Thursday, July 31, 2008

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood

Dramatists and illustrators. That's how the late cartoonist Gil Kane categorized the practitioners of his art. A dramatist, such as Robert Crumb or the late Charles M. Schulz, is focused on realizing the subject material as fully as possible; these artists have considerable technical mastery, but they never flaunt it. Form is subservient to content, and technique is subsumed in the work. An illustrator, on the other hand, is devoted to displays of technical virtuosity; the subject matter is of secondary concern. An illustrator's energies are all but entirely dedicated to inspiring admiration for his or her skill. Kane's classification of cartoonists into these groups is certainly applicable to artists in other media. I was particularly reminded of the distinctions while watching Paul Thomas Anderson's highly acclaimed There Will Be Blood, an often strikingly directed film that, for all the surface fluency of its staging, camerawork, and editing, is dramatically inert. Once one is done admiring Anderson (and star Daniel Day-Lewis)'s skill, there's not much else of interest to watch.

There Will Be Blood is not a coffee-table book of a movie, like Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Anderson isn't obsessed with the pictorial; he's caught up in the cinematic rendering of the material. He favors long takes throughout, with the staging of the action within the shots complexly worked out; extended tracking shots are not unusual. The film begins with a long, largely wordless sequence covering several years. We are introduced to Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) in the year 1898, when he's a silver prospector toiling away alone in a small mine on a deserted tract of land out West. The film quickly establishes him as a man of indomitable will: we watch him break a leg in a fall down the mine shaft, haul himself without help to the ground above, and then crawl on his back across the wilderness to the nearest town, where he lies waiting on a dirt floor for a chunk of silver to be assayed and cashed before going to a doctor to have the leg set. In the years that immediately follow, he converts the silver mine to an oil well and hires men to work it for him, and when one of them is killed in an accident, he adopts the man's motherless son as his own. This opening section, about twenty minutes long, is an expertly executed piece of visual storytelling, and Anderson's assurance raises one's expectations for the rest of the picture. However, while Anderson may be caught up in the cinematic presentation of the story, but he often appears lost in the challenge of bringing it to life. Whenever he needs the actors to do more than follow stage directions, the film just lies there.

One loses confidence in the picture quickly. The first scene after the prologue shows Plainview a decade down the road, making a pitch to a rural community to allow drilling leases on their land. But the controversies among the locals that derail Plainview's offer are murky, and the feeling of clarity Anderson has established collapses. The scene that follows is even more disappointing. A young drifter named Paul Sunday, played by Paul Dano, offers to sell Plainview information about his family's farm, where oil has been discovered seeping to the ground. The scene on paper must have seemed a crackler: a tense thrust-and-parry between Plainview and the drifter, with Plainview using his considerable skills as a con-man to get the information at minimal cost, and the drifter holding the information close to the vest, knowing that once he lets it go, it's gone, and whatever he has when he gives it up is all he'll get. However, on film the scene is tepid and slack: it begins, it goes on for a while, and it ends with Plainview setting off for a small town in northern California, with next to no tension or suspense. Most of the other dialogue scenes are equally flat. They don't seemed shaped for effect, and one wonders if Anderson knows why he included them, beyond solving mechanical story problems of getting from point A to point B.

Part of the problem with the dialogue scenes is Anderson's staging: the actors often seem posed in the shots, and the pauses between the actors as they deliver their lines are generally a beat or two too long. This gives the film a stilted quality, and a good deal of the time one is left feeling the actors are hanging suspended from the ceiling. The other major problem is the casting: apart from Daniel Day-Lewis, none of the performers has a strong presence. Perversely, they seem to be have been selected for their mildness; every potential antagonist for Plainview--the drifter, a Standard Oil representative who offers to buy Plainview out, Plainview's apparent half-brother, as well as his adopted son as an adult--is played in the same low-key, unassuming manner. Day-Lewis, on the other hand, plays Plainview as a force of nature--he's the dark side of the American ideal of self-reliance--but he isn't given much of anyone or anything to play off of, and the performance has nowhere to go.

The one hope for dramatic conflict comes from the drifter's twin brother Eli (also played by Paul Dano), a preacher and faith healer in the the town where Plainview's been told he can find oil. Plainview sets up drilling operations there, and the preacher is a nagging, scolding thorn in his side. The preacher takes every misfortune that befalls Plainview--the death of a drill worker, an equipment failure that destroys a derrick and causes an underground oil fire, Plainview's adopted son H.W. becoming deaf--and uses it as an opportunity to harass Plainview into donating money to his church. The animosity between the two characters leads to the film's funniest and (easily) most dynamic scene. A local farmer forces Plainview into joining the church in exchange for the use of a key piece of land, and Plainview has to repent his sins before the congregation. Because of H.W.'s condition, Plainview has sent him away to a boarding school for deaf children, and the preacher exploits Plainview's guilt to the utmost. He exhorts Plainview to repent "abandoning" H.W., and Plainview forcefully does so. The irony and drama in the scene comes entirely from Day-Lewis's performance; he easily puts across that Plainview isn't repenting anything, and the vehemence with which he expresses "repentance" comes entirely from his anger over having to humiliate himself like this in front of his employees and the town. Day-Lewis's Plainview may be yelling "I have abandoned my boy!" at the top of his lungs, but one can tell that he's brimming with the desire to tear this upstart preacher apart limb by limb. But any hope of an apocalyptic, Nietzschean priest-versus-the-powerful conflict between the preacher and Plainview comes to nothing. This minister is a twerpy charlatan, and Paul Dano, despite his character's bellowing and gesticulating before one and all, made more of an impression playing the introverted, willfully mute son in Little Miss Sunshine.

I've only seen one other film from Anderson--his 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights--but on the basis of it, I'd say he's no slouch with actors, and in light of both it and Magnolia, he likes large casts. Why would he let this film seem so emptied out of characters and give Day-Lewis no one to play against? The only answer that might make sense is that he expected Day-Lewis to give a capital-G great performance as Plainview, and he didn't want anything getting in the way--nothing should distract audiences from the genius of Day-Lewis's interpretation. If this was the strategy, it backfires for two reasons. The first is that a great performance needs strong performances around it to create contrast and give it definition. Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara would be nothing without Clark Gable's Rhett Butler, Marlon Brando would have been nowhere without Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Nicholson and De Niro were tremendously benefitted by the distinctive supporting casts of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver. The second reason is that Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the last major actor I would describe as an audience-pleaser. He inhabits his characters brilliantly, but he's so earnest about it that he's probably the most humorless name actor in the history of film. Day-Lewis can be great when he's able to fit his work into a director's conception, but he doesn't have enough to give as a performer when the director tries to shape things around him. Nothing makes a movie more turgid than when a director tries to convey his or her awe for an actor to an audience; one might say Day-Lewis does to Paul Thomas Anderson what Meryl Streep did to the likes of Alan J. Pakula and Sydney Pollack back in the Eighties.

There Will Be Blood is a film to admire at times; unfortunately, admiring it is all one can do. I can appreciate the distinctive details of Day-Lewis's performance, such as the bold John Huston voice he gives the character, or the almost obsessive determination in his movements. And I can appreciate Paul Thomas Anderson's elaborately fancy blocking and show-off camera moves. (His chops in these areas are conspicuous enough to almost conceal how much he lets the character scenes go to hell.) I just wish they'd given me a story to enjoy and an experience to savor; after I get that I'll be delighted to study how brilliantly they pulled it off. In short, I wish Anderson and Day-Lewis had dramatized There Will Be Blood, not illustrated it. And that Anderson had maintained enough perspective about Day-Lewis to know when the illustrations were coming up short.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Poetry Translation: Dante, Inferno, Song II

A few things to note about my translation of the second song of the Inferno. Although no translation, least of all mine, can do it justice, Dante is a master of rendering characters through their manner of speech. Virgil is intended as an authority figure; Dante emphasizes this through the rhythms of every one of the character's lines. In the original Italian, each of Virgil’s lines rings forth like the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the character’s words have a lordly, spoken-down-from-on-high quality. The Dante figure is quite a contrast. The lines in which he expresses his doubts about commencing on the poem’s journey have a dithering quality to them. This comes through somewhat in my translation. If you find yourself scratching your head over what he’s talking about, he’s expressing his doubts about his worthiness as a successor to Aeneas and St. Paul, the only figures he knows of who have traveled to the underworld. (Dante never read the Odyssey; he only knew Homer by reputation. He either didn’t know of Odysseus’ trip to the underworld or considered the story apocryphal.) The previous journeys foreshadow moments of the greatest significance in the history of Christianity: Aeneas’ journey preceded the founding of Rome; Paul’s journey preceded the founding of the Catholic church. The Dante figure cannot accept that he has apparently been chosen as the one who will provide the third major step—whatever it may be—in the establishment and evolution of the Christian faith on Earth.

The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Song Two

The story thus far: Dante, a poet and town prior in Florence, finds himself on a dark road of the soul. Before his spirit can fall to its ruin, he encounters Virgil, the greatest poet of classical Rome. Virgil offers Dante a journey through the realms of the afterworld, through which Dante may find his soul's salvation. He shall travel through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, with Virgil as his guide through the first two. Dante accepts Virgil's offer, and they embark.

