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A blog about "displaced thoughts on misplaced literatures."
Matthew Cheney is a writer and teacher who lives in New Hampshire. His work has been published by English Journal, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places.
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from "Power" by Audre Lorde:
|Ferguson, Missouri. Nov. 24, 2014. (Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters)|
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
|(photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)|
I attended a screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1980 film Lili Marleen
at the Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist series
at Lincoln Center last weekend, and it was an extraordinary experience. This is one of Fassbinder's weirdest and in some ways most problematic films, a movie for which he had a relatively giant budget and got lots of publicity, but which has since become among the most hard-to-find Fassbinder films (which is really saying something!). Despite a lot of searching, I didn't come upon a reasonably-priced copy of it until I recently discovered an Australian DVD
(seemingly out of print now) that was a library discard.
The story of Lili Marleen
is relatively simple, and is very loosely based on the wartime experiences of Lale Andersen
, whose performance of the title song
was immensely popular, and whose book Der Himmel hat viele Farben
is credited in the film. A mildly talented Berlin cabaret singer named Willie (Hannah Schygulla) falls in love with a Jewish musician named Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), whose father (Mel Ferrer) is head of a powerful resistance organization based in Switzerland, and who does not approve of the love affair or Robert's proposal of marriage. A Nazi officer (Karl Heinz von Hassel) hears Willie perform one night, is captivated by her, and guides her into recording the song "Lili Marleen", which unexpectedly becomes a song beloved of all soldiers everywhere on Earth. Willie becomes a rich and famous star, summoned even by Hitler himself, while Robert continues to work for the resistance and ends up marrying someone else. By the end of the war, Robert is a great musician and conductor and Willie seems mostly forgotten, many of her friends dead or imprisoned, and Robert lost to her. She had no convictions aside from her love of Robert, but that love was not enough. (I should note here that there are interesting overlaps between the film and Kurt Vonnegut's great novel Mother Night
. But that's a topic for another day...)
I was surprised to find that Lincoln Center was using the German dub of the film rather than the English-language original (it was a multinational production, so English was the lingua franca, and, given the dominance of English-language film, presumably made it easier to market). It was interesting to see Lili Marleen
in German, but unfortunately the print did not come subtitled, and so Lincoln Center added subtitles by apparently having someone click on prepared blocks of text. The effect was bizarre: not only were the subtitles sometimes too light to read, but they were often off from what the actors were saying, and when the subtitler would get behind, they would simply click through whole paragraphs of text to catch up. My German's not great, but I was familiar with the film and can pick up enough German to know what was going on and where the subtitles belonged, but I missed plenty of details. The effect was to render the film more dreamlike and far less coherent in terms of plot and character relations than it actually is. Not a bad experience, though, as it heightened a lot of the effects Fassbinder seemed to be going for.
Afterward, I said to my companion, "That was like watching an anti-Nazi movie made in the style of Nazi movies." I'd vaguely had a similar feeling when I first watched the DVD, but it wasn't so vivid for me as when we watched the German version with terrible subtitling — my first experience of Nazi films was of unsubtitled 16mm prints and videotapes my WWII-obsessed father watched when I was a kid.
When I got home, I started looking through some of the critical writings on the film, and came across Laura J. Heins's contribution to A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder: "Two Kinds of Excess: Fassbinder and Veit Harlan"
, which interestingly compares Lili Marleen
to the aesthetics of one of the most prominent of Nazi filmmakers
(and a relative-by-marriage of Stanley Kubrick).Lili Marleen
was controversial when it was released, not only because it is probably Fassbinder's most over-the-top melodrama, a film that defies both the expectations of good taste and of mainstream storytelling, but also because it arrived at a time when what Susan Sontag dubbed (in February 1975) "fascinating fascism"
was on the wane (The Damned
was 1969, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS
was October 1975, as if to bring everything Sontag described to an absurd climax) while interest in earnest representations of the Nazis and the Holocaust was on the rise (Holocaust
1978, The Tin Drum
1979, The Last Metro
1980, Playing for Time
1981, Sophie's Choice
1982, The Winds of War
1983, etc.). Lili Marleen
is much closer to The Damned
(a film Fassbinder loved
) in its effect than to the films with similar subject matter released in the years around it, and so its contrast from the prevailing aesthetic regime was stark, leading to what seems to have been in some critics utter revulsion. It's notable that Mephisto
, a film with very similar themes* and a significantly different aesthetic, could win an Oscar, but though Germany submitted Lili Marleen
to the Academy, it was not nominated — and I'd bet few people were surprised it was not.
Even though it exudes the signs of a pop culture aesthetic, Lili Marleen
can't actually be assimilated into the popular culture it was released into, partly because the aesthetic it's drawing from is passé and partly because it is deliberately at odds with conventional expectations. In a chapter on Lili Marleen
in Fassbinder's Germany
, Thomas Elsaesser writes
that "coincidence and dramatic irony are presented as terrible anticlimaxes. With its asymmetries and non-equivalences, the film disturbs the formal closure of popular narrative, while still retaining all the elements of popular story-telling."
At the time of its release, there was much handwringing about the ability of works of art to create a desire or nostalgia for fascism in audiences, and Lili Marleen
became Exhibit A. Heins quotes Brigitte Peucker: "One wonders whether, in Lili Marleen,
Fassbinder’s parodistic style is not unrecognizable as parody to most spectators, and whether his central alienation effect, the song itself, does not instead run the danger of drawing us in." This is absurd. Fassbinder's style is parodistic, but it's also much more than that — it is multimodal in its excess — and I have about as much ability to imagine an audience member getting a good ol' nostalgic lump in the throat and tear in the eye while watching it as I have the ability to imagine someone watching Inglourious Bastards
and mistaking it for Night and Fog
Heins paraphrases Peucker as apparently thinking that "the often repeated title song may ultimately generate more sentimental affect than irritation". I can't believe that, either. For those of us who are not especially misty-eyed about the long lost days of the 1,000-year Reich, the song becomes as grating as it does for the character of Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), who gets locked in a cell with a couple lines of the song playing over and over and over again. What begins as sentimentality becomes, through repetition, torture.
The song is repeated so much that even if it doesn't irritate, it is stripped of meaning, and that's central to the point of the story, as Elsaesser describes
When Willie says, "I only sing", she is not as politically naive or powerless as she may appear. Just as her love survives because she withdraws it from all possible objects and objectifications, so her song, through its very circularity, becomes impervious to the powers and structures in which it is implicated. Love and song are both, by the end of the film, empty signs. This is their strength, their saving grace, their redemptive innocence, allowing Fassbinder to acknowledge the degree to which his own film is inscribed within a system (of production, distribution and reception) already in place, waiting to be filled by an individual, who lends the enterprise the appearance of intentionality, design and desire for self-expression.
One of the things I love about Lili Marleen
is that its mode is utter and obvious kitsch, undeniable kitsch. It highlights the kitschiness not only of the Nazi aesthetic (which plenty of people have done, not least, though unintentionally, the Nazis themselves), but to some extent also of many movies about the Nazis. (I kept thinking of the awful TV mini-series Holocaust
while watching it this time, and Elsaesser makes
that connection as well.) We love to use the Nazis and the Holocaust for sentimental purposes, and representations of the Nazis and Holocaust often unintentionally veer off into poshlost
. To intentionally do so is dangerous, even as critique, because it is too easy to fall into parody and render fascism as something absurd and ridiculous, but not insidious. The genius of Lili Marleen
is that the insidiousness remains. It's what nags at us afterward, what lingers beneath the occasional laughter at the excess. There is a discomfort to this film, and it's not just the discomfort of undeniable parody — it is the discomfort of realizing how easily we can be drawn in to the structures being parodied: the suspense, the action, the breathless and improbable love story, the twists and turns, the pageantry, the displays of wealth and power. Our desires are easily teased, our expectations set like booby traps, and again and again those desires and expectations are frustrated and mercilessly mocked.
It's worth thinking about the place of anti-Semitism in Lili Marleen
(and Fassbinder's work generally), because this was also part of the uproar over the film, an uproar that was really a continuity of the complaints
about Fassbinder's extremely controversial
play Garbage, the City, and Death
. While not as brazenly playing with anti-Semitic imagery and language, Lili Marleen
does give us a very powerful Jewish patriarch in Robert's father, played by Mel Ferrer, a character that can be seen in a variety of ways — certainly, he is an impediment to Robert and Willie's romance (clearly wanting his son to marry a nice Jewish girl), but I also think that Ferrer's performance gives him some warmth and grace that the Nazi characters lack. Nonetheless, while Lili Marleen
is very obviously an anti-Nazi film, it's not so obviously an anti-anti-Semitic film (though there is a quick shot of a concentration camp, and Willie redeems herself by sneaking evidence of the camps out of Poland). Heins writes:
It cannot, of course, be concluded that the Absent One of all of Fassbinder’s films is The Jew, or that the sense of danger created by an unseen presence is racialized or nationalized, as it is in Harlan’s film [Jud Süss]. The malevolent other of Fassbinder’s films is more properly patriarchy and the police state, acting in the service of a repressive bourgeois order. In the case of Lili Marleen, however, we must conclude that Fassbinder did fail to effectively counteract the Harlanesque paranoid delusion of total Jewish power, if only because The Jew in this film is described as capitalist patriarchy’s main representative.
That point is astute, though for me it highlight the (sometimes dangerous) complexity of Lili Marleen:
by employing certain features of Nazi storytelling, by putting clichés (aesthetic, narrative, political) at the center of his technique, and by seeking to wed this to the sort of anti-capitalist, anti-normative-family ideas common to his work from the beginning, Fassbinder ends up in a bind, one that forces him to trust that the various opposing forces render all the clichés hollow enough that performing and representing them does not give them new validity or justification — that the paranoia and delusion remain legible as paranoia and delusion. I think they do, but I feel less certain of that than the certainty I feel against the old accusations of glamourizing Nazism.
In addition to the title song, Lili Marleen
includes an ostentatiously schmaltzy score by Fassbinder's frequent collaborator Peer Raben. It's schmaltzy, but also very sly — as Roger Hillman points out on the Australian DVD commentary, Raben includes brief homages to composers and works that the Nazis would not have looked fondly on, such as Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah
. This technique is similar to the film's entire strategy: to booby-trap what on the surface is an overwrought deployment of old tropes.
Finally, a note on the acting: sticking with the concept of the film as a whole, the acting is generally a bit off: sometimes wooden, sometimes unconvincingly emotional. (It's acting a la Brecht via Sirk via Fassbinder.) The more I watch it, though, the more taken I am by Hannah Schygulla's performance. On the surface, it's an appropriately "bad" performance, one redolent of the acting style of melodramas in general and Nazi melodramas in particular. And yet Schygulla's great achievement is to find nuance within that — hers is not a parodic performance, though it easily could have veered into that. Instead, while abiding by the terms of melodramatic acting, it also gives us a transformation: Willie starts out awkward, not particularly talented, a sort of country bumpkin ... and she becomes a poised, distant, sculpted icon ... and then a refugee from all she has ever known and loved. There's still a sense of possibility at the end, though, and one Schygulla's performance is vital for: a sense that Willie may reinvent herself, may find, in this newly ruined world, a path toward new life.
that Lili Marleen
can be seen within the context of some of the other films Fassbinder made around it:
the three films of the BRD trilogy — shot out of sequence — are held together by the possibility that they form sequels. If we add the film that was made between Maria Braun and Lola, namely Lili Marleen which clearly has key themes in common with the trilogy, then Lili Marleen's status in the series might be that of a "prequel" chronologically: 1938-1946 Lili Marleen, 1945-1954 Maria Braun, 1956 Veronika Voss, 1957 Lola. Four women, four love stories, four ambiguous gestures of complicity and resistance.
It could be a tagline for so many of Fassbinder's films, not the least Lili Marleen: Ambiguous gestures of complicity and resistance
. For a world entering the era of Thatcher, Kohl, and (especially) Reagan, Lili Marleen
was a most appropriate foil.
*In one scene of Fassbinder's film, Willie looks through a magazine and we quickly glance a picture of Gustaf Gründgens
The first book written for adults that I ever coveted and loved and read to pieces was a short story collection: Stephen King's Night Shift
, from which my cousin read me stories when we were both probably much too young, and which was one of the first books I ever bought myself. Ever since then, short story collections have seemed to me the most wonderful of all books.
I started publishing short stories professionally with "Getting a Date for Amelia"
back in 2001. I barely remember the kid who wrote it (in the summer of 2000). I'm not a prolific fiction writer; I've been lucky enough to publish most of the stories I've written in the last decade or so, but I average only two stories a year. Fiction is the hardest thing in the world for me to write. Some stories have taken many years to find a final form. The kid who wrote "Getting a Date for Amelia" also managed to write a novel; it was mostly terrible (or, rather, not terrible
, which might be interesting. Just nothing at all special. Rather boring, in fact. An extraordinarily useful exercise, though, dragging yourself through a novel-length piece of writing, even if the end result isn't all that great). I like fragments and miniatures too much to ever write a proper novel, I expect.
What? Get on with it? Ah.
Yes, I am dithering here.
Because I am about to write a sentence that still feels unreal, though I've been writing various forms of it into emails to friends for a little while now:
I am the 2014 winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press for an unpublished manuscript titled Blood: Stories that will be published by BLP in January 2016.
The book will mostly contain reprints, and finally bring together all of the stories I've published since 2001 that are 1.) worth bringing together and that 2.) play well with each other. There are also a few unpublished stories, ones that I've never found the right home for but that felt to me like they belonged with the others, both gained and added context from/to the others, and were worth publishing. The editors at Black Lawrence Press agreed. One of the things I love about story collections is the way they can recontextualize stories, and the greatest excitement for me of this collection is that it will finally allow stories that have been scattered across a wide range of publications over many years to speak to each other.
