Thursday, October 30, 2008

Non-Fiction Review/Comics Review: Bill Schelly, Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert

Bill Schelly's Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert is a fine portrait of the pioneering comic-book cartoonist, and an entertaining non-fiction companion to Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. In Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel, he presented the world of the early comic-book industry through the eyes of two dreamers. One was a geeky, meagerly talented fan-turned-pro who saw this world as a way to status, and the other was a talented and idealistic artist who came to view it as the means for fulfilling his muse. Schelly gives us a real-life dreamer who charted another course.

Joe Kubert didn't see the industry as a short cut to status, and his primary motive wasn't to follow and satisfy artistic impulses. A better-adjusted personality than either of Chabon's protagonists (and probably most of his peers), he treated the field as an opportunity for professional and, ultimately, entrepreneurial achievement. By keeping his feet on the ground, he succeeded remarkably well. Now in his eighties, he is considered one of the finest craftsmen in comics history, and his great success as an entrepreneur, the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, is the best kind of business venture: one that meets a need and contributes to the profession it was designed to serve. He has all the status he could want, and the artistic fulfillment came as well. Kubert's cartooning chops are as strong as they ever were, and over the last two decades he has turned out a number of graphic novels that include historical adventure pieces, journalistic non-fiction, and fictional explorations of the New York immigrant community he grew up in. In many ways, he is an exemplar of the American dream.

The best section of the book is the opening chapters. Joe Kubert was born in the Jewish shtetl of Ozeryany, Poland in 1926, and his family emigrated to the U.S. soon after. Schelly provides a vivid account of the Kubert family's life in the East New York section of Brooklyn during the '20s and '30s, and he catches one up in the enthusiasm of the young Joe for the popular culture of the time: classic radio shows, the seminal monster and gangster movies, and, of course, the newspaper comic strips. Kubert's favorites were the great adventure strips of the day: Harold Foster's Tarzan, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, and Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. They sparked his interest in drawing, and when comic books exploded with the first appearance of Superman in 1938, they compelled him to seek out the comics publishers and production shops in Manhattan. Packagers such as Harry Chesler took a liking to the precocious eleven-year-old, and the cartoonists took time out from their work to give him drawing tips. Kubert received his first professional commission when he was just shy of thirteen. Kubert's relationship with editor Sheldon Mayer is of particular note; he describes Mayer as "my first real mentor," and the editor's interest in the young cartoonist paid off. By the time Kubert was twenty, he had become one of the top illustrators in the field. Schelly conveys the joy and sense of accomplishment of the young Kubert in seeing his dream come true almost as he was dreaming it.

However, Schelly takes care to keep the reader aware of the burgeoning horror and chaos in Europe. Hitler's miltary adventurism was of personal concern to the Kuberts, as their relatives lived in the regions that were of most interest to the Germans. Passages dealing with the experiences of Kubert's relatives in Poland are juxtaposed with the accounts of Joe's rise in the comic-book field. The upheaval of Ozeryany after the invasion of Poland, Jews being shot in the city streets, and others being slaughtered in the Belzec concentration camp--all are given attention. He concludes these sections with a restraint that is both admirable and deeply disturbing, "What is known for sure is that none [of Kubert's relatives in Poland] survived the war." According to Schelly, the horror of what happened to his extended family haunted Kubert, and it informed the development of the somber, moody style of adventure cartooning he became famous for.

The middle sections of the book go by quickly and enjoyably. Schelly devotes time to a wide variety of subjects: Kubert's family life, his briefly successful entrepreneurial efforts with 3-D comics, and his experiences working on the Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, and Silver Age Hawkman comic-book features. The chapters dealing with his work on the Tales of the Green Beret newspaper strip and his time editing the war-story and Edgar Rice Burroughs lines at DC Comics are particularly fascinating, largely because both projects became caught up in stressful editorial conflicts. These periods were clearly not enjoyable times for Kubert, but Schelly's treatment emphasizes his view of Kubert as "the consummate professional": Kubert's personality compelled him to see a project through both good times and bad.

In many ways, the book treats the founding of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art as the culmination of Kubert's career. The respect for the mentor-student relationship Kubert had with Sheldon Mayer, the respect for the illustrator and cartoonist's craft, the ability to see a project through to the end--all contributed to the impetus to establish the school. The descriptions of the work involved in setting things up are enjoyable in the way stories of most entrepreneurial efforts are: the principals are obviously figuring out how to do things as they go along, and that keeps the narrative lively. One also appreciates the unheralded contribution of Kubert's wife Muriel, who was, judging by Schelly's account, absolutely indispensible.

The final section of the book is largely a celebratory discussion of Kubert's late-period graphic novels, including Abraham Stone, Fax from Sarajevo, and Jew Gangster. Schelly makes it seem like the icing on the cake of a life well-spent, and one leaves the book with happy admiration for the prolific cartoonist, influential educator, and successful businessman. Kubert describes himself as "the luckiest man in the world," and one wishes him well. The book is intended as a biographical tribute to Kubert, and in this it is successful.

It has flaws as a history, though. Schelly occasionally presents things that run counter to accepted versions of comics history, but he doesn't bother to acknowledge or reconcile it when he goes against the grain. For example, he includes a quote from Leonard Maurer that describes MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman's resignation from the magazine differently than any of the numerous accounts out there. According to Maurer, Kurtzman quit the magazine in disgust over publisher William Gaines' conduct during a lawsuit against Kubert, Maurer, and Maurer's brother Norman. Every other account claims that Kurtzman quit after unsuccessfully demanding a controlling interest in the magazine. I'm not claiming Maurer is wrong, but Kurtzman's resignation from MAD was a fairly significant event in comics history, and if Schelly sees fit to include this contrary view, he has a responsibility to discuss it relative to the common version of what happened. This is minor, but it and other examples raise questions as to what else Schelly is neglecting.

Shelly's failure to acknowledge the standard views of subjects extends to his critical discussions of Kubert's work. He devotes the most space to Fax from Sarajevo, Kubert's 1996 graphic novel about the real-life experiences of a family friend during the Bosnian Civil War. The book's approach is likened to that of such "non-fiction novels" as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which is an interesting comparison, but Fax from Sarajevo's most obvious antecedent is Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a graphic novel that was also constructed around dramatizations of firsthand wartime accounts. Schelly doesn't mention Maus other than to note that its commercial success opened the door to publishing graphic novels that weren't aimed at children or traditional comics fans. Given the stature of Maus--it is perhaps the most prominent and respected graphic novel yet published--the failure to discuss the similarity of Fax from Sarajevo's approach to Spiegelman's seems almost obtuse. The book also generated some controversy among critics and cartoonists who felt Kubert's romantic-melodramatic cartooning style was inappropriate, but apart from a brief quote from Gordon Flagg's review in Booklist, Schelly doesn't discuss that either.

Most of the problems with the book are attributable to the fact that Schelly is not a trained historian, and he doesn't strive for the objectivity that a professional scholar would consider imperative. (Although one wishes he and the editors had gone through the book with The Chicago Manual of Style handy. The copyediting is substandard, and the numerous errors are distracting.) Man of Rock is a general-audience biography, and its intent is to celebrate its subject. Schelly provides a detailed view of the various periods in Joe Kubert's life, and he offers an enthusiastic appreciation of Kubert's most notable work through the decades, all presented in a breezy, brisk style. For those interested in one of the greats of adventure cartooning, or in the history of comics in general, Man of Rock is a delight.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On Coming Out

My real name has hardly been a big secret. Many readers who have corresponded with me know it, as does everyone who's made a donation. "Pol C" was the moniker I adopted when I began posting comments at Taylor Marsh's site and TalkLeft, and I'll continue to use it when posting on Alegre's Corner and elsewhere, but it's time to put it aside here.

The main reason is that a moniker isn't appropriate for professional publication. My posts here have led to freelance reviewing work, and neither I nor a publisher is interested in using "Pol C" in a byline. Maintaining two separate writer identities just isn't for me. I also have to consider the possibility that the use of a moniker might discourage offers. Additionally, there's the fact that pieces such as my Philip Guston essay have generated interest from scholars, and a couple have let me know that while they're interested in possibly citing my work in their own writing, they're not comfortable quoting anything from an author who doesn't use a proper name. I want to be taken seriously as a writer, and an online moniker like "Pol C" stands in the way of that.

There's also been at least one instance of plagiarism, and the use of a real name and a printed copyright notice (now at the bottom of the scroll) should help discourage any future effort to appropriate my work without attribution.

