Monday, December 31, 2007

Books Read - 2007

This is the final list of books I completed reading in 2007 (links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts):

1. Dance Dance Dance, Haruki Murakami (Alfred Birnbaum, translation)
2. On the Edge of the New Century, Eric Hobsbawm
3. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
4. The Urth of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
5. The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
6. Peasants and Other Stories, Anton Chekhov (Constance Garnett, translation)
7. The Red and the Black, Stendhal (Burton Raffel, translation)
8. Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev (Rosemary Edmonds, translation)
9. Middlemarch, George Eliot
10. Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein
11. Kindred, Octavia Butler
12. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
13. Independence Day, Richard Ford
14. Reality and Dreams, Muriel Spark
15. The Enigma of Arrival, V.S. Naipaul
16. Dirty Snow, Georges Simenon (Marc Romano & Louise Varèse, translation)
17. Frost, Thomas Bernhard (Michael Hofmann, translation)
18. Tainted Love, Stewart Home
19. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Alexander Berkman
20. Selected Dialogues of Plato (Benjamin Jowett, translation; Hayden Pelliccia, revised)
21. Emma, Jane Austen
22. How to Read a Poem, Terry Eagleton
23. Goldberg: Variations, Gabriel Josipovici
24. Towards a New Cold War, Noam Chomsky
25. Wolf Point, Edward Falco
26. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
27. Dusklands, J.M. Coetzee
28. The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald (Michael Hulse, translation)
29. Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth (re-read)
30. The Room Lit by Roses, Carole Maso
31. Reader's Block, David Markson
32. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
33. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation/The Rise of Modern Paganism, Peter Gay
34. The Threat to Reason, Daniel Hind
35. The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, Gabriel Josipovici
36. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
37. The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford
38. Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass
39. Pincher Martin, William Golding
40. Empire of Capital, Ellen Meiksins Wood
41. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera (Michael Henry Heim, translation)
42. The Malady of Death, Marguerite Duras (Barbara Bray, translation)
43. On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion, Gabriel Josipovici (one, two)
44. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, Eric Foner
45. The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth (re-read)
46. Zuckerman Unbound, Philip Roth (re-read)
47. The Anatomy Lesson, Philip Roth (re-read)
48. The Prague Orgy, Philip Roth (re-read)
49. Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
50. Memento Mori, Muriel Spark
51. The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Muriel Spark
52. The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles (Paul Roche, trans.)
53. Baltasar and Blimunda, José Saramago (Giovanni Pontiero, translation)
54. Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992, Midnight Notes Collective
55. Watt, Samuel Beckett
56. Mercier and Camier, Samuel Beckett
57. Zeno's Conscience, Italo Svevo (William Weaver, translation)
58. The Lover, Marguerite Duras (Barbara Bray, translation)
59. The Mandelbaum Gate, Muriel Spark
60. Everything Passes, Gabriel Josipovici
61. The Retreat, Aharon Appelfeld (Dalya Bilu, translation)
62. Unto the Soul, Aharon Appelfeld (Jeffrey M. Green, translation)
63. The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa (Richard Zenith, translation)
64. All Souls' Day, Cees Nooteboom (Susan Massotty, translation)

Some statistics
Number of books written by men: 51
Number of books written by women: 13 (!)
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 1
Number of other Dalkey books: 0

Number of books of fiction: 49
Number of authors represented: 31
Number of books by female authors: 10
Number of female authors: 5
Number of books by American authors: 16
Number of American authors: 9
Number of books by African-American authors: 1 (!)
Number of African-American authors: 1 (Butler)
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 14
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 9
Number of books in translation: 19 (including 2 of 3 by Beckett)
Number of authors of books in translation: 16
Number of translated books by female authors: 2 (both Duras)
Number of foreign languages represented: 8 (German, French, Italian, Portugese, Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, Ancient Greek)
Most represented foreign language: French (5 total)
Number of Nobel Prize-winners: 5 (Beckett, Golding, Saramago, Naipaul, Coetzee)
Number of books from before 1800: 1 (Sophocles)
Number of books from 1800 to 1899: 6
Number of books from 1900 to 1949: 3
Number of books from 1950 to 1989: 26
Number of books from 1990 to 1999: 5
Number of books from 2000 to 2006: 6
Number of books from 2007: 0

Number of non-fiction books: 15
Number of books by female authors: 3
Number of books in translation: 1 (Plato)
Number that are memoirs of sorts or letters: 2 (Berkman, Maso)
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 3
Number that are books of criticism: 4
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 6
Number about pop music: 0
Number about science: 0

Comment & Observations:
As noted in my previous post, I've already given a brief overview of my year in reading, over at Ready Steady Book. Inevitably, I left some out. For one thing, I completed four books since submitting my short piece to RSB; I wrote about two of them (the books by Aharon Appelfeld) and the other two were among my favorites of the year--All Souls' Day by Cees Nooteboom and Everything Passes by Gabriel Josipovici. The latter shouldn't be much of a surprise since, as I say in my overview, this year was more than anything else the year of Josipovici. This was especially true of his critical volumes, The Book of God and On Trust, but the fiction, including Goldberg: Variations (about which I wrote my first external review), made quite an impression as well.

More general observations, then. Unlike last year, I did not set any specific, quantifiable goals for my reading. I read fewer books than last year, as I expected I might. I thought the decrease would be due to slower reading or longer books or more non-fiction, but in truth it had a lot more to do with sleepiness. I am unable to read when I'm tired; I don't know how people do it. But if my eyes start to drop, and I feel I'm dragging across the page, it's over. That happened far too often this year, for reasons that I won't bore you with here. In any event, huge chunks of what should have been quality reading time were wasted, gone forever, spent idling in a coma on a pointless train commute to oblivion.

As I said, I thought I would read more non-fiction, but this did not turn out to be true. I hoped to read some philosophy, which I did barely do (counting Plato, of course, but also Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza, as well as substantial portions of Martha Nussbaum's The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, which I really hope to be able to dive deeper into in the coming year). I wanted to read more literary criticism, and I did. I wouldn't say I read a lot of it, but what I did read mattered to me quite a bit. I read half of Hugh Kenner's Joyce's Voices, which inspired me to go back and re-read the shorter Joyce before finally taking on Ulysses (though so far I've only re-read the first story in Dubliners). I also read about half of Kenner's useful, and entertaining in its own right, A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett. It was this, combined with On Trust, that moved me to get on with Beckett. (Ulysses will have to wait till after him and, frankly, Proust. I'm 2/3 into my re-read of Swann's Way. Only extreme travel-related sleepiness prevents it from making this year's cut.)

I virtually ignored current or recent fiction this year. I read The Road largely because of the hype, and I was happy I did. I read recent fiction from Josipovici, of course. And I read The Lay of the Land to complete Richard Ford's trilogy about Frank Bascombe (along with Lars, I mourn for that "narrative voice"). In the context of the general drift of the year, the Stewart Home and Ed Falco novels amount to statistical outliers.

Authors (of fiction) I read this year for the first time: Muriel Spark, William Golding, Milan Kundera, Fernando Pessoa, Marguerite Duras, Italo Svevo (well, not quite true: I'd previously made it a third of the way into A Man Grows Older), Richard Ford, Paul Bowles, Gene Wolfe, Simenon, Murakami, Stendhal, Turgenev, George Eliot. Again, my reading was dominated by Euro-American male writers (admittedly more Euro than American this time), though I have a lot of the works of both Spark and Duras yet to read, which is nice. I talked a lot about and around Modernism and the certainty of the 19th century novel (for example here, here, and sort of here), but it should be noted that I had a great time with both Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady. I found Pessoa at times slow going, but absolutely vital. I was pleasantly surprised to find an interesting writer in William Golding (one of those Nobel winners I used to dismiss out of hand, in my utter ignorance of his actual work). I didn't say anything about Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, but it's a lovely novel. On the strength of it I picked up a used copy of his collected stories. There wasn't anything I read this year that I hated, or was sorry to have wasted my time on. The worst novel I read this year was probably Spark's The Mandelbaum Gate. I read five of her novels this year, and I will read a lot more of her in the future, but this novel from 1965 was clunky and plodding, surprising considering how light her other fiction is. It was also substantially longer than the others and seemed to be straining for significance, with its Israel/Jordan setting and political backdrop. To be fair, it was not without its moments that made me smile, but I was mostly happy to be done with it.

Novels that I read decent chunks of but didn't finish (but plan to return to): Correction by Thomas Bernhard; Repetition by Peter Handke.

Short stories I read that aren't really part of a coherent story collection per se, except insofar as the book it's in also contains several novels and stories an' stuff by the same author in one of those Library of America thingies: "Bartleby the Scrivener" by Herman Melville

Non-fiction (non-criticism) books I read significant portions of without finishing (sleepiness!): The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945 by Gabriel Kolko; The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years, 1868-1936 by Murray Bookchin; Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis; Democracy Against Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood; Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti

I should have more to say later on about the Midnight Notes Collective's excellent Midnight Oil essays. And I kept meaning to write something about Daniel Hind's worthy volume, The Threat to Reason (incidentally, the only book originally published in 2007 I read all year). It represented a welcome reprieve from all the boring and clueless popular atheist and Islamo-baiting articles and books we were inundated with this year. I had some relatively minor quibbles with the book, but it's the kind of work that we need more of these days.