I'm also incredibly excited to have found a publisher that is excited by what some others have considered either a fault or danger of the collection: its breadth of genres and styles. Perhaps out of sheer stubbornness and delusion, I was convinced that I could not be the only person on Earth to think the overall perspective of the work would create a coherence beyond genre or tone, that there was, in fact, a persistence of voice and vision. That's what the BLP editors told me attracted them to the manuscript, and when they said that, I knew I'd found what may be the perfect publisher for my work.
So I am excited. Beyond excited. I don't have words to convey the feeling of achieving something I've work toward for so long, something I often gave up hope of ever achieving. I wanted to write this post not only to let the world know the news, but also to preserve this moment so that, working through the more difficult parts of the experience (oh gawd, people might write reviews!), I can look back and remember what it felt like to be at this moment of triumphant possibility.
And to thank you, whoever you may be, who felt that it was worth some bits of your time and attention to read my words. I hope to continue to reward your interest.
The marvelous Interfictions Online
has now published my short story/prose poem "On the Government of the Living"
The piece, which takes its title
from Michel Foucault but is not otherwise especially erudite, began purely as an exercise: I wanted to see if I could take what the Turkey City Lexicon
calls "White Room Syndrome" and actually make it a viable, necessary element of the story. (Whenever a writing guide says, "Don't do this!" I inevitably want to try it out...) The effect, perhaps unsurprisingly, is rather Beckettesque.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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Though J.M. Coetzee's work has long fascinated
me, I've avoided writing anything on Foe
, because every time I tried to write anything, it felt obvious and stupid. It's the same feeling I've gotten whenever I've tried to write about Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka, two other favorites of mine. Perhaps what has defeated me with writing about Foe
is something similar to what defeats me whenever I've tried to write about Beckett and Kafka, who were, in fact, considerable influences on Coetzee — their work is so what it is
that to add words around it feels inevitably reductive, a violence against the art.
I recently tried again with Foe
, and while it didn't feel quite as stupid and reductive as previous attempts — indeed, the writing helped me clarify some of my ideas about what the novel is up to — I don't think I'm going to go on. I started with a couple of passages toward the end of the book, and thought that might bring me back toward earlier parts, but as I started toward the earlier material, the feeling began again, the feeling of it being pointless — worse, harmful
— to keep emitting utterances around that which defies language.
Here, then, are two basically first-draft almost-essays about the end of Foe
, in case they are of any interest...
1. pp. 123-126 [US Penguin edition]
At the end of the first paragraph of this passage, Susan claims herself as “father to my story”. Foe then tells the first of his parables (anecdotes? tales?), one that centers on confession and the idea of “true” confession.
A woman who was convicted as a thief confessed that her first confession was false: she unleashes a torrent of confession on a minister, who becomes skeptical.
The woman says, “And if my repentance is not truly felt (and is it truly felt? — I look into my heart and cannot say, so dark is it there), then is my confession not false, and is that not sin redoubled?” (124). Confession here moves from being a true account to a true feeling, and the link with repentance elides any difference between the two: unfelt repentance = false confession. (Echoes of Disgrace here.)
Foe seems to believe that the woman’s confession in his story is a tactic, for he says, “And the woman would have gone on confessing and throwing her confession in doubt all day long…”, which suggests she is not so much telling a true story as behaving like Scheherazade, trying to forever defer her death through storytelling. Foe’s expression of what he thinks the moral of the story is boils down to: at some point, you’ve got to stop telling stories and accept the effects of the stories that have been told, particularly with regard to the story of our self. (I think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Nighthere, where in an introduction Vonnegut says it is the only one of his novels that he knows the moral, and the moral is: “Be careful what you pretend to be, for you are what you pretend to be.”)
Susan disagrees with that interpretation. “To me,” she says, “the moral is that he has the last word who disposes over the greatest force” (124). Susan knows that the storyteller only has power so long as the auditor is willing to keep listening. The real power is with the king or executioner: whoever can, at any moment, say, “Stop. Now I will kill you.” Here, I think, we see the difference in Foe and Susan’s experiences of power. Susan’s experience is that of a woman in patriarchy — no matter what she does, no matter who she is, it is always he who has the last word.
Foe tells a second story: a condemned woman seeks someone to take care of her child; one of the jailers agrees to, and the woman goes to her death content. This is a parable of procreation and progeny: instead of sending stories off into the world, this woman sends a child, and the child is a continuation of the self, providing a different sort of posterity. Foe interprets it as a way “of living eternally” (125).
Susan seems to misinterpret this parable — she’s good at understanding storytelling, but not so good at understanding parenting, it seems. She immediately interprets Foe’s “living eternally” as “fame”, which is not at all what he said. Foe’s was a more biological idea: the passage of a self encoded in genes from one generation to the next. Susan wants Foe to give her new clothes and a letter of recommendation so that she can get a job in domestic service: “I could return,” she says, “in every respect to the life of a substantial body” — but that’s exactly what Foe was talking about in the previous parable: the substantial body of the child outlives the body of the mother and thus carries on heredity. Susan’s silence about her daughter here is notable, because that would seem to be the logical subject to bring up: “At least the woman in your parable knew where her daughter was,” Susan could say. But she doesn’t. She brings it all back to herself. “I remain as ignorant as a newborn babe,” she says (126). She here is in the child position … but who was her mother? Mothers don’t make stories, for stories are, she says, fathered. It seems to me that the novel is somehow getting at ideas of failed or deferred or broken motherhood. (And I haven’t said anything about these interesting sentences from before: “But such a life is abject. It is the life of a thing. A whore used by men is used as a substantial body” . This is Susan rejecting bodily life, striving, as always, for the life of storytelling. But stories are breaths and bits of ink, not life.)
2. Chapter IV
Chapt. III begins: “The staircase was dark and mean.” Chapt. IV: “The staircase is dark and mean.”
(Darkness again. One could easily write a 30-page paper on the words “dark” and “darkness” in Foe.)
IV continues differently, though: where III continues with “My”, IV gives us a body: something substantial, “a woman or a girl” (153). She can be picked up, she has substance, but she “weighs no more than a sack of straw”.
The bodies in the bed, with skin “dry as paper”, are introduced first as a pronoun: “They lie side by side in bed, not touching.” The pronoun has no antecedent for the reader. We can fill it in ourselves with suspicions. If we were reading grammatically (Coetzee knows this, tempts us toward this), the antecedent is “a mouse or a rat”. But rather than living (substantial) animals (rodents, vermin), what we have are dessicated bodies, bodies similed into paper.
“I draw the covers back.” As if pulling a book open.
In an alcove: Friday, in “pitch darkness” (154). Matches “will not strike”. “I find the man Friday stretched at full length on his back. I touch his feet…” Once again, the fetish of Friday’s feet. Susan always wants shoes; Friday always wants bare (life?) feet. (Susan always desires stories, always flees bare life through the distance of tales. Friday desires — if the figure of Friday can be said to “desire” anything — flesh against soil, cobblestone, floor.)
Friday has a pulse. In his throat. “From his mouth, without a breath, issue the sounds of the island.” It is as if the pulse produces the sounds. But the sounds of the “faraway roar” are ones the narrator expects, ones previously reported, for that faraway roar, perceived as “the roar of waves in a seashell” is “as she said”.
A break in the text.
A plaque, a sign: Daniel Defoe, Author. We know Foe, not Defoe. The sign is a mark, the author an authority, and the sign enacts his authority. The authority of a byline. It is not free-floating, it is nailed to a wall. Did Daniel Defoe author(ize) this room?
A few paragraphs later, we get the first sentence of the book we’ve been reading, but now with a salutation: “Dear Mr. Foe, At last I could row no further” (155). Taken on its own, it sounds like a suicide note. The salutation directs it. We have repeatedly had clues suggesting that Chapter I (numeral and singular personal pronoun) is not the spoken text we probably first took it to be: the ship’s name rendered typographically was the first clue, and here we are encouraged to see Chapter I as similar to, if not exactly the same as, the epistolary Chapter II.
At any rate, here the narrative splits without a textual break: the narrator now appropriates some of the words of the first pages, here without quotation marks and here in the present tense.
With a sigh, with barely a splash — a sigh, a breath. (Stories require breath. Friday has a pulse.)
The dark mass of the wreck is flecked here and there with white. … It is like the mud of Flanders, in which generations of grenadiers now lie dead, trampled in the postures of sleep. … In the black space of this cabin the water is still and dead, the same water as yesterday, as last year, as three hundred years ago. Susan Barton and her dead captain…. I crawl beneath them. … But this is not a play of words. … This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday. (156-157)
And now, again, at the end, a beginning: Friday’s mouth opens. “From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption.” He speaks without breath. This is not a story or confession, but something else. Something uninterrupted. It is bodily, and conveyed bodily. What it is, we do not know: it is it, pronoun, no antecedent. Soft, cold, dark, “unending”.
it beats against my eyelids
The eye/I. Friday’s eyes on feet (147), “dark to my English eye” (146), Foe says Friday rowed across a “dark pupil” or “dead socket” an “eye staring up at him from the floor of the sea” — “but I should have said the eye, the eye of the story” (141).
it beats against my eyelids
against the skin of my face.
We end, then, with Friday’s unbreathed story beating against closed eyes and (white?) skin.
This review was first published in Rain Taxi in the spring of 2011. I'd actually forgotten all about it, but then came across it as I was reorganizing some folders on my computer. In case it still holds some interest, here it is. (Page references are to the Yale hardcover, and were for the copyeditors to double check my quotes; they weren't in the print version of the review, but I've kept them in because, well, why not...)
One of the pleasures of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?
is that it all but forces us — dares us, even — to argue with it.
Josipovici presents an idiosyncratic definition of Modernism, he perceives the struggles of Modernist writers and artists as fundamentally spiritual, and he frames it all by describing his disenchantment with most of the critically-lauded British fiction of the last few decades, a disenchantment that he ascribes to such fiction’s attachment to non-Modernist 19th
The only readers likely to agree with Josipovici’s general view, then, are readers who accept his terms and share his tastes. Such readers are probably few, and they are also the readers who least need the book. It is those of us who may be sympathetic to one or another of Josipovici’s general arguments who really need it, because it is a powerfully clarifying volume, especially in its extended discussions of particular works.
“Modernism” is one of those terms that has been used in so many different ways, with so many different meanings, that anyone seeking to discuss it must first define it. In general, it is seen as both a tendency and an era, a style of artistic expression mostly occurring in the twentieth century, though with some examples or precursors in the latter part of the 19th century. Josipovici rejects all of this, for while his paragons of Modernism do fit the general periodizing, his definition of the term is far broader, and is not particularly interested in situating Modernism within borders of time. In the first chapter, he defines Modernism as “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities” , a definition that is further refined to see Modernism as a response to the post-Medieval European world’s disenchantments. Modernism reveals itself in the “century of pain, anxiety, and despair on the part of writers, painters, and composers” , which Josipovici details with examples from Mallarmé, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Beckett. The pain, anxiety, and despair come from an unresolvable tension between an overwhelming desire to write and a doubt in art’s ability to represent the world. This tension inscribes itself in the texts, undermining or even shattering the enchanting verisimilitude of, for instance, Victorian novelists such as Dickens.
Josipovici begins What Ever Happened to Modernism?with a preface in which he tells the story of being an undergraduate student, hearing a lecture about “The English Novel Today”, seeking out the recommended writers (Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, Iris Murdoch), and feeling a lack: “They told entertaining stories wittily or darkly or with sensationalist panache, and they obviously wrote well, but theirs were not novels which touched me to the core of my being, as had those of Kafka and Proust” (ix). He goes on to discover Borges and Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Saul Bellow, Georges Perec, and Aharon Appelfeld — all writers whose work he admires — but feels more and more of an outsider within English literary culture. “Occasionally I wondered why my own feelings and those of reviewers or critics were so much at odds, wondered, indeed, who was right, me or the entire establishment. I didn’t think I was mad (though of course the mad rarely do), and I did occasionally meet people who shared my tastes, so how was this anomaly to be explained?
“This little book,” he says, “is an attempt to answer that question.” (xi)
Within the question itself we can glimpse the kernels of Josipovici’s argument, assumptions, and desires. He sets up a polarity: “Who was right, me or the entire establishment?” It’s a feeling many intelligent and thoughtful people have asked (often in their youth) for centuries, and the frustration it provides can be productive, particularly in helping people define their tastes, but in and of itself it’s humorous in its naivety. The claim that What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an attempt to answer the question of why Josipovici’s experiences as a reader are different from those of people who don’t share his tastes may be true in terms of intention — he may have thought that was what he was trying to do — but it is false as a description of the book’s value, because Josipovici shows no interest in trying to understand tastes that differ from his own. He truly doesn’t seem to be able to understand how people of even moderate intelligence and education could find themselves touched to the core of their beings by works that he himself doesn’t respond strongly to, and which seem to him “to belong to a different and inferior world to that of Proust and the others” (x). Not just different, but inferior.
It should not surprise us, then, when Josipovici defines a central element of Modernism as “pain, anxiety, and despair” resulting from European culture’s growing rationalism and waning faith in unquestioned authorities and eternal verities. Over the course of the Middle Ages, perceptions of reality changed. Individualism took hold. Capitalism infiltrated economies. The Enlightenment solidified, expanded, and complexified the disenchantment, and then Romanticism reflected on it. The Victorian novel, that form which Josipovici so disdains, sought to re-enchant the world with the legerdemain of its reality effects, the verisimilitude that lulls the reader into imagined reality. Such a reality is unquestioned, unified — it does not admit the problems of representation in a fallen and fragmented world. Its pains, anxieties, and despairs are not those of the Modernist, but of the illusionist.
