Monday, December 31, 2007

"Say goodnight, Richard Stallman!" "Goodnight, Richard Stallman!"

Monday, cigarette #3
Back home on the front porch, 5:20pm

Open source software is a lot like vaudeville.

That’s not the opening line of a joke. (I suppose it could be. The Party of the Right had an Algonquin Round Table moment when the Chairman, challenged to come up with a punchline for “Alchemy is like a woman,” shot back with “It’s all been downhill since the Middle Ages?”)

Unlike every other performing arts community, I dunno, ever, American vaudeville was dominated by conservatives. Attempts to unionize vaudeville actors met with failure after failure, not because of tyrants in management but because most of the performers didn’t want to unionize. This from “Types of Actors’ Trade Unions” by Paul Gemmill:
A word may be said as to the difficulty of developing and maintaining effective labor organizations among vaudeville actors. The trouble seems to lie chiefly in the self-sufficiency of vaudeville actors, as contrasted with the interdependence of dramatic players. The average vaudeville bill consists of eight or ten short, disconnected acts, any one of which might easily be omitted without destroying the effectiveness of the others. But the loss of even one or two really important memebers of a theatrical cast could hardly fail to be serious...
When Gemmill talks about substitute acts, he doesn't just mean "a different but equally popular act." He means "the same act performed by different people." Vaudeville etiquette ignored authorship. If your "Salesgirl" was better than George and Gracie's, you'd be the one to get booked. This, combined with the fact that vaudevillians had no pretensions to "high art" status but measured their success by the number of tickets sold, bred a tough and libertarian culture very different from what existed among actors (who, as we know, are communists). Think of the scene in My Darling Clementine where Alan Mowbray stands on top of a table and tries to recite from Hamlet while drunk cowboys fire gunshots at his feet to make him dance. That's a little like theatre and vaudeville.

This is why I am not as surprised as Jaron Lanier and Alan Jacobs seem to be that "even though the open-source movement has a stinging countercultural rhetoric, it has in practice been a conservative force." If the constellation of ideas called "conservatism" includes opposition to unions, zeal for freedom, and an implicit trust that competition yields better results than centralized planning (although not necessarily a special love for capital or capitalism), it makes sense that the open source movement would be conservative in the same way that vaudeville was. Their visions are similar: you can still get paid for logging hours as a hoofer or a programmer, but it isn't enough to originate something. You have to keep on being the best at the thing you originate.

Two parentheticals: I'm not quite an open source true believer, and you could certainly argue that data can be duplicated more easily than a vaudeville act, which might even be true, but that doesn't justify, say, this (hat tip Jack at the Yale Free Press blog).

Also, in the interests of full disclosure: When Richard Stallman came to speak (and get attacked by ninjas) at the Yale Political Union, he stayed at the house I share with people who are (obviously) much more tech-y than I am. He sang, he expounded, he told me not to smoke, and was in every way a charming houseguest, so I should admit a bias in his favor.

Rosalind Russell vs. the Albanian sworn virgins

Monday, cigarette #2
Connecticut Hall, 10:45am

The first thing Caitlin said when I showed her this article from the Yale Globalist was, "Wow, that woman looks just like Radclyffe Hall":
Without hesitation, Sanie steps into the building, orders a raki — the national drink — and catches up on the news with some male friends. Not a single female is in sight, as no woman would dare enter this pub. But in this realm of the “man’s world”, Sanie stands out because, biologically, she is a woman. This is a scene from Sworn Virgins, a documentary about Albanian women who take an oath of virginity and adopt a masculine appearance in order to obtain the rights and freedom of men.
The Guardian's article on 'sworn virgins' is better, because it has the longest quotations from the Virgjineshe themselves. Some of them are hilarious:
Rabë Lajqi, 77

I wanted to be a man and I was completely like a man, always. There was no love and I never regretted it. I had a gun and the men were afraid of me. Once, I was cutting trees in the forest and a guy came up demanding that I stop. He said a woman shouldn't be in the woods by herself, never mind doing man's work. I pointed my rifle at him and told him, should he ever come within 100 yards of me again, he would be a dead man. Ha! How he ran. Nobody ever bothered me again.

I'd like to marry now, but it's too late. If I was younger, I'd put on a dress, flirt with the men and find myself a husband. I am the only proper Virgjineshe in Rrugova now. Mirë is not strong like a man. She was only a shepherd. She never really worked like a proper man of Rrugova.

"Kajtaz" (Mirë Lletë) Lajçi, 64

When I was eight, I told people my name is Kajtaz [a boy's name]. My family had many animals and a lot of land, and I decided to support my father and my brothers. There is no better gift for a shepherd than the respect of one's father. Working like two men, I have gained everyone's respect and the right to say whatever I want. Nobody has ever mentioned marriage to me!

Rabë told you she is a strong man, did she? What she didn't tell you is she was engaged to a man from another village when she was a child. He died and they never met. Maybe her father, who arranged the engagement when she was born, didn't tell her anything, but the fact is she was engaged and is therefore a woman.
Three basic responses to these articles (and this one and this video) spring to mind:

#1, The Fossils: "This is outrageous! Women can't become men, so they should stay home and perform their own damn gender."

#2, The Feminists: "This is outrageous! Woman shouldn’t be kept from doing things just because they’re women. The notion of 'a man’s world' is absurd and destructive."

#3, Whatever Subcategory of Post-Feminism Includes Me: "This is outrageous! While it's true that women should be materially discouraged from doing un-feminine things, it’s fine if the occasional exception violates these boundaries. But it shouldn’t look like that! The best way for a woman to make it in a 'man's world' isn't to masculinize herself, but to trade on being on the only woman in the room! Rosalind Russell among the reporters in His Girl Friday, not Demi Moore in A Few Good Men!"

(Question for those who've seen His Girl Friday: Try to imagine Rosalind Russell in a room full of male and female reporters instead of a room of just men. Does her sly, breezy, self-possessed sense of humor work the same magic?)

When the Globalist talked to the Washington Post reporter who wrote this article, he gave them this quote: “I don’t know if the 'sworn virgin' says anything about the Albanian society, other than that they recognize that women can do everything that men could do.”

Maybe so and maybe not, but Zumbrun's take is complicated by the fact that even the 'sworn virgins' who are no longer sure about the whole tradition are still adamant that "once you make [the decision], you should stick to it." As one of them says, "I wish I could have children of my own, but I can't be a woman now." Does it make sense to say that the take-away message here is that "they recognize women can do everything that men could do" if, after becoming 'sworn virgins,' these women don't even believe they can do everything women can?

Jesus? A fine teacher, but didn't publish.

Monday, cigarette #1
Walking to the computer lab, 10:20am

Today's assignment is to log a few hundred words of the senior essay. But when it's a few hundred words about this, what's the difference between work and vacation, anyway?:
Indeed, that is the charm about Christ, when all is said: he is just like a work of art. He does not really teach one anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something. And everybody is predestined to his presence... People point to Reading Gaol and say, "That is where the artistic life leads a man." Well, it might lead to worse places. De Profundis

Sunday, December 30, 2007

"...being the Comedian's the only thing that makes sense."

Sunday, cigarette #5
Outside Gourmet Heaven, 5:45pm

Sacha Guitry, who was apparently “the French Noel Coward,” said You can pretend to be serious, but you can’t pretend to be funny. (If he had been the French P.T. Barnum, he would have said You can sucker somebody into believing you, but you can’t sucker somebody into laughing for you. If he had been the French Heidegger, he would have said Humor participates in authenticity to a greater extent than does seriousness. If he had been the French Philip Roth, he would have been Michel Houellebecq.)

Intellectual movements attain their perfection in their humor. If the Sokal hoax proved that real serious-sounding postmodernism and fake serious-sounding postmodernism are basically indistinguishable (whoops, guys), Andrew Boyd proves that the line between real postmodern humor and parodic postmodern humor is so fine that it probably doesn’t exist. These are a few helpful hints from Life's Little Deconstruction Book: Self-Helf for the Post-Hip:
2. Implicate yourself in every interpretation.
33. Be as if.
97. Negotiate identity.
138. Disperse yourself in a cloud of disparate elements.
179. Manufacture nostalgia.
200. Collect worldviews.
221. In an attempt to demystify, further obscure.
237. Take irony for granted.

Visitors to his site can also enter the existential contest. ("I can't go on; I'll go on; what's up with that?" "When you Facebook friend the abyss, the abyss also Facebook friends you." "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must change the subject to something we can all enjoy.")

By the way, that Sacha Guitry quote is also the reason I like politics-as-comedy better than politics-as-tragedy or politics-as-melodrama: there’s a better chance that the thing people are responding to is true. (Although, to be fair, this isn’t always a good thing.)

Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations majors say the darnedest things.

Sunday, cigarette #4
Axis Orange, front porch, 2:45pm
MUSIC: "Outfit," the Drive-By Truckers
Have fun, and stay clear of the needle, and call home on your sister's birthday,
And don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus, don't give it away.

Every time I hear this album I think of something wise that a friend of mine (who had put away a couple) said:
"Saying that the Drive-By Truckers are better than Lynyrd Skynyrd is like saying your favorite priest is better than Jesus. It's not true, but sometimes you really want to say it."