And that's it for a damn fine year of reading. Here's looking forward to 2008!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Holidays

I'm probably going to be out of commission here for a few days, so have a safe, happy holiday weekend, however you choose to spend it.

In the meantime, check out the Books of the Year 2007 symposium over at Mark Thwaite's excellent Ready Steady Book site, which includes contributions from several writers and bloggers, including yours truly.

Also, just because we could use more awesomeness in the world and because I love you, here is a clip of the wonderful dance sequence from Godard's Bande à part (aka, Band of Outsiders) (which I mentioned in my recent movie roundup post):

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Aharon Appelfeld and historical fact

I read Philip Roth's novel Operation Shylock years before I ever heard of Aharon Appelfeld. Which you could say only goes to show you how much attention I paid to that novel, since Appelfeld makes numerous appearances in it (before he learns of the "other" Philip Roth impersonating him, narrator-Roth's stated reason for going to Israel is to interview the Israeli novelist Appelfeld). In defense of my younger self, when I read the novel I was not nearly as informed as I am today about Israel and Palestine and the United States' role in that land's politics and history, and as for Appelfeld himself, his name simply must not have stuck in my mind, though I remember other aspects of the novel fairly well, all things considered. (I think a re-read is in order.)

Ellis Sharp wrote about Operation Shylock and Appelfeld not too long ago. The real-life Roth is an admirer and champion of Appelfeld. In his post, Ellis quotes for us a passage from Operation Shylock in which the imitation Roth lambasts the "real" Roth:
he had picked up Aharon's Tzili and was showing me how far he’d got in reading it. 'This stuff is real poison,' he said, 'Everything Diasporism fights against. Why do you think highly of this guy when he is the last thing we need? He will never relinquish anti-Semitism. It's the rock he builds his whole world on. Eternal and unshakeable anti-Semitism. The man is irreparably damaged by the Holocaust – why do you want to encourage people to read this fear-ridden stuff?'
This is interesting for a variety of reasons. One of the recurring ideas in Roth's fiction is this battle between "Diasporism" and, not orthodoxy, quite, but let's call it "un-Diasporism". Roth's characters assert, argue, and act out their own Jewishness, and their own humanity, in the face of community and family pressure on what being Jewish should entail, or in the face of responsibility to community needs. In his trip to Israel in Portnoy's Complaint, Portnoy is ridiculed for his Diasporism, whereas in the States, he is constantly aware of his Jewishness in the context of his experience of the WASP-y superculture.

In Appelfeld's fiction, there can be discerned a consistent rebuke to assimilationist Jews. Jews who tried to live within the larger society, who considered themselves German, say, or Austrian, only to have that sensibility mean nothing when the Holocaust rendered everything outside of racial categories null and void, seem perhaps foolish in the full light of history. I think there is a tendency to think that because the Holocaust did happen, that it or something similarly horrible was inevitable, given the centuries of entrenched European anti-Semitism. I think it could be argued that Appelfeld's fiction, undeniably powerful as much of it is (The Age of Wonders is particularly remarkable), in a sense contributes to this line of thinking. For in his fiction, the lives he depicts are doomed, are they not? We know the Holocaust looms, either a few years away, or perhaps decades. We know that their daily struggles will amount to nothing in the face of such an enormous, monstrous historical inevitability. For in the novels, the Holocaust is inevitable: don't they rely on our knowledge of it? And yet, let's be fair: it's not as if any of our daily struggles amount to much. We are all doomed, finally. But, we are not all doomed to succumb to a racialised, historical, group calamity.

A consistent rebuke to assimilationists may be discernible in his fiction, though I don't sense that this is Appelfeld's focus. He is writing about a world, a world that has ceased to exist. This world consists of Jews in various different guises. His Jews are just trying to live their lives the best they can, though no doubt they are often shown at their worst. Some are assimilated, some are not. Debates, arguments, about Jewishness are common among these Jews, just as they are among those in Roth's fiction. And his fiction, his world, is haunted by the unimaginable destruction that we know as readers is coming.

Ellis thinks of Appelfeld as no more than "at best an interesting minor novelist", but he reserves most of his criticism for the man and his role within the politics and memory of present-day Israel. Of the passage quoted above from Operation Shylock, Ellis says:
as a perception of Appelfeld the man it is stunningly accurate. Appelfeld’s sensibility is lodged deep in a past and in a society which no longer exist. This supplies an exemplary source for his fiction but is disabling when he has to address why the contemporary Zionist state is widely regarded with hostility. Representing the European condition as a seething sea of anti-Semitism is the lazy trope of Zionists not prepared to scrutinise the history of their sectarian state or the priviliges it affords them as members of the master religion. Roth, I think, shrewdly understands this. He sees that there are two Aharon Appelfelds – the novelist, whose work can only ever be judged on its own terms, and the wounded, fallible man.
At least Roth the novelist--the artist--shrewdly understands this point. I've seen some indications in interviews that Roth the man might not be quite as shrewd.

I have not read Appelfeld's very highly regarded memoir, A Story of a Life. The sense I get from some of the notices I've read is that it's not unlike some of his novels, with much passed over in silence. This, I expect, could make for some powerful reading. However, I find Ellis' lengthy piece from last summer on the memoir persuasive on certain key points. The piece is titled "The Blindness of Aharon Appelfeld". The blindness refers to Appelfeld's apparent inability or unwillingness to see the similarities between Nazi treatment of the Jews in Europe, and Israeli treatment of Arabs in Palestine. So saturated in anti-Semitism is Appelfeld (as the Operation Shylock passage has it) that he can't see what is happening right in front of him as he begins his life in what was still called Palestine when he arrived, soon to become Israel. Again, I haven't read the memoir, so I can't comment on it directly. But the problem Ellis identifies with it and Appelfeld's attitude about being a Jewish writer living in Jerusalem, is still all too common among Anglo-American liberals and leftists (not to mention others). Even though Israel's prestige has lessened considerably in recent years, liberals and leftists are still sensitive to the charge of anti-Semitism (a charge often carelessly made) and it's still common for Israel to be seen as a righteous cause (and as a bulwark of modernity in a sea of primitive fundamentalism), in the face of all facts or reasonable moral argument to the contrary.

In his piece, Ellis provides various passages from A Story of a Life, juxtaposing them with certain passed over historical facts about what was happening to the Arabs at the same time. Appelfeld, Ellis writes,
has never shown the slightest interest in any other perspective about his homeland other than that of Judaism. And where exactly was Appelfeld during the height of the Naqba [the catastrophe]? He doesn’t say. Palestinian suffering has no existence for Appelfeld: his gaze is inward. "The years 1946 to 1950 were years of verbiage; when life is full of ideology, words and clichés abound. Everyone talked."
Ellis rightly points out that the years 1946 to 1950 were full of much more than words, but were in fact the years of mass, forcible dispossession of the Palestinians. But surely a memoirist, one who is not a political figure, is entitled to the inward gaze? Perhaps. However, Ellis is particularly compelling, I think, as he explains why this is a problem:
Appelfeld says, “We had come to Israel, as the saying went, ‘to build and to be rebuilt.’ (p. 116) That the building of the Jewish state was done on stolen property is a matter of complete indifference to Appelfeld: he completely erases Palestine and its indigenous population from his self-serving memoir. [. . .]

No one in the West would use the word "holocaust" without an awareness that that word now carries a specific historical resonance. But Appelfeld uses the word "catastrophe" (e.g. pp. 185, 187, 189) as if it had no resonance at all in the land in which he has spent most of his life. The Story of a Life is, at a foundational level, a work of Naqba denial.
[For an interesting article about the Naqba and Naqba denial, see here.]

Interestingly, Appelfeld's fiction relies on our knowledge of certain historical facts. And, it hardly needs to be said, the Holocaust is a huge one, hard to ignore or forget (even as there are those who choose to deny it). Yet, it seems that some of the effectiveness of Appelfeld's memoir ironically relies on the reader not knowing, or ignoring, certain facts, whether Appelfeld intends it or not. And the facts of the dispossession of the Palestinians and the imposition of the state of Israel are, unfortunately, not widely known. Indeed, in the West, huge amounts of counter-facts are held to be true. If Appelfeld's memoir resembles Ellis' account of it, and he has given me little to reason to think that it doesn't, then I think his memoir, as distinct from his fiction, is problematic. His fiction depicts, often powerfully, the lost world of European Jewry. Readers could quibble about the factual basis for some of these depictions if they wanted, I suppose, but finally they are works of the imagination, rooted in history and haunted by a single, brute, ugly fact--the fact of the Holocaust--a fact that cannot be quibbled with or denied. And yet we continually deny or ignore other monstrous facts.