Josipovici’s question “Who was right, me or the establishment?” is simultaneously a cliche of individualism (the absolute individualist, unburdened by doubts, answers, perhaps with a copy of The Fountainheadin hand, “ME!”) and an expression of the assumption that prevents Josipovici from empathizing with any view other than his own, because the assumption underlying the question is that there is a right and a wrong, and that this right and wrong can be discovered and elucidated. The first chapters of the book are the weakest, because it is in them that Josipovici attempts to predict criticisms to his arguments, but he is so convinced that those criticisms must be wrong(different and inferior) that what he offers as representations of them are ridiculous: a quote from Evelyn Waugh about Picasso, a parody of Marxism (paraphrasing something Josipovici said he heard from a professor at the University of Sussex once), and a caricature of postmodernism that, were someone to represent his own conception of Modernism so badly, Josipovici would laugh off the page. He quotes an astute statement from the art historian T.J. Clark on the difficulties of writing honestly about pre-Enlightenment Europe without sounding nostalgic, but this seems pro forma — Josipovici verges, especially in the first chapters, toward far more nostalgia than Clark’s Farewell to an Idea does, because Josipovici clings to the notion that the fragmentation and dispersal of authority should cause pain, anxiety, and despair. He wants, still, for there to be one right and one wrong, and he sees “the establishment” as a monolithic and invalid authority.
He knows, though, that this despair can lead to terrible things, and he uses Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus particularly well to point to the dangers, for Doctor Faustus represents a Germany “which is in the grip of a party which believes it is possible to forge a new cultic and communal society in the post-industrial world,” and this Germany “appals and terrifies” the characters, Mann, and Josipovici. What is to be done? “Can one retain the critical insights, feel the loss as real, without at the same time opting for the demented Nazi vision of a new cult? This is the question out of which the tortured novelist, writing in distant California as the Nazi dream drags Europe to its destruction, forges one of his greatest works.” [19-20]
After these introductory pages, the book shifts more toward Josipovici’s real strengths — he moves from denigrating the mysterious forces that don’t share his opinions and perceptions to offering his interpretations of specific writers, artists, and works. In its central chapters, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a tour de force. As the book draws connections between Albrecht Dürer, Rabelais, and Cervantes; Wordsworth and Caspar David Friedrich; Kierkegaard and everyone, the pages sing with insight. Each reader will find different thrills within the rich texture of the text. While I was familiar with some of Josipovici’s ideas about such writers as Cervantes, Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Beckett from his previous essays, I had passed over things he’d written before about Wordsworth, and so his close readings of some of Wordsworth’s most famous and most obscure poems opened those works up to me in ways I had never considered, and sent me back with passion to a writer I’d previously had little interest in. I expect most readers, especially those unfamiliar with the majority of Josipovici’s other books, will, if they can read past the polemic, find similar moments of epiphany in What Ever Happened to Modernism?.
By the end of the book, the word “Modernism” seemed to me too narrow for the tendency Josipovici described, because he convincingly shows connections between everything from ancient Greek drama to Herman Melville to Francis Bacon, suggesting that for millennia artists have concerned themselves with, if not Modernism exactly, the impulses and experiences that allow Modernism to fully reveal itself in the 19th century. What Josipovici describes is not an artistic movement or school, but a type of perception and expression present in much of the art that has been considered among the greatest of human accomplishments. The fiesty, proselytizing side of Josipovici tries hard to make it seem that everybody who has ever written about literature hates and misunderstands this tendency, but it may just be that he is uncomfortable on the side of the winners. While Proust, Kafka, Borges, et al may not be quite as popular as J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown right now, they’re a whole lot more widely read than Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, and Iris Murdoch, and a whole lot more universally beloved than even the contemporary British writers who soak up so much of the journalistic ink that rouses Josipovici’s ire.
I suspect, though, that the ire and insights need each other, and that without the passionate sense of being a lone, sane man in a madhouse of philistines, Josipovici may not have been able to make the bold and brilliant interpretive leaps displayed throughout not only What Ever Happened to Modernism?, but his entire oeuvre of essays and fiction. Careful, moderate critics are useful, but it is the fiery, aggrieved ones who scale the highest intellectual heights, and Josipovici has scaled those heights with brio and panache.
Press Play has now posted my latest video essay, "Terry Gilliam: The Triumph of Fantasy"
. It also has a short text essay to accompany it. Here's how that one begins:
In a 1988 interview with David Morgan for Sight and Sound, Terry Gilliam proposed that the most common theme of his movies had been fantasy vs. reality, and that, after the not-entirely-happy endings of Time Bandits and Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen offered the happiness previously denied, a happiness made possible by “the triumph of fantasy”.Read and view more...
That triumph is not, though, inherently happy. Gilliam’s occasional happy endings are not so much triumphs of fantasy as they are triumphs of a certain tone. They are the endings that fit the style and subject matter of those particular films. More often than not, his endings are more ambiguous, but fantasy still triumphs. Even poor Sam Lowry in Brazil gets to fly away into permanent delusion. Fantasy is sometimes a torment for Gilliam’s characters, but it is a torment only in that it is haunted by reality, and reality in Gilliam is a land of pain, injustice, and, perhaps worst of all, ordinariness.
The latest issue of the venerable British horror/dark fiction magazine Black Static
includes my latest story, "Patrimony", and is now available both in print
and as an e-book in various formats
. I'm thrilled with the accompanying illustration by Richard Wagner, and thankful to Andy Cox for buying the story and rushing it into print, because it's one of the strangest and most disturbing things I've ever written, and not the sort of thing that just any editor would get excited about.
For a preview, here's the first paragraph:
For most of my life, I worked in the gravel pit as an overseer. There had been gravel there for a long time, but there wasn’t much left. Mostly, we spent our days trying to decide where to set off dynamite. We didn’t have a lot of dynamite, so we wanted to be precise. We would go for weeks and even months without lighting a single stick. I spent my days – ten-, eleven-hour days – telling the workers to try over here, to look over there, to dig here, to prod there. We sought the best rock, the least sand.
Going through some of the secondary literature on John Cheever in preparation for a class in which I assigned the students to read his 1954 story "The Country Husband"
, I was surprised to find no discussion of the story within a queer context. My search was not comprehensive, but the connection seems so obvious to me, and so illuminating for the story, that I'm surprised it isn't mentioned by most people who write about Cheever's tale.
Paging through Blake Bailey's comprehensive biography
of Cheever makes the connection even more obvious than the story itself does, for Bailey notes
that Cheever's journal "in the early months of 1954 was filled with self-loathing on the subject" of homosexual desire. It's a running theme throughout the book, as Colm Tóibín points out in an insightful essay
on Cheever and Bailey's biography for the London Review of Books:
The problem was partly his intense inhabiting of the domestic sphere and the suburban landscape, as though this were a way of shutting out the wider world, and partly his refusal even to recognise his own homosexuality as anything other than a dark hidden area of the self which could not be explored. ‘For Cheever it would always be one thing to have sex with a man,’ Bailey writes, ‘another to spend the night with him. The latter was a taboo he would rarely if ever violate until a ripe old age.’ In his journals he wrote: ‘If I followed my instincts I would be strangled by some hairy sailor in a public urinal. Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy, was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ One of his best friends in his twenties was Malcolm Cowley, through whom he had briefly met Hart Crane. Cowley’s wife had been on the ship with Crane when he committed suicide in 1932. A homosexual lifestyle, Cowley had warned Cheever, ‘could only end with drunkenness and ghastly suicide’. As one of Cheever’s colleagues in the Signal Corps in World War Two remarked: ‘He wanted to be accepted as a New England gentleman and New England gentlemen aren’t gay. Back then you had no idea of the opprobrium. Even in the Signal Corps, even in the film and theatre world, you were a second-class citizen if you were gay, and Cheever did not want to be that.’
Of course, in 1954 Cheever could not write a short story about his desires and have it published by The New Yorker
, even if he had wanted to (Alan Gurganus's "Minor Heroism"
is reportedly the first openly gay story the magazine published, a story sent to the magazine by Cheever, who had been Gurganus's teacher and was, rather to Gurganus's chagrin, in love with him. It appeared 20 years — almost to the day — after "The Country Husband"). But the torment of the story's protagonist, Francis Weed, is one entirely familiar to anyone who has ever repressed socially unacceptable feelings.
On a general level, "The Country Husband" is a story about the struggle to keep chaos out of an ordered society: it is a story of repression and abjection. It opens with a fall: an airplane makes an emergency landing. Francis is on the plane, and once he makes his way back to New York, he first tries to tell a (male) friend about his experience, and then his wife and family, and none of them are particularly interested or able to hear him. The crash seems to them an absurdity or impossibility, something that can't be admitted into their consciousness. Francis lives in a world that seeks to keep the world itself at bay, a psychically gated community where everyone "seemed united in their tacit claim that there had been no past, no war — that there was no danger or trouble in the world."
Various forces threaten the perfect, memoryless, painless order of Shady Hill: the dog Jupiter, the little girl Gertrude, and, most insistently, memories of the war years. War imagery fills the story on nearly every page right from the beginning, where the pilot of the crashing plane sings a song popular with Allied soldiers. The most obvious insertion of the war into the story is the moment where Francis recognizes that the Farquarson's maid is a woman he'd see in France in 1944, a woman subjected to "public chastisement" for having "lived with the German commandant during the Occupation". The description of her torture is harrowing: the mayor of the village condemns her, her hair is cut off, she's stripped naked, jeered at, spat upon. We know nothing of why
she lived with the German commandant, or what that entailed exactly, or if she did it out of love or traitorous sympathies or simply the hope of gaining some extra rations — but her crime is clear and at least implicitly sexual. Francis remembers her, and the memory brings in the chaos of the war, but it also reminds him of what happens to anyone who transgresses the mores of a village.
(From a biographical standpoint, it's interesting that Cheever sets this scene in Normandy and, clearly, 1944. He was in the military that year himself, and missed
going over to D-Day by pure luck. Almost all of the men he knew in his regiment died in the attack on Utah Beach and afterward.)
The overt transgression of the story is that Francis falls in love with the babysitter. (I expect this was a cliché even in 1954, and the very predictable, banal nature of the transgression is, it seems, part of Cheever's point.) Francis behaves terribly, even assaults her and very briefly entertains the idea of raping her. His desire is a sprawl of chaos, a threat of destruction. It poisons his family life and his friendships. Finally, he goes to a psychiatrist (as Cheever did the year he wrote the story, though Cheever went to discuss "homosexual concerns"
, impotence, and alcohol abuse), where, because he was insistent that he must see the doctor that day, he is confronted by police who think he might be a man who has been sending death threats. The police are there as representatives of social authority — the enforcers of normality and punishers of deviance — and they further heighten the sense of peril for any transgressor. When the doctor asks Francis what his problem is, he says, "I'm in love." The doctor tells him to try woodworking, and Francis finds some happiness in this. Woodworking, Timothy Aubry notes
, "as a part of a 'do-it-yourself' movement was a constitutive aspect of a self-help culture that attempted to affirm the average white-collar worker’s belief in his power and masculinity."
That the ridiculous, impossible, yet dangerous and destructive love for the babysitter can be read as a placeholder for homosexual desire (and gay panic) seems to me to be become legitimate not only when we consider the plot and character relationships in the story, or Cheever's own biography, but also through an examination of three passages, and in particular three words.
The first two are relatively close together in the story: "The photograph of his four children laughing on the beach at Gay Head reproached him" and "The look Francis gave the little girl was ugly and queer, and it frightened her".
Of course, today, when the meanings of gay
denote homosexuality first and foremost, no writer or reader could ignore those meanings, but in 1954 the words meant differently. But they didn't not
mean what they do today.
George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940
is a useful text here, particularly the introduction in which he outlines the evolution of such words as fairy, faggot, gay,
. He quotes a writer from 1941:
Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out whether he was "wise" or even homosexual. One might ask: "Are there any gay spots in Boston?" And by slight accent put on the word "gay" the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant. The uninitiated stranger would never suspect, inasmuch as "gay" is also a perfectly normal and natural word to apply to places where one has a good time.... The continued use of such double entendre terms will make it obvious to the initiated that he is speaking with another person acquainted with the homosexual argot.
Chauncey writes: "The term gay
began to catch on in the 1930s, and its primacy was consolidated during the war. By the late 1940s, younger gay men were chastising older men who still used queer
, which the younger men now regarded as demeaning."
Thus, while the reference to Gay Head beach (on Martha's Vineyard) primarily serves to evoke a particular location, to a reader "wise" to a particular double entendre
, it may have an added meaning. Similarly, Francis's "ugly and queer" glance. Both words are used in sentences about children, which evokes not only the common 1950s homophobic associations of queers with pedophiles, but also attaches a homosexual association to the products (offspring) of good, manly heterosex. The photograph reproaches Francis not only by reminding him of the happiness that is possible with his family when he doesn't transgress, but also by reminding him of the perverse, nonprocreative desires that torment him. His glance at Gertrude is ugly and frightening because it is queer.
Then we have the ending, which I can attest will cause many snickers when read aloud to adolescents today. A cat dressed up in a doll's dress and straw hat runs away from whoever put it into such an inappropriate, uncomfortable costume:
"Here pussy, pussy, pussy!" Julia calls.
"Here, pussy, here, poor pussy!" But the cat gives her a skeptical look and mumbles away in its skirts. The last to come is Jupiter. He prances through the tomato vines, holding in his generous mouth the remains of an evening slipper. Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.
While it is perfectly innocent in 1954 to call out "Here pussy!" to a cat, the more vulgar contemporary associations of that word were well established then. By the end of the 19th century, the word was used as slang for vulva or vagina, and its use as slang for someone timid, gentle, or effeminate goes back to the mid-19th century.
And so the story ends with a cat wearing a doll's dress, being chased with a word that has slang associations for both female genitalia and unmanliness, followed by a dog that clearly stands for joyful but also threatening chaos, and the whole story ends with a reference to Hannibal
, who, our textbook
helpfully notes, "attacked the Romans from the rear".
