Sunday, August 31, 2008

Politics: More on Sarah Palin

Some of this may seem familiar to those who read the comments over at Anglachel's (click here), and one dear friend will definitely notice the resemblance of parts of this essay to an e-mail I sent her.

Elizabeth Bumiller and Michael Cooper have a decent article in the New York Times (click here) about what went on behind the Palin decision. Bumiller's more of a court stenographer than a reporter, though, so I don't think she included the whole story. I've been reading and thinking about Palin since the announcement, including watching an extended CNBC interview with her by Maria Bartiromo. (It was taped last week before the decision came down. Given the almost complete focus on energy policy and Alaska's relevance to that debate, I'd say the timing was serendipitous, although I think the show was rushed on the air after the announcement.)

It's quite obvious to me that the Palin selection is about the religious right.

It's no secret they're not crazy about McCain. However, they're also extremely upset with the plutocratic wing that dominates the party leadership. A lot of them feel they're viewed as a bunch of stupid hicks who are only good for their votes. They're as unhappy with the rampant corruption as the rest of us, and they're equally aghast at the efforts to turn the U.S. into a third-world economy.

Howard Dean and others think that once religious conservatives start hurting enough they'll vote their economic interests and start supporting the Democratic Party. They may not be entirely wrong, but few among the religious right would ever vote for a Brahmin type like Obama or Kerry. They're more likely to find their own candidates, people who can balance their social agenda with their economic concerns.

This is who Sarah Palin is. Mike Huckabee was a step in this direction, but Palin, at least in terms of her image, epitomizes it. The religious-right voters are ecstatic over her. She's one of them, she's fought the plutocratic GOP establishment in her own state and won, and she's outspoken in her commitment to balance the goals of big business with the interests of working people and the community. The plutocrats are none too happy about the prospect of people like Palin or Huckabee running the party. Most of that rumbling about a third-party Bloomberg run early this year was in response to the possibility of Huckabee being the GOP nominee.

(McCain is not, in my view, part of the plutocrat faction of the party. My sense of the GOP is that there are three major groups: the religious conservatives, the plutocratic big-business types, and the traditionalist/military bunch. McCain, like Colin Powell and John Warner, belongs to the last one. The plutocrats' favored candidate was Mitt Romney.)

McCain, in one fell swoop, has rallied the religious conservatives around his campaign, and he's sent the plutocrat wing, whose excesses have done so much damage to the Republican brand, to the back of the bus. He's also reinvigorated his maverick image, which had been sagging of late.

The Palin candidacy holds two big traps for the Obama people, and Friday they blundered right into both of them.

The first is making a big deal about Palin's experience. Palin's in the number-two slot, not the number-one, so it's easy to see her as being in a position where she's being mentored. All the Obama people are accomplishing is highlighting the questions of Obama's own inexperience, and, unlike her, he's at the top of the ticket.

The second is the woman question. The misogyny that erupted in response to Hillary Clinton's campaign--which the Obama campaign was fully complicit with--was one of the ugliest things I've seen in politics in my lifetime, and I think it hurt Obama badly. There are a substantial number of Clinton supporters (including me) who want nothing to do with him, and this was a major contributing factor. Choosing Palin is not going to win Democratic women over, but if she gets hit with the same spew that Hillary did, it's going to reopen the wounds of the primary campaign, and many Democratic women may either stay home or vote for McCain in protest. Directly or indirectly characterizing Palin as the VPILF, or engaging in obnoxious speculation about her children (this has gone way beyond Bristol Palin's announced pregnancy) will backfire. The speculations about her kids have gotten so bad that Obama himself has been compelled to come out and tell people to leave Palin's family alone.

The only way to engage Palin is on the issues, and Democratic partisans are handling even that badly. It's one thing to criticize Palin for her views, but to attack McCain for picking her because of them is just silly. This choice was for the Republican nominee for Vice-President, and McCain picked a popular representative of one of the key factions of his party; after reading people like Jeralyn Merritt over at, one would think they were expecting McCain to nominate Lincoln Chafee. The attacks on Palin's conduct as Alaska's governor have been stupid as well.

This "Troopergate" scandal being hawked by Whoever Kidnapped Josh Marshall and others only makes Palin look good. Palin's goal, however inappropriately she went about it, was to fire a cop who, by his own admission, had been drinking and driving on duty, and worse, had deliberately Tasered his ten-year-old stepson. I think it's safe to say most people want cops like that fired, and that there's something seriously messed up about a system that thinks the appropriate penalty is to suspend him for five days. As one commenter noted after reading about Marshall's silliness, it's way past time to pay the ransom and get the real Josh back.

Democrats need to realize that John McCain is looking at all of this and laughing his head off. He knows he made the right choice. He's rallied his base and sent the opposition off the deep end. From a political standpoint, what more could he ask for?

* * *

I have some thoughts about the possibly positive direction the ascendancy of Sarah Palin could mean for politics in this country, and I hope to get into those in the Wednesday column. She may represent a movement among the religious conservatives that is worth encouraging, especially if, like me, you accept that they're here to stay. And no, I do not advocate anyone voting for her.

* * *


I'm not as ahead of the curve news-wise as elements of this post may suggest. One of the idiosyncrasies of Blogger is that the posting date and time are when the post starts being written, rather than when it's published. This post reflects Monday news because it was completed Tuesday morning. I'm sorry for any confusion.

Politics: Ex-DNC Chair Don Fowler Is a Disgusting Pig

Just hideous. This is definitely the year for Democrats to be ashamed of their party.


I've added a Red Cross link to the list of charities at the left. They've got their hands full with the Hurricane Gustav situation, and they need all the support they can get.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Art Review: The Art of Bob Peak

Note: A coffee-table book, The Art of Bob Peak, retailing for $79.00 USD, was published in May 2012. Please read the last paragraph with that in mind. For more information about the book, click here.

Bob Peak (1927-1992) was perhaps the greatest commercial illustrator active in the U.S. after World War II. He is an artist whose work can more than hold its own with that of such pre-WWII figures as Charles Dana Gibson, Norman Rockwell, and J.C. Leyendecker. A brilliant draftsman, he's noted for his superb command of figure drawing and portaiture, his strong compositional sense, and his masterful approach to color design. No illustrator has done more to integrate the techniques of such modernist schools as Fauvism, Art Nouveau, Cubism, and Futurism into the visual vocabulary of the broader culture. A characteristic piece is the one above from his series for the film Camelot. Peak layers multiple images into one, utilizes modernist rendering techniques for the various visual elements, and brings it all together with a flamboyant, decorative use of color.

An excellent example of Peak's use of modernist technique in commercial illustration is his tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (at left). The image owes a great deal to the effects found in such Cubist and Futurist works as Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, but Peak's approach is different; he isn't out to capture multiple perspectives or the simultaneity of movement in a single image. He's enamored with the geometric patterning generated by Picasso, Braque, and Duchamp's techniques, and he reproduces it and recalls the monochromatic palette of those works to brilliant decorative effect. The approach is especially suitable for a treatment of Astaire and Rogers; the Art Deco sets in their films derived their style from the same modernist work Peak references. Peak pays tribute to Astaire and Rogers and acknowledges the "high-art" roots of their films' visual look in one fell swoop.

The covers of Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, and TV Guide were regular showcases for Peak's work in the 1970s and 1980s. A good deal of this material is just stylish renderings of celebrities, like his treatment of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, or Madonna in her "Material Girl"/Gentlemen Prefer Blondes mode. (Click the stars' names to view.) But every now and then, Peak would produce a portrait that was nothing less than profound. His depiction of Mother Teresa (at right) recalls late Rembrandt in its evocation of the modern saint's dignity and nobility, as well as the sad air that always seemed to accompany her. Peak's approach is more caricatural than Rembrandt's, and his color design more ebullient, but the techniques create a resonance than can hold its own with the drama of the Dutch master's late-period works.

Peak is best known for his movie posters, and his work is widely considered the best that field of commercial art has ever seen. Many of them have become pop-culture classics (click the titles to view)--My Fair Lady, Camelot, Petulia, Funny Girl, Enter the Dragon, Equus, Superman, Excalibur--known and admired by people regardless of their interest in the movies for which the posters were produced.