A generalization to close this post: I tend to approach memoirs more or less the same way I approach novels, in the sense that they are literary creations of a time and place, in their cases explicitly from the writer's life. I don't expect the writer's memory to be flawless, and I'm not overly bothered by some degree of factual embellishment or artful shaping of the story being told. However, there are facts that are larger than the author, and with these I expect more care.

A further generalization intended to point toward future considerations of literature and its relation to life: The same is true of fiction.

But, some complicating questions: Which facts are larger than the author? I've asserted that, uncontroversially, the Holocaust is one such fact. Ellis Sharp, I think, has convincingly demonstrated that the Naqba is another. Which others? Who decides? How much might it matter in each given case?

Notes on Aharon Appelfeld

Is it possible to read an Aharon Appelfeld novel without being at all times conscious of the shadow of the Holocaust hanging over the narrative?

The first Appelfeld novel I read, a couple years back, was The Age of Wonders. It had been brought to my attention as "the greatest Holocaust novel", a novel in which the Holocaust itself is passed over in silence. The first half focuses on a family of assimilated Austrian Jews. My memory of the details isn't clear, but I remember petty family squabbles, arguments about what the Jews should be. I remember the narrator's father, an intellectual, a writer, refusing to admit what is happening in Austria. I remember train rides to a family retreat, before the final train ride ending this section: "By the next day we were on the cattle train hurtling south." In the second section, "Many Years Later When Everything Was Over", the narrator reluctantly returns to Austria, an Austria "now clean of Jews".

Then came Badenheim 1939. Badenheim is a Jewish resort town. Here people are so caught up in their daily trivia that they are completely unable to interpret the meaning of various signals, such as the new laws restricting Jewish activity and movement. The novel ends with the whole town lined up at the train station, bickering and complaining, as they await a certain train to a destination they don't have in mind.

I read some about Appelfeld. Each of his novels that I own includes some variation of the following personal biography:
Aharon Appelfeld was eight when he witnessed the murder of his mother by the Nazis. After escaping from a concentration camp, he wandered in the forests for two years. When the war ended he joined the Soviet Army as a kitchen boy, eventually emigrating to Palestine in 1946.
After reading The Age of Wonders and Badenheim 1939 and some reviews of his work, I had the impression that all of Appelfeld's fiction mined similar temporal terrain: the daily lives of pre-war Jews, the debates about assimilation, the encroaching calamity hanging over everything, opening onto silence.

Last week I took The Retreat down from my shelf and started to read. An aging actress, Lotte, is traveling up a mountain to a retreat (interesting that these novels all feature resorts or retreats of some kind). It is 1937, Austria. Once respected, she has lost her job. Former friends have turned her away. It is a familiar story. She'd sought asylum with her daughter, but it didn't go well; she'd fought with her daughter's Austrian husband. So she decided to leave, to seek refuge at this mountaintop retreat. The retreat itself is run by Balaban, a Jew who years before had taken it as his mission to teach the Jews to shed their Jewishness. Exercises, speech lessons. By the time of the novel, this mission has failed, and the Jews at the retreat are there because they have no place else to go. Most of them are harsh towards Jews as a group, idealizing the Austrians. Lotte, "too, to tell the truth, was drawn to them as if by magic--it was never the Jews who appealed to her heart, only the tall, blond Austrians, in each of whom she imagined she could see an artist." (Yet, at the same time she is aware that the Austrians she has actually known never seemed to live up to this ideal.) Given little other choice--unable to return to their former lives--the residents form a makeshift community in isolation, retreating from the world, holding off disaster as long as they can.

Next: Unto the Soul. I began reading this immediately after finishing The Retreat. Another book, another mountain, another kind of retreat. This time, a holy place, a cemetery of Jewish martyrs, guarded over by Gad and his sister Amalie, after the death of their aged Uncle Arieh. This, too, I read in the shadow of the Holocaust, aware of the calamity to come, looking for clues in the narrative. But they don't really come, not in the same way. It's a different time and place than in the other books (I only read the back of the book later, which tells me it's "turn of the century Eastern Europe"). But the world on the plain is nearly as inhospitable. Periodic pogroms. Typhus epidemics. Gad and Amalie, also in isolation on the mountain, stave off madness and harsh weather. The weather, in a sense, protects them from the world away from the mountaintop, but they are unable to escape their own thoughts, or their commitment to the cemetery.

Appelfeld's ongoing subject is, essentially, the lost world of the European Jews. A world that could not be saved, no matter what people did. The question at the beginning of this post was prompted by my reading of Unto the Soul. For, even in his fiction that depicts an earlier period, still the Holocaust looms in the distance. In his other novels, the jacket descriptions make it abundantly clear that the Jews in the novels are living in a world soon to be destroyed. Here, that destruction is further off. In each of his books, Appelfeld focuses on mundane life. Daily chores, routines, repetition, arguments. In Unto the Soul, we are repeatedly told of Gad milking the cow or sawing wood, as if they were sacraments, which in a sense they are. If these tasks don't get done, they will not have food or heat, the place will fall into disrepair, pilgrims will stop coming, they will die. In the other novels, the daily activity never ceases, even in the face of the oncoming horror, which none of the characters could possibly imagine.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Why is this song actually here?

Last Friday, Pitchfork posted an interview with Kim Deal, of Pixies and Breeders fame. Here she is, musing on artistic necessity in the age of ProTools:
I'm not the quickest, most prolific writer either. I would never pretend to be. I don't think prolific-ness is equal to quality at all. I would rather have one song that people actually like than 15 songs that they can barely stand. But that's just me.

Another thing is, I think it's kind of ballsy to sit there and think that [people want to listen] if it wasn't special and we weren't trying to do something we would want to listen to. Why is this song actually here? Why is this song taking up two-and-a-half minutes of my life? Is it just because somebody doesn't have tape anymore and so the amount of recording space is unlimited? That's why I'm sitting here listening to this, because nothing stopped you from doing it, but there's not really a reason to do it? I don't know. If that was me, and I was listening to me, I would get mad, like, "Why are you fucking doing this?" It doesn't have to be great, but it seems like at least there should be kind of a reason. And it's hard to come up with a fucking good reason to write something, I think.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dylan and some of the politics of Infidels

In a comment to my post about the movie I'm Not There, Ellis Sharp wrote: "I don't mind Dylan's Born Again phase, it's the Zionist bit I detest." Ellis is referring, of course, primarily to the song "Neighborhood Bully" from 1983's Infidels album. More than two years ago, Ellis wrote an excellent post detailing the total wrongness of this indefensible song (and here is a follow-up post from Ellis about Dylan and allusions, including an argument about why it matters whether Dylan's references to facts in this song, and others, are accurate).

It so happens that I've been listening to Infidels lately. Ellis says that the song "is generally passed over by commentators as musically a poor song from a disappointing album", but that doesn't fit in with my knowledge of the history of Dylan's albums. It's always seemed to me that Infidels was seen as something of a return to (secular) form, coming on the heels of Dylan's three "born again" albums. When the album came out, I suspect that critics were relieved that the Christian phase was apparently over and that Dylan seemed committed to his songs again (for the first time since the first Christian album, Slow Train Coming, which no one can say Dylan wasn't commited to). And in the context of his Eighties music overall, it looks especially good. Other than Oh Mercy, from 1989 (a particular favorite of mine), it's really the only album from the decade that holds up at all.

I generally have a positive feeling about the album, but I think that has more to do with its sound and, again, Dylan's commitment. But I have to admit that it's pretty uneven. It has some great stuff on it ("Jokerman" in particular) and was recorded during one of Dylan's few periods of intense creative activity after the 1960s, with several non-album tracks rivaling or even exceeding the quality of the songs that made it on the album (the utterly wonderful "Blind Willie McTell", for one; a song used to great effect in I'm Not There). Another interesting thing about the album is that many of its songs are overtly political, a rarity for Dylan since the 60s, one-offs like Desire's "Hurricane" aside. Unfortunately, the politics found in these songs is either hamfisted or odious. Ellis is right to be appalled about "Neighborhood Bully" and he handles its problems nicely. The only thing I could say in its defense is that it rocks. If you pay the slightest attention to the lyrics, or Dylan's rant-y delivery, then it's over.