Ooh, a weekly feature! I should get one of those.

Sunday, cigarette #3
Au Bon Pain, 10:35am

Paper Cuts does a thing every Wednesday that calls itself Living with Music, and this week they did it with Jack Pendarvis:
12) No Return, The Kinks. The Kinks are my favorite rock band, so it’s hard to pick just the right song. If we’re pretending that this is an actual playlist, a traditional 12-song album like they used to make in the old days, I think we should end with the gentle, melancholy samba “No Return.” Barry Hannah once described the American South as (I’ll paraphrase) a place where we’re taught to be nostalgic by age nine. The suburban England of the Kinks is a similar place. All of their songs have a certain ache. Sometimes it comes in an outburst of blistering guitar, sometimes in a sound like an abandoned music hall. And once in awhile, as in “No Return,” they just lay it out there plain and quiet.
If you think this guy sounds funny (and he is), you could read his blog. I guess. Or you could read his review of Elia Kazan's Baby Doll instead:
The smarter, better Southern writers, the great ones like Barry Hannah, have an instinctive desire to lay waste to the past. Early in Geronimo Rex, Hannah’s narrator takes out a peacock: “I caught him on the head, and his beak swerved like plastic. He dropped on the bricks like a club, his fantail all folded in.” That’s Hannah killing off the ghost of [Flannery] O’Connor, so he can get on with things. [...]

With Baby Doll, [Tennessee] Williams had the foresight and good humor to preemptively assassinate his own oeuvre. Every ingredient we’ve come to expect is there in the funhouse mirror. Stanley’s manly screaming for Stella is reduced to Archie Lee’s impotent, laughable cries of “Baby Doll! Baaaaabbbyyy Dooooooolllllll!” And when Baby Doll emerges, it’s not with Stella’s smoldering grace but the distracted air of a clerk at the DMV. [...]

In The Glass Menagerie, the rituals of courtship well and brim over with loss—the gentleman caller, the chaperones, the sad refreshments, the sweet sentimentality withering before our eyes. Our hearts break as we witness the false and innocent appropriation of all the traditional symbols of love. The great seduction sequence in Baby Doll contains all the same elements, played this time as a sublime, sick joke. The courtship plays out in front of a pigpen, and in a decimated car in the yard, a trashy parody of a Sunday drive. Many of Baby Doll’s lines should be single-entendre camp classics, as when she wonders if Vacarro has “enough energy to work that old pump.” When, in lieu of candy and flowers, Vacarro offers her a pecan he has opened with his teeth, she says, “I wouldn’t dream of eating a nut which a man has cracked in his mouth,” to which he replies with the equally classic, “You got many refinements.”
In other Paper Cuts news: Stephen Fry has a blog? And he riffs on the opening lines of Love's Labour Lost ("Let Fame, that all hunt after in their lives,/Live registered upon our brazen tombs...")? By saying things like this?
Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, legendarily fired off an angry memo to his staff after a broadcast in which someone or other was described as “the famous lawyer”. The memo went like this: ‘The word FAMOUS. If a person is famous it is superfluous to point out the fact, if they are not then it is a lie. The word is not to be used within the BBC.’ Way to tell them, Scottish guy. [...]

Is [fame] fun? Or, as student journalists always ask, what’s it like? ‘What’s it like working with Natalie Portman, what’s it like doing QI, what’s it like being famous?’ I don’t know what it is like. What is being English like? What is wearing a hat like? What’s eating Thai red curry like? I don’t believe that I can answer any question formulated that way. So, student journalists, tyro profilers and rooky reporters out there, seriously, quite seriously never ask a ‘what’s it like’ question, it instantly reveals your crapness. I used to try getting surreal when asked the question and say things like ‘being famous is like wearing blue pyjamas at the opera. It’s like kissing Neil Young, but only on Wednesdays. It’s like a silver disc gummed to the ear of a wolverine. It’s like licking crumbs from the belly of a waitress called Eileen. It’s like lemon polenta cake but slightly wider. It’s like moonrise on the planet Posker.’ I mean honestly. What’s it like?? Stop it at once.
Did I wake up in the wrong universe? Who else has a blog in this one?

Speaking of Ace in the Hole...

Sunday, cigarette #2
Walking downtown, 9:50am
"I can handle big news and little news, and if there's no news I'll go out and bite a dog." Ace in the Hole

Found this while poking around for that Kirk Douglas picture: "It's News! Man bites rabid dog in southern India."

From Reuters, even.

Then again, how many not-hideous pictures of Bette Davis are there?

Sunday, cigarette #1
Walking downtown, 9:40am

Things I Would Not Have Done Had I Been the Author of This Slate Article

1. Summed up the way Hollywood makes smoking "cool" with this hideous photo of Bette Davis.

2. Referred to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall as "the Brangelina of the day."

3. Used the phrase "a morgue-full of diseases."

4. Offered a list of great lighting-matches-on-unconventional-surfaces moments that omits Kirk Douglas's hotshot reporter lighting a match on the reel of his typewriter in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Dispatches from Senior Essay Land

Saturday, cigarette #1
Chez Orange, front porch, 8:45pm
Dandyism is always dandyism in relation to God. The individual in so far as he is created can oppose himself only to the Creator. ALBERT CAMUS
For those who don’t know, I'm spending my senior thesis trying to work out some understanding of Oscar Wilde’s Catholicism that makes his final conversion something other than a pose, or a scam. To a mind so preoccupied, this bit from a Borges interview had hooks in it:
I remember a joke of Oscar Wilde’s: a friend of his had a tie with yellow, red, and so on, in it, and Wilde said, “Oh, my dear fellow, only a deaf man could wear a tie like that!”

I remember telling that story to a lady who missed the whole point. She said, “Of course, it must be because being deaf he couldn’t hear what people were saying about his necktie.” That might have amused Oscar Wilde, no?
Some people (naming, of course, no names) are quick to accuse late-in-life converts of falling prey to the fears of old age and finding solace in religion only because they discovered themselves too weak to stare death in the eye when he’s on their doorstep. Wilde is fun to study because this is so obviously not what’s going on, not because he clearly found Catholicism more unsettling than comforting (although this is probably true), but because everybody knows that “the sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow.” If he'd wanted comfort, he'd have stuck with green carnations.

Speaking of decadent Catholicism: Eleanor Bourg Donlon wraps up her Magdalen Montague series in the Advent Dappled Things, and it sounds straight out of Huysmans. Tantalizing first paragraph:
Marvel once again at my address, dear fellow! After a tedious journey and fitful rest, I am reconciled with my father, and drawn back into the suffocating familial bosom. At the moment, the said bosom consists of my revered Pater (hitherto to be known by the respectful initials m.r.p., like some grandiloquent Latinate abbreviation) and sundry ill-kempt servants. M.r.p. looks upon Domokos, who has followed me home from Budapest like some gargoylean guardian angel, with undisguised suspicion. I could more easily explicate the purpose of the boy’s existence on earth than I could provide an adequate explanation for his attendance on me; therefore I make no explanation at all and laugh at the uproar he unconsciously causes.
Previous installments here and here.

"Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard."

Saturday, cigarette #2
Back at Axis Orange, front porch, 7:15pm
MUSIC: "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!," the X-Ray Spex

Speaking of “girls like violence,” my own go-to guy for that is Heinrich von Kleist. From Penthesilea (it's a love story about Achilles and Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, in which they spend half of the play fighting and the other half whispering sweet nothings, and not always in that order):
Alas! Son of the Nereid! To me
That gentler art of women was not granted.
Not at the games, like daughters of your country,
When in great streams the pride and glory of youth,
Come from afar to vie in joyful contest,
May I seek out the one I love among them. [...]
On bloody battlegrounds I have to seek him,
The youth my heart has chosen for its own,
And this soft breast may not receive him sooner
Than I have captured him with arms of bronze.
When I want to start an argument with one of the campus feminists (as opposed to just harrass them, which is also fun), I’ll usually start by saying, “I’m a feminist. I think that the feminine perspective has been criminally neglected by the rich white men who’ve been in charge of the West since forever. But I also think that the ‘feminine perspective’ has a lot to do with submission and humiliation.”

Most of the time, I end up having to answer the question of why I'm out having intellectually aggressive arguments like some kind of anti-feminist attack dog instead of home baking cookies for my nine children. It's a fair point, but not an unanswerable one. The heart and soul of my anti-feminism is the conviction that power relationships are okay. Traditional gender roles put women at the mercy of men, but then again so does love. If you don’t believe that, either you’ve never been in love or you’ve never listened to a deep soul song. (See “Have a Little Mercy,” or anything ever put out on Stax between 1959 and 1968.) One of the ways to keep a power relationship from becoming oppressive is to keep the power dynamic front and center, which is why it's okay for such a demure Southern girl to pick so many fights. In other words, feminists want the relationship between a man and a woman to look less like a battle; I’d prefer it to look more like one.

