Saturday, April 30, 2011

Putting the Playhouse to Rights

I've been digging into Thornton Wilder some more, swishing Our Town around and revisiting The Skin of Our Teeth. The two plays are his most famous works, for which he won two of his three(!) Pulitzer Prizes. The accolades are well-deserved, for in very different ways the two pieces pull off something theatre has boundless potential for, but is rarely done, and done well more seldom still: a truly cosmic scope.

This is not easily accomplished. Our Town is the more straightforward of the two in its approach--though ascetic in its staging, its dialogue is natural and unstylized--but compared with just about any other play it's a freak. Like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it eludes pat synopses (I learned this first-hand trying to explain it to my roommate): a look into the goings-on of a sleepy, turn-of-the-century New England town, and in particular one of its citizens, Emily Webb, that questions our grasp of the significance of life by depicting both its most and least significant events.

See? How the hell does someone who hasn't read the play make sense of that? One could say that the first act shows a day in the town of Grover's Corners, the second zeroes in on the wedding day of two young characters from the first act, and the third shows, several years later, the bride, now dead, ruing her time squandered on Earth after her death. (This doesn't even mention the Stage Manager, who narrates and oversees all of the action, making sure we never get too drawn into the proceedings.) That doesn't get us much further, and what about that cosmic scope business I was talking about? It's best to let that speak for itself....

REBECCA: "I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letterand on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America."

GEORGE: "What's funny about that?"

REBECCA: "But listen, it's not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God--that's what it said on the envelope."

GEORGE: "What do you know!"

REBECCA: "And the postman brought it just the same."

Or this, from the play's grim finale:

EMILY: "...Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?"

STAGE MANAGER: "No." Pause. "The saints and poets, maybe--they do some."

This is easy enough to grasp, even with the Stage Manager demolishing the fourth wall by his very existence. The Skin of Our Teeth is a much stranger beast. It concerns the Antrobus family, a stand-in for no less than the whole of humanity. The first act deals with the family (and their maidservant, Sabina, whose actress is constantly breaking character and disparaging the play) dealing with an incoming ice age. The second act, taking place an indeterminate amount of time later, recapitulates the action of the first--the catastrophe this time is a world flood--while the setting and some of the character relations are played around with; Sabina is now a beauty pageant winner trying to seduce Antrobus (in the first act we were told that she had been raped away from her Sabine hills) and humanity, which the Antrobi went to great lengths to save the first time around, is left to drown while the animals, two of a kind, are brought onto a life boat. The third act, for a change, begins after the disaster, at the end of a war, and shows the family trying to rebuild humanity anew.

I did say it was strange, didn't I?

Several years back I was in a production of The Skin of Our Teeth (I played the stage manager, Fitz, and various ensemble roles), and I have to admit I couldn't make much sense of what was going on. I understood some of the allusions and parallels ("to Eva, from Adam," hardy har har), but the damned thing was just so odd.... I felt much the same while re-reading it, and it wasn't until I got to the relatively somber third act, and this exchange in particular, that I started to "get" it:

SABINA: "That's all we do--always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again....How do we know that it'll be any better than before? Why do we go on pretending? Some day the whole earth's going to have to turn cold anyway, and until that time all these other things'll be happening again: it will be more wars and more walls of ice and floods and earthquakes."

MRS. ANTROBUS: "Sabina!! Stop arguing and go on with your work."

SABINA: "All right, I'll go on just out of habit, but I won't believe in it."

These days, with seemingly a new crisis every week--a Japanese earthquake, Libya, the government shutdown standoff, another Japanese earthquake, Donald Trump--these words resonated.

So to, did Mrs. Antrobus's indignant reply, explaining "what nobody should ever have to say, because they can read it in each other's eyes:"

MRS. ANTROBUS: "Sabina, do you see this house,--216 Cedar Street,--do you see it?"

SABINA: "Yes, Mrs. Antrobus."

MRS. ANTROBUS: "Well, just to have known this house is to have seen the idea of what we can do someday if we keep our wits about is. Too many people have suffered and died for my children for us to start reneging now. So we'll start putting this house to rights. Now, Sabina, go and see what you can do in the kitchen."

SABINA: "Kitchens! Why is it that however far I go away, I always find myself back in the kitchen?"

The whole third act makes me want to re-read the first two with clearer eyes. This kind of approach should feel horribly belabored, but in part because the play is so bizarre--I haven't mentioned the business in the third act where the play stops in order to announce that the extras have gotten food poisoning and some volunteers will be playing the hours of the night, quoting Spinoza and Aristotle and Plato and the Bible--it works.

Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth as works for the stage, where conventional wisdom holds that relationships between characters are the key element, that manage to use those relationships--natural in the former, allegorical and grotesque in the latter--as a springboard for Big Ideas without ever becoming hoary and didactic. When confronted with these fiercely unconventional works one might ask, "What's the big idea?" and get a far different answer than one was expecting.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

So Much For Civility

This whole Birther episode has been infuriating enough on its own, but Fallows' guarded optimism at the end of his follow-up to his initial angry post--"Perhaps the media types who have been paying attention to Trump and his braying will stop to think about what they've actually been doing. Conceivably there will be a moment of recoil about the unworthy, irrational indignity of this stage of national life."--recalls a similar silver lining moment from only a few months ago:

And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

They believe -- they believe and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here, they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us.

Not six months after asking the nation for more civility in our politics, the President of the United States submitted to the indignity of proving his citizenship to a blow-dried hairpiece and his legion of wild-eyed spittle-flecked followers. Words really do fail to capture one's outrage and disgust at this sordid episode:

Birtherism is the Streak in America's Underwear

Like many others, I like seeing Jim Fallows get righteously angry:

This alone disproves Donald Trump's crock-of-shit* insulting and preposterous assertions that Obama was an affirmative action or charity admittee to the Ivy Leagues who couldn't really cut it on his own IQ or test scores, as if there weren't already evidence enough: It is his use at time 0:50 of the word "bemusement" in its proper sense (puzzlement, confusion) rather than what most people think it means (mild amusement). I would like to have someone ask Trump what he thinks the word means. Maybe some variant on "easement"? [* Update: OK, it's a sign of defeat to resort to profanity. My exasperation is a sign of how I feel about this line of slurs. First, whatever is wrong with Obama, no sane person thinks he's stupid. Second, I wonder how many people think Donald Trump is in a position to judge Obama's smarts. Third, there is no avoiding the racist connotation of saying that a successful black person got there -- wink wink -- through special treatment. "Of course the black guy ended up as editor of the Law Review. What do you expect?" So I should just have said that rather than "crock of shit." On the other hand, a crock of shit is what this is.]

TNC thinks "the cursing was quite appropriate." I agree, and think it important to unpack why.

Let's examine the phrase, "crock of shit." A crock, according to the handy, is in its literal meaning an earthenware pot, a holding unit. Sometimes it is a broken earthenware pot. Its slang definition--as in, 'what a crock'--is 'nonsense.' Nonsense isn't necessarily good, but it isn't necessarily harmful either. It's just kind of there, like the tall tales young boys tell their smiling, incredulous mothers.

Then we have the qualifier, "of shit." Shit, and its descendant "bullshit," needs little explanation, but again, I think it important to look at the literal definition. Shit is crap is feces: the byproduct of a vital element of survival, food, from which anything healthy or useful* has been extracted.

In this case, a loyal opposition is necessary to a functioning polity; the Affirmative Action charge, Birtherism, and all of these absurd and frankly racist attacks on Obama's legitimacy, however, are not loyal in any sense. It's contrarianism conducted under bad faith, and asserting the other side's illegitimacy to boot, and on grounds so frail the slightest nudge of evidence explodes the argument like a breeze on a dandelion gone to seed. (And, also like a dandelion, Birtherism has continued to come back only to be refuted [refudiated?] again and again. But I'm mixing metaphors. To shit, then. Birtherism is the digested and defecated remains of the necessary good of the opposition party, made all the more rank and formless by the debased state of today's Republican party.)

So foul to the senses is shit that it is impossible to focus on anything else when it is around, as the Birther story has proven, as did "Death Panels" before it. Anything it comes in contact with carries thereafter the stain and the stench: Donald Trump, a fecal fetishist (a connoisseur of kink that even the famously open-minded Dan Savage just this week called "unfuckingreasonable") whose eagerness to dance in this shitstorm is hurting his Celebrity Apprentice ratings; the media, whose complicity in taking Trump's buffoonery seriously and keeping this story alive debases their profession; and Barack Obama, who degraded himself by caving and showing his birth certificate, and in doing so legitimized questions of his citizenship.

So a crock can be either a (broken) holding receptacle, or a source of nonsense, and shit is, well, shit. Trump's assertions about Obama's intelligence and citizenship are indeed a cracked and spewing source ideological refuse, and so Fallows was ever appropriate in calling this a crock of shit. His choice of words was apt, and will likely continue to be so. It's barely an exaggeration to imagine Obama will next be asked to provide his transcripts to prove he wasn't a lazy Affirmative Action admission, and when that isn't sufficient he'll have to produce his schoolwork. Obama wants to wash his hands of this whole sordid affair, but washing his clothes is another matter entirely.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What it Was to Be Alive

I don't think I can say anything about Aristotle's Ethics without looking foolish, so instead I turned a few days ago to Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I only ever saw it for the first time last year in a stunning production in New York, and so I don't have the distasteful associations with saccharine nostalgia that others have.