But the other political songs, while sporting more defensible politics, aren't that great either. In fact, it hardly seems possible that they came from the same songwriter who gave us his great politically charged music of the 1960s. Let me take a brief look at one. "Union Sundown" starts like this (lyrics):
Well, my shoes, they come from Singapore,
My flashlight's from Taiwan,
My tablecloth's from Malaysia,
My belt buckle's from the Amazon.
You know, this shirt I wear comes from the Philippines
Nearly all the words are like this: a man listing where all of his consumer items came from, later noting that nothing gets made in the U.S. anymore. It could easily descend into right-wing demagoguery (thus fitting in just fine with "Neighborhood Bully"), but it pulls back to reveal something that could have been written by someone like Naomi Klein:
And the car I drive is a Chevrolet,
It was put together down in Argentina
By a guy makin' thirty cents a day.
Each verse is similar. Not very interesting or artful; an almost perfunctory litany of the ills of the first decade-plus of the neo-liberalization of capital. Then, the chorus:
Well, it's sundown on the union
And what's made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
'Til greed got in the way.
Ok. He's concerned about the unions and American workers, and he's hip to the fact that jobs have been exported and that the people who now have them aren't exactly doing so well with them. Not so terrible a sentiment (though still not what I would call good lyrics). But in this chorus Dylan veers between a weird patriotism (which I guess I can let pass, though it makes me itch) and lunkheaded naivete. "Sure was a good idea/'Til greed got in the way"? This is what he's going with? My problem with this is that the word "greed" plays the role of reducing capitalism to personalities. Granted, he doesn't specify anybody. He seems to be referring to an all-encompassing, placeless, faceless greed. But "greed" is one of those words that implies an individual, or individuals. It's also one of those words that makes the listener think the speaker isn't being serious. It sounds like adolescent phrase-mongering. I don't expect a trenchant critique of neo-liberal capitalism in a song, but Dylan's been capable of much better in the past. ("Masters of War", for example, is direct and unsubtle, but fucking powerful as hell.)

I have to admit that a more charitable interpretation of the chorus has just occurred to me, as I was writing. Dylan could be using "greed" to stand in for the complex practices of the system as a whole. In fact, a short version of the decisions that led to the disaster of neo-liberalism (over and above the disaster of capitalism) could go something like this: "Well, we tried sharing with the workers. They forced us into it, and it was worth trying. And for a while there, it was working for all of us. We made the unions our partners. We got richer, workers got part of the pie, wages increased, everyone was happy. But now the economy is slowing down and they want too much, they won't work within the union framework, they're making everything messy, and our profits have suffered. Time to take everything back, and then some. They want a bigger slice of the pie? We'll move the fucking pie. Let them chew on that." Enter the service economy and the energy crisis, exit manufacturing jobs and decent wages and social programs and spending. A very truncated and simple account (obviously!!). But maybe, just possibly, Dylan means to roll all of this into those two lines. And perhaps "it's sundown on the union" could mean more than just a lament about the reduced power of the labor unions. Maybe it's an acknowledgment that the country (the "union") is not going to last when nothing it uses is produced within its own borders. A sly recognition that moving the pie will ultimately spell the end for everybody. It would be nice to think he meant something like this. Somehow I doubt it.

Movie Roundup

Other than No Country for Old Men and I'm Not There, we've seen a number of movies in recent weeks. Here are a few that come immediately to mind, in more or less reverse order of viewing, with short-ish comments about each:

Blade Runner (1982) - The so-called final cut. Aimée had never seen any version of Blade Runner; I've seen it several times, largely because I have trouble with it. I keep trying, and failing, to see what it is that others think is so awesome. I don't dislike it by any means, I've just not been able to see what all the fuss is. I still don't, but I'm not sorry I saw it again. Whatever my problems with the movie, there's no question that this new edition of it looks great. Vangelis' score is more intrusive than I had remembered it (Aimée called it cheesy; she's not wrong, though I was less bothered by it than she was). (Classic painful--and painfully expository--acting moment from Harrison Ford: "Memories. Yer talkin' about memories!" Yeah, no kidding.)

Superbad (2007) - not as funny as we expected it to be, but we love Michael Cera and his deadpan delivery is the best thing about the movie. (See this Joseph Kugelmass post, from September: "I'm McLovin It: Sexuality in the Age of Advertising".)

The Band of Outsiders (1964) - Each of us had previously seen only Breathless from Godard. This was my first encounter with the striking Anna Karina. The basic story: two men try to convince a girl (Karina) to help them break into the house she lives in and steal another boarder's cash. Hijinks and much flirting ensue. Why does it seem like the men in French films are always such callous assholes? So the movie sort of meanders, but it has a great sequence midway through, with Karina and the two men in a cafe or diner dancing, finger-snapping and cool, to jazz music (the soundtrack is all jazz, if I recall correctly). I would have been happy to watch this sequence over and over all night, if Aimée had let me.

Miller's Crossing (1990) - after No Country for Old Men, we decided to check out a Coen Brothers movie that neither of us had seen in years. There are people who claim this as the best mob movie there is. I don't see it. It's enjoyable, no question about it, though it seems, to me, more canned than it ought to. A lot of fun performances: one of Aimée's favorite heartthrobs, Gabriel Byrne; the weaselly John Turturro; Jon Polito's passionate speech about "et-thics" in the opening scene; etc.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007) - This is a small, sweet movie that could have been killed by excessive sentimentality or cloyingness, or by its central premise (perpetually alone Lars orders an anatomically correct doll from a porn site and presents it to the community as girlfriend) being played for cheap, Farrelly-like laughs. Happily, neither turns out to be the case. Ryan Gosling's performance as Lars is remarkable. We loved it. I'm pretty sure I was crying like a baby at the end, for a variety of reasons that would be too difficult to articulate here. One related reason: I am almost always moved by shows of genuine communal affection and involvement. The terrible Baltimore Sun reviewer Michael Sragow referred to this movie as "Capra-corny", which says vastly more about him than it does about the film.

Hiroshima mon amour (1959) - Director: Alain Resnais. Screenplay by Marguerite Duras, who I happen to have been reading some of recently. Her stamp is immediately evident, with the sparse, repetitive dialogue, and the emphasis on the characters' erotic histories. Some harsh, disturbing images, early in the film, of the effects of the bomb. The movie is short, but still our attention flagged some by the end. It may not have been the best choice for a baby-sitting assignment.

The New World (2005) - I don't know if it's right to say that Terance Malick is one of my favorite directors. What would I mean by that? I can say that Badlands is my favorite movie, or at least close to it, and that I liked my only viewings of both Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, each of which I would need to see again. The New World is stunning. I'd seen it at the end of its abbreviated theatrical run (a friend and I had had to go out of our way to see it, knowing it was going to be gone soon; it never did play in Baltimore). I remember emerging from the theater, into the harsh daylight and the ugly, modern strip-mall-scape, and feeling disoriented. This second viewing was necessarily somewhat muted by comparison--our television's not tiny, but it's no theater screen--but still a powerful experience. The story of John Smith and Pocahantas has been told and re-told and embellished so many times that it's hard to keep straight what the facts are supposed to be. Here it hardly matters. The focus is more on the tragic impact of the white settlers on the land its people. Aimée was crying at the end, simply at how beautiful the world was.

Idiocracy (2006) - I was really looking forward to this one, but now it seems wrong to list it immediately after the sublime The New World. I love Office Space, Mike Judge's hilarious and disturbingly spot-on comedy about office workers, and Beavis & Butthead, well . . . let's just say it was occasionally smarter than it seemed, and that there was sometimes something brilliant in its stupidity. Unfortunately, a lot of times there wasn't. Enter Idiocracy. I'd heard some good things about it, yet I have no memory of it ever being released to theaters. When we finally had the chance to rent it, the video store clerk told me it was "terrifying" because, he said, it was so true. I'd like to sit down and have a talk with the clerk: In reality, this is a terrible movie, the worst I've seen in a long time. All of its problems stem from its underlying thesis: smart people have stopped having children, while stupid people are reproducing like rabbits. In the opening sequence, when all of this is explained to us, we see a stereotypical upwardly mobile, middle class, professional couple (both thin, of course) delaying and delaying the decision to have children--the time's not right, career, money, fertility issues, and so on. Alongside this, we see a grotesque stereotype of poor people: stupid, fat, completely ignorant about how and why babies even happen, children all over the place. Eventually, over the course of 500 years, then, the smart people increasingly lose pace to the dumb people and, you see, humanity evolves until literally everyone is stupid. Needless to say, there are countless problems with this idea, beginning with the brazen class prejudice that equates "poor" with "stupid", and the extremely flawed understanding of evolution on display. In my view, the movie does not ever recover from this premise, nor could it, since every moment is shot through with its implications. And yet, there are some funny gags and evidence that there could have been a much better movie with similar, marginally smarter materials. The plot? Oh, yeah, there's a plot. Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph are frozen as part of an Army experiment. Naturally, said experiment goes somewhat awry, political funding -wise, and they are forgotten about and not un-frozen until The Great Garbage Avalanche of 2505 (this is admittedly a great touch). They awaken into a world in which everyone is vastly stupider than they are, where people can only speak some annoying combination of Valley-speak, hip hop slang, and grunts. They try to find their way back to their own time. Along the way we encounter various aspects of this future world, some of which reveal some hints at what might have been the better movie I was hoping for: Everyone is required to be bar-coded. All aspects of life are corporatized down to the minutest details. The most popular show on tv involves a man being repeatedly slammed in the nuts. There are some amusing gags surrounding the evolution of language and corporate identities. The Fudruckers hamburger chain (which was built on the site of the closed Army base), evolves over time into Buttfuckers (still a family restaurant). Starbucks specializes in legalized prostitution (the menus are more or less the same, but the items stand for altogether different products). The political arena is about as coarse as can be imagined, if not more so. There is much that could have been satirized about the coarsening of our society and our public discourse, but the satire here is never able to gain any real traction, because the (ridiculous, irresponsible) premise handicaps the movie from the start. With none of the characters native to 2505 able to form anything even resembling a complete thought with any complexity, the satire that could have been essentially dies before it gets started. Disappointing.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Reader Overcoming Despair

At Spurious, Lars ventures a "reading biography", and at This Space, Steve Mitchelmore reiterates the idea that one should not feel guilt or shame about gaps in one's reading life. I look back on my own reading history and on my evolving attitude towards the books I was reading, what I wanted to read, and what I had missed. My reading biography charts a huge expansion, an explosion of interest, followed finally, at last, by a gradual paring down, a winnowing away. . .