So why is it that the feminists and I both like the Amazons so much? Because not all women who become warriors do it for the same reasons, or in the same way. Penthesilea is an Amazon queen, but she’s as comfortable being under a man’s control as she is to be controlling him. (“True, with this arm here I was glad to strike you,/But when I saw you sinking down, my breast/Was envious of the dust that would receive you.”) The Amazonian high priestess, on the other hand, is an Amazon because she is uncomfortable with any relationship where she isn’t the one with the power.

Unfortunately, she gets the best speech in the play:
[To Penthesilea:]
Well then, my Queen, this diatribe of yours
Does set a worthy cap, I must confess,
Upon the deeds of this unfortunate day.
No only that, in disregard of custom,
You seek out your opponent in the field;
Not only that, failing to cast him down,
You’re thrown by him instead; not only that you
Garland him with roses in return:
But you revile your loyal followers
Who broke your chains, you turn away from us,
And call the conqueror to come back to you!
Very well, then, noble daughter of Tanais.
Free, in our people’s name, I now pronounce you,
And you may wend your feet wherever you please,
May run with fluttering garments after him
Who clapped you in irons, and bring back to him
The bonds we broke, for mending.
To which Penthesilea responds (very loosely translated), “Yeah, I’ll take my irons back to him for mending! It’s called love, dingbat."

"If women were good, God would have one."

Saturday, cigarette #1
Outside Koffee On Audubon, 8:45am
THUMBING THROUGH: The Weekly Standard

It's possible to direct Edward II so that Edward is basically sympathetic. Derek Jarman did it in 1991 in his unsettling movie, and he did it by being very angry.
Eve Tushnet's review of the DC Shakespeare Theatre's twin Marlowe productions (Edward II and Tamburlaine) is up at The Weekly Standard, and you should read it. The above sentence alone wins a prize for Best One-Sentence Film Review, at least in the Queer Cinema subcategory. (The previous winner was Anthony Lane for his review of Love is Colder than Death: "The part of Francis Bacon is taken by Derek Jacobi, and he takes it by force.")
The plays have a few minor similarities: They won't change the mind of anyone who thinks Marlowe can't write women, for example. Both the demi-tragic Zenocrate and the girlishly demonic Isabella don't quite work as characters. Zenocrate is an attempt to turn "girls like violence" into tragic queenship, and Isabella seems to veer back and forth from self-deluder who just wants her king back to furious dictatress who commits her own adultery in revenge.
I collect three things: books, cigarette cases, and authors who "can't write women." There’s no greater offender of Not Being Able to Write Women than noir, so, having had that particular bell rung in the back of my mind by Eve's review, I stepped outside to a riff on it over a Lucky Strike. (I shouldn’t need to clarify that I was standing under a lamp post and wearing a trenchcoat.)

A lot of authors fail at writing women, but some of them at least fail interestingly. Hemingway, for example. (“The two rules for getting on well with people that speak Spanish: give the men tobacco and leave the women alone.”) Lay Juno and Knocked Up end to end and I would still rather stay home with “Hills Like White Elephants.” But when noir fails at writing women, it's rarely interesting. Raymond Chandler didn’t understand woman (just look at his marriage), so he wrote women characters who were defined by their inscrutability. Not so much one-trick ponies as no-trick ponies.

Marlowe's problem is that he tries to wield women's inscrutability for dramatic effect. His men do unexpected things because they're tormented, or heroic, or power-mad, and unpacking his men's little mysteries will yield interesting conclusions about torment, heroism, and lust for power. Isabella and Zenocrate are mysterious, but reflecting on their little mysteries will just leave you thinking, "Oh, women." Tragedy wrings sublimity from Really Sad Stuff Happening to People by making its characters seem dramatic rather than farcical (the difference between King Lear and Man Getting Hit in Groin with Football). Trying to make your tragic women clear the larger-than-life bar by using their feminine mystique (ooh, enigmatic!) is weird and disconcerting. (FTR, I haven't seen the Shakespeare Theatre's productions, so I have no idea if that happened in their productions.)

This of course doesn't mean that men who don't understand women can't write women. That would limit the Western canon to Shakespeare, Henry James, and maybe Ibsen. It just means that there are certain traps that have to be avoided, or, if fallen into, at least fallen into with style.

David Bromwich slams English-Class-as-Show-and-Tell.

Friday, cigarette #1
Outside RDU airport, 7:40am

I'm glad to see Phi Beta Cons taking notice of Stanley Fish's new book, because I've been looking for an excuse to dredge up this quote from my other favorite candidate for "The Left's answer to Closing of the American Mind," David Bromwich's Politics By Other Means:
. . . To give a public lecture on a literary subject may now mean to address not an audience of peers, who are relied on to know the material as well as the lecturer, but an audience of fellow strivers eager to be entertained. In such company, works of the mind are viewed with something of the interest children bring to show-and-tell.
David Bromwich cuts through the tangle of the canon wars — which at Yale still results in occasional skirmishes between "The Western Canon is, objectively, the best expression of human values!" and "Yeah, if by 'values' you mean 'oppression!'" — by pointing out that whether we pick a canon of dead white men or paraplegic Chicanas we should at least pick one, because an English department where certain texts are practically in the air supply will cultivate different habits of mind than an English department that's just a lot of "Come look what I found!"

Juno: Less Knocked Up, More Ghost World.

Thursday, cigarette #2
Outside the theatre after watching Juno, 10:35pm

Juno was written by someone called Diablo Cody, and it shows. If I thought I could get a laugh from "This is one doodle that can't be undid, home-skillet," I would probably write under a goofy-awful name, too. The whole movie tastes like a Wes Anderson script that's been left at the back of the fridge for a year, except for Michael Cera, who has the "cool enough to mumble but smart enough to enunciate" diction down pretty well down.

As The Guy Who Got Our Protagonist Pregnant In the First Place, Cera is the movie's one edge over Knocked Up. Apatow's lesson: Men are unhelpful to the women they knock up, because men are, at the end of the day, pretty useless (and don't like to shop, and rarely ask for directions when lost, and what's the deal with airline food?).

Juno has a little more to say for the man in question. Just when things start to look bad for Juno and we start wondering why Cera doesn't just put on his shining armor already, we are reminded that it's because Juno dumped him and he's recovering from a heartbreak that he only halfway feels entitled to — after all, it's not like he's pregnant. But I would have preferred that Reitman had shaved a couple of dimension off of Cera's character and handed them out to the rest of the cast. They probably would have appreciated the chance to play more than one.

Ross Douthat has earned his credentials as a film geek, but his review makes Juno sound a lot more subtle than it was. "Careful viewers will note that while Juno sits in the clinic, filling out paperwork, the camera zooms in on the fingernails of the other people in the waiting room." No, careful viewers will note that the color of Barbara Bel Geddes's sweater in Vertigo always reflects the mood of the scene. Everybody and their kid sister noticed the fingernails.

And it isn't really that Juno "complicates rather than over-simplifies" the "thorny issues" of the culture war, because it hardly takes them on. Juno didn't get an abortion, but she could have. In much the same way, she drinks Sunny D, but could have picked Tropicana. I wouldn't have wanted the movie to handle the abortion question with too much emotional heft, but I was a little off-put that it wasn't handled with any. There's something unsatisfying about a character whose wise-cracking cynicism is unfazed by, y'know, the miracle of life, but who gets emotionally vulnerable about the revelation that Jason Bateman's comics-reading thirty-year-old is about as mature as you'd expect him to be. Either breaking through her cynicism was too hard or it wasn't hard enough, but either way, it's a strange way to order your priorities.

Things which are bad ideas.

Using the song "Brazil" (as in "Terry Gilliam's vision of the future, which apparently involves lots of ducts and oh yeah Jonathan Pryce getting tortured to death") as background music in the trailer for your cute robot movie.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

That's the way the girls are from Texas.

Sunday, cigarette #3
Cup-a-Joe, 11:45am
MUSIC: "Born a Woman," Sandy Posey

Makes no difference if you're rich or poor or if you're smart or dumb,
A woman's place in this old world is under some man's thumb,
And if you're born a woman, you're born to be hurt,
You're born to be stepped on, lied to, cheated on, and treated like dirt.
Well, I was born a woman, I didn't have no say,
And when my man finally comes home, he makes me glad it happened that way,
Because to be his woman no price is too great to pay.
Yes, I was born a woman, and I'm glad it happened that way.
My failure to be a feminist is well-documented, but I object to Steve Klinge's article on bee-hived countrypolitan singer Sandy Posey (not up online, but why haven't you just bought the Oxford American music issue already?):
There's nothing wrong with bubblegum — some would argue that all pop music is bubblegum—but Posey's songs can't be dismissed as typical bubblegummy superficial pleasure. They depict a real world that's full of compromise and pain, a world that exists in the past and the present, where women compromise themselves for men. That's Posey's argument.

"There's a lot of women that will do that. They live that way. And more so back then than today. Women are more knowledgeable and getting more help than they did back then. But you know, even today, it's a man's world, and, you know, God created man to be the leader of the home. We have a tendency to swing too far to the left or the right, and we're still looking for a balance. The Bible says that God hates a false balance, and where men and women are concerned and even black and white, we're still looking for that balance in the middle somewheere, to feel better."

