Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Poetry Review: Petrarch

All references and quotations are from:

Petrarch. The Poetry of Petrarch. Trans. David Young. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Petrarch (1304-1374) is perhaps the foremost example of a poet that English-language readers are supposed to know about rather than read. Most take their notions of his style from William Shakespeare's famous parody of his work in sonnet 130:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breast are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
One gets the idea. Petrarch describes his lady-love Laura in the most hyperbolic terms. Her eyes are like the sun, her lips as red as coral, her cheeks as red as roses, her hair fine and bright, her breath sweet, her voice like music--she's an angel who walks the Earth. It's not hard to find examples of these conceits in Petrarch's major poetry collection, Il canzoniere, and his unrequited obsession with Laura may strike one as adolescent and tiresome. As Shakespeare suggests, there's more of love in taking pleasure from someone's earthiness than in all the exaggerated rhapsodizing one can muster, and the more hyperbolic the description, the more dishonest it is.

It's easy to be dismissive in the way Shakespeare encourages, but one should remember that Petrarch was responding to the challenges that came with being a poet in his time and place. Being a poet in his lifetime meant being a popular entertainer, and that meant writing and performing love poetry. The work had to be in the traditions established by the troubadours and carried on through the Dolce stil novo poets, and that meant hyperbolic treatments of unrequited love for an idealized lady. Petrarch was also working in the shadow of Dante, whose La vita nuova reimagined the conventions of love poetry in the most profound way: love for the idealized lady was the path towards learning how to properly love God.

Petrarch met those challenges head-on. His work has a grace that, among his predecessors, is second only to Dante's, and it often shows a greater refinement, particularly in its development of conceits. Petrarch will often begin with a single trope and develop it into a conceit that defines the entire sonnet. An excellent example is poem 189, a sonnet that, thanks to Sir Thomas Wyatt, is probably the most famous of Petrarch's writings:

My galley, loaded with forgetfulness,
rolls through rough seas, at midnight, during winter,
aiming between Charybdis and sharp Scylla;
my lord, ah no, my foe, sits at the tiller;

each oar is wielded by quick, mad thought
that seems to scorn the storm and what it means;
an endless wind of moisture, of deep sighs,
of hopes and passions, rips the sail in half;

tears in a steady downpour, mists of hate,
are loosening and soaking all the ropes,
ropes made of ignorance, tangled up with error.

The two sweet stars I see by are obscured;
reason and skill are dead amid the waves;
and I don't think I'll ever see the port.
Using a ship lost in a storm as a metaphor, Petrarch dramatizes how lost he would be without thoughts of Laura to guide him. The opening octet depicts the scenario of sailing in the encompassing storm, and the concluding sestet describes the consequences: Laura's eyes, likened to the stars used to navigate a ship, cannot be seen, so thought and ability are lost in the confusion, and the narrator describes the despair over never again finding security. The first line is elegantly developed over the course of the poem up through the conclusion. The skill and unity on display are very typical of Petrarch's sonnets, and many consider them the epitome of the form.

Petrarch competes with Dante by locating a potential weakness in his predecessor's work and developing his own material in a way that corrects it. The great innovation of La vita nuova is its reimagination of "courtly love," in which the narrator is shown growing from a lovestruck adolescent to a mature adult aspiring to God's grace. However, Dante couldn't dramatize the narrator's spiritual development with the poems taken by themselves; he had to link them through the use of a prose narrative. Petrarch refuses to use prose to link the poems. The pieces are juxtaposed in chronological order, and the development is not spiritual; the evolution is more in the use of language. In any case, Il canzoniere contains the first sonnet sequence in Western poetry. It became the defining approach to lyric poetry in England, with Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Herrick, and others following Petrarch's lead. (Shakespeare may have mocked Petrarch's stylistic excesses, but his lyric work is ultimately subordinate to Petrarch's approach.) Producing a sequence of poems describing one's love for a particular lady was a poetic tradition that was still being followed centuries later, as can be seen with such examples as Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems.

Petrarch also got out from under Dante's shadow by rejecting the view of infatuation as a process in one's spiritual development. Unlike Dante's regard for Beatrice, Petrarch's expressed adoration for Laura never develops into anything more mature or profound. Many of the pieces that make up Il canzoniere are reflections to one degree or another of the descriptions in poem 157:

That always cruel and yet honored day
engraved its living image on my heart
in such a way no wit or skill can tell;
but I revisit it in memory.

Her gestures, marked with gracious pity, and
her bittersweet lamenting, which I heard,
made me unsure: a mortal or a goddess?
She made the sky grow clear and bright all round.

Her head was finest gold, her face warm snow,
her eyebrows ebony, her eyes two stars
where Love has never bent his bow in vain;

pearls and crimson roses formed the words
that gathered her exquisite sorrow up,
her sighs were flames, her tears were precious crystal.
Laura primarily exists as a linguistic canvas for hyperbolic description. In this sonnet, Petrarch expresses uncertainty about whether to consider her an earthbound angel such as Beatrice. He occasionally indulges in it in Il canzoniere, but it never leads to a more profound view of her or of his feelings of the sort Dante depicts in La vita nuova. It's just another opportunity for exaggeration.

What one is struck by throughout Petrarch's work is his extraordinary linguistic inventiveness. His descriptions of Laura may lack the sophistication one often finds in Dante's renderings of Beatrice, but they have a greater immediacy--describing a woman's eyes as "two stars," for example, is a comparison that needs little elaboration. It's brief and evocative. Petrarch also makes strong use of oxymoron, a technique one doesn't find in the work of his predecessors. An example in poem 157 above is "warm snow." Others include poem 34's "fire freezes and there's burning snow" and poem 147's "cooling fires and shivering bouts of hope."

His punning on Laura's name is quite enjoyable as well. He often likens her to the laurel tree. It's a direct allusion to the mythological Daphne, the beloved of Apollo who was forever beyond the god's reach, and who Apollo honored with the use of the laurel wreath to confer distinction. In Petrarch's time, it had become the symbol of the accomplished poet, and for him to effectively say that his subject both inspires him and is the symbol of that inspiration's achievement is rather witty. The comparisons of aspects to Laura to gold (l'auro) and the breeze (l'aura) are also clever. His punning reaches an apex of sorts in the opening lines of poem 246: "The breeze that softly sighs and moves among / the laurel's leaves and through her golden hair." He brings all three puns together and makes them work in tandem. It reflects what seems like Petrarch's infinite capacity for finding new configurations and contexts for the same words. It also explains why the language of his poetry never grows tiresome despite its repetition, which extends to his mastery of the sestina, the absurdly convoluted poetic form that Arnaut Daniel both invented and was confounded by. While Arnaut buckles in the face of the sestina's challenge, Petrarch manages an effortless clarity. He seems to write with the greatest of ease, regardless of the challenges.

Petrarch's work may invite mockery at times, but his work is as much an epitome of the Western medieval poetic tradition as Dante's. La vita nuova reimagines love poetry in the most profound manner, while Il canzoniere seems gloriously frivolous. Dante aimed for sophistication of thought; Petrarch aimed for sophistication of language, with playfulness a key component. One may rate La vita nuova the greater work, but there's no getting around the fact that it is Petrarch who has had the greater influence. Perhaps seriousness in the arts doesn't count for that much after all.

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The reading list for Poetry Tuesday can be found here.

Previous discussions:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Politics: Thoughts on the Bailout Defeat

I've been glued to the TV all afternoon, first watching the House vote on the bailout go down, and then the fallout from various quarters. The party leaders were aggressively pointing fingers at each other, while McCain and Obama followed their usual routines: McCain released an offensive, dishonest statement that attacked the Democratic Party and falsely aggrandized his role in working towards a compromise, and Obama issued a piece of banality that offered no leadership and essentially just clucked in disapproval at everyone else.

The most extraordinary response came from the anchors, reporters, and commentators on CNBC, who were echoed by their counterparts over at CNN. (My cable provider doesn't offer Fox, and I'm unable to get MSNBC right now because of some temporary technical issues.) It was reported that a number of the Congresspeople who voted against the bill cited their constituents' opposition to it. That prompted Maria Bartiromo and the others to start ranting about how people in the country at large were too stupid to understand the situation, and that they needed to smarten up and realize that this isn't just Wall Street's problem. Main Street and Wall Street are inextricably tied together, and if Wall Street suffers, everyone else will also. The TV people were all but screaming at the camera.