The name change isn't a big deal, but I realize it might prove a bit jarring, so an explanation was in order. On that note, it's time to get back to work.

Politics: The Candidacy of John McCain

There have been three remarkable political stories this year: the renaissance of Hillary Clinton, the emergence of Sarah Palin, and the extraordinary product-marketing of Barack Obama. As was probably to be expected, the least interesting of them is turning out to be the box-office winner, but the phenomenon of Obama's candidacy does allow a penetrating look into the mindset of his followers, as disillusioning and unpleasant as it is. Clinton and Palin have been far more compelling, but for various reasons, neither was able to go the distance this time around. Hillary was revealed as perhaps the most visionary and capable political leader in the country, but she is now enduring the status of a banked fire, and her future is uncertain. Palin, perhaps the most charismatic U.S. politician to appear since Bill Clinton, was launched onto the national scene before she was ready. She's paying a harsh price for it now, but she'll likely survive the storm. She's formidable, and now that her flaws--namely her ignorance of most issues--have been highlighted for her, she's certain to be hard at work to redress the problem. And though it will drive the culture snobs of the Washington-Manhattan political-journalistic elite right up the wall, one expects her to come back stronger than ever.

But what of John McCain? Shouldn't his story be of some interest, too?

The answer is no. McCain has nothing to offer, and he never did. It looked like he might pull this election out in early September, but that was because Obama is neither an appealing personality nor a candidate of much substance, and the bubble of his popularity was deflating. However, on September 15, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson allowed Lehman Brothers to fail, and that ignited an international financial crisis that, among other things, highlighted McCain's cluelessness and rigidity about economic issues. Obama simply had to sound comparatively reasonable on the subject, and the election became his to lose. He now has the voters he needs for a significant electoral victory, and all they have to do now is vote.

McCain never should have been the Republican nominee in the first place. The GOP fielded a lousy bunch of candidates this cycle, in part because several potential ones didn't want to run with the albatross of George W. Bush around their neck. Rudolph Giuliani, the early favorite, proved repellent to people the more they got to know him. Ron Paul is a libertarian nutjob, and Fred Thompson put everyone to sleep. The only viable candidates besides McCain after the primaries started were Mike Huckabee, who was completely unacceptable to the big-business faction of the party, and Mitt Romney, an android politician who was unacceptable to pretty much everyone else. McCain was a familiar face, and perhaps a cozy one. He has been a Washington fixture for a quarter of a century, and he was popular with the news-media personalities, so primary voters supported him by default.

There was no good reason for McCain to run, and he didn't discover a rationale during the campaign. He first relied on Sarah Palin's star quality to rev things up, but the financial crisis and Palin's ignorance of national issues stopped that cold. He then tried to rely on the hoped-for appeal of a dubious working-class "hero" in Sam "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher. Unfortunately, once Wurzelbacher's personal circumstances became known, it was quickly apparent that he wasn't what he said he was, and that Obama's proposed policies, if implemented, would be to the guy's advantage. And Wurzelbacher wasn't the sort who would command respect once one became acquainted with him. It was clear after thirty seconds of listening to him talk that all he knows is what Rush Limbaugh tells him. Wurzelbacher isn't a spokesperson for working-class pragmatism; he is the voice of Dittohead ignorance. McCain apparently can't tell the difference, and it highlights just how out of touch he is.

And now McCain is engaged in an orgy of mean-spirited name-calling. George Bush the Elder ended his losing reelection campaign in 1992 in much the same way. (For those who don't remember, Bush the Elder spent that campaign's final week calling Bill Clinton "Bozo" and Al Gore "Ozone Man.") However, McCain is making the finale of Bush the Elder's electoral career look almost dignified. It's impossible to listen to the absurdity of "Socialist! Communist! Marxist!" and not wonder who in the world McCain thinks he's impressing. In reality, Barack Obama is probably more in bed with big business than McCain is. Few people have a lower opinion of Obama than I do, but come off it.

Thinking about it, McCain's campaign reminds me of what's always disturbed me about his views on the Iraq War. He's displaying the same to-the-last-man attitude with regard to both, and a strategic retreat would undoubtedly work out for the better. Pride, meet stupidity. If McCain was concerned about anything but his ego, he would do what Bob Dole did back in 1996, which is to recognize his candidacy is a lost cause, and retool his campaign to promote and support troubled downticket members of his party. Dole's actions are generally credited with maintaining GOP majorities in the House and Senate after that election. (A dubious achievement, I know, but I admire Dole's selflessness.) McCain, though, seems determined to go down kamikaze-style and take his party down with him. The Democrats are now looking at a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and they'll probably significantly expand their sizable House majority as well. It appears McCain's only electoral accomplishment will be finishing the job George W. Bush started--destroying the Republican party from within.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Music Monday--Steve Winwood, "Night Train"

I like to think that Steve Winwood’s 1980 album, Arc of a Diver, was the first one I ever bought. That isn’t exactly true, but it was the first one I purchased according to my taste; I wasn’t following the lead of friends or relatives when I got it. The title track and “While You See a Chance” were the singles released from it, and they didn’t sound like any other music on the pop airwaves back then. Complexly structured and elaborately arranged, they were the work of a musician who took care to make them unique, even from each other, and he did so by following his own creative impulses and judgment. In short, Steve Winwood was the first musician I recognized as an artist.

I was also in awe of his enormous ability. Dubbed the “Mod Mozart” after he began recording in the mid-Sixties (he was all of 17), there was no musical skill he couldn’t master, and not one of his peers from the British Invasion could match the range of his talent. His church-bell singing voice was (and is) remarkably compelling, and his instrumental chops can hold their own with the best rock keyboardists and guitarists of the last forty years. When putting together Arc of a Diver, he decided to make the most of his abilities and turn out a completely solo effort. He wrote and arranged all the music, played all the instruments, and handled all production and engineering duties. He even recorded it in a studio he built on the grounds of his home in England.

The only thing he left to others was the lyrics. The best-known of his writing collaborators is probably Will Jennings, who also wrote the lyrics to “Up Where We Belong” for An Officer and a Gentleman and “My Heart Will Go On” for Titanic. When one compares Jennings’ movie work to the sophistication of the lyrics for “While You See a Chance,” “Slowdown Sundown,” and “Night Train,” one finds it’s like night and day. Winwood encouraged his lyricists to write at their own level, and they gave him the best work of their careers.

Winwood certainly did estimable work before Arc of a Diver, during his stints in the Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith, and his own band, Traffic. And he's certainly had quite an accomplished career after it, with two number-one singles and albums in the mid-to-late Eighties and a continued flow of albums and concerts to this day. But Arc of a Diver will always be his peak for me, and "Night Train," my favorite track from it, is the featured recording for this week's Music Monday.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Comics Review: Neil Gaiman & Mark Buckingham, Miracleman: The Golden Age

Miracleman was Alan Moore's first major work, and it features the basic approach to story material that defines his style. As I wrote in my review of his work on the strip (click here to read), he identifies the central discourses that inform a concept, and he then reconstructs the concept in ways that critique the old discourses and develop new resonances. In Miracleman, he recognized that an aspect of a superhero's appeal is that such a character speaks to a desire for divine intervention; one some level, people hope for a god to resolve the conflicts and injustices of the world. Moore crafted the story's conclusion to play off of this: he had Miracleman abandon all connection to his earthbound life and assume the role of a god. The character took over the world's reins of power, reordered human society, and brought about a utopia with no material or psychological wants. Moore had reimagined the concept of a superhero as divine agent probably about as far as it could be done, and he seemed to leave his successor on the strip, Neil Gaiman, with absolutely nowhere to go.

Gaiman's response to the challenge he'd been left was probably the only reasonable one. He didn't try to build on Moore's ideas, and he certainly didn't rehash them. Miracleman: The Golden Age, illustrated by Mark Buckingham, takes an approach to Moore's material that is best described as tangential. It borrows the milieu Moore created, but the characters and story material are all but entirely Gaiman's. The book is a collection of sketches and short stories dealing with the lives of everyday people in Miracleman's utopian world, and, unfortunately, most of it isn't very good.

There are some highlights, though. The best strip in the collection, "Spy Story," is told from the point of view of an erstwhile British spy whose mind is so caught up in the paranoia and suspicion of intrigue that it's driven her mad. It's a sharp, dynamic piece that builds tension by counterpointing the reader's recognition of the character's irrationality with concern that her terror is justified. Gaiman develops the suspense to a fever pitch, and he then resolves the story with a clever anticlimax. "Trends" is enjoyable as well, although it isn't so much a story as an entertaining scene of oneupmanship and flirtation among a group of teens. The strip isn't quite as charming as the early Jaime Hernandez stories it pays homage to, but it's pleasant enough. However, the rest of the material is quite dreary--one pointless study in alienation or self-absorption after another.