Sandy Posey's songs depict a very imperfect world, although they don't do much to challence its injustices and inequities. That's why they present a challenge themselves. Their nearly masochistic conservatism runs contrary to present-day expectations. These complexities, however, can offer their own rewards for a listener. I'm drawn to these songs for their strangeness, for their alien qualities, but ultimately because Posey's seductive vocal performances transcend the subject matter — she sings the hell out of these songs, which almost renders the sociological implications moot. Almost.
Klinge isn't necessarily wrong to invoke Christianity as an explanation for Posey's "nearly masochistic conservatism" (a phrase I had not expected to read in a music review), but he isn't entirely right, either. Two exhibits for the defense — first, "God May Forgive You (But I Won't)" by Norma Jean:
God may forgive you, but I won't.
Yes, Jesus loves you, but I don't.
They don't have to live with you. Well, neither do I.
You say that you're born again, well, so am I.
God may forgive you, but I won't, I won't even try.

And "Forgiveness" by the Lonesome Sisters:
If you're looking for someone who'll wait home every night, someone who understands that you're trying to do right,
Someone who has compassion for the things that you do, well, I know just the someone that you can turn to.
Explain it all to Him and maybe He will take you in, and you can tell Him about the sorry cheatin' fool that you've been.
If you want a love that divine, you need the heavenly kind. You want forgiveness, tell it to Jesus. That's His job, not mine.
The Bible shoots pretty straight on the question of male headship, and there's a certain indignity and humiliation in accepting its picture of "a woman's place" (not that humiliation is necessarily a bad thing), but Klinge can't get away with saying that Christian anti-feminism makes a woman weak. As far as I can tell, Learning to Put Up With Stuff You Don't Like is called "growing up" when men do it and, when it doesn't come from a place of abject resignation, it tends to make you stronger.

P.S. One cutesy sentence near the beginning of Klinge's review absolves him of all his misunderstandings: "Listening with post-feminist ears four decades later to these aggressively pre-feminist (anti-feminist? non-feminist?) vignettes, this male listener, at least, faces plenty of cognitive dissonance." Aww.


Sunday, cigarette #2
Cup-a-Joe, 11:35

I hadn't jumped on the Ron Paul bandwagon until Michael Brendan Dougherty explained the real attraction: Ron Paul: More Fecund than the Mormons!

"Gonna be here the rest of my life, all I did was shoot my wife..."

Sunday, cigarette #1
Cup-a-Joe (inside!), 11:25am
MUSIC: "Parchman Farm Blues," Bukka White
Listen here man, I don't mean no harm,
Listen here man, I don't mean no harm,
If you wanna do good, you better stay off Parchman Farm...

This month's Oxford American music issue has got me thinking about the home country again, particularly Parchman Farm (a.k.a. The Mississippi State Penitentiary, home of the country's first portable electric chair!), which sits about thirty miles from where I was born.

OA's editor-in-chief Marc Smirnoff was weirded out by the Parchman Prison Band's rendition of "Parchman Farm Blues" enough that he put it on the music issue's free CD: "At first it bothered me that this Mose Allison cover wasn't more wrenching. I mean, the prisoners who make up the band are goofing around with a song about being in prison!" I'm with him on that, and with Dede Cannon, daughter of the old prison superintendent, in her anger over the state's discontinuation of Parchman's music program: "I was really hurt at that. He always had hopes of me taking the position on. Being that I was a woman, he had security lined up that he wanted to go with me. He said, 'If anything happens to me, I want you to take the program on.' But we had a new warden, a cattle rancher from Texas, and he believed that prisoners should be out in the fields. So it was a perfect opportunity for them to stop the band when my daddy died."

I had never realized that the presiding judge in Gerald v. Collier (the 1972 Eighth Amendment case brought by Parchman inmates) was one-armed federal judge William C. Keady, who is famous in the Party of the Right for being the star of my favorite Southern story. The tale's full glory is reserved to the oral tradition, but here are the essentials:

During World War II most of the able-bodied men were fighting overseas, which meant that William Keady, who was excepted from the draft because of his missing arm, was one of only a handful of men between the ages of twenty and fifty in the entire state of Mississippi, which meant that some unusual homefront responsibilities fell to him. One of these was clearing the sightlines between the blazes that marked property lines.

Most of the hard work of tearing out the brush was done by an old black hired hand and his grandson, but Keady, in spite of his disability, liked to help out. One time, he was out in the woods hacking away at a bramble when his hatchet got hooked on a vine, and, not noticing, he swung it forward with full force. Luckily for him, the vine twisted the head of the hatchet and Keady, instead of splitting his head open, just knocked himself unconscious.

Next thing he knew, he was sitting with his back against his truck and the old black man was slapping him softly, saying, "Mister Keady! Mister Keady! Please wake up!" Keady stirred a little bit. The old hired hand stopped slapping him and stood up, when all of a sudden the hired hand's grandson fell to the ground and started wailing. Keady was perplexed.

"What's he doin'?" Keady asked.

"Oh, he's just happy," the boy's grandfather explained.


"He's just happy he don't have to explain to the sheriff how a one-armed white man managed to kill himself with a hatchet."

Friday, December 21, 2007

PoMoCo & Eros-Lo-Volt go on an assonance safari!

Friday, cigarette #5
Cup-a-Joe, 2:35pm

Chris didn't think much of J. G. Ballard's Crash, and mostly I'm with him on it. I liked that Ballard asked the question, "Can eros survive in a hyper-technological world?" I didn't like that his answer was, "If by eros you mean something other than lots of stylized sex scenes, then no."

In his comments on my take on the Francisco Nava debacle, Broockman nailed conservatives for "finding something they personally can do absolutely nothing about (gay sex), yet can feel morally superior by blabbing about." It's true that the conservative movement's gay marriage hang-up might be coming from some strange and not very wholesome place in our hearts, but the question of eros-and-modernity-what's-up-with-that? is the front of the culture war that matters most (either that, or it's just the one that matters most to the college culture war). James Poulos is right on the money in calling today's hip intellectuals the "Eros Lo Volt! crowd." (Generation namers, take note.)

Insofar as Crash-the-movie was more than just another vehicle for James Spader to play a creepy yet attractive pervert (see also: Less than Zero, sex lies and videotape, and Secretary), it also failed as an attempt to explain Ballard's point that "what our children have to fear are not the cars on the freeways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths." Cronenberg certainly succeeded in making modern sex look like hell on wheels, but watching the movie I wanted more than that, and I feel like Ballard did, too. Take this, from "The Future of the Future" (published in Vogue in 1977):
Thus we may see ourselves at the turn of the century, each of us the star of a continuous television drama, soothed by the music of our own brain-waves, the centre of an infinite private universe. Will it occur to us, perhaps that there is still one unnecessary intruder in this personal paradise — other people? Thanks to the video-tape library, and the imminent wonders of holistic projection, their physical presence may soon no longer be essential to our lives.
Ballard is convinced that men need other people as much as they ever did but that old-fashioned ways of reminding ourselves of this sound silly and sentimental to modern ears and cannot hope to survive a head-to-head battle with slick and sexy technology. I wanted Crash to offer a postmodern eros as the solution; all I got was some postmodern pornography. (Chris: "This book uses the phrase 'natal cleft' on every page.")

Maybe the Anscombe Society's mission to apply the language of eros to everything (in Sherif Girgis's official statement on the Nava unpleasantness, he uses the phrase "distinctly unchaste" to mean "Dude, that wasn't cool") is the answer. If Crash proves that romance can't be erotic anymore, then maybe campus activism can! But I am skeptical.

My genre is "urban haute bourgeoisie."

Friday, cigarette #4
Outside the Irregardless Cafe, 1:30pm

The House Next Door has linked to Big Media Vandalism's interview with Arnold White in which he explains how it makes sense to love Wes Anderson but still think Noah Baumbach is "an asshole":
AW: Some people say, "Oh, it's white boys in India." Now they're concerned about watching white boys for two hours? Now?... [I]t reminds me of the stupid criticism of the films of Whit Stillman, like The Last Days of Disco. They complain that it's a film about white people, just about white people. Oh, now you're concerned about "just about white people?" What about when 90% of the movies that come out there are only about white people, that's okay. When they finally get a filmmaker who understands what race and class mean, they complain. Actually, let me put it better: when they get a filmmaker who understands what white privilege means, then they complain. Filmmakers who just accept white privilege as the natural order, that's fine. Let's celebrate that and throw some Oscars at it.

SB: Kind of ignore the whole fact of it.

AW: "White boy." That's not a criticism of Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman. They understand the white world. You think they [the critics] understand that Ron Howard is a white boy? That Steven Soderbergh is a white boy? They don't even think about that.
Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson make movies about white privilege that seem "genre" rather than "realist," and that's the point. Wes Anderson's films aren't quirky for quirk's sake. Their quirkiness makes the point that East Coast white life is just as much a foreign language as the old weird South or Spike Lee's ghetto.

Uh-oh! Eve Tushnet got there first:
Anyone who is or feels herself radically opposed to the currents of the day is liable to feel that her own account of her life is "unrealistic." Her perspective is not realist. Her perspective is fantastic, outside, genre.