The high point of Peak's movie-poster work is probably the piece he produced for Apocalypse Now (at right). Peak brilliantly epitomizes the film's ambitions and drama in a single image. With the scorching red-on-black color scheme, and the swirling flare lines emanating from the base image of the boat on the river, he captures the delirious, hallucinatory tone the film was seeking. The central portrait of Marlon Brando's Kurtz suggests rock melting into lava, an inspired depiction of a character who represents the acme of civilization degenerating into barbarism. The image of Martin Sheen's steadfast Willard hangs in the background. The concrete quality of the rendering suggests a stability distinct from the nightmarish quality conveyed by the rest of the piece, but the integration of the portrait into the color scheme suggests Willard is a part of the insanity as well. I can think of no other movie poster that has captured the dynamics of the film that inspired it so well.

Ultimately, Peak's work was what Clement Greenberg would have derided as kitsch. For all his sophistication, Peak essentially assimilated the techniques of modernist innovators and other "high-culture" artists, slicked up their application, and utilized them in an unabashedly commercial context. But Peak's work is kitsch of the highest order. At his most accomplished, he made those techniques his own, creating imagery that is uniquely his. His work is popular art at its best: technically masterful, with an energy and verve that, to many, makes "high art" look dull by comparison.

Examples of Peak's work are available for viewing at the Web site, and at dozens of sites maintained by collectors and enthusiasts. Google puts it right at one's fingertips. However, there's no coffee-table book or similar publication that brings it all together with the format and reproduction it deserves. Here's hoping that Harry N. Abrams, Abbeville Press, or another appropriate publisher fills the void one day. They've got one customer right here.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Politics: Obama's Acceptance Speech

Obama's speech last night (transcript here)was better than I anticipated. I have little patience for political speeches in general, and convention acceptance speeches, like State of the Union addresses, are inevitably the worst of the lot: too long, too meandering, and too dependent on hackneyed language to be of much interest. Obama's speech last night was pretty par for the course. I was glad that he stayed fairly specific; there was little of the drifting off into the fog of abstractions that's his greatest weakness. He made a point of being gracious; Obama still refuses to laud Bill Clinton for the achievements of his administration, but he was thanked for the effectiveness of his convention speech Wednesday night. According to the commentators, Obama apparently modeled the speech after the convention acceptance speeches of Kennedy, Reagan, and Bill Clinton, and that appears to have disciplined him somewhat. As for that godawful backdrop--one of Britney Spears' set designers was hired to provide it--it wasn't too distracting.

So why am I disappointed? It's rooted in Obama's refusal to acknowledge the success of Bill Clinton's presidency. In the convention acceptance speeches of George Bush the Elder, Bob Dole, Dubya, and most likely John McCain, the foundation of the case they make to the American people is always the perceived successes of Ronald Reagan. However, they don't just identify themselves with Reagan; they always speak of how they intend to build on what they see as his accomplishments. Everything is discussed in terms of what people know from experience a President can do. Obama has a pretty rich legacy in terms of modern predecessors, particularly with regard to domestic policy; you can't do much better on that front than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. But he never acknowledges them; he never promotes himself in terms of continuing and extending their legacy. He doesn't even talk about his goals in terms of the smaller successes of contemporary state governors. He demonstrates no understanding of what the power he seeks has accomplished or can accomplish in practical terms.

Instead, he gives us junk like this:

For eighteen long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past. You understand that in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You have shown what history teaches us that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time. America, this is one of those moments.

We've all heard variations of this from Obama over the last year-and-a-half. Obama needs to outline his vision of what government can do, and explain how he plans to implement it. He needs to demonstrate his understanding of what is good about what's come before and illustrate how he plans to build on it and build away from the bad. He refused to do that. Instead, Obama posits that worthwhile change can only come from novices or relative novices. I think we can all look back on the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush to see how well that works out.

An effective President always has one foot in the old and one foot in the new; success is determined by how well a President maintains his or her balance. This is why John McCain is the strongest candidate the Republicans have to offer. He's a government insider, but he's not perceived as being bound by party dogma. In terms of image, he's considered the most likely to be able to go in a new direction without falling over. (In reality, I think he's got both feet firmly rooted in the old, which is why I would never consider voting for him.) Obama, with his implicit rejection of everything that's come before, only guarantees that, if elected, he's going to be doing a lot of falling over, and there's nothing to indicate whether he knows how to get back up or is able to learn how to stay there. The American people want a President who is both responsive to their needs and understanding of how to achieve goals. Obama failed to make the latter part of that case for himself last night.

* * *

Those looking for a somewhat different (and, in my opinion, quite perceptive) take on what went wrong with Obama's speech last night are advised to read Anglachel's excellent post, "Surface and Depth." Just click here.

* * *

I see on the news behind me that McCain's picked Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. That's certainly a left-field choice. If nothing else, it'll succeed in knocking Obama off the TV, as pundits will be scrambling to make sense of the decision, and uncommitted voters aren't going to be interested in anything else. I see from her Wikipedia page that she's got a history of standing up to the corrupt GOP establishment in Alaska. She has very strong public-integrity credentials. My initial guess is that John McCain is positing himself as moving away from the flagrant corruption of the GOP during the Dubya years. That's his notion of change we can believe in. It's not a bad one.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Movie Review: Becoming Jane

Becoming Jane, a fanciful treatment of the life of the young Jane Austen, is an entertaining little movie. It's not on the level of Shakespeare in Love, whose lead it's obviously following--it doesn't have that film's sophistication, to say nothing of its wit. However, Becoming Jane is solidly written and handsomely produced, and the director, Julian Jarrold, keeps it moving at a brisk pace. It's a kitsch treatment of Austen and her work, but it's extremely well-executed, and it certainly holds one's attention.

The idea behind the film was to interpret Austen's life in the terms of one of her magnificent romantic-comedy novels. We don't know much about Austen's life, and even less about its romantic side--she never married--but her letters contain references to a flirtation with the young Thomas Langlois Lefroy, a future Parliament member and judge, when she was 20. She completed her early drafts of Pride and Prejudice a couple of years afterward, so the screenwriters, Kevin Hood and Sarah Johnson, concoct an Austen-style relationship between her and Lefroy. Hood and Johnson couldn't end the story in the manner of Austen's novels--Austen and Lefroy went their separate ways before marrying--so they substitute Austen's embarking on her career for the marriage. Along the way, we see the young lovers whose attraction to each other increases the more they push the other away, the complications to their relationship caused by family obligations, along with observations into the social mores of late-18th century England. The film's only serious misstep is its epilogue, which tramples all over the known facts of Austen's life in the service of a hackneyed, sentimental ending.

Austen is played by Anne Hathaway, who's a surprising choice for the role, and not just because she's American. The film's Austen is arrogant and rude a fair amount of the time, and Hathaway's specialty in her other roles has been to smile, be charming, and otherwise ingratiate herself with the audience. When she's been called on to do something other than that, as she was in her later scenes in Brokeback Mountain, the energy drains out of her, and she becomes a cipher on the screen. It's clear Hathaway isn't up to some of the technical challenges of playing the film's Austen. The accent she affects doesn't match any of the other actors (not even fellow American James Cromwell, who plays Austen's father), and she has trouble with several of her line readings. The screenwriters chose to have Austen talk in the manner of her prose, and Hathaway turns the long, clause-heavy sentences into tongue-twisters. She has trouble pacing her delivery of the more complicated lines, and on the occasions when she pulls it off comfortably, she can't muster any conviction behind the words. Either way, the lines just hang in the air, stilted and unnatural.

Hathaway has a great camera face, though, and she uses it far more expressively here than she has in her earlier roles. The contrast of the ebony hair and eyes with the alabaster skin draws one's attention right away. In her previous work, Hathaway has relied on the easy rapport her features grant her with audiences in order to charm them. It's often made her an enjoyable presence in films, but it's also made her come across like a piece of fluff--she seems to avoid any opportunity for conflict or dynamism in her characterizations. But in Becoming Jane, one never catches her falling back on her charm. She maintains some emotional distance from the audience, and the tension it creates is striking. Hathaway's line readings may falter, but her facial expressions leave no doubt about Jane's feelings, and her timing with regard to them never goes slack. It's her most compelling performance to date.

Hathaway's Jane rarely seems relaxed, and the counterpoint created by James McAvoy's easy presence as Lefroy results in a terrific chemistry between the two onscreen. The film's Lefroy is a happy-go-lucky rake when we first meet him, and McAvoy does a seemingly effortless job of embodying the character. One can immediately feel the joy Lefroy takes in his antics, and the further joy he takes in taunting Jane with them. And, as the film progresses, McAvoy's shifts from flirtatiousness to love to romantic loss are remarkably fluid; he takes what at first seems like a stock bad-boy role, and he provides the emotional depth to make the different sides of the character wholly believable as they're revealed.