The major problem with most of the strips is that Gaiman seems to think that once he's struck a tone his job is done. It's not enough for a story to be somber; unless there's some dynamic at work in the narrative and the characterizations, it isn't going to carry much resonance or interest. Gaiman often tries to end the stories on an epiphanic note, but his work here is a far cry from James Joyce's in Dubliners--he lurches into the concluding insights about the characters and situations, and they just aren't that interesting. In fact, they're often quite banal, such as a woman whose family is falling apart finding solace in a children's-book fantasy, or an emotionally and intellectually vapid artist coming to the realization that a remarkably disagreeable acquaintance can't stand his company.

Gaiman tries his hand at confessional narrative in the poorly-titled "Screaming," but he can't make it work the way people like Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, or Joe Matt do, largely because his protagonist isn't idiosyncratic enough to be engaging. The only narrative tension comes from the context: the main character relates parts of his life story to the girl he's just lost his virginity to, but he's so oblivious to her that I kept waiting for her to get fed up with his self-absorption and leave. (I was disappointed.) Gaiman doesn't even make his relatively eccentric protagonists work in narrative terms. The main character of "Skin Deep" is a recluse whose obsession with physical beauty blocks his ability to relate to women emotionally, and one waits for him to set his attitude aside and learn to love--it's an obvious conclusion. But all he ends up doing is reconciling himself to a dull, loveless relationship with a physically plain woman. One doesn't know why one should care about this fellow, and I don't think Gaiman knows either. He doesn't bother to suitably craft his ideas.

The weaker examples of Gaiman's work here aren't entirely devoid of interest. He has a good ear for dialogue, and he knows how to pace a comics story effectively through the juxtapositions of text and image. He also has a good partner in illustrator Mark Buckingham, who often particularizes the styles for the stories. The Jaime Hernandez look of "Trends" is perfect for the piece, and the Xerox-abstracted photorealism of "Spy Story" heightens that strip's noirish, nightmarish tone. (I wouldn't be surprised to discover that the art in this story was a major influence on the work of Alex Maleev; the stylistic similarity is striking.) Buckingham's most compelling work is featured in "Notes from the Underground," where he makes dynamic use of a variety of artistic styles, including the look of German Expressionist woodcuts and, most spectacularly, the appropriation-repetition approach of Andy Warhol. He's a strong illustrator, and his versatility shines throughout.

The book's better aspects aside, though, I can't help but feel indifferent to this material being kept out of print for legal reasons. It's infuriating for Moore's Miracleman work to be forcibly consigned to the pit of the collector's market--it's an influential and landmark work in a major genre of popular narrative. Gaiman's efforts on this material, however, are poorly developed for the most part, and even the stronger pieces are so irrelevant to the strip's core concepts that they feel like they've been shoehorned in. The legal mess involving Miracleman's ownership has kept a lot of interested readers from seeing this book, but at least they can take some consolation in that they're not missing much.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Civilization Review: Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Books VII-X

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).

At the beginning of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines "the good" as "that at which all things aim" (I:I), with happiness portrayed as the supreme good (I:V). Over the course of the work, Aristotle considers "the good" in terms of morality, as well as defining "the good" as moderation. In the final sections, he considers happiness, namely the activity of achieving happiness, which he regards as "pleasure" (VII:XIV).

Aristotle takes care not to define pleasure as a process, as a process encompasses both an activity and an activity's end. Happiness is the end, and pleasure is the related activity--Aristotle defines it as an "activity of the natural state of one's being" (VII:XIII). He takes care to distinguish between bodily pleasures and natural pleasures: bodily pleasures drive out pain, even if it's just the pain of appetite, while natural pleasures "produce action of our whole nature in a healthy state" (VII:XV). Natural pleasures are the activity of fulfilling one's innate function, such as a musician playing his or her instrument, or an engineer designing a bridge. Natural pleasures are achieved in concordance with the moderation of bodily pleasures, such as through prudence, which strives for painlessness, and temperance, which seeks to avoid licentious conduct (VII:XIII).

Bodily pleasures are powerful, and the failure to moderate them is pervasive and a major impediment to achieving natural pleasures. However, licentiousness is only one way in which bodily pleasures are immoderately sought to excess. The more prevalent manner is incontinence. It differs from licentiousness in that it is not deliberate; Aristotle remarks that "we must regard incontinent people as being in much the same condition as people who are asleep or mad or intoxicated" (VII:V) Incontinent people include the promiscuous, the gluttonous, the quick to anger, and the sullen. Aristotle also considers obstinacy a likely species of incontinence, as the obstinate are so devoted to their opinions that they leave reason behind if those opinions are rejected (VII:X). The incontinent person is not to be regarded as bad as the licentious person, as he or she does not pursue appetite to excess deliberately; the licentious person abuses knowledge and reason in pursuit of excess, and thus perverts the divine aspect of the human animal (VII:IX). This does not excuse incontinence, for Aristotle explicitly identifies it as an example of bad moral character (VII:I).

The most common form of natural pleasure in life comes from friendship and love. It develops from the activity of wishing others well, and when that activity is reciprocated, friendship is born (VIII:II). There are many different kinds.

The shallowest, most fickle kinds of friendship are those based on utility or enjoyment. (VIII:III) Friendships of utility would include such relationships as that between an employer or employee, or that between co-workers; such friendships are based on transactions or common goals, and while mutual sympathy is preferable, it is not necessary. Friendships of enjoyment are those of mutual recreation, and Aristotle observes that friends of this sort are more well-wishers than friends (VIII:VI).

The most profound kind of friendship outside of family relationships occurs between people of strong similarity, in which "familiarity has inspired them with affection for each other's character" (VIII:V). As the relationship is based on genuine appreciation for the other's character, such a friendship cannot be destroyed by calumnies (unlike those of utility and enjoyment) (VIII:V), and mutual sympathy generally avoids differences and disagreements that threaten things between the two, as there is no confusion as to what the friendship is based upon (IX:III). It also allows for one to reform the other if he or she has gone astray, as the first is motivated by a sense of duty, and the other is likely to accept the concern out of trust (IX:III). In these types of relationships, the good of the friend is wished for the friend's sake in the deepest, most sincere, and most heartfelt way, and they are, as Aristotle writes, "in the truest sense friends, as their friendship is the consequence of their own character, and is not an accident" (VIII:IV). Such friendships are most likely to be permanent (VIII:V), and as they involve the fulfillment of character, they are representative of moral virtue (VIII:I).

Aristotle classifies family relationships as friendships of superiority (VIII:VIII). (Like most historical cultures, Ancient Greece was overtly sexist, so please keep that in mind when reading these classifications.) A father is superior to his children, a husband is in a superior position to his wife, and an older child is superior to a younger sibling. These friendships have their differences: a father's love is expressed through benefaction; the relationship between a husband and wife depends on mutual virtue; and the relationship between siblings is like the relationship of comrades (VIII:XIII). A friendship between siblings is much like the ones discussed above, although the older the sibling, the greater the status relative to the others, and the relationship of a father to his children, with the love through benefaction that characterizes parents' behavior towards their children being self-evident. However, the relationship based on virtue that occurs between husband and wife requires some explanation. According to Aristotle, after a man and woman marry and cohabitate, they assume unique and individual functions in the household. For example, a man might provide joint financial support, while the woman maintains the upkeep of the home. As Aristotle writes, "they supply one another's needs" (VIII:XIV). In fulfilling their indivudal functions, they achieve their virtue, and the marriage achieves its virtue through the begetting of children.