"Realism" only works for people whose worldviews are already accepted as realistic. The rest of us must make do with genre.

Misogynists on parade!

Friday, cigarette #3
Cup-a-Joe, Raleigh, NC, 10:25am

Donald Fagen (not a man celebrated for his sympathy toward the fairer sex) has a very sweet obituary for Ike Turner up at Slate:
By all accounts, Ike got higher every year, and meaner, too. It's really hard to focus when there's a Hellhound on your trail. From Ike's point of view, squinting through the harsh fallout from all that booze and goofy dust, he may have figured that forceful action needed to be taken to ensure that everything in his world was up to his rigidly high standards of organization. He may have determined that, with the Hound so close and all, he'd better at least have his ducks in a row. Chaos had to be fended off, and the ends justified the means. Or something like that. . .

"Sure, I've slapped Tina. . . We had fights and there have been times when I punched her without thinking. . . But I never beat her. . . I did no more to Tina than I would mind somebody doing to my mother in the same circumstances." Obviously, there was something Ike just didn't get about the whole hitting problem.
Read the whole thing—he practices Christian forgiveness and quotes Goethe!

"You can tell a woman's past by the way she holds her cigarettes." — Sacha Guitry

Friday, cigarette #2
Cup-a-Joe, Raleigh, NC, 10:05am
MUSIC: "Good Morning Britain," Aztec Camera
Music's food till the art biz folds, let them all eat culture!
Mark Antliff has a review up of David Weir's Anarchy and Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism:
David Weir’s thesis in Anarchy and Culture is that anarchism’s success in the sphere of cultural avant-gardism was a function of its failure as a political movement; he assumes a separation between art and political activism despite his acknowledgment that anarchism claims to overcome such a barrier. In Weir’s reading any fusion of art and politics always favours the former to the detriment of the latter. In his view art and political activism should properly remain mutually exclusive. Weir claims that for the "ideologue" it might be possible to adapt "aesthetics to politics" but that "from the perspective of the poet" a solution might be to "adapt the politics to the aesthetics": this latter strategy is identified with anarchism, "the one ideology that might have allowed [a poet] to reconcile art and action, since anarchism as a form of individualist politics is perfectly suited to . . . individualist poetics." In Weir’s reading anarchism’s success as a poetics is part and parcel of its failure as a political ideology.
Art and politics "should remain mutually exclusive?" Anyone who caught the Yale Political Union debate Resolved: Separate Art and State had the privilege of hearing me mumble for four and a half minutes about how I think "aestheticizing" politics is just another word for "making it awesome."

The idea that politics should be pragmatic has seeped into public consciousness to the point where poetic (and religious and regional and personal) arguments are considered illegitimate. If this trend keeps up, soon there will be nothing standing between America and a national smoking ban except a lot of empty rhetoric about freedom of choice, and I didn't need the treacly final scene of Thank You For Smoking to prove just how flimsy that argument sounds when you say it out loud. Libertarianism is about personal choice, but it's also about the harm principle, and no one can deny that when I light up a Camel I hurt myself and the people around me to a non-negligible extent. "Smoking is a choice and choosing stuff is my right as a citizen!" doesn't work when the choice harms.

To argue against a national tobacco ban, smokers have to prove that a sane person can examine the facts and still find reasons to smoke, and for a lot of people these reasons are aesthetic reasons. If the rules of our democratic discourse say that "Yes, but then what will Marlene Dietrich do with her hands?" and "Like Trey Parker says, this cigarette is about the only vacation I have" and "Watching the smoke dance out of a cigarette is like watching a girl dance out of her dress" are all illegitimate arguments, then we'd better start coming up with cigarette speak-easy passwords now. ("Twenty-three skiddoo, gimme a Malibu!") Weir is wrong that anarchism succeeded culturally because it failed politically, because the whole point of its aesthetics was to be compatible with politics. If it doesn't do that, it doesn't do what it was meant to.

Lastly: Morrissey proves that at least he can mix art and politics.

It's been a good year for the roses

I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray,
Lying cold the way you left them, but at least your lips caressed them while you passed,
And a lip print on a half-filled cup of coffee that you poured and didn't drink,
But at least you thought you wanted it, and that's so much than I can say for me.

The two things I love most about North Carolina: (1) You can smoke inside, and (2) with weather like this, you don't have to.

Speaking of love affairs with the South: I have to admit that if you put together how much Setting the Woods on Fire and the Oxford American love Southern music, it would probably amount to more love for Southern music than I have. But not by much.

You have to find a lot of honky-tonk love in your heart if you're going to forgive Elvis Costello for putting out a country record that's actually really good, and plenty of people can't. About a year ago I was chewing the fat with the record shop boys and one of them said to me that Almost Blue "tries too hard," that Southern music has to be "un-self-consciouss." I agree with him that "there's nothing more hateful than some joker from Alexandria, VA, slapping a Confederate flag on his SUV," but the more I listen to country music the more I think that ironic distance is right at home in it. How many other genres have an entire canon of meta-songs? "The Buck Starts Here (With Hank Sure to Follow)," "Jones on the Jukebox and You on My Mind," "I Just Started Hating Cheating Songs Today," etc.? When the postmodernists discover country music, they're going to have a meta field day.

Almost Blue is a genre exercise, but is that so wrong? EC's angry young man persona is one strong breeze away from outlaw country anyway: hard-drinkin' ("Tonight the bottle let me down") and sweet loving ("and let your memory come around"), with a bad despairing streak. All he's missing is Jesus.* Lots of good MP3's over at STWOF, so listen to "Stranger in the House" and tell me EC ain't got Nashville in his blood.

As for the Oxford American Music Issue, Marc Smirnoff's liner notes win this week's Luc Sante "Bobbing for Meatballs" Award for most incomprehensible metaphor in a music review: "If getting your thumb jammed in a window or door were any fun, it would sound like this." (He is also the runner up, with, " You could chase the Sparkletones around a dense swampland and not get close to them — even if they had to lug their instruments about in a blazing afternoon. They just want it more than you.")

*This is a bigger problem than it seems; every good country star cuts a gospel record, ideally after a born-again experience sets him on the path away from the bottle and onto the straight and narrow. But EC's still got time.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

If old hymns you like, or bare limbs you like...

Thursday, cigarette #1
The Old House, 6:30pm
MUSIC: "Anything Goes," Ella Fitzgerald
In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking,
Now, Heaven knows, anything goes!

Not much to do back at the old Carolina homestead except sing Cole Porter and frighten the neighbors, but "Anything Goes" reminds me of my favorite Bill Buckley story: Some friend of his was getting hassled by his copy editor for capitalizing "Heaven" and "Hell" in his manuscript, and after ten minutes of arguing over the phone he finally shouted, "No, they're places! Like Schenectady!"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Not to mention your across-the-board ban on smoking inside

Tuesday, cigarette #3
Outside the Calhoun common room, 2:35pm
PERUSING: this month's Yale Free Press

From this month's issue of Yale's Finest Publication:

The sign, if you can't read it, says: "Several instances on campus have made it necessary for us to come together as groups that feel like they are not fully part of the school. People feel like they are being treated as second-class students. —Morse senior in April 2006." For an explanation of the context, go here.

See, Princeton conservatives? Not all forms of protest require a hospital visit afterwards.

At least he saved himself for marriage...

Tuesday, cigarette #2
Outside the dining hall, 1:45pm

The consensus over at IvyGate seems to be that the take-away lesson from l'Affaire Anscombe is that anyone who believes Ivy League campuses are hostile to conservative ideas is rubber room material. While no one in my circle at Yale has ever been beaten with an Orangina bottle, they have been intimidated with disciplinary action in a way that liberals aren't.

Consider the NOGAYS incident: on last year's National Coming Out Day, an unknown group of students hung up posters around campus with pictures of celebrities announcing that they were "coming out" as this or that (Mel Gibson as an anti-Semite, Joe Lieberman as a Republican, and, most surreally, Orlando Bloom as a city in Florida). At the bottom was the slogan: "Admitting it doesn't make it right" (which is true). These posters purported to be sponsored by the National Organization to Gain Acceptance for Your Sins. An email to similar effect was sent to the entire student body the same morning.

The email was anonymous, but the administration tracked the IP address to two poor souls to whom they proceeded to read the riot act. The LGBTQ Co-Op was crying for blood and expulsions. (Well, not all of them; some wanted to respond by throwing a dance and calling it the "Gay Bash.") Because Yale's free speech policy protects satire, these students could only be disciplined for violating Yale's email policy, which prohibits mass emailing. In practice, the policy doesn't stop the fraternities and comedy troupes from mass emailing when they have a party or a show coming up, and very rarely with any disciplinary consequences. The administration's reason for going after the NOGAYS emailers was transparently ideological.

