Monday, June 23, 2014

The Hannah Arendt movie

Yes, this movie came out two years ago, and I have been anxious to see it for three, but such are the privations of living in paradise: we are not exactly the market for this kind of film. (My husband protests that the world slights "San Diego intellectuals," but our effort to identify even one candidate for this title resulted only in the smug guy who runs D.G. Wills.) But Netflix instant is a great democratic leveler, and now the movie is available on it. Everyone else who cares has already seen it, but what can we who dwell amid the swaying palms and rolling surf do about that?

As one of my friends observed when it came out, it's hard to make a compelling movie about people whose main activities are reading and thinking. Given this structural obstacle, this one was not too bad. But maybe its inability to get beyond not-too-bad suggests that movies cannot be "philosophical" by depicting the activity of philosophy, and are better off illuminating philosophy's questions by indirect means. The movie-fication of Arendt's understanding of Eichmann and evil was basically accurate and coherent, but her arguments are all conveyed via her monologues to her absolutely rapt students (these lectures are all of five minutes long! no wonder the students can manage to look so intensely absorbed) or in harangues to her cocktail party guests. These scenes alternated with absurd shots of Arendt lying on a couch chain-smoking with her eyes closed, to indicate "thinking." (Side note: These characters in this movie smoke as much as the characters in Cheever drink. Mid-century America really must have been the greatest time to be alive for lovers of permanent mild chemical stimulation.) (Experiment in living: if I lie on my couch and chain-smoke for four hours a day for the next year, will my dissertation write itself into brilliance? I'm sure I would enjoy testing this, but less sure I would enjoy the results.)

An important part of the movie is friendship and conversation, but the cheesiness of the dialogues is directly proportional to the clarity of the monologues. This seems to be a product of research almost too well done, since much of the dialogue is taken from Arendt's letters, and sounds unnatural when put into conversation. This is especially true of the exchanges between Arendt and Mary McCarthy, who comes off as a very sophisticated airhead. But it's even true of the tender conversations with her husband, who is clearly intended to come across as a serious thinker in his own right and a kind of philosophical muse to Arendt, but who actually only repeats one tired point for the entire movie (it was illegal to kidnap Eichmann and try him in Israel) even when this point's relevance is long past. It is never clear how Arendt's friendships provide more than moral support, encouraging her to keep going under adverse conditions, but not really contributing substantively to her thinking. When she is shown arguing with her friends, it's a battle of wills: she insists that Eichmann is mediocre and not an anti-Semite, her friends insist the opposite. Then someone swoops in and changes the subject before they come to blows. There was only one scene where it seemed that one of Arendt's friends says something she did not think of herself: when Kurt Blumenfeld explains that the generation of children born after the Holocaust blamed their parents for not resisting because they didn't grasp the totalizing, systemic nature of the Final Solution, and that the testimony of survivors at the Eichmann trial was intended to reveal this to them. This point was connected to the backlash against Arendt's claims about the complicity of European Jewish leaders, but I'm not sure this is clear in the movie. At some point very late in the film, she does admit that "resistance was impossible," but it's not clear what this means given how much the movie dwells on Arendt's own escape from France.

