Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Black Snake Moan

Like most of the American world, I take summer to catch up on all the things I didn’t have time for in the past year, or twenty years as the case may be. Books I haven’t read that I wish I had or know I should, or someone somewhere says I should. Movies no red-blooded American can appear at cocktail parties without having seen. Or sometimes just shlockey stuff–other than TV–that I never give myself the time to enjoy because it’s…well…shlockey. Thought it might be fun this summer as I drift in to my new job as interim dean at the college to blog a bit about some of this year’s guilty summer pleasures. Guilty either because I have to admit that I haven’t gotten around to some of these things until now (“WHAT!!! YOU NEVER READ MADAME BOVARY???” I admit, in fact, that I haven’t. Maybe I’ll get around to it this summer.) or guilt because I have to admit that I like every tawdry thing that tells me a halfway decent story. Guilt, I am good at.Black Snake Moan Poster

Black Snake Moan with Samuel Jackson falls in to the latter of these I guess. But I can’t bring myself to describe it as shlockey exactly. On the one hand it’s a film that sells itself to all our most prurient desires. You know, the desire to see Christina Ricci in her underwear, or less…the desire to see Samuel L. Jackson dragging her around chains, which plays I guess to the lurking fetishist in all of us. And the title, “Black Snake Moan”? That speaks for itself, I guess.

Still, I found the film weirdly compelling for the way it commented on and reorganized our American obsessions with the combination of sex, race and violence…a combination that goes back in literature to, SURPRISE!, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Probably before, but UTC is the signature bit in American literature on this score as far as I’m concerned. And Black Snake Moan strikes me as a kind of revisionary commentary on Stowe’s masterpiece. The parallels are so obvious to me that I looked around on the web for a half hour or so but could find only one glancing comment on a blog that saw the connection.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in this case, is Samuel L. Jackson’s cabin on his farm in the depths of Mississippi. Christina Ricci is a perverse Little Eva, almost as if the repressed sexuality that made Little Eva saintly in UTC comes bursting out in rage in the nymphomaniacal performance by Ricci. It’s a testimony to Ricci’s performance that after a while you stop wondering about whether she’s going to remove the rest of her clothes and actually start to care about her character’s development and healing. Which may be part of the commentary on UTC I guess. One of the problems with UTC is that all the good people in the novel are too good for the world. They demonstrate this goodness primarily in two ways, by being asexual and by dying. The two seem to go hand in hand. Craig Brewer, the director, says in the special features on the DVD that he felt he was making a religious movie. It’s certainly a film about redemption and healing, and also a film about the saints of this world rather than the next. In other words saints riven, and sometimes lacerated, by desire but who manage after all to keep on living.

Tom and little EvaThe film flirts more overtly with a barely repressed pedophelia that lurks around UTC, and with the cross racial sexual taboos that the novel merely hints at. Eva fainting evermore on Tom’s welcoming breast, he laying her ever gently into bed. The relationship between Legree and his mistress. Ricci, of course, is hardly a child, but her deeply damaged psyche as a result of child abuse, and her self-abuse through drugs and promiscuity render her weirdly innocent and vulnerable, tended to by Jackson’s inexplicable kindness. Indeed, I worried that Jackson was too much the Uncle Tom character in his resistance to Ricci’s sexual advances. The big hack on Tom is that he’s sexless, a reassuring white fantasy that black religion renders black men neuter. Still, I thought the movie negotiated that by having Jackson have a separate flirtation, and through his guitar playing and blues singing, which, for an actor who hadn’t played guitar before this film, I thought was absolutely phenomenal.

So I guess I thought this reading of UTC was actually really interesting. Building recognizably off of the themes and imagery of the original, but inverting all of them in a way that critiques them. Showing that the white mania with black sexuality is a perversion of both instinct and generosity, and not one that will be healed through sexlessness, but through a healthy embrace of life. One that Brewer finds equally in the blues bar and in conventional marriage–which may have been a too conventional way to end the film, but one that again replicates the sentimentality of a UTC original–equally in the steam of eros and the prayers of the church.

The whole earth is moaning, awaiting its redemption. Black Snake Moan, indeed.

Barbara Ehrenreich Solves Fuel Crisis

Ok, this has nothing whatsoever to do with reading, but I do think Barbara Ehrenreich over at the Huffington Post is to be commended for thinking outside the box.

I say to my fellow humans: It’s time to stop feeding off the dead and grow up! I don’t know about food, but I have a plan for achieving fuel self-suffiency in less time than it takes to say “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” The idea came to me from reports of the growing crime of French fry oil theft: Certain desperate individuals are stealing restaurants’ discarded cooking oil, which can then be used to fuel cars. So the idea is: why not could skip the French fry phase and harvest high-energy hydrocarbons right from ourselves?

