Friday, September 26, 2008

The Conservative Attraction to Youth

The NYT has an article tracing the relatively recent change in tactics in the way conservatives are approaching the War to Reclaim the University. Essentially, the difference is that conservatives have stopped trying to make education look uniformly bad, and are now trying to promote models of good education cleverly disguised as models of the education they have been condemning for the past twenty years or so.

The old strategy was basically one of trying to convince the American public that left-leaning professors are the greatest imaginable domestic danger to the nation's health and well-being. The hope in this strategy was that with enough undermining, the combined weight of the suddenly outraged silent majority would force a curricular and methodological overhaul, probably instituted by the government. David Horowitz is still trying this tactic, but has been increasingly criticized by conservatives for petitioning for what amounts to ideological affirmative action.

Now the strategy seems to be to inject conservative-approved texts into the university and hope that students find conservative explanations for things more compelling or more reasonable than cultural theory or gender/race/sexuality studies. Kind of a last-ditch effort, it seems to me, and rather redundant—the lowest common denominator at any school can usually be found reading Ayn Rand with or without professorial or curricular suggestion.

I have never really understood why conservatives have dug in their heels so hard over the past forty years or so when it comes to the politics of the university. God knows they gain enough of them back over the long haul to senescence middle age—why the constant fear that college kids are being irremediably poisoned? Kids don't even vote, usually, so it's not like they're abandoning an important demographic.

A few thoughts:
  • Modern, post-Buckley conservatism is built largely on the idea that conservatism must have a cohesive ideological framework or it will go astray. The chance that youth could emerge into adulthood feeling somewhat ambivalently or unevenly conservative is as threatening to such a mindset as the thought that they might be indoctrinated with queer-Marxist-feminism or something. Because if one is only incidentally conservative, how will one be able to answer the Marxists when they ask you about school bussing? The heroic figure of Buckley stands as the model conservative—a man who has an answer for every question, and an overarching narrative that can explain everything (e.g. David Brooks's column today about McCain: "what disappoints me about the McCain campaign is it has no central argument. I had hoped that he would create a grand narrative explaining how the United States is fundamentally unprepared for the 21st century and how McCain’s worldview is different. McCain has not made that sort of all-encompassing argument, so his proposals don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. Without a groundbreaking argument about why he is different, he’s had to rely on tactical gimmicks to stay afloat. He has no frame to organize his response when financial and other crises pop up."). But conservatism was not always this way.

  • A temperamental fatalism: if you believe that the world is constantly going to shit, you're compulsively worried about the next generation to the point that the only ideological battles that seem to matter are over who gets to bore adolescents.

  • The influence of commercial culture: Since the Sixties (cf. Mad Men), advertising and marketing has been obsessed with locking in the young to favorable habits of consumption. This is why Apple is running ads clearly targeted to people buying their first computer; Microsoft, though it doesn't understand youth, is also trying to target them by throwing Jerry Seinfeld and old people with exciting jobs into their commercials. But the basic thinking that directs advertising dollars—go for the consumer who hasn't set his habits/preferences and lock them in for life—has carried over without change to the realm of conservative ideology. And as in most cases of commerce (do I have any brand-loyalty to Honda because it was my first car? Definitely not), the results are mixed to ineffective.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Turner and Morandi at the Met


I had been hoping to catch the Turner exhibit since it opened, but when I discovered that a new exhibit of Giorgio Morandi's work would be, for a few days, overlapping, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage and go see them both. (Apologies to my New York friends—I didn't mean to avoid you—I will be back down soon for a more social trip!)

Turner's work I thought I knew well, but I found that his less representational work (which was what I was familiar with) did not make up the whole of his body of work. In fact, I walked around rather disappointed, for rather than proto-abstraction after proto-abstraction, I found numerous landscapes and history paintings with very careful attention to detail and finely controlled brushstrokes. While I have nothing against those things in other artists (I marveled at them in the recent Poussin exhibit, for instance), my interest in Turner is in the way he conveys emotion through gesture and movement. I love that speed and force seem to be his subjects, and the way that nature and paint seem to be vying on his canvas for the right to manifest speed and force, and the fact that it is only through that competition that speed and force become emotionally perceptible.

In most cases (see above), this competition is accomplished through the depiction of violent things—fire, wave and wind for the most part. A revelation was the canvas below (Mortlake Terrace, the Seat of William Moffatt, Esq.; Summer's Evening), where pure color is used to the same ends. One critic saw this painting and remarked that Turner had been taken over with "yellow fever," and another (though it may have been about a different painting) called Turner's work "mere freaks of chromomania." My favorite critic's comment, however, was that "to speak of these works as pictures, was an abuse of language." The painting below is not so abusive, but I think it wages the same war.