Another reason I think the depiction of Arendt's friendships falls flat is that the movie indulges pretty shamelessly in national stereotyping. There were the gregarious but intellectually shallow Americans (McCarthy, the New School prof, Norman Podhoretz and Lionel Trilling) contrasted with the brooding, profoundly insightful Europeans (Arendt, Blucher, Hans Jonas until he defects to the stupid side, and even Arendt's secretary), and in this case, it added a third type: the passionately nationalistic but self-deluded Israelis (Blumenfeld, Hausner, the non-appearing Ben-Gurion). Much is made of how ignorant Americans are of foreign languages, and the students in "Advanced German" whom Arendt teaches sound like they'd barely pass a first-year course. When Podhoretz and Trilling oppose Arendt's Eichmann articles, they're dismissed as opportunistic naifs who never had to personally flee Nazis and so have no credibility. The multi-lingual Arendt with her dark personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism is the only person who can be right about Eichmann. This clearly poses a difficulty with explaining why other German Jews with comparable personal experiences and linguistic abilities like Blumenfeld, Jonas, and Gershom Scholem (seemingly merged into Blumenfeld's character in this film) also objected to Arendt's book. And the answer the movie gives us is basically that they're stubbornly over-committed to Zionism. This is forgivable because they've been though a lot, what with the Holocaust and all, but ultimately, they are just too angry and close-minded to see clearly. Reason is on Arendt's side, passion is on theirs. (Which, incidentally, seems incompatible with her younger self's incomprehensible but apparently seductive soliloquy about "passionate thinking" to a clownish Heidegger in one of the Heidegger flashback scenes that this movie really could've done without.)

And, to be fair, I suspected in advance that the film would demonize Arendt's detractors while turning her into a paragon of free thought against their venal attempts at censorship, and was watching for confirmations of my suspicion. Most of the movie is not this lame. But the depiction of Blumenfeld's and Jonas's intractable, unreasoning opposition after Arendt's articles are published was pretty flimsy. Surely Arendt was not the only person in the world to think seriously and unhysterically about evil and totalitarianism? If, as the movie suggests, her main qualifications to think seriously about this were contained in her life experiences (a claim which real-life Arendt rejected) and the rigor of her education, then Blumenfeld's and Jonas's claims should be as strong. Plus, there is a scene where sinister Mossad agents ambush Arendt at her country house demanding that she retract her book (over whose printing they have no control) and threatening to ban it in Israel (which they also can't do). And she bravely stands up to these fascist thugs (see, Jews can be fascists too, especially if they are Israeli) and says no! That's straight-up agit-prop.

Even though I think it tries to avoid this, the movie depicts "philosophy" as consisting in feeling agonized over something in your personal life, lying around, producing a deep thought, and then browbeating the public with your thought. This requires great courage, because the more brilliant your thought is, the more strenuously the public will oppose you. I suspect that it's really just too hard to visually depict the reciprocal relationships between reading, talking, thinking, and writing, and that the best way to experience them short of actually living them is not to watch a movie about people who thought but to read the books their thoughts are in. I'm not actually sure how this movie would even be interesting to anyone who hasn't read Arendt, or that it alone would pique anyone's interest in reading her. But I can see the appeal of a visual depiction for those who already love Arendt.

Friday, June 20, 2014

More on YA lit is bad, parody edition

This synthesizes the situation, style-wise:
"Her eyes were green in a really specific way. Other people’s eyes are green sometimes, but
not like the way her eyes were green.

Her hair smelled good, like some kind of fruit and also one kind of herb. “Your hair smells good, like some kind of fruit and also one kind of herb,” I told her.

“Thanks,” she said. “I washed it.”

Monday, June 16, 2014

John Cheever, Collected Stories

Another ambivalent chronicler of proprieties, like Henry James lite, showing at once how stifling and crazy-making all these social rules are and also how necessary. But in this case, either because Cheever makes himself less distant from his characters, or because their proprieties are less distant from mine, the sense of their importance and violation is more intuitive than James's. I still spent plenty of time looking up things like Lady Baltimore Cakes, serge suits, and Episcopalian church services. (I at first thought the characters were Catholic because they took communion, then decided this was improbable, vindicated my doubt via the internet, then wondered whether I've ever even met an Episcopalian.) Also puzzling was why, despite the fact that all the characters drink enough to euthanize a horse, no one is ever depicted drinking a beer or even a glass of wine, unless they're abroad. Was there really a world so recently lost whose inhabitants exclusively drank cocktails, whose alcoholism was so stylish? Maybe it still exists somewhere or could return, so that we don't have to spend our social lives trying hopelessly to discriminate the fruit notes in a tasting flight of microbrews?