I wonder how much of this is motivated by the fear that this may play out with Wall Street in a far less central role than it has been. Bartiromo and the others owe their status to the primacy of Wall Street in our economy. If Wall Street becomes less important, they become less important as well.

I'm not an economist, but I personally believe that we need to minimize Wall Street's central role in our economy. There should be a greater reliance on independent regional operations on the part of businesses, and if the business credit lines freeze up at the major national banks, which seems to be the biggest concern, it would seem like a prime opportunity for the smaller local institutions to step in and fill the void. Of course, that would also draw business away from the big banking players, which would bring Wall Street down even further, but we might see the rest of the country strengthened at Wall Street's expense. Which seems to me a good thing. I just don't know how painful that transition would be.

The fact remains that big business is just as much a ruling institution in this country as Washington and the other various governing bodies. The bigger Wall Street gets, the more it's in a position to blackmail the citizenry for "the common good." They're only concerned about their own advantage, and I have no doubt that they're willing to engage in scare tactics to maximize it. I don't know how else to interpret such oddities as the fall of Washington Mutual last Thursday (instead of the usual Friday afternoon, which gives customers the weekend to regain a level head before the start of business Monday), or the drop of something like 200 points in the Dow Jones between the closing bell and the final tally today (which suggests a massive final sell-off to deliberately drive the average down). The less power these people have, the better, and I think they realize that they're on the cusp of having it taken away from them.

I'll end with a quote from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. This is a passage introductory econ professors and their McTextbooks go out of their way to keep people from reading.
Merchants and master manufacturers are, in this order, the two classes of people who commonly employ the largest capitals, and who by their wealth draw to themselves the greatest share of the public consideration. As during their whole lives they are engaged in plans and projects, they have frequently more acuteness of understanding than the greater part of country gentlemen. As their thoughts, however, are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business, than about that of the society, their judgment, even when given with the greatest candour (which it has not been upon every occasion) is much more to be depended upon with regard to the former of those two objects than with regard to the latter. Their superiority over the country gentleman is not so much in their knowledge of the public interest, as in their having a better knowledge of their own interest than he has of his. It is by this superior knowledge of their own interest that they have frequently imposed upon his generosity, and persuaded him to give up both his own interest and that of the public, from a very simple but honest conviction that their interest, and not his, was the interest of the public. The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.
Emphasis added, as that last bit constitutes words to live by.

Music Monday--Steely Dan, "FM (No Static at All)"

There's probably no mainstream pop-rock act from the 1970s whose music holds up better than Steely Dan's. Made up of keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen, guitarist/bassist Walter Becker, and whatever studio musicians happened to be available at the time, their work is a remarkable blend of structural complexity and pop conciseness. It was at its strongest when they began incorporating jazz influences into their music in the late Seventies. The marvelous results can be heard on the albums Aja and Gaucho, and the singles released from them: "Peg," "Josie," "Deacon Blues," and "Hey Nineteen."

And "FM (No Static at All)." This is the single from the period that always seems to get overlooked, probably because Steely Dan didn't produce it for one of their albums. It was commissioned to be the title song for the film FM, a satire of the radio industry that turned out to be one of worst movies of the decade. (Try to imagine the lamest episode ever of WKRP in Cincinnati, and then make it four times as long and ten times dumber.)

Becker, Fagen, et al, outclassed the film as a matter of course, and they probably outclassed every other single getting radio airplay at the time as well. The track is extremely sophisticated, featuring shift after shift from one musical hook to another, and then coming together as a seamlessly unified piece. The gorgeous tenor saxophone solo that closes it (courtesy of Peter Christleib) is the icing on a delicious musical cake.

Becker and Fagen have reunited since breaking off their partnership in 1981. Their 2000 album Two against Nature was a Grammy favorite, winning the coveted Album of the Year award along with three other trophies. It's an accomplished album, but the jazz influence dominates, and it lacks the pop spark of that great work from the late Seventies. The same is true of the follow-up album, Everything Must Go.

But one can always give the older material another listen, as with "FM (No Static at All)," the featured track of this week's Music Monday.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Comics Review: R. Kikuo Johnson, Night Fisher

R. Kikuo Johnson's debut graphic novel, Night Fisher, is a fluidly told slice-of-life treatment of prep school adolescents in contemporary Hawaii. It's probably going a bit too far, as the jacket copy does, in describing the book as a coming of age story; the book ends with the protagonist, seventeen-year-old Loren Foster, at a crisis point and with an uncertain future, rather than as a newly mature young man. But it's a modestly affecting portrait of bourgeois teenage anomie just the same.

The reader is introduced to Loren as he comes home from an all-night fishing jaunt. There's a complete absence of human connections in his life. Motherless, and with no brothers and sisters, he lives alone with his dentist father in an affluent neighborhood in Maui. Loren and his father have little rapport, and he doesn't have much of a social life, either. He's still awkward around girls, and there seems to be a growing chasm between him and his best friend Shane, who stood him up on the fishing trip. Everything is school, school, school, but he's avoiding thinking about what's next for him after he graduates from the local prep academy. One evening, Shane calls Loren up out of the blue, and he introduces Loren to the world of crystal meth, empty thrill-seeking, and petty theft.

The most striking aspect of the story is Johnson's visual treatment. The art style is very similar to Alex Toth's, Paul Pope's, and David Mazzucchelli's: frequent use of deep-space compositions, loose but highly knowledgeable draftsmanship, and painterly ink brushwork with stark contrasts between black and white. Night Fisher is an absolutely gorgeous book to look at, but its visual appeal never takes precedence over dramatic values--the panels are always compelling in narrative terms. Johnson is especially deft at rendering character nuance; he takes one right into the heads of Loren and the other characters with his observant, elegantly understated figure attitudes and facial expressions. His sense of setting is also exceptional; the lush, detailed panels strongly convey both the Hawaii milieu and the sense of oppression Loren and his peers feel.

However, Johnson's storytelling skills are far stronger in visual terms than they are on the literary side of things. Like Jaime Hernandez, whose work the book is most remniscent of, Johnson has a good ear for characters' voices and a strong sense of narrative flow. But he's also like Hernandez in that he doesn't seem to know how to craft a story in terms of dramatic conflict; there's no dynamic in the narrative, and nothing has any lasting weight. The story ends just as it comes to a boil. The book reads smoothly enough, and it's never boring, but it has no staying power--the story drifts away as soon as one closes the covers.

This is Johnson's first effort, though, and one can attribute Night Fisher's failings to a lack of experience. The ambition and execution are such that one fully expects him to learn how to pull a story together so that it builds in intensity--so that it has some lasting resonance for the reader. Johnson is a first-rate cartoonist in so many ways: he sees the artwork as a narrative tool, he has a superlative sense of how to dramatize individual scenes, and he even demonstrates a strong degree of technical inventiveness. He's definitely a cartoonist to watch, and I look forward to reading his next book.

Other reviews of comics by R. Kikuo Johnson:

Saturday, September 27, 2008

In Memoriam: Paul Newman (1925-2008)

A new film with Paul Newman in the cast was one I always looked forward to seeing. Beginning in the late 1970s, he had a remarkably easygoing presence onscreen. It gave him a solid foundation for his acting effects, and he was so relaxing to watch that one couldn't help but like him immensely. He was a man's dream of what it could be like to grow older: still lean and handsome, and with a smooth, understated manner that was equal parts self-assurance and gravitas.

His best films were made in the 1960s. The Hustler, Hud, and Cool Hand Luke were major precursors to the true Hollywood Golden Age of the late 1960s and the 1970s. The films he made between 1978 and 1994 aren't as good, but he's at his peak in them. Slap Shot, Absence of Malice, The Verdict, The Color of Money, and Nobody's Fool feature leading-man movie-star acting at its most enjoyable. He will be missed.

Paul Newman (1925-2008).

Rest in Peace.