Now, I actually liked the NOGAYS posters. The message behind them wasn't We should go back to the days when being gay meant that your friends and family treated you like a space alien! It was, Okay, LGBTQ Co-Op, you've done a good job making the Yale campus a safe place for people to figure out their sexuality, and that's genuinely great, but you have done absolutely nothing to respond to people who oppose your identity not because it makes them go 'Ewww!' but because they've thought about it and decided after sober consideration that it's a sin. In fact, by labeling everyone who thinks gay sex is a sin a 'bigot', you've made the Yale campus unsafe for people who want to figure out the answer to that question! The irony — do you get it? The way you can tell that the satire worked is that the idea behind the satirical slogan ("Admitting it doesn't make it right!") was repeated almost exactly by the people being satirized: “[The Day] is about accepting diversity within our own community . . . you can come out as whatever."

To bring the story back around to poor Mr. Nava: a lot of people were upset with the NOGAYS emailers for hiding behind anonymity, but anonymity is fine when the cost of standing behind your posters is being punished for hate speech. It wasn't just stern looks that the NOGAYS emailers were being threatened with. Even if Nava has cost campus conservatives the moral high ground (assuming we ever had any!), that doesn't mean that every report of a hostile liberal campus is just paranoia.

"I love you, and you don't pay me."

Tuesday, cigarette #1
On the porch, 12:05am
’Twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took’t away again;
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff; and still he smiled and talk’d,
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He call’d them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.

The Shakespeare Project (cold readings, a play or two a week, six to ten of us, with the expectation of getting through the whole canon by graduation) had fallen a little behind schedule, so to catch up we did both parts of Henry IV in one night. In spite of Pip's sadistic casting ("Wait, I'm Mistress Quickly and Pistol, and he's Worcester and Vernon? Everybody's gonna be fighting with themselves!"), it was six epic hours well spent.

Housemate Jack walked me home and asked lots of I-don't-speak-Shakespeare-I'm-a-physics-major questions: "So in King Henry's death scene, Hal was just pretending to be sorry for his former life?"

"I don't think so. He proves his honor later. He's not just faking it."

"So he was just pretending to be friends with Falstaff, then. It was just a plot to make everyone appreciate it more when he shaped up."


This was really my problem with My Own Private Idaho. Gus Van Sant tried to construct some kind of grand unified theory of Prince Hal, on the assumption that Hal's sudden conversion only makes sense if Hal-before and Hal-after are immediately recognizable as the same person with the same motivations. Keanu Reeves becomes a gay hustler because he is a greedy, self-centered materialist ("It's when you start doing things for free that you grow wings and become a fairy"). He abandons gay hustling to inherit his father's business because he is a greedy, self-centered materialist. This makes it look like he doesn't get anything out of his life with Falstaff that he can't get out of his honorable life, that at the end of the day Keanu Reeves recognizes no difference between crime and politics. This is an interesting thesis, but it isn't Henry IV's.

Gus Van Sant wants to say that the thieving, tricking underworld has more honor and love in it than you might think, but he shows us this with every character but his Prince Hal, who really is just that mercenary. Van Sant doesn't make his Hal a golden-hearted hustler like River Phoenix ("I mean for me, I could love someone even if I, you know, wasn't paid for it"), because he's afraid that the physics majors in the audience will ask when he was lying, then or now. The kind of person who really wants a life outside the law and also really wants a wife and kids is easy to be and hard to explain, but damn if that's not what God invented art for.

Monday, December 17, 2007

L'Affaire Anscombe

Monday, cigarette #4
Branford courtyard, 10:45pm

The best part of IvyGate's coverage of the Francisco Nava story is not the phrase "anti-modernity-club" (although it's a pretty killer shorthand for the Anscombe Society). It's the reader comments. One student's take:
D08 says: what an idiot. he'll never get hired.
Which got this response:
anonymous says: oh, man, D08, preprofessional any? I love the reflexive 'he'll never get hired.' the scene: obviously severely disturbed student BEATS HIMSELF UP for attention and the response from the proto-i-bankers in the corner is 'now THAT will look really bad on his google search!'

Fur: A Disappointing Portrait of Diane Arbus

Monday, cigarette #3
Outside the Silliman movie lounge, 9:55pm

I wanted very badly to like Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Steven Shainberg has all the makings to be My New Favorite Auteur: a beloved debut, an obvious knowledge of genre conventions and a willingness to subvert them, and a degree from my alma mater. But he makes enough mistakes in the first five minutes of Fur to cripple the whole thing. The main titles are ridiculous. The crucial mother character reveals herself as a caricature within three lines. ("Where did you get that dress?" "You gave it to me, mother." "I gave it to you last year.") And while it's nice to know that Nicole Kidman values her indie cred, she is mis-cast.

Diane Arbus should have been a role for Charlotte Rampling fifteen years ago, or Leelee Sobieski five years from now. Kidman manages sensitivity, but no toughness. If I were Robert Downey, Jr., playing the love interest and freak composite character, my biggest worry about having an affair with Kidman wouldn't be ruining her reputation; it would be that I might accidently break her.

Fur is a lot like Secretary, and it suffers from comparison. Each film depicts a magical dream world, but Secretary has an excuse — its narrator is in love. In Fur, it's not entirely clear what makes Diane's world so dream-like. Fear? Freakishness? Trauma? What? Some of the dialogue satisfies, and no one is a more beautiful smoker than Nicole Kidman, but checking out a Diane Arbus book from your local library would probably be a better use of your time.

"Haunted by the lives that I have loved and actions I have hated..."

Monday, cigarette #2
The Owl Shop, 2:15pm
MUSIC: "Amazed," Poe
The voice of my father still loud as before; it used to scare me, but not anymore . . .
Roger Scruton's meditation on forgiveness got linked on the A & L Daily, but after reading it I wished I'd spent twenty minutes on "the glorious toothpick" instead:
Forgiveness is not achieved unilaterally: it is the result of a dialogue, which may be tacit, but which involves reciprocal communication of an extended and delicate kind. . . The one who forgives changes his whole posture towards the one who had injured him, and cannot do this without the other’s cooperation.
This isn't just a bad idea; it's dangerously bad. If Scruton is right, then we live in a world where we can't forgive people who are dead. Or people who don't understand what they've done. Or people who understand what they've done but are going to keep on doing it anyway. Think about it: if you're going to help an alcoholic friend quit the bottle, is forgiving him something you do before or after?

I'm not sure that electro-pop concept albums are Roger Scruton's cup of tea, but Haunted is the album that Ann Danielewski (sister of the House of Leaves guy) made about her father after he died. It's brutal stuff ("If you want to play dirty, my darling, I'm gonna win; I'm not a virgin anymore"), but it makes a pretty compelling case for having an understanding of forgiveness that lets you forgive someone after they're gone.

More from the right-wing nostalgia file

Monday, cigarette #1
Outside Bass Library, 10:45am

As I stand ankle-deep in snow outside the library, I can only think of the late 1980's, when the study room of Yale's main undergraduate library had a smoking section.

Something tells me I would write papers faster if I had a pack to help me concentrate. Also: c'mon! Aesthetics! A woman sitting at a desk in front of a typewriter/laptop/textbook might be working or she might just be staring off into space thinking about what to have for lunch, but a woman sitting at the same desk smoking cigarette after cigarette? She's thinking thoughts.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Is it true what they say about Dixie?"

Sunday, cigarette #3
The Branford courtyard swing, 5:15pm

Like Camille Paglia, I spend half of my time earning credibility with the Left and the other half spending it. (This review in one sentence: "If I praise your list of euphemisms for male ejaculate as 'mesmerizing vernacular poetry,' then I can get away with calling gender studies a closed circle of groupthink and cant!") This is why I wish I could get upset about stories like this one. I wish I could say, "As a white Southerner, I don't think the black population should read racism into my flying the Confederate flag at an athletic event or outside my dorm room window, but it's clear to me that you do, and if the small act of my eliminating this symbol from my otherwise intact cultural identity spares you what seems to be non-negligible psychological offense, then I will, because I don't want to be stubborn about it. After all, a true Southerner is nothing if not polite."

But there's a difference between objecting to the Confederate flag because "that flag means racism" and objecting to it because "that flag means the South and the South means racism." The first leaves room for a legitimate Southern identity purged of that particular stain; the second implies that all of those things which differentiate the South from other regions of the US trace their lineage back not only to the time of slavery, but to slavery itself, and should therefore make way for the inexorable march (progress!) of Yankee culture. Accomodating the first is being tolerant of error in order to avoid a larger pain. Accommodating to the second crosses the line from courtesy to surrender and self-abnegation.

So there goes an opportunity for me to earn lefty street cred. Maybe I should spend the next cigarette drafting a gushing review of the new PJ Harvey album or something.

More fun with nouns

Sunday, cigarette #2
Still trudging downtown, 1:25pm

I spent the entire second cigarette thinking about the woman in the scooter commercial who complains that she used to be "limited by her mobility" and eventually decided that it doesn't make sense to say that you are limited by your mobility.

I am an incurable pedant.

The only good aphorism is a dead aphorism?