Accordingly, in revisiting the play by reading it for the first time, I'm not struck by its folksy charm--it's there, which is all the more reason not to gild that lily--but by how much death hangs over even the cheeriest of the play's sections. In the opening of the first act the sun is rising and Joe Crowell the paperboy is delivering his stock. The Stage Manager narrating the proceedings casually drops this information:

Want to tell you something about that boy Joe Crowell there. Joe was awful bright--graduated from high school here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It aws all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin' to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France.--All that education for nothing.

Reading that brought back memories of the play's climax, which was particularly devastating in the show I saw. The rest of the production had been done with bare bones staging as per Thornton Wilder's directions and then some: mimed action, chairs as set pieces, street clothes costumes, basic lighting. But for the final scene the black curtains pulled back to reveal a meticulously detailed kitchen set, with frosted windows, rich set decoration, a working faucet, all in order to illustrate how the deceased Emily Webb, reliving a day in her life, only realizes after it's too late how terribly ignorant she was of what a gift her time on earth was. And then the curtains closed, and we were left again darkness and in drab.

It was one of the biggest theatrical gut-punches I've ever experienced, and having such raw feelings reignited almost made me not want to keep reading. And yet I did. And so I came to Simon Stimson, the drunken choir director. He is a doomed figure, and skipping ahead I find in the that brutal third act climax he, now dead, delivers the most bitter speech of the entire play:

Yes, now you know. Now you know! That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feeling of those... of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To always be at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know--that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.

When he half-staggers across the stage at the close of Act I, still alive, still only an alarming amusement as a drunkard, the police Constable Warren only says, "I don't know how that's goin' to end, Mr. Webb."

He wouldn't, would he?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gaga Gives a 'Go'

Since yesterday, Lady Gaga has given her blessing for "Perform This Way" to be included on Weird Al Yankovic's upcoming album. Reports differ on who started the fracas, but in any case the matter is settled.

I'm glad she approves, as the song is a funny one that reminds me of Al's "Smells Like Nirvana" in the way that it makes fun of the stylistic tics of the artist in question.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Andrew Sullivan doesn't much care for Lady Gaga's new single and its Catholic League-baiting, nor Gaga herself:

This latest "diva" is a costume in search of musical innovation. And what's dismaying about this latest stunt is not its bravery (ha!) or its wit (please) but its dumb derivative barrel-scraping predictability. Madonna was sometimes prey to this, but a song and video like "Like A Prayer" actually did assert a form of spirituality that challenged a church grown stale. It had its moments. Gaga is a pale, plagiarizing echo of this. There's a particularly irritating appropriation of gay culture for general consumption, perhaps guiltily over-compensated by Gaga's crashing every gay rights event known to man. Perhaps this happens with every civil rights movement. In the end, the outsiders raid the insiders and give it back to them at 0.99 cents on iTunes. And I sure wouldn't stop anyone on this well-trodden path.

The appropriation of the gay rights movement doesn't much bug me; it's a generational thing, I suspect. Growing up in the shadow of of the AIDS epidemic instead of in the midst of it will do that. But the mistake here is in trying to take Gaga at all seriously. She's a disposable pop star making disposable--and so, so danceable--pop music, and she makes no apologies for it. Her gay rights activism is, like Glenn Beck and right wing paranoia, a happy marriage of conviction and commerce.

Gaga's calculated absurdity and queer audience cultivation have until now kept her ever-present in the public consciousness. But the two approaches are fundamentally at odds: the former is cool and cynical marketing, the latter impassioned and earnest. So when she birthed (hatched?) to the world "Born This Way," a gay pride anthem steeped in hip-shaking synths and Madonna homage (if not outright theft), one had to ask, "Is she serious?" It's the Shepard Fairey contradiction.

"Judas" has the opposite problem. Best interpreted as another bad romance song--it's cast from the same mold, right down to the chorus 'WhoooOOOOooooOOOOaaaa' and Gaga name-dropping in the babbley opening--the manufactured controversy of its provocative lyrics and Easter video release date smacks of trying too hard to get attention (her detractors would probably say it's been so all along). This happened to Marilyn Manson a decade ago and, more recently, to Sarah Palin. Eventually they pushed the boundaries farther than they could reach.

This is hardly the end of Gaga's career, and perhaps these latest missteps are just a hiccup. But I find it telling that one so aware of how the music industry operates would to refuse to allow Weird Al Yankovic to use his spot-on parody "Perform This Way" as the lead single off his next album. Such an honor is reserved for those who have "made it," which no one doubts Lady Gaga has. But where does go from there? One has to wonder how a figure whose public existence is premised on deconstructing the glittering ephemera of pop music, will grapple with her own eventual destruction.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Politics and Prose

This Rumpus piece posits an interesting reason why Washington politicians's fictions are less successful in literature than politics:

It’s a running joke that politicians tend to do a poor job of writing fiction, and for the most part, the joke holds true. But I think there may be something more to this failure than just the fact that many of them are trained in legalese or that they’re busy. I think it has to do with the fact that being a politician requires putting the human capacity for empathy on hold, or at least minimizing it. It requires putting an idea or a philosophy or a party above people in order not to go mad.

