Intellectual Praise

I really like this bronze from C. Malcolm Powers, an artist I don’t really

Intellectual Praise--C. Malcolm Powers

Intellectual Praise--C. Malcolm Powers

know much about, but then I don’t know much about contemporary artists at all.  I like how the arms are books, suggesting that intellectual work is a kind of praise, and it has a kind of angelic feel to it.  May be somewhat grandiose, but I like the notion that reading can be a form of praise.

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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.

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.

Reading Entrails

Can you tell anything about a person by what they read? On some level I guess I have to say yes, though I’ve become a bit more suspicious of the general principle and a bit more judicious in the application of any judgment than I used to be. I grew up in a religious tradition that assumed “garbage in, garbage out” was an axiological principle. Thus you absorbed and in some way became what you read. You are what you read, much as you are what you eat. As a result, reading matter was rigorously monitored and, in practice, severely restricted. “Bad books”—stuff that didn’t clearly support our Christian world view—were regularly described as various forms of poison or at least junk food. Things that would destroy the spiritual and psychological body. I wasn’t allowed to read J.D. Salinger while the rest of my junior class in high school gloried in the high literary profanity of Catcher in the Rye. I was morose, perhaps a sign I didn’t think the unwashed were so unwashed after all. You can read my slightly maudlin reminiscence of my youthful reading experiences in the introduction to my book, Recalling Religions (Tennessee 2001). Currently ranked 3,605,185 on Amazon.com! I excerpt just a bit below:

[In] my imagination, the story of this book’s motivations, interests, and point of view threads back to my first encounters with literature, which always seemed to be troublesome encounters with religion as well. My earliest memories of something that might be called “literature” had nothing to do with Twain or Fenimore Cooper or other authors of “boys’ books” that serious young readers were supposed to read. Indeed, I barely knew of their existence. What I did know was tangled with agonized parental debates—probably exaggerated in my memory—as to what was appropriate for a young boy from a holiness church to read. As late as eighth grade, I remember stading alone and wistful at my homeroom window watching my classmates board a bus for the local theater to see Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby. The chances of attending the film had been slim in the first place, since our church forbade movies along with dancing and drinking as contrary to holy living. Still, I had my hopes. School, combined with the responsibility my parents felt to help their smart children be successful in the world, had always been a slick oil with which I could slip through the narrowest confines of home. The Great Gatsby was a classic novel, or so I assured my parents that the teacher had assured me. Such appeals to the greatness of Western culture lost what little cachet they possessed when my mother discovered that in Fitzgerald’s novel a woman’s breast is torn off by a car.

My mother wanted her son seeing neither breasts nor violence. And so, when I pull my copy of The Great Gatsby off the shelf—a book I did not read until my years as an English major at a Christian College—it is this rather self-pitying memory of me at a window that I see most clearly. For the most part, the dead white male writers and their cinematic representations remained far too worldly for a young holiness boy threatened on every side by the corruption of suburban Oklahoma City.

For a while, education underway and then complete, I thought I had grown out of this attitude, but now I’m not so sure. At least I retained the sense that what you read somehow automatically signified something about who you were. The only difference now was that it had a more elitist and sophisticated cast. Heaven forbid that you indulged in pulp fiction, whether romance or mystery. The chosen people were signified by the ability to parse Faulkner or Morrison, or Eliot or Pound or Dickinson or Whitman. By disdaining books sold in grocery stores. Later, as I became deeply involved in ethnic studies, reading Faulkner, Eliot or Pound–for any reason other than showing their faulty white male-ness–was a profound index of intellectual morality, my own ineffable intellectual and political purity made evident in my reading Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Leslie Marmon Silko.This is not the same kind of religious discrimination that shaped my youth, but it did involve a kind of puritanical pulling up of the skirts from the unwashed of the world. Different unwashed, different skirts, same shrinking. Over time I’ve come to think that perhaps it’s not exactly what you read so much as how you read that’s important. Though, to be honest, the values I assign to the “how” are deeply influenced by the what. The average Harlequin romance or pulp western doesn’t bear up to the attentive, critical and imaginative reading that I think signifies something about a person’s mind and imagination. This kind of reading probably is encouraged by certain kinds of books and not by others, even though, having developed this way of reading, it can be applied almost anywhere on the fly, from Desperate Housewives to Coetzee or Lessing. Thus, my general sense that cultural studies is dependent on forms of reading associated with literature, even while literature itself is falling in to disrepair.

The real occasion for this rumination is that on a lark and in the spirit of the political season, I visited the facebook pages of the leading presidential candidates. Just to see, what these people are reading, and whether I could perform a literary psychopolitical biographical reading of their reading. It’s interesting, but I think I’ll stop for the moment and come back to the literary preferences of Barack, Hillary and Mitt in a later post tomorrow.