Sunday, cigarette #1
Knee deep in snow, trudging downtown, 1:15pm

I did not expect to enjoy anything written by someone who took time out of his life to write a book called Why Poetry Matters ("From the author of Mobility is So Key and Declaring War on the Sun: The Case Against!"), but this article on aphorisms is pretty cute, although not at all aphoristic. Observe:
Aphorists like all creative writers to some extent, are gifted plagiarists; that is, they feed on language, taking and transforming what went before them, giving fresh life to what was taken. Ideas belong to no one, only specific language does. And so aphorists take a whiff of what's in the air and put a name to what they smell. Thus we read in Ecclesiastes: "A fool's voice is known by a multitude of words." Centuries later, Ezra Pound says: "The less we know, the longer our explanations."

The opening quote from Umberto Eco ("There is nothing more difficult to define than an aphorism") reminded me of Prof. Deresiewicz the week we wrote aphorisms in Daily Themes: "This is probably the toughest week in the semester, because aphorisms are hard to write on command. Most aphorisms don't work, even the ones that work. You might say that all aphorisms are failed aphorisms. Hmm. Especially that one. That one was terrible." One Marlboro is not enough time to wrap my head around that one.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Hing hang hung, see what the hangman done."

I posted a while ago about the paired images of virtue (masculine/feminine, chastity/matrimony, integrated/exiled) that pop up in Christianity. Each half is complete and coherent but also utterly incompatible with its other half. In other words, perfect manly virtue and perfect womanly virtue cannot coexist in the same person.*

Pip disagrees with me that innocence/wisdom is an example of this kind of dichotomy. He thinks innocence/wisdom is more like justice/mercy, which isn’t an example of paired images of virtue, because both perfect justice and perfect mercy are failures of virtue — one makes you Angelo in Measure for Measure, the other makes you a Quaker.

Cigarettes bracket time, and the argument between me and Pip very much needed to be bracketed. I do not think I can continue my end until Pip watches Night of the Hunter (because any discussion of the question “Can innocence and wisdom coexist?” has to include James Agee).

Night of the Hunter is a lot like A Death in the Family: both deal with what happens when innocence, in the form of a young child, is confronted with absolute evil, either in the form of a murderous preacher or the random death of a father. Our expectation is that it will harden the child and force him to transition from innocence to experience a little earlier than usual, but Agee has a different understanding. In his world, children confronted with absolute evil remain innocent. They are able to identify evil, but can neither comprehend it nor protect themselves against it. (One of the lessons of NoTH is that it is the responsibility of old, wise people to protect the innocent who should not have to sacrifice their innocence in order to protect themselves, and never has this looked better than Lillian Gish holding a big shotgun.)

It is a choice to protect one's innocence, a choice that everyone under a certain age should make regardless of circumstances. At the end of the film, little John Harper is asked by the judge to point at the man who tried to kill him, and he can't do it, not because it would be contrary to his conscience to finger Robert Mitchum but because it would be contrary to his innocence. Robert Mitchum should be punished, but John shouldn't be the one who does it. Incidentally, this also explains the part of the movie that always puzzled me, which is why John reacts the same way to the police hauling off Mitchum at the end as he did when the police hauled off his father at the very beginning.

Innocence is more complicated than "not knowing about evil." It's a kind of purity, like chastity — there's something wrong with a world where everybody does it, but for certain people (children under the age of twelve for the one and those with vocations for the other) its preservation is worth every sacrifice. It is true that innocence/wisdom is more fluid than masculine/feminine, but that doesn't mean it isn't the same kind of thing.

*I almost wrote that each half is “self-contained,” but I am not sure I want to claim that masculinity makes sense in a world without women, or vice versa.

William F. Buckley: The F is for Funny

Nicholas Desai has begun blogging over at The American Scene and breaks out of the gate with a review of Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription.

I tried very hard to remember my own favorite Buckleyism, and eventually resorted to looking it up:
If there is a key to the problem of racial and tribal tensions, and James Baldwin has it, certainly we should make it a part of our foreign aid program for export abroad, but remember that the Nazis in occupied France had all the laws and all the machine guns on their side, and still they couldn't get the French to treat them like human beings. 18 June 1963

On that note: anyone interested in what the face of modern racism does and doesn't look like should await with bated breath the December issue of Yale's Finest Publication, which hits stands tomorrow. The cover story criticizes Yale's sensationalizing coverage of an isolated incident of racist graffiti. Tantalizing caption from page five: "When I was a freshman, I based most of my life philosphy on things I gleaned from bathroom stall etchings and alley graffiti."

We thought about including staffer TB's retort to a sign which quoted a Yale freshman as saying that the inhospitable racial atmosphere here made her want to go home: "Go home then. There are a hundred people on a waiting list who'd love your spot." But we figured it was a little too on the nose.

The new issue also includes an interview with Ron Paul in which he answers the question "How would the Paul administration respond to a nuclear terrorist attack in a major American city?" Hint: his answer is not "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity."

Fun with Nouns

Thursday, cigarette #1
Outside Commons, 7:15pm

A book review in Hermenaut contains the sentence "As we say around the Hermenaut office, humor is the lowest form of humor," so I spent this cigarette chatting with a blond interlocuter about other nouns which could replace "humor" in this sentence. Mine: writing and conversation. His: sex and smoking. He is, needless to say, a non-smoker.

Dandywatch - Hermenaut, Issue #11

Wednesday, cigarette #3
Outside Bass Library, 3:45pm

Award for Most McSweeney-esqe Piece in Hermenaut #11 (The "Camp" Issue): "The Art of Being Uncomfortable."
. . .one can only live so long on coffee, gin and tonics, romance, dressing up, philosophy, and insomnia (for the truly glamorous are very smart people who tend to stay up too late) before descending into a suicidal depression. That's why, from time to time, I've stealthily crept at dawn to the health club down the street to become one with a dozen other ladies whose sweat soon blossoms into perfect circles 'round their purple lycra-ensconced crotches.

Aerobics is not glamorous, for glamour always involves appreciation by and contrast with the opposite and more craggy sex—you know, the one that commits all the murders. Aerobics is merely a respite in the valley of pure femaleness, a sweet balm for the ravages of the luxurious life. (Don't get me wrong—I like ravages. However, you gotta take a break sometimes.) But beware. Behind the girlish, dance-like trappings of aerobics lurks exercise, and exercise is a man. Like every good bad man, exercise is seductive, dangerous, and absolutely nothing like what it appears to be. And just like that bad man, exercise will start making you do things that you would never think of doing were your mind only clear. (Don't forget—endorphins are drugs.) If you're not careful, you'll find yourself wearing a ponytail every day, suddenly believing that yellow and turquoise compliment your complexion, and buying shoes that support your arches.
Award for Most Parentheses in a Single Paragraph: "Hermenaut of the Month: Oscar Wilde."
But it's interesting to note that one of Wilde's dandies, Lord Goring (Wilde supposedly remarked that An Ideal Husband "contains a great deal of the real Oscar"), does wind up happy. Although Goring, "the first well-dressed philosopher in the history of thought," presents himself as shallow, selfish, and easily bored, it's clear that this is merely a stylish way of being almost religiously unsentimental and detached. As a result, Goring is able to articulate what Wilde calls "the philosophy that underlies the dandy": Pleading for tolerance on behalf of sinners, Goring urges his friends (who are tormented by the need to maintain their moral respectability) to recognize that life cannot be lived according to absolute ideals, that we must be flexible and willing to change. His idle detachment allows him to be the model of the ethical aesthete, loving and generous without being sympathetic or "kind." Goring's qualities are those of the true critic, who, according to Gilbert, is "cosmopolitan" (free of prejudices), "detached" (free from vulgar emotions), "intellectual" (contemplative and serene), and "insincere" (recognizing no position as final).
That passage, incidentally, also wins the award for Most Immediately Evocative of the Senior Essay I Should Be Writing Instead of Reading Back Issues of Hermenaut.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"Why are all the rich kids sitting together in the cafeteria?"

Wednesday, cigarette #1
Outside the computer lab, 10:15am

Housemate Dara hits the nail on the head:
I often wonder if the reason that Yale’s mainstream culture seems so upper-class to some isn’t because it reflects most students’ backgrounds, but rather because students who do have these pedigrees offer a pattern that the rest of us — who had no idea of what to expect when we got here — can follow. It’s not that middle-class students are forced to conform; it’s that we’re given the opportunity to become the sophisticates we imagined ourselves to be.

Read the whole thing here.

Counterfactual counterprotests

Monday, cigarette #4
The hacking bench, 11:45pm

I encountered drunken conservative revellers in the Branford courtyard, and together we speculated on possible counterprotests to the Women's Center's protest of the Harvey Mansfield debate. (I forgot to mention in the last post that they brought a blow up doll to the debate and sat it next to a big sign reading, "Dear manliest, dearest Harvey Mansfield: Sorry the Yale feminists couldn't come to the debate. They were busy.") The only slogans we came up with were super-lame ("Burn books, not bras!" "Sophistry before sapphistry!"), so we scrapped the idea. Clearly we should start brainstorming for Sex Week now.

"All writing is a betrayal."