Song I translation

Beatrice and Virgil in Limbo

The day was departing, and the dark air
Was taking Earth’s creatures
From their fatigue. I alone

Prepared myself to endure the war
Of both the path and the pathos
That the unerring mind shall retrace.

O Muses, O high genius, help me now;
O memory that inscribed what I saw,
Here shall your nobility appear.

I began: “Oh, poet who guides me,
Examine my character, to the extent that I possess it,
Before entrusting me to the high road.

You tell of Silvius’ father—Aeneas—
While he was still alive and capable of sin: To the spirit
World he went, alert and reflective.

But if the Enemy of all evil,
In His considered motives and contemplation of the ultimate consequence
Of that which must come from Him, as well as what and whom,

Does not appear unworthy to the man of intellect,
It was due to Aeneas and the fostering of Rome and its empire,
By the Father’s choice, into the empire of Heaven.

I wish to speak the truth: Both city and empire
Were established as the place of holiness
Where the successor of the great Peter sits.

You sang of Aeneas on this journey,
Gaining knowledge of what precipitated
His triumph and then the papal mantle.

The Chosen Vessel—Paul—then came here
In order to revive comfort in the Faith,
Which is the beginning of the road to salvation.

But me, why have I come here? Who grants this?
I am not Aeneas; I am not Paul.
Neither I nor others believe me worthy of this.

Therefore, if I abandon myself to this venture,
I fear it would be folly.
You are wise; you better understand what I do not fathom.”

And, such as one who undoes his own will,
Reconsidering and changing his stance
Until his principles are stripped of substance,

So I became on that gloomy shore,
Because, in mulling it over, I wore out the impetus
That, in the beginning, I had quickly embraced.

“If I properly understand your words,”
That spirit, so noble of mind, replied,
“Your soul is sick with cowardice,

Which often confuses a man,
Turning him away from noble venture
Like a skittish animal deceived by its own eyes.

In order for you to raise yourself from this fear,
I’ll tell why I came and what I understood
When I first grieved for you.

I was among the Suspended Ones,
And my name was called by a lady so saintly and beautiful
That I asked to be of her command.

Her eyes shone brighter than the stars,
And she began to say to me, sweetly and softly,
With an angelic voice, in her own language:

“O genial Mantuan soul,
Whose fame in the world still endures
And will last into the world’s distant future,

A friend—he is not a friend of fortune—
Is hindered on the Barren Slope
Of the Journey, turned by fear.

And already I am frightened that he is so very lost,
That I am too late in rising to his aid,
Based on what I have heard of him in Heaven.

Go now, and with the richness of your words
And the knowledge which will enable him to manage,
Help him so that I shall be consoled.

I am Beatrice, I who compels you to go.
I come from the place to which I long to return.
Love moved me, and compels me to speak.

When I shall again be before my Lord,
I will praise you often to Him.”
Then she was silent, and I began:

“O Lady of virtue, the only one through whom
The human race transcends all contained
Within the Heaven of the lesser circles,

So welcome to me is your command
That were it already obeyed, I would be too late;
No more is needed to open me to your wishes.

But tell me why you so selflessly
Descend to this center
From the vast place to which you are burning to return?”

“Since you feel so compelled to know,”
She replied to me, “I shall briefly tell you
Why I am not afraid to enter here.

One should only be afraid of things
That have the power to do harm.
Other than that, no; nothing else is frightening.

In His mercy, God created me so
That, to me, your misery cannot be felt.
Nor do the flames of this fire assail me.

A kind Lady in Heaven so pities
The hardship being suffered where I send you
That, there, lasting judgment from above is set aside.

She asked this of Lucia in her plea
And said to her, “Your faithful one now has need
Of you. I suggest you go to him.”

Lucia, enemy of all cruelty,
Stirred in reply, and came to me, to the place where
I sat with the elder, Rachel.

She said, “Beatrice, truly the praise of God,
Why do you not aid him who loved you so much
That, for you, he rose above the common herd?

Do you not hear the pathos of his cries?
Do you not see the death he struggles with
Beside the river to which even the ocean cannot compare?”

No one on Earth was ever so fast
In improving their lot or fleeing their peril
As I was after these words were spoken.

I descended to this place from my blesséd seat,
Trusting your exemplary words
Which honors both you and those that have heard them.”

After presenting this to me,
She turned, her shining eyes in tears,
Which prompted me to come, and quickly.

And so I came to you as she directed.
I saved you in defiance of that beast
Who thwarted the short journey up that beautiful mountain.

As such, what is this? Why, why do you hang back?
Why is cowardice allotted so much room in your heart?
Where is your resolve, your forthrightness,

Given that three such blesséd Ladies
Care for you in the court of Heaven,
As well as my words, which promise so much good?”

As budding flowers in the nighttime frost
Bend and close up, followed by the illuminating sun
Opening them all and standing them up straight on their stems,

It was this I made of myself with my fatigued virtue:
Good and abundant courage flowing to me through my heart,
So that, as a person honest and direct, I began:

“Oh, compassionate lady, who came to my aid,
And you, so gracious that you quickly obeyed
The words of truth presented to you!

You have filled my heart with desire,
Through your words, for what is to come.
I am once again of the mind with which I began.

Now go, for we are both of one will.
You are my leader, you are my lord, you are my master.”
I said this to him like so. And then, when he had moved on,

I began upon that deep and savage road.

Continue to Song III

Monday, July 28, 2008

Music Monday--Nina Simone, "Here Comes the Sun"

I first encountered the music of Nina Simone (1933-2003) fifteen years ago, when I went with some friends to see Point of No Return, the Hollywood remake of the French thriller La Femme Nikita. The prominent use of Simone's songs was the best thing about the movie--the only significant improvement over the French original--and the music haunted my memories for days. Two Nina Simone albums, the German import Nina Simone: The Star Collection, and Verve Jazz Masters 17: Nina Simone, were my next music buys, and they remain fixtures on my CD player to this day.

The heroine of Point of No Return describes Simone's music as "so passionate, so savage," and it's interesting to compare Simone in this regard to Kelly Clarkson, whose "Irvine" I spotlighted in this space last week. I'll leave "passionate" alone, but it's hard to think of Kelly Clarkson's singing as "savage." "Blustery" is probably the closest she could come. Clarkson is a phenomenal vocalist, but the drama of her at her best, as in "Irvine," comes from the tightrope walk of her singing at the limits of the voice--you hang in suspense as to whether she's ever going to crash over, and she never does. Simone does crash over; she taps into emotions so rich and intense that no song could hope to contain them.

My selection of her cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" is intended for those unfamiliar with her music. Hardcore Simone recordings like "Wild Is the Wind" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" might prove too torridly beautiful for the uninitiated; they might even be frightening. Simone's version of "Here Comes the Sun" is pretty, and it's pretty in a different way than Harrison's gorgeously arranged and produced version with the Beatles. Harrison's is the work of a brilliant musician; Simone's performance is so rich with optimism and anticipatory elation that it's as if a happy goddess pitched her voice for we mere mortals to hear. At the end of Point of No Return, a character is asked, "Do you like Nina?," and, clearly thinking of the film's heroine instead of Simone, he replies, "I love her." The further I get from the movie, the more the trope fades, and the more literal those words become. I love Nina Simone, and there's all there is to it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Politics: Obama, Racism...and Digby

Like many others, I was appalled by Obama's decision to conduct a support rally for himself in Berlin last week. The only U.S. political figure who has any business conducting political rallies on foreign soil is the President or a President-approved proxy, and even then only with the endorsement of that country's government. Obama is not the President, and Angela Merkel would have stopped this if she could have--the decision to allow this spectacle was made by the municipal government in Berlin. Foreign nationals should stay out of U.S. politics, whether it is Elton John at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, or the German citizenry at the Obama rally Thursday.

In a short essay last week, posted Wednesday on my blog Pol Culture and cross-posted as a diary on Alegre's Corner, I wrote that I considered Obama the same sort of callow narcissist as George W. Bush: a man with little interest in public policy who sees the Presidency as the brass ring in his quest for self-aggrandizement. I wrote that I didn't want to see his equivalent of Operation Flightsuit. I believe we may have seen the first version of it Thursday, with the allusions to Reagan's 1987 Brandenburg speech serving as the requisite Spinal Tap cucumber.

My disdain for Obama's conduct Thursday, which violated the spirit, if not the letter of federal law, has been echoed by many online and in the traditional press. As Bob Cesca at The Huffington Post noted (given the source, please find your own link), many of the complaints in the press tended to have one thing in common: they all pushed the meme that Obama is being "presumptuous." Nothing too surprising there; the press is notoriously lazy, and they're most likely recycling language from a press release from either the McCain campaign or one of its proxies. And it's no big deal; being presumptuous is synonymous with hubris, and questions of hubris should always be on one's mind when considering the conduct of political leaders.