Family and society are both political associations, i.e., they arise from mutual interest and goals, and their aim is long-term interest rather than short-term (VIII:XI). Aristotle also notes the similarity of family relationships (or friendships of superiority) to the various forms of government (VIII:XII). The parent-child relationship is akin to a monarchy, as the parent is a benefactor to the children in much the same way as king is to his subjects. The relationship between a husband and wife is aristocratic in nature because, as Aristotle writes, "the husband's rule depends upon merit, and is confined to its proper sphere" (VIII:XII). The wife has her own areas of authority, and it is not the husband's place to impinge on them. The relationship between siblings most resembles a timocracy; the status conferred by greater age reflects the ruling status based on the size of property. The rule of the parent over child is highest above the lowest, while the rule of husband over wife and older sibling over younger sibling move increasingly closer to equality

The power relationships in families can degenerate in a manner that is similar to the way forms of government do. Timocracy's opposite is democracy, and the greater status conferred by age can give way to equality between siblings. Aristocracy can become oligarchy, such as when the husband uses his control over the household finances to assert authority in spheres of activity that are properly the wife's. And monarchy would degenerate into tyranny, where the absolute authority that conferred benefaction upon its subordinates becomes solely concerned with benefits for itself. Aristotle even extrapolates a hierarchy of government systems from this discussion: monarchy is best, followed by aristocracy and then timocracy. Of the corrupted forms of government, democracy is the least bad, while oligarchy is worse, and tyranny is the worst of all.

This is the proper place to note that The Nicomachean Ethics segues into The Politics. Aristotle doesn't make the transition with this discussion of family relationships, but it's a good place for a digest discussion to use as a jumping-off point. Looking back on The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle presents a remarkable line of development from the discussion of the individual to the society. He identifies the motives of the individual, including natural drives, and uses that to build a discussion of how those natural drives are fulfilled. From there, he deals with how the divine functions of reason and the soul, as well as their accompanying virtues, can be fulfilled. In the sections under discussion here, he identifies one of those virtues as friendship. From that, he discusses friendship as a species of social relationship, developing that into a brief treatment of society as a whole. All discussions are rooted in empirical observation rather than abstract theorizing, and it leaves one eager for the discussions to be developed from this foundation in The Politics. Questions of how government addresses or can address the pursuit of the good never lose their relevancy.

Previous Civilization Saturday discussions:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Site Changes

I returned a day earlier than I anticipated--my review of The Counterfeiters is below.

However, effective immediately, I am making some more changes to the site. With the exception of the Comics Sunday reviews, which will continue to appear on a weekly basis, the regular daily features will appear every other week. One will feature Music Monday, Politics Wednesday, and FCLA Friday, while the other will have Poetry Tuesday, Movie Thursday, and Civilization Saturday.

I am moving my Divine Comedy translations to their own blog, so the poetry discussion feature will no longer alternate between them and the historical survey of modern Western poetry. I will announce the translation of new episodes from Dante's epic as they are published. A link to the Divine Comedy blog appears at left, and its URL is

Politics Extra posts will continue as warranted, and "Extras" in the other categories will appear when I feel compelled to do them.

This new schedule will hopefully allow me to complete pieces at a less hectic rate, as well as allowing some breathing room for reflection and attention to craft. The constant problem with postponing features should also become less frequent.

My next post, scheduled for Saturday, is my discussion of Books VII-X of Aristotle's The Nicomachean Ethics.

See you then.

Movie Review: The Counterfeiters

Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film earlier this year, and it's not hard to understand why. The two best foreign films of 2007--the year's two best films, period--were Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Both were eliminated from contention in the foreign-film category by the Academy's arbitrary rules and convoluted nominating process. That left a weak field, and given the Academy's traditional fondness for movies about the Holocaust--it seems like one walks off with a major prize every year or so--The Counterfeiters had the inside track to the award. The film holds one's interest (although in a way one resents), but there's nothing especially artful or compelling about it, and the Holocaust setting deserves something more accomplished.

The film tells the story of Operation Bernhard, a Nazi plot to destablize the British economy by flooding the country with fake currency. A team of Jewish artists, engravers, and printers was assembled at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany, and, kept in relative comfort, they set out to solve the assorted logistical and practical problems involved in, at first, perfectly counterfeiting the British pound, and then the American dollar. It is estimated that the phony British currency they produced amounted to four times the value of the actual money in circulation, which made the effort the largest known counterfeiting operation in history.

Ruzowitsky begins the film after the war has ended, where we see his protagonist, Saloman Sorowitsch (Karl Marcovics), at a Monte Carlo gambling resort. He's carrying a briefcase full of banded cash with him, and he uses it to check into a luxury hotel and idle his time at the casino. He is revealed as a Jewish concentration-camp survivor after a woman he picks up notices the tattooed number on his arm. He then flashes back to his life in Berlin before the war, where he used his considerable artistic talents for counterfeiting and passport forgery. After being apprehended and sent to prison, he ultimately finds himself at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he begins working with the other prisoners to successfully forge the pound and the dollar.

The film is never compelling on more than a melodramatic level. Ruzowitsky's sole means of generating narrative interest is by keeping one in dread of what may happen next. One is given the obligatory scenes demonstrating the guards' capacity for arbitrarily abusing and murdering the prisoners, and Ruzowitsky keeps one aware that once the prisoners succeed in counterfeiting the currency, they will have outlived their usefulness to the Nazis, and will be either be killed or returned to the general camp population, which could also mean their deaths. The difference between the camp commandant, who treats the Bernhard prisoners relatively humanely, and his second-in-command, a murdering sadist, is also exploited--one sits uneasily waiting for when the brute inevitably takes over the camp. And there's the prisoner who has tuberculosis--when will the guards discover his condition and kill him?--as well as the prisoner who becomes suicidal after he discovers his family was murdered at Auschwitz. The film prepares the viewer for one awful development after another, and the only question it builds in one's mind is when.

Ruzowitsky does develop a narrative strand with possibilities for dramatic conflict. One of the prisoners, Burger (August Diehl), was an anti-Nazi agitator before being sent to the camps, and he is sabotaging the efforts to counterfeit the dollar. He's an idealist with absolutist moral views, and Ruzowitsky presents him as a counterpoint to the pragmatic Sorowitsch, who feels little compunction in collaborating with the Nazis, as it means he will live another day, and it can create opportunities to help the other prisoners when they're in need. Burger's attitude, if left unchecked, could get them all killed. The film raises the question of whose behavior is the more truly moral, but it answers it too easily in Sorowitsch's favor. There's little sense of a potent right-against-right conflict between the two characters, and Ruzowitsky can't resist treating it in melodramatic terms: Will the Nazis become so frustrated with the failures that they kill all the prisoners, or will the prisoners relent and turn Burger in? It becomes just another opportunity to fill the audience with dread.

The conflict between Sorowitsch and Burger is also hampered by the film's inability to create any rapport between the audience and the two: one is always left on the outside looking in. Ruzowitsky clearly intends for Soroswitsch to be sympathetic--he's always shown helping the other prisoners, and he refuses on principle to snitch about Burger's sabotage--but the film never allows one to identify with him. Part of the problem is in the writing, but some of it lies with Karl Marcovics' performance--he's just too stoic to make one feel Sorowitsch's conflicts. One understands them intellectually, but the emotional resonance just isn't there. August Diehl is somewhat better--he effortlessly conveys Burger's fervor--but the script doesn't develop the character enough for him to give Burger any dimension beyond the first view of him.

The film is ultimately affectless, and Ruzowitsky's screenplay and direction never rise above mediocrity. One understands the Holocaust's appeal to filmmakers--it allows for a tense, thriller-like atmosphere, and the circumstances allow for moral questions that can occasionally be profound. But it also allows for a film to have an inflated aura of importance that the filmmaker doesn't justify. The appeal of The Counterfeiters is middlebrow, and rather disgracefully so. The Holocaust was a great human tragedy, and it should be treated with the utmost respect. It certainly shouldn't be grist for the mill of unimaginative filmmakers in their quest to win awards and impress people.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Politics: "...written out of the mainstream history of politics..."

It's certainly been a great week for Paul Krugman, and I'm as happy for him as anyone, but he didn't end last week on a particularly good note. A Friday post on his blog, titled "Not about the financial crisis" (click here to read), expressed his consternation at the ugly behavior with regard to Obama at GOP campaign rallies. He links it to the implicit GOP view that a Democratic president is by definition illegitimate, and he notes its appalling manifestation during the 1990s in the form of Clinton Derangement Syndrome. CDS didn't just rear its head at the margins; it was given legitimacy in mainstream publications and on the floor of Congress. He speculates that Obama will be given an even worse time by the GOP.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Krugman turns a blind eye to the fact that CDS wasn't just a GOP phenomenon--it afflicted and continues to afflict people on the Democratic side of things as well. In a commentary on the post at the Daily Howler (click here), Bob Somerby gently upbraids Krugman for overlooking that CDS spread way beyond the GOP and fueled the disgraceful press campaign against Al Gore in 2000. Somerby sometimes displays tunnel vision when talking about his old college roommate, so Anglachel brings up the rear. In a post yesterday titled "The Lady Killers" (click here) she notes how CDS combined with misogyny and led to the disgusting treatment of Hillary Clinton during her primary campaign. The attitudes expressed towards Obama are nothing compared to what Hillary was subjected to, and the attacks on her were taken far less seriously. In many liberal quarters, it was even condoned and endorsed. Krugman turned a blind eye to it at the time--he didn't want to get involved--and his blog post is passive collaboration in the efforts to pretend it never happened.