Politics: Thoughts on the First Presidential Debate

My immediate reaction was that it was a draw. Both candidates essentially presented their campaign platforms on the various issues, and the polls that show Obama winning the debate largely reflect that most of the people watching were sympathetic to the views he expressed. I include myself among them; I just don't have any faith in Obama's willingness to see them through. And to be perfectly honest, he seems more interested in slagging what's come before than with offering his vision for the future.

I understand a lot of people were put off by McCain's condescending attitude during the second half of the debate, but it's not something I care about: I'm more interested in what they say rather than their manner. Obama was plenty rude himself, anyway, with the constant interruptions and efforts to talk over McCain's answers. Unfortunately, McCain starting doing it to Obama towards the end, and we just ended up with a lot of cross-talk noise.

Neither candidate distinguished themselves when it came to Lehrer's question about what they were willing to sacrifice in terms of their agendas due to the money that will inevitably by sucked up by the Wall Street disaster. They both came across as evasive.

I was really put off by Obama's response to McCain's boiler-plate GOP nonsense about taxes. He still won't counter McCain by pointing to the Bill Clinton example with regard to the nation's tax code. It's very simple: if one raises taxes on those in the top bracket and lowers them for those in the lower brackets, more money gets pumped into the economy because those in the lower brackets are going to spend it, and every dollar spent in the economy has a snowball effect. Businesses have more income from increased sales, and the greater savings on the lower end ultimately leads to increased entrepeneurship and product innovation. (The rich ultimately make more money, so it's to their benefit, too.) But give the breaks to the affluent instead, as Dubya has done, and everything stagnates. The proof is in the pudding: the Clinton approach demonstrably works, and the Dubya version demonstrably doesn't. Obama should be saying that if we do things his way, which resembles Bill Clinton's, we'll be that much closer to getting the Clinton economy back. Which do you want, the Clinton/Obama/Democratic economy or the Bush/McCain/GOP economy? Doing that would immediately frame the discussion starkly in Obama's favor. But he won't do it, because he can't bring himself to identify with the Democratic Party or its past leaders. It seems that everything has to be about him, or he won't acknowledge it apart from tearing it down.

The debate changed nothing for me: I won't vote for McCain in any case, and Obama is still too repulsive for me to consider supporting. I support Democrats, not callow egomaniacs who see the party as a means to an end in their quest for self-aggrandizement.

Civilization Review: Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Books I-III

All references and quotations are from:

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. J.E.C. Welldon. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1987.

The text citations follow the book and chapter numbering used in translations in Aristotle's works. For example, a reference to a passage in Book II, Chapter V would be indicated by (II:V).

Near the beginning of the The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle's treatise on human character, he makes a sharp break from his teacher Plato's view of what constitutes "the good." Plato sees "the good" as being defined in strictly metaphysical terms: it is the ideal that can only be perceived through the use of abstract reasoning. Aristotle doesn't entirely reject this, but he certainly disputes that it is the one and "true" good. In his view, it would be "difficult [...] to say what is meant by the 'absolute' in anything" (I:IV). There is no "good" in the universal sense; one can argue that there are as many different forms of good as there are forms of existence. He ultimately concludes there are two kinds of "good": the "absolute," Platonic good, and the "secondary," practicable good (I:IV).

Aristotle emphasizes practical reasoning over abstraction, and the questions driving the Ethics are eminently practical, namely, what is the "good" life, and how does one live it? He interrogates his subjects in a manner that's somewhat milder than Plato's Socratic dialectic; he isn't looking for a contradiction that undermines the entire premise of what's being put forth, and he isn't attemptng to tease out basic assumptions with repeated questions. Instead, he sets forth a proposition or a question, and he then outlines related answers or responses that he identifies as being wrong in some way. Ultimately, he arrives at an appropriate answer to the issue he's posing, which he then uses as a springboard to his next point of discussion. The subjects of the first three books of The Nicomachean Ethics--the nature of the "good" and happiness, the definition of virtue and vice, and the questions of relative virtue and morality--are all examined in this way.

Aristotle acknowledges that it is standard to perceive the cause of what one considers the good as divine (I:XII), but he does not regard it as distinct from human nature. The potential for the "good" is innate in every human being, and the individual's quest for the "good" is what motivates him or her through life. As he notes at the beginning, "the good has been well defined as that at which all things aim" (I:I). He also determines that happiness is the final "good," writing that "we always desire happiness for its own sake, and never as a means to something else" (I:V).

The initial question he poses is, what is the "good"? Starting from the premise that the "good" is achieved when something fulfills its unique function, Aristotle identifies the uniqueness of humanity as the existence of a soul, and he concludes that the the cultivation and full realization of the soul is the "good" relative to humanity (I:VI). He answers the view that enjoyment of the appetites is humanity's impetus by identifying physical pleasures as enablers of the soul's cultivation (I:IX). True happiness is a combination of good health, material wealth, and wisdom and virtue (I:IX). Without health and affluence, wisdom and virtue become that much more difficult to attain (I:X).

Unlike Plato, who saw physical appetite as reason's prison, Aristotle treats appetite and reason as equal parts in the human soul. Appetite is needed to maintain physical survival, which is necessary for reason to exist, and reason is necessary to regulate appetite. It is charged with finding the mean between deficiency in excess, or, to pick a contemporary trope, the "Mama Bear" option. One must find the mean between starvation and gluttony, or celibacy and promiscuity, to avoid appetite's distractions. He identifies the poles of excess (or vice) with incontinent behavior, and finding the mean between the two as moral virtue (II:II). He expands his definitions of incontinence and moral virtue to cover issues of emotional behavior as well, noting that all virtues--e.g. courage, temperance, honesty--are the mean between two extremes (II:VII).

Aristotle considers intrinsically wicked conduct, such as murder or theft, to be outside the terms of his discussion (II:VI). He also sees cowardice and questions of courage as often being "obscured by attendant circumstances" (III:XII). One looking for a hierarchy of values is best directed to examine the levels of punishment Dante outlined in the Inferno. Dante identified the degrees of sin using the Ethics as his guide, and he sees cowardice as a neutral (though still offensive) quality and the least bad. The crimes of incontinence are where true sin begins, and in the reverse order of severity, they are lust, gluttony, illiberality (miserliness and squandering), and wrathfulness and sullenness. Crimes of wickedness are much worse than those of incontinence, and Dante depicts them as separated by a vast chasm.

Book III of The Nicomachean Ethics concerns itself with the relativity of moral conduct. Aristotle makes a distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior. The former is conducted at the behest of moral virtue, and the motives are pleasure and noblemindedness (II:I). Involuntary behavior, on the other hand, is compelled by an external agent, and accompanied by a sense of pain and regret (III:II). Involuntary behavior is distinct from un-voluntary behavior, which is conducted in ignorance, without moral impetus or conflict (III:II). Noting that moral virtue is the motivating factor for any act that truly deserves to be considered moral or virtuous, Aristotle suggests that moral behavior can only be determined by an evaluation of intent. One cannot deliberate a moral act except through moral virtue; it is the means to the end (III:IV).

And that is, ultimately, Aristotle's view of human character: it is the means to the end of the "good" and to happiness. Character is defined by virtue, and virtue enable one to discriminate between the poles of vice and find the golden mean, whether it is finding courage in between foolhardiness or timidity, or temperance in between licentiousness and asceticism. A major aspect of happiness is finding the balance in one's life.

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The reading list for Civilization Saturday is here

Previous Civilization Saturday discussions:

Subsequent Civilization Saturday discussions:

Friday, September 26, 2008

Birthday Break

I'm taking the day off. Today is September 26th, and it's my birthday. I share it with T.S. Eliot and Winsor McCay, and while my achievements are considerably more modest than theirs, we do have some temperamental affinities. As an ex-girlfriend exclaimed when she discovered me and Eliot had the same birthday, "It just figures! Radical and stodgy--all at the same time!"

However, beyond that, I want to note some changes to the blog on the horizon.

The big one is that the scheduled Politics posts are being reduced to once a week. Instead of Sunday and Wednesday, they'll now be Wednesday only, although Politics Extra mini-posts will continue to appear as often as
I feel compelled to write them. Sunday will now be devoted to the comics reviews that have alternated with the reviews of comtemporary fiction, literature, and art on Fridays. There are two reasons for the change.