But then along came Digby (at right). Now Digby is one of our leading liberal bloggers, and her reputation is such that even in these dark, divided days of the liberal blogosphere she is generally held in regard by all. Among many (including myself) she is seen as a voice of wisdom, and even if we no longer visit the sites where "What Digby Said" was a frequent link tag, we still appreciate the sentiment. However, in an extremely unfortunate post Friday, she revives one of the most odious tactics of the Obama campaign during the primary season: deconstructing perfectly reasonable--even factual--statements by Obama critics into racist statements or racist appeals. Here's the offending paragraph:

Keep in mijnd [sic] that the GOP does not do this stuff for a knock out [sic]. They operate on the death of a thousand cuts. Little criticisms, relentlessly played, dribbled out over time designed to create a running theme. This one is obvious: elitist, aloof, and --- presumptuous. That last carries quite an amazing amount of freight --- presumptuous, uppity, doesn't know his place. It applies neatly to any Democrat who deigns to lead Broderville but the historical, subliminal American memory that attaches to such a word when the person in question is black is particularly powerful. (I smell the mark of Rove on that --- he's really good at stuff like this.)

That's right. If you think Obama's rally in Berlin arrogantly crossed the bounds of propriety, or if you find Obama himself a study in hubris, it's because deep down--deeper than you may even know--you're a racist. And to criticize Obama for arrogant conduct is to fan the flames of racism in others.

Digby has apparently decided to turn this into her own little meme. An ironic reference to Obama as "the Presumptuous Uppity One" appears in a subsequent post, and in a third, she uses this language to impute race-baiting motives on the part of McCain in his criticisms of his opponent:

[McCain]'s saying that Obama is more interested in "others" than he is Real Americans. Typical elite. Uppity at that. It's hard to know if this approach will work, but it makesa [sic] certain amount of sense for Republicans. People are in a sour mood. They want to blame somebody. Why not a young, black guy?
I've personally asked Digby to stop this in the comments section of her blog. All she's doing in the name of fighting this alleged race-baiting is to sow the seeds of hatred against those who dare to criticize Obama. Calling someone a racist in the U.S. today is akin to calling them a child molester, and fringe groups like the Klan and Aryan Nation are held in much the same regard as NAMBLA. We've seen this tactic before from Obama supporters, most notoriously after the time Bill Clinton outlined Obama's shifting positions on the Iraq War and called the depiction of Obama as a steadfast opponent of Bush on Iraq "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." Well, no, the Obama supporters claimed. Bill Clinton isn't calling the depiction Obama's position on the Iraq War a fairy tale. You have to read between the lines; you have to "deconstruct." What's he's really doing is calling the notion that a black man could successfully run for President a fairy tale. Bill Clinton is a racist! (Those looking for a recap of that whole sorry episode, click here.)

Depending on what part of the country you're from, you're long familiar with these sort of tactics. I come from the Detroit metropolitan area, which has been one of the most racially polarized regions in the country for the last few decades. I grew up watching local African-American politicians, most notably Coleman Young, Detroit’s mayor between 1974 and 1993, reflexively yell racism every time something didn’t go their way. The goal is to rally African-Americans and the non-AA liberals behind them while intimidating the opposition into silence. If you want a more recent local example, look no further than Detroit’s current mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, and his responses to the situation that resulted in the eight felony indictments brought against him in March.

In the short term, the strategy works. However, in the long term, it does enormous injury to the body politic, and you end up with places as polarized as the Detroit area, where one side sees the other as racists, and the other side sees the first as fools. Hate-mongering of the sort Obama, Digby, and others are engaging in needs to stop, and it needs to be aggressively called out when it occurs. These tactics are just as divisive as true racist appeals and tactics such as Nixon's "Southern strategy," Reagan's assorted "innocent mistakes," and George Bush the Elder's use of Willie Horton in his 1988 Presidential campaign. In the United States of 2008, they may be even more divisive.

Personally, I have no idea what Digby even knows about racism and race relations in this country. She's a white resident of white-bread Santa Monica, California, where the African-American population is less than four percent, and she writes as if all her knowledge of the subject comes from books or news reports. There's no sense in her writing that she has any firsthand knowledge or experience of racism in this country. Has she ever lived in a predominantly black or racially mixed working-class community? (I emphasize working class, because an affluent African-American who doesn't affect identifications with working class blacks, is, in the words of Archie Bunker, "one of the good ones.") Does she know firsthand what it's like to live in a racially polarized area where politicians cynically stoke racial divisions for their own benefit? I don't know, but my impression is that her knowledge of racism is entirely in the abstract. Perhaps it's for the best if she restrict her criticism of racism to overt expressions and actions. Interpretations not rooted in experience tend towards the solipsistic.

As for what to do about Digby, my recommendation is to let her know how you feel about her peddling this garbage. You can write her--be polite--at I also recommend dropping her from your blog rolls until she stops this hateful behavior and apologizes for it. I know I will. The opportunity to let this pass quietly in the night is gone.

UPDATE: Digby has informed me in an e-mail that she has no intention of backing off this crap. I guess I shouldn't have expected anything better, but I always hope.

SECOND UPDATE: For those interested in more on this subject, please read miyiq2xu's post Who Kidnapped Digby? at The Confluence.

THIRD UPDATE: Digby has responded on her blog. Of course, I had the courtesy to e-mail her links to the post here and at Alegre's Corner and MyDD. She didn't think to return the favor. People have no manners anymore.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Civilization Review: The Book of Exodus

All references and quotations are from the King James translation of the Bible, with chapter and verse numbers indicated.

God is a maddening figure in the Book of Genesis: capricious, perverse, with an inconsistent sense of justice and a consistent tendency towards favoritism, regardless of how deserving or undeserving the beneficiary might be. The God of the Book of Exodus redeems his predecessor; the negative attributes of the Genesis figure are largely transposed onto an Egyptian pharaoh, and the God of Exodus earns the Hebrews' allegiance by championing their cause against this tyrant. He reaffirms His commitment to the covenant with the Hebrews whereby he grants them dominion over the land of Canaan, "a good land and a large, [...] a land flowing with milk and honey" (3:8). He also establishes a codified set of laws, a rigorous means of defining justice and governing behavior divorced (somewhat) from the arbitrary whims of an all-powerful decision-maker.

In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom remarks that the J writer (a figure so named by Biblical scholars as the one who authored Genesis, Exodus, and a subsequent book, Numbers) was so scandalous in the portrayal of God "that the J Writer deserves to be called the most blasphemous of all authors ever." One might wish the portrayal was more blasphemous; after the depiction of God's arbitrariness and favoritism in Genesis, it would seem most fitting for codified laws be set up in response to a call for juster treatment by the Hebrews along the lines of Abraham's challenge to God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). But, as remarked above, the J writer shifts the exemplum of the arbitrary and unjust ruler from God to Pharaoh, and one infers that God still maintains the right to be arbitrary; the law is being established so man, rather than God, will have to administer it. He insultingly tells the Hebrews' leader Moses that they are too disagreeable a people for Him to tolerate on a regular basis: "I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiff-necked [i.e. stubborn] people: lest I consume thee in the way" (Exodus 33:3).

The core of the laws is the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue (20:1-20) (above). The first four assert the primacy of God's authority in all things, and they establish the terms of the Hebrew fealty to God. The latter six are of more general interest, as they govern proper behavior within the community.

The first four Commandments are the first principles for establishing the Hebrew people as "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (19:6), as God describes it. The dedication to belief in the one God is an important aspect of establishing the Hebrews as an exclusive community. They lived in what was essentially the eastern Mediterranean region, and anyone even remotely aware of the dominant Greek, Egyptian, and, later, Roman cultures knows that pantheism and pantheistic influences flourished. The lapse of the Hebrews into worshipping the divinity icon of the golden calf (32:1-35) shows the danger these influences and traditions posed in terms of undermining the identity of the Hebrew nation. The declaration of the sanctity of the Sabbath--the day upon which man must rest in honor of God--is to some extent a synecdoche for the sanctity of cultural traditions (e.g. circumcision for males, the Passover feast) and guidelines for worship and the Hebrew priesthood, which are the exclusive focus of the final sixth of the book.

The community guidelines in the Commandments are expanded on as well, although not at as great a length. Degrees of heinousness are established for such crimes as homicide and assault, and crimes against property have their degrees of severity as well. The basic principle is that the punishment should fit the crime, or as it is decribed in Exodus, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, [b]urning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (21:24-25), although one must make restitution for theft that is many times over what is originally stolen (22:1-14). One rule (and it is a property rule; Hebraism is, after all, a patriarchal culture) is that "if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins" (22:16-17). This functions as an implicit rebuke to the insane retribution of Simeon and Levi for the deflowering of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34); murdering the offending party and his father, looting their belongings, and pressing the rest of the family into slavery is, perhaps, seen as a bit much.

Most of Jacob's mendacity is rebuked as well, although not as clearly as his sons' actions in response to their sister's seduction. "Honour thy father and mother" would seem to prohibit Jacob's defrauding Isaac's blessing from him, and the commandment "Thou shalt not covet" appears to prohibit Jacob's opportunism and swindling with regard to his brother Esau and his father-in-law Laban. It's been mentioned to me that Jacob's story is a microcosm of the dark side of the Hebrew experience, and that his conduct is deliberately rebuked in Exodus, both by the secular Commandments and the oppression of the Hebrews while in exile in Egypt. His actions and the actions of his children are what led the Hebrews away from the land promised them in God's covenant.