As Anglachel notes, expressions of misogyny are just as despicable as racist displays, and they should be as verboten. And it's still relevant, partly because we saw it erupt again in the response to the VP candidacy of Sarah Palin. One can criticize Palin on any number of grounds, such as her general ignorance and her right-wing views, but tearing her down by sexualizing her is beyond the bounds of appropriate behavior. (Some may remember that I dropped James Wolcott from my links when he ventured down this road.) Beyond Palin, the misogyny is likely to be reflected in an Obama adminstration's policies and the greater social and political landscape. For these reasons, as Anglachel says, Krugman should be properly embarrassed at both his failure to criticize the treatment of Hillary while it was happening, as well as his ignoring of it now.

Paul Krugman's one of the good guys, and a genuine American hero in my view, but he's not perfect. These criticisms are expressed in hopes of making one of the best even better.

I encourage everyone to read the Somerby and Anglachel pieces, and a lengthy response by me on other aspects of Anglachel's essay appears in the comments immediately after her post. The links are in the above text, but here they are again. Just click the lines.

* * *

Beyond that, I wanted to note that some personal issues will be causing the blog's regular features to be running late for the next few days. I know this seems to be happening on an almost weekly basis, but I still ask for everyone's forbearance. Thanks.

Movie Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Writer-director Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a superb film, and it won the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, but its low profile in the U.S. isn't surprising. It tells the story of two young women in Ceaucescu's Romania, and their experiences in securing an illegal abortion for the one who is pregnant. The film sounds like a dreary, grungy piece of social realism, and coming from Europe, it's probably going to be slackly paced. In short, it's most likely a film that one couldn't pay U.S. audiences to see. The film is definitely a grungy piece of social realism, but it's redeemed by the dynamism of Mungiu's approach. The film is captivating from beginning to end.

It takes place over the course of a day in 1987, near the end of the infamously corrupt and oppressive Ceaucescu regime in Romania. The two protagonists, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), are roommates in a university residence hall in Bucharest. Gabita is pregnant, and due to the Ceaucescu regime's strictly enforced pregnancy laws, she has arranged to get an illegal abortion. As the film opens, we see Otilia's preparations with helping Gabita--buying cigarettes and soap, borrowing the last of the needed money from her boyfriend, and haggling with hotel clerks to secure a room.

It's during Otilia's scenes with the hotel clerks that the differences between her and Gabita come into focus. When we first meet Gabita, she seems oddly dissociated from the fact that she's about to get an abortion. Otilia seems more caught up in the situation--she's running around doing errand after errand to get ready, and all one sees Gabita do is wax her legs. Gabita was supposed to make a reservation at a particular hotel, but Otilia has to haggle making arrangements at another once it becomes clear that Gabita never bothered. Gabita also sends Otilia to bring the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), to the hotel in her stead, in clear defiance of his insistence that Gabita meet him. He's facing a substantial prison term if he's discovered performing an abortion by the authorities, and he's absolutely exasperated by the failure to follow his instructions. And it doesn't end there; Gabita's flightiness has resulted in their being in a hotel other than one he approved (i.e. one that won't demand ID from him at the desk), and she's lied about how far along the pregnancy is, which could result in a more severe prison term if he's caught. She doesn't even remember to bring a plastic sheet for the bed. The story builds from this crisis point to Otilia's troubled relationship with her boyfriend to the tense efforts to dispose of the aborted fetus.

Otilia is clearly a far more responsible and focused personality than Gabita, and Anamaria Marinca's excellent performance captures both her determination and personal conflicts. She's caught between her friendship with Gabita and her disdain for Gabita's irresponsibility, and one can sense her sympathy with Mr. Bebe's aggravation when she tries to mediate things between him and Gabita in Gabita's favor. The circumstances lead Otilia to literally prostitute herself to help her friend, and Marinca makes her anger and disgust quietly palpable. Marinca also conveys the tensions between Otilia and her boyfriend after Gabita's abortion sours things between them. Marinca's technical control is on stunning display in a dinner scene with the boyfriend and his family. Mungiu holds an extended shot of everyone at the table, with Marinca's face the focus of the composition. For several minutes, one watches her expression shift between boredom, impatience, and annoyance with the boyfriend's snobbish, self-absorbed family, who talk about her as if she isn't even there. Marinca never breaks character, and she keeps the shifts expressive and fluid; it's a bravura display of discipline and skill.

Mungiu's direction maximizes the impact of Marinca's performance in this scene, and the approach he takes is characteristic of his work throughout the film. He designs every scene in terms of counterpoints. In the dinner scene, he uses the staging and framing to play Otilia's stillness and silence off the dinner-table bustle and prattle of the boyfriend's family; the contrast brings her facial expressions out in stark relief. In the hotel-room confrontation with Mr. Bebe, he builds a powerful dynamic between the women's anxiety and Bebe's logical, dispassionate response to everything. The scene is also an extraordinary showcase for Vlad Ivanov. He paces his delivery of Bebe's lines terrifically well; he manages to sound mechanical and unaffected simultaneously, and when Bebe finally loses his temper, the eruption of anger is like a slap in the face. However, Mungiu's skills go beyond the dynamism of his staging and his capacity to showcase actors to their best effect. He also demonstrates a superb eye for verisimilitude: the setting is perfectly evoked, and the characters seem entirely of a piece with it.

Ultimately, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days manages to transcend the homeliness of its subject matter by being a terrific piece of suspense filmmaking. However, it does not rely on the dread of melodramatic suspense; it uses the suspense of compelling dramatic conflicts. The haggling with the hotel clerks, the confrontation with Mr. Bebe, the experience at the family dinner--all are developed in terms of conflict, increasing tension, and resolution, and they are stunningly brought off. Cristian Mungiu's skill is such that one wonders what he couldn't tell an interesting story about. Anamaria Marinca is beginning to enjoy an increasingly high profile with English-language audiences--she can presently be seen as the heroine of The Last Enemy mini-series on PBS's Masterpiece Contemporary. Here's hoping that Mungiu can find the path to similar success. U.S. audiences don't know what they're missing with this remarkable filmmaker.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Politics: It's Time to Chill

I've just spent a good part of my day's writing time dealing with a plagiarism situation, so I don't have much to offer.

My main insight for this piece is that it is time to chill.

Barring a miracle for John McCain, Barack Obama is going to be the next President of the United States. I look around the Obama-skeptic wing of the liberal blogosphere, and all I see are fights breaking out. Look, it's over. There's no "whitey" tape, no falsified birth certificate, and no possibility of John McCain shifting gears and recapturing the support he needs to win (not that I would want that). All people are doing is discrediting themselves. The only thing to do now is gear up for after November 4, when we have to deal with the issues raised by Obama's appointments and policy initiatives. That's what's most important.

Beyond that, it's been an interesting week so far. We've had the good in Paul Krugman being awarded the Nobel Prize. We've had the bad in Hillary Clinton acknowledging that her Presidential aspirations are all but behind her.

And we've had another moment of schadenfreude: Dubya is now presiding over the biggest government incursion into the business sector since the days of FDR. His legacy is now garbage. Liberal historians would have always regarded him as an awful President, but it's now certain that right-wing kooks of the Paul Johnson variety will revile him as well. This man has done so much injury to this country, and though people will disagree as to the reasons why, they will all see him as the Worst President Ever. And that is justice.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Poetry Translation: Dante, Inferno, Song VIII

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 circles of damnation. The first is reserved for the lustful, the second holds the gluttonous, and the third holds those who hoarded or squandered their money. Virgil and Dante then come to the edge of the swamp known as the Styx, which imprisons the wrathful and the sullen, and they see a tower in the distance.

Song I translation
Song II translation
Song III translation
Song IV translation
Song V translation
Song VI translation
Song VII translation

Phlegyas ferries Dante and Virgil across the Styx

I say, continuing, that long before
We reached the foot of the high tower
Our eyes traveled upward to the summit.

For we saw two flames placed there
And another returning the signal from far away,
So much so that it punished the eye's ability to take its measure.