The first is simply a matter of numbers. The writing on comics and cartooning generates more traffic than every other feature of the blog combined. This is writing that I'm interested in doing, and I'm happy to cater to the reader demand.

The second is that I'm feeling the strain of researching and developing arguments for two political essays a week. My model for the political posts is Anglachel, but emulating her approach is arduous, as I don't have her political-science background or her facility with discussing these issues. I'm beginning to feel tapped out when I start thinking about what to write for the Politics feature, and I'm noticing a lot of repetition from post to post. One of the reasons I write is because I think there are things that should be said that I'm not encountering from others. I'm not writing to be an echo chamber for others' views, and I certainly don't want to become an echo chamber for myself. Hopefully, pulling back to once a week on the political writing will help keep things fresher.

The "C" in FCLA Fridays will now be for criticism. There's plenty of commentary and theoretical writing on the arts out there that's worthy of discussion, and if it's not one's cup of tea, it'll only be once every four weeks.

Also, new posts should be up at midnight sharp on the day they're scheduled. The date-time mess with Blogger last week led to my discovery that a post can be time-stamped, and if it's stamped for publication at a date and time after is pressed, it won't go live until then. So if one is looking to read a post as soon as it comes up, it'll be there every day right at the beginning.

Enjoy your Friday, and I'll see you tomorrow.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Politics: What Glenn Said on Palin

Glenn Greenwald and I have been pretty much in agreement about the reaction to John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential pick: much of it is fatuous, over the top, and beside the point. And we've had largely the same reaction to Katie Couric's interview with Palin: she is by no means ready to be a politician on the national stage. Despite some minor quibbles, I agree with Greenwald's about-face on Palin in his Salon.com posting today. Click here to read.

This does not mean I am backtracking on my view that the best hope for working-class constituencies on both the right and the left is to form a coalition that promotes their interests. Neither the plutocrats, the bourgeois left, nor those who identify with them offer desirable policy agendas or political leaders. I also hope that leaders continue to emerge from the Christian right who promote a pro-working-class economic agenda. And Sarah Palin may one day be one of those leaders. But she is not an appropriate candidate for national office at this time.

Movie Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is about hero worship, and it depicts Ford (played by Casey Affleck) as the prototypical fanboy. He romanticizes Jesse James (Brad Pitt), collecting and obsessing over dime novels that feature the famed outlaw, and it becomes clear that while growing up, these fantasies were the only real company he had. Relating to other people is largely beyond him; he can't deal with anyone without fidgets and fibs. He's profoundly aware of his own inadequacy; his only security comes from the aura he sees around Jesse James, and one can tell he hopes one day to be the source of such an aura himself. With the help of his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), who's a member of the James Gang, Ford joins up with his idol, who finds the tongue-tied young sycophant alternately amusing and annoying. At one point, Jesse asks him, "Do you want to become like me, or do you want to be me?"

Ford's relationship with Jesse, which went from idolatry to a disillusionment that led Ford to murder him, might make for an interesting film. But Dominik, working from a well-regarded novel by Ron Hansen, doesn't provide it. The film is a shapeless meander, and at two hours and forty minutes, it is tediously long. The first half of the movie, which depicts the collapse of the James Gang until only Jesse, Ford, and Charley are left, is a near-incomprehensible mess. The scenes don't seem to build into each other, and many of the characters are so poorly differentiated it's hard to tell them apart. The second half, which deals with Ford's betrayal and eventual murder of Jesse at the behest of the Missouri governor (James Carville), is much clearer, but Dominik doesn't give it any dramatic momentum. The only thing driving the movie is the anticipatory dread one gets from the knowledge that Ford will inevitably gun Jesse down.

One wonders if Dominik even thinks he's telling a story. His approach to the material appears modeled after Terrence Malick's work, and the film's interest in the narrative seems less about dramatizing it than in using it as a taking-off point for poetic visuals. Malick can get so caught up in his Romantic imagery that he loses sight of the story he's telling, but his tropes are generally quite inventive. With Dominik, it's one hackneyed image after another: repeated shots of clouds rolling by in fast-motion and wind blowing through wheat fields. Dominik is also repetitive and unimaginative when it comes to setting up scenes. I lost count of how many times he opens one with figures in long shot against a landscape, with the camera pulling back until we see that we're looking at them through a window, and then it keeps pulling back until we see that they're being watched by another character. He doesn't even make competent use of voiceover narration; it often just redundantly describes what the film is showing. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and the set and costume designers give the film an austerely elegant look, but the scenes are so poorly conceived and staged that it seems like dressing a chimp in Armani.

However, the austere compositions work to create some dynamism with Casey Affleck's performance as Ford; the refined look of the images creates a strong counterpoint with Ford's squirrelly awkwardness, and it emphasizes how out of place he is and how uncomfortable he is inside his own skin. Affleck's performance also finds an effective contrast with the steely-eyed wariness Sam Shepard gives Frank James in an early scene. However, I don't feel Affleck's performance, while strong, deserves all the plaudits it's received; it feels a little too deliberate and mannered. Tobey Maguire, who would seem a better choice for the role, could have managed the part with considerably less ostentation. It's rather shocking to read about the film's production history and discover that he wasn't even considered.

Brad Pitt convinces one of Jesse James' charisma, but he can't pull the disparate strands of the character together. His Jesse becomes increasingly unravelled over the course of the film, with growing fears of betrayal from every corner--he has no idea whom he can trust. However, one can't reconcile the paranoid displays and emotional outbursts with Pitt's larger characterization; they seem to come out of nowhere, and one watches them with a mixture of surprise and embarrassment. James Carville has a strong presence as the Missouri governor who wants Jesse James killed, and Alison Elliott gives some snap and urgency to her line readings as Ford's sister Martha, but most of the other performers don't make much of an impression.

Ultimately, Andrew Dominik seems undone by hero worship of his own. He seems so enthralled with the idea of recreating Terrence Malick's tone that he gave little attention to understanding how Malick's effects are achieved. He's oblivious to his inability to effectively work in that mode, and he didn't develop the story or the characters enough to catch him if he failed. At the beginning of the film, Ford says, "I got qualities that don't come shinin' through right at the outset." One can almost hear Dominik saying this in his own defense, but what Dominik seems to think are his qualities don't come shining through at all.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Politics: The Bailout--I Think It's Better to Wait

I've been watching the Senate Banking Committee hearings today, and after that and reading a number of commentaries, I'm convinced that any bailout plan needs to be put off until Paulson, et al, do a number of things.

The first is to stop insulting everyone's intelligence with the lying. In an "ad hoc comment" during his opening statement before the committee (click here to watch), Paulson said this:
We gave you a simple, three-page legislative outline and I thought it would have been presumptuous for us on that outline to come up with an oversight mechanism. That’s the role of Congress, that’s something we’re going to work on together. So if any of you felt that I didn’t believe that we needed oversight: I believe we need oversight. We need oversight.
This directly contradicts that "legislative outline," which would declare any decision in this matter made by Paulson absolute and non-reviewable. The way the proposal is presently written, Paulson could, without consequence, pull a Heath Ledger Joker and convert the entire $700 billion to cash, stack it on palettes, and burn it.

The second is to provide some sort of itemization for the amount sought. How was this $700 billion figure arrived at? How much is Paulson specifically planning to spend in buying the MBS portfolio of a particular bank? Given the amount of money asked for, I'd like some reassurance that the aggregate figure quoted isn't a wild guess.

Third, a fair value for the MBS securities is going to need to be determined beforehand and approved by Congress. Banks cannot be allowed to set their own price for these things, and Paulson cannot be in a position to give one bank a sweetheart deal while playing hardball with another.

Fourth, any bank seeking relief under the plan is going to have to give up equity in return for it. There are any number of banks out there that are quite solvent, and if the disincentive of giving up equity isn't imposed, they're all going to be falling all over each other to jump on the gravy train. Before you know it, there'll be some new financial instrument that turns everything to garbage that they'll have to be saved from as well. We'll never see the end of this.

Fifth, financial institutions seeking relief above a certain level are going to have to be broken up. This notion of being "too big to fail" has to be done away with. No company should be allowed to get so big that it threatens to take down the entire economy if it stumbles.

Sixth, the executives of any bank seeking relief are going to have to agree to the cancellation and renegotiation of their employment contracts before the institution can receive anything.