In closing, what Exodus shows is the evolution of the Hebrew people from a loose-knit tribe to a culture and civilization. For me, the most heartening section of the book is not the establishment of the law with the Commandments; rather, it is the establishment of a hierarchy of authority within the Hebrew people. After the escape from Egypt, Moses decides to subordinate his authority for arbitration to a select group of judges (18:13-27). The Hebrews are no longer a nation defined by their leader; they are a community with responsibilites and are authorities within the law over themselves. With his delegation of authority, Moses makes them a commons, an identity necessary for the establishment and maintenance of any nation. It makes on worry about the United States, which seems to be slipping further and further away from that notion, as the lionization of the individual over all is becoming more and more prevalent.

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The reading list for Civilization Saturday is here.

Previous Civilization Saturday discussion:

Subsequent Civilization Saturday discussions:

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Movie Review: The Dark Knight

Carmine Infantino, a veteran superhero cartoonist and the one-time editorial director and publisher of DC Comics, has observed that kids like superheroes to be played very straight; there's little or no room for humor. However, kids these days come in all ages. Adult superhero fans like the material somber and serious (large helpings of ultraviolence is a big plus), and they're especially impressed when it comes with literary pretensions as well. The Dark Knight is the perfect superhero movie for this audience: it's moody and atmospheric, it's extraordinarily violent, and it has absolutely no sense of humor about itself. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films had their self-mocking aspects, and the X-Men films had the droll presence of Ian McKellen as their villain, but apart from some minor ironic touches courtesy of the late Heath Ledger, there's nothing to laugh at in The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan, the director and the principal writer, seems to go out of his way to make sure of it; if the story's horrifying touches and turns don't shock everyone into submission, the incessant explosions and shattering glass are there to do the trick. He's evolved into perhaps the most bullying and self-important filmmaker since Oliver Stone.

It's a shame, partly because the recent spate of superhero movies has favored more measured storytelling styles. There are thrills galore in these films, but the action and effects sequences are generally balanced with quieter scenes. This is true of Sam Raimi in the Spider-Man films, Bryan Singer in the first two X-Men films and Superman Returns, and even Nolan himself in The Dark Knight's franchise predecessor Batman Begins. The audience is allowed to get their bearings in between action setpieces. The Dark Knight has its quieter scenes, but they're generally not long enough for one to recover from the rollercoaster rides that precede them. And the constant boom-booms on the soundtrack, courtesy of composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, keep one tensed up. The film's rhythms lack the proper ebb and flow necessary for enjoyment.

There are other reasons for wishing the mayhem had been toned down. The Dark Knight actually has a decent story going on underneath all the noise; the plotting is probably the best we've seen in any of the superhero comics adaptations. Batman (Christian Bale) and his police department ally Jim Gordon, played by Gary Oldman, are making significant headway in their efforts to shut down organized crime in Gotham City. Towards this end, they join forces with straight-arrow district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), an inspiring white knight figure who offers the hope of ending the city's ethos of corruption once and for all. The disruptions in the city's mob operations open the door for the Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychotic criminal mastermind, to take them over. However, the Joker's larger goal is to take the effort to reassert the ideals of justice and order and throw them back in Batman, Gordon, and Dent's collective face. This premise sets the stage for a number of intricate twists and turns, which ably build the story to a movingly tragic ending for all three of its heroes.

Nolan gets strong work out of his actors. Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Maggie Gyllenhaal all bring a touch of class to their small roles, and Christian Bale provides an effectively stoic and driven presence to Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne. Eckhart and Oldman have more complex parts. Eckhart has the clean-cut, square-jawed look to go with Dent's idealism, and it serves as an effective counterpoint to the character's descent into rage as he suffers greater and greater personal losses at the Joker's hands. Oldman's part is less showy, but he assays it wonderfully. The film's portrayal of the character is heavily influenced by the depiction in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's 1987 graphic novel Batman: Year One, and one can easily imagine Miller and Mazzucchelli looking at the screen in astonishment at how completely Oldman embodies their interpretation. His Gordon is a world-weary man, torn by his commitment to justice and the compromises he has live with in order to achieve it. The script never dramatizes his internal conflicts, but one can sense them in every move he makes.

The stand-out, of course, is Heath Ledger as the Joker. As everyone knows, this was Ledger's last completed performance before dying earlier this year from a prescription drug overdose. There have been suggestions in the press that Ledger got so far into this character that it led to the depression problems that contributed to his death. David Denby of the New Yorker, who should know better, has echoed this nonsense, writing that the performance leaves you wondering "how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role." As the saying goes, don't believe the hype--at least, not all of it. The performance is terrific, but I don't buy for a minute that Ledger drove himself insane in order to give it. It's a very carefully crafted piece of work, with a strong sense of dynamics. Ledger affects a high, nasal voice and a shambling walk, with occasional twitchiness and moments of clumsiness. Apart from the fright make-up, everything about the character seems to say, "Why would anyone be scared of me?" But the character moves lightning fast when he attacks--he wields a knife with an unnerving ease--and the contrast makes him all the more effective as a threat. One's sense of how deceptively dangerous the character is gives a suspenseful edge to some scenes, such as one when, while briefly in police custody, the Joker taunts a cop with the number of police officers he's killed. You can see why the cop isn't the least bit worried when he moves to beat the crap out of him, and you feel the dread that comes with knowing this cop has no idea what he's in for. Ledger pulls off creepier effects as well; his Joker is very fond of bombs and, in one scene, a rocket-launcher, and he reacts to the explosions with a sheepish movement that says, "Well, not bad, but maybe next time." And the scene of him exiting a hospital in nurse's drag just has to be seen to be believed--he's Chaplin's Little Tramp as a transvestite mad bomber. Ledger may very well turn out to be his generation's James Dean, another brilliant young actor who died just as his career was taking off. The comparison is deserved.

I wish Nolan had spent more time clarifying the details of the Joker's various plots. The bank heist that opens the film is worked out like a nutty Rube Goldberg machine. Showing just how the Joker orchestrated the kidnappings and the jail escape that end the second act would be fascinating, as one doesn't see how he could have planned them. And perhaps Nolan spends too much time outlining the mob's bank and money laundering schemes at the beginning; the foray to Hong Kong, while breathtaking to look at in some shots, seems unnecessary, and the sequence's conclusion is beyond belief. I also could have done without the order vs. chaos allegorical malarkey that hangs over the Joker's war wih Batman, Gordon, and Dent.

It seems on some level that Nolan doesn't want to admit he's essentially making a franchise summer action movie for teenagers. He comes up with a well-structured urban crime drama, has the production handsomely put together by his artisans (cinemtographer Wally Pfister does a particularly spectacular job), and gets excellent performances out of his cast. He's doing the work of a good filmmaker. But the central demand to produce a cinematic roller coaster ride for kids on summer vacation rears its ugly head, and he overcompensates by throwing in a new explosion every few minutes. The Dark Knight may play more effectively on the small screen than the large (this is true of Paul Greengrass's Jason Bourne sequels); at least then I can turn down the volume when no one's talking.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Politics: Media Darlings

Well, it appears that John McCain no longer gives the media a thrill up its leg. Once the most popular official in Washington with the press, he's seeing his campaign portrayed as flailing and unfocused, and every gaffe is given maximum attention. Granted, the blunders are sometimes real head-shakers, like when he called the basic structure of Social Security, perhaps the most successful government operation in the history of this country, a "disgrace," or his ignorant assertion yesterday that the "surge" led to Sunni leaders in Anbar reasserting order in the region. (The Anbar "awakening," as McCain calls it, was well underway before the surge ever started, something he should know given his reputed expertise on the Iraq situation.) In general, the press is presenting him as doddering and confused, like an incontinent old geezer without a stock of fresh Depends at the ready. And that's when they're covering him at all. It seems to be Obama, Obama, Obama all the time, and, for the most part, coverage of him borders on the fawning, such as this description by Alessandra Stanley in today's New York Times:

Touring ruins of the Citadel in Amman, Mr. Obama strode confidently with his jacket crooked over his shoulder in classic Kennedy style. He also practiced statesmanly restraint, telling reporters in Amman that he wouldn’t criticize his opponent while abroad.

The McCain campaign has decided to strike back, and released this video yesterday:

Virtually every clip compiled in the video is from the disgraceful coverage of the Democratic primary campaign, but the fatuousness, despite occasional voices of reason, still reigns. In a remarkably embarrassing segment on MSNBC's Hardball Monday (clip here, transcript here) Andrea Mitchell was justifiably complaining about the inappropriateness of Obama's using military personnel instead of the press to provide footage of his visits to Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. But her protests fell on deaf ears; Chris Matthews and Roger Simon were too busy rhapsodizing over the clips of Obama playing basketball with the troops in Kuwait, and they just about swooned over the shot of Obama making a three-pointer. Matthews continued the gush into the next segment, in which he interviewed Trent Lott. Lott had the good sense to look embarrassed.