And I turned to the sea of all wisdom.
I said, "What does this mean? And what is the response of
That other fire? And who are they that made it?"

And he replied, "On through the oily miasmas
You can already determine what is expected
If the fumes of the bog do not hide it from you."

An arrow was never shot from a bowstring
That raced so swiftly through the air
Like a small boat I saw

Coming towards us through the water at that moment
Under the guidance of a lone pilot
Who cried, "Now you are joined, fallen soul!"

"Phlegyas, Phlegyas, you cry out in vain,"
My liege said. "In this instance,
You will not have us beyond our passage through the mire."

Like one who heeds great deceit
That has been done to him and then regrets it,
So became Phlegyas in his accompanying rage.

My leader descended into the skiff
And then made me enter after him.
And only when I was inside did it seem tangible.

As soon as my leader and I were in the boat,
The ancient prow went slicing
Through the water more than it would have with others.

While we were crossing the dead channel,
One soaked with mud rose before me
And said, "Who are you who comes before the appointed time?"

I replied, "If I come, I do not remain.
But who are you, that you have become so miserable?"
He responded, "You see that I am one who weeps."

I replied "Among weeping and among mourning,
Sinful spirit, you remain.
For I know you, though you are filthy all over."

He then extended both hands to the boat,
For which my wary master pushed him back,
Saying, "Your way is there with the other dogs."

My master put his arms around my neck and then my shoulders,
Kissing me in turn and saying, "Affronted and judgmental soul,
Blesséd is she who carried you inside her!

That one, in the world, was a haughty person.
It is not goodness that adorns his memory,
So, here, his shade is full of resentment.

How many are now seen as great kings above
Who here will be like pigs in the mud,
Having left horrible condemnations in their wake!"

And I said, "Master, I should be very eager
To watch him being dunked in this soup
Before we depart from the lake."

He replied, "Before the shore that
You will leave this to see, you will be satisfied.
It is worthwhile that you enjoy such a desire."

Shortly after this, I saw that torture
Inflicted on him by the people of the mire,
For which I still praise and thank God.

"At Filippo Argenti," they all cried.
And the grotesque Florentine spirit
Turned his teeth upon himself.

There we left him, of whom I tell no more.
A wailing, however, beat upon my ears,
For which I opened my eyes wide and looked intently ahead.

The good master said, "Now, my son,
The city called Dis draws near
With solemn citizens in great multitudes."

I said, "Master, already its mosques
I make out with certainty in the valley.
A vermilion red as if emerged from fire

They are." And he said to me, "The eternal flame
Within the kindling appears as red
As that you see in this lower Hell."

We then arrived inside the upper moats
That contained that troubled ground.
The walls, it appeared to me, were iron.

Not without first circling wide
Did we come to the place where the boatman loudly
Cried, "Get out. Here is the entrance."

I saw above the gates more than a thousand of those
Rained down from Heaven
, who angrily
Said, "Who is this whom without death

Goes through the kingdom of the dead?"
And my wise master made a sign
That he wished to speak with them privately.

They then quieted their great disdain a bit
And said, "You come alone and that one goes away,
He who so dares to enter through this kingdom.

Let him return alone along the road of madness,
Try as he may. For you will remain here,
You who has escorted him through so dark a way."

Consider, Reader, if I was disturbed
By the sound of those evil words.
For I believed I would never return here from there.

"Oh, my dear leader, who more than seven times
Has made me safe and led
Me from the high peril that stood before me,

Do not," I said, "leave me so undone.
And if further passage is denied us,
Let us quickly retrace our steps together."

And that liege who led me there
Said to me, "Do not be afraid, for our way
Cannot be taken from us by a few: by such a one is it given.

Wait for me here, though, and, weary soul,
Take comfort and feed upon good hope,
For I will not leave you in the netherworld."

So, he goes away and abandons me there,
The sweet sire, and I remain in doubt,
Such that yes and no struggle within my head.

I could not hear what he put forth to them,
But he did not stay among them long,
For each within the group returned to their rivalry.

Our adversaries shut the doors
In the face of my liege, who remained outside
And came back to me with slow steps.

His eyes to the ground and his eyelids stripped
Of all boldness, he said, amid sighs,
"Who has denied me the houses of sorrow?!?"

And to me he said, "You, because I've become angry,
Do not be dismayed, for I will overcome this trial
'Round which the guards within turn.

This stubbornness of theirs isn't new,
For they've already shown it at a less secret gate
That still finds itself without a latch.

You saw the fatal inscription above it.
And already he descends the steep slope from there,
Passing through the circles without escort.

Through him shall the city be opened."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Politics: The Shrill One Makes Good

Congratulations to Paul Krugman for winning this year's Nobel Prize in Economics.

Officially, he has received the award for his theoretical work, which examines the relationship between trade patterns and geographical circumstances.

Unofficially, though, it's hard not to see this award as honoring him--at least in part--for his honesty and courage in criticizing George W. Bush regardless of how politically popular or unpopular his criticisms were. We all remember that, in the aftermath of the September 11 atrocities, criticizing the current Administration was considered by many to be tantamount to treason. However, Krugman used his twice-weekly New York Times op-ed column to call things like he saw them, no matter how lonely he was in the public sphere for doing so, or how vehement and even threatening the reaction. For a time, it seemed he was the only voice of reason out there, and those of us who were appalled at what was going on rallied around him as a pillar of sanity in a country gone mad.

The current economic crisis has seen us rally around him again. He has been one of the most vocal critics of Operation Hanky Panky, and he has helped put much-needed intellectual muscle behind the argument against the excesses of what Treasury Secretary Paulson originally intended. The approach of the Gordon Brown plan in Britain (also announced this morning), which calls for the effective nationalization of any bank that partakes of government aid, is now an option, and it now looks like Paulson, despite kicking and screaming the entire way, is going to pursue it. Krugman, as much as anyone in this country, has led that fight.

We can also rely on Krugman to fearlessly call out any dishonesty or charlatanism among those in the public sphere. It's apparent now that his criticisms of Tim Russert's demagoguery on Social Security led to Russert banning him from appearing on NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC programming, and one can almost sense the relief among the on-air talent that Russert's passing means they can again bring Krugman back on, as his perspective is invaluable these days. And Barack Obama, our likely next President, knows from experience that he is going to get no free pass from the left's most prominent public voice.

Paul Krugman is a national treasure, and let us raise our figurative glasses in honor of his being recognized as an international one as well.

Music Monday--George Winston, "Woods"

Summer has given way to fall and its distinct signs: the earlier onset of the evening darkness; the cool, crisp air one feels on one's cheek; the sight of once green leaves changing from green to gold and red, and drifting to the ground. No music does it better justice than George Winston's piano compositions from his 1980 album, Autumn, and "Woods," my favorite piece from it, occupies the stage of this week's Music Monday.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Comics Review: E.C. Segar, The Complete Popeye, Volume I: "I Yam What I Yam!"

Popeye is an icon of American popular culture, but my memories of him all date back to the 1970s, and they're sketchy at best. I really only remember him from animated cartoons that aired on TV in syndication, which always seemed to revolve around him saving his girlfriend Olive Oyl from the clutches of the fat, bearded bad guy Brutus. (Bluto is the traditional name of this character, but he was always called Brutus in the shorts that I saw.) Popeye would always save the day with the help of eating spinach, which gave him invulnerability and super-strength. He was a grotesque, humorous version of the costumed superheroes I obsessed over as a kid, but instead of saving the world, or just his hometown, he only sought to protect the people close to him, whether it was Olive, the baby Swee'Pea, or his mooching hamburger-loving friend Wimpy.

As I grew older, I became increasingly aware that there was more to this character than the animated shorts indicated. The original comic-strip Popeye was created in 1929 by the cartoonist E.C. Segar as a supporting character in his Thimble Theater newspaper daily. Popeye was a crude, ignorant deckhand who loved to gamble his money away playing craps, and he was always spoiling for a fight. Segar (pronounced "SEE-gahr") had been producing the strip for about a decade when he introduced his good-hearted, malapropism-prone sailor, and nothing he had done up to that point had ever generated the response that Popeye did. The character quickly took over the strip, and Segar came into his own as a cartoonist. The Thimble Theater strips he produced between 1929 and his death in 1938 are considered perhaps the most sophisticated adventure material produced in the medium, and they are among the greatest newspaper comics ever published. When The Comics Journal listed their choices for the hundred greatest English-language comics of the twentieth century, Segar's Thimble Theater Popeye strips ranked sixth among newspaper features, and eleventh overall. They enjoy the reputation of a comics masterpiece.