One wishes Julian Jarrold had been able to bring out the other performances to better effect. Apart from Hathaway and McAvoy, the only actor to make a strong impression is the late Ian Richardson, who plays Judge Langlois, Lefroy's uncle and benefactor. Jarrold has gathered some first-rate performers, including James Cromwell, Julie Walters, and Maggie Smith, but he doesn't give them much of anything to do.

The screenplay has some problems as well. Jane's resentment over the status of women in her society is too modern and too blunt to be believable. One can sense these frustrations in Elizabeth Bennet and the other women characters in Austen's novels, but it's usually more subtle and much less overtly angry. There's also a lack of sensitivity to the mores of the period. Jarrold and his writers apparently wanted to portray Jane as a Gibson Girl or New Woman a century before their time: she's strong-willed, independent-minded, and she's even good at men's sports. However, no woman of Jane's class would ever behave as insolently as Jane does towards Judge Langlois in a dinner scene with him, Lefroy, and others. She would certainly know better than to act like that when she was seeking the judge's favor. And as noted above, the epilogue is poorly conceived, and some key plot points aren't properly developed: a background character proposes to Jane late in the film, and it's revealed that he's taken drastic action to disrupt her relationship with Lefroy, but there's been no indication that he's had any interest in Jane up to that point. One also wishes the writers had been able to include something of the wonderful sense of irony that drives Austen's novels.

But these shortcomings are trifling. The central story of Jane's relationship with Lefroy always stays on track. Quite remarkably, Jarrold includes many aspects of late 18th-century life that are extraneous to one degree or another, including carnivals with fire-breathers, as well as multiple society dances and formal dinners, but he never loses the story's momentum. He also knows how to emphasize the picturesque elegance of Eigil Bryld's cinematography without getting bogged down in the imagery. The work of the technical crew, from the production design to the costumes to the editing, is first-rate. Becoming Jane isn't a great film, but it has its pleasures, and one won't feel the two-hour running time has been wasted. Sometimes, that's all a film needs to be.

Politics: Pounding My Head Against the Wall

It never fails. Every time I think about giving Barack Obama another chance, he turns around and does something so grotesque that I feel like a fool for even considering it. Watch the YouTube video below. Starting at about the 3:45 mark, you'll see the stage on which Obama will give his nomination acceptance speech tonight.

An Athenian temple? Could he have come up with anything more pompous and ridiculous? This makes the "possum" seal look positively modest. What's Obama going to do, fly in to Invesco Field on a chariot pulled by winged horses? Is Bruce Springsteen going to perform his closing set wearing a toga and plucking a lyre?

Moving the acceptance speech from the Pepsi Center to Invesco Field was a bad idea to begin with, as it suggests that Obama wants to be seen as distinct from (and probably transcending) the icky Democratic Party rabble. That compounded the original stupid idea of scheduling the acceptance speech on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1964. Obama and Howard Dean wanted Obama to be seen as the realization of King's dream, but the failure to treat King's speech as sacrosanct just implies that Obama sees himself as supplanting King's legacy. And now this. The man's egomania knows no bounds.

That rumble you've heard echoing in the background all day is the sound of Republicans laughing their heads off to chants of "Toga! Toga! Toga!"

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Politics: A Couple of Heads-Up

I've been doing a lot of catching up the last few days, and I'm beat. In general, the Democratic convention hasn't been worth commenting on. Most of it's been on the level of what's showing on the TV behind me, where reporters and cameras are anxiously awaiting images of Barack Obama's plane landing in Denver. Real exciting stuff.

Apart from seeing that Ted Kennedy's largely recovered from cancer surgery, the only exception to the doldrums has been Hillary Clinton's speech last night. It was a bold, dynamic statement promoting Democratic electoral and political goals, and she was nothing short of electrifying. She's tossed a terrific pass for Obama to catch and score with Thursday night, and how well he does by it will be a major test of how successful his campaign will be. He's going to have to match Hillary at the very least, as it's all but certain the McCain campaign will try to knock him out of the news first thing Friday morning with the GOP Vice-Presidential pick.

If you're looking for some reading while waiting for Bill Clinton to speak tonight, I direct you to my belatedly posted Sunday piece on Michael Kinsley. (Click here.)

I also strongly recommend Anglachel's series on affirmative action. These are the four parts, and just click the title to read:

Happy reading.


Bill Clinton rocked.

Joe Biden started off decently enough, and then his speech went to hell. I would have thought so even if he hadn't recited the baloney version of Obama's bio and attacked Russia for the Georgia situation. I don't blame Obama for his impromptu visit onstage. The crowd definitely needed rousing. Now that I think about it, Biden's son gave a better speech than he did.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Poetry Translation: Dante, Inferno, Song IV

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, at the behest of Beatrice, a woman who was Dante's inspiration in life, 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. After passing through the gates of Hell, they encounter the souls of the cowards who took no stand in conflicts between good and evil--Heaven doesn't want them, and Hell refuses to accept them into its realm proper. Dante and Virgil then meet Charon, who rows the souls of the damned across the river Acheron into Hell proper to be judged. Charon obliquely informs Dante that he is not, nor will he be, among the damned, and Dante passes out before he and Virgil are taken across the river.

Song I translation
Song II translation
Song III translation

Dante and Virgil encounter Homer and the other classical poets in Limbo

The deep sleep within my head was broken by
A heavy thunderclap, so that I roused myself
Like one forcefully awakened,

Moving around my rested eyes.
Standing up straight, I fixed my gaze
In order to know the place wherein I was.

It is true: I found myself upon the edge
Of the valley of the abyss of sorrows
Which gathers the thunder of infinite woe.

It was dark and deep and murky.
So much so that, in focusing on its depths,
I could not discern anything there.

“Now let us descend down this way into the blind world,”
Began the poet, pale all over.
“I will be first, and you will be second.”

And I, alarmed by his color,
Said, “How can I come if you are afraid?
You, who are to be comfort to my doubts?”

He replied, “The anguish of those
Down here is depicted in my face as
Pity; you take it for fear.

Let us go, for the long road beckons.”
And so he commenced, and so compelled me to enter
The first circle bordering the abyss.

In that place, it seemed as if, from what I heard,
Sighs, rather than tears,
Made the eternal air tremble.

These came from sorrow without torment,
Borne by great scores
Of children and women and men.

The good master said to me, “You do not ask
Who these spirits you see are.
Now, I want you to know, before you go further,

That they did not sin. And if they had merit,
It is not enough, for they were not baptized,
Which is the door to the faith in which you believe.

Since they were before Christianity,
They were not properly loving to God;
Of these am I myself.

These failings, and not other crimes, are why
We are lost, and our only punishment, alone among the many, is
To live on, without hope, in yearning."

When I heard this, great sorrow took my heart,
For people of much worth
Were, I knew, suspended in that Limbo.

“Tell me, my master, tell me, sir,”
I began, wishing to be certain
Of that faith which conquers every error,

“Has anyone ever emerged from here, either by his own merit
Or another’s, who went on to be blesséd?”
And he, understanding the hidden meaning of my words,

Replied, “I was new to this state
When I saw a Mighty One come forth,
Crowned in the emblem of victory.

He took from here the shade of the first parent,
His son Abel, and that of Noah,
Of Moses, obedient lawgiver,

Abraham the patriarch and David the king,
Israel with both his father and children,
And with Rachel, for whose hand he did so much,

And many others, and made them blesséd.
And you--know this: Prior to these,
Human spirits were not saved.”

His words did not interrupt our walking;
We passed by the forest nevertheless.
That forest, I tell you, was thick with spirits.

Along our path, we still were not far
From where I had been sleeping, when I saw a fire
That overcame a hemisphere of darkness.

We still weren’t just a little far from there,
But not so much that I did not recognize
That people of honor occupied that place.

“O you who honor science and art,
Who are these people whose honor is so great
That they stand apart from the lot of the others?”

He replied, “The honored names
They hold sound up there in your life,
Gaining grace in Heaven, which grants them favor.

Meanwhile, I heard a voice:
“Honor the highest poet;
His shade, which had departed, returns.”

Then the voice abated and was quiet.
I saw four great spirits coming towards us,
Their demeanor neither sad nor joyful.

The good master began saying,
“See him with the sword in hand,
Who comes before the other three as if their sire.

That is Homer, sovereign poet;
The other coming is the satirist Horace.
Ovid is the third, and the final one Lucan.

Since each of them gathers around me
In that name which the lone voice sounded,
They do me honor, and, in that, do well.”