Francis's gay panic is also, and perhaps primarily, a panic of effeminacy. War is the most manly of activities, and it haunts him. The world of Shady Hill confines him and reduces him in a way war did not — the manly virtues of the military within what was in World War II a staunchly homosocial milieu. His illicit, inappropriate, absurd desires are the chaos that escapes his repression. The exact nature of those desires doesn't much matter; it's the excess that counts. Woodworking will let him be happy for a little while, but there is no reason to read the ending as a happy one.
My latest video essay is now available at Press Play. It's the first in a new series by various hands on cinematic terminology. My term was "composition", and so I made an essay creatively titled, "What Is Composition?"
Jamie Marks Is Dead
is based on a book I love by a writer I love: One for Sorrow
by Christopher Barzak
. I realized recently that I think of it as the first novel of "our" generation/group of writers — Chris is a few months older than me, and originally introduced me to probably half the writers and editors I know. I read One for Sorrow
in manuscript, exhorted Juliet Ulman to buy and edit it for Bantam, and celebrated its publication. Chris sent me a copy with the kindest inscription penned onto its title page that any writer has ever given me. I feel like a kind of distant (crazy) uncle to the book, and thus also deeply protective toward it. I didn't read most of the reviews when it was released for fear that I would seek out any negative reviewers and do terrible things to them that would get me arrested. When I found out it was being made into a movie, I was both excited for Chris and for the higher profile the book would likely gain, and terrified that the movie would just be awful. I mumbled to myself for weeks about the change of title before coming to accept it.
The movie was officially released in some major US cities today, and the distributor is also doing a simultaneous release on video-on-demand (Amazon, iTunes, etc.), so those of us, at least in the US, who can't get to one of the cities it's playing in can still see it. I watched it this morning.
The movie is not awful — far from it — and though at first I had my crazy-uncle fists clenched, ready to pounce on anything that even touched a hair of my beloved nephew's head, it was soon clear that this was a movie made from not only a general understanding of the book, but a profound sympathy with it. They're very different creatures, but if you love One for Sorrow
, I think you're likely to love Jamie Marks Is Dead
It begins in a style I've come to think of as "digital somber", a style common to a lot of artsy low-budget movies these days: muted colors; the clarity of light peculiar to a certain kind of digital lensing; long takes and fluid camera movement; dreamy music. It's become a familiar enough style that I now find myself skeptical of it at first, because too often it screams out, "Serious Movie!" before it earns its mood. (But at its best it can be devastating. See, for instance, The Snowtown Murders
In this case, it's a good fit to the material, and director Carter Smith, cinematographer Darren Lew, and the various designers and decorators (Amy Williams, Steven Phan, Nora Mendis, Rachel Dainer-Best) do a superb job of uniting the elements into a whole that sustains a mood impressively. The production design and decoration in particular deserve notice, because the details are exquisite — though the movie makes absolutely no effort to drawn attention to it, the setting is not contemporary, but rather seems to be late '90s, early '00s (the time of the book). Further, though the novel is explicitly set in and around Youngstown, Ohio, the movie is more general in its setting: somewhere northeastish, somewhere working class, somewhere rusty and full of industrial and commercial ruins. (It was shot in New York state. Chris says it looks plenty like Ohio. It looks plenty like places I know in New Hampshire, too, the places the tourists don't go.)
Smith's background as a photographer serves him well, as he and Lew sustain a difficult look for the film without strain. Shot after shot is evocative but not ostentatious. One example (a screen capture doesn't do it justice, or I'd place a picture here): a high-angle long shot of a yellow ribbon of crime scene tape snaked across the wet ground of a grey riverbank on a moonlit night. The tape, though muddied, is the brightest object in the image, rivalled only by the white of driftwood and fragments of light rippling on the water. The image evokes mood and meaning, but most importantly it provides a perfect introduction for a ghost.
I wasn't sure if I was going to like Noah Silver as Jamie, because I had such a clear idea of Jamie in my own mind, an idea that has congealed over a decade of living with the novel, and the soggy-Harry-Potter styling of the character was very different from the lighter, whispier Jamie in my head. (Adam was always less defined for me, more an aural than physical image, since the novel is written from his first-person POV.) But Silver's performance won me over, especially in the second half of the film when he must be alluring, mysterious, innocent, and menacing all pretty much at the same time. In his first scenes, the lighting and make-up make him seem almost like a plastic mannequin, but as the scenes progress, he becomes more and more human — an odd and very effective choice for the representation of this ghost.
All of the performances are strong, and the film demonstrates quite well the adage that finding the right cast (and crew) is 90% of the success of a production. In pre-release photos from the film, I thought Cameron Monaghan as Adam looked a bit too much like a human Kewpie doll, but he gives an impressive performance. His physique is remarkably variable — he can play vulnerability and sensitivity as well as sharpness and hardness, with his face seemingly changing shape depending on the needs of the scene: at one moment, his face is soft and a bit round, at another, it's all cold angles. (Some of this is also the responsibility of the cinematographer and his lighting team.) Monaghan has excellent instincts, and Smith is smart enough to bring those instincts to fore by encouraging him to hold back: Monaghan's eyes tell entire stories.
Where Silver and Monaghan were not immediately in sync with how I'd imagined the characters, and thus had to (and did) win me over, Morgan Saylor was the Gracie in my mind's eye. I've rarely seen an actor so perfectly fit how I'd imagined a character when reading the original material. A big part of it is her voice, which is deeper and huskier than you might imagine if you just looked at her. It would be easy to make the character of Gracie into a cliché of the adolescent "bad girl", but the movie thankfully doesn't do that — as Saylor plays the role, Gracie is very much an individual, not a type. We don't actually learn a lot about her in the movie, but there is a richness to the performance that allows us to imagine so much that the film itself doesn't have time to convey.
Smith made some excellent choices with his screenplay and direction, particularly in how he focused the story. There's an epic quality to the second half of the novel that just couldn't be conveyed well in a 2-hour movie, never mind a 2-hour movie without a big budget. As any good artist does, Smith turns his limitations into opportunities. The close focus on Adam, Jamie, and Gracie (with some other folks wandering in and out of the story to create and complicate tension) allows the film to build a slow, careful emotional resonance. It's seductive, this movie, and it sticks its hooks in when you're not expecting it. Partly, this is because Smith decided to keep the dialogue to a minimum and to not explain everything. It's a movie of glances and glimpses, of possibilities more than answers. That will, I'm sure, bother plenty of viewers, viewers who want explanations for the logic of the ghost world (as if the supernatural must follow a logical system!), who will want some of the plot's mysteries solved more neatly, who will want some of the side stories tied up or justified — but this is a different sort of film, and its commitment to suggestiveness, its willingness to allow possibilities to linger, enhances the fundamental effect. Give yourself over to it, and this is a movie that will haunt you. The novel does this some, but as a novel it has the space to answer questions without closing off possibilities. Two-hour movies are more like short stories, and at its best moments this one reminded me of the effect of reading my favorite writer of ghost stories, Robert Aickman
For all its many great moments, the most extraordinary is the very last. Since the movie goes in a different direction for some of its later parts than the novel does, I had no idea how or where it would end. (Figuring out the end was, I know, one of Chris's biggest challenges when writing the novel.) What could it possibly do? How could it find the resonance it needed to be satisfying?
I'll just say this: the moment the credits started rolling, I was in tears. Tears not only because of the profound effect of the absolutely perfect
choice of ending, but also of relief that this beloved novel had been translated with such care and love to a very different medium.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
After reading Gerry Canavan's essay
on two newly published short stories by Octavia Butler
, one of which is a prequel to her 1978 novel Survivor
, I decided it was time for me to read Survivor
, since though I'd read most of Butler's books, and repeatedly assigned a couple of them in classes, I'd never gotten around to this one.
The problem, however, is that Survivor
is a book Butler disavowed and, once she had the ability, she prohibited it from being reprinted. Used copies tend to sell for at least $65 (although one just sold on E-Bay for $15. Alas, I discovered it only after the sale!).
However, I figured I might be able to get a copy through interlibrary loan, and that's how I discovered my university library had a copy. (You can also find a bootleg PDF online if you search for it. But I didn't tell you that.) I went to the library fully expecting that the book did not exist — that it had disappeared off the shelf without anyone noticing, or that for some reason the catalogue was mistaken. But no. It was there: a hardcover without a dust-jacket, in pretty bad condition, its mustard-yellow boards scratched and torn, its corners crushed and frayed, its binding broken. I will be returning it with a note, something to the effect of: "Please take care of this book. It might not look like much, but it is rare. It is valuable. We need it to be preserved."
Having now read Survivor
— or, more accurately, having compulsively devoured the novel in two days, which for me is very fast, indeed — what I find myself most wanting to say is exactly that, to whoever will listen: We need this book to be preserved
After reading/devouring Survivor
, I went looking for reviews of it and articles about it. I read every interview with Butler that I could find where she mentioned it. I wanted to know why she had gone out of her way to keep this book from us, because for me it was not just a satisfying read, but a far more satisfying ending to the Patternist series
, her first-published novel, a novel I like well enough, but which feels thin: a book for which Butler had considerable vision, but not yet the skill to bring that vision to vivid life. Survivor
is certainly not as skilled as many of Butler's later novels, even the later-published novels of the Patternist series (as novels, I think both Wild Seed
and Clay's Ark
are more accomplished) — but it's at least the equal of Mind of My Mind
, and in some ways superior to it: I found the ending quite moving, for instance, while for me the most interesting sections of Mind
are in the middle. Survivor
also provided a certain sense of closure to the Patternist series that Patternmaster
didn't for me, perhaps because Survivor
is about some of the last remnants of humanity, the ones who escape Earth and don't end up the "mute" slaves of the Patternists.
Butler's public statements about Survivor
are not especially illuminating. In an interview with Amazon.com, she said:
When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like "the natives" in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, "No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage." People ask me why I don't like Survivor, my third novel. And it's because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel.
One of the central elements of Survivor
is the ability of humans to have children with the natives of a far-off planet, and this biological improbability seems to be a part of the problem she sees with the book. Elsewhere, she spoke of publishing Survivor
too soon, as if she wished she'd given it another draft or two, maybe to at least gesture toward some justification for the ability of humans to procreate with the Kohn, the native people of the planet (a common ancestor, for instance).
The biological improbability isn't the main thing. Though no explanation would make it highly scientifically sound, there are improbabilities in Butler's other novels, and this one is hardly a reason to condemn a book to the memory hole.
The main reason she gives there is that of, we might say, the colonial gaze, something common to science fiction from its beginning
. In this, though, I think Butler underestimated the richness of her own writing. While certainly the Kohn could have been portrayed more complexly, the novel is not as simple as she makes it out to be, and the humans are often portrayed negatively — they are unprepared, deeply prejudiced, almost suicidally stubborn, and sometimes just stupid.
Why, I wondered, would Butler have apparently come to perceive her novel as simplistic colonialist tripe? Some of the academic writing on Butler has given it good analysis and not come to that conclusion. (The best article I've seen is "Negotiating Genre and Captivity: Octavia Butler's Survivor"
by Maria Holmgren Troy, which looks closely at one of the genres that I thought Survivor
was most closely in conversation with when I read it: the captivity narrative
.) Then I thought to look up some of the original reviews, and I read Cherry Wilder's from the January 1979 issue of Foundation
and Geraldine Morse's from the July 1978 issue of Galileo
. They were illuminating.
The Wilder review begins:
It is interesting to see female fantasies emerging in science fiction; it is also important to perceive them for what they are, because a fantasy — one of the persistent, satisfying day-dreams of mankind — is not a good story. This has been amply demonstrated by hundreds of male fantasies masquerading as science fiction or sword and sorcery. ...
The female fantasy that is currently gathering momentum seems to run as follows: "I was the chosen mate of a large, alien-looking male." There is a treament of this in Floating Worlds by Cecelia Holland and an interesting variant in Octavia Butler's new novel Survivor. In both cases, with Holland's six and a half foot black Styth and Butler's giant, blue-furred Tehkohn Hao, the aliens are distantly human and the union is blessed with issue.
The Morse review begins:
If you enjoyed Mandingo, that titillating tear-jerker about the lust of a white plantation mistress for her black slave, you'll probably enjoy Survivor, which raises the tension at least theoretically by introducing a pleasant bestiality in the male partner, who would closely resemble a six foot tall blue gorilla if such a thing existed.
Survivor isn't a bad book, and the ploy of miscegenation perks up an otherwise uneventful story, but with apologies to the gorilla, there's no real meat in it.
I don't know if Butler read these reviews, but if she did, I can see them causing her to rethink her novel. She might have thought that if she had failed so spectacularly as to elicit such responses from reviewers of, presumably, at least a modicum of intelligence and literacy, then she must not have written the book she thought she wrote. Because though of course I'm just speculating here, I'm pretty confident that Octavia Butler did not set out to write a hot-and-heavy interspecies romance fantasy. (I would also suggest that Morse is misreading Mandingo
, but lots of people did.)Survivor
is not a fantasy about how much fun it would be to be ruled and dominated by a big furry blue guy. But I can see where readers' discomfort comes from. Diut, the leader of the Tehkohn, is at first repulsed by Alanna, but then works through his repulsion until it becomes a kind of attraction, and he takes her on as a kind of project. He then decides she'd be a great wife for him, and he takes her to his bedroom. She fights him. He says the Tehkohn do not have a tradition of forced mating, but he also doesn't offer her much choice. She gives in when he tells her that if she mates with him, she will be free to live how she wants. At first, it causes her pain ("'I always give pain before I give pleasure,' he said. 'Your body will accustom itself to me.'" ), but Alanna finds his fur pleasant and an attraction for him grows. She comes to value him and eventually to love him.