I'm hardly upset about the bloom coming off McCain's media darling rose. I never thought he much deserved it, and being a press darling won't win you contests with voters--just look at McCain's run for the Presidency in 2000, or Bill Bradley's, or Joe Lieberman's dead-on-arrival effort in 2004. Al Gore won the general election popular vote in 2000 despite the press's animosity towards him and their favor towards Bush. And this year, while the press was spewing invective at Hillary Clinton on a daily basis to get out of the race and stop giving their beloved Barack a hard time, she spent the second half of the primary season cleaning his clock with voters. For these reasons, I'm not even all that upset that Obama is the new apple of the press's eye.

What bothers me are the reasons. In the aforementioned Hardball segment, Matthews compares the Obama three-pointer to a similar monent with George W. Bush:

When George Bush threw that strike at Yankee Stadium at 9/11 right down the right over the plate, you didn‘t have to be a screaming, outlandish right-winger to think, wow, that‘s great for the country.

And then you see this guy, lean and mean, hitting that three-pointer from way outside. Could this be the bookends we‘re looking at, the—the athletic bookends of this—this whole contest over foreign policy?

The vibe I've gotten off Obama for a while now is that he does this kind of showboating for the cameras for the same reason Dubya does: being the center of mindless adulation is what he truly thinks being President is about. Both men come across callow, preening narcissists with little interest in public policy; they see the Presidency as the brass ring in their quest for self-aggrandizement. Josh Marshall, in the days before he was kidnapped, remarked that what Bush was after in Iraq was a parade for himself here at home. I don't want to find out what disaster Obama's going to get us into in his pursuit of a conquering-hero pageant, and I don't want to see his equivalent of Operation Flightsuit. I just wish McCain weren't such a to-the-last-man warmonger without a clue with regard to economic policy. I look at this election as a choice between having my right foot or left foot amputated; it doesn't matter which one I lose, but one of them's got to go. It's a no-win choice, and I'm left feeling perhaps it's best for others to make it for me. The consequences are likely going to be terrible regardless.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Poetry Review: The Troubadours

In trying to come up with a plan for the discussions in this topic, I've decided to follow the model I'm using in Civilization Saturday: a historically organized survey of significant writers and works. However, the focus is going to be on lyric poetry. I've certainly nothing against the epics of, say, Homer or Milton, or the dramatic poems of Sophocles and Shakespeare; I expect I'll be discussing examples of both in this blog as time goes by. But the proper place for treatments of those works seems to me to be the Friday postings.

I'm not going to be heading all the way back to the Psalms or the lyrics of Sappho, either. Our philosophical, social, and legal traditions may begin with the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, but Western traditions in lyric poetry have their principal roots in times closer to our own. Although twelfth-century France is probably just as alien a place to contemporary readers as Palestine in the tenth century BCE.

I realize this stuff is quite esoteric to most people, so I'm going to begin by recounting some history and facts. The roots of modern Western poetry are in the works of the troubadours, musicians and poets whose tradition flourished in southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They were the popular entertainers of their day, and they either performed their writings or had it performed by apprentices or professional musicians known as jongleurs.

The troubadour tradition began in the Gascony and western Aquitaine regions, and it reached its height in Provence. The earliest known troubadour poets are Elbe II of Ventadorn and William IX of Aquitaine, and the language of troubadour poetry is Provençal, also known as Occitan or langue d'oc. The subjects they sang about were almost exclusively love and chivalry.
The poems come in a number of different forms. Among them were the sirventes, a satirical poem devised to a melody. Two others were the aubade, a poem about lover's parting at dawn, and the tenso, a poem composed in a verse contest with other troubadours. The most common form, however, is the canso, a love song written in stanzas.

An early example of a canso is Bernart de Ventadorn's In anguish and torment am I":

In anguish and torment am I
because of a love that grips and holds me
so that I can go neither here nor there
without her holding me in her harness.
And now I have courage and desire
to court, if I can,
one who, if the King himself were to pursue her,
he would show great audacity.

Alas, unhappy one that I am! What shall I do?
What counsel shall I take?
For she does not know the sorrow that I bear,
nor do I dare beg her for mercy.
Fool, you have little understanding,
since she will never love you,
neither in name nor through intimacy.
Let yourself be blown away by the wind!

And so, since I must die,
shall I confess to her my sorrow?
Truly, I should do it right away.
I won't do it, by my faith,
even if I knew that
all Spain would be mine.
I would rather die of shame
than to have entertained such a thought.

Since I shall not send her a messenger,
and it is not fitting for me to speak myself,
I don't know how to advise myself.
But one thing consoles me:
she knows the alphabet, and how to read,
and I enjoy writing
words, and if she pleases,
may she read them so that I may be saved.
(This translation is from, where the poem can be seen in the original language as well. If you click the link, be warned: the pop-up ads at the site are more annoying than usual. The line breaks are mine, and reflect those in the original Provençal.)

The poem owes a good deal to the thinking found in the philosophy of courtly love, which flourished during the Middle Ages, and it illustrates the self-pitying attitude that medievals associated with the early stages of true romantic love. It must be remembered that the medieval bourgeois, by and for whom poetry was produced, did not see love as we do today. Men and women were betrothed to one another as children in order to promote family alliances; they were married in their teens or early twenties, and love was not a consideration. Romantic and spousal relationships were not allowed to form organically, as they are in our culture. However, that impulse was still there for the medievals, and this aggrandizement and sanctifying of infatuation was largely its only outlet. A man is not seen as forever trapped in lonely infatuation, though: eventually his feelings of regard are accepted by the lady of his desire, and he is inspired by his love to great deeds. The man and his lady pledge each other to secrecy, and they must remain fathful against all odds.

Another striking aspect of this poem and others in the troubadour tradition is how much they avoid the use of tropes. Modern formal analysis of poetry centers on tropes, or "turnings" of meaning in words. There are three basic types: analogy, which includes simile and metaphor; metonymy, which includes synecdoche and metonymy proper; and verbal irony. Bernart only employs one metaphor: the description of himself as being in his lady's "harness" in the first stanza. The implicit comparison of himself to a domesticated horse, mule, or ox as an indication of subservience is the only piece of transformative meaning in the poem.

A troubadour poet's main technique of expressive language is hyperbole. He loves exaggeration. Examples in the Bernart poem: Even the King "would show great audacity" in pursuing the poet's object of desire. The poet is so insignificant that he should be "blown away by the wind." He would not confess his sorrow even if he "knew that all Spain would be mine" if he did, and he would rather "die of shame than to have entertained such a thought." And finally, the desired lady's reading of his writings would be his salvation. Bernart's thinking of love in grander terms than life itself, and this is reflective of the medieval view that the initial stages of love were but the first steps towards a transcendent state of mind and spirit.

The most well-known of the troubadours today is Arnaut Daniel, in no small part due to Dante's depiction of him in the Divine Comedy. (Dante has Guido Guinizelli, the founder of the dolce stil novo school of poetry with which Dante identified, refer to Arnaut as the "miglior fabbro/better craftsman [purg. 26.117]. T.S. Eliot alluded to this reference in dedication of The Waste Land to Ezra Pound.) Arnaut's work shows a greater metrical sophistication than Bernart's, and it shows how the canso evolved into a more complex structural form, as the poem "Love and joy and time and place" demonstrates. He adheres to a strict seven-stanza format, with six stanzas of eight lines each followed by an envoy, a two-to-four line stanza in which the poet identifies himself, and generally declares that he is sending forth the poem to a personage of distinction. The use of hyperbole as the principal technique of expressive language remains, as in the lines

I don't know anyone as devoted to God,/hermit nor monk nor cleric,/as I am to her about whom I sing, (25-27)
Generally speaking, tropes are not present.

Arnaut evolved the canso even further, into a new form called the sestina. This type of poem consists of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy. The lines of the stanza are generally unrhymed, and the poem instead relies on a pattern of end-words. Each stanza must use the same end-words, although in a different order each time. The first example of this type of poem is Arnaut's "The firm will that my heart enters." I personally think Arnaut's effort here is too clever by half; the various stanza configurations using the end-words "intra/enters," "ongla/nail," "arma/soul," "verja/rod," "oncle/uncle," and "cambra/room," make the poem seem more like a stunt than a piece of expressive writing. The sestina form is far from hopeless--a number of outstanding poems utilizing it appear in Petrarch's Il canzoniere--but Arnaut doesn't seem to be able to rise to the challenge he's set himself.