I’m talking about liposuction, of course, and it’s a mystery to me why it hasn’t occurred to any of those geniuses who are constantly opining about fuel prices on MSNBC. The average liposuction removes about half a gallon of liquid fat, which may not seem like much. But think of the vast reserves our nation is literally sitting on! Thirty percent of Americans are obese, or about 90 million individuals or 45 million gallons of easily available fat — not from dead diatoms but from our very own bellies and butts.

One thing Ehrenreich leaves out is all that all that reduced weight will result in much higher gas mileage. According to a study by Sheldon Jacobsen at the University of Illinois,

Since 1960…the consumption of no less than 938 million gallons of gasoline annually can be attributed to weight gains of drivers and passengers. Of that total no less than 272 million gallons are consumed annually as a result of weight gains since 1988.

“The key finding is that nearly 1 billion gallons of fuel are consumed each year because of the average weight gain of people living in the United States since 1960 – nearly three times the total amount of fuel consumed by all passenger vehicles each day based on current driving habits,” McLay and Jacobson wrote.

Yet one more incentive for me to start my diet. It could pay for my vacation.

Satyagraha: Goodness and Stasis

In the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of Philip Glass’s new opera, Satyagraha, raises a number of interesting issues about the relationships between language and narrative and ethics. Of course, I no doubt think they are particularly good because I’veGhandi and MLK in Glass\'s Satyagraha puzzled over them before. Also a few of you know that my Batman alter-ego is an operatic tenor (No, seriously. You laugh? Why does everyone laugh? What, pray tell, is laughable about an English professor who sings opera? And not in the shower. When I was a kid I told my Dad I was going to be President of the United States and play pro basketball at night. Now my dream life is to be a college professor by day and a member of Met chorus–at least my fantasies are vaguely realistic–by the light of the full moon. Hint, that’s not me in the photo).

Anyway, back to Mendelsohn:

Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas. Like the Greek tragedies that the sixteenth-century Venetian inventors of opera sought to recreate, Western musical drama has tended to be preoccupied with the darker extremes of human emotions: excessive passion and wild jealousy, smoldering resentment and implacable rage. These, after all, are the emotions that spark the kinds of actions—adultery, betrayal, revenge, murder—that make for gripping drama. Unpleasant as they may be in real life, such actions are essential to the Western idea of theater itself, in which the very notion of plot is deeply connected to difficulties, problems, disasters. Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to plot as a knot tied by the author (he calls it a dêsis, a “binding up”) out of the manifold strands representing competing wills or desires or ideologies; an ugly and worrisome knot that will, in due course, ultimately come undone in a climactic moment of loosening or release of tension (the lysis, or “undoing”)—a concept that survives in our term “dénouement.”

There can, that is to say, be no theater unless bad things happen, unless there are terrible problems, insoluble knots; without them, there would be nothing for the characters to do. That “doing” gives us the very word by which we refer to what happens on stage: “drama” comes from the Greek drân, “to do” or “to act.” When we go to the theater, we want to see characters doing things. Bad things, preferably.

I’ve pointed out to my students that for those of us who love literature, Augustine’s felix culpa/felix peccatum is the only possible game in town. Without sin there is no story, there is no conflict, there is no drama–of redemption or anything else.

Apparently Tolkien thought something similar. According to Verlyn Flieger in her (his?) book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World.

“Tolkien felt that the Separation, the Fall, was tragic and that the splintering of light and language were the result of the Fall. But he surely felt, too, with Augustine, the possibilities for beauty that derived from the felix peccatum Adae, the fortunate sin of Adam. Given light and language, it is our right to ‘make still by that law in which we’re made’ and by making to ‘assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.’ He felt just as surely also with Barfield that in the hands of th epoets, the makers, the ‘disease of mythology’ called language will be the instrument whereby sub-creation will finally reunite humanity with the Maker.

Well, I don’t know about all of this, but a lot of it I love. One might say that our imperfection is the condition of our creativity. Death is the Mother of all beauty, as Stevens says and I’ve noted.