Butler's purpose, it seems to me, was to show how repulsion can become attraction. Humans and Kohn find each other's bodies at best alien, at worst utterly repulsive. They see each other as animals and savages. Alanna is a perpetual outsider, though — on Earth, her parents were killed by Clayarks (humans mutated by the disease brought back on the Clay's Ark
starship) and she roamed feral for a while until she was adopted by the religious missionaries who soon take her with them to the new planet. She does not share their very strict religion, though, and plenty of the missionaries thought she should be cast out — not only because she wasn't of their faith, but also because of her ancestry.
Here's an important passage from early in the novel:
"Neila, I've been talking to some of the others and they agree. If we're going to keep the girl in the colony, surely she'd be happier with her own kind."
There had been a moment of silence, then Neila spoke quietly. "Her own kind? Who are you suggesting I give my daughter to, Bea?"
The older woman sighed. "Oh, my. I knew this was going to be difficult. But, Neila, the girl isn't white."
"She's Afro-Asian from what she says of her parents. Black father, Asian mother."
"Well, we don't have any Asians, but one of our black families might..."
"She has a home, Bea. Right here."
"Most of the blacks here are no more interested than the whites in adopting a wild human. The ones who are interested have already been here. Jules and I turned them down."
"...so I'd heard."
"Then why are you here?"
"I thought that after you'd had a few days with the girl, you might... reconsider."
There was the sound of Neila's laughter. "Come to my senses, you mean."
"That's exactly what I mean!" snapped the older woman. "Several of us feel that you and Jules ought to be setting a better example for the young people here—not encouraging them to mix and..." 
A fear of mixing, a fear of impurity and contamination, carries through the whole novel, again and again leading characters toward decisions and actions that harm them. One of the pleasures of reading even Butler's earliest books is that many things which seem straightforward and even obvious are complicated by something else within the story. She doesn't just show us that the fear of mixing and contamination is a hindrance and even a danger to various characters — she shows that sometimes it's a justified fear. The other group of Kohn, the Garkohn, kidnap and seem to plan to inseminate some of the humans because within their ethical system, this means the humans are then bound by Garkohn laws and dictates. In all of her novels, Butler is fascinated by the ways that power is wielded, and even when she seems to show power to be a necessary and perhaps benevolent tool, it is never unambiguously so.
This reminds me of something Dorothy Allison wrote in a 1989 essay on Butler for the Village Voice
(collected in Reading Black, Reading Feminist
ed. Henry Louis Gates):
I love Octavia Butler's women even when they make me want to scream with frustration. The problem is not their feminism; her characters are always independent, stubborn, difficult, and insistent on trying to control their own lives. What drives me crazy is their attitude: the decisions they make, the things they do in order to protect and nurture their children — and the assumption that children and family always come first.
...While acknowledging the imbalances and injustices inherent in traditional family systems, Butler goes on writing books with female characters who heroically adjust to family life and through example, largeness of spirit, and resistance to domination make the lives of those children better — even though this means sacrificing personal freedom. But she humanizes her dark vision of women's possibilities by making sure that the contradictions and grief her women experience are as powerfully rendered as their decision to sacrifice autonomy. ...
Homosexuality, incest, and multiple sexual pairings turn up in almost all her books, usually insisted on by the patriarchal or alien characters and resisted by the heroines, who eventually give in. Her women are always in some form of bondage, captives of domineering male mutants or religious fanatics or aliens who want to impregnate them. Though the men in Butler's novels are often equally oppressed, none is forced so painfully to confront the difference between surrender and adjustment. Women who surrender die; those who resist, struggle, adjust, compromise, and live by their own ethical standards survive to mother the next generation — literally to make the next world. Maybe if this world were not so hard a place, butler might be writing less painful fiction.
I think the patterns that Allison sees in Butler's novels are sometimes more nuanced than she describes here, and this description doesn't really show the way that Butler's interest in the idea of family is an interest in the idea of a chosen family, or at least a family less of blood than convenience. Her families often become communities. Her interest in power (and power struggles), though, leads her to depict families and communities where not everyone has the equal power to choose whether to be a member. Again and again, people are pulled into communities against their will. They may come to see the community as the best place for them, but usually it is some person of power who brings them in. (For more on family, communities, and kinship in Butler's work, see some of the references in Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson's "'Gambling Against History': Queer Kinship and Cruel Optimism in Octavia Butler’s Kindred
" in Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler
Nonetheless, Allison gets at the peculiar frustration, discomfort, and even discombobulation that reading Butler can cause. I struggled with this myself when I read my first Butler novel, Parable of the Sower
, somewhere around 1996 or so. I hated
it. Viscerally and vehemently. Mostly because I thought Butler was trying to write a book about how wonderful the protagonist Lauren Olamina was, and how much we should all worship and admire her. As a novice to reading Butler, I didn't yet understand the complex stance her books take toward their protagonists, particularly the ones like Lauren who become the leaders of a group or community. Yes, there is attraction, but the attraction can also be a trap, and that was the trap I fell into: I legitimately liked Lauren through much of Sower
, but I was also put off by her confidence in her, I thought, insipid spirituality. (Again, I was reading it shallowly. The text is quite ambivalent about that spirituality, if "spirituality" is even the right word for it.) In Butler's work, power always corrupts. But sometimes, there's just no better option.
It also counters the power fantasies so prevalent in SF and popular culture in general. Cherry Wilder was, I think, spectacularly wrong about the "female fantasy" of Survivor
. In various interviews, Butler noted that as a child she was an avid reader of comic books, and the influence is clear — indeed, the Patternist series sometimes feels like a version of the X-Men. But Butler's take on the power fantasies inherent to both superhero comics and a certain strain of science fiction is not an uncritical one. She knows the seductive power of such fantasies, and she's more than aware of the terrors that seduction can lead to. (As I, perhaps prejudicially, read her, she sees similar seductions in religion. Sometimes I think a basic theme of Butler's work could be stated as, "The power fantasies of comic books, sci-fi, and religion are not all that different...")
Along similar lines, a clever idea that Maria Holmgren Troy proposes is that Survivor
can be read as (among other things) an allegory of science fiction itself:
Interestingly, in the context of science fiction, it is possible to see Alanna—and by extension Survivor—as a child of Butler’s imagination, and the name “Jules Verrick” as a reference to Jules Verne, who is sometimes considered to be the “father of science fiction.” Verne is regarded as one of the most important “pioneers of the tale of the extraordinary voyage into outer space, the most typical of all science-fictional themes” (James 16), which ... is one of the premises of Survivor. Verrick’s wife is called Neila, which if the letters are reversed spells “alien.” Thus, in this allegorical reading, Octavia Butler’s wild child is adopted by the white science-fiction tradition with its domesticated aliens, a tradition which her transgressive work challenges; consequently, the genre and its audience’s generic expectations are forced to expand in order to contain Survivor. Butler stated in an interview in the late 1970s that what she would really like her novels to accomplish is to “make people feel comfortable with characters who are not all male, who are not all white, and who just don’t fit. Who are not middle class, who don’t fit the stereotype” (“Butler Interviewed” 31).
Of all of Butler's books, Survivor
may be the one most clearly in dialogue with much of the science fiction that came before it. While reading it, I thought repeatedly of some of the novels of John Brunner, perhaps because Butler cited them as an influence in a 1997 interview with Joan Fry for Poets & Writers
(collected in Conversations with Octavia Butler
): "The writers who influenced me most tended to be those who were the most prolific. John Brunner was very
prolific — my favorites are Polymath, The Whole Man
, and The Long Result
." (The influence of those three books on the Patternist series seems pretty clear, with Polymath
the closest to Survivor.
) One of the things I find notable in the two original reviews of Survivor
that I was able to dig up is their determination to read the book within the standard science fictional frame, and thus to see it as unoriginal and thin and perplexing; whereas it's a much more satisfying novel if read as an at least somewhat skeptical outsider to the conventional conversation, the standard narrative.
I have moved away from so much of what I thought I'd be writing here, and I haven't written much in detail about Survivor
itself, but perhaps that's for the best. I need to read it again. I am very torn about many of its elements and implications. But I am not torn about one thing: no matter how much Butler regretted the book, no matter how embarrassed she was by it, it is, I think, a perfectly respectable part of her oeuvre, and vastly better than the work of many, many writers.
With that in mind, I think it's worth considering whether Butler's literary executor(s) should consider re-releasing Survivor
. The question should be considered carefully, because it was Butler's wish that no-one read the book. (In Strange Matings
, Nisi Shawl says the first Butler novel she read was Survivor
, and so eventually she asked Butler to sign it for her. Butler did, but wrote: "Nisi, I wish you didn’t have this one.") Any new edition should of course make Butler's disavowal clear. My own desire would be for an academic/critical edition, a book where the text of the novel was accompanied by some essays about it (and not just fawning ones). With the release of the new short stories, it seems especially valuable to have Survivor
available again. But I don't know. It's entirely a selfish desire on my part — I'm fascinated by the book and would like to own it, and I'd like to be less worried that my library's copy is going to disintegrate and be impossible to replace.
In any case, if you happen to find a copy of Survivor
, don't be afraid of it. It's worth reading. It's not Butler at her best, by any means, but it's at least a worthy companion to Patternmaster
and Mind of My Mind
, and it's not nearly as bad as she thought it was. Indeed, when I think of Survivor
now, it's with some sadness, because I don't like to think of Butler disliking her own work so much that she would want it to disappear, especially when that work is more complex and thoughtful than much of what's out there.
I know it's been all Snowpiercer
all the time here lately, but this time it's not so much about that particular film as about how one reviewer has chosen to write about it, since his choices are ones that I detest in reviews, despite (or perhaps because of) how common those choices are.
I am, in other words, simply here to register a complaint
There is a good argument to be made that we should not expend any time or attention on bad writing. Life is short, and there's plenty of great writing out there to read. But I am ignoring that argument for the moment, despite all it has to recommend it. Because sometimes something is just such a perfect model of What Not To Do that I can't help but want to scream against it.
The item in question is a review at The Los Angeles Review of Books by Len Gutkin
. It is a negative review, but that's not the problem. I'm glad there are negative reviews of Snowpiercer
, even though I loved the film, because I am suspicious of anything that seems to garner universal acclaim.
It would be nice, though, if the negative reviews could be something more than, "Waaaaa! I don't like this movie and other people do! I'm right, they're wrong! Waaaaaa! Pay attention to me!"
You think I exaggerate? Let me do something the review does not, and offer a bit of evidence...
The first paragraph is mostly summary, but the term "critical darling" is obviously there to let us know that this will not be an altogether positive review. Critical darlings
are one step above warm piles of wombat dung, after all. Not only are they darlings
(which we all know must be killed, not loved), but they're also the darlings of that most disgusting of creatures, the critic.
(Critics who proclaim their distaste for all those other critics are the best, of course, because they're on Our Side. They're One of Us. We the people.)
The second paragraph begins with an overview of director Bong Joon-Ho's career, with The Host
praised for its satire and wit, but the review quickly plunges into invective. "Snowpiercer
, too, has moments of satirical wit, but it is mostly an incoherent slog, a tendentious allegory punctuated by overproduced fight scenes meant to be virtuosic but that are, in fact, merely busy — glossy object lessons in the asininity of action-movie convention."
Here's where we begin to see the problem with this review. The reviewer wants to universalize his own taste, prejudices, inclinations, ignorance, etc. He
wants to become Us
. He could not write, "I found Snowpiercer
to have some moments of satirical wit, but mostly it seemed to me to be an incoherent slog..." No, it must be stated more categorically: It is this.
Of course, you might argue that since this is a review written by one person, the fact that it is one person's opinion is obviously implied, and saying, "It seems to me..." or "I found it to be..." over and over is annoying. That may be true, but writers find ways around it without declaring themselves God Of All Truth. And yes, certainly the omniscient pose is, we all know, just a pose. It's the choice to take such a pose that I object to, because it leads to an astounding arrogance of tone, a tone of absolute faith, utter certainty, pure infallibility.
Perhaps I so bristle at it because I've fallen into such a tone myself at times. It's hard to avoid, I know. But worth the effort. The pieces of writing that I most regret having published are reviews composed with such a tone.
I could complain about the inaccuracy of Gutkin's adjectives, or the factual inaccuracy of his "in fact" ("merely busy" — no, that is, in fact, wrong
), or the blithely dismissive phrase "the asininity of action-movie convention" — but let's instead look to how he justifies his opinions. After such assertions, there must be evidence, no? "The entire movie looks, somehow, both very expensive and frustratingly cheap." Another assertion. Followed by a comparison to a video game and another assertion: "which would have been impressive 17 years ago." Oooh, snap! But not evidence. (How
does it look like that? Point to specific elements. Describe.)"Snowpiercer
is about class revolt, a theme whose timeliness has tricked critics into admiring it." More assertions and more arrogance: All those other people have been tricked
! Our reviewer is the only one who can see the truth! This sentence is followed by a snide contradiction of David Denby's review: "'Is revolution being hatched in the commercial cinema?' The New Yorker
’s David Denby was moved to ask. No, David, it’s not." This is a contradiction, not an argument
. Also, it's puerile. (Why not just call him Dave? You're at Yale, Lee, you could, you know, jump on MetroNorth and hang out with Dave in NYC. I'm sure he'd love to chat with you. He might even offer you his job, because obviously you're so much smarter than he is!)
This is followed by some more snide summary in which the writer works hard to declare himself superior to the work he is reviewing.
(Have we found evidence for Gutkin's assertions yet? I'm not seeing much. But let's continue...)
There's commentary on Chris Evans's performance as Curtis. "Has there ever been a well-known actor so pitifully without any of the requisite gifts as Evans?" Yes, I'm sure there has been. But maybe he meant the question as hyperbole. No matter. It completely misses the idea that perhaps the performance is exactly what was needed, because perhaps there is a critique of heroic action movies built into this movie. I don't require a reviewer to agree
with such an idea, but it's always worth considering that perhaps the item under review is doing what it is doing on purpose, and perhaps your job as a reviewer is to look for that purpose, and, before you reject the item as simply "bad", to consider this possible purpose and adjust your critique accordingly. But no, as any blowhard can tell you, it's much easier and more fun to hurl insults.