He pushes himself, though. The restrictions of the sestina format seem to lead him into using tropes, particularly similes. "The firm will" (1)is likened to the "garden" and "room" metaphors of the lady's presence or thought (6). In the second stanza, the poet's limbs shake like a child's "before the rod" (10-11), and that child is likened to the poet's fear (11-12). The tenor of being close to the lady's soul in the fourth stanza finds its vehicle in the closeness of the finger to its nail (21), which is echoed in the third stanza's line of the poet being with his lady "what flesh is to nail" (17), a metaphor and allusion to crucifixion. In the final full stanza, he compares his heart's closeness to her as being like the bark on a rod (31-32), and the poet says his lady "is to me tower, palace, and room" (33). As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

As a final historical note, the troubadour movement spread considerably beyond southern France. Among others, it influenced the trouvères of northern France and the minnesingers of Germany. Its most notable offshoot was the Sicilian School, which I'll be dealing with next. My closing thought is that certain scholars, such as the great Harold Bloom, are wrong when they (carelessly) assert that tropes are the essence of poetry. Hyperbole is a key part of it as well, and the use of it may very well be the beginning of expressive language. The most prominent of the first major Western poets in our tradition only appears to have discovered tropes when avenues for hyperbole were largely closed off to him.

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The reading list for Poetry Tuesday can be found here.

Subsequent discussions:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Music Monday--Kelly Clarkson, "Irvine"

My preferred music is jazz, but every now and then a pop singer or rock performer comes along that I take a shine to. A recent one is Kelly Clarkson. Clarkson, as just about everyone knows, was the winner of the first season of American Idol, but that is not something that would endear me to her. I've never seen an episode, and my impression is that the performers who succeed on it do so because they are all too compatible with the bland, prefab pop that's dominated radio airwaves for decades now. I have a taste for the Eighties junk I grew up with, but that's about as far as my interest in that stuff goes.

My initial impression of Clarkson was that she was very much in that vanilla mold. Her signature song on Idol, played ad nauseum on the airwaves for months afterward, was "A Moment Like This," a piece of gloppy schlock that sounded like it was destined to be a theme song in camera commercials. However, her next single, "Miss Independent," was an eye-(and ear-)opener. Like all of Clarkson's recordings, it was excellently produced, with solid pop-rock hooks, and the singing chops on display were remarkable. The track has her shifting back and forth between pop, rock, and soul styles of singing, and she managed all three with impressive confidence. Many--too many--of the younger pop singers these days follow the lead of Christina Aguilera: they want to bowl you over with the power they can muster, and you're left feeling that they're trying to use the song to bludgeon you to death. Clarkson wants to bowl listeners over, too, but she's not out to get an ovation by mugging them; she earns her applause through demonstrations of versatility and skill.

Clarkson's second album, Breakaway, was a huge commercial success, and deservedly so. The tracks are superbly crafted pieces of pop and rock music, and, again, she moved dazzlingly between pop, rock, and soul styles of singing, with able ventures into funk and goth. Her third album, My December, was a commercial disappointment. I've only heard two tracks from it, "Irvine," and the single "Never Again," but the latter, despite the professionalism of the production, lacked solid hooks--or much else of interest--and the word was that the rest of the album was in the same vein.

Clarkson was reportedly aiming to produce a more personal effort with My December, with commercial considerations secondary, and despite the album's unimpressive sales, it's produced one gem in this regard: "Irvine," which is easily the best thing she's done to date. The lyrics are from the point of view of a young woman, lost, alone, and seeking comfort by reaching out to God. With extraordinary discipline and control, Clarkson sings at the edges of her voice's range throughout; she often sounds as if it is on the verge of cracking out of desperation and longing. The musical accompaniment is minimal, and it enhances the vocals splendidly. The track is a lovely piece of work: powerfully understated, beautifully expressive, and hauntingly sad. Enjoy: you may find, like I have, that the song has become a part of your daily life.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Politics: Thoughts on Ryan Lizza's "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama"

The most unfortunate thing about the controversy over Barry Blitt's cover for the July 21 New Yorker is that the issue's massive article on Obama by Ryan Lizza has gone largely overlooked. The piece, titled "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama," is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in politics and the background of the man who will most likely be the next President of the United States. Lizza has done an extraordinary job of reporting; this exceptionally detailed piece is far and away the most substantive piece of journalism to appear on Obama in the national press.

That said, the article is perplexing. My sense of Obama before I read the article was that he was a narcissistic fast-track artist with no interest in policy or accomplishments. With him, it’s all about successful networking and self-aggrandizement. When I finished the article, I realized that Lizza hadn’t challenged that view in any way. However, it's not intended as an Obama hit-piece; the tone isn't polemical, and Lizza, in his television appearances, comes across as a strong Obama supporter. He clearly thinks he wrote a complimentary article.

Lizza's notions of what's complimentary are certainly different than mine. He provides plenty of grist for an Obama-hater's mill. All the ignorantly romantic notions of Obama's days as community organizer are blown out of the water, and the torpedo is words from Obama's own mouth. From an interview he gave Lizza last year:

“When I started organizing, I understood the idea of social change in a very abstract way [...] When I went to Chicago, it was the first time that I had the opportunity to test out my ideas. And for the most part I would say I wasn’t wildly successful. The victories that we achieved were extraordinarily modest: you know, getting a job-training site set up or getting an after-school program for young people put in place.”
The community organizing was no big deal, right from the horse's mouth.

And then there's Lizza's treatment of Obama's now-famous anti-Iraq War speech in 2002:

In his biography of Obama, David Mendell, noting that Obama’s speech occurred a few months before the official declaration of his U.S. Senate candidacy, suggests that the decision to publicly oppose the war in Iraq was a calculated political move intended to win favor with [Bettylu] Saltzman [a major Chicago political fund-raiser, whose family co-owns the Chicago Bulls basketball team]. The suggestion seems dubious; the politics were more in the framing of his opposition, not the decision itself. As Saltzman told me, “He was a Hyde Park state senator. He had to oppose the war!” [...] After all, it was unlikely that many of the protesters knew who Obama was, and in a lengthy write-up of the event in the Chicago Tribune the following day he was not mentioned. Yet the speech reads as if it had been written for a much bigger audience.

During this period, Obama also became more of a strategist, someone increasingly comfortable discussing the finer points of polls, message, and fund-raising.

Lizza clearly feels that this speech was likely cynically motivated, a move to curry favor with Chicago political king-makers, as well as with the Democratic Party base, who overwhelmingly opposed Bush's actions.

The only way one can see such portrayals as neutral or even positive is if one values being a narcissistic climber with a genius for networking, for whom accomplishments are beside the point. And then it hit me, this is probably exactly how Ryan Lizza sees things. He's a member in good standing in the New York-Washington media world; the highest aspiration there is to pull a seven-figure salary to sit on one's butt and ignorantly pontificate on the news. These media people are clueless even when they tell the unvarnished truth.

The Lizza story, however, has an entertaining coda. The Obama campaign has locked him out of the press pool for the current Obamapalooza worldwide tour. In an article yesterday at, Mike Allen writes, "Among those for whom there was no room was Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent of The New Yorker. The campaign, which was furious about the magazine’s satirical cover this week, cited space constraints in turning him away." Maybe it's their anger over the cover, or maybe it's because they have enough perspective to realize what Lizza apparently doesn't: portraying Obama as a cynical, ambition-for-ambition's sake opportunist, however honestly, isn't doing Obama any favors.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Civilization Review: The Book of Genesis

Welcome to Civilization Saturday. The purpose is to read and discuss the major texts in the development of Western thought and social theory, with the works ranging from classical sources like the Old Testament, Plato, and Aristotle to such contemporary voices as Hannah Arendt, Robert Nozick, and Noam Chomsky. It is essentially an autodidactic Great Books course, structured--at least at first--as a historically organized survey of the texts in question. My expectation is that I will be isolating the books' central ideas, and then interrogating them by relating those ideas to present-day circumstances. If the works are as worthy as their statures indicate, I should have little trouble finding relevance to contemporary life.

The first work to be considered is the Book of Genesis, the foundation text of the Abrahamic traditions embodied today in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All references and quotations are from the King James translation of the Bible, with chapter and verse numbers indicated.

Genesis is essentially divided into four sections: the creation myths and the stories of the three great Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. (Isaac, the other significant patriarch, is mainly depicted in terms of his relationships with his father Abraham and his son Jacob.) The creation myths cover the stories of God's creation of the Earth, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel. The stories of the patriarchs provide accounts of the lives of the founders of Israel and the Hebrew tradition. Man is identified as God's privileged creation, with dominion over all others on Earth (1:26), and his purpose, beyond the worship of God, is to accumulate as much property as possible.

The most striking aspect of Genesis as a foundational text for a culture is the near-absence of societal rules and codified values. The one constant throughout the text is that God's authority is absolute. Creation, destruction, mercy, punishment--they are His decisions and He is not to be questioned. All well and good, but His authority and favor are quite arbitrary and even unjust. The God of Genesis imposes tests of faith upon men, such as the directive not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, or the order to Abraham to slaughter and sacrifice his son Isaac as proof of obeisance. He capriciously favors Abel over his brother Cain, with tragic consequences, and divine favor shockingly excuses and even justifies fraud against one's father and brother, as it does with Jacob. At one point, even Abraham questions God's sense of justice, asking Him, with regard to the fairness of destroying all the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, "Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do right?" (18:25)

I'll grant that this ancient culture had values that seem outright bizarre to one now. The most grotesque instance is the episode where hospitality compels Lot to offer his daughters up to a mob to be deflowered and gang-raped--this is considered preferable to acceding to that mob's demand to forcibly bugger the male guests in his home (19:4-8). But the absence of law (and, therefore, justice) is felt throughout. The lack is especially felt with regard to Jacob, whose propensity for greed, deceit, and opportunism seems to infect everyone and everything around him.