And so I saw assemble the school of beauty
Of that lord of the highest song,
Who stands above the others like an eagle soaring.

After some discussion amongst themselves,
They turned to me with gestures of salutation,
My master broadly smiling.

And they honored me still further:
Making me one of their number,
So that I was sixth among such genius.

Then we walked towards the light,
Speaking of things about which silence is golden.
Such were words in that place where I was.

We came to the foot of a noble castle,
Circled seven times by high walls,
Defended by a lovely stream around it.

This we crossed as if it were solid ground.
Through seven doors I went with these sages,
Arriving in a meadow of blossoming green.

People were there, their eyes deliberate and solemn
With great authority in their demeanor.
They spoke sparingly, with gentle voices.

And so we took ourselves to one side,
Into an open place, luminous and high,
In order to see their entire number.

There, directly ahead upon the green enamel,
The spirits embodying greatness were pointed out to me,
Those whom I feel myself exalted in seeing.

I saw Electra with many companions.
Among them I knew Hector and Aeneas,
And Cæsar, armored, with the eyes of a gyrfalcon.

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea,
And, on the other side, I saw the king Latinus,
Who was sitting with his daughter Lavinia.

I saw the Brutus who forced out Tarquin,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia.
And, alone and apart, I saw the Saladin.

And then, looking up a bit,
I saw the master of those with knowledge,
Sitting among philosophy’s family.

All look to him; all do him honor.
There I saw Socrates and Plato,
Who were in front of the others and nearest to him.

There was Democritus, who attributes the world to chance,
Diogenes, Anaxagoras and Thales,
Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Zeno.

And I saw the good collector of quality—
Dioscorides, I tell you. And I saw Orpheus,
Cicero, and Linus and Seneca the moralist,

Euclid the geometrician and Ptolemy,
Hippocrates, Avicenna and Galen,
Averroes, who produced the great commentary—

I cannot describe it all in full.
For my far-reaching theme so compels me
That, many times, words fall short of facts.

The company of six dwindles into two.
For my wise master leads me another way,
Out from the quiet and into the air that trembles.

And I come to a place where there is no light.

Continue to Song V

Monday, August 25, 2008

Music Monday--Herbie Hancock, "Maiden Voyage"

I had the TV on for a little while Friday night, and while flipping channels, I watched the opening moments of Michael Mann's Collateral. We first get to know the cab driver protagonist, played by Jamie Foxx, while he drives a young attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith) to her downtown office. It's a lovely, delicately underplayed scene; the low-key cabbie and the tensed-up lawyer find an easy rapport, and it has a detail that's stayed with me through the years since I first saw the film: the cabbie, when he's feeling stressed, looks at a postcard of a tiny tropical island and wishes himself there. I give myself those sorts of momentary mental vacations with music, and one of the best pieces for it is Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage." When I hear Hancock's piano and George Coleman's Coltrane-style tenor sax, I close my eyes and remember the feel of the sea rolling by.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Politics: A Reply to Michael Kinsley's "Say No to Class War"

I first became familiar with Michael Kinsley about twenty years ago, when he took over the ostensibly left-wing co-host chair of CNN's old Crossfire program. It was quickly clear that Kinsley was no liberal. Although he had little patience with Republican dogma, he was outright contemptuous of any viewpoint or initiative that called for the government to act on behalf of working-class people. His attitude was extraordinarily annoying, as he generally refused to engage with specifics. Instead, he peppered offending liberal guests with passive-aggressive rhetorical questions, such as "Well, don't you think you're being a little extreme here?" One inferred from the smug, sneering tone that he considered engaging with specifics beneath his dignity.

Kinsley was an obvious intellectual snob, and his snobbishness extended to class. He's never in his life had to be around working-class or poor people in any significant way. Born in Detroit to an extremely wealthy family, he grew up in the über-affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. There are three outstanding public high schools available to Bloomfield Hills residents--Bloomfield Hills Andover, Bloomfield Hills Lahser, and Birmingham Seaholm--but they weren't good enough for Kinsley's family: they enrolled him in the best local private institution, Cranbrook Kingswood. From there, he went on to such upper-class bastions as Harvard and Oxford, and then took his first job as a staff writer at The New Republic. Given that the magazine's propensity for hiring writers right out of college appears to have been the same then as it is now, it's probably safe to assume the salary situation wasn't different either. No one can support themselves on what The New Republic pays its staffers. If one doesn't have an outside subsidy, such as from one's parents, one can't afford to work there. Its value for employees is that it provides a bridge to the upper editorial levels of the major East Coast media operations in newspapers, magazines, and television, and those positions pay extremely well. Michael Kinsley has done nothing but study, work, and live among affluent people his entire life, and his values are theirs. The problem with working-class people is that they're working class, and God help us if their concerns should impose themselves on society at large, particularly on people like Kinsley and those he rubs shoulders with. Kinsley has enough intellectual honesty to reject the more blatant baloney of the GOP, but beyond that, he doesn't see society any differently than they do.

Kinsley's latest bleating over those uppity working-class people, titled "Say No to Class War," appeared in the August 18 edition of Time. He's heard minor rumblings that some people are considering adjusting affirmative action policies to take class into account instead of race. Barack Obama, for instance, has said that his daughters, given their privileged upbringing, don't deserve the benefits of affirmative action. In response to this minor, minor, minor provocation, Kinsley has stepped forward to try to stop this campaign in its tracks before it's even begun. Why, there would be "blood in the streets" if affirmative action were adjusted in this way. As an example of how bad it could be, Kinsley writes, think of China under Chairman Mao. You know, the society where socioeconomic and cultural engineering programs like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution killed between 20 and 50 million people. Kinsley's good enough to let readers know that he doesn't think the U.S. would ever "reach such extremes" as Maoist China, but I think there's little doubt that he's trying to foster alarmism with such a horrendous example.

Kinsley's more grounded concern about streamlining affirmative action in class terms is that "it would bring out some of our less attractive characteristics, such as reverse snobbery, competitive umbrage and an overfondness for litigation as a way of slicing the pie." Snobbery is O.K. as long as it's the right kind, I suppose, and I guess umbrage over the lack of merit-based competition is just fine with Kinsley. That would explain his concern over litigation, which history has shown us occurs only when it's believed that non-merit factors are taking precedence over demonstrated achievement in areas such as college admissions. One never knows, class-based affirmative action might do such dastardly things as end admissions because of legacy status or donation quid-pro-quos. Why, just think of George W. Bush, who was admitted to Yale after being rejected by the University of Texas at Austin. A world where that isn't possible isn't the sort of place right-thinking people should want to live in.

Kinsley, to put it mildly, is overreacting. The only area of life in the U.S. in which class-based affirmative action has been proposed is education, specifically in the admissions criteria at public universities. The basic issue is that affluent African-American students should not be given preference in admissions to an institution like the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor because of their race. Streamlining affirmative action programs so that they take class into consideration would simply require that African-American students of a particular level of affluence aren't being given an advantage that high-school classmates of other races aren't. It also might open the doors of those schools a little wider for unusually talented working-class students who aren't black. The example I've heard most often on that count is the Detroit-born white rapper Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem. Most agree that Mathers, despite the offensiveness of some of his material, is a genuine literary talent. But with his working-poor upbringing, that talent would have had nowhere to go if he hadn't gotten the winning lottery ticket of pop stardom. If a class-based affirmative action program had earned him admission to University of Michigan, the English professors there specializing in creative writing would have the savvy and connections to get him started down the road of possible success in fiction writing, screenwriting, or poetry, where most successful people of his ability end up. All I can say to Kinsley's concerns with regard to this is: big deal. And in response to his caterwauling about how to go about it, I note that such an affirmative-action program can be easily implemented using the FAFSA information that many institutions require all students to submit.

I don't think Kinsley has to worry about those working-class people soiling the campuses of the Ivy League and equivalent private institutions. Those universities long ago realized that the way to keep the riff-raff out was to jack tuition up to obscene levels. Student-loan packages only cover about the half the costs at such schools. As for a public-university graduate looking to get into the advanced-degree programs in those places, I know from insider accounts that members of the admissions committees will use that public-university background to block the student from the precious doctoral stipends--grades, test scores, recommendations, and demonstrated ability be damned. If a public-university graduate doesn't have a private subsidy in six figures to help with costs, he or she can forget about attending even if they are admitted to a Masters-only program.