And thus, as Philip Glass’s opera apparently explores in evoking the life of Mahatma Ghandi, the very difficult process of trying to create narrative art about virtue. The Romantics complained that Milton’s God is not only autocratic and oppressive of individual initiative, he’s much worse than that from the artists point of view. He’s boring. The evil man flailing against the imperturbable stone face of goodness at leastWilliam Blake\'s Satan arousing the fallen angels gives us something to hang our aesthetic hat on. Or at least the imperturbable stone face of something. Think Ahab and Moby Dick. Milton himself tried his hand at dramatizing goodness in Paradise Regained, showing that the essence of Jesus righteousness in the desert–indeed the root of his triumph over evil–is that he avoids doing anything in the face of temptation. Not so far from the traditional Christian vision of redemptive suffering which triumphs over evil not by striking it down, but by taking it upon oneself. This idea leads to the theological disputes as to whether the Christian God is impassive. If he can be moved to change–by suffering or by desire–can he be God.

Mendelsohn makes the case that Glass dramatizes Ghandi’s goodness through a kind of meditative stasis, the use of tonal repetitions mimicking the practices of meditation in a way that transcends time–a kind of act, even a kind of drama, overcoming time, but one that can’t be represented narratively. In this view of things, the essence of goodness is achronic, in time but not of it, perhaps (You can hear some clips at amazon.com here). As Mendelsohn puts it,

If, indeed, what Satyagraha aims at, in both its text and its music, is a kind of meditative state of spiritual elevation that allows us to think clearly about Gandhi’s goodness and its effects rather than to get wrapped up in his “drama,” the use of these incantatory texts only enhances our sense that we’re participating in a kind of exalting ritual, rather than spending a couple of hours at the theatre. Many New Yorkers I know, opera lovers, balked at the idea of “sitting through four hours of Sanskrit”; but those same people would happpily sit through a Te Deum (or bar mitzvah) while understanding little of the text. It’s when you see Satyagraha as a symbolic action that you can begin to appreciate it.

Side note: for some time I’ve been mulling over the idea that the experience of opera–singing as well as listening–is not unlike the experience of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues found in pentecostal churches. Understanding, in any traditional sense, is not entirely the point since God could just as well speak to us in words we do understand. So why the idea that we need a language that is other. Somehow it is the experience of language that does not mean for us that is at the center of this experience. Similarly, I think people who think opera would be more popular if they understood the language are only half correct. There is something about the fact of words that one does not experience as words but as sounds that have the shape of words that lends opera its transcendent moment for listener and singer alike.

One of my colleagues has objected vehemently to the idea that evil is necessary to literature and has insisted on the importance of lyric poetry as a means of representing it. This well could be, though I think the choice is itself interesting. Lyric is literature out of time and, to my mind, essentially non-dramatic, again like glossolalia. Almost, again, as if goodness can only be imagined and experienced in a world other than the narrative world of longing and loss that we live in.

Barack Obama Secretly Married to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Who knew?

This just in from the New York Times as of 6:07 p.m. on Saturday afternoon:

But out on the campaign trail, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, was warmer and cozier, sometimes adopting the Bill Clintonesque I-feel-your-pain message used to such great effect by his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in swing states.

Now I really hate to do this because everyone and their grandmother thinks that all an English professor does is check grammar. Still, I MUST point out that in this case “his wife” refers all the way back to the proper noun “Mr. Obama” since in fact “Bill Clintonesque” is an adjective modifying the noun “message.” And for you grammar hounds out there, a possessive pronoun cannot refer back to an adjective. No doubt the error was overlooked by an Ivy League undergraduate who is interning as a copy editing assistant and who never had to learn grammar since it is skipped in honors classes. Of course, writers mostly don’t bother with grammar anyway. Too far beneath them. Especially if they write for the New York Times.

However, one is intrigued by the possibility that this is NOT in error. Maybe Barack and Hillary did secretly tie the knot in Utah somewhere, or at least somewhere wherein the fact that you may already be married doesn’t matter very much. This gives a whole new angle on the tensions between Barack and Hillary on the campaign trail. What we all merely took for underhanded politics was really romantic and sexual tension gone awry. Hillary’s anger at Barack’s sexism was no doubt given an extra edge by the fact that he skipped doing the dishes and left the seat up the last time they were together. And what about this intriguing photo of the two love-birds together. Party unity, indeed! As for that evening of reconciliation at the home of Diane Feinstein where she said knowingly that she would “leave the two of them alone together”? No doubt with a wink and a nod. Inquiring minds want to know.

Political Enemies or Love-birds? You Decide
Combatants or Love-Birds? You Decide!

Cryptomnesia revisited (is this even possible?)

I mentioned in my last post that I had an intuitive sense that cryptomnesia must somehow be deeply important to creativity, but that I was also sure that someone else had already said it.