The review continues: "To be fair, he’s given some pretty hopeless material. Recounting to Namgoong the traumatic early days of life on the train, Curtis fights back tears (I think that’s what he’s doing) and asks, 'You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like.' After several seconds of grimacing: 'I know that babies taste best.' I laughed so hard I thought I’d be asked to leave the theater." Again, skipping over the snotty tone, maybe that's the point
(But let's not entirely skip over that snotty tone. Gutkin presents himself as one of those people who likes to stay above it all, distantly judging anyone who might find the scene actually moving. I can see him at the theatre, laughing away while some poor schlub next to him wipes away a tear, and Gutkin turns to said schlub and whispers, "What a little crybaby you are. You probably watch the Hallmark Channel, don't you?")
He moves on to Tilda Swinton. To Gutkin's credit, he recognizes that Tilda Swinton is a god. He then references Coriolanus
, to show what a real
writer can do with similar themes, and Joan Didion, who long ago sneered down her sneery nose at Dr. Strangelove
— and so Gutkin decides that because he, too, likes to sneer, he has rights to Didion's nose, and he uses it to sneer down at Snowpiercer
, which is, in fact, worse
. (Imagine that! The horror!) But Swinton's good: "Only when she’s onscreen does Snowpiercer
completely hold one’s attention."
The above sentence is yet another example of the arrogance that oozes from this review. What if somebody said, "There actually are
other moments that completely held my attention." How would Gutkin respond? He has left himself only two choices. He could say, "In that case, I am wrong," or he could say, "You may think your attention was completely held, but you are a victim of false consciousness, and I, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, know more than you, and therefore I pronounce you wrong. Return to the hole out of which you crawled, worm!"
The next paragraph is, surprisingly, all praise for various actors, ending with, "And as Wilford, Ed Harris is as good as you’d expect him to be."
Just as we're beginning to think that Gutkin is maybe not the total creep he seemed to be, he doubles down: "But not good enough." Ohhh, feel the burn!
The final paragraph continues: "Snowpiercer
wouldn’t, really, be worth writing about at all, except that a number of prominent critics — and not just David Denby — seem inexplicably convinced of its virtues." If the egomaniacal shallowness of this sentence isn't obvious to you, just look at that inexplicably
there. According to this sentence, none of the critics who have praised Snowpiercer
have explained their praise. None of them. Instead, they've just written thousands and thousands of versions of, "Snowpiercer
, rah rah rah! Yadda yadda yadda! It's great, great, great" Meanwhile, Gutkin has offered the devasting and incontroverible evidence of, "No, David, it’s not."
We're not quite done yet, so maybe there's some evidence in the final sentences. Gutkin actually quotes two reviewers, Dana Stevens and Andrew O’Hehir, but he doesn't quote their reasoning, he just contradicts their opinions, and quotes O'Hehir on Harvey Weinstein's initial desire to cut the film's length, which then leads to the final sentence: "Weinstein should have been allowed his cuts — the thing would at least have been shorter." (The thing
. It's not even a movie, it's just a thing
, something easily dismissed. Get this thing
out from under my Didion nose! Such things
are not allowed at the Yale Club! Go away, thing
This made me wonder if the reviews he quotes are as vapid as his own.
Here's a paragraph from Stevens
(and not an entirely positive one, at that, despite Gutkin's accusation that Stevens gushes
Unless you have a huge appetite for gnarly fight sequences, this seizing-control-of-the-train section gets a bit long and structure-less, though I will say this for Bong: His action scenes never build or resolve according to familiar Hollywood formulas. Any character, no matter how narratively important or beloved, can get the ax (often literally) at any time, which gives the battle scenes a palpable sense of emotional as well as physical suspense.
The qualifier at the beginning of that first sentence is an interesting contrast to Gutkin's arrogance. As someone who does
, in fact, have a pretty good appetite for "gnarly fight sequences" (an accurate description of some of the central scenes in the film), I appreciate Stevens's caveat. Indeed, I can see how somebody less interested in cinematic mayhem than I might get bored during a lot of Snowpiercer
, just as I could see they might get bored with any action movie, no matter how accomplished. If you don't like that sort of thing, you don't like that sort of thing, and you'll have a hard time telling the good stuff from the mediocre or even bad. (It's like me trying to tell you if a football player is any good. Amateur football games look just like professional ones to my eyes. But I'm not writing reviews of football games.) Further, Stevens makes an assertion about those action scenes (they "never build or resolve according to familiar Hollywood formulas") and then follows that assertion with reasoning.
The O'Hehir review
is more descriptive and also full of assertions without evidence, and, truthfully, doesn't do a very good job of explaining its praise.
It's easy to write negative reviews. It's fun, in a nasty, trivial sort of way. It lets you blow off the steam that built up from being subjected to an experience you didn't enjoy. I've done it. I get it. But a negative review needs to offer something more than just its negativity.
I've come to expect, perhaps foolishly, a little bit more of the L.A. Review of Books
. Shouldn't an editor say, "Hey, you've clearly had fun writing this, but you should know that you come off sounding like an ass, and it might help to put a little bit more explanation in there to give some evidence for your criticism. You disguise the lack of substance with a tone of omniscience, as if the obviousness of your complaints isn't worth the effort of explanation. I mean, have you ever considered that maybe the problem isn't the movie? Maybe, really, the problem is ... you?"
Let's talk about white saviors, emotions, and endings. Daniel José Older has an interesting take on Snowpiercer
, particularly its ending, likening it to Children of Men
|Children of Men|
But both Children of Men and Snowpiercer come crashing down to almost identical final moments. When the smoke clears and the countless bodies are carted off, what we’re left with is the same take-away: Bearded white dude saves humanity, in both cases represented by a woman and a child of color, both helpless and in need of saving, at the cost of his own life.
Basically, Older says, Snowpiercer
and Children of Men
are white savior movies. He proposes an alternative: "Imagine if the desperate rebels paused and elevated Tanya to leadership instead of Curtis. Snowpiercer
would’ve become something truly subversive, a story some of us have been trying to tell for a very long time."
I think Snowpiercer
is already pretty darn subversive, so I would replace the "truly" there with "even more", and I wouldn't call Yona in Snowpiercer
helpless, really (she's smart and even seems to have some super powers). But yes, Snowpiercer
could have offered an alternative to white supremacy (both the structural white supremacy of the train and the apparently internalized and patriarchal white supremacy of the rebels) instead of something closer to a satire of white supremacy ending in its own destruction — a futile destruction if you consider the likelihood of Yona and Tim's survival or the likelihood that some disease would kill off their ancestors. (For more along this line, and for thoughts on the implications of the film's take on revolutionary politics, and much else, see Aaron Bady's "Snowpiercer Thinkpiece"
.) It could have been a more deeply subversive, even utopian movie. It is not.
But as a savior, Curtis is pretty crappy. He's wrong about the revolution, most of the tailenders he's trying to liberate end up dead, and though he may have sacrificed his life for a woman and boy, the woman and boy are in all likelihood only going to outlive him by a day or two at most. And it's not like he set out to sacrifice his life for them. Nam and Yona caused the explosion. He just chose, along with Wilford, to see if his body might shield Yona and Tim's bodies from the blast. If you're going to die, you might as well make your death a potentially useful one, and that's what he does.
I've already proposed one way
of thinking about the racial politics of the ending, and this is at least somewhat at odds with Older's reading, but I like texts that can be interpreted richly, and it's entirely likely that soon I'll think my first take was wrong. I like thinking about the lineage of white savior movies, because when I do, they give me a little bit more hope for progress than the ending of Snowpiercer
does, because if we can see such stories as white supremacy talking about itself, then it's having a crisis of confidence and thinks it's going to die pretty soon.
(Obviously, it is the nature of white supremacy to make itself the center of conversation, and I am perpetuating that here. White supremacy's representations interest me. But I entirely agree with Older that we need additional storylines. Please please please somebody give Danny Glover the money to make his Toussaint L'Ouverture movie
, for instance!)
There are some noticeable differences between the ending of Snowpiercer
and the ending of Children of Men
, but before getting to those, I want to bring up one other white savior movie, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino
, which I once called
"a white savior movie that questions the whole idea of a white savior movie, or, at least, that wants to put an end to itself."
One of the things that I think is important to consider when viewing a white savior movie is its desired emotional effect. Where does it want the audience's sympathies to fall? What does the film seem to want us to feel, and how? In a classic white savior movie — think Dances with Wolves
or The Blind Side
or [insert your own title here] — the white savior becomes ennobled through their encounter with the non-white supporting character(s). They learn to be more caring, less bigoted, etc. (Yay, white people can be better! Hooray for White Guy 2.0!) The journey is fundamentally that of the white protagonist, and the audience's greatest interest should be in the white character. (This is one of the things I thought was so excellent about 12 Years a Slave
, which is in the end, yes, literally a white savior movie — without Bass [Brad Pitt], Solomon Northup might never have been freed — but not at all about the redemption of white people. But that's tangential to this discussion...)
Though Gran Torino
is at least partly about the end of the old white savior, it nonetheless sticks with the redemption narrative. The future is given to nonwhite characters, and those characters are shown to be the closest to a traditional (conservative) sense of American values, but grumpy old racist Walt ends up not just learning to care deeply for people he'd previously spurned, but sacrificing himself for them. And not just any sacrifice. He lands on the ground with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. Like Snowpiercer
, Gran Torino
proposes that the future will not be white, but in Gran Torino
the white savior is still pretty awesome, even if he's a relic.
In Children of Men
, Theo is much less heroic than Walt. He's pointedly unheroic in his presentation. But his character arc is toward heroism — through helping Kee, he discovers something to live for, something to fight for, and he becomes somebody worth shedding a tear for when he dies. For me, it's not as big a tear as Gran Torino
seems to want us to shed for Walt, but that's partly because it's not hard to imagine Theo going back to being a cynical or apathetic drunk even if he lived. Walt's death feels momentous, like a tremendous (if necessary) loss; Theo's death is sad for a moment, poignant more than devastating.
With Children of Men
, Alfonso Cuarón did make interesting changes to counter the whiteness of the source material (a P.D. James novel), but the character we follow from beginning to end is, indeed, a white guy who saves a pregnant black woman and her child. Here, though, Kee is, like Thao and Sue in Gran Torino
, a kind of representative of the future — if humanity is to survive, it's surviving because of a black woman, and the white savior is gone from the picture. (Although everyone we see on the Tomorrow
ship that picks her up looks white, so who knows what will happen later...)Snowpiercer
also kills off the white savior(s) and proposes that the future of humanity does not lie with white people, but here the journey of the white savior is even less heroic than that of Walt or Theo. At least Walt and Theo are successful saviors.
Curtis's journey is in many ways the opposite of Walt's and Theo's. Walt and Theo begin cynical (or worse) and come to see the value in being a savior. We end up feeling good about them, and proud of them for their sacrifices. Curtis starts out at 2nd in command of the revolution (though Gilliam repeatedly suggests that Curtis is really in charge, even if Curtis doesn't want to face that fact) and ends up finding out that the revolution was a sham and that his actions all served to help Wilford's overall goals. Curtis has helped lead everyone he most cares into death for an illusion. Oops.
Do we shed a tear for Curtis?
I don't know about you, but I certainly didn't. Sure, there was the monologue toward the end where he talks about how he became a savage and then couldn't cut his arm off, etc., but it's important to remember what comes next: Nam's deflating reaction — Curtis clearly thought he was sharing his deepest, darkest secret, and Nam's response was little more than, "Uh huh." He's not bowing down to this white savior, not giving in to his emotional tug.
Curtis was interesting as a protagonist, as a figure to carry the force of the action, but my own emotional commitment was far more toward Nam, Tanya, Yona, and then Tim. (Tanya's death was, for me, the most affecting.) Curtis just isn't a very interesting character; he's a foil for the other characters and a device to get the story out. The relatively bland main character is an old tradition in narrative, and it serves a similar function to a straight man in comedy. So Curtis's death is not a moment that is, for me at least, more powerful than the deaths of so many other people on the train. It's easy for my plot interest to shift to Yona and Tim because that's where my affectual interest has been all along.Gran Torino
gives us the white savior who wants to end all white saviors, but it wants to us to pause and feel real sorrow for his death. Children of Men
gives us an unheroic white savior who finds some shreds of heroism and dies to save the (at-least-partially) nonwhite future; we end up sort of sad for him, but the stronger emotion is likely happiness that Kee and her child lived. Snowpiercer
gives us a white savior seeking the wrong revolution, ending up a savior as much by accident as intent, and the movie drains much of the emotional power from the savior figure, while proposing that if humanity has any future (unlikely), its future isn't one with white people in it.
The white savior is in trouble.
Well, at least until the next Avatar
I've never seen the life of the writer Raymond Roussel
condensed so marvelously as in David Macey's The Lives of Michel Foucault
(Foucault wrote a book on Roussel
), where it becomes a kind of perfect literary life: a life of weirdness, alienation, mental illness, addiction, and suffering, all capped with a mysterious death:
Enormously rich, [Roussel] travelled the world but rarely left his hotel room or his cabin. He financed the publication of his own writings and the staging of his own plays, which were invariably expensive failures accompanied by riots among the audience. His writings excited little interest in his lifetime, though some of the surrealists — notably Breton in his Anthologie de l'humour noir — appreciated them. For much of his life Roussel suffered from serious neurotic illnesses provoked (or at least triggered), it is thought, by the spectacular failure of La Doublure (1897), a long verse-novel, written in alexandrines, about a stand-in actor. He was treated by Pierre Janet, who failed to see any literary talent in him and described him as un pauvre petit malade; Roussel is the "Martial" whose case is discussed in the first volume of De l'Angoisse à l'extase (1926). Roussel was a homosexual, though little is known about his sexual tastes and activities, and became totally dependent on barbituates in his later years. He died in Palermo, where his body was found in his hotel room, lying on a mattress which he had — presumably with great difficulty, given his physical state — pushed up against the door connecting his room to that of his travelling companion. The door, habitually left unlocked, was locked. Whether Roussel was murdered or committed suicide has never been determined. (125)
You have succeeded as a writer if someone can describe your work as "invariably expensive failures accompanied by riots among the audience".