This isn't wrong, but it's not completely right either. I would add that literary writing requires a grasp of imagery that isn't present in political writing and speech except in usually the most hackneyed of forms (most of our representatives are unmemorable speakers; it was a speech, recall, that propelled Barack Obama to national prominence, some years after he had already turned some heads as a writer with the publication of his memoir). Compare one of the duds, Vale of Tears by Peter King...

The conversation in the bus was still solemn, very similar, it seemed, to the expressions of the New Yorkers walking the streets — somber but undaunted. But there was nothing at all somber about the scene along West Street as the bus — now going south — approached the vicinity of Ground Zero.

Hundreds of people lined the streets cheering, waving American flags and holding up signs, thanking and encouraging the rescue workers who’d come from all over the region and country to do what they could. The windows of the bus were shut tight, but its passengers could clearly hear the crowd’s defiant cheers of USA! USA!

...with the only real standout example, Jim Webb's A Sense of Honor.

He tried, just for a moment as he nodded off to sleep, to remember a time when he did not view the world as a chimera to be attacked, a progression of moments capable of violent destruction, a painful jungle designed to test his tenacity. He could not think that far back. He could get past first-class year and second-class year and youngster year. He could remember the incredible, unnerving scars of plebe year, as if his memory itself were falling into its own small sea and treading water there, trying to keep from drowning. He could identify each terror-filled event of plebe summer, those weeks that ripped his old self from him like someone reaching inside a plucked chicken and tearing out the guts, then packing in fear where they used to be.

Both of these excerpts deal with people in heightened states of emotion, but only Webb's really digs into its imaginative potential. Look at the creatures and concepts conjured forth: a 'chimera,' 'a painful jungle,' 'its own small sea,' 'reaching inside a plucked chicken and tearing out the guts;' all vivid and fantastical images used to complement the concrete events of the last several years of the character's life.

King's piece, by contrast, features no figurative language whatsoever, only passable description. We're told the conversation is 'somber,' the crowd 'defiant,' but we don't get any further than such surface detail to better understand these states of mind.

Politicians pride themselves on their ability to empathize with their constituents, but in reality, as the Rumpus article notes, their existence as politicians is dependent on being brutally practical in their thinking. It also involves endless consumption of political news bites that are almost by definition shallow and anathema to creative flourishes. It's no surprise that their creative writing should reflect this. Verbiage in, verbiage out.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Nothing Funnier Than Unhappiness

Few figures of the modern stage are as revered as Samuel Beckett and Peter Brook. Both challenged and broadened the concepts of what theatre could be (the former with the anti-play Waiting for Godot, the latter with the landmark text The Empty Space); both work by ruthlessly stripping away all they find unnecessary to get at the essence of their art; for this both have amassed in drama circles a hero status most devoted, to which I will admit I belong. I thus almost felt obligated to catch Fragments, a collection of five Beckett shorts directed by Brook that just spent four days at the Kennedy Center.

Obligation is a terrible reason to do something--indeed, Brook himself mused, "it would be a sad day if people went to the theater out of duty"--and is often a preemptive excuse for not enjoying it. But there is great reason to enjoy the work of Beckett and Brook, and it was in evidence in Fragments, a revue surprisingly accessible and almost self-consciously aimed to deflate pretensions.

The staging fittingly contained only the essentials: a playing space, slightly raised, on which sat two boxes on either side, near either end, on the one sitting a staff, a violin on the other. Behind them a couple large sacks and a chair. Upstage center, a bench. The lighting was simple and precise: the stage would wash in red or blue in transitions, with only the necessary spaces illuminated. Subtle touches, like a strip of light focused on the thin side of the raised playing space, classed the proceedings up, but by and large it looked like a production that could have been done just about anywhere.

That is, of course, a point Brook has been making ever since the opening lines of The Empty Space:
I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.
The minimal staging allowed for the range of Beckett's writing, and Brook's actors, to shine through. First was "Rough for Theater I," a sort of Endgame lite, with two damaged characters--a blind man and a cripple--relying on and squabbling with each other. There is some lively repartee that the actors, longtime Brooks collaborator Bruce Myers and Yoshi Oida, were game for, the former suitably imposing, the latter at a disconnect due to his character's blindness. It makes a good introduction to Beckett and was an effective opener for the evening.