I wasn't a reader, and then I was. Somehow, more than a year out of college, without explanation, I got the idea that I would start reading fiction, having never really read it before. What would I read? I tried my father's favorites: I re-read Lord of the Rings (first read at age 12); I read Dune; I read Carrie. But it really started with Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, who means so little to me now; The Brothers Karamazov, which had been a gift from a high school teacher, boxed up and carted throughout college, became my first extracurricular reading of capital-L Literature. I was duly pleased with myself. Then came, at a friend's insistence, Camus' The Stranger and Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. Camus didn't leave much of an impression; it was Nabokov who first gave me some sense of what I might want: language. Beginning with Nabokov, I became intoxicated by language. I wasn’t a great, close reader, by any means. I had no sense of structure, and I didn't think about why an author might have chosen this or that approach. I wasn't even a reader of poetry. But as long as a novel's language had something to recommend it--some beauty or some excitement or even some difficulty--I was interested.

A scattershot survey of the 20th century followed: Steinbeck, Kafka, Vonnegut, Faulkner. I dipped into Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Don Delillo. Before long, I was caught up in current writers--I consumed the exuberant fiction of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Will Self, Irvine Welsh. Fell in love with Richard Powers. I liked to read quickly, riding the waves of the language, catch the music of the prose, that thrilling thrum, trying to not be too concerned by what I didn't understand. Soon, I began to feel twinges of anxiety about my reading. I'd become interested in the so-called post-modernists--Barth, Coover, Gass, Hawkes--and I began to feel acutely all that I'd missed at the same time I was feeling an insane need to somehow read everything. Consumed with ambition, yet crushed by doubt, I felt sure that one couldn't really get what the post-modernists were up to if one had not read the Modernists (surely they were "post" for a reason, right?). In turn, the Modernists--how little I understood the term!--I thought, would be largely inexplicable if one hadn't read the 19th century novelists, or more importantly, the classics. And yet the 19th century novels seemed accessible, if dusty. The only anxiety I felt towards them was related to the sheer number of them.

The internet only made things worse. My first foray online was Michael Dirda's bookchats for The Washington Post (the only "critics" I had any knowledge of were those who wrote regularly for the Post, then my local newspaper). One thing he repeatedly stressed was the importance of what he called the "patterning texts". The Greeks and Romans, the Bible, and so on. These are the texts that a basic literary education should largely consist of, he argued. I instantly concluded that he was correct, and that this meant that I was, in fact, doomed--how would I ever find the time to read all the classics, while also following through on Modernism, on post-Modernism, and keeping abreast of current fiction (for some reason this seemed really important to me)? Plainly, I could not. Worse, I felt then that the time had long since passed when I'd be able to internalize these crucial patterning texts, so that I could usefully notice and understand a linguistic or structural allusion. Or be able to truly understand and assess a given work's achievement. I worried about the sequence in which I should read books, to allow for maximum pleasure and understanding. To a huge extent, I wanted, yearned, helplessly, to have already read the classics. I wanted somehow to be able to simply plug into my brain, Matrix-style, Homer, Sophocles, the Bible, Ovid, Virgil, Dante. . . I didn't doubt that there were still people who read the classics for actual pleasure; it simply did not occur to me that I could be one of those people. I didn't feel guilt or shame about this. I felt fucked.

It was through Dirda's chats that I first heard of such "experimental" authors as Harry Mathews and Gilbert Sorrentino, and by extension the Dalkey Archive. Another expansion of interest, this time towards the lesser known, the underground or experimental, the forgotten. Then I happened across The Complete Review and, before long, blogs. I had been dissatisfied with what I found in newspaper review sections (I lacked trust in them); the bloggers shared this dissatisfaction. I learned about more and more books. The most common perspective in the early blogs I was reading was that greatness can be found anywhere--any genre, any kind of writer, any kind of story or novel, any subject matter. This was also my perspective. While I had a definite prejudice in favor of the lesser known, I have to admit that I was just as interested in the big mainstream literary books--I took it for granted that the National Book Award and Booker nominees were worth reading, even if they might not be quite the best books of the year. And with the kinds of coverage blogs were providing of numerous small presses, of books from all genres, of countless writers writing in countless styles? An explosion in the amount of fiction that I felt I had to (had to) keep abreast of. I was fucked.

In a post about the ever-prolific Joyce Carol Oates, Steve mentions the "despair one feels in a library, or when faced by the list of classics one has failed to read". I felt that despair constantly. I wanted to read everything, but I was bogged down in the present day. But why did I feel I had to read all of this? How did I think I could possibly do it? How was I ever going to find time for the classical works if I thought I had to read every hot new book that created industry or litblog buzz? Or every unfairly lost writer of the recent past? When would I ever find the time for Ulysses? Or for Proust? More to the point, what did I really want from my reading? What sorts of books meant the most to me? Did I even know? Had I given the matter any real thought? Did I really care about all of these new books? How was I going to find my way out of this situation? How would I cut my way through the chaos?

And then an answer presented itself. Suddenly, it seems, Modernism has become vitally important to me. I've referred to Modernism a couple of times already in this post, but what is it? For years, knowing nothing, I looked on Modernism as a loose movement of writers who rebelled against what was then establishment literature, finding new ways to write, new methods for telling stories. My conception of this movement was that it occurred during a specific, finite period in time (somewhere in the early 20th century). My conception of these writers was that they were difficult. I'd read some of these authors (Kafka, for example), but in general the literary Modernists struck me as especially forbidding. Though difficulty by itself hasn't usually stopped me. Another of Michael Dirda's common themes in his chats was that if you are interested in reading something, you should just read it. You're never going to "get" everything, he’d say, so you may as well just go for it. Yes, obviously. My anxiety notwithstanding, this was usually what I did. I dove right into Gaddis, gobbled up those big Barth books, chewed my way through Gass. And yet, I still tended to hold the Modernists at arm's length. My perception of their difficulty was that it was something apart from whatever difficult works I'd already attempted.

But something has changed. What has happened, really just within the life of this blog, is that Modernism has come into focus for me as an idea, an idea that might help guide my way (and not just as a reader). Steve quotes from a review by Gabriel Josipovici of a new survey history of Modernism by Peter Gay. Josipovici writes that, contrary to Gay's conception, Modernism is "a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself, a degré zéro beyond which there is only silence". That crucial moment, it now seems clear to me, is ongoing and as necessary as ever. In my engagement with Josipovici's criticism this year, I've discovered a perspective that speaks to me. He's used words like "trust" and "tradition" in ways that make sense to me and enable me to appreciate, in some small way, the Modernist project. This idea that these writers were each concerned, on their own, with finding an authentic way to write--amid an acute understanding that the accepted methods lacked validity--this idea resonates with me and makes sense in the context of the ongoing project of living my own life, and at the same time renders these writers more approachable.

In light of this resonance, to finish up by returning to the theme of my reading, my interests have narrowed considerably. I only have so much time for reading, and now I know, with a clarity that I utterly lacked in the past, how I intend to use that time: I intend to spend it with the Modernists (2008 will be year of Proust, beginning with a re-read of Swann's Way; it will be the year of Beckett's prose Trilogy); with the Greeks and Romans; with Dante. New books and new writers will be filtered through this prism. This is still a big reading project, but it seems to me much more coherent and manageable. More than ever, I'm excited to get on with it.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

N.P. Thompson on I'm Not There

For an effusive take on I'm Not There that, unlike my last post, does get into the film's visual language, see N.P. Thompson's excellent review here. (Link via The House Next Door.)

I'm Not There (2007)

We saw I'm Not There Friday night, the Todd Haynes-directed, mytheo-pic about Bob Dylan. We had a great time. Both of us had seen a couple of reviews or responses to the movie and expected to find a non-linear, if entertaining, assemblage of disconnected takes on the Dylan myth. Well, entertaining it is, there's no question about that. But when it was over, Aimée said she didn’t recognize the movie she'd seen in the reviews she'd read. She said: "I was expecting something a lot more difficult, but I was surprised by how literal it is." It's true. While the movie does, as you've no doubt heard, feature six or seven actors portraying different aspects of Dylan and plays with various elements of his life and legend, it's a mistake to say that the movie does not hang together. It not only hangs together, but it has a definitely discernible through-story. If you like Dylan's music at all, then I highly recommend seeing it. (If you don't, then I'd steer clear of it. The movie is saturated with it.)