Unfortunately, the digital image does not do this justice, but the yellows Turner uses seem to be actively contesting the verisimilitude of the painting, fighting back reality in an effort to overwhelm nature itself. There are other works like this as well, which maintain a precision of drawing and depiction but using color—one or many—to maintain the struggle one sees in Turner's more abstract paintings, a struggle between art and nature. The word "picture" does not, as the critic I quoted above said, really apply to Turner's work because "picture" presumes a truce between art and nature, a calm and stable relationship.

***

Morandi's work is also a struggle between art and nature, though it is never a fair struggle: art is the burly older brother that throws nature against or through the wall on periodic occasions.

Words the curator used a great deal in describing Morandi's work were "architectural" or "architectonic," and "monumental." These are all fair words for Morandi's paintings, but perhaps the best descriptions are gerunds: "massing" and "blocking." Both words concern the technique employed, though in Morandi's case the apprehension of his technique and the absorption of its final effects—the appearance of the painting before you—are uncommonly close. In an excellent (although too brief) appreciation of Morandi's work in The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl elatedly remarks, "He is a painter’s painter, because to look at his work is to re-create it, feeling in your wrist and fingers the sequence of strokes, each a stab of decision which discovers a new problem."


Morandi's work doesn't just ask us to re-create the process of painting in our imagination, however, but also the process of composition, of "blocking" or "massing" the objects before us together, to repeat the order and ritual of placing the bottles and boxes in space. His work—partly because of its obvious Spartan discipline of mind and of hand—is devotional in nature; it demands of the viewer a form of prayer. And these prayers must be restless prayers, tense and immediate, to reflect the mood of the paintings. The shapes Morandi masses or blocks together are charged with a deliberate shock of intimacy—intimacy in the painting among the shapes, and intimacy to the painting from the viewer. There is a relation there, I think, to Byzantine icons, or perhaps (as Schjeldahl points out), to Giotto.

Part of this intimacy is achieved through Morandi's half-use of perspective—quite often the far edge of the table the objects are sitting on is either indistinct or irrelevant to the eye. This tilts the planes of one's perception such that the plane of the canvas often seems to dominate the plane of the objects depicted, creating a sensation that they are hanging together. This pendulous (or pending) feeling gives the objects back their weight, which would otherwise be unnoticed, supported by the table. This weight is what gives the paintings a sense of drama, and a precariousness, like a mobile, though that may not come off as well on a computer screen as in person. But do look at a few more of Morandi's paintings—the Met's page on the exhibit is a fine place to start.

I was irritated when I read Schjeldahl's New Yorker piece with his brusqueness in dealing with Morandi's landscapes and self-portraits; they are quite good, deserving much more than a brush off, and are much more clearly a part of Morandi's development than Schjeldahl allows. Unfortunately, I have duplicated this brusqueness now. When thinking of Morandi, I suppose the still lifes dominate the imagination. They are really quite incredible.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Indignation, by Philip Roth

I am not, as I have said before, Roth's biggest fan. I usually dislike his characters (even when they're not congenitally unlikeable), I find his plots wooden, and I cannot bear his emphatic-ejaculatory writing style.

But I very nearly didn't mind this book.

Firstly, Roth's inability to layer ironies (when something's ironic, it's Ironic, or it's Darkly Comic) works unsurprisingly well when delivered with a young man's simple earnestness. The narrator is very much 19 and so when he writes sentences like "There—yet another goal: despite the trammels of convention still rigidly holding sway on the campus of a middling little midwestern college in the years immediately after World War Two, I was determined to have intercourse before I died," one is ready to accept that a young serious someone without a feel for language and who wants to be believed might say something rather like that.

Secondly, I frankly find his stereotyped goys more convincing as characters than his stereotyped Jews-who-act-like-goys. Roth is more fun when he's writing about crazy WASPs than he is when he's writing about fastidiously assimilated Jews (e.g. Swede Levov) or, for that matter, people trying to pass as fastidiously assimilated Jews (e.g. the black Coleman Silk attempting to pass as Jewish). Even in this novel, the narrator, Marcus Messner, every inch a fastidiously assimilating Jew, is not as interesting a character as any of the briefer sketches of lunatic WASPs which Roth creates haphazardly. Since this book is set in a bucolic Ohio town and a tradition-bound Small Liberal Arts College, the opportunities for repugnant WASPery are legion.