In 2006, Fantagraphics Books began publishing a projected six-volume reprinting of Segar's Popeye material. The books are scheduled to be released at the rate of one a year, and the third is due out any day now. The individual volumes are handsomely produced in a hardcover, oversized format, with a week of the dailies printed on each page, and a special color section devoted to the Sunday strips. (The Sunday strips had a different story continuity than the dailies, so being printed in a separate section is appropriate.) The first volume covers the Thimble Theater dailies published between September 10, 1928 and December 20, 1930, and the Sundays between March 2, 1930 and February 22, 1931. I read it filled with eager anticipation.

And it's not bad. I gather that Segar was not yet at the height of his powers in these early strips. The world depicted in this volume is not the one the feature is famous for, and one senses that its full realization is years away. Popeye, once he becomes a permanent member of the cast, shares center stage with the Castor Oyl character, who was the strip's initial star. Olive Oyl is barely present in this volume, and the strips devoted to her relationship with Popeye are relegated to the Sundays. There is no Swee'Pea and no Wimpy. (There is no spinach or Bluto/Brutus either, but Jules Feiffer makes clear in his introduction that those are fixtures of the animation, not Segar's original material.) The strip is a humorous adventure picaresque with occasionally fantastic elements, and the first volume reads pleasantly enough, but it's primarily of historical interest.

The initial storyline featured doesn't include Popeye at all. It begins with Castor Oyl, Olive's short, bald brother, receiving an African "whiffle hen" as a gift from his uncle. The bird is domesticated and friendly, but it moves super-fast, and Castor's uncle offers Castor a thousand dollars if he manages to do the impossible and kill it. Most of the episode deals Castor's repeated failure to win the money by killing the bird, and it plays like an early comic-strip version of the Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote animated shorts. It's one slapstick gag after another, and things get more outlandish as they continue. The storyline ends on a sweetly ironic note: the bird, named Bernice, interprets Castor's efforts to kill it as affectionate attention, and it becomes devoted to him.

Popeye comes on the scene after Castor discovers that rubbing the bird's head is a guarantee of good luck. Castor buys a schooner to travel to an island gambling resort, and he hires Popeye to be his crew. Castor is a compulsive, impatient, and occasionally bullying fellow, and the dynamic between him and the hard-headed Popeye is frequently hilarious. The two are always arguing, whether it's about one using the "whiffle hen" to cheat the other at craps, Castor's highhandedness and Popeye's insubordination, or the arguments between the two about Popeye's pay--Castor insists he's giving Popeye the "privilege" of being one man who does the work of twelve while being paid one man's wages, and Popeye sensibly argues that if he's going to be doing the work of twelve men, he should get twelve men's pay.

Money makes the world go 'round in Thimble Theater, and many of the stories revolve around scrounging, get-rich-quick plots, and confidence schemes. Castor uses the "whiffle hen" to break the bank at a posh gambling resort, he gets swindled out of his millions in a crooked land-speculation deal, and he and Popeye try to turn a quick buck by entering Popeye as a ringer in professional boxing matches. In the first volume's final two daily continuities, Castor and Popeye's reputation as adventurers leads to them being offered large commissions to solve mysteries, and they open a detective agency. The strip revolves around the folly of greed, but it's not the wealthy man's greed of rapaciousness, it's working-class greed borne of desperation. These strips were created during the Great Depression, and they're heavily reflective of the period zeitgeist: the buck-chasing on display is motivated by the need to survive.

And Popeye is in many ways a working-class man's idealized view of himself. He may be poor, but he retains his dignity, and his fists-first approach to things cuts through all the baloney. He has a sixth sense when it comes to spotting slicksters and other scoundrels, and he's indomitable in his dealings with them--which drives them right up the wall. The single funniest moment in the first volume occurs when the recurring villain Mr. Snork, a suit-wearing thief and con man, exclaims of Popeye:

What a nerve!--swims out to my ship--takes my guns away from me, beats me up--forces me to tell him all I know about the mystery, and then makes me set him ashore in my best life boat [sic]. Bah!! And I thought I was a hard man!
Popeye's propensity for using his fists whenever he gets a bad vibe from someone can occasionally land him in trouble, but he lets it roll off his back. As he says, "I socks 'em where I sees 'em an' I leaves 'em where I socks 'em--an' tha's that!" And he's inevitably vindicated by the end of the storyline. Popeye may not have money, but no one ever gets the better of him. (Unless, of course, a craps game is involved.)

Thimble Theater is an unusual reading experience for contemporary audiences, and one may find the most striking aspect of the material is the structure and pacing. Most humor strips today feature interchangeable gags with no continuity, and they have an extremely abrupt structure: set-up, punchline, and a post-punchline follow-up. Segar's material has a continuity--the daily storylines tend to cover about sixty strips each--and the punchlines of the individual strips have a more prolonged development with little or no aftermath. The individual Sunday strips also have a much greater narrative density than one sees today. And Segar was a first-rate gag man. He often came up with a recurring piece of slapstick for each storyline, and he would then play variations on it while incrementally advancing the plot. I gather this was not an unusual approach in the older humor strips, but it's unheard of among today's features, and it gives this decades-old material a freshness one doesn't expect. In other words, everything old is new again.

And that's what ultimately gives this first volume its appeal. Subsequent editions may reveal the richness that gives Thimble Theater its enormous reputation, but one is at last given an extended glimpse into the roots of a great phenomenon of our popular culture. And it stands on its own enough to make it an enjoyable ride.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Politics: Dubya Is No Erin Burnett

This morning I actually sat and listened to George W. Bush give his statement on the economy. It was the first time I watched him say anything of length in quite a long time--my usual response is to hit the mute button, change channels, or turn the TV off. And he thoroughly wasted my time, saying nothing I haven't heard from the likes of the CNBC people over and over again. Erin Burnett is at least easier on the eyes.

In other news, they're having one hell of a roller coaster ride on Wall Street today. Down 600 and then up 118, and they're presently down 230. The markets have been open for all of an hour-and-a-half.

Politics: OK, This Is Officially Getting Ugly

From an article in today's The Guardian:

Gordon Brown has told the Icelandic prime minister that he is considering legal action against the country over the collapse of its national banks.

The prime minister said tonight that Iceland's decision not to recompense those with savings in the bank was "completely unacceptable" and the British government would do "whatever is necessary to recover the money".

"I've spoken to the Icelandic prime minister, I have told him this is effectively an illegal action that they have taken. We are freezing the assets of Icelandic companies in the UK where we can. We will take further action against the Icelandic authorities where necessary to recover the money [...]"
The entire article can be read here.

And if legal action doesn't work, what then? Military action?

Something to ponder.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Movie Review: Recount

Jay Roach's Recount, which he directed from a script by Danny Strong, is a mediocre dramatization of the extraordinary aftermath of the 2000 Presidential election.

The film truncates and misrepresents key aspects of the post-election recount fight, and it doesn't create a compelling retelling of what happened on its own terms. The material just isn't shaped into a satisfying story. Roach handles some scenes well, such as his slapstick restaging of the Miami-Dade white-collar riot, but most of the film seems perfunctory in its execution.

The protagonist, Al Gore campaign staffer Ron Klain (played by Kevin Spacey) is a potentially dynamic character--he wholeheartedly fights for Gore despite their personal estrangement--but the script doesn't develop his conflicts enough to make him interesting. If Spacey hadn't been one of the film's producers, it would be hard to understand why he took on the role.

Laura Dern gives an amusing performance as Florida's ultra-flakey Secretary of State Katharine Harris, and Bruce McGill, who plays a lobbyist sent by the George W. Bush campaign to mind her, quietly dominates every scene he's in. Unfortunately, neither is given much to do, and the same is true of the rest of the cast, which includes such solid performers as Bob Balaban, John Hurt, and Denis Leary.

That said, the only performance I actively disliked was Tom Wilkinson's as James Baker. He plays Baker as a laid-back, seen-it-all, good ol' boy, and he suggests none of the actual Baker's conspicuous intensity and drive.

In many ways, what's wrong with Wilkinson's performance is what's wrong with the film as a whole: it's superficially competent, but it doesn't do its subject justice. The story of 2000 Florida recount was a remarkable mixture of wackiness, irony, and nail-biting suspense, and it may ultimately be seen as one of the most unjust (and ultimately tragic) episodes in U.S. history. It deserves better than this mildly diverting retelling.

Politics: Sickbed Thoughts

There'll be nothing too involved, as I'm still feeling under the weather.