Turns out I was right on both score, or at least on the score that someone already said it. Siri Carpenter reports in the Monitor on Psychology that four psychologists have conducted tests whose results suggest the process of forgetting that one has learned something is important to creativity:

The mechanisms that underlie cryptomnesia also have important implications for creativity, Marsh believes. Recently, he, Landau, Hicks and psychologist Thomas B. Ward, PhD, of Texas A&M University, have examined how unconscious learning affects the creative process. In one series of experiments, for example, the researchers asked participants to draw novel space creatures. They found that when participants were first shown a few examples of space creatures that all contained some features in common, such as four legs, antennae and a tail, participants reliably included those features in their own drawings–even though they were instructed not to copy any of the features used in the examples.

“If we want to understand how it is that people design skyscrapers, or write music, or write a New York Times best seller,” Marsh concludes, “I think we need to acknowledge that nothing we design is ever truly novel–every creative effort contains vestiges of what we have experienced in the past.”

I admit that this particular experiment and its definition of creativity strike me as kind of lame, but it still gets at the fact that creation is a cobbling together of things we’ve already known rather than a fashioning tout court. My earlier intuition is more along the lines that people we view as truly creative have the ability to forget, which is as important as the ability to remember. By absorbing ideas, stories, images, and yet forgetting their original context, we are freed to recombine them in new and interesting ways more readily than those who remain slaves to context and origin.

This is, of course, no respecter of intellectual property rights, but don’t forget that Shakespeare’s best ideas were plagiarism–perhaps both conscious and unconscious–of other less accomplished playwrights.

There are apparently a couple of other documented literary cases of cryptomnesia, one pretty definite, the other speculative. At the New York Observer, Ron Rosenbaum wrote an essay about the speculation of a professor that Nabokov’s clear use of someone else’s lolita-like story represents a case not so much of conscious plagiarism as of cryptomnesia. Professor Michael Marr provides some pretty well-documented evidence that Robert Musil recognized his own cryptomensia in a couple of scenes of Man Without Qualities.

There’s also an interesting claim at Andrew Brown, Queen’s Counsel, an intellectual property web-site, to the effect that creative people are especially susceptible to Cryptomnesia.

The psychiatrist C G Jung in his book Man and His Symbols outlines that the brain never forgets an impression, no matter how slight. The mind has an ability to recall old impressions particularly during a creative process and what is perceived as a “new” creation can in fact be past memories subconsciously recalled. This can give rise to subconscious plagiarism or what psychiatrists call cryptomnesia.

Those with left brain creativity such as artists, composers or fashion designers can all be particularly susceptible to subconscious copying.

I also ran across a number of writers who say they are terrified of cryptomnesia. I suspect that in part, it’s graduate student sydrome. Always frantic to keep track of the last footnote to demonstrate the three sentences of ideas that you actually have are really your own, most dissertations ever written are more dully derivative that a sophomore’s thesis. I, at least, didn’t feel like I was really becoming a scholar until I knew the field well enough to forget where I had learned things. This started happening about 10 years after I finished graduate school.

In general I suspect that the books of folks worried about cryptomnesia aren’t all that good. They are so obsessed with the question of whether they are original that they don’t leave themselves any space to be creative.

Cryptomnesia: Originality, thy name is plagiarism

For the past several years I’ve used the Footprints poem in my literary theory class to discuss theories evaluation and aesthetic quality. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Footprints poem, I want to say first, “What planet have you been living on?” There is, after all, no more popular item of American religious kitsch than the Footprints poem. My very conservative guess is that is has been shellacked to about 14 million pieces of 1X4 plank board pieces at Vacation Bible Schools across the country.–For those of you unfamiliar with Vacation Bible School…well…bear with me. This may be a my culture/your culture sort of thing. In any case, just enter Footprints poem in any search engine and prepare to be inundated.)

As I was saying, I’ve used this “poem”–in some versions it’s kind of more of a paragraph–to talk about theories of aesthetic distinction. My very good English majors are often aghast that there could be a serious debate about the aesthetic qualities of such a piece of tripe. On the other hand, they are often very chary of the notion that someone could tell them that some things are better than others. Good Americans all, their instincts tell them that it is elitist in a sad and undemocratic fashion to assert that Wagner is “better” muscially than Eminem, or that some things are just inherently better than other things. Brought home to them through Sunday School poetry, however, we deal with the question of why they believe that the Footprints poem is inferior. If it is inferior, what justification to we use for saying that some things are better than other things. Is making this claim an objective claim or is it merely a subjective preference they’ve developed through their years of being elitist English majors. If Hopkins really is better than the Footprints poem, should we take it upon ourselves to teach people that love the Footprints poem that they are really rotting their aesthetic brains and ought to be reading Gerard Manley Hopkins. And if we really believe people would be better off reading Hopkins, why is it such a leap to believe that Wagner really is better than LL Cool J, or that in general everyone would be better off listening to opera than to Country and Western or Rock and Roll.