Seventh, some way of supervising the Treasury Secretary's actions must be imposed, including a sanction of criminal penalties if a particularly egregious abuse of authority occurs. And any such sanction should include imprisonment, as it's the only penalty someone like Paulson couldn't blow off.

There are probably a lot of other things as well, but this list seems like a good start.

For now, my feeling is that Congress should tell Paulson that they will approve outlays on a case-by-case basis until a final plan can be worked out. In this day of e-mail, teleconferencing, and air travel, it shouldn't be that difficult to keep members of Congress in the loop and get them back to Washington in time for a vote. If the banks need the money as badly as everyone seems to think, Dubya's obstinate temper-tantrum approach to getting his way isn't going to fly. These people are his base, and they won't tolerate it.

Right now, Paulson is saying "Trust me" to the American people. I'm sorry, but no one should be trusted with a carte blanche outlay of $700 billion, and certainly not someone willing to blatantly lie about what's being asked for when aspects of the request are called into question. Beyond that, no one in the current administration should be trusted any further than they can be thrown ever again. We've seen this sky-is-falling approach to things before, such as with the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, and we know how rushing into things worked out in those instances. As for Paulson being this great figure of repute and wisdom who can be trusted, well, even if he hadn't been caught lying, I have two words: Colin Powell. Life with the current administration has been like walking through a crowded cow pasture--everywhere one turns, there's something bigger and grosser than before. There's no way we should step blindly this time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Poetry Translation: Dante, Inferno, Song VI

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. After crossing the river Acheron, they enter Limbo, the realm of the noble or innocent souls who were not baptized or otherwise not believers in the Christian faith. Dante and Virgil then travel to the first circle of damnation, reserved for the lustful. After encountering the souls of Dante's adulterous countrymen Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, Dante faints out of pity.

Song I translation
Song II translation
Song III translation
Song IV translation
Song V translation

Virgil feeds Cerberus dirt in the circle of the gluttons

At the return of consciousness, which was lost
In the presence of the two in-laws’ pathos,
Which confounded me entirely with sadness,

New torments and the newly tormented
I see around me, no matter where I move
Or how I turn, and no matter where I look.

I am in the third circle, that of the rain
Eternal--accursed, cold, and heavy--
Its nature and frequency never change.

Enormous hail, tainted water, and snow
Pour through the gloomy air.
The ground on which it lands is disgusting.

Cerberus, a cruel and freakish wild beast,
Barks with its three throats like a dog
Over the people submerged there.

His eyes are vermilion red, his beard oily and black,
And his stomach broad. His hands have talons;
He claws the spirits, flaying and quartering them.

The rain makes them howl like dogs.
They make one side a shield for the other;
The unholy wretches turn themselves often.

When Cerberus, the great worm, noticed us,
His mouths opened, showing the fangs;
He did not have a limb that held still.

And my leader extended his open hands,
Took the earth, and, with his fists full,
Threw it into the ravenous maws.

Like a dog who, barking hungrily,
Quiets down while chewing his food--
Devouring it is all he thinks of and struggles for--

So were the grimy faces
Of the demon Cerberus, who roared at
The souls with such force that they wished they were deaf.

We went amid the shades, who languished underneath
The heavy rain, putting our feet
Upon their emptiness, which seemed to be their bodies.

They lay upon the ground in all their numbers
Except for one who sat up as soon
As he saw us passing before him.

“O you who are being taken through this Hell,”
He said to me, “Remember me, if you are able:
Before I was undone, you were created.”

I replied, “The anguish you bear
Has perhaps displaced you from my memory,
Making it seem as if I haven’t seen you before.

But tell me who you are that into such a sorrowful
Place you are put, and why your punishment is such
That, if another is more extreme, none is more wretched.”

He replied, “Your city, which is full
Of so much envy that the sack overflows,
Held me within its bounds during life’s serenity.

You townspeople called me Ciacco
For the ruinous sin of gluttony.
As you see, the rain leaves me weak.

And I, a sad soul, am not alone,
For all these are similarly punished
For the same sin.” And then he spoke no more.

I answered him, “Ciacco, your torment
So weighs upon me that it brings me to tears.
But tell me, if you know, what will become of

The citizens of the divided city--
Are there any that are just? And tell me the reason
Why it is assailed upon by such discord.”

And he replied, “After long tensions,
They will come to blood, and the party of the woodlands
Will, with a great deal of spite, drive the others out.

Then, afterwards, the fallen party gathers itself
And, within three years, vanquishes the other
With the power of the one who now hangs his head.

Heads will be held high for a long time.
The other will be held under heavy burdens,
No matter how much it cries or is dishonored.

Two are just, and they are not understood there.
Pride, envy, and avarice are
The three sparks that have hearts lit.”

Here he put an end to his tearful utterance.
And I replied, “ Instruct me still
And make me a gift of continued words.

Farinata and Tegghiaio, who were so honored,
Jacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, and Mosca,
And the others who dedicated their insignia to good deeds,

Tell me where they are and in such a way that I know them.
For great desire presses me to know
If they are sweetened by Heaven or poisoned by Hell.”

And he said, “They are among the blacker souls.
Different sins weigh them down towards the bottom.
If you descend far enough, you will there be able to see them.

But when you are once again within the world and it sweetness,
I pray you bring me to the memory of others.
No more will I tell you and no more will I respond.”

His eyes then went from focused to glassy.
He looked at me a bit and then lowered his head,
Falling with it to be among the other blind.

And my leader said to me, “He stirs no more
Until the sound of the angelic trumpet
When the hostile Judge comes.

Each will again see their unhappy tomb,
Again take their flesh and form,
And hear that which resounds throughout eternity.”

So we passed along through the putrid mix
Of the shades and rain, going by slowly,
Touching a bit on the future life.

For I said, “Master, these torments--
Will they grow after the great Judgment,
Or will they be lesser, or as searing as they are now?”

He replied, “Return to your system of knowledge,
Which would have it that, the more perfect a thing is,
The more it feels the good, and likewise the pain.

As all these condemned
Will never come to true perfection,
They are, in this way, waiting to be more than they are now.

We turned in a circle around that curving road,
Speaking of much that I do not repeat.
We came to the point, where, in our descent,

We found, Plutus, the great enemy, therein.

Continue to Song VII

Monday, September 22, 2008

Music Monday--Yes, "Rhythm of Love"

Yes was probably my favorite band my first couple of years in high school. I'd obsessively gotten into music in the eighth grade, and the bands with which I was most fascinated were Seventies progressive rock bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (ELP). They had a greater pretense of sophistication than most other pop acts, although, looking back, pretense--or pretentiousness--is probably the word most appropriate to them. Their Seventies music was often bloated, and the musicians never missed an opportunity to preen with their erudition.

Back then, I particularly enjoyed the way these bands modified their styles in the Eighties. Asia, made up of former members of Yes, ELP, and King Crimson, led the way by combining simple pop songwriting and hooks with lavish arrangements. Yes, which had broken up in 1980 (with keyboardist Geoff Downes and guitarist Steve Howe moving on to Asia) reformed in 1983 with long-time members Jon Anderson (lead vocals--tenor), Chris Squire (bass guitar), and Alan White (drums). They were joined by founding keyboard player Tony Kaye and a comparatively young South African musician named Trevor Rabin, who played guitar, keyboards, and sang baritone lead vocals. Most importantly, they teamed with another former member, Trevor Horn, as their studio producer. Horn was quickly becoming known as the best pop-music producer in Britain, supervising outstanding recordings by such acts as ABC, Art of Noise, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. (His biggest success came in the 1990s, with his Grammy-winning work with Seal.) Horn, working closely with Rabin, who had become the band's dominant writer, tightened up their sound. This new incarnation of Yes favored the pop hooks and lavish arrangements used by Asia, but the songs were more complexly structured, often distinguished by the frequent use of interlude contrasts.