However, Indignation is not so much an attempt at a Roth novel as a whispered plea that you'll be kind enough to overlook the fact that it is not. I find the This-Book-Represents-America novels of the Nineties to be trite and cluelessly ambitious, but this book just hopes that you mistake it for being trite and cluelessly ambitious.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Norton Anthology: Piers Plowman, by William Langland

I am currently preparing for the GRE Subject Test on Literature in English. This means I'm reading a lot of things I should have read but have put off or avoided because I thought they'd be fairly boring. I am finding, as was perhaps inevitable, that I was mistaken in my prejudgment most of the time. And so I sit, in my apartment (I've stopped working full-time in order to carry out this sedulous enterprise), listening to the same 15 tracks of Italian pop music on repeat emanating from the external speakers of the corner market next door, my windows open, enjoying this late summer fair weather. I sit here, learning how stupid it is to be recalcitrantly ignorant when it comes to literature, how much one loses just by assuming something will be dull.

The first notable mistaken assumption I'll talk about regards William Langland's alliterative verse vision Piers Plowman, although I would like to excuse myself from the charge of thinking it boring in such a way that only embarrasses me further: I didn't really know enough about it to have formed any opinion about it. And though I have only read a few hundred lines (the Norton, my Holy Writ on this pilgrimage, only affords this much), I'm soon going to pilfer my girlfriend's copy to read the rest.

I have, since reading Blake my freshman year, been tremendously fascinated by heterodox borrowings or revisions of religious imagery, ideas and systems. Milton is therefore naturally a favorite, as is Kushner. Actually, come to think of it, my interest in this form of artistic heresy probably derives from my participation in high school in a performance of J.B., a dramatic retelling of the Job story, scripted by Archibald MacLeish, for which he won a Pulitzer, his third (the other two were for poetry). The play thunders and roars with ambiguity; its unwillingness to answer a single question about theodicy (or even the nature of reality) captivated me.

This is perhaps more than you need to know about why I liked the bits of Piers Plowman that I read. At any rate, here are a few lines:

Wool-clad and wet-shoed went I forth after
As a mindless mortal that minds no sorrow,
And trudged forth like a tramp, time of all my life,
Till I grew weary of the world and wished again to sleep,
And lay down till Lent, and long time I slept...

[Piers dreams of the Harrowing of Hell—depicted at right—the quasi-apocryphal story of Christ's descent to Hell after his death to retrieve the souls of the virtuous pagans. What is fascinating about Langland's version, however, is not the description of the event itself (which, like Milton's "action," occurs mostly through and as speech) but the mechanics of salvation he envisions. Here, Mercy, personified as a woman standing with her fellow virtues Truth, Righteousness, and Peace, argues that Christ will be able to free the souls entrapped in Hell.]

Then Mercy full mildly mouthed these words:
"From experience," she said, "I suppose they shall be saved.
Venom destroys venom, and from that evidence
That Adam and Eve shall have cure:
For of all vexing venoms the vilest is the scorpion's—
May no medicine amend the place where he stings
Till dead he is dabbed thereon; then he undoes it,
The previous poisoning, through the power of himself.
So shall this death destroy—I dare bet my life—
All that Death and the Devil did first to Eve.
And just as the beguiler through guile beguiled man first,
So shall grace that began everything make a good end
And beguile the beguiler—and that's a good trick:
Ars ut artem falleret."

[Later, Lucifer and Satan (who are different demons in this) are arguing about their chances for survival when Christ comes calling. Satan, whom the Norton notes refer to as "Lucifer's most articulate critic," reproves Lucifer for resorting to deception in order to tempt Eve:]

"Certainly, I'm afraid," said the Fiend, "that Truth will fetch them out.
And as you beguiled God's image by going like an adder,
So God has beguiled us all by going like a man..."
"I say we should flee," said the Fiend, "all fast away,
For it were better for us not to be than abide in his sight.
For your lies, Lucifer, we first lost our joy,
And out of heaven hither your pride made us fall.
Because we believed your lies there, we lost our bliss,
And now for a later lie that you lied to Eve
We have lost our lordship on land and in hell:
Nunc princeps huius mundi eiicetur foras."