Monday, cigarette #3
Outside Au Bon Pain, 11:35pm
MUSIC: "Be a Little Quieter," Porter Wagoner
When you left you said you would not be returning, nothing here you'd ever want to see again,
But each night you come to visit me in memories, so won't you be a little quieter if you can?
Last night I heard you walking in the hallway and your footsteps sounded like a marching band,
And I haven't slept in so long I can't remember, so won't you be a little quieter if you can?
A thoroughly unsurprising revelation: when I want to celebrate and the liquor stores are closed, I buy a book. This time it was an anthology of Paris Review interviews, and I came across this from Dorothy Parker's:
What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work?

Need of money, dear.

And besides that?

It's easier to write about those you hate -- just as it's easier to criticize a bad play or a bad book.
Can it be true that it's easiest to write about those we hate? Think of all those love poems! I am guilty of one or two myself!

But Then Again: when I write love poetry I fall into genre much more quickly, and I don't think I'm alone in this. Love letters say "Here are the ways in which you are like this ideal"; hate letters say "Here is what you are."

So maybe it is true that all good, honest, particular writing comes from hate or something like it. This becomes more interesting if it implies that to write about someone is to grow to hate them.

Between grief and nothing, I'll have the chicken.

Monday, cigarette #2
Still outside WLH, 11:05pm
MUSIC: "Floating in Space," the Seth Material
Floating in space with no constraints,
Tell me, are you free?

Harvey Mansfield keynoted the last debate of the semester, Resolved: Men should be manly, and the Women's Center was out in full force. I was curious to hear what the professional feminists had to say to him, because asking the average Yale feminist to explain her position is like straw-polling Straussianism at a Nascar event. People who take a position for granted don't usually have a lot to say about it.

I cornered one after the meeting, enticed her with promises of coffee, and eventually wound up at her apartment where she let me smoke inside. She was smoking Light 100's and I had my Marlboro Reds, but the sisterhood of tobacco overcame our differences. Truly there is more that unites us than divides us.

The conversation rambled, but somewhere around hour three we were finally able to slap our positions up on the x-ray board and say, "There's your problem." At the end of the day, her biggest problem with the patriarchy is that it hurts women. "Yes it does," I said, "in the same way that loyalties sometimes ask us to do things which are morally wrong. But this doesn't mean that either loyalty or gender roles should be given up." She pointed out examples where patriarchy became abusive. (This is a woman who spent her summer trying to get prostitutes to unionize.) "Sure. Getting rid of manliness and womanliness will get rid of this suffering. But it will also leave women and men adrift with no coherent picture of what virtue should look like. Having nothing to live up to means never falling short, which will leave them perfectly happy and perfectly unsatisfied, like a mid-life crisis but worse."

Epigrammatic Eve once said, "Liberals think life is a comedy; conservatives think life is a tragedy," and here it was in front of my eyes. I prefer suffering; she prefers being unmoored. Suffering, at least, can be redemptive. What are the compensating benefits of being completely adrift?

Smells like . . . victory.

Monday, cigarette #1
Outside William L. Harkness Hall, 10:45pm

Posting has been light. Explanation to be found here.

According to one party's election bulletin, their endorsement was swayed by "her emphasis on an ideal debate's search for essential truth through clash, as opposed to [redacted]'s preference for primarily performative debate between irreconcilable points of origin."

The only thing more fun than winning an election is winning an election by slamming postmodernism.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Counterlife is good to the last 'drop of theatrical existence!'

Sunday, cigarette #2
Bedroom, out the window, 9:25am
THUMBING THROUGH: The Counterlife, Philip Roth
I asked you, with excessive impatience, if your identity was to be formed by the terrifying power of an imagination richer with reality than your own, and should have known the answer myself. How else does it happen?
Richard Klein talks about the "conflicting nature" of cigarettes: "They both raise the pulse and lower it, they calm as well as excite, they are the occasion for reverie and a tool of concentration, they are superficial and profound, soldier and Gypsy, hateful and delicious. Cigarettes are a cruel, beautiful mistress; they are also a loyal companion." This is how I feel about counterlives.

Becoming a personality rather than simply a person takes a lot of printing the legend, otherwise known as lying. Living novelisitically is paradoxical in the way that cigarettes are: by eliminating nuances for the sake of adhering to your archetype, your character becomes more vivid; by dishonestly fixing the storyline of of your life, the plot becomes more plausible.

Professor Senioressayadvisor tried to explain what he meant when he said in reference to Oscar Wilde that some people live life "romantically." Nothing to do with eros, he said, and not an insult. "Oh, I get it." I said. "Romantically as in cinematically." It's some kind of translation to get from Philip Roth to Alfred Hitchcock by way of Oscar Wilde, but that's the English department for you.

Otto Preminger's Angel Face

Sunday, cigarette #1
Out the window, 3:15am

It's hard being a humble laborer in the vineyards of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, for one is beset on all sides by ideological temptations: objectivism, monarchism, anarcho-capitalism, etc.

While I cannot deny having done my time as a Randian - for only two weeks, I swear, and the scar is barely visible - I have never been tempted by Agrarianism for the simple reason that I like film noir. Man was not meant to live on concrete, Allen Tate wailed. Maybe, but men living where they're not supposed to makes good film.

What makes Angel Face better than average is that Robert Mitchum's character is so hopelessly out of his element. Gone is the noir world of Laura, where every man is hard-boiled and every woman is a dame. Into the decadent home of Diane Tremayne and her dissipated father walks Frank Jessup, a genuinely nice guy.

Unfortunately, even genuinely nice guys are fallen, and Frank is entangled in an affair with Diane just in time to get the suspicious deaths of her father and step-mother pinned on him. Diane is the real killer, of course, but if noir has taught us anything it's that fallen guys are also fall guys, and Frank is coerced into helping Diane get away with the crime.

All through the ordeal Mitchum looks like a man out of place. He may speak Diane's language ("Go ahead, hit me," she says. "No, I'll buy you dinner, then maybe I'll hit you."), but all Frank really seems to want to do is get away from these fast-talking rich girls and open his own auto repair shop. Which is why his complicity in a murder is so jarring.

Jean Simmons, despite looking very drowsy, makes a frightening enough murderess. Her face after Mitchum uses the back of his hand to bring her out of hysterics in the opening scene is especially satisfying, as she moves from real indignance at being slapped to the false indignance of a woman with murderous designs recognizing opportunity when it walks up and wallops her. But Mitchum does all of the film's heavy lifting, showing us that even a man with the good character to walk away from a half-a-million dollar inheritance just because the girl that comes attached is no damned good still has enough evil in him to help the girl get away with murder.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

'O Logos ho!

Saturday, cigarette #3
Walking downtown, 12:15pm

The editor of the Pythagorean Brotherhood's newsletter 'O Logos asked me for a "meditation," so on the way to the computer lab I thought up one. Here is the final result.
Thoughts are censored; some things are simply unthinkable. But a body that is free will do the undoable.
Susan Farr, “The Art of Discipline”

“God, Helen,” she said to me. “Stop being so discarnate.” Catholics have the best insults.

I was acting like I didn't have a body, and sometimes I wish I didn’t. No hangovers, no job, no expenses. Who needs rent when you’ve transcended the material plane? Bodies get sick; they frequently demand nourishment; they drive us into the warm embrace of bed when we really should be pulling all-nighters. More than an inconvenience, a man’s body is his prison.

At least, I thought so before coming to Yale (although as a straight A student and self-declared teetotaller I was obviously a girl of unreliable opinion). Two things reformed me: the Catholic Church and the Party of the Right.

“By his stripes we are healed.” “It cannot be that the child of these tears should perish.” I know that the Church has a reputation for being a wet blanket when it comes to matters of the body, but remember that Christ didn’t just pronounce us all saved and check out until the apocalypse. He had some very unpleasant, very carnal work to do first.

As for the POR, it mostly just got me drunk. At first this only reinforced my annoyance with the limits of being incarnate, but once I got past the frustration of wanting to drink more and not being able to because of utter gastric revolt, I stopped trying to lead the body and let the body lead me.

“Some things are simply unthinkable,” Susan Farr says, and she’s right as far as thoughts go. For instance, no man can ever be truly unafraid of the prospect of his own death; it is too powerful and natural a fear. (“Saying you have a fear of death is like saying you have a coitus fetish.”) However, there are ways for the body to subvert the mind’s impotence and just do indifference to death. Smoking a cigarette is one way; bravery in battle is another. (I would mention one more, but you do not talk about POR Fight Club.)

I don't know exactly what unthinkable thought I'm perform when I go for a ten-mile run, but I know that jogging is what housewives do to lose weight; when John Parker said, “It was all joy and woe, hard as a diamond, it made him weary beyond comprehension, but it also made him free,” he was talking about running, and running has nothing to do with getting into shape, or losing weight, or getting girls, or anything except running.

The mind and the body both have limits, but the body’s can be overcome in a way that the mind’s can’t. Trying to free your thoughts by thinking differently is like drinking whiskey to sober up. The mind cannot free itself. However, by ceding your body to a different master (alcohol? pain? adrenaline?) you may find yourself free of the shackles you didn’t know you were wearing.

Some people are worried that if they relinquish control they will disappoint themselves or do something they’ll regret. Speaking from personal experience, I find my drunk and sober selves equally regrettable. The real advantage is this: the moments when we feel the least in control are the only moments in which it is possible to surprise ourselves.