"Rockaby," easily the most difficult piece from an audience and actor standpoint, involves an aged woman (played by the young Hayley Carmichael) repeating sentences and phrases in varying permutations that, fittingly for a memory play, would tax any actress's capacity for memorization:
sitting at her window
quiet at her window
only window
facing other windows
only other windows
all eyes
all sides
high and low
time she stopped
I'll be honest and say I didn't "get" it, but I note that the stage directions call for the monologue to be pre-recorded, and for the actress to remain seated. Neither instruction was observed, to the play's benefit. The recursive twistiness of the language raised the stakes for the actor in a way that wouldn't exist in a recording. And having the woman rise during the third section quietly offers some hope, however dashed, amid the play's bleakness.

Brook is no stranger to changing a work to suit his purposes--his staging of Carmen was cut to ninety minutes--and so minor deviations to open up a piece are always welcome, Samuel Beckett Estate be damned.

"Act Without Words II" is a straight-up clowning piece, in which two persons, A and B, are "goaded" into getting out of the giant sacks they sleep in, putting on a suit, taking it off, moving their sack, and returning to it. It was heavy on physical comedy, with Oida's A shiftless and unfocused, and Myers's B bursting with athleticism. It was the funniest piece of the night, but again the mirth served to underscore the menace that comes forward at the end, with the realization that these two figures will be endlessly replaying the same routine.

"Neither," an adaptation of one of Beckett's poems, involved actress Hayley Carmichael timing her step and delivery to back-and-forth spotlight cues. There isn't a plot to speak of, naturally, barely a scenario, and so it was interesting to see how the decisive ambivalence of the piece's title would translate into physical action. (I say this knowing Brook knows "interesting" to be a nice way of saying 'I didn't like it.')

Finally there was "Come and Go," a brief piece involving three ladies on a bench gossiping whenever one is a way. It's cyclical in dialogue and movement, dependent on its performers having great timing and physical grace. That they did by now should go without saying; indeed the control they maintained over their voices and bodies was one of the most noticeable aspects of all the evening's performances. There was no better evidence of this than "Come and Go"'s concluding hand-hold, "in the old way," a striking image carried out with such smoothness one could hear the audience murmur in an admixture of surprise, amusement, and wonder.

If this sounds like a Samuel Beckett Variety Hour--the bickering couple, the memory play, the clowns, the dark poem, the repetitions--it was. By turns grim, tense, hilarious, mysterious and mystifying, Fragments was a document of Beckett's scope and, most critically, his sense of humor. Brook's as well. Both men are widely thought of as sages of the theater, and sages aren't allowed to be funny. The playbill says this production "caps" Brook's career of over 60 years, which suggests this may be his final outing. That he should use the occasion to remind audiences that wisdom is best paired with wit, shows him deserving his distinctions.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bad Influences

One of many new experiences I've had from the culture shock of working in a DC kitchen has been regular exposure to rap music by way of a communal iPod player. I've never much cared for the stuff myself, but hearing it day in and day out, I can't help but come to appreciate some of it.

I'd heard plenty about 50 Cent, for instance, and had in fact heard several of his songs here and there, without knowing it was him.

I mean, "In Da Club" was frocking inescapable, both in the sense that the song was everywhere, and that it stays in your head like it's supposed to:

Similarly, I've heard Pitbull's "I Know I Know You Want Me" at bars and clubs, but now that I know what it actually is, I actually kinda really dig it in a guilty pleasure way:

I like this stuff in spite of myself, but bad influences are a two way street. A couple days ago I asked to switch to a Pandora station of something I wanted to listen to. This included some heavy metal:

I thought that would be the end of it, but no! Today one of the other cooks sought out a heavy metal station entirely on his own:

And suddenly I was air guitaring, transported back to my high school bedroom and 18 years old again.

There's not much else to say, except perhaps that I hope I'm a little less snobby about music than I used to be.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ascending the Swampland

I'm having trouble responding to the first book of Aristotle's Ethics--it is markedly more disjointed than those that follow it, with countless instances of "Enough of this" or "We will return to this later"--but I would like to bring attention to his early mention of the political sphere:

[The good] would seem to be the supreme and most authoritative art; and that appears to be politics. Politics decides what arts should be given a place in states, which should be learned by each class of persons, and how far their study should go. We observe that the most esteemed skills come under politics, such as generalship, estate management, and persuasive speaking, i.e., oratory. Politics then, employs the other arts and legislates as to what we should and should not do; therefore, the end of politics will embrace the objects of the other arts, so that this this will be the good for man. Even if it is the same for individual and for state, the good of the state is greater and more complete, both to attain and to keep. It is desirable for one individual to obtain, but finer and more godlike for countries and whole states.

The framing of politics as the final reflection and expression of a nation's culture and priorities--as if it were a natural outgrowth of a people rather than the end result of obscene amounts of spending and an obsessive consumption and manipulation of information and news by a small slice of the population--is bracing in its optimism.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Who Cares About Torture?

And here I thought I was done writing about C.S. Lewis and politics.