[Now Christ speaks (though he's been glowing, a disembodied light, just outside the gates of Hell for awhile), and returns to the idea of lies redeeming lies:]

"For the deadly sin that they did, your deceit caused it:
With guile you got them out against all reason.
For in my palace Paradise in the person of an adder
Falsely you fetched there what befell me to guard,
Closed them and beguiled them and my garden profaned
Against my love and my leave. The Old Law teaches
That beguilers be beguiled and in their guile fall.
And whoever hits out a man's eye or else his front teeth
Or any manner of member maims or hurts,
The same sore shall he have that any one smites so:
Dentem pro dente et oculum pro oculo.
So life shall lose life where life has taken life;
So that life should requite life the Old Law requires:
Ergo soul shall requite soul and sin to sin turn,
And all that man misdid I, man amend it;
And what Death undid my death shall restore,
And both quicken and requite what was quenched through sin
And guile is beguiled through grace at the last:
Ars ut artem falleret.
So believe it not, Lucifer, against the law I fetch
Here any sinful soul solely by force,
But through right and through reason ransom here my liegemen.
Non veni solvere legem sed adimplere.
So what was gotten through guile through grace is now won back,
And as Adam and Eve through a tree died,
Adam and all through a tree shall turn to life.
And now begins your guile against you to turn,
And my grace to grow ever greater and wider."

The explicit mechanics of salvation here is not, in fact, all that heterodox—it is not in doctrinal terms substantially different from the Pauline epistles. However, a strange alteration takes place in the salvation narrative from the way Christians normally conceive it.

Humankind does not play a very large role in this narrative; souls are the prize of a struggle between Christ and Lucifer. And therefore it is Lucifer that is beguiled by the Incarnation, in completion of the Old Law (a lie for a lie) and the formation of the New (grace for sinners). Lucifer tricked Adam and Eve, so he too has been tricked to even the score, opening the way for a new agreement between God and man, one based on mercy and grace.

But the interesting thing about how Piers Plowman dramatizes the contest between Lucifer and Christ is that it does so not as a battle or even really a conflict of opposing wills or forces—there is no clash of arms or even of words. Although Christ demonstrates his power by ramming through the barricades of Hell and scaring the bejesus out of the demons, the fact that there is no opposition makes this effort seem less like a triumph and more like an empty (though impressive) display—a Mission Accomplished banner flutters over his head.

The crucial turn comes, however, when one realizes that there is no opposition because Lucifer has come to understand that he botched things from the get-go: the fact that he resorted to deception in tempting Eve foiled his plans even before they were (briefly) consummated in the Fall means that he has no lasting claim on the souls of men. As with the scorpion in Mercy's speech, Lucifer's own poison—his guile—is the only cure for itself—and thus, heretically, it is Lucifer who is the true savior because it is only through his lies that these souls are in a position to be saved. Using guile to tempt Eve was his mistake—and the fact that it was quite clearly a mistake positions him as being in a very real way more autonomous that Christ. Christ, in this sense, is just practicing Salvation-Judo, using his opponent's force against him. Or, to use another metaphor, Lucifer breached his contract, and Christ is just collecting damages for his client.

This is going too far—I do not think that Langland would explicitly affirm this reading. For him, Christ is the prime agent of salvation. However, as Milton would later find out, the presence of Lucifer in the salvation narrative forces its own logic upon that narrative: give Lucifer any attention at all, and he can quickly make himself the whole center of the salvation story. It is an interesting property of the Christian problem of salvation that its greatest temptation is to resolve itself by tilting the power dynamic increasingly toward Lucifer, making him the prime mover of the whole contraption.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

David Foster Wallace, 1962 - 2008

David Foster Wallace's persona has existed, as has Infinite Jest itself, for more than a decade as a ne plus ultra for the artistic imagination, a point beyond which it is difficult to imagine humans still thinking in words, much less in fiction. Although I have not read Infinite Jest, its mere existence seems to have shaped my conception of literature—especially contemporary literature—in a significant way. It is impossible to make any kind of account of late 20th century American literature without considering DFW, without including him as a keystone of whatever narrative edifice you're building. That is not, I think, something one could say about many of the other sprawling postmodern omnibuses (The Recognitions, Giles Goat-Boy, The Public Burning, JR, the collected stories of Don Barthelme) which Wallace drew his original inspiration from. Even Delillo's Underworld or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow feel somehow replaceable—if Delillo and Pynchon hadn't written those works, they would have written other things very like them in size and scope. Infinite Jest feels more necessary, somehow, for understanding what postmodernism was and what it became. It feels unreplaceable, and completely unrepeatable.

