Cartoons and science fiction share in common that they don’t have to explain how scientific things work; all they have to do is show an arrangement of things that seems to be pleasant. So we did not know the mechanism by which Dick Tracy’s radio-wristwatch, and then his tv-wristwatch worked; we only had to contemplate how nice it would be if there were such things, which indeed came to fruition with the smartphone. But cartoons and science fiction are very detailed in the ways they spell out the social world in which that new science is set. Asimov spelled out very clearly in his Foundation series how Trantor took over the galaxy, moving from being the only planet that could guarantee the safety of its embassies to being a planet that ruled a galaxy wide empire and that imported goods from everywhere. The same is true of Robert Heinlein who imagines a system of world wide representative democracy in "Double Star"S, complete with a titular head from a royal house that originated in the Low Countries. Heinlein also spells out in "Starship Trooper" a world nation where citizenship is conferred only on people who have served in the military, a fascistic note that is the case in much of Heinlein and other science fiction writers who also emphasize the role of the strong man as leader and the military as the backbone of society. So it is not surprising that "Black Panther", which is a movie based on a comic book and is about a superhero who emerges from a futuristic black city in Africa that is unknown to the outside world, offers this same combination of unexplained gadgetry and fascistic government. The main reason to find fault with this entertainment, whose pretensions at explaining the way the social world works are not to be taken seriously except by social commentators like me because the preteen audience for which it is designed (there is not even a hint of sex) will not care about those meanings, is that they are contrary to my sense of the burden of African American history.Read More
Here is an exercise in literary theory.
Here is a straightforward question whose answer remains unsatisfactory even after millenia of consideration: what is a story? Clearly, a story is a less general form of communication than a narrative, which is a set of sentences which are related to one another in a time sequence. The art of narrative requires making some connection between the sentences so that they make some sort of sense in relation to one another, whether that consists of a list, such as the residents of a neighborhood, or a logical inference of effect from cause. Story requires something more than a sense of connectedness. It requires, to use Aristotle’s terms, a beginning a middle and an end or, to put it another way, a sense of exposition, climax and completion. A story therefore always involves suspense and the release of suspense, and not having these leaves disappointed the person hearing or reading the story. Supposedly, a great actor could read the telephone book and keep an audience enrapt but that is only because the actor would be able to bring suspense and release to the nuanced reading of any name. Sometimes the actor might pause over syllables, sometimes he or she might find a metre in a name, sometimes the actor could vary pitch or emotion. But mostly a telephone book is only a list and not even a narrative because the listing is alphabetical, which is a way of being arbitrary rather than a way of constructing a narrative whose sequential unfolding is meaningful, as when the list of begats in Genesis or elsewhere result in David or some other prominent figure.Read More
By the standards of Genesis, the story of Jacob and his two marriages, first to Leah, and then to Rachel, with Leah remaining as his wife, is told at a leisurely pace. It covers Genesis 29-Genesis 31 and is detailed in its incidents, borrowing for a narrative the practice of the chronicle sections of Genesis and so recounts the names of his children by both of his wives and those of his children borne by the handmaidens of his wives. That is much longer than the story of Abraham, who also has to deal with both a wife and a handmaiden and the children born to them, which is dealt with in a much briefer narrative, Genesis 21, even though the span of time is the same in each story: about a generation. The reason for the slower and more stately telling of Jacob’s family story is, I think, because the author is trying to convey a sense of how it takes time for familial relationships to change, and there is much merit in the wisdom being offered, even if we must apply it today to a world without polygamy and where people by and large don’t marry their first cousins. It also may be that the story of Jacob and his marriages is a reworking of a story that appears just a short time earlier in Genesis 24. That is the story of how Isaac met his wife. It has some of the same plot motifs, such as meeting at a well. But the earlier story has been simplified in that the servant delivering the offer has been dropped even though that adds a nice “Beowulf”-like set of repetitions. The loss of the literary mannerisms suggests that the author or editor of the later story was striving for a simplicity of storytelling that would allow the poignancy of the story to come through.Read More
Jacob van Ruisdael was a master of both landscapes and what we would now consider townscapes because they were paintings of what were then the urban vistas. Looking at his paintings allows seeing how he did these two kinds of paintings differently. That can supply the basis for generalizations about the nature of landscapes and cityscapes and, even beyond that, the nature of the human experiences that underlie aesthetic experience.