Class discrimination is alive and well with most upper-level jobs. The extraordinary tightening of the employment market under Bush promotes it. Most companies these days use unpaid internships as an equivalent to entry-level employment. (Using an unpaid intern as a source of free labor is illegal for all but the very smallest for-profit companies, but the law can't be enforced unless the exploited intern files a complaint. Since an internship's principal value is as a résumé-builder, the interns aren't likely to balk, lest they be completely locked out of working in their chosen field.) If one can't afford to work an internship, one is all but blocked from professional employment, and the employers can always tell if one of the riff-raff has slipped through before offering them a paying position. Government positions largely work the same way, although the unpaid interns, who are considered "volunteers," can legally perform unpaid labor under the law. These days, race-based affirmative action hires all but function as feel-good in most places, as the beneficiaries generally don't need the policies to transcend impoverished backgrounds.

I don't really see how, in practice, class-based affirmative action could be extended to government contracts, so I don't think Kinsley has anything to worry about there, either.

I'm not even sure he has to worry about it with the public universities. I've argued before that in the present-day U.S., race bigotry has evolved into a secondary form of class prejudice. At a place like the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, racial affirmative action didn't become a public issue until it clashed with the prerogatives of the affluent. (The Supreme Court ended the offending undergraduate affirmative-action program in 2003, and now, thanks to a referendum, all academic affirmative-action programs are illegal in the state.) Class-based affirmative action, as Kinsley amply demonstrates, can't even be suggested before the economic elites shout it down.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Civilization Review: Plato, The Republic, Books I-IV

All references and quotations are from:

Plato. The Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. 1974. Plato: Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997. 971-1223.

The text citations follow the standard Stephanus edition page numbering used for Plato's works. (In most translations, the Stephanus page numbers and section letters appear on the outer margins of the pages.) In this essay, a reference to a passage on page 478, section b would be indicated by (478b). The Republic occupies pp. 327-620 in the Stephanus edition of Plato.

The issue taken up by Plato in The Republic is justice. Why is it important? What are its benefits? Most importantly, what is it, and how is it to be found? It is not like the Book of Exodus, in which law is effectively established as a corrective to every-man-for-himself lawlessness governed by divine favor. Nor is it like Pericles' Funeral Oration, which extols the virtues of a magnanimous and prosperous society. In the The Republic, Plato analyzes the basic structures upon which society is built, and he extrapolates from those a definition of a just society, as well as that of a just individual.

It's clear that Plato views society as an organic construct, something that's grown and developed of its own accord, and that questions of justice are part of that growth. But he also recognizes that the perspectives forming those questions are limited; they take the structures of society for granted, and they focus on how one is to best function in the society that is there. Essentially, they're the perspectives of moss on a tree; their only concern is with the hospitality of the bark, rather than what it is about the tree that makes the bark hospitable or not. In order to cut through the bark, Plato uses a system of inquiry called the dialogue. He presents the inquiry as a fictional discussion between the figures of his youth: the famous Athenian skeptic Socrates and the intellectually ambitious friends who found conversation with him irresistable. At first, the friends tell their assumptions and theories, which they, led by Socrates, question and generally undermine. But as The Republic continues, Socrates takes the initiative in the affirmative aspects of the discussion. Using ideas as bricks, he asks the young men around him to scrutinize each brick as he picks it up, and as each passes muster, he uses those bricks to slowly build the edifice of an ideally just society. And since the structure of that edifice is readily apparent, he extrapolates from it to present a view of the ideal, just individual.

Plato begins by examining the more limited, self-centered notions of justice--the ideals of what's right and good according to a clump of moss looking for comfort on a piece of bark. Justice is speaking the truth and paying one's debts (331d), which is a general description of just behavior rather than justice, or providing benefits to friends and harm to enemies (332d), which Plato has Socrates pick apart little by little and end with the pronouncement that "it is never just to harm anyone" (335e).

One wishes Plato had expanded a bit more on his critique of providing benefits to friends, because he's implicitly attacking the role of politics in societal decision-making. In society there are inevitable conflicts between the privileged few and the unprivileged many (or even, which is more often the case, the various factions of the privileged), and the advocates of a particular side argue that the benefits paid to their friends are ultimately of benefit to all. They all hypothetically agree that rising water lifts all boats; they just argue whether pumping it in or letting it trickle down is the best way to get there. But judging the value of relative benefit doesn't seem to occur to Plato; he might even regard such judgments as beneath the dignity of his discussion.

However, he does attack what many of us see as the underlying view of the trickle-down advocates, which is voiced by the Thrasymachus character: "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger" (338c). But what Thrasymachus proposes is a tautology: justice is the advantage of the stronger because the stronger molds the law to further its advantages (338d). This view is undermined through establishing the premise that ruling is a craft, and that the only advantage for any craft is "to be as complete or perfect as possible" (341d). The object of the craft of ruling is to create a stronger society, with justice being good rule, and injustice being poor rule. If a ruler is not approaching the craft of ruling as being for the relative advantage of all, and making society function as an effective unit, he or she is not working towards the benefit of society, and is therefore representative of injustice (351e-352a).

Plato highlights a paradox in order to establish that discussing justice in terms of existing society is futile. Injustice, as long as the reputation for justice is maintained, is of far greater benefit to the individual than a commitment to just behavior, e.g. treating others with respect, fulfilling one's obligations, and whatnot (363e-364a). Reputation is all that matters, and as long as reputation is maintained, anything goes (363a). And, as injustice provides one with greater wealth, the only conclusion is that "gods and humans provide a better life for unjust people than just ones" (362c). In order to prove justice is better than injustice, and to praise it by itself--to echo the plea of the Glaucon character (358c-d)--Plato has Socrates back off from this area of discussion. He launches into an examination of society's foundations, and selecting the ideal from each element, he builds his utopia.

The description of society's foundation is familiar. Individuals have basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and they unite into a society because no one is capable of meeting all of those needs through his or her own ability. An individual is more skillful at meeting some of those needs than others, and one unites with others of different skills in order to provide maximum benefit for all. In this context, it is best for one to specialize in one skill or craft so all can also enjoy the benefits of maximum expertise. The need for leaders (or as Plato calls them, guardians) is recognized, as the society must protect itself from outsiders, as well as from citizens attempting to maximize their advantage at the expense of their fellows. And following the notion that one is of maximum utility to the society if one's expertise is exclusive to one craft, Plato implies that the quality of a guardian's ability to lead is directly tied to the exclusivity of focus on the craft of leading.

It's at this point that Plato's rigorously logical arguments take him down a bad road. He doesn't account for the variety of skills that one can develop in a craft, or that certain skills are transferable from one craft to another. For example, take a skilled farmer. A successful farmer, as his or her success grows, will require laborers, and the original farming skills will be required to develop and supervise those skills and their application among the subordinates. (Plato acknowledges that laborers have a presence in society [371d-e].) But management skills develop in response to shifting goals within the farm, as well as conflicts that arise between laborers, such as whose secondary skills are more appropriate for a particular task, or whose tasks make a greater demand on the laborer. Those skills are relevant to the tasks of ruling a society, which calls upon the ruler to determine the society's goals, evaluate the best path for getting there, and arbiting the internal conflicts that inevitably arise from their pursuit. Plato thinks in very reductive terms, and it leads him to ignore valid arguments that inconvenience his structural ideals.

Plato's view of the ideal leader takes him into the realm of absurdity. He essentially calls for his guardians to be intellectually inclined versions of the Spartan warrior ideal. (If it were any more fatuous, you'd expect to read Socrates and the others deride their fellow Athenians as "boy-lovers.") The ideal guardians must have keen senses, as well as speed, strength, and courage (375a). They must show spiritedness, so as to be "fearless and unconquerable" (375b), but they must also be "gentle to their own people and harsh to the enemy" (375c). And a guardian "must be a lover of learning and wisdom" (376b). Furthermore--and this is where Plato becomes especially inane--no guardians should possess private property (416d), and they should "have common messes and live together like soldiers in a camp" (416e). To be fair to Plato, he does acknowledge to a degree how ridiculous this all sounds, but he dismisses it by reasserting that this is what is necessary for the society to work best (421b-c).