The band put together two albums with Horn: their biggest-selling effort 90125, and Big Generator. 90125 is by far the more consistent of the two, but Big Generator features my favorite Yes track, "Rhythm of Love." The guitar and keyboard work dominates on most Yes recordings, but on "Rhythm of Love" they're subordinate to the rhythm section. Chris Squire's characteristically baroque bass playing is disciplined by the steady drumbeat and enhanced by the repeating electric-guitar pattern. This forceful, driving rhythm strongly counterpoints Jon Anderson's elfin vocals, and it provides a solid foundation for the guitar, keyboard, and vocal flourishes that are heard throughout. It's probably the sharpest, most dynamic piece they've ever recorded, and one of the most compelling rock tracks of the Eighties.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Politics: The Bailout Plan--A GOP Trick or Obama's Opportunity?

Note: This is intended for cross-posting, so I apologize for what may seem to be needless repetitions from what I've previously written.

After reading the Administration's bailout proposal for the financial-services industry, it's hard not to think it's some sort of joke. In essence, it would authorize a no-strings-attached transfer of $700 billion from the U.S. Treasury to Wall Street. They get to clear what Atrios so aptly referred to as the "Big Shitpile" of devalued securitized mortgages from their books, the U.S. taxpayers get to foot the bill, and Wall Street has no obligations in return for the money. Further, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has absolute authority over the disbursement of funds. There is to be no check on his actions beyond having to issue a report to Congress after three months, and he or his successor having to make additional reports every six months after that. As the draft of the proposal states, ""Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency." They have got to be kidding, right?

Well, maybe they are, but perhaps the joke is on the Democratic Party, and by extension the vast majority of the nation's people.

Apart from Hillary Clinton, who demonstrated on Thursday a firm grasp of the underlying problems, and who offers strong proactive solutions, Democratic leaders seem absolutely clueless. Harry Reid probably leaves one shaking one's head the most--his immediately infamous statement that "No one knows what to do" just did so much to inspire confidence--but Obama hasn't been much better. This is a time for sober analysis and proactive solutions, not finger-pointing and name-calling, no matter how accurate. However, solutions don't seem to be forthcoming on the Democratic end.

Which means one of two things: the Democratic Party is going to sit back and watch the biggest looting of the U.S. Treasury in the nation's history, or they're going to play obstructionist and nothing else. Either way, they give John McCain something to run against. He can bolster his maverick image by ostensibly coming out against the Administration plan, or he can blast Obama and the Democratic Party as a bunch of do-nothing scolds.

Obama would be well-advised to get completely out in front of this issue. Yelling long and loud about the failings of the Administration's proposal is imperative, but it needs to take a back seat to putting forward an alternative that, at the very least, attaches significant strings to this money and gets Paulson and his successor on a good, strong leash.

Obama should work with Hillary Clinton when it comes to putting together a proposal; this is another chance at healing the fracture between the bourgeois and working-class divisions of the party. It would also be best to support her if she's interested in taking over the Senate Democratic leadership, as it's obvious that Harry Reid doesn't know his elbow from his kneecap when it comes to the challenges the country's currently facing.

Whatever Obama does, he should avoid falling into his bad habits by trying to coast, thinking that because he isn't the Republican he'll win by default. McCain has turned the tables on Obama at least twice before, first with the post-Berlin advertising and then with the selection of Sarah Palin, and there's no doubt he has the capacity to do it again. Obama should not make it easy. He needs to follow Bill Clinton's lead in 1992: make people feel he understands their concerns, and offer a practical solution. I know Obama has it in him; the energy policy speech he gave in Lansing on August 4 is proof of it. We need to see more--a lot more--where that came from. This isn't just about winning an election; this is about doing right by the American people.

One other thing: Obama should publicly demand ASAP that the focus of Friday's debate be shifted from foreign policy to economic issues, specifically the current crisis. That's a quick step in a proactive direction right there, and McCain would have no choice but to go along.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Civilization Review: Plato, The Republic, Books VIII-X

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.

My discussion of The Republic, Books I-IV can be read here, and Books V-VII here.

The final sections of The Republic begin with an extensive discussion of the types of government experienced by man. Plato identifies four--aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny--and they are listed in the order of their distance from the ideal. Plato clearly views the devolution of one system into another as different stage of decay. Aristocratic rule devolves into oligarchy, which devolves into democracy, which degenerates into tyranny. One can see a parallel in U.S. history: the Founding Fathers gave way to the reign of the robber barons, which gave way to the rise of New Deal egalitarianism and the dominance of working-class priorities in government, which seems to be giving way now to tyrannical figures, such as the current reign of George W. Bush, whose competing successors, Obama and McCain, embody different aspects of what's worst about him.

The process of decay begins, according to Plato, when the aristocratic class is torn apart by a civil war of resentments and conflicts between the guardian and auxiliary castes (546a-547a). This an oversimplified summary, but a middle way, where power is defined by wealth and property, comes into being (547b), with the rich (the oligarchs) ruling and the poor having no say. The problem comes when the oligarch becomes overly preoccupied with accumulating wealth. As Plato writes, "the more they value it, the less they value virtue" (550e), which Plato sees as "so opposed that if they were set on different scales, they'd always incline in opposite directions [...]" (550e).

The flaws of oligarchy as a form of government are considerable. Wealth is not the same as governing ability (551c), and the oligarchic man attaches the greatest importance to money (554a). While the ideal oligarch is extremely disciplined personally--everything in his character is subordinated to the manipulations necessary to gaining wealth (554a-d)--the society around him breaks down from discipline's lack, and crime and poverty become rampant (555c-e). This leads to a stark divide between the rich and the poor, and another civil war eventually results to the triumph ofthe poor over the rich, and the rise of democracy (557a).

Plato acknowledges democracy as the form of government which fosters the most immediate happiness among its citizenry. Freedom is the defining characteristic, and one has the ability to "arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him" (557b). Pluralism is prevalent (557c-d), and tolerance is a dominant feature, with a disdain and even contempt for Brahmin elitism (558b). One can even choose the degree of civic involvement one partakes in. (557e-558a). Plato asks, "Isn't that a divine and pleasant life," his irony clear from the rejoinder, "while it lasts" (558a).

Democracy, according to Plato, ultimately degenerates into tyranny, which is the worst of all government systems (563c). Democracy's egalitarianism leads to rampant permissiveness and apathy to civic responsibility, and eventually there is a backlash. As Plato writes, "the most severe and cruel slavery [evolves] from the utmost freedom" (564a), and the tyrant emerges as the putative "special champion" of the people (565c). The obvious contemporary parallel is that hero of the "silent majority," Richard Nixon. Like the typical tyrant described in Book VIII Nixon rose by bringing Alger Hiss, a man of questionable guilt, to trial and destroying him. His political lifeblood was fostering divisiveness, and when forced into (political) exile, he came back more odious and power-hungry than ever. According to Plato, the tyrant must "keep a sharp lookout for anyone who is brave, large-minded, knowledgeable, or rich [...] he must be the enemy of them all [...] and plot against them until he has purged them from the city" (567b-c). During the second stage of his political career, Nixon's paranoia knew no bounds: surveillance on those around him was ubiquitous, extensive enemies lists were maintained, and all rivals or gadflies were to be discredited, by any means necessary. Granted, Nixon did not overturn freedom in favor of "the harshest and most bitter slavery to slaves" (569c), but his reign was cut short before it could get that far. Many people I know who remember him were particularly concerned about him rolling tanks into Washington towards the end.

The forms of government, in Plato's view, reflect the souls of those governments' leaders. The (philosopher-)king is closest to the pleasures of philosophy and understanding, while the tyrant, whom Plato repeatedly asserts is driven by incontinent desire, is furthest from them. It is characteristic of the healthy man to cultivate rationality and to moderate appetite and emotional expression (571d-572b); the tyrant, borne of the permissiveness Plato sees endemic to democracy, rejects that beyond treating it as an immediate means to an end:
Now, in private life, before a tyrannical man attains power, isn't he this sort of person--one who associates primarily with flatterers who are ready to obey him in everythng> Or if he himself happens to need anything from other people, isn't he willing to fawn on them and make every gesture of friendship as if he were dealing with his own family? But once he gets what he wants, don't they become strangers again?
If the tyrant's rise to power resembles that of Richard Nixon, this treatment of the tyrant's private inclinations sounds heavily reminds one of George W. Bush. One doesn't have to look too hard to see John McCain or Barack Obama in there as well, but only time will give a clear sense of how much.