Barack Obama ran for president on a platform of principled opposition to the Bush administration's gross abuses of executive power: its secrecy, torture, extraordinary rendition, ill-conceived wars. His conduct on these fronts as President have been a grim disappointment: Guantanamo is to remain open indefinitely, Khalid Sheik Mohammad will be tried by military tribunal, Bradley Manning is receiving inhumane treatment without even having been convicted, and we are now involved in a third war in the Muslim world (fourth, if one counts the drone strikes we've been carrying out in Yemen).

For the sake of argument, let's grant that Obama's hands are tied by Congress and other political considerations (except when it comes to Libya, in which such an argument is absurd on its face). The defense is actually damning in its tacit admission that civil liberties are not important. I don't simply mean unimportant to the electorate, which is generally not much interested in politics anyway, but also to Obama's defenders.

It's true that for liberals, Obama is on balance better than the Republicans on whatever pet issues one cares to rattle off: health care, gay rights, education. But not all issues are created equal. The abuses of executive power radically upset the checks and balances system, and the torture issue in particular, moral considerations aside, undermines the very notion of a state built on the rule of law. By not prosecuting the architects of the Bush torture policy, Obama has reduced it to just another policy preference.

These are fundamental issues, and it is frankly disturbing to read and hear people all but say, "Well, yeah, starting military conflicts without even asking Congress and forcing a prisoner to strip for his guards is wrong, but other than that..."

This is where Lewis comes in. From The Screwtape Letters:

...Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity, or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest of merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.

The denunciations of George Bush and "enhanced interrogation" were vociferous and unequivocal, while the response to Obama's complicity in the whole ugly mess is an excuse, half-muttered, that he's not as bad as the Republicans. At least they're honest about their blood thirst.

All of this is not to say one should not vote for Obama next year. Politics is the art of the possible, a particularly narrow category in America's two-party system. But let's not pretend Obama is blameless. His is a profound failure of moral leadership on a critical issue. For most of us, that's not a deal-breaker. But if that isn't, then what, if anything, should be? And if not, why not?

No Good Moves

“These are strange times to be a Jew.”

This remark, a frequent refrain in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is both an understatement and something of a banality. For yes, the times of the book’s proceeding’s are most unusual: 60 years after the Israelis were pushed into the sea by the surrounding Arab nations, the Jewish people are about to lose the corner of Alaska granted them by the U.S. government.

Strange times indeed, but when have they not been so? The Jewish story is one of perennial strangerdom and besiege, and this particular story, in spite if not because of its alternate history, reflects a certain weariness with the question of the “Jewish question.” (spoilers follow)

The story runs a through line of duress. Its world is premised on a catastrophe—the second expulsion from Israel—whose consolation, the establishment of Sitka, Alaska, is a stopgap measure at best. That the Reversion is to happen on a pre-arranged schedule is cold comfort; at the story’s outset, the Jews will be once more a homeless people.

Amid this backdrop of defeat, our story’s anti-hero, Meyer Landsman, is, appropriately, also following a string of disasters—his job, his sister’s death, his marriage—by living in borrowed digs, spending his alcoholic daze in a room at the Hotel Zamenhof. So too does the "yid" whose death in his own room Landsman spends the length of the book investigating.

The yid in question is Menachem Mendel Shpilman, a Gordian knot of contradiction. The son of the rebbe of Sitka’s Hasidic Verbover clan, as well as a closeted homosexual. A heroin addict, believed to have been the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the Messiah, born once a generation. And, a Chess prodigy. His dilemma is quintessentially Jewish, a stranger in his own home. The strain of so many competing identities eventually proves too much to bear: his murder, we learn, was a murder-suicide. A hopeless Chess game provides a moving (in more ways than one) analogy:

”He showed me that damned problem of his, the mate in two,” Hertz says. “He said he got it off some Russian. He said if I solved it, then I would understand how he felt.”
“Zugzwang,” Bina says.
“What’s that?” Ester-Malke says.
“It’s when you have no good moves,” Bina says. “But you still have to move.”

Perhaps the gloomiest aspect of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s alternate universe is how familiar much of it is. This passage, describing the pushback the new Jewish population receives from the Native American Alaskans, is a story oft told but with different names:

The construction of a prayer house at St. Cyril by the splinter from a splinter of a sect from Lisianski was the final outrage for many Natives. It was met with demonstrations, rallies, lawyers, and dark rumblings from Congress over yet another affront to peace and parity by the overweening Jews of the north. Two days before its consecration, somebody—no one ever came forward or was charged—threw a double Molotov through a window, burning the prayer house to its concrete pad. The congregants and their supporters swarmed into the town of St. Cyril, smashing crab traps, breaking the windows of the Alaska Native Brotherhood half, and setting spectacular fire to a shedful of Roman Candles and cherry bombs…. The Synagogue Riots remain the lowest moment in the bitter and inglorious history of Tlingit-Jewish relations.