“View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds” is characteristic of van Ruisdael’s depiction of a town, which appears as a sliver in the middle of the painting, most of which is taken up by the grayish sky above or, beneath the sliver, a suburban part of town that contains a bleaching ground, where long strips of cloth are laid out to dry. The town itself is notable for a few church spires, one overlarge building, some windmills, and its rust color, while the bleaching ground is set amidst some trees and a few buildings, and its linearity can be taken to be an horizontal echo of the vertical linearity of the town. People, as everyone knows, make their marks on places by constructing with the use of straight lines. The other point to be made is that the downtown of Haarlem goes on for a while, stretching from the left to the right of the canvas, and gives a suggestion that it also bulges out, so that a bird’s eye view (there are birds in the picture) would see a great circle filled with houses, both residences and public buildings. The only people to be seen are, ironically enough, not in the town, but working the bleaching ground, and they are fairly small because the point of view van Ruisdael takes is remote from the scene, more concerned with the overall geography of the place than the life within it, many buildings to be found widely spaced from one another, in the plain between the bleaching ground and the town proper.
“Panoramic View of the Amstel Looking towards Amsterdam” is a townscape which is less parsimonious in that it gets close enough to its subject so as to portray much more of the way the city works. There is the Amstel River, filled with white sailed boats, broad in the south east corner of the picture, and then narrowing towards the bridge at the center of the picture, its horizontal line serving as the center point of the picture, the buildings of the city behind it, the far shore filled with buildings of various sizes, while the near shore has windmills, houses, and a promenade where the people who saunter up and down provide a sense of scale. The town is bustling with activity: men oaring a raft, fields with mounds of hay, and the activities that might be suggested to go on in windmills, residences and public buildings, though without the benefit of any particular story being unravelled, as was the case with the human interest sidebar provided in the portrait of Haarlem by the presence of the bleaching field, something remarkably noticeable then as it would be if one showed up today. A townscape is therefore a single place where people go about their business in close proximity to one another but where their stories do not intertwine. That remains the collective story of towns and cities.
Now consider how different is a landscape. In “Dunes”, perhaps his most famous painting, Ruisdael introduces an individual story into his portrait of a landscape. A man and his dog are trudging up a rutted path, one which can be traced back to where it disappears behind a hill. On either side of the path, interesting enough in itself because of its rise and falls, so that one would have a different perspective every few steps when wandering along it, are the brush that can be found on dunes, as well as some short trees. The plants go off in any number of directions, sometimes constituting a rough underbrush, sometimes a tiny copse of trees, sometimes the grass clinging to the tops of dunes, sometimes covering what is just a sandy stretch next to the road. There is no pattern in the flora to guide the eye, though an expert might know where and when different kinds of flora will grow on this kind of site. For the viewer to take hold of the scene, however, the man and his dog are very useful. The same is true of “Stag Hunt in a Wood with a Marsh”. The main pattern of the painting are the virticals of the trees, all of them leaning to the left, as if that is the way the wind blew them as they grew. They are planted both in the earth and in the marsh that takes up the center of the foreground of the picture. And yet Ruisdael relieves this landscape by putting huntsman into it as well as a stage being pursued by dogs who are catching up with it while it is in the marsh. Why this need to have a story going on rather than the landscape presented for itself alone. There needs to be a reason for the convention.
Not that all of Ruisdael’s landscapes have humans in the picture. Sometimes it is a waterfall that serves as a focal point, or an old ruined castle (the fact of which is proof of human engagement in the locale of the landscape). In “Waterfall in a Hilly Wooded Landscape”, the story line seems to be to be what I see as tree roots left over after, I presume, humans have harvested the lumber, though here again one would think that Ruisdael could have done without in that the broken tree in the foreground creates interest enough while the trees in the back stand tall and green.
Other Seventeenth Century painters follow the same convention of placing people in the landscapes, while not putting them in cityscapes. Meindert Hobbema, another Dutchman, includes people in his landscapes, “A Stream by a Wood” and in “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. The great Nicolas Poussin, a Frenchman painting in Italy at about the same time, has Orion, in “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun”, stumble down a path very similar to the one found in “Dunes”, though this time people moving up the path have to scurry out of the way of the blind giant. This scene takes place in the midst of very lush scenery, the greenery of trees, leaves, bushes, grasses, painted with great care. That is very different from what Poussin does in the urban scene depicted in “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. Yes, it does contain people, but is an urban scene in that there are multiple individual stories going on in the midst of the chaos of the Roman men selecting and dragging off the Sabine women, the whole scene observed from afar by people on their balconies. City life may seem chaotic, but it is organized. The exception to the rule that contrasts townscapes and landscapes is Bruegel, another contemporary, who presents the boisterous and communal lives of villagers, each going about their own business and yet also involved in one another’s festivities, like a wedding. That liveliness of a village scene earns Brueghel the commendation that would be awarded by William Hazlitt, to William Hogarth a century and a half later: that he was one of the great comic writers.