In Book X, Plato returns to his quarrel with Homer. Using his theory of knowledge, he sets up a hierarchy between abstractly understood ideal forms, concrete manifestations of those forms, and artistic representations of them. Identifying artistic representation with imitation, he concludes that art is the least of three in terms of understanding, as it is "far removed from truth, for it touches only a small part of each thing and a part that is itself only an image" (598b). (Remember, Plato considers the "image" to be the least of one's perceptions.) Artists, in his view, perpetuate ignorance: "[A]n imitator has no worthwhile knowledge of the things he imitates [...] imitation is a kind of game and not something to be taken seriously (602b)." Additionally, the emotionally exaggerated behavior of characters sets a bad example and is at odds with deliberate contemplation (604d).

A contrary view would hold that artistic representations at their best, such as Homer's poetry or, going afield, the sculptures of Praxiteles, come closer to embodying the ideal form of what is being represented than a concrete manifestation does. Looking at Praxiteles' figures, it's hard not to see them as physical realizations of a divine concept of the human form--a template from which every person is taken in greater or lesser forms of degradation. Most of Homer's achievements in this direction relate to the beauty of his language, but his depictions of human conflict often epitomize areas of human experience, such as questions of honorable conduct or assertions of identity. The exaggerations are caricatural; they provide an intensely synoptic view of their subject that can be seen as rendering Plato's notion of the ideal as well.

Ultimately, though, Plato leaves Homer behand and comes full circle, revisiting the challenge of how to define justice posed in The Republic's early sections. In Book II, he has Glaucon state, "I want to know what justice and injustice are and what power each has when it's by itself in the soul" (358c-d). The answer Plato gives ultimately does lie with the soul. Questions of whether just or unjust people have superficially more fortunate lives is beside the point. The just soul is the philosophically cultivated one, and the one most free from the concerns of appetite or frivolous or destructive preoccupations. In the judgment of the afterlife, only it will walk among the divine.

It's hard not to see this conclusion as a moving of the goalposts, but it's quibbling. The Republic is considered one of the handful of key writings in the history of Western Civilization, but its value is not in its solutions (or even many of its observations, which are often quite questionable). The Republic demands its readers to consider the questions of society's purpose, the relative desirability of values, and the nature of epistemology, or how people know what they know. Disagreement with Plato's answers is actually a sign of the work's power and effectiveness--he gets one to consider the issues he raises, breaking up the frozen sea of ignorance and apathy that too often deaden's people's mind. He compels one to look beyond one's immediate circumstances and consider the world around one, as well as the deeper world within. A philosopher ("lover of wisdom") can hardly ask to do more.

* * *

The reading list for the Civilization Saturday feature is here.

Previous Civilization Saturday discussions:

Subsequent Civilization Saturday discussions:

Politics: The Bail-Out Plan

The blog's daily features are still running late, although beginning with today's scheduled Plato piece, I'm just going to get them done as I get them done and backdate them if necessary.

One story in politics is urgently demanding attention right now, namely the mess in the financial-services industry. The White House's bail-out proposal has been revealed, and it can be read here. It looks to me like the White House wants to give Henry Paulson carte blanche to transfer $700 billion from the U.S. Treasury to Wall Street with no strings attached.

There's no oversight of Paulson's actions beyond him reporting to Congress in three months, and either him or his successor reporting every six months thereafter. His word is final with regard to the decisions to be made. According to the draft, "Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency." That alone is enough to make me oppose this proposal right there.

This is shaping up to be the biggest swindle in history. Essentially, the U.S. taxpayers are going to buy what Atrios so aptly called the "Big Shitpile" of worthless securitized mortgages for $700 billion, and Wall Street gets to clear its books without having to offer anything in return.

And just when I think this situation can't get any worse, I turn on the TV and watch coverage of McCain and Obama sounding off about it in campaign appearances. They're calling each other names, pointing fingers at each other, and have absolutely nothing helpful or substantive to offer. God help us during the next four years.

Paul Krugman has posted his opinion about the bail-out plan on his blog, reprinted below:

September 20, 2008, 4:46 pm

No deal

I hate to say this, but looking at the plan as leaked, I have to say no deal. Not unless Treasury explains, very clearly, why this is supposed to work, other than through having taxpayers pay premium prices for lousy assets.

As I posted earlier today, it seems all too likely that a “fair price” for mortgage-related assets will still leave much of the financial sector in trouble. And there’s nothing at all in the draft that says what happens next; although I do notice that there’s nothing in the plan requiring Treasury to pay a fair market price. So is the plan to pay premium prices to the most troubled institutions? Or is the hope that restoring liquidity will magically make the problem go away?

Here’s the thing: historically, financial system rescues have involved seizing the troubled institutions and guaranteeing their debts; only after that did the government try to repackage and sell their assets. The feds took over S&Ls first, protecting their depositors, then transferred their bad assets to the RTC. The Swedes took over troubled banks, again protecting their depositors, before transferring their assets to their equivalent institutions.

The Treasury plan, by contrast, looks like an attempt to restore confidence in the financial system--that is, convince creditors of troubled institutions that everything’s OK--simply by buying assets off these institutions. This will only work if the prices Treasury pays are much higher than current market prices; that, in turn, can only be true either if this is mainly a liquidity problem — which seems doubtful--or if Treasury is going to be paying a huge premium, in effect throwing taxpayers’ money at the financial world.

And there’s no quid pro quo here--nothing that gives taxpayers a stake in the upside, nothing that ensures that the money is used to stabilize the system rather than reward the undeserving.

I hope I’m wrong about this. But let me say it again: Treasury needs to explain why this is supposed to work--not try to panic Congress into giving it a blank check. Otherwise, no deal.

Paul Krugman's blog is must-reading right now, and it should be checked frequently for updates. There's a permanent link under the Politics & Media heading at left. I'm also swallowing my pride and temporarily adding Atrios to my links while this crisis is center stage. For all of his considerable faults, Atrios is a knowledgeable economist, and he's been fairly substantive on this subject.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Movie Review: American Gangster

Ridley Scott's American Gangster opens with a horrifically brutal prologue. One sees a man tied to a chair, beaten bloody, having gasoline poured on him. The film's protagonist, played by Denzel Washington, looks on and lights a cigar, throwing the lighter onto the man and immolating him. He then unloads an automatic handgun into the burning body. The character's appearance seems discordant with his actions: he's well-groomed and wearing an elegantly tailored suit. One waits and waits to see how this shocking opening fits in with the rest of the film, but one never finds out. It perversely sets the stage for the film in this: American Gangster is one dramatic set-up after another with no follow-through.

The film is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Washington), a Harlem crime boss who in the 1970s became the biggest importer and distributor of heroin in the U.S. The narrative follows the arc of his rise to power and fall, interweaving it with the story of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an incorruptible New Jersey police detective and eventual district attorney who headed the investigation that brought him down. Along the way, the film contrasts the orderliness of Lucas's life with the messiness of Roberts's, and one sees both men's frustrations in dealing with the corrupt narcotics investigation unit of the New York City Police Department. The film ends with Lucas and Roberts as allies, with Lucas helping to bring down the corrupt elements of the NYPD in exchange for a lighter prison sentence.

Ridley Scott does a superficially professional job of directing: the action is clearly and often lavishly staged, and there's his trademark attention to detail in the cinematography and production design. However, the film's scenes don't seem shaped to get anywhere. The problem may be partly in Steven Zaillian's script: the story's events progress logically, but they never build any narrative intensity. Every time the movie seems to be setting up any kind of dramatic turn--a conflict between characters, a suspenseful twist--it gets dropped almost immediately. There's an attempted hit on Lucas's beauty-queen wife, but nothing comes of it. Lucas brutally beats his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after Huey's carelessness leads to a shakedown by the police, and nothing comes of that either. Roberts coerces an underling in Lucas's organization into wearing a wire, and Scott and Zaillian don't even bother to create any suspense over whether the fellow might get found out.