Aimée called the movie "literal". She didn’t mean that the movie tells the story of Dylan's life in a more or less straightforward fashion, or that it shows us Dylan as a musician or as a working songwriter. That’s hardly what the movie’s about. What she meant, I think, is that the movie, while somewhat impressionistic, is not especially avant garde or remotely difficult to watch or understand. I came to the movie as a big fan of Dylan’s music, and I know a fair amount about the basic story told about him--and enough of it to know where certain elements of that story are either obviously not factually true or more than a little embellished. Aimée likes Dylan’s music, but didn't know much of anything other than that he was part of the protest folk music scene that included Joan Baez and that he later went electric, to the dismay of some people back in the mists of time. She didn’t even know, for example, anything about his Christian phase.

On to the movie, then. I'm not going to attempt a formal review, but I'm also not going to try to avoid going into detail, so if you're worried about spoilers or whatever, then I suggest not reading the rest of this entry. My belief is that the movie is not nearly so disconnected as we were led to think it would be, yet my comments will themselves be disconnected. I would need to see it again in order to attempt anything more cohesive. (And as much as I enjoy it when film critics actually discuss movies as a visual medium, I am not a film person myself, so I won't be talking about how Haynes achieves the effects he achieves. I will say that the movie looks great, and rarely lags, despite its 135 minute running time.)

The movie is full of excellent performances, and as with most everyone else, our favorite was Cate Blanchett's. She is Jude Quinn, and her resemblance, in look and mannerism and voice, to the mid-60s, amphetamine-fueled, plugged-in Dylan is uncanny. It's easy to try to dismiss such acting as mere mimicry, but Blanchett is so good here, so completely disappears into the iconic Dylan character, that such complaints strike me as churlish. I enjoyed just watching her face as she smoked a cigarette, or moved her mouth and eyes, looking just like Dylan one second, then bleeding into "Cate Blanchett" the next. Perfect. (I should say here that the scene in which Quinn and his band play at the "New England Folk Festival" is almost physically painful. This is the only scene in the movie in which the music is difficult to listen to: it's loud, overbearing, and sounds like it's about to destroy the amps. This, I think, is important to remember when we talk about the poor, addled folkies complaining about Dylan's electric music. I'll have more to say about this, I hope, in another post. But suffice it to say that the scene begins with an image of the band machine-gunning the audience. This makes sense from the perspective of the audience itself, which might have felt like it was being attacked, which in a sense it was.)

My second favorite part of the movie was the much-maligned segment featuring Richard Gere. I've seen comments that these scenes are "bullshit" or boring or else completely incomprehensible. I'm happy to be able to report that this is not the case. They are enjoyable in themselves, but more importantly, they are crucial to whatever sense the film hopes to make. Gere is an aged Billy the Kid, hiding out in a rustic setting, away from the noise of the world. Dylan, of course, appeared (not as Billy the Kid) in Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (and supplied the soundtrack, which included one big hit, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"). This fact has been said to be a little too neat, too cute, but I think that's a lazy criticism. Here, Billy has obviously survived his encounter with Pat Garrett. And the people he meets could be extras from the photo-shoot for the cover of The Basement Tapes, or characters from those songs, the population of the "Old, Weird America", to use Dylan’s own phrase (as reported in Greil Marcus’ fascinating, if occasionally tedious book about Dylan and the Basement Tapes, Invisible Republic). It could be, and has been, argued that these scenes will only make sense if you know a lot about Dylan and American traditional folk music. But I don't think this is true. This was an aspect of Dylan about which Aimée knew nothing, but she had no trouble with these scenes. Many reviews have observed that the movie is about Dylan's need to constantly reinvent himself (hence the use of so many different actors to portray different aspects of his story). This is true, but in the movie, where the "Dylan" character resists being nailed down to any particular style or opinion or even coherent statement of any kind, this is made physically explicit more than once, as the different manifestations of Dylan try to evade capture.

Some other observations and comments:
I didn't realize while watching that the same actor (Bruce Greenwood) who plays the elderly Pat Garrett also plays the establishment, Don't Look Back-like Quinn-interviewer, Mr. Jones ("You know something is happening here but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?" from "Ballad of a Thin Man"). This has been said (in comments to this review at The House Next Door), to be a cheap move on Haynes part, to too eagerly assign Dylan role as the besieged victim. I disagree; I don't think the movie sees Dylan as a victim.

Marcus Carl Franklin is excellent as the 11-year-old black kid who calls himself Woody Guthrie. His Woody sings some Dylan songs (including “Tombstone Blues”, with Richie Havens) and songs about trains and hobos, like he's a Guthrie-like Depression-era troubadour. Like Dylan making up his biography as he went along, changing the details depending on who he was talking to, Woody tells fabulous stories about where he's come from and where he's going (Hollywood, he says), and is on the run from a juvenile center in Minnesota (again, evading capture). One woman advises him to stop with the hobo songs, to look around and see the struggles real people are going through now (it is 1959, right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement), to live in his own times.

Christian Bale is the protest-singer, Jack Rollins. These scenes look like some combination of the non-electric parts of Scorsese's No Direction Home and Christopher Guest’s sort of funny but mostly annoying mockumentary, A Mighty Wind, complete with comfortable old folkies looking back on Rollins and his role in the protest movement. Julianne Moore plays Alice Fabian, an obvious Joan Baez analogue, and she looks back on Rollins with the same amazement and disappointment that Baez shows in No Direction Home. Moore's Alice is incredibly earnest and seems pretty clueless. Moore is good, as usual, but her scenes are played for laughs and come close to being unnecessarily mean to Baez.

Rollins, like Dylan himself did, converts to evangelical Christianity. Here the move happens earlier, and it results in Rollins completely abandoning popular music. For two decades, Rollins has been working as a minister (Pastor John) where he is tracked down by an interviewer for another documentary-like segment. We see him delivering a fiery sermon about the evils of music that doesn't glorify the Lord. I thought this was an interesting twist on this poorly understood era of Dylan's life. Bale is excellent here as well. (I almost always like Christian Bale.)

Heath Ledger plays an actor, Robbie Clark, who portrays Bale's folkie Rollins in a movie. Robbie's marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) seems to run parallel with Dylan's own to Sara Lownds, and ends with the end of the Vietnam War, the original version of "Idiot Wind" playing on the soundtrack. Robbie is a jet-setting movie star, a poor husband, and a womanizer. He has walked away from whatever values he once claimed to have, scorning those who still want to change the world. I felt that the energy of the movie lagged when Ledger and Gainsbourg first appeared on screen, though their later scenes were better.

Ben Whishaw's Arthur Rimbaud, who appears as a recurring interview subject, also like the mid-60s Dylan, has some of the best lines in the movie. One of our favorites: "I can accept chaos; I don't know if chaos can accept me."

David Cross as Allen Ginsberg is a little goofy, but that's about it. His casting carries no implications for the rest of the movie. One very silly scene involves Quinn and Ginsberg dancing around a large, white sculpture of Jesus on the Cross, shouting at the crucified Jesus. At the end of this Quinn shouts: "Why don’t you do your early stuff?" This might read as a bit heavy-handed (Dylan, again, as victim, the crucified artist), but in context it was actually very funny.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Jim Emerson on No Country for Old Men

One of my favorite writers about film is Jim Emerson, who edits Roger Ebert's site and also runs his own blog called scanners. Since the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he's been raving about the Coen Brothers' latest movie, No Country for Old Men (based, of course, on Cormac McCarthy's novel). I've always loved the Coens (even if their last couple of movies didn't thrill me), so his excited advance word on this movie had me practically salivating in anticipation. Well, we were able to see it last weekend, and it's fantastic.

With the Coens, there always seems to be a body of reviewers who accuse them of being "smug" or "condescending", or who criticize them as "technical wizards" but "emotionally cold" or something like that. I've never had much use for these criticisms, and Emerson isn't having any of it. He is frustrated with the tendency for some critics to talk about the movies without reference to supporting elements in the film. Over the course of multiple posts (one, two, three, four, five) he has spent some time reviewing the reviews of No Country for Old Men, trying to tease out what certain reviewers are really talking about when they make claims about what the movie "means". His most recent post on the film is the best yet, and comes after a second viewing of his own. He brilliantly discusses the various images in the movie and how the Coen Brothers achieve what they achieve. He is concerned with how the film works as visual storytelling, with an emphasis on getting past the tendency we still have to consider "style" as existing independent of "content". This comes from early in the post:
"No Country for Old Men" has been called a "perfect" film by those who love it and those who were left cold by it. Joel and Ethan Coen have been praised and condemned for their expert "craftsmanship" and their "technical" skills -- as if those skills had nothing to do with filmmaking style, or artistry; as if they existed apart from the movie itself. Oh, but the film is an example of "impeccable technique" -- you know, for "formalists." And the cinematography is "beautiful." Heck, it's even "gorgeous." ...