As in our society, property is the principal definition of a man's worth, and the governing of contracts and claims to property is one of the key functions of the law. Jacob may have the shield of God's blessing in Genesis, but many societieis regard this sort of unscrupulous person as a predator and even a criminal. Jacob extorts his brother Esau's inheritance from him (25:29-34), tricks their father into giving Jacob the blessing intended for Esau (27:6-41), and uses his position as the manager of Laban's livestock to effectively swindle Laban out of the offspring of the herds (30:31-43). Jacob rationalizes this embezzlement as God's doing, complaining that Laban has deceived him and "changed his wages ten times" (31:7). He's not a person one can trust to deal with one fairly.

Those around Joseph seem particularly inclined to deceit as well. His mother Rebekah is his co-conspirator in the cheating of Esau. Laban tricks Jacob into thinking that he is marrying Laban's youngest daughter Rachel when he is actually marrying her sister Leah, all in defiance of Laban's agreement with Jacob for Rachel's hand (29:15-26). Rachel steals icons from her father's home and uses the excuse of her period to impede a search for them (31:19-37). A neighbor's son forces himself on Jacob's daughter Dinah, yet despite her brothers' subsequent arrangements for the two to marry and the conversion of the boy's family to Hebraism, the brothers murder the boy and his father out of revenge, loot the family's belongings, and enslave the family's women and children (34:1-31). When Jacob complains about their actions, the sons respond, "Should he deal with our sister as an harlot?" (34:31) These sons also sell their brother Joseph into slavery, telling Jacob he was killed by a wild animal (37:3-35). Frankly, Jacob's sons make their father look like an eminently upstanding citizen.

What these incidents all highlight is that no figure in Genesis feels particularly governed by societal rules. There is certainly no means of enforcing those rules beyond taking matters in one's own hands, and, as in the case of Dinah, punishments meted out may be grossly out of proportion to the underlying crime. A society needs something more than dedicated worship of God and circumcision as an expression of one's faith.

* * *

The reading list for Civilization Saturday is here

Subsequent Civilization Saturday discussions:

Friday, July 18, 2008

Comics Review/Art Review/Politics: Barry Blitt, "The Politics of Fear"

The controversy over Barry Blitt's cover for the July 21, 2008 issue of the New Yorker (at right) has certainly been the dominant news story this past week. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns have denounced it as "tasteless and offensive," while supporters of Blitt laud it as effective satire and echo his statement * that "I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is."

In his defense of the cartoon, Joe Conason writes, "Sometimes satirical drawings provoke laughter, and sometimes they simply provoke. Measured as provocation and as the focus of debate, the New Yorker cover is actually a huge success."

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Conason, but what he doesn't take into account is that the cover is inflammatory quite simply because it traffics in inflammatory imagery without adding anything to it. The New Yorker could have achieved a similar level of provocation by printing "Barack Obama Is a Nigger" in inch-high red letters against a black field. Blitt's cartoon fails as satire; all he has done is compile a visual catalogue of slurs.

This is not to say that I feel Blitt is misrepresenting his intent in the statement quoted above. I can certainly understand the view that this portrayal of the Obamas is inherently laughable, as it tropes any reasonable person's view of them. However, I don't agree with that view. Blitt hasn't done his job here. He recreates previously existing tropes; he doesn't create new ones. He doesn't make us look at this imagery in a new way. There is no counterpoint to the slurs against the Obamas, no element that would give the cartoon dynamism and wit.

Over at TalkLeft, LarryInNYC had an idea that might have served as a really effective counterpoint in the image. Instead of the Obamas, put the McCains in these trappings. Think about it for a minute. John McCain in ceremonial Muslim garb with the U.S. flag burning in the fireplace and Osama bin-Laden's portrait over the mantlepiece. (I'd put a portrait of Ahmadinejad next to it, given McCain's incredibly stupid statement to the effect that al-Qaeda and Iran are allied.) He fist-bumps with Cindy McCain, all done up like Patty Hearst in her Symbionese Liberation Army days. Hey, they're both heiresses. And the whole thing would fit in with the right-wing tendency to project their own negative attributes onto their political opponents.

The irony of depicting the McCains in this manner would likely be apparent to everyone. Blitt would have created a satirical trope of this imagery, and, most importantly, highlighted the absurdity of these slurs rather than just regurgitating them. Such an image would carry considerable dissonance for the viewer and have the potential to be really funny. This hypothetical cartoon might show the wit the actual one does not.

There would probably still be a controversy. The Obama people are extremely uptight about having this stuff in front of the public in any context, and the McCain people would likely be furious. Neither campaign--particularly Obama's--has demonstrated much of a sense of humor about themselves. But the public might have an image and a controversy worthy of its laughter. Instead we have a lame cartoon and a dull controversy with nowhere to go. My sense is that if your basic reaction to these particular Obama slurs is that they're ridiculous, you'll approve of the cover. If you feel they're hateful, you'll detest it. All Blitt is asking for in response is condemnation or approval for reminding us of what we already think. Any satirist worth his or her salt should ask for more.

*Note: My inclination is not to link to The Huffington Post as a rule, given its persistent practice of misleading, propagandistic, and even libelous headlines, reporting, and article summaries. However, Blitt has not protested Nico Pitney's use of the statement in his article, and, as the article is the primary source for Blitt's defense of his cartoon, I have chosen to make an exception.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Poetry Translation: Dante, Inferno, Song I

This is the first entry in a series of poetry discussions I have planned for this blog. I expect most of the entries will be dealing with my readings of various poets, but every few weeks I'll be posting a new song from my in-progress translation of Dante's Divina Commedia.

My translating the Commedia has its roots in a major academic research project on Dante that I embarked on a number of years ago. It was a sideline to the main project, and my reasons for beginning a translation are explained in the following preface, which accompanied the translated Song I when I sent it to the supervising professor back in 2003.

The preface largely speaks for itself, and I only have one thing I'd like to add to it. At one point I identify Herman Melville and Henry Miller as the only two English-language writers who can generate writing rhythms with anything comparable the force and momentum of Dante's. I'd like to add John Milton to that list. Furthermore, I'd like to note that he's far more consistent in his ability to match the force of Dante's rhythms than either Melville or Miller. I've become a stronger reader in the interim, and a rereading of Paradise Lost some time back was a revelation in terms of Milton's poetic powers.

I should also note that, since this translation is now being presented in HTML, I'll be linking to the historical, literary, and mythological references Dante makes throughout the poem. I had written explanatory notes for a number of the references, but Wikipedia and other sources can explain them at least as well, and they'll be free of my weakness for exegesis.

Preface to my translation of the Divina Commedia

I’ve a number of reasons for beginning a translation of the Commedia. One, doing so will help me improve my quite limited grasp of the Italian language. Two, it gives me a more complete sense of Dante as a poet. Three, it will help me evaluate the translations of his work that I’ll be forced to use over the course of this project. And, four, it keeps Dante’s work in front of me every day; of late, I’ve been beginning my morning by translating a stanza.

I’ve wondered for quite some time how Dante comes across in Italian. My curiosity was first piqued when I was reading Robert Pinsky’s translation of the Inferno a few years back. The Pinsky edition, published by the Noonday Press, featured the original Italian text on the left-hand side and the English translation on the right. A woman I worked with was a native speaker of Italian and I asked her how close Pinsky’s version was to the original. This woman, whom, I add, had never read Dante before, looked back and forth between the Italian and the English and said, “Oh, it’s O.K.” Her tone indicated how unimpressed she was by the translation. She then stared at the Italian, looking absolutely transfixed. After a few seconds, she said, sounding as if she was coming out of a trance, “That’s beautiful.” She then looked at me and said, “That’s just beautifully written.”

My curiosity was further piqued a couple of years later when I read a translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il filostrato while researching a paper on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. I had read a number of selections from a translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron right after finishing Pinsky’s Inferno, and I had been quite impressed by the grace and sophistication of Boccaccio’s sentences after they had been translated into English. While reading the translation of Il filostrato, I was astonished. Despite the works being translated by different people, I could immediately tell that they were by the same author. The writing style—the approach to sentence construction, the sophistication of the syntax—was identical. Boccaccio, it seemed, came across exactly the same regardless of the translator or what was translated. This was in stark contrast to Dante. I had scanned a number of other translations of the Inferno since reading the Pinsky and found that no two read alike. What was it about Dante’s and Boccaccio’s respective styles that created such a situation?

The answer, as I’ve discovered while working on the Inferno, Song I, is that Dante and Boccaccio are, stylistically, as far apart as two writers can be. Boccaccio’s language is very straightforward; he’s a very literal-minded writer. Dante, at least in the Commedia, is not. He blurs physical and metaphysical descriptions with abandon; he manages to be both literal and allegorical simultaneously. His writing, if one translates it directly into English, comes across as goofily arch.