David Foster Wallace's early death may come to represent a terminus for the type of novel Infinite Jest was, and the type of writer Wallace was as well. There will be books, like Danielewski's House of Leaves or even Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, that think as big and as broadly and as smartly, but I can't help but feel something has come to a definitive end this weekend.

As I said, I have not read very much of DFW's work. I read a few essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and a few stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. For more informed and intelligent commentary, please look here, to David Gates's appreciation in Newsweek, to Laura Miller's tribute in Salon and here, to my friend Herbie's post on her blog, Meek Adjustments. And please read Wallace's Kenyon commencement address, an extraordinary work of passion and insight.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers

[This is from Milan Kundera's acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, the text of which makes up the last part of his book The Art of the Novel. I thought about it throughout the Coen Brothers' new film, which I found strangely moving. Hopefully, you'll soon see why.]

Thus the spirit of an age cannot be judged exclusively by its ideas, its theoretical concepts, without considering its art, and particularly the novel. The nineteenth century invented the locomotive, and Hegel was convinced he had grasped the very spirit of universal history. But Flaubert discovered stupidity. I daresay that is the greatest discovery of a century so proud of its scientific thought.

Of course, even before Flaubert, people knew stupidity existed, but they understood it somewhat differently: it was considered a simple absence of knowledge, a defect correctable by education. In Flaubert's novels, stupidity is an inseparable dimension of human existence. It accompanies poor Emma throughout her days, to her bed of love and to her deathbed, over which two deadly agélastes*, Homais and Bournisien, go on endlessly trading their inanities like a kind of funeral oration. But the most shocking, the most scandalous thing about Flaubert's vision of stupidity is this: Stupidity does not give way to science, technology, modernity, progress; on the contrary, it progresses right along with progress!

With a wicked passion, Flaubert used to collect the stereotyped formulations that people around him enunciated in order to seem intelligent and up-to-date. He put them into a celebrated Dictionnaire des idées reçues. We can use this title to declare: Modern stupidity means not ignorance but the nonthought of received ideas. Flaubert's discovery is more important for the future of the world than the most startling ideas of Marx or Freud. For we could imagine the world without the class struggle [well, I can't - AS] or without psychoanalysis, but not without the irresistible flood of received ideas that—programmed into computers, propagated by the mass media—threaten soon to become a force that will crush all original and individual thought and thus will smother the very essence of the European culture of the Modern Era.

--------------------

The Coen Brothers, it need hardly be said, have had since the first a singular preoccupation with human stupidity, and I think their understanding of it is not significantly different from Flaubert's—it "is an inseparable dimension of human existence" and it progresses with the progression of knowledge and technology, though in a sporadic, even disjunctive manner. Perhaps because of this sporadic nature, stupidity is an excessively difficult idea to convey artistically with any meaning. The Coens have been unable to do so consistently, but one has to give them credit for trying.

This focus on stupidity was not entirely suspended in No Country for Old Men, but the broad myths that structure the plot and animate the characters and underwrite the aesthetic diffuse that focus substantially. The figure of Anton Chigurh banishes stupidity to the corners of the film, I think to its detriment.

In Burn after Reading, the Coen Brothers have returned to their central topic and again demonstrate their inconsistent ability to give stupidity its fair measure. At their best (Malkovich's character, Osborne Cox), the characters are molecules of stupidity, each component particle a different weight, pushing on the others to find a geometrical balance. Other characters (Brad Pitt's Chad) are mere atoms of stupidity, pinging into things and maybe rattling a few electrons off with the collision, but not, in the end, more than occasionally agitated. These atoms of stupidity attract with a flurry of motion, a nimbus of small things flitting rapidly, but the core is just a dull clot. When the Coens do build their molecules, however, one almost believes they understand human stupidity—an amazing feat, especially given how much we've progressed since Flaubert.


* agélaste - "[from Rabelais], it means a man who does not laugh, who has no sense of humor."

From East Coker, by T.S. Eliot

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to one another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

The houses are all gone under the sea.

The dancers are all gone under the hill.

***
V

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

***

[Also, here are a few lines from one of the other of the Four Quartets, "Little Gidding." At a time when the election swells every thought I have with its own maddening pulse, I could not help but read this as a fair description of the recent liberal reaction to the Palin Surge—yet another bout of self-recrimination brought on by the irritation of being unable to keep the Republicans from lying successfully:]

Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
     To purify the dialect of the tribe
     And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
     To set a crown upon your lifetime's effort.
     First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
     But bitter tastelessness of shallow fruit
     As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
     At human folly, and the laceration
     Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
     Of all that you have done, and been…