That the two sides fighting it out are both displaced peoples passes without comment, not that much is needed. By book’s ending, though, the violence has moved (back) to Palestine, with the Dome of the Rock destroyed by radical Hasids. To end the book in this manner seems an admission of resignation by Chabon: even with a radically altered history, the Jewish story be one of land wars that eventually circle back to bloodshed in the Holy Land.

This is a dour outlook, but it is not entirely so. If there is little redemption to be found in the world at large there remains hope on an individual level. For Landsman eventually pulls himself out of his funk and achieves a spiritual regeneration, entirely thanks to the dead messiah Shpilman. Investigating the case to its bitter conclusion leads Landsman to quit drinking, uncover the truth about his sister’s death, and reunite with his wife. Shpilman cannot save himself, much less the whole of Jewry, yet in this failure he offers others some chance of rebirth.

Thriving in spite of disaster is, of course, another way of reading the long history of Jewish persecution. Even after expulsion, blood libel, pogroms, and the Holocaust, Judaism and Jews continue to leave their stamp on civilization, be it through the bagel, the Coen Brothers, or Larry Summers. The anti-semitic trope of a Jewish world conspiracy has always been a barb-wired backhanded compliment, a mad jealousy at the fact of Jewish success. Such Jew hatred has shaped Jewish history as much as Jews themselves, to the result of constant uncertainty and removal. One gets the sense from The Yiddish Policemen's Union that Michael Chabon wishes everyone could just move on.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Coming Soon

The Yiddish Policeman's Union writeup is going to be a bit longer than I expected, and so is my workweek, so no dice for tonight. Instead I'll mention that I've started Aristotle's Ethics both for a book club and to hopefully generate some material here. C.S. Lewis offered a lot of food for thought, and I can approach a work of philosophy from a lot more angles than fiction.

Further down the pike I plan to get ahold of a copy of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, after two people, independently of one another, suggested I read it. Reading Orwell's takedown of Tolstoy's attack on Shakespeare and King Lear is a good way to whet one's appetite.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Technical Difficulties

Circumstances in the real world plus a haphazard internet connection prevented me from posting anything yesterday, and I won't have time to write today. Tomorrow evening is more like it. Until then, here is what Sean Paul's "Temperature"'s lyrics sound like:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Big Bad Woolf

How does one describe Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the uninitiated? Synopsis does no good: a middle-aged married couple invites a younger couple over for some very late drinks and proceeds to use them as foils in their marital power struggle. That's what the play "about," I suppose, but does little to explain its power, its appeal, success, and endurance.

It's the words.

George: You take the trouble to construct a civilization, to build a society based on the principles of... of principle. You make government and art and realize that they are, must be, both the same. You bring things to the saddest of all points, to the point where there is something to lose. Then, all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.

Virginia Woolf's story is practically secondary, what with the many long dialogues, stories and digressions. It could hit its marks in half the 3+ hour running time, but only to the play's great impoverishment. As another Edward Albee character once said, "Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly."

For there is a point to be taken from the speechifying in this behemoth, something about the lies we tell ourselves and each other, including on the goodness of people. Convention holds that the protagonists of a book/movie/play, the mirror held up to nature, must be likable and/or sympathetic. Balls to that. Some people, many people, are, to quote the same character again, "mean, stupid, unwashed, misanthropic, cheap, drunken bag[s] of garbage." All the drama asks is that they clutch our morbid attent, vigorously and without relent.

George: Yes, Martha? Can I get you something?
Martha: Ah… well, sure! You can, um, light my cigarette, if you're of a mind to.
George: No. There are limits. I mean, a man can put up with only so much without he descends a rung or two on the, uh, old evolutionary ladder, which is up your [Nick's] line. Now, I will, uh, hold your hand when it's dark and you're afraid of the boogeyman, and I will tote your gin bottles out after midnight so no one can see, but I will not light your cigarette. And that, as they say, is that.

One can parse the text for such a meaning--the above is but a first try--but that's to miss enjoying the words. And this isn't to say they exist for their own sake: far be it. The witty, pedantic repartee is a facade to hide the desperation unmasked at play's end, which gets back to the lies being told. There is no better way to expose illusion than a smokescreen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Carter Burwell Mix

My brain has been scrambled throughout this long day, so how about some music selections to change things up? I've just downloaded (for $5.99!) Carter Burwell's score for True Grit, and I feel like putting up some my favorite pieces to come out of his many contributions to the Coen Brothers' films.

The themes for Miller's Crossing and Fargo are endlessly listenable, and yet such odd pieces: quite stirring--lyrical?--and moving, they sound like they'd go well in the trailer for an uplifting Oscar-bait film, when the actual movies they belong to are decidedly off-beat and quite dark and nasty. There's undercurrents of that darkness in both pieces, which creates a juxtaposition that makes them so interesting.