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Cheney publications
, Joon-ho Bong
, Press Play
, video essays
, white supremacy
, Add a tag
Press Play has now posted my new video essay with a brief accompanying text essay
about the great new science fiction action movie political parable satire call to revolution Snowpiercer
, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, a filmmaker I am especially enamored of. (Memories of Murder
is easily among my favorite movies of the last 15 years,
and back in 2010 I defended Bong's previous film, Mother
, from the criticisms of Richard Brody at the New Yorker
As a little bit of extra, below the fold here I'll put some thoughts on elements of the remarkable ending of the film...
First, for some information on the background and references of Snowpiercer
, see Scott Tafoya's piece at RogerEbert.com
, and for a good analysis of the revolutionary ideology of the film, see "Smash the Engine" by Peter Frase at Jacobin
The audacity I see in the ending of Snowpiercer
comes not just from its framing of revolution as something that must smash the logic of the system, but also from the way it shows that system to be not just hierarchical in terms of class, but of also being fundamentally racialized.
First, there is the inescapable fact that most of the people who have been saved from the apocalypse are white and English speaking. Even the people at the back of the train, though more diverse than the people in the front, are predominantly white and English speakers. All of the positions of highest power in the train are positions held by white English speakers, and the ultimate positions of power are held by white men and passed on to white men (Wilford to Curtis).
As Curtis moves closer and closer to the front, the white supremacy becomes obvious. There's the classroom, where the vast majority of students are very white (and often blonde), with a few Asians in there (the pre-apocalypse notion of Asians as educational high achievers is thus replicated in the train), and one black girl (at least that I saw). The overall effect is of lily-whiteness, with a few special people added.
The people at the dance party are almost entirely white.
The people who apparently stepped out of The Great Gatsby are white.
The women getting their hair styled are white.
It's worth noting, too, how so much of what we see in the front cars evokes the old white world, a world of the 1920s-1950s — an America before the successes of the civil rights movement, of women's liberation struggles, of gay liberation, etc. (The car where everyone is taking drugs evokes even earlier ideas. It's like an opium den, a powerful force in the orientalist imagination of the yellow peril in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a setting with plenty of cinematic history
Early in the film, Curtis tells Edgar that once they
get to the front of the train, things will be different. "But how
different, really?" the film asks at the end. "Know your place!" Mason (Tilda Swinton) tells the rabble. Curtis learns what his place is from Wilford: the place of the white patriarch.
That system cannot be reformed. It will do no good to have somebody else in charge of the engine. The logic of the system must not be reformed, it must be defied and destroyed.
And thus the ending, which stops the train's circular journey and potentially annihilates the last remnants of humanity.
The system is so corrupt, so incapable of reform, that what is known to be left of humans is worth destroying rather than continuing along the same tracks.
If there is to be a future for humanity, it looks like this, the new Adam and Eve:
They might be destroyed by the cold, white world. They might be a meal for the white polar bear. But maybe, somehow, they will survive and discover or create a new world, a world where humans are on a different journey, subject to a different system, not oppressed by the cold, unbearable whiteness.
Bong leaves it to us to imagine their fate.
Yesterday, "Weird Al" Yankovic released a video for his song "Word Crimes"
, a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines"
. Since a lot of people I know are language folks of one sort or another, I saw it flow and re-flow through various streams of social media. But I had qualms.
I love Weird Al, and he's been a formative influence on my life, since I started listening to him when I was a kid. (My entire sense of humor could be described by three childhood influences: Weird Al, the Marx Brothers, and Monty Python.) I also think the detestable "Blurred Lines" is ripe for ridicule and attack. And I like words.
But how are we to understand the speaker in "Word Crimes"?
Most people I saw who shared the video seemed to identify with the speaker. This is not as disturbing as people identifying with the rapey speaker of "Blurred Lines", but it reveals a certain cruelty in the feelings of people who want to be identified as linguistically superior to other people. A tinge of cruel superiority is essential to grammar pedants, and "Word Crimes" reveals that again and again in how it characterizes people who commit such "crimes". On his Facebook page, Jay Smooth listed these characterizations:
"raised in a sewer"
"Don't be a moron"
"You dumb mouthbreather"
"Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head"
"you write like a spastic"
"Go back to preschool"
"Get out of the gene pool"
"Try your best to not drool"
Hyperbole in service of comedy? Or your (not so) secret inner feelings?
It's interesting to follow the comments on that Facebook post as well as on the Grammar Girl post
that Jay Smooth linked to. Various interpretations and arguments come up, including the common complaint that it's just comedy and you shouldn't take it seriously (a pernicious attitude, I think). I don't know exactly what Weird Al intended with the song, nor do I particularly care (it's a clever song, with fun animation in the video) — it's more interesting as a kind of Rorschach test: Do you identify with the speaker in the song? Do you enjoy the cruelty and want to replicate it?
Usage pedantry is not harmless fun. It is ego balm that stokes a sense of righteous superiority. Typically, it's indulged in by people who don't have a deep interest in the history of language or the complexities of linguistics; instead, they like rules, because rules allow them to set themselves apart from the people who don't follow the rules. Usage pedants enjoy living in an intellectual gated community. Some will even refer to themselves as "Grammar Nazis", thus unreflectively siding with one of the most evil systems in the history of humanity. (And these people say they care about language! By the way, if you want to vomit, do a Google Image search for "grammar nazi"
Typically, too, usage pedants are white people, and these days often ones who in some way or another identify with nerd culture. One of the commenters on Jay Smooth's Facebook page linked to Tim Chevalier's post "Can Geekiness Be Decoupled from Whiteness"
, which makes a number of useful points, including:
I think people who have been bullied and abused tend to use rules in the hopes that rules will save them. ... But it’s easier to like formal systems of rules when those rules usually protect you. If you live in a country where the laws were made by people like you, and are usually enforced in ways that protect you, it’s easier to be enamored of technical adherence to the law. And, by analogy, to prescriptive sets of rules like “standard English” grammar. It’s also easier to feel affection for systems of rules when people like yourself usually get a say in constructing them.
Not all nerds are abuse survivors, so perhaps other nerds (as adults) value rule-following because they believe the key to their economic success. From there, it’s easy to jump to victim-blaming: the line of thought that goes, “If other people would just learn and follow the rules, they would be successful too.”
Pedants need to feel superior, and displaying their (often inaccurate) opinions of grammar, usage, style, and spelling is a way to access such feelings of superiority. My life might suck, but at least I'm not one of those horrible people who splits infinitives or uses numbers in words!
crimes of language, but they are not the crimes the pedants police — they are the crimes of obfuscation and propaganda, the crimes that lead us to dehumanize each other, to exploit each other, to oppress each other, to hurt and kill each other.
Pedants don't typically get to those crimes. Indeed, often, by proclaiming their unwavering devotion to tradition, they perpetuate such crimes.
The stuff the pedants denounce may be violations of standard English. Or stylistic preferences. Or pet peeves. Talking about such things and discussing our particular perspective on them can be clarifying and can lead to more precision in communication and more knowledge of how language works. But we need to be aware of the assumptions underneath our prescriptions, the motivations for our pedantry. In my courses, I encourage students to abide by proofreading guidelines
, but I also try in those guidelines to justify why I require them, and I work hard to undermine any sense of those guidelines being either eternal or immutable. They are guidelines for the situation that is our class, and are useful information for students who are adjusting their writing to the audience that is me, the guy who grades each student at the end of the term.
If you feel the need for rules, though, here's one for you, a famous one from Kurt Vonnegut:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—
"God damn it, you've got to be kind."
|Guy Davenport, illustration from Apples & Pears|
I've just begun reading Andre Furlani's Guy Davenport: Postmodern and After
, a magnificent book (so far), and went to track down one of the items cited there, a 2002 interview by B. Renner for the website Elimae
. Alas, the site seems to have died, but god bless the Wayback Machine: here it is, cached.
The interview is not as meaty as some others, for instance Davenport's Paris Review interview
, but it's always interesting, and I was particularly struck by this:
DAVENPORT: At Duke I took Prof Blackburn's Creative Writing course (Bill Styron and Mac Hyman were in the class) and got the wrong impression that writing is an effusion of genius and talent. Also, that writing fiction is Expression of significant and deep inner emotion. It took me years to shake off all this. Writing is making a construct, and what's in the story is what's important. And style: in what words and phrases the story is told. (William Blackburn, the full name. His guiding us all toward autobiographical, confessional, "emotional" writing is -- in reaction -- why I write about concrete objectivities that are fairly remote from my own experiences. I like to imagine how other people feel in a world different from my own.)
ELIMAE: Almost none of your stories take place in the U.S. or involve American characters. Is there a particular reason for this? Are Americans and the U.S. less noteworthy than other peoples and places, especially Europeans and Europe, or is it as simple as a matter of going to subject matter that hasn't already been done to death by other American writers?
DAVENPORT: A clever critic might note that they are all set in the USA. "Tatlin!" is a fable about totalitarian governments strangling creativity, not always blatantly and openly. At the time I was lecturing on Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, the classic study in our time of Government and The Poet. Vladimir Tatlin's genius suffocated by Stalin seemed to me to be paradigmatic and timely. I learned from Kafka's Amerika that you don't have to have a realistic knowledge of a place, and from Nabokov that "realism" is simply a fashionable mode.
We are still immigrants. Culture imports and exports. There was a great anxiety that European culture would be obliterated twice in the 20th century. I became interested in "Europe" through Whistler's etchings.
And then there's a Davenport desert island list!
ELIMAE: Here's my version of the "desert island" question: if you could select any six books (besides your own) originally written in your lifetime, and be the author of those books, which six would they be?
DAVENPORT: Your 6 books question is diabolical! I couldn't have written any of 'em.
Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples
P. Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower
Michel Tournier, Les Meteores
Isak Dinesen, Anecdotes of Destiny
Mann, Doktor Faustus
Finally, I also found an interesting mention of Davenport in this interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan
, whose whole response about the connection of writing and reading is great, but here's the Davenport part:
That said, how do you get to be a better reader? I asked Guy Davenport this question one time, because talking to him could really make a person despair; he just knew so much, he’d read so much in many languages, but not in a pedantic or scholastic way, in a really passionate way. He gave me what I thought was very solid advice, which was: first of all, start reading and don’t stop. The other thing is to follow your interest. He said there ought to be a phrase, “falling into interest,” to go with falling in love.
Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good.
It appears that next year I won't be teaching any first-year composition classes at UNH, which will put on hold an experiment I began this past term with FYC. (I'm teaching Literary Analysis this fall and probably a survey course in the spring.) I'll record here some thoughts on that experiment, both for my own future use and in case they are of use or interest to anyone else...
First, I should note the structure of the first-year writing classes
at UNH requires teachers to assign 3 essays (an analytical essay, research essay, and personal essay) and take students through a process of drafting and revising each of those essays. Beyond that, for the most part, teachers are free to design their classes as they choose. (Graduate instructors such as I follow a more prescribed syllabus for our first term, after which we are as free as any other instructor.)
In my first term, I taught the course in the most straightforward, familiar way, and did not give it any sort of theme. The goal of the course is to teach skills more than content, as much as the two can be separated, and I wanted to see what would happen if I gave the students a lot of leeway in what they wrote their papers about. I should have known better. (Seriously, the first thing I ever published about teaching was a reflection for English Journal on my first year of teaching
, and the basic message of it was: the blank slate is death! But I am incapable of learning from past experience, it seems...) The students wrote pretty flat, boring, stilted essays where they attempted rhetorical analysis, they wrote slightly better but mostly not particularly exciting research essays, and they wrote some really interesting personal essays. I found assessing and responding to their writing, even some of the best writing, challenging though because it was all over the place in its purposes and audiences, and my conferences and draft responses to students who wrote about subjects I knew something about were, I thought, pretty different from my responses to students who wrote about things I knew little or nothing about.
As a graduate instructor, I was required to take a course in Teaching College Composition, and for the final research project, I investigated the use of film analysis in FYC classes
(we had to make a Weebly site as part of the course, and I found it a convenient place to park my research). I started out skeptical of the value of film analysis in a comp course, but ended up liking the idea quite a bit, and decided to try an experiment the next term: How little could I change the basic syllabus and yet give the course a film/media/pop culture theme?
The result was this syllabus
. I tried to change as little of the structure and language of my first term as I could, because I really wanted to see if I could stick closely to the skill-based concept of the course while also giving it more focus.
The results were mixed. The most successful parts of the course were the ones that were most completely redesigned. Indeed, I had put most of my energy into reconceiving the analysis essay as an analysis of a single film scene, and it went from being the worst assignment in the course to the best. The research papers were worse this term and the personal essays were roughly the same, perhaps a bit weaker, though that may have been the result of the different mix of students (second term comp is very different from first term: a lot of people taking the course in the second term are ones who actively avoided it before).
I was impressed with the overall quality of work in the scene analyses (the guidelines are on the syllabus
under "Essay #1: Analysis of a Film Scene"), despite many students struggling with it in their first draft. They mostly struggled against the strict definition of a film scene, because they couldn't imagine how they could analyze such a small thing. That's one of the reasons the assignment worked so well: it pushed them into the position of having no choice but to do close analysis, and they learned a lot by working through their frustration. We spent a class talking about how to use images from the films as evidence within the analysis, and how that can often give us new ideas about what to analyze. This turned out to be a valuable technique for many of the students. The final drafts were, on the whole, specific, focused, and thoughtful.