Plato's reductiveness takes him down other bad roads as well. He was very clearly concerned about the potential bad influence of literature and music on the young, and he calls for all sorts of censorship and restrictions with regard to the arts. For example, since gods represent the ideal, it is demeaning to them to depict them changing shape, and all such passages in literature should be struck (381c). Nor are gods capable of falsehood, so the misleading dream Zeus sends Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad must be expunged as well (382c). Passages treating death and the afterlife as dreadful and terrifying are also inappropriate, as they might demoralize soldiers facing battle (386a-c). It goes on and on--heroes and gods shouldn't even be shown laughing or crying excessively. Plato has an obvious distaste for Homer, and he goes beyond recommending the elimination of passages to wanting to destroy the very cores of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Depicting Achilles as insolent towards his superior Agamemnon, or the gods, or showing him as spiteful or cruel, as with his treatment of Hector's corpse, presents a bad role model for the young and should be banned (391a-c). Plato doesn't specifically address the potential bad influence of depicting Odysseus' penchant for deceit, but one expects he would toss the Odyssey in the bonfire, too. The only stories (and narrative techniques, musical instruments, and poetic meters) that will be allowed are those that promote courage, moderation, and overall good character (403c).

Plato may be the master of the dialogue, but it's ironic that he doesn't recognize that the depictions in Homer and elsewhere create a dialogue of their own with the reader. The portrayal of Achilles calls for one to interrogate one's notions of honor and obligation, and the extremeness of it brings one's notions of moderate behavior into stronger relief. Plato has no taste or appreciation for subtlety or nuance. He appears to see all surface depictions as promoting an ideal; he's oblivious to the qualities of dissonance and irony that give narratives their dynamism. The ideal-promoting work he calls for would inevitably be insipid, and ultimately all would turn away from it. It's a prescription for destroying literature in a culture altogether.

However, despite Plato's using all the rope he could ever need with which to hang himself, he ultimately finds generalizations about society and the individual that belie the preposterousness of much of what he asserted along the way. He identifies the virtues of an ideal city as wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice (427e). Justice occurs when all the elements of the society are working in perfect concert within themselves and with each other (433a-e). And the extrapolation from this that creates Plato's notion of the just individual is worth quoting at length:

One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself [rationality, spiritedness, and appetite] like three limiting notes on a musical scale--high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act. And when he does anything, whether acquiring wealth, taking care of his body, engaging in politics, or in private contracts--in all of these, he believes that the action is just and fine that preserves this inner harmony and helps achieve it, and calls it so, and regards as wisdom the knowledge that oversees such actions. And he believes that the action that destroys this harmony is unjust, and calls it so, and regards the belief that oversees it as ignorance. (443c-e)
Plato brings things full circle in this summation: he addresses the structure of justice in the individual, and he displays understanding of how one sees justice in everyday life. The moss is brought to understand both the bark and the tree.

* * *

The reading list for the Civilization Saturday feature is here.

Previous Civilization Saturday discussions:

Subsequent Civilization Saturday discussions:

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fiction Review: J. W. von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

The initial topic for the Literature Discussions aspect of the FCLA Friday feature is James Joyce and his antecedents. It has its roots in a seminar I attended in graduate school some years ago that was effectively a Joyce primer. The goal was to develop a strong grasp of Joyce's concerns and approaches through close readings of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These were to be informed by readings of the works that most strongly influenced Joyce, as well as his critical writings, and the course would close with readings from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The course was engaging and insightful as far as it went, but the syllabus description suggested a far richer class than the time restrictions of a semester-long course that met for two hours a week could allow.

My goal is to have a semblance of the class as it could have been--in some respects--had time not been a limiting factor. Attention will be paid to the major works the professor indicated had influenced Joyce (which he strongly encouraged students to buy and read), Joyce's five completed works, and perhaps selected critical writings, such as Jacques Derrida's "Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce."

The planned reading list is here, and can be accessed by a permanent link under the Topic Days heading at left.

Works such as Homer's Odyssey and William Shakespeare's Hamlet have been left off, partly because I think everyone interested is familiar with them, and partly because I think isolated discussions of them would prove banal. (As today's essay hopefully shows, though, they are of interest when discussed relative to other works.)

The only real drawback in the order of readings is that the influence works will be of necessity read on their own terms. There's no guiding voice to shape how to look at these books relative to Joyce's œuvre, so they'll be considered by themselves, or how earlier works echo through the later ones.

With that out of the way, let's begin.

* * *

All references and quotations are from:

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Trans. Eric A. Blackall. 1989. Vol. 9 of Goethe: The Collected Works. Ed. Victor Lange. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.

Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, originally published in 1795 or 1796, is known to students of literary history as the first apprentice novel, or bildungsroman. Such works chart the protagonist's development from adolescence to adulthood, and this prototypical effort is no exception: we follow Wilhelm Meister from his life as a theater-obsessed young bourgeois through his adventures and misadventures with the stage, and finally to his entry into German society and his impending marriage.

Goethe disliked tropes that called attention to their artifice; his preference was to find them in existing circumstances and develop them as much as he could without exaggeration. Eric A. Blackall, in the afterword to his translation of the Apprenticeship, identifies Wilhelm's interest in the stage from childhood as autobiographical for Goethe, and it's there that Goethe finds the defining trope for the work: his metaphor for one whose engagement with life culminates in adulthood is the actor.

An actor, like an adolescent, begins on the road to realization with unfocused emotion, passion, and drive. A written role and society's functions and structures serve much the same purpose: they provide a focus for that intensity, and the discipline they impose ideally expresses it to it's best advantage. The irony of the Apprenticeship is that Wilhelm, for all his passion for the stage, is a mediocre actor whose true gifts are for entrepeneurship and management. His failure as an actor leads him to an embrace of societal responsibility; he enthusiastically takes up his obligations to relatives and family business matters, and approaches marriage with a commitment to building a stable life, rather than following blind passions. As Goethe writes near the end, "[...] everything he built was to last for several generations. His apprenticeship was therefore completed [...] he acquired the virtues of a solid citizen" (307). As Wilhelm himself says, "Nature turns us, in her own pleasant way, into what we should be" (307).

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Apprenticeship for modern readers is the theory of William Shakespeare's Hamlet that appears in its pages. It was probably notable to Joyce, who included a discussion of the play in an episode of Ulysses as a possible homage. Goethe depicts Wilhelm as utterly fascinated with the play, and he takes a surprisingly idealistic view of Hamlet as a character:

A fine, pure, noble and highly moral person, but, devoid of that emotional strength that characterizes a hero, goes to pieces beneath a burden that it can neither support nor cast off. Every obligation is sacred to him, but this one is too heavy. The impossible is demanded of him--not the impossible in any absolute sense, but what is impossible to him. How he twists and turns, trembles, advances and retreats, always being reminded, always reminding himself, and finally almost losing sight of his goal, yet without ever regaining happiness! (146)

Harold Bloom, in his chapter on Goethe in The Western Canon, identifies this view with Goethe's own, and he scoffs at it. Noting Hamlet's contemptible conduct with regard to Ophelia, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he writes, "One hardly knows what play Goethe/Wilhelm Meister was reading; certainly not Shakespeare's tragedy [...]" (199). However, Professor Bloom doesn't offer any support for his assertion that Goethe and Wilhelm's view of the play are the same, and considering it within the larger context of the Apprenticeship, one wonders if Goethe anticipated Professor Bloom's oft-repeated dictum that one doesn't read Shakespeare so much as one is read by Shakespeare.

Professor Bloom's point is that any interpretation of Shakespeare (and, by extension, Hamlet) provides far more insight into the interpreter than it does into the play(s). Freud's identification of the Oedipus complex as the cause of Hamlet's indecisiveness may seem ridiculously wrongheaded to many of us, but it says a great deal about Freud's preoccupations when he posited the theory. (He was working on The Interpretation of Dreams at the time.) T.S. Eliot's view of Hamlet is probably just as ludicrous as Freud's, but criticizing the play as an "artistic failure" because its action lacks an "objective correlative" to Hamlet's state of mind says a great deal about Eliot's concerns (and possibly insecurities) in his own poetry. Professor Bloom may not be able to go fifteen minutes without remarking on how much he hates Eliot, but he all but certainly agrees with Eliot's view that the most we can hope for in writing about Shakespeare is to be wrong about him in a new way. Certainly he would agree that Freud and Eliot lived up to the standard Eliot set.