  • Feelings of schadenfreude are kicking in with the continued downward trajectory of the stock market. Big business and the investment industry, not to mention their assorted enablers and cheerleaders, are becoming more and more discredited by this mess, and it's all for the good--we may be on our way back to saner, more egalitarian economic policies in this country. I know in the short term this disaster is extraordinarily painful for this country and others, but I'm enjoying seeing these people revealed for the fools and charlatans they are.

  • This is hardly a novel insight, but the explosion of this disaster has all but handed the election to Obama. If it hadn't erupted, the election would have been McCain's to lose. Obama is not an inspiring politician once one gets to know him, and the reason he's pulled ahead is because, as the Democratic candidate, he's not the one being identified with the policies that created the mess. I hear some people saying that Obama's superficially calm and collected demeanor is the reason they're rallying behind him, but I have to wonder if they're rationalizing to some degree.

  • William Ayers is slime, and if the FBI had properly done its job while investigating him back in the Seventies, he'd probably be behind bars for the rest of his life. The fact that he publicly revels in the memory of his Weather Underground days only emphasizes what a disgusting excuse for a human being he is. It speaks very poorly of the University of Illinois at Chicago that they would employ him among their faculty, including naming him a full professor. The fact that this scumbag has been embraced by the greater Chicago academic community doesn't say a lot in their favor, either. However, that community is the foundation Obama's political career was built on, and Ayers' status was such that Obama would have had little choice but to deal with him. I see no evidence that Obama is at all sympathetic to Ayers' spoiled-brat anarchist foolishness, and McCain should just leave it alone. Hitting Obama over Jeremiah Wright or Tony Rezko would make a lot more sense, but McCain doesn't seem to know how to get any traction from them.

  • Obama's association with William Ayers doesn't bother me even a fraction as much as McCain's with Phil Gramm does. The man's history is something else. He was originally a Democrat, and as a member of the House in the 1980s, he was the Reagan Administration's spy on the plans and strategies of the House Democratic Caucus. When Tip O'Neill found about this treachery, he stripped Gramm of all committee assignments, which prompted Gramm to switch parties. In the Senate, he was the main proponent of the 1995 government shutdown, which was prompted by the efforts of him and others to gut Medicare. The legislation change that deregulated energy trades on the commodities market, which led directly to the Enron disaster, came from his desk as well. And he's also the author of the current economic catastrophe, which resulted from a deregulation amendment he slipped into veto-proof legislation. The amendment effectively repealed the Glass-Steagall Act and allowed banks to combine their investment and standard banking operations. This is what allowed the creation of the MBS garbage that's currently wreaking worldwide financial havoc. John McCain chaired Gramm's failed 1996 Presidential bid, and Gramm is currently McCain's chief economic-policy advisor. The worst thing that could happen in an Obama administration with Ayers would be his being named Education Secretary. I have no doubt McCain would be looking for Gramm to head the Treasury. I think we all know which would be worse.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

I Hate Colds

It's October, and the weather's changing. It's been very wet and windy in the Detroit area today. And to commemorate the seasonal shift in my usual fashion, I have a cold.

I hate these things. One reason is that they make it hard to think clearly, and I can't read anything that requires a great deal of concentration.

Another is that I can't write anything of substance; the ideas and words just won't flow.

It's not that I'm running late on posts now. I'm just sick.

I'll get things going again blog-wise as soon as this thing clears out of my head. Colds fortunately don't last long.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Poetry Translation: Dante, Inferno, Song VII

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 two circles of damnation. The first is reserved for the lustful, where they encounter the souls of Dante's adulterous countrymen Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini. The second holds the gluttonous, and Dante briefly talks with his fellow Florentine Ciacco.

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

Virgil and Dante encounter the souls of the wrathful

Pape Satàn, pape Satàn, aleppe!,”
Plutus, with his clucking voice, began.
And that genial sage, who knew all,

Said, in order to comfort me, “Do not be harmed by
Your fear, for the power he may have
Shall not thwart us in our descent down this cliff.”

Then he turned to those swollen lips
And said, “Be silent, accurséd wolf!
Let your anger eat out your own insides.

This trip through the darkness is not without reason.
It is willed from on high, where Michael
Took vengeance on the proud rebellion.”

As puffed-out sails, by the wind,
Are made to flap around as the mast weakens, breaking,
So did that cruel beast crumple to the earth.

We thus descended into the fourth ring,
Making further headway along the banks of sorrow
Which contain all the universe’s evil.

O Justice of God! Accumulating so many
New travails and punishments--how many did I see?
And why do our sins wither us so?

Like the waves above Charybdis
That break over those they crash upon,
Thus are the people here who gather to dance their circling dance.

I saw more people here than elsewhere--too many--
And from one side and the other, with great screams,
They were rolling weights by pushing with their chests.

They collide and then
Turn themselves back,
Crying, “Why do you hoard?” and “Why do you squander?”

Thus they came back along the gloomy circle,
From either side to the opposite point
Again crying out their shameful chant.

Then each turned, when confronted,
Along his half-circle to the other confrontation.
And I, whose heart was all but impaled,

Said, “My Master, now explain to me
Who these people are, and if clergy were all
These tonsured ones on our left?”

He replied, “All of these were askew
In their minds to such an extent that, in the first life,
They made no expenditure with moderation.

Their voices bark this clear enough
When they come to the two points of the circle
Where opposing sins separate them.

These were clergy, those who have no
Hair on their heads, as well as popes and cardinals,
Whom greed used for its excesses.”

And I said, “Among such as these,
Well should I recognize a few
Whom these evils befouled.”

He replied, “You gather vain thoughts.
The indiscriminate life with which they soiled themselves
Now makes them dim to all recognition

They will collide one way and the other for eternity.
From the grave, they will rise again--these
Tight-fisted, and these with their hair sheared.

Sinful spending and sinful hoarding--the beautiful world
Has been taken from them, placing them in this conflagration.
As for what that is, I am not embellishing it with words.

Now you can, my son, see the slapstick
In dedicating fortune to the possessions
For which humanity struggles among itself.

For all the gold underneath the moon
Which ever was, these weary souls
Could not rest.”

“My Master,” I said, “now also tell me this:
This Fortune that you mention,
What is it, that it has the world’s possessions so within its clutches?”

He replied, “Oh, foolish creatures,
How much ignorance assails you all!
Now, through you, my judgment of her will be imparted to everyone.

He whose wisdom transcends everything
Made the heavens and gave them guides
So there is splendor from every part to every part,

Distributing the light equally.
Similarly, for the earthly splendors,
He ordained a general minister and leader

Who at times shifts the goods of vanity
From tribe to tribe and one bloodline to another,
Beyond the defenses of human judgment.

As such, one tribe reigns and the other languishes,
Following her decree,
She who is hidden like a snake in the grass.

To her, your wisdom has no resistance.
She foresees, judges, and exercises
Her rule like the others who are divine.

The changes she brings cannot be bargained with.
She is quick out of necessity.
Turning, for one, is followed by turning, and often.

This is she who is so crucified
Even by those who ought to give her praise,
Unjustly blaming her up and down and slandering her.

But she is blissful and does not hear it.
She, with the others of the First Created, is happy.
She turns her sphere and rejoices in her bliss.

We now descend into greater woe.
Already every star is falling that rose
When I set out. And loitering is not permitted.”

We crossed the circle to the other bank
Which stood upon a spring that boils and pours
Through a ditch which it had carved out.

The water was darker than the deepest purple,
And we, in the company of the gloomy waves,
Proceeded downward by a different path.

It goes into the swamp named Styx,
This stream of sorrow, when it has descended
To the foot of these noxious gray slopes.

And I, who was standing, watching intently,
Saw people muddied in that bog,
All of them naked with angry faces.

They struck each other, not only with hands
But with the head and the chest and the feet,
Tearing each other to pieces with their teeth.

The good master said, “Son, now you see
The souls of those whom wrath overcame.
And, also, I want you to know for certain

That underwater are people who sigh,
Making the water teem at the surface,
As your eyes tell you wherever you turn.

Fixed in slime, they say, “We were glum
In the sweet air with which the sun cheers itself;
We were carrying torpor inside.

Now we are glum in this black, scum-choked tide.”
They gurgle this hymn in their throats,
As they cannot speak in unbroken words.”

And so we turned from this filthy pond
And the great arc between its center and the dry bank.
With eyes turned towards those swallowing mud,

We came at last to the foot of a tower.

Continue to Song VIII