Found out today that I can now use the Footprints poem to also teach about the philosophy and history of authorship, another main topic of the course. Hank Stuever over at the Washington Post has written a great piece on the contested authorship of the Footprints poem. Turns out that lawsuits abound, and that no less than 3 people are claiming ownership over the text, though one of them also claims to have written the words to a famous Beatles tune when she was a pre-teen. There are claims and counterclaims, with drafts and manuscripts and other forensic evidence.

And we only thought Shakespeare worthy of this attention.

One academic has even traced the basic essence of the poem back to a sermon in the 1880s and has asserted that it’s possible that nobody actually wrote the poem. Says Stuever:

Last fall, in an online article for the Poetry Foundation, a Brooklyn journalist and literary sleuth named Rachel Aviv traced elements of “Footprints” to a sermon delivered in 1880, and raised the tantalizing possibility that nobody really wrote “Footprints in the Sand.” Those who have claimed to, Aviv noted, may be suffering from the collective “accidental plagiarism” that Carl Jung explored in his paper “Cryptomnesia” more than a century ago.

Everyone knows a cryptomnesiast, of one sort or another. It’s your cousin who stood up at Peepaw’s funeral and tried to pass off the “Do not cry, I did not die” poem as his own; or those crafty tykes who keep submitting bits of Shel Silverstein as original verse to The Post’s kids’ poetry contest. It’s the woman who sends you a sympathy card after your dog dies, with her handwritten version of the (also disputed) fable about dogs waiting for their masters in Heaven. It’s your church pastor or corporate motivational speaker who keeps coming up with those amazing “I-recently-met-a-man-who” anecdotes to illustrate his point.

Something can be so profound, so true, (so “duh”) that the cryptomnesiast is sure she thought it up herself. There is very little you can buy at a crafts fair or in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble that doesn’t have a whiff of the unattributed.

This happens to me ALL the time. I’m always running across published stuff out there on the internet that I KNOW I came up with first. My brain is the great unacknowledged source of most of the intellectual creativity out there in the last couple of decades.

Ok, seriously though, I do have this experience of feverishly working out an idea only to discover someone else has already done it, and much better than I could even if given world enough and time. Cryptomnesia is apparently a specific form of memory in which you recall what you don’t know that you’ve forgotten and don’t remember ever learning or reading.

A new explanation for Borgeses story about the rewritten version of the Don Quixote.

I find, in fact, as I get older that I do this all the time. I was reading in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier today, and ran across a blog about an aging professor who talks about how he downloaded an article and wrote feverish and exalted notes about it, thrilled at these new ideas and contributions to his own work until he discovered somewhat later that he had already read the article, and had written feverish and exalted notes about it thrilled at these new ideas and contributions to his own work.

Okay, I really have done this. And at 48 I don’t really consider myself aged. I’m reading Dicken’s Hard Times at the moment, and I keep having the nagging suspicion that I’ve read it before, but I can’t remember enough to know what is going to happen next. Does this count as a memory?

Although it’s laughable on one level to think of the many people wanting to claim ownership of the Footprints poem, I wonder if there’s not some more serious relationship between cryptomnesia and creativity. It’s not an original thing to say that creativity is primarily a matter of rearrangement, of finding creative connections between the many things that are rather than a discovery or manufacture of the absolutely new. There are people out there with absolutely unerring memories, who remember the details of their lives from many years ago–what they had for breakfast, how long it took to eat, whether they burped or sniffled after downing the last bit of egg. I suspect, though I cannot know, that such people would find it intensely difficult to be “original.” They would experience themselves self-consciously plagiarizing or replicating experiences all the time. If I could not forget that I had read something, I would find myself less free to combine it anew with other things that I have forgotten that I learned. Recombination is made possible by dislocation, by tearing something away from it’s original context. My guess is that Crypotmnesia makes that possible.

In the same fashion, we imagine ourselves as unique and original individuals until we awake in our forties to discover that we like the same kind of socks as our fathers, that we scratch our noses in the same way between sentences, that our lower lips protrude while thinking just like his, and that we roll our thumbs around one another in precisely the same annoying way that he rolled his thumbs when we were teenagers.

Not that any of that has ever happened to me. But I’m sure if we had to live in a constant awareness of all the ways our lives are imitative, we would never be able to allow ourselves to invent new contexts and meanings for all the things we’ve plagiarized from others.

But I’m sure that someone already said this better.