"Wie Glauben" is one of the few originals contributed to the soundtrack for The Big Lebowski. It serves as the music for the German Nihilists when they've torched The Dude's car, and it is "by" them as well, belonging as they do to a Kraftwerk-styled electronica group, Autobahn and blasting the piece from their boombox in the parking lot. I know it's kind of a parody of such music, but I find it strangely compelling all the same.

The opening theme for Burn After Reading is even goofier, for, like the film it serves, it's making a lot of noise for what really is nothing at all. Music that is in itself funny--not a funny song with funny lyrics, but where the music itself elicits laughter--is hard to find, and maybe without the movie to provide context the humor of this is lost. But in any case, its over-the-top 'action-y' quality makes me smile.

The score for True Grit is based off a number of 19th century Protestant hymnals, and for this reason the Academy disqualified it from being nominated for an Oscar. Their loss. It's lovely work, and the religious inspiration meshes well with the film's redemption of Rooster Cogburn. "Little Blackie" is short and simple, a good example from a terrific score.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ho Hum

I don't have anything terribly important to say, but in the Unofficial Month of Blogging I'm rather obliged, aren't I? I ended up being wrong wrong wrong about today's weather, as it was not only sunny but the hottest day DC has had this year, at a freakishly summer-like high of 85 degrees.

I'm also nearly done with The Yiddish Policeman's Union and ought to have my big-picture say of it soon enough. I will say that, as a reader, seeing all the little plot threads resolve themselves into a complete narrative tapestry, as is happening now, is a great pleasure. There's a twin effect of making the world of the story seem somehow smaller, because everything is connected, yet also blowing things open to reveal that there was even more going on than originally suggested. It reminds me of how I felt reading that Indira Gandhi really had it in for Saleem in Midnight's Children, eliciting as it does that same gobsmacked, "Oh shit!" reaction and wanting to know how it's all going to go down.

Anyway. As you were.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Cherry Blossoms

After several days of cold and wet weather, today presented a good opportunity to get out and see the cherry blossoms. Most of them haven't peaked yet, but after a season of grey and and murk, the white blossoms are a welcome sight anyway.

They make the Washington and Jefferson monuments more picturesque than they already are.

Along the way I stopped to check out the George Mason monument, which I had missed when I did my tour in September.

It had one of the few fully pink trees in the Tidal Basin.

The trip home provided a few surprises. Outside the Mall entrance to the Smithsonian Metro was a Scientology booth.

This particular entrance was closed, and the one a block away was swamped with tourists. I decided to skip it and head over to the next nearest stop, L'Enfant Plaza.

I'm not familiar with the area, however, and before I managed to find the station I ended up in the plaza proper, off of L'Enfant Pomenade. It was disorienting; just a couple blocks from the crowd-packed open air of the National Mall was this conglomeration of concrete rigid buildings that was almost completely empty and conspicuously quiet. And the architecture!

Just brutal.

It was a few hours well spent. I'm quite glad I did it today; the weather right now is not so promising.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Meep Meep

I've always wanted to use this metaphor, but Michael Chabon beat me to it:

"In every marriage, there are things," she begins. She shakes her head once, and the veil trembles. "One of my grandsons was at my house today, before the funeral. Nine years old. I put the television for him in the sewing room, you're not supposed to, but what does it matter, the little shkotz was bored. I sat with him ten minutes, watching. It was that cartoon program, the wolf that chases the blue rooster."

Landsman says that he knows it.

"Then you know," she says, "how that wolf can run in the middle of the air. He knows how to fly, but only so long as he still thinks he's touching the ground. As soon as he looks down, and sees where he is, and understands what's going on, then he falls and smashes into the ground."

"I've seen that bit," Landsman says.

"That's how it is in a successful marriage," says the rabbi's wife. "I have spent the last fifty years running in the middle of the air. Not looking down. Outside of what God requires, I never talk to my husband. Or vice versa."

Instead of marriage, however, I consider cartoon physics to be a style of argument. Several years ago I had a protracted email discussion with a creationist, a very intelligent girl whom I thought I could convince of the error of her position by rebutting whatever criticisms of the theory of evolution she had.

So naive was I, so, so, naive.

What ended up happening is she would take a position--several, usually; these were very long emails--and I would go through and point out the flaws in her reasoning. She would respond by moving on to a new set of objections without ever really acknowledging that the old ones had been disproved (or, to be generous, challenged). Thus, cartoon physics debating: if you've gone over a rhetorical cliff, as long as you don't look down and realize you've done so, you can continue indefinitely.

It's nice to know the escapades of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner are so thematically universal.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Putting Out

Fellow Golden Horder Andy is inviting others to join him in an Unofficial Month of Blogging, in which the participants post at least once a day. I've gotten back up to a decent output in recent days, but it can always be improved. To that end I'll be tossing something up here daily, even if it is just a little note or video....Or an FYI informing my readership of such.