But what do those terms mean if they are plucked out of the movie like pickles from a cheeseburger? How is something "beautiful" apart from what it does in the film? (See uncomprehending original-release reviews of "Barry Lyndon" and "Days of Heaven," for example, in which the "beautiful" was treated as something discrete from the movie itself.) When somebody claims that a movie overemphasizes the "visual" -- whether they're talking about Stanley Kubrick or Terence Malick or the Coens -- it's a sure sign that they're not talking about cinema, but approaching film as an elementary school audio-visual aid. When critics (and viewers) refer to the filmmakers' application of "craft," "technique," and "style" (can these things be applied, casually or relentlessly, with a spatula?) without consideration of how these expressions function in the movie, we're all in trouble. A composition, a cut, a dissolve, a movement -- they're all manifestations of craft (or skill), technique (the systematic use of skill), style (artistic expression).

It's really a great post, with an excellent comment thread. I highly recommend reading it if this kind of thing interests you in the least. (One other thing. There are some elements in the movie that are not fully resolved, to the apparent frustration of many. Emerson quotes Joel Coen, circa Barton Fink, on this: "The question is: Where would it get you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get you anywhere.")

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Some Further Thoughts on Trust (if not On Trust)

The new issue of Harper’s has an admiring review by John Lukacs of a book by Bryan Cartledge titled The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary. Overall, I found the review strange and weirdly off-putting (repeated invocations of squishy notions like “national character” tend to make me itch), but towards the beginning of it Lukacs says something that interested me. He writes:
The great Jacob Burckhardt once told his students in Basel that history has really no method of its own. But, he added, "You must know how to read." Bryan Cartledge knows how to read. Here is a professional diplomat who spent less than four years in a country, who has no personal ties with it, but whose interest was acute enough for him to learn its difficult language and read volumes and volumes about matters in which many of his predecessors, especially political historians, were not much interested.
This passage made me think of a couple of things. First, I had a Romantic, daydream vision of The Scholar, doing the difficult research, the close reading, the thankless work, following leads down alleys and potential dead-ends. Second, I was struck by this phrase: "whose interest was acute enough for him to learn its difficult language". This made my mind wander, thinking about how much we trust in the written word and in translation.

There is some irony in this, of course, in the context of my ongoing engagement with the work of Gabriel Josipovici, and in particular his book On Trust. After all, I've been writing about how "we" lack trust in tradition, in society, in institutions. I've been reading, and reading about, writers who feel this lack of trust keenly--writers who have doubted the value of writing, questioned the entire project of novel-writing, while at the same time feeling an urgent need to write. These struggles resonate with me. I feel it at the level of my own creative impulse: it is difficult for me to allow myself to even recognize an urgent need to write. (I fear that makes no sense at all.) I suppress the creative impulse. I relate this struggle with my own sense of what is wrong with society. It seems self-evidently true not only that our institutions cannot be trusted, but that most people lack this trust on a most basic level--and yet we desire it, do we not? We want desperately to trust in the institutions we have.

We latch onto things to trust in, however fragile that trust may be. I'm not talking here about religion or anything like that. I’m talking more about our basic trust in the written word. We may think that the media is not doing its collective job (as we see it—that it may be doing its actual job perfectly well is not clear to as many people as it might be)--we may, if pressed, claim to distrust the media as being full of shit, as pandering scandal-mongers, as obfuscators—as agents, finally, of widespread confusion and misinformation about our political process and the most important issues of the day--and yet, when it comes to the basic content of the news, how often do we simply believe that it’s basically true? It takes a lot of work to sift through the crap. Some of us do it more or less successfully. But when it comes, say, to the text of a world leader’s speech, how often does it occur to us, immediately, to question that the content is correct? That the very words can be trusted as accurate? For unless the leader gave the speech in English (or some other language we know), we inevitably encounter the words (out of context, most likely) in translation.

You'll have likely worked out that I've referred here to the oft-reported content of a speech from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which he is said to have threatened to have Israel "wiped off the map". When this speech was first reported, my first instinct was to groan, because despite knowing better, I did probably trust, without even realizing it, that the content had been reported accurately. I groaned because it seemed likely to be the kind of thing that could only hurt efforts to prevent an American attack on Iran. But I don't take Ahmadinejad's pronouncements seriously, so other than bemoaning the speech's possible rhetorical value, I didn't pay much attention to it. Then when I read reports that he had been mistranslated and misunderstood, well, this was more interesting. Here we could pretty easily talk about the uses of propaganda by warmongers and the lock-step reporting by the media on the path to war. But even here, I was trusting that these counter-reports were accurate, wasn't I? I have no choice, ultimately, right? When it comes to translation issues like this, I have to trust somebody--after all, I don't speak or read Persian or Farsi (or, really, anything outside of English; my lame smattering of French hardly counts for much). But, of course, people earn our trust. We decide who to credit by weighing various factors. I'm not inclined to believe what the United States government says, so that's one factor. I believe I first learned about the mistranslation issue through Juan Cole. I don't read Cole's work religiously, but I read enough to know that he's a serious person. I don't agree with everything he says, but he doesn't seem to bullshit. He doesn't write outlandishly stupid things about topics that I do know something about. So, in this context, I was inclined to believe Cole's account of this business. That's another factor. I read subsequent articles from various Middle Eastern sources (probably translated, naturally), which tended to support Cole's arguments. A third factor.

Ok, I've sort of gone far afield. I started talking about how we trust in translation and in the written word. In the case of the Ahmadinejad speech, I've had to do some minor work of my own deciding what to believe about the basic elements that had been reported in a particular story. Too often, we don't do the work. We're less likely to notice the more subtle shadings in the news, even when trained to expect it. We have a strong tendency to want to see the newspaper as a portal to objective reality--we think that this is the role of the newspaper, that it should, in fact, be this portal. Certainly The New York Times cultivates this view--"all the news that's fit to print". It presents itself as the factual record, and generally it is trusted as such, even as it is attacked from right (often inanely) and left (more fruitfully). A lot of us criticize the Times and other media outlets--often, I sense, we feel that our trust has been violated. The media has been entrusted by us, we think, to provide us with the information we need, and it fails at this task spectacularly. And yet we go back for more: maybe this time we'll find that that trust will not have been given in vain. Maybe our trust, already given in advance, will be earned. Maybe.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Methodists and Anarchists, together at last

I've mentioned Red Emma's and the event space at 2640 a couple of times in the past. The space is, in fact, an active church. Today, The Baltimore Sun has a nice article about the partnership that has developed between the anarchists of the Red Emma's collective and the Methodist congregation of the struggling church:
The partnership was born out of necessity. Last year, the congregation at St. John's needed an influx of money and ideas to keep it from putting the space on the market. Though more people attend the weekly service now than did several years ago, there are still not enough to fill the building's main space - let alone pay the utility bills.

"We'd gotten to a place of financial desperation," said pastor Drew Phoenix. "Some people wanted to just sell and leave."

Meanwhile, members of the Red Emma's anarchist collective started hunting for a larger space. They had outgrown their cafe and bookstore at Madison Avenue and St. Paul Street and needed another home for their progressive events.
Read the whole thing.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Waggish on The Book of the New Sun

I read Gene Wolfe's series The Book of the New Sun earlier this year, and I made a lot of noise about how I intended to write something extensive about it here. Well, alas, I don't see that happening. (Really, we'd all be a lot better off if I refrained from making predictions about what is or is not going to be happening around here.) But Mr. Waggish has now posted something of his own about the series. He was "less than enthusiastic"; he criticizes the prose as "clunky" and identifies various plot elements that remain problematic, but
where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. We know that Severian is a liar quite early on. We also know that what he is writing is destined for public consumption by people in his world, and that Wolfe claims to be acting as a translator of Severian's manuscript which has traveled long and far, without knowing anything about that audience. These two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian's motives and to the purpose of the text itself. Because we do not know what intent may be behind Severian's lies, we can't derive from the whole what the meaning of any particular piece is, because we do not have the whole context. If Severian were known to be telling the truth, we could inductively grasp the meaning of his history in the world. But because both are uncertain, the book loses sense structurally. This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment. Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian's words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha, a gnostic gospel without an accompanying authoritative text.
I don't really have much to say against this, except that I wasn't bothered by this kind of thing in my reading of the books. With respect to the plot-problems he lists earlier in his post, Waggish observes that "People argue that Wolfe can be enjoyed without answering these puzzles". I might say that I quite enjoyed the series without being terribly troubled by either of these (the plot-puzzles or what Waggish sees as the undeterminedness of the series). Why? Well, I liked having Severian around; I found his voice engaging and thoughtful (and, besides, I didn't think the prose was especially clunky). But then, I didn't really think of him as a "liar", though it was clear enough that his narrative was not altogether reliable (to say the least). I thought of the novel as a kind of Borgesian picaresque, the various set-pieces in the novel reminding me of some of Borges's stories, with Severian wandering among them. Certainly I tried to keep track of the events, to understand who the characters were and the role they played in the story, but I admit that I wasn't overly concerned if some things didn't seem to add up (though, in fact, I can't quite recall whether such a thing ever occurred to me while reading). I did ask myself what Severian's purpose was in telling the story he was telling in the manner he was telling it, and I wondered about the implications of his unreliability, but finally even these questions lost some of their urgency in the face of my enjoyment of his telling.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Michael Albert video