While Wilhelm Meister may live up to the Eliot standard in commenting on Shakespeare, I don't believe Goethe does, or that he is even directly commenting on the play. He's commenting on Wilhelm, who is projecting his view of himself onto Hamlet. A few chapters before he makes the comments Professor Bloom derides, Wilhelm and the company of actors he's gathered are beset upon by highwaymen, who steal a number of their possessions and leave Wilhelm injured. While recovering, he looks back on the incident with self-disgust:

As he thought over the past, one thing became ever more distasteful and intolerable, the more he pondered and reflected on it. This was his disastrous leadership in battle, the very remembrance of which filled him with dismay. [...] He had inspired confidence in himself and manipulated the will of others; and he had forged ahead, driven by boldness and inexperience. But these were not sufficient to cope with the dangers that had befallen them. (143)

Wilhelm is as insecure of his ability as a man of action as the melancholy Dane ever was. And Aurelie, one of the actors in the company, listens to Wilhelm's interpretations of Hamlet and Shakespeare, and she comments on how solipsistic the observations seem:

It seems as if some presentiment of the whole world lies within you, and this is brought to life and developed by your contact with poetry. for truly [...] nothing comes into you from the outside world. (153)

Goethe makes clear Wilhelm only reads and hears his own echoes.

However, Goethe also makes clear that the echoes of Shakespeare become Wilhelm's own. Hamlet's melancholy and indecisiveness are spurred by his feelings over the death of his father, and Goethe presents Wilhelm's feelings when confronted with the news of his own father's death as parallel: they "plunged him into even greater confusion about what he now had to do" (171). Goethe presents the similarities, but he also finds the contrast between his protagonist and Shakespeare's: Wilhelm ultimately finds redemption; he embraces the family he'd previously turned his back on, and he takes up the responsibilities he'd previously refused to acknowledge. Hamlet only finds death and damnation for those around him, including himself.

The passion for theatrics is what binds Wilhelm and Hamlet; both see the emotions of the stage as superior to their own. What divides them is the culmination of the roads on which that leads them after they leave that sentiment behind. Wilhelm rises; Hamlet falls. Wilhelm, in the production of Hamlet he puts on, gives the play a happy ending: Hamlet, in his dying breath, names Horatio the king (179). Left to his own devices, happy endings are what Wilhelm sees for all, and they're what he finds for himself.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Movie Review: La Vie en rose (La Môme)

Olivier Dahan's film about the life of singer Édith Piaf, La Vie en rose (titled La Môme in France) feels less like a European film than any picture from France I've seen. Continental filmmakers--even action directors like Luc Besson--tend to favor a deliberate, contemplative approach to pacing that's completely at odds with Hollywood style. (It's why most American audiences find European films almost impossible to sit through.) Dahan, though, always keeps things hopping; he uses just about every trick he can think of to keep the film's scenes active and lively; La Vie en rose is never dull. But Dahan's approach also points up what makes his take on Piaf's life ultimately so unsatisfying: he doesn't reflect on the deeper implications of what he shows us, and he ends up with a shallow, limited portrait of his subject.

Piaf's life certainly wasn't the stuff of dullness. She lived as a street waif, spent part of her childhood growing up in her grandmother's brothel, and nearly went blind from keratitis while living there. (She credited the restoration of her sight to a pilgrimage her grandmother's prostitutes took her on to the shrine of St. Thérèse in Lisieux.) She began earning money as a street musician at 14, had a baby at 17 that died in infancy, and spent her teens around the assorted derelicts, hookers, and thugs that populated the Montmartre section of Paris. At 19, she was discovered by nightclub owner Louis Leplée, who hired her to sing in his cabaret--a gig that soon ended after Leplée was murdered by the hoods who were appropriating part of Piaf's earnings. She then became involved with a manager who cut her off from her street acquaintances and turned her into a star. After World War II, she became internationally famous, had a notorious affair with the champion middleweight boxer Marcel Cerdan, married twice, suffered through alcoholism and morphine addiction, and died of liver cancer at the age of 44. One could make a score of movies from the facts of her life.

The amount of material may be what ultimately defeats Dahan. Thinking back on the film, it's hard to remember any character in it besides Piaf (played by Marion Cotillard from the age of 19 on). Even Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) and Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) don't make much of an individual impression. Major aspects of Piaf's life are completely ignored, such as her experiences during the Occupation (watching the film, one would never know World War II had happened), her acting career, or her mentoring of such figures as Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour. Dahan treats things like the death of Piaf's baby as an afterthought, and he gives a bizarre emphasis to extraneous bits, such as a prostitute being injured by a customer playing amateur gynecologist. The story has no structure, which is a conspicuous failure on Dahan's part, and one made all the more glaring by the opportunities the material gives him. Piaf's early life had a remarkable number of parallels with her mother's; why not use them to give some thematic order to the story? Dahan appears to see the possibilities in using Piaf's prayers to St. Thérèse like a leitmotif to unify the episodes, but he drops the idea almost as soon as he introduces it. The only approach to ordering the material that he sticks with is to not let Piaf's physical decline and death turn the latter section of the film into one long diminuendo, and he takes the easy way out: he uses short scenes of the dying Piaf throughout to treat the bulk of the material as flashbacks. But he doesn't bother to hide the cheesy obviousness of that idea; the flashbacks have no relevance to the scenes in Piaf's future that prompt them. Dahan just doesn't think like a writer.

He does think like a director, though. The film is full of superbly realized setpieces. I was most impressed with his handling of the scene where Piaf learns of Cerdan's death. He begins by showing Piaf dreaming of Cerdan arriving in her hotel suite, and then, awake, driving herself crazy because she can't find a gift she wants to give him. Her entourage gathers and informs her that Cerdan has been killed, and, devastated with grief, she flings open a pair of doors to find herself onstage again. Using a Steadicam, Dahan films this all in a single take; one can almost imagine Brian De Palma, the master of single-take Steadicam scenes, jumping to his feet in applause. And there are many other examples of filmmaking savvy, such as the scene of Piaf's triumphant music-hall debut: we see the audience slowly go from skeptical to ecstatic despite Dahan's keeping Piaf's singing off the soundtrack. Visually, the film is extraordinarily well-realized. The cabarets and music halls, Depression-era Montmartre, late-1940s Manhattan--Dahan and his art directors and designers keep them dreamy and realistic all at the same time. The attention to detail is extraordinary.

And that extends to the performance of the film's star, Marion Cotillard, who does a masterful job of mimicking Piaf's surface mannerisms and, with the help of some ace make-up artists, her physical appearance. It's the kind of performance that in Hollywood films has Oscar written all over it, and, earlier this year, Cotillard became the first French actor to win the prize for work in a French-language film. However, it's not the sort of thing I'm impressed by. Cotillard's Piaf comes off like a nightmarish cross between Giulietta Masina and Liza Minnelli. She's waifish, but invariably loud, insufferably high-strung, and almost monstrously temperamental. The performance is also too one-note in most scenes; it's hard to reconcile the overbearing Piaf with the calm, almost blissful one we see in her moments with Cerdan, or in a beachfront interview with a French journalist. One doesn't object to these scenes; they're the only ones in which I enjoyed Cotillard's performance, but the failure to address the incongruity is troubling. It's not a well-rounded portrayal.

La Vie en rose makes one wonder if it's a major sign of increased homogeneity in Western filmmaking. The French director approaches his work like a Hollywood one (an ambitious, imaginative one, but a Hollywood filmmaker nonetheless), and the French star seems to take her lead from the negative example of the Hollywood prestige-picture acting of Meryl Streep: surface detail is all; emotional truth is secondary. (Cotillard is nowhere as boring as Streep was at her technically masterful worst, but the similarities in their styles are hard to miss.) Worst of all, the concerns of good writing, such as developed themes and solid construction, seem to fall by the wayside. And production values are, of course, first-rate. Several years ago, Terrence Rafferty described another Hollywood-style French film as "the death of French cinema." It's not dying, but, language notwithstanding, it may have entered a phase where it's no longer uniquely French.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Politics: The VP Pick: Why It Doesn't Matter, and Why It Does

When it comes to speculating about candidates' Vice-President picks, I'm with Bob Somerby: there's probably nothing more representative of how insipid the national political press can be than their unrelenting obsession with this topic. In support of that, Somerby loves to quote this ridiculous exchange from the May 25, 2008 edition of Meet the Press:

TIM RUSSERT: McCain is in Arizona--here's some tape--meeting with Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana; Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida. All--there he is coming down the stairs in the gray hair. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania was in Europe. Mike Huckabee is at a wedding anniversary, didn't make the trip. But now we're in full throttle of a VP selection, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: You know, it's such Kabuki theater. I mean, we know—and we do this every four years, where we have—you know, by the end, it's kind of the ritual. We start to think, "Okay, now, what's next? Oh, the vice presidential nomination!" And almost—who knows how much it matters at the end? But we can't help it. It's how we spend our summers every four years.

RUTH MARCUS: What else would we do?

