemplary and unique story, endlessly to be repeated, of a god-inspired personage working out the inevitabilities of his nature and his destiny in the course of his short and doomed ministry. And, at the more comic end of the spectrum, It is reported that Lucille Ball got wind of meetings where producers would ask for a Lucille Ball like comedy with someone else. Ball got the message and moved to television and became “Lucy”.
But that is not the whole of it. Every paragraph of a book is also a distinct entity. It has a structure and a tone different from that of the paragraphs which preceded it and which follow it. Part of the pleasure of reading is the interaction between the reader’s imagination, memory and analysis and what is there to be discovered in every paragraph. So while most literary remarks about a recent book, John A. Farrell’s “Richard Nixon: The Life”, might tell a reader that they can garner pleasure from a set piece such as Farrell’s clear retelling of the Alger Hiss investigation, or from Farrell’s not that well done overall presentation of Nixon as America’s very own Richard III, though I would let him off easy on that because he is competing with Shakespeare, let us attend, instead, to how just a few of Farrell’s paragraphs provide their pleasures.Read More
Gabe Pressman, then as for a very long time after that a reporter for WNBC-TV, came up to Columbia University in 1959 to interview undergraduates, of which I was one, about Charles Van Doren and the quiz show scandals. Pressman was surprised to see how protective the students were of Van Doren. Pressman said that it was his job to cover the story. It was the opinion of many undergraduates that looking through the window slats at someone's national humiliation was not a moral way to earn a living, much less to further one's career. That episode, I think, suggests why Robert Redford was overly glib in his handling of the Van Dorens in his movie Quiz Show, whose appearance, some twenty years ago, reminded me of events that, until the movie, I had remembered with sadness rather than anger.Read More
The Book of Genesis tells stories that concern a time before the existential events that make up the Book of Exodus where, among other things, the idea of law as providing guidance for how people are to conduct themselves makes its entrance. The Book of the Covenant had indeed provided a kind of international compact whereby families that resembled those of the patriarchs were supposed to regulate their relations with one another through establishing rules of compensation for damages, but the editors of the Five Books of Moses chose to include this passage in Exodus, as if to indicate that the Book of Genesis was to be truly prior to the concept of law. But if that were the case, how were the people of the Book of Genesis “supposed” to behave, that term itself rushing us to impose the imperative of law--”should”-- on the pre-legal condition. Was it supposed to be that mere custom and godly edict would be enough to explain how people behaved and behaved themselves? Not so, because the pre-legal people of Genesis used their minds to consider their interests, however difficult it may be not to assume that they were making legal type judgments. When Jacob learns that his sons had killed the people who had offered to circumcise themselves as well as intermarry with Jacob’s tribe because one of them had taken one of their sisters for a wife, Jacob does not excoriate his sons for having been vengeful or otherwise done evil, but simply concludes that the tribe will have to move on now rather than settle there. That can be taken as an ironic understatement, meant to foretell that those descended from the Old Testament families would always, sooner or later, have to move on, or that Jacob was making a silent judgment about their actions-- though I have done so myself in an earlier reading of this story of the rape of Dinah-- but, rather, that Jacob was simply not given to the moral reasoning that would come with the arrival of law.Read More
My friend Dorothy Glass, the art historian, is not as big of a movie buff as I am and so asked me a few years ago when movies became mature, by which she meant when they became of interest to adults and not just simplified dramas used to show off the visual power of film. I gave what I thought was a glib answer, that it occurred about the time of “On the Waterfront”, in the mid-Fifties. My answer was glib because I wasn’t sure her’s was a real question. Film, from the beginning, had been worth serious consideration and been filled with real themes and real emotions, “mature” in that sense to be awarded to D. W. Griffith and “The Big Parade”, however much they were melodramas, with too readily recognized villains and heros (or heroines).Read More
Daniel Kahneman, as well as being a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, is one of the subjects, along with his longtime collaborator, Amos Tversky, of Michael Lewis’ latest book, “The Undoing Project”, and so his work has drawn even more attention as the way to see through biased behavior and show how irrational people are in the conduct of their everyday lives. I want to suggest that Kahneman is dead wrong on substance, that people are reasonable rather than overcome by bias, and his deeply mistaken supposition is the result of a method that boxes his subjects into corners so that they cannot but seem hopelessly irrational. This essay, reprinted from westendejournal.com is an attempt to bring down what has been offered up as an important icon of contemporary thinking about mental and social life.Read More
Irony and sarcasm are used in everyday life to indicate that a person is in the know and in that way superior to someone not in the know. When I was a preteen I was a member of a stamp collectors club, none of us very knowledgeable about the hobby. One of our members sarcastically noted that a non stamp collector might take a stamp with a reverse postal mark because the stamp had been affixed upside down on an envelope as making it more valuable even though that happened all the time. My fellow stamp collector had immediately turned an insight he had just had into a criticism of people who had not had that insight. He had used sarcasm to establish his superiority. All people fall into that trap from time to time, most clearly and with much consequence when they turn limited knowledge about how government works into cynicism about the political system and so support whomever will overturn the idols.
Everybody, apparently, except those who make money off of them, is against standardized testing. Most teachers and administrators criticize the tests for the burden they place on teachers to raise the test performance of students ill equipped to take such tests, the teachers blamed if kids don’t do better than students with the same demographic characteristics have done in the past. And that is not to speak of the unreliability of the tests and the control variables used to make comparisons between student groups possible. Reformers, on the other hand, criticize the tests for not allowing teachers to teach the students as they are or in creative ways, the tests measuring minor skills rather than the overall intellectual growth of a child, something that may not show up until years later.
And it is easy to ridicule such tests simply by calling into question a particular test item that seems particularly foolish. This has happened in the past week because of a reading passage called “The Hare and the Pineapple” that appeared on a standardized eighth grade reading test. The somewhat whimsical story told of a talking pineapple who challenged the hare to a race. The surrounding crowd of animals assumed the pineapple had some secret plan to win the race, but he (if it were a he) didn’t and so the hare won and the crowd ate the pineapple. One of the questions the students was asked was whether the crowd ate the pineapple because they were annoyed, amused, hungry or excited, which is the way Gail Collins put it when she reported on the test item in her Times column. How were the students to figure that out? Collins interpreted the failure of the test item as a result of the test preparer, Pearson, getting so many large contracts to construct tests.
Renee Fleming was singing a second act aria during her well reviewed performance as Manon. A member of the Metropolitan Opera audience yelled "Spectacular!" after the first chorus; there was a brief murmur in the rest of the audience. The same man interjected another "Spectacular!" after the next chorus; the murmur in the audience was intense and unfavorable. Why criticize the man? After all, the stars pause after their arias to receive applause, and thereby break the notion that the audience is overhearing a story rather than present for the performance of a story. The singers also take bows after every act and the intermissions at the Met go on and on, breaking whatever mood might be sustained over a shorter intermission. What the man had done was break the conventions for suspending the performance, that's all, but in theatre, we abide by the conventions, for otherwise we would not know what we were up to.
Opera is a performance in that we have come to hear the singers do their stuff, whatever their material, and to take pleasure from their skill and only secondarily take pleasure from what is signified by the use of their skills, which is the experience and appreciation of the conventionalized sentiments that accompany the plot and the music. Music critics, by and large, accept the hackneyed or contrived plots or the melodramatic emotions so as to concentrate on the spectacle of the singing and the setting, mentioning the acting as an afterthought--this singer also something of an actress. Otherwise, it would not be possible to see these old warhorses--really, chestnuts--over and over again.