The research papers ended up being disappointing, especially following the triumph of the analytical essays. Though the students did a great job focusing their scene analyses, they weren't able to transfer what they had learned about specificity and focus to the research essays, and I'd put too much faith in their ability to do this. Despite my telling them over and over again that their topics were too broad, only a couple of students were able to find appropriately narrow topics. I liked using The Craft of Research
as a guide to the unit — it's clear and practical, with lots of step-by-step guidelines, and the students found it useful overall, I think, but even following its guidelines, they weren't able to get their topics narrow enough to be able to write papers that weren't full of vagueness, generality, and ridiculously banal statements.
I've talked with colleagues and friends a lot about this, and have come to a few conclusions and ideas for adjustment. First, the next time I teach the course, I'm going to change the name of the assignment. A number of people in the department don't call it the research essay
but rather a persuasive essay.
That makes good sense not because it's a more accurate label, but because it moves it away from the ossified idea of "research" that many students bring with them from high school. The sorts of research we want them to do in college are somewhat different from the sorts of research we ask them to do in high school, but in their first year of college (and maybe later), they work from what they know. Or, rather, from what they think they know. And that's the problem. They succeeded with the analytical essay because they had no frame of reference for the assignment itself, and so they kept going back to the guidelines and kept asking me for more clarity. That was a good thing, a good process. They kept having to measure their writing against the guidelines in a way that they didn't for the research essay, because most of the students already had an idea of what a "research paper" should look like. In fact, one of the best ones I got was by a student who said he'd never had to write a research paper before in his life, and had felt really lost through a lot of it. Some of the worst ones I got were from students who said they'd done such work before.
Second, I'm going to be more strict with topics. In my desire to give the students as much freedom for creativity as possible, I kept definitions of popular culture loose, and let them write about almost anything they wanted. This defeated a lot of the purpose of having a theme. Next time, I will define the realms very specifically. This, too, may help circumvent some of the sense of having done this sort of thing before and knowing how it's done, since none of the students in the course had had to actually research popular culture before. Narrowing down the definition of popular culture for the course will allow me to be more specific in what I tell them about how to research, what resources are useful, etc., and will give them some practice in research within a discipline.
Ideally, the university would require a separate course just on research, perhaps a course within the student's major, or at least within their college (e.g. the College of Liberal Arts, the business college, etc.). Research involves so much more than just writing a paper that it's extremely difficult to cover it even superficially within the short amount of time of a composition course. But we try.
The personal essays weren't terrible, but I again betrayed the theme and often let students stretch the idea of popular culture beyond reason, to their detriment. Because my tendencies at heart are those of an anarchist, I bristle against having any sorts of guidelines for assignments, and feel guilty for imposing them on students. But the realities of a 15-week course that requires multiple drafts of 3 papers really do make it better to have pretty strict thematic guidelines. Or so it seems to me right now. I need to cultivate a better selection of model essays, too, ones that are much more specifically about film, media, and pop culture.
Which brings me to the main textbook, Signs of Life in the USA
. Overall, I like the book, but I'm also not rousingly enthusiastic about it. Partly, that's the fault of the type of experiment I did here. If I were to design the course more to fit the book, rather than try to fit the book into a course for which it was only partly suitable, I would have, I expect, both a better course and a better use of the textbook. This is especially an issue with Signs of Life
because it has a very specific approach, one emphasizing semiotics, and I almost completely ignored that element of the book. To fit the book into a course that is not at least partially about semiotic analysis is to get much less from the textbook than it has to offer. Nonetheless, we made great use of some of the material on analysis of images.Signs of Life
is quite weak on the research side of things. I was able to supplement well with The Craft of Research
, but it would be nice to have more fully and obviously researched essays in it. There's a ton of great research on media and film analysis, and much more could be brought in. By the time I realized this, I just didn't have time myself to dig up stuff that would be useful models for my students. Next time, I certainly will.
Frankly, unless the next edition of Signs of Life
is less specifically about semiotics, I probably won't use it. There's enough excellent material available online and through the databases the university library subscribes to for us really not to have to use a textbook like that at all. I just need the time to gather the material and organize it. That's the value of a textbook for this course, really: to give the teacher a framework to work from and something to fall back on.
While I was teaching this past term, a friend of mine who's in the Composition & Rhetoric Ph.D. program was writing a paper on teachers' uses of popular culture in comp classes, and specifically on the ways that pop culture can be useful or detrimental to a multicultural classroom, and she asked me a bunch of useful questions about how I was approaching the course. Another friend of ours, who is just finishing up her Comp & Rhet Ph.D. and now teaching at a Massachusetts school with a pretty diverse and often low-income population, joined the discussion and offered a very interesting take on Signs of Life:
that it's a difficult book to use with diverse populations, particularly populations with a lot of class diversity. Her school, in fact, has dropped use of the book altogether.
At UNH, we really can assume that most of our students have a lot of experience with things like video games, streaming movies, social media, smart phones. (I had one student write a paper in which in his first draft he asserted that all kids in the US have video game consoles in their houses!) But if I consider using Signs of Life
again, I'll certainly want to put it through a much tighter evaluative lens, specifically thinking about what its materials assume and expect of students' access to media. I really haven't come to a conclusion about that except that. I do know, though, that it would certainly be nice if the book included essays by writers of significantly less privileged class backgrounds — Dorothy Allison's "A Question of Class"
would be a good place to start...
Which reminds me that one of the interesting questions my friend asked was about my use of LGBTQ texts in class, since I have already, apparently, become known for this in the department. (Probably because I spoke up in Teaching College Comp against the use of the "his/her" construction, one I see as setting up a false binary between men and women and erasing the spectrum of gender identities.) I'll end these reflections, then, with some of the material from my reply that seems worth keeping:
I haven't really gone out of my way in 401 to use LGBTQ texts, though I have in other classes. But they're certainly there. Both terms in 401, I've used David Sedaris, and in both pieces ("Now We Are Five" and "Six to Eight Black Men") he mentions his boyfriend, Hugh. One day at the beginning of the personal essay unit this term, I read aloud to the class an essay by Gwendolyn Ann Smith, founder of the Trans Day of Remembrance, called "We're All Someone's Freak" from the book Gender Outlaws edited by S. Bear Bergman and Kate Bornstein. It's a really fun, accessible essay that serves all sorts of purposes, from showing that "normal" is a power construction, that trans identity is not monolithic, and that people are complex. I completely stumbled on using it when I was desperate for a simple introductory activity that wouldn't last more than 10 minutes, and I think I'll probably make it a more formal part of future 401 classes I teach. We didn't discuss the issues in the piece, though I could tell that some of the students were immediately uncomfortable the minute I read the first sentence and they heard the word "transgender". I directed their attention toward the idea of everybody being somebody's freak, which was the idea I wanted them to think about for their personal essays as they considered point of view: basically, whose freak are you, and why? There wasn't time to get into the material as trans-specific material. Most students lack the vocabulary to talk about trans stuff, so it takes some preparation, but it's worthwhile, and because I think this essay is useful, I'll probably figure out a way to do that preparation in the future. I often used GLAAD's media reference guides on transgender issues, especially the glossary, which gives good, succinct definitions and also a great explanation of terms that are problematic and terms that are outright derogatory.
In the past, I've used all sorts of LGBTQ texts. I try to build something into every course, even if it's just something short, in the same way that I try to get somewhat of a gender balance among the authors and to include material from people of various ethnicities, races, nationalities, backgrounds. (Nothing makes the limits of 15 weeks more apparent!) I do it partly for all the basic reasons any liberal-minded person would, but also because one of the big, sometimes unconscious, motivations for me as a teacher is that I want to be a teacher I would have benefitted from having when I was a student. I think I've built up for myself over the years a pretty good apparatus to overcome initial, atavistic instincts and to wade through the swamp of toxic discourse we all inhabit. I hope to help students do some of the work to do the same. Certainly, I want to make my classroom a comfortable place for all types of people, all types of background, and I hope my students can see themselves reflected in at least some of what we do ... but I also want to make sure that people who have somewhat similar backgrounds to mine don't only see themselves. The world's much more interesting and marvelous that way.
Corey Robin, from The Reactionary Mind:
One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. “Here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.” Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying her boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.
Two passages from Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot by Anna Beer
, concerning the early 1640s:
As with the Internet in this century, people expressed real fears about the sheer number of new works appearing. Others condemned the whole notion of publication, particularly for money. Publication was imagined as "epidemical contagion", and "Pamphlet-mongers" were castigated for writing for "a little mercenary gain, and profit", as "poetical Needy-brains, who for a sordid gain or desire to have the style of a witty railer, will thus empoison your pen". The proliferation of new pamphlets was also resented by more (allegedly) serious writers, who complained that "such a book as that of thirty or forty sheets of paper is not likely to sell in this age were the matter never so good, but if it had been a lying and scandalous pamphlet of a sheet of paper ... to hold up Anarchy" then the printers would print it, knowing it would sell, be "vendable ware". (128-129)
Print proliferated because almost every opinion generated a response, which in turn necessitated a counter-response from the maligned author. When the Smectymnuans, for example, attacked Bishop Hall, he replied, condemning their views, to which their response was a 219-page answer. The speed of these exchanges was often remarkable. Milton's own first pamphlet on Church reform received a reply within days of its publication. Vicious abuse of one's opponents characterised much of the debate. When in May 1642, around the time of his marital expedition to Oxfordshire, Milton wrote An Apology against a Pamphlet (in itself a response), he claimed to be furious at the way he had been personally attacked. Immersed as he was in this world of cheap print, he cannot have been genuinely surprised. Colourful, personal, and at times obscene invective was the order of the day, the religious and political pamphlets picking up the techniques of the earlier forms of popular writing, whether ballads or jestbooks, almanacs, or tales. (139-140)
Alfred Hitchcock in conversation with Francois Truffaut:
To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately. What's the ultimate in representative painting? Color photography. Don't you agree? There's quite a difference, you see, between the creation of a film and the making of a documentary. In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life. And in the process of that creation, there are lots of feelings, forms of expression, and viewpoints that have to be juxtaposed. We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it's not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.
Nadine Gordimer has died at the age of 90
, a significant age to reach, and yet, as always with the loss of a major figure (particularly one who stayed active and known) it feels like a robbery. We are greedy, we living people.
Writers satiate some of our greed against death by leaving us with their words. Gordimer's oeuvre
is large (she began publishing fiction in South Africa in the late 1940s), and her fiction in particular will live long past this moment of her body's death.
Because Gordimer was so active in the anti-apartheid struggle, and her writing so often addresses the situation in South Africa at the time of its writing, it is easy to fall into the trap of reducing her to a political writer and to ignore or downplay the artistry of her work. She sometimes encouraged this view in her essays and interviews, but she also understood that she was not a propagandist, telling Jannika Hurwitt in 1979
, "I am not
by nature a political creature, and even now there is so much I don’t like in politics, and in political people—though I admire tremendously people who are politically active—there’s so much lying to oneself, self-deception, there has to be—you don’t make a good political fighter unless you can pretend the warts aren’t there."
Gordimer is often contrasted (sometimes by she herself
) with the other white South African Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee. In that frame, Gordimer is the engaged realist, Coetzee the disengaged postmodernist. Like any caricature, this one contains some elements of truth, but it hides as much as it reveals. Though Gordimer had a bit more faith in the ability of words to represent immediate reality than Coetzee does, and was more comfortable participating in political arenas and writing about the recognizable here-and-now, both writers are strongly influenced by European high culture, particularly European Modernism — Kafka is a key influence for both, though Coetzee tends to wear that influence more obviously.
One of the qualities I value in Gordimer's work is her ability to show how people of different backgrounds and ideologies grapple with political ideas in their lives. She's often portrayed as an explicitly political writer because she writes about people embroiled in politics. In her best writing, she understood quite powerfully the difference between showing people engaged in politics and making her work into propaganda for a particular political line.
That's a wonder for me of a novel like Burger's Daughter, which I wrote about here in 2009
. It shows politics in life, politics as life. It is at times merciless toward characters who could be considered the ones a nice, liberal reader is supposed to feel sympathy and affection for. It never forgets Renoir's great line from The Rules of the Game:
"The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons."
Gordimer's range is best demonstrated by her short stories, such as the parable-like "Loot", which I wrote about in 2010
. Especially in the later decades of her career, her stories frequently experimented with form, perspective, and subjectivity — which is not to discount the powerful effect of her many rich, detailed, fiercely realistic stories (her Selected Stories
from the mid-'70s remains a high point to me of her work).
The view of Gordimer as a writer of her times, for her times, limited to her times might try to prevail. That would be a shame. Though she certainly chronicled ways of living in South Africa throughout the last 60+ years, that specificity does not in any way make her work less important for us now. It is, rather, differently important — and as necessary as ever.
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For Strange Horizons, I reviewed Glen Hirshberg's Motherless Child.
Motherless Child is a vampire novel that isn't much interested in vampires. Instead, as its title suggests, more than anything else it is a novel about motherhood. Most of the main characters are mothers, the primary themes are ones of parenthood and responsibility, and the basic storyline sends vampirized mothers running away from their children and then fighting against the urge to return, fearing that they will no longer see their kids as offspring but as prey.
First published by Earthling Publications in 2012, Motherless Child has now been reprinted by Tor. Glen Hirshberg has won a number of awards for his horror short stories (collected in The Two Sams , American Morons , and The Janus Tree ), and Tor may see Motherless Child as a breakout book for him, one that will bring a wider audience for his fiction. It clearly displays some of the hallmarks of a tale that could be embraced by a wide audience, certainly more than his often subtle, enigmatic short stories do. Whether this is to its benefit as a novel depends entirely on what you want your novels to do, both in the prose itself and in the story that prose tells.Continue reading at Strange Horizons.