In Italian, though, Dante makes it work and extraordinarily well. In my tutoring, one student I worked with had just a phenomenal sense of rhythm in his prose. His problem was that he crafted arguments very shoddily. For the longest time, he’d been able to get away with it; his prose style had allowed him to bluff his way past his teachers. But then he came to a teacher who was oblivious to everything but the quality of the argument. It was my job to help the kid get the arguments in his papers organized. Dante reminds me quite a bit of this student. His Italian allows him to get past a literal-minded reader’s dubiousness towards the mixing of the physical and metaphysical in his lines. When spoken aloud, the rhythms of the poem are so strong that they can transfix a listener who doesn’t understand a word of Italian. Dante employs a poetic form called terza rima: lines ten syllables long are organized into a rhyme scheme of ababcbcdcded and so on. The lines, aided by the heavy reliance on vowels in Italian words (and, of course, Dante’s extraordinary command of his language), barrel forth with a momentum unlike anything else in literature. (There are only two English-language writers who can generate rhythms with anywhere near the force of Dante’s: Herman Melville, in the more ecstatic passages of Moby-Dick, and Henry Miller, during his better automatist flights in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. And neither writer can manage it as consistently—or as elegantly.) Dante’s rhythms overwhelm an audience’s skepticism; the lines make one feel as if one is riding a never-ending wave.

(Terza rima is far more suited to Italian than English. As noted, Italian words rely heavily on vowels for their sound; English words are more notable for their consonants. Italian is melodic; English is percussive. As such, English sounds flatter than Italian; its rhythms are much less imposing. The most notable terza rima poem in English, Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind," is lovely, but its tempos have nothing of the aggressiveness of its Italian counterpart.)

A translator of Dante can’t even hope to approximate the momentum of the original poem. Furthermore, a translator is faced with the problem of reader disbelief that Dante used terza rima structure to solve. A faithful translation of the poem is a near-impossibility; the task of rendering Dante’s lines in English pushes a translator’s ingenuity to its limits. Creative license is a necessity, which is why no two translations are alike.

While working on my own translation, I consulted the efforts of the three most accomplished American poets to try their hand at the poem: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Ciardi, and Robert Pinsky. Each takes a different approach. Longfellow attempts a line-by-line translation, relying on the language of the King James Version of the Bible (lots of thees and thys and thous, among other things) to aid the reader in the suspension of disbelief. The idea, I think, is that if the poem sounds appropriately dignified, the reader won’t balk at the constant shift between literal and metaphysical meaning in the lines. Longfellow provides the most faithful translation of the three, but, sadly, it is also the most pretentious. I didn’t much care for the Pinsky translation when I read it a few years ago, and, looking at it now, I think it’s an ambitious failure. Pinsky attempts to get the feel of terza rima across in his rendering by using rhyming and semi-rhyming consonantal syllables at the end of lines. The strategy backfires: The rhythms in his treatment proceed by fits and starts; the result is a homely, uncomfortable mess of a read. The heavy rewriting to which he subjects Dante’s stanzas compounds Pinsky’s failure. If one isn’t going to be faithful to the wording of the original poem, and one can’t provide an acceptable flow for the lines, then what’s the point? In Ciardi's translation, he takes considerable license with Dante’s wording as well (most of the more conspicuous flourishes in his treatment are original to him) but he makes the poem his own. The result is about three-quarters Dante and one-quarter Ciardi. The relationship of Ciardi’s translation to the Dante is a bit like the relationship of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans Porgy and Bess to Gershwin’s original. It’s not what the original creator intended, but it’s a damned fine piece of work. Ciardi even provides something of an approximation to the terza rima structure. The first and third lines of the stanzas (all of them tercets) are rhymed.

For my part, I opted to forgo any attempt at approximating Dante’s terza rima. The poem is presented in three-line stanzas of free verse. I’ve remained faithful to Dante’s lines; each one in my rendering reflects, to a greater or lesser degree, the exact meaning of the original. None of the stanzas are reorganized for the purposes of clarity. This is the most faithful English translation I can muster.

The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Song One

Dante lost in the dark wilderness

Halfway upon the road of our life,
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
The path of righteousness lost to me.

Oh, to talk about it is difficult,
That wilderness. So brutal and harsh and unrelenting,
The very thought of it brings back my fear!

It was so bitter; death is hardly worse.
But, to convey the goodness I found,
I’ll tell of the other things I came across.

I can’t exactly say how I entered that place,
So sleepy was I at the point where
The road of virtue was left behind.

But then, when I’d arrived at the foot of the hill,
The place where the valley ended,
Fear overwhelmed my heart, which was already so filled with doubt.

I looked up and then…then I saw that the sides of the hill
Were draped already in the rays of the sphere
That show the straight road to those of every walk of life.

My fear then calmed a bit,
Although it lasted in the lake of my heart throughout
That night, which I spent wallowing in self-pity.

And like one who, exhausted and half-drowned,
Emerges from the sea at the shore
And looks back at the menacing waters,

My soul, still panicky,
Turned to look back on the pass
That no living person had yet left behind.

And then, at last, having rested my tired body a bit,
I continued to make my way up that barren hill,
So impatiently that the steady foot was always below the other.

And it was there, almost at the peak of that steep slope,
That a great cat, fast and sure on its feet, suddenly appeared,
The fur of its coat covered with spots.

And it would not leave my presence;
Instead, it headed me off from the many routes
That I turned and returned to time and again.

The time was the start of the morning
And the sun was rising with the stars,
Standing together when divine love

Began to move them, such things of beauty;
I was led to hope for better in my dealings
With this spot-covered beast—

Oh, the hour of time and the sweet season.
But it was not enough to dispel my fear:
I caught sight of a lion,

Which appeared to be charging towards me,
Head raised and hunger raging--
The very air around him seemed to tremble.

And then a she-wolf, of whom all hunger
Seemed embodied in her haggard form,
In addition to the many already made to live in misery.

This burdened me all the more;
With the fear brought by the vision of her,
I lost hope of scaling the heights.

And like one who lives for material gain
When he loses everything,
His every thought making him break down and cry,

Such was how the beast made me lose peace.
Her opposing me, little by little,
Drove me back beyond the sun’s reach.

And, as I fell into the lower depths,
Someone, before my eyes, offered himself to me,
One who, in the long silence, appeared dim.

When I saw him in this great wasteland,
I cried, “Take pity on me,
Whatever you may be, whether a ghost or a true man.”

He replied: “Not a man; a man I was once.
My parents were Lombards,
Mantuans by homeland, both of them.

I was born during the reign, though late, of Julius Cæsar,
And lived in Rome under the good Augustus
In the time of the false and lying gods.

A poet I was, and I sang of that righteous
Son of Anchises who came from Troy
After that splendid city of Ilium went up in flames.

But you—why step back to such great ennui?
Why not climb the Mountain of Delight
Which is the beginning and cause of all joy?”

“Now, are you Virgil, that spring
Which pours so wide a river of speech?,”
I answered him, my manner bashful.

“Oh, from other poets honored and bright,
I have realized the need for long study, as well as the great love,
That has compelled me to explore your work.

You are my master and progenitor;
It is from you alone that I’ve taken
The beautiful style that has brought me honor.

See the beast from whom I turn away.
Help me be rid of her, famous sage,
For she leaves my veins and pulse all atremble.”

“I would advise you to travel another road,”
He replied, upon seeing my tears.
“If you are to get by this savage place.

This beast, against whom you cry out,
Does not allow others to pass her way,
But, rather, thwarts them unto death.

And her nature is so wicked and base
That she can never satisfy her rapacious drives;
After a meal she is more ravenous than before.

Many are the animals with whom she mates,
And there will be more still, until, finally, the Greyhound
Will come, and make her die in pain.

This one will not sustain himself upon earth or tripods,
But upon wisdom, love, and virtue,
And his nation will stand between the cities of Feltro.

He will bring salvation to this humble Italy
For whom the maiden Camilla died
In blood, as did Euryalus, Turnus, and Nisus.

He will hunt the she-wolf through every village
Until he has sent her back to the hell
Where envy first unleashed her.

Therefore, I think and discern it best for you
That you follow me. I will be your guide,
And, from here, take you to an eternal place.

There you will hear the shrieks of despair.
You will see the ancient spirits, full of sorrow,
Each crying out in the second death of damnation.

You will also see those who are content
In the flames, for they hope of coming to
That day when they will be among the blessed people.

Then, if it is to the blessed that you wish to climb,
There will be, for that purpose, a soul worthier than my own.
With her I shall leave you upon my parting.

For the Emperor who reigns above,
Because I was rebellious to His law,
Does not will for others to come to His city through me.

He rules there, He rules everywhere.
By “there” I mean His city and His throne.
Oh, “there”--So happy is the one chosen for that place.”

And I said to him: “Poet, I beseech you,
By the God whom you did not know,
Grant that I escape this evil and worse,

That you will lead me to the places of which you’ve told,
So that I may see the gates of St. Peter
And those whom you make to be the despondent many.”

And then he moved on, and I kept behind him.

Continue to Song II