Check out this video (at Jonathan Schwarz's blog, A Tiny Revolution) of Michael Albert speaking at an event promoting his new memoir, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism (looks good!). There's some great stuff about the differences between the 1960s and today; about why the working class distrusts the professional, or coordinator, class (and how this relates to the problems with Marxist-Leninism and Maoism and so forth); about his consciousness-raising experiences rushing fraternities at MIT; about the failure of the left to come up with a compelling vision; etc. . . . It's fairly lengthy (1 hour, 17 minutes), but I think it's well worth taking the time to watch the whole thing (and not just the bit about the fraternities, which is all that Schwarz highlights). (Thanks to Joe at American Leftist for the link.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Antigone (i)

We recently saw a production by the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival of the Bertolt Brecht version of Antigone (which was originally based on Holderlin's translation of the Sophocles play). As it happens, a discussion in Josipovici's On Trust led me to a book by Martha C. Nussbaum called The fragility of goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy, which has a chapter devoted to Sophocles' Antigone. In anticipation both of reading this chapter and of seeing the production of the Brecht play, I was moved to read the Oedipus plays of Sophocles. I'll have more to say about Nussbaum's book later, but for now, Brecht's Antigone.

Here are some passages from the dramaturgical notes for the production, written by Tony Tsendeas:
The basic argument of Antigone is easy to state, but enormously difficult to resolve. Simply put Antigone is concerned with the . . . needs and rights of the individual vs. the needs and power of the The State.

The liberal populist spirit that has been the hallmark of Western culture since the eighteenth century age of revolution, leads us to readily place our sympathies with Antigone. However, Sophocles is even handed. . . .

. . .Kreon represents centralized authority. To his worldview the alternative is anarchy. Indeed we have borne witness to what can happen when centralized authority rapidly crumbles, creating a vacuum which is all too often filled by ethnic rivalry. The Balkan conflict of the 1990’s (where our production is set) and Iraq of today are vivid examples of what Kreon most fears. . . .

When Sophocles wrote Antigone in 442 BC, Humanity had already been grappling with the conflict between the rights of the individual and the power of the state for quite some time. . . .
There is a lot that could be said about this, but for now it suffices to say that I disagree that the problem of the Sophocles play is so "easy to state", and I disagree that it's about a simple matter of the individual rising up against the state, at least not in the way that we understand that idea today. The notes do say that "Sophocles is even handed" but otherwise they don't make much distinction between the Sophocles version and the Brecht version.

Bernard Knox says this about Brecht's version (in his introduction to Antigone, from the Penguin edition of The Three Theban Plays, translated by Robert Fagles):
The prologue is a scene in a Berlin air-raid shelter, March 1945, and it is all too clear what Creon is meant to suggest to the audience: he has launched Thebes on an aggressive war against Argos, and Polynices (conscripted by Creon in Brecht's violent reworking of the legend) has been killed for deserting the battle line when he saw his brother Eteocles fall. At the end of the play the tide turns against Thebes as Argos counterattacks; Creon takes Thebes down with him to destruction rather than surrender. Against this Hitlerian black, Antigone is all white; she is the image of what Brecht longed to see--the rising of the German people against Hitler, a resistance that in fact never came to birth. the poem Brecht wrote for the program of the production, an address to Antigone--

Come out of the twilight
and walk before us a while,
friendly, with the light step
of one whose mind is fully made up. . .

--reminds us that Brecht was a lyric poet as well as a dramatist, but it is a dream poem, a lament, a regret for the rising of a whole people against fascism, which Brecht's political creed urgently demanded but which never came "out of the twilight."
Brecht's play is unabashedly political and is much more black and white than was the Sophocles play. Antigone is unquestionably in the right; Creon is a tyrant. We admire her resistance to him, against his evil. Simple as that. But in Sophocles, the matter is much more complex: both Antigone and Creon have defensible claims. In his version, we learn before it starts that Polynices has fought against Thebes, Etoecles on behalf of Thebes. They kill each other in battle. Creon decrees that Etoecles shall be buried with honors as a hero, whereas Polynices shall not be buried at all; in fact, no one shall be allowed to bury him, for he was a traitor. Antigone buries Polynices, incurring the wrath of Creon. Antigone argues that she is following custom, favored by the gods. Creon cannot imagine that the gods would look kindly on anyone honoring a traitor to the city. As mentioned, in the beginning of the play, both Creon and Antigone hold defensible positions. When Creon argues that the welfare of the city is of paramount importance, this argument is not unreasonable. In fact, the Chorus agrees with him at first, and Knox reminds us that the audience was likely to recognize the validity of Creon's claim (even if it were uneasy about the injunction against the burial of the dead). by the end of the play, Creon has learned that much of the city did not approve of his injunction, or his banishment of Antigone. The Chorus ultimately sees the rightness of Antigone's decision (though critical of her as well). Creon realizes, too late, that he's lost everything. (This, of course, is just a sketch; there is much more to it than that. Nussbaum will argue that, while both Creon's and Antigone's positions are defensible, their positions are simplistic, and that, in part, this is what the play argues against.)

Thus Sophocles; but, we were at a production of the Brecht version, not the Sophocles. What did we think of it? We found ourselves discussing Brecht's ideas and the play's obvious political subtext (Bush, Iraq, etc.). The performances were strong, and some of the costumes were distracting (we wondered whether this was intended to be a Brechtian distancing effect, designed to draw us out of the play). Overall the play was entertaining, interesting, at times stirring, though we wondered at the purpose. Who is this play for? Why perform it now? Political art always risks being accused of “preaching to the choir”, and it was hard to miss the parallels with Bush and Iraq. Kreon was clearly a tyrant, and Antigone was an almost angelic individual voice of conscience. This lack of difficulty is a potential problem. Where is the drama, where the tension? We noted that the production was based on a translation by Judith Malina, who wrote her translation from prison in 1967, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. (Malina was a founder of The Living Theatre, which viewed theatre as political agitprop, and was heavily influenced by Brecht.) So you have layered analogies: Bush/Iraq over the Balkan conflicts over Vietnam over Brecht's post WWII German context over Sophocles.

It's interesting that, for Brecht, the purpose of the theatre was to teach. Though it may be true that many of Brecht's ideas have been absorbed (I wouldn't know firsthand), this particular idea is unpopular today. We rail against the politicization of art, against didacticism--we don't want to be lectured when we consume our entertainment--in favor of art for art's sake. I've made such arguments myself (arguments I'm not so sure about anymore). But the interesting thing here is that the purpose of Greek tragedy appears to have been didactic as well. It was concerned with goodness--how to live the good life, how to achieve practical wisdom in the face of uncontrollable contingency. Sophocles' plays were much more nuanced than Brecht's version of Antigone appears to be, and the complex lessons involved might not have come off as a glorified lecture to his audience. In any event the audience was large and contained and would have likely had shared knowledge of the play's background and subtext. Today, there is little chance that we share any such common store of knowledge. One person's moving drama about real life is another's tedious smug lecture.

But if we remember that the Chorus in Greek tragedy in part acts as the audience's proxy, we might be better able to approach even Brecht's blatantly didactic play, performed today, with Kreon obviously meant to represent Bush (even if Kreon is necessarily more coherent and articulate than our fearless leader). For, through most of our production, the Chorus is firmly with Kreon, cocky about military victory, all but strutting about in the midst of war and ruin. By the end of the play, when it's evident that things aren't going so well after all and that the public is increasingly against Kreon, the Chorus turns on him, attacking him and his "stupid war" (this line in particular felt to me tacked on, possibly by Malina, in the context of Vietnam). But Kreon will have none of it. He is going down, but not before he reminds the Chorus that it was their war, too. This accusation rattles the Chorus a bit, and then, more or less, the play is over. Even here, it is all too easy for us to see the Chorus as the Democrats to Kreon's Bush. This is slightly better than simply a one-note dumping on Kreon/Bush would have been, but not by much. It isn't a terribly trenchant political point to make, that the Democrats were just as implicated in the invasion of Iraq as was Bush and the neo-cons. Everyone knows this now: who really needs convincing? (And if viewers would need convincing, odds are they aren't at this play--again, the perils of political art.) But, recall that the Chorus actually stands in for us. We are responsible. We wanted blood, we wanted oil, we wanted video game carnage, we wanted revenge, we refuse to recognize the implications of the invasion and the occupation. This is better. But, here, too, there is a difference. Because remember that at no time in this version of Antigone is the audience encouraged to sympathize with Kreon, so the idea that the audience, through its proxy the Chorus, might be implicated sort of falls apart. And we're left with the obvious criticism of Bush through Kreon (and possibly the Democrats through the Chorus), and a weaker--though entertaining--production.