The biggest wasted opportunity comes with Lucas's confrontation with Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) over Barnes' diluting Lucas's product before putting it out on the street. The film sets up a striking contrast between the dignified Lucas and the obnoxious Barnes, who's portrayed as a petulant, drug-addled buffoon. The scene ends inconclusively, and one expects Lucas to have Barnes killed. Audiences would have relished seeing him go down, in no small part because Gooding quickly reminds one of why he's the single most annoying actor working. But, again, nothing comes of it. One can argue that it wouldn't be factually accurate, but given the romanticized portrait of Lucas and the fabrications about Roberts' life--he and his first wife didn't have a child together, so there's no basis for the custody fight the film shows them engaged in--would changing the facts in this instance really have mattered? Scott, Zaillian, and Gooding take serious liberties with their portrayal of Barnes, anyway. I don't think anyone would guess from what's shown here that the character's real-life counterpart was the inspiration for the Wesley Snipes character in New Jack City, or that he was such a smugly insolent media whore that Jimmy Carter made it a priority for the Justice Department to bring him down.

There isn't a single memorable performance in the film. Denzel Washington fares best, partly because of his natural charisma, and partly because his reserve contrasts strongly with the other performers--he's a nobleman among the riff-raff. But there's no shading in the performance, and no dynamic driving it. The only interesting effect he manages is Lucas's tendency to threaten people with such understatement that it come across as a joke. One laughs, but one feels dread as well, as he's so earnest that it's obvious he isn't kidding. Russell Crowe does a creditable job, and there's not a false note anywhere in his portrayal, but there's no dynamism either. Scott has assembled some terrific performers for the supporting cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Carla Gugino, and Ted Levine, but it's easy to forget they're even in the film. (The waste of Ejiofor, one of the most interesting actors to emerge in the last few years, is all but criminal.) Ruby Dee earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as Lucas's mother, but it's obviously a career acknowledgement. The only scene where she makes any kind of impression--when she sharply warns Lucas to be prudent in seeking revenge against his enemies--isn't anything one hasn't seen a hundred times before, and there isn't anything particularly distinctive about it here.

The film reminds one a great deal of Michael Mann's 1995 film Heat. The structure is largely the same: the lives of an ace police detective and an elegant master criminal are depicted as contrasting parallels, and lines of their narratives build independently until they ultimately intersect in the the film's climax. But Heat gives one what American Gangster doesn't: suspense, dynamic characters, and a story that seems developed instead of summarized. American Gangster is a handsomely realized production, but its good looks are only skin-deep.

Politics: Way to Go, Harry

In a posting today on ABC News' Political Radar blog, Z.Byron Wolf quotes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on the financial-industry crisis:

No one knows what to do. We are in new territory here. This is a different game. We're not here playing soccer, basketball or football, this is a new game and we're going to have to figure out how to do it.

Way to go, Harry. That's the ticket to inspiring confidence in the Democratic Party's ability to deal with this mess. I'm sure all the Democratic candidates running for Congress and the Senate appreciate your candor.

Oh, wait. It gets better. The Senate Democrats do have a strategy, after all. Wolf writes:

In the short run, Democrats are trying to push through a second stimulus package with funding for infrastructure improvements, renewable energy tax credits and other things. But all agree it will be up to the next President and Congress to do any re-regulation.
That's it, just kick that can down the road.

Don't think I'm letting the Republicans off. They helped create this mess when Phil Gramm (you know, John McCain's chief economic advisor) stuck a financial-services deregulation amendment into must-pass legislation back in 1999.

One would hope Harry Reid would recognize that now is the perfect opportunity to overturn that pernicious thing, but no.

Does anyone still wonder why I look at our two political parties and just shake my head?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Politics: What May Lie Beyond the Shadows

Anglachel posted another superb essay last night, titled "Where the Shadows Lie." (Click here to read.) The gist of it is that the Obama campaign is driven at its heart by the bourgeois left's resentment of the traditional working-class constituency of the Democratic Party. Outside of the Clintons and their most steadfast allies, the party leadership has convinced itself that working-class people are an impediment to their goals, largely because they feel working-class voters reject the idealistic technocrats the leadership prefers as candidates (e.g. Dukakis, Kerry, Bradley, Tsongas). As such, the Democratic leadership is determined to rid the party of this constituency, which they see as traitors to the cause. They've found their candidate in Obama, because, as Anglachel writes, "Obama’s campaign is not about social goods and resources, but about cultural markers of class inclusion, such as your level of education, where you shop, whether you live in urban or rural environments, etc." The modern bourgeois left (or "the creative class," "Whole Foods Nation," or whatever one wants to call them) are the winners in the socioeconomic scheme of things, and, in their view, that gives them the right to call the shots. Working-class people are tolerated only to the extent that they get in line, and the bourgeois left (as epitomized by the Obama campaign) takes the attitude that they'll get in line because they have nowhere else to go. And if they don't, well, the bourgeois left would just as soon kick them to the curb anyway.

Thinking it over, doesn't it sound like the Democratic Party is turning into one's worst memories of high school? The bourgeois left are the "cool" clique, but instead of the right clothes, the right hairstyles, and the right extracurriculars, they have the right political ideals, the right education, and the right lifestyles. Working-class people are the plebes, and their presence is only suffered to the extent that they suck up. However, more often than not, they're dismissed with name-calling, such as "Bubbas," "Archie Bunkers," "racists," or my favorite, one that got thrown at me during the meltdown earlier this year at the Daily Kos: "Dixiecrat." People like the Clintons are just horrid, horrid people because, while they could have been members in good standing of the cool crowd, they were perfectly content to hang out with the plebes and, worse, stand up for them. Wouldn't high school--ahem, the Democratic Party--just be a better place without this icky rabble?

However, the bourgeois left's biggest problem isn't its snobbishness and cultural bigotry (now on full display in the attacks on Sarah Palin), it's that they don't appear to see government as any more relevant to their lives than the Student Council was. Elected office seems to be viewed as a status marker--a feather in one's cap that would look good on that college application. That may be why the questions of Obama's accomplishments and his neglect of his official responsibilities were so irrelevant to them. What's important is that he has the right education, the right manner, and what they assume are the right ideals. His being ostensibly African-American only gives him added cachet. They want an icon, their own version of Ronald Reagan, or a newer John F. Kennedy. How Obama would treat presidential responsibilities or exercise the office's power is beside the point with them--they just know he would do the right thing, whatever that is. It won't affect their lives one way or the other (or so they think); the worst that could happen is one of their ideals might be offended.

It's as if they have learned nothing from the experience with George W. Bush. How power is wielded is of paramount importance. It's of particular concern to working-class people, who are the most adversely affected when it's not wielded in accord with their interests. That's why the Clintons resonate with them while people like Kerry and Obama don't. The Clintons don't treat issues in terms of idealistic abstractions; they deal with everything in practical terms, outlining both problems and solutions with a straightforward sense of pragmatism. They discuss working-class issues with working-class people in working-class terms, and one has a pretty fair idea of how they'll handle the reins of power. I supported them because they understand my concerns and will use the authority of office to address them. A major reason why I won't support Obama is that I have no idea how he'll treat power, and he's such a petty, supercilious egomaniac that I don't want to find out. My worst fear is that he won't do much of anything with it, and given his aversion to partisan controversy, that's quite possible. I refuse to support anyone because I have "nowhere else to go," and Obama (with the bourgeois left enthusiastically with him) doesn't appear to have anywhere he wants to go, apart from having himself at the top of it.

One of the reasons I've been so fascinated by Sarah Palin is that she may represent a new direction for the Christian right, who are the working-class contingent of the GOP. They've been treated with contempt by the "cool" clique of their party--the plutocrats--and they've begun to strike out on their own political path and address their own economic interests. They've also been effectively told they have nowhere else to go, and they're doing something about it. Mike Huckabee was a step in this pro-working-class direction, and Palin (despite some lamentable fibbing on her part) is looking to be one as well. That's why I'm so interested in bridging the divide on social issues with them, and why I believe the Clintons have demonstrated their interest in achieving that goal. Perhaps a new coalition can be formed that doesn't involve the working class having to soil themselves with strained alliances with the bourgeois left or the plutocrats, particularly the snobbish class and culture bigotry that accompanies them. With the plutocrat-dominated GOP taking us down an awful road, and the Obama Democrats unwilling to do much of anything substantial (which probably means they'll just hand-wringingly capitulate to the Republicans), a third party seems in order. We know the constituents and we know the goals.