GWEN IFILL: What else would we do? And therefore, but now they've decided this year, all--both sides, is to just strip it back and let us peek. When have you ever seen people going for serious vice presidential opportunities, walking down the stairs holding hands before with their significant others? You've just never seen that before.

"What else would we do?" isn't the appropriate question. If these journalists were responsible about their profession, they would ask, "What else could we do?" Although, if they were responsible, that's a question they wouldn't need to ask. The United States, not to mention the world, is facing so many crises right now that journalism should be just about the most important profession in the country--we need people to study and report on the various international military imbroglios, the increasingly widespread snakepits of the financial services industries, as well as the impact of trade globalization on national economies and the environment. We not only need these matters thoroughly reported on, we need them reported on in layman's terms. One would think our top journalists would want to report on this stuff; expert, substantial coverage of such grave matters could make their reputations and create their legacies. I can't imagine any journalist who takes his or her profession seriously wanting the legacy of the late Tim Russert, whose greatest accomplishment, we were soberly informed over and over and over again, was making David Duke look like a fool on national TV. I shouldn't have to break this to the likes of Chris Matthews, but Lee Atwater--in one of his few redeeming moments-- turned Duke into a universally reviled political pariah years before Russert got to humiliate him. Shooting ducks in a barrel--no matter how deserving the duck--shouldn't be a point of pride for a reasonable person. But then reasonable people wouldn't consider speculating on a Vice-President pick the most productive way to spend their time.

Ifill asks, "Who knows how much it matters at the end?" She does demonstrate some awareness with how frivolous this activity is. The Vice-Presidency is an all-but-worthless office in Constitutional terms; the amount of authority a Vice-President has depends on much a President wants to give him or her. George W. Bush was willing to let Dick Cheney be his version of Cardinal Richelieu, but the only use Ronald Reagan had for Bush the Elder was to send him to foreign funerals. In electoral terms, the regional appeal a Vice-Presidential pick gives a ticket is more than dubious: Lloyd Bentsen didn't win Texas for Michael Dukakis, John Edwards didn't win North Carolina for John Kerry, and if Al Gore's performance as a Presidential candidate in 2000 is any indication, Bill Clinton didn't need him to win Tennessee in 1992 and 1996.

However, there is some internal political benefit for a Presidential nominee to pick one candidate over another: it helps with outreach to political constituencies whose support the nominee may need to shore up. Walter Mondale helped Jimmy Carter to build bridges with organized labor, and the choice of Bob Dole helped mollify the Reagan-Goldwater wing of the GOP for Gerald Ford. And while Ronald Reagan didn't want George Bush the Elder on the ticket with him for a minute, he needed Bush's identification with the Republicans' moderate Rockefeller wing to keep that group behind him. He probably couldn't have defeated Carter otherwise: John Anderson, a prominent Rockefeller Republican, threatened to split the party when he chose to run as an independent candidate in the general election.

These outreach efforts can backfire, though. Al Gore tried to assuage the political press's hatred of him by choosing Joe Lieberman, and he ended up with an albatross of a running mate who undermined the ticket with his public sympathy for GOP positions. I don't think any Gore supporter who saw Lieberman's non-debate debate with Dick Cheney ("I agree with my opponent about this, and I agree with my opponent about that") was anything short of appalled. And as Bob Somerby has amply documented over at The Daily Howler, Lieberman's presence couldn't keep the press from slandering Gore at every opportunity. There are reasons why Lieberman's own Presidential bid was dead on arrival with Democratic voters in 2004, and Gore's refusal to endorse his candidacy is telling.

If the Vice-Presidential choice offers anything of value to voters, it's this: it tells us how candidates think, and where their priorities are. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan demonstrated their pragmatism with their choices, and Michael Dukakis and John Kerry demonstrated their cluelessness with theirs. (Lloyd Bentsen was the only bright spot in Dukakis's campaign, but choosing him for his regional appeal was foolish.) As for Al Gore, he revealed what a political muddle his thinking was in, and George Bush the Elder's choice of Dan Quayle revealed his need for an unthreatening bootlicker of the sort that he had been for virtually his entire political career.

George W. Bush's choice of Dick Cheney was more interesting. The selection of Cheney signalled to anyone who was paying attention that Dubya had no interest in the practical responsibilities of the Presidency. Cheney's own Presidential ambitions were no secret, but everyone knew he was too unpleasant a personality to ever hope of winning at the top of the ticket. But with his background (White House chief of staff, member of the House GOP leadership, Secretary of Defense), Cheney's knowledge of how Washington and the executive branch worked were probably unsurpassed; if there was anyone who could orchestrate a situation where he would be, so to speak, the power behind the throne, it was Cheney. The relationship between him and Dubya was obvious. After Dubya chose him to head the campaign's Vice-Presidential selection process, Cheney selected himself, and Dubya went along with him. The episode demonstrated Dubya lacked independence of mind, and that he was easily manipulated. Cheney made it clear to one and all that Dubya was putty in his hands.

Dubya's choice of Cheney told us volumes, and none of it good. Bill Clinton's choice of Al Gore, on the other hand, told us a lot of what was best about him. Gore had his problems in 2000, but in general, he's a dynamic, forward-minded, and independent figure. By choosing Gore, Clinton made it clear that he wanted the best people around him: those who took the initiative, thought outside the box, and were willing to give him advice regardless of how they thought he might take it. And it was always clear that Gore was subordinate to him. Clinton's goal was to run the federal government as well as it could be run, and to promote substantial innovations in the private sector in order to expand opportunity. Gore's expertise was invaluable to this pursuit. In office, Bill Clinton succeeded brilliantly: few have anything but praise for the ability of the people he chose to work under him, and he presided over the greatest, most egalitarian peacetime economic expansion the country had ever seen. He was as good a President as we could ever hope to have, and the choice of Al Gore signalled what was to come.

If Obama wants to pick the equivalent of Al Gore as his Vice-President, his choice would be either Wesley Clark or Hillary Clinton. Thanks to Cheney and his dimwit cadre of neocon fabulists, this country is stuck in two military quagmires, and the stupidity of the conduct towards Iran and Russia demands the insight of a Wesley Clark to help set things right. No one has a more profound understanding of the ins and outs of war and peace, and his exemplary handling of the Balkan situation as NATO commander demonstrated he understands them in practice. Hillary Clinton would signal a commitment to getting domestic policy back on the right track. She has an almost preternatural grasp of policy issues and details--it's easily the most comprehensive in Washington--and she makes a point of understanding them in practical terms. She's not about telling people how to live their lives; her goal is to figure out how to help people live those lives better. Both Hillary and Clark know when to lead, anf they know when to follow. They're the best minds the country has to offer, and they can subordinate themselves to Obama's general goals. In pragmatic terms, they are best suited to help him define them specifically.

But if the press speculation is halfway accurate, it'll be either Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, or Tim Kaine. Superficially, Biden might seem like the best choice of the three, but if he's picked, all I think it will do is signal how much Obama's in over his head. The first thing a Vice-Presidential candidate needs to be is a team player, and that's not Joe Biden. He's no one's subordinate--there's nobody in Washington more in love with the sound of their own voice--and Obama would quickly find out that he's got a loose cannon on his hands. Biden has considerable foreign policy expertise, but he has nothing to offer that he couldn't give just as effectively in the Senate. Kaine and Bayh are mediocrities--although Bayh's the more talented of the two--who have no benefit beyond possible regional appeal. And as I hope I demonstrated effectively above, regional appeal doesn't count for squat. It sounds good in theory, but it doesn't tend to work out. Picking either of them would just point up one of Obama's major weaknesses--he's too enamored with abstractions, and he doesn't approach matters in practical terms. Those choices would also highlight the insecurities one senses below Obama's surface haughtiness: he can't abide dealing with accomplished, independent-minded people in any circumstance, even when they know--as Gore, Hillary, and Clark do--when to keep it behind closed doors. My sense is that he feels belittled by them, and he resents it. My guess is that Obama will pick Kaine, partly because the Democrats have a bigger emotional stake in flipping Virginia than Indiana, and partly because he's something of a hapless figure, and thus less intimidating. The people of Virginia aren't particularly enthused with him as governor, and after his term is over--he's limited to one--there's no realistic possibility of a U.S. Senate seat opening up before 2018. He's got nowhere to go politically. From a certain standpoint, he's perfect. He needs Obama a lot more than Obama needs him.

Obama's choice may say--or confirm--everything we need to know.

As for the GOP pick, I have no idea. I tend to find Republicans so distasteful to think about these days that I really don't care.