Here is a suggestion as to why this convention makes sense. The portrayal of nature is always confusing because there is too little to focus the mind. Rather, a viewer of a landscape or someone out in actual nature is over stimulated by the ever new vistas of conflicting colors, different kinds of growth, none of which give off straight lines. There is nothing to steady the mind except, perhaps, a fallen tree or a rock filled brook that constitutes a mini-waterfall. There are too many objects-- trees, blades of grass, fallen brush-- to make it easy to concentrate the mind or to organize the picture. Cities, on the other hand, are dominated by their formal activities of milling, boating, manufacturing, it easy enough to identify a structure with a function, and so, indirectly, of human activity. For that matter, we consider landscapes to be domesticated when they show the signs of human organization, as in the hedgerows of Normandy, or Robert Frost’s New Hampshire stone walls, or even the stately planned trees of Hobbema’s “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. So painters know how the human mind organizes its perceptions, how it gives them order, so as not to make people overcome with the information they need to process, as would be the case if one were left alone, standing in a forest or looking at a landscape, not knowing where the eye is to settle, or where are the borders of the image, or how one green becomes a darker and then a lighter shade of itself, all of these shades following no particular order other than the rules of shading that apply when a place is sheltered from the sunlight. Nature is, in itself, overwhelming and so the portrayal of nature requires toning that down by the introduction of people or some clear dramatic interest, because people understand motives, which are either invisible or only indicated, far more easily than they understand nature all and to itself.Read More
The Star Wars saga is remarkable for being overwhelmingly self-referential, and that may account for the duration of the franchise, the first Star Wars movie having appeared in 1978. Most science fiction movies are hardly about the future; they are recycling of ancient and contemporary allusions. The frame for “Blade Runner” was cinema noire and references to race relations in the United States, the artificial life creatures taking the place of American Blacks as those who are hounded down and killed for going off the plantation. The frame for the Terminator movies, for their part, was the Jesus and Mary story, a person from the future fathering a child whose mother protects him so that he can be the salvation of the world even though people think she is crazy for believing this story. H. G. Wells had the prospect of World War II in mind when he created “Preview of Things to Come”, fleets of aircraft destroying cities and civilization, when the war that came proved surprising in that cities such as Berlin remained as organized communities even as their buildings were overwhelmingly destroyed. “The Last Jedi”, the latest story in the Star Wars saga is noteworthy for how true it remains to the basic storyline, it’s imagery, and its own mythology and has few contemporary concerns. This self-referentiality constitutes a kind of originality, however much the Star Wars saga still remains something considerably short of art.Read More
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
There are certain portraits of women that have come down in history as masterpieces because they capture the allure and mysteriousness of their beautiful subjects and so illustrate both the individuality of a particular woman’s appeal and the strangeness of womanhood as a type. These portraits include Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”, Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring”, and Manet’s “Olympia”. The paintings have much in common. The women have a distinctive half smile, are imaginatively posed, and exhibit a combination of nonchalance and forwardness, as if all beautiful women have to be of that type. To be added to that list of great portraits, I think, is John Singer Sargent’s “Lady Agnew”, which has all of those attributes but is to be distinguished by the fact that the subject of the portrait is not really beautiful at all and yet Sargent is able to reveal that fact and still make her beautiful to behold, which says a lot about his mastery of portraiture but also about what it means to be a beauty in his time, at least among English speaking women in the wealthiest class of their societies.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
Limitless are the ways in which artists combine in their work both convention and innovation. And ever unanswered remains the question of whether it is easier for an artist to do one of these two things or the other, whether he or she is following his natural bent when he gives us what is expected, constructed out of what his audience is familiar with, as the way to make a painting or a play, or when he or she is listening to his own inner ear and eye and mind. Henrik Ibsen was at the height of his art in “John Gabriel Borkman”, crafting a play whose suspense was in the revealing of the relations of the characters rather than marked by changes in the characters. He was not being true to the traditions of Shakespearean or French Classical drama in that the play does not hinge on events but on making the audience think new things about the characters, but was that not, in fact, true to what is always true about drama, which is that surprises of one sort or another are what move it onto its inevitable or prefigured or quirky conclusion? Drama is still drama even if it unfolds in accord with fresh mechanisms. Let us make the same point, and deepen it, by considering three recent exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which seems no longer in the business of blockbuster shows but quite thoughtful minor ones.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