I read "The Swimmer" in high school, and although it was beautiful and impossible to shake off, it also gave me the inaccurate impression that Cheever was a typical mid-century critic of bourgeois suburban despair. But the progression of the short stories suggests a different development: Cheever's early stories are more New York-centric, critical of the bareness and compression of city life, but already ironic and redemptive. ("Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor" is so aggressively ironic that it could be mistaken for something from O.Henry.) The middle stories are the suburban ones, taking place in old money (but besieged by new money) Shady Hill, where the burden of keeping up appearances has made everyone privately crazy, but where there is still enough sweetness in life that most of them eventually find something to keep them going, usually a crisis-induced realization of their love for or need of their spouses. In the Library of America edition that I read, there is a little essay inserted in the end, "Why I Write Short Stories," that strengthens my impression that these suburban stories cautiously embrace suburban life as a reasonable temporary shelter from the postwar storm, something less than the lofty dignity that its mishmash of historical facades aspires to, but something more substantial than mere appearances. It's the later stories, among them "The Swimmer," which are about irredeemable despair. But these are also less consistent - often we're abroad, usually in Italy, starting to approach Jamesian territory. I'm an impatient reader of the American expatriate's lament, so I skipped many of these.

One liberty that Cheever seems unable to permit his characters - in addition to a sip of wine or beer - is a divorce. There are many threats of and attempts to divorce, but the couples always recover each other in the end. In the only two stories of unsalvageable marriages, Cheever kills the couple's children first, as if in pre-emptive retaliation for their waywardness. It's not that there are no divorces or family abandonments off the page - we encounter many fatherless characters, and some who divorced at some point before the story begins. But that the story itself should countenance such a rupture seems impossible.

Finally, there is a short appreciation of Saul Bellow appended to this edition, particularly fitting for me because Bellow is one of the few contemporaneous writers I've read, and all throughout these stories, I kept thinking of their inversion of Bellow's preoccupations. Bellow's characters are hustlers, even those who find themselves in genteel professions (of which there seems to be approximately one for Bellow: the academic), where they proceed to become hustling professionals. And hustling works for Bellow's characters, though they sometimes suffer nervous breakdowns along the way. In Cheever's stories by contrast, there is a pronounced absence of hustling. He depicts some misguided efforts to hustle ("The Pot of Gold" and "O City of Broken Dreams"), but these schemes suggest that it's a doomed pursuit, in addition to being disreputable. In his appreciation, Cheever has a funny description of competing with Bellow: 
"I was determined to diminish the book. I read Augie March dead drunk in a heated room. I read it backwards. I read it upside down in a bucket of water. The clarity of the voice and the music he sang remained peerless. I then moved my family to Italy, where,on a winter afternoon, I saw a woman on a Roman bus reading with great intensity an Italian translation of Augie. I wanted to kill her."
I wonder if he saw him as representing American life from something like the opposite end, from the precariousness of clinging to the summit rather than the vagaries of climbing it?

Friday, June 13, 2014

On choosing an early modern sect to join

As a natural partisan, I have long wondered, while studying things related to the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on whose side I would fight were I present at this time. I find it difficult to study any event or text or epoch, no matter how long-past, without vicariously taking a side in its disputes. Often the choice is easy, as when one must decide whether to be a Greek or a Persian, or an Athenian or Spartan in the fifth century BC, or a Ciceronian or anyone else in the first century. Sometimes it's more difficult, like the for some reason ubiquitous dilemma of my undergraduate life about whether to be a Greek or a Roman during the late Republic, a dilemma centering on a mutually exclusive choice between a philosophical and poetic tradition on one side, and a legal and historical one on the other. 

But the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries present us with a unique proliferation of choices. Assuming you were not geographically constrained, would you be a Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Huguenot (or some other continental Calvinist), Catholic, Jesuit, Anglican, Jansenist, one of those weird Bohemian heretics, or something even more bizarre - Quaker, Ranter, Anabaptist? And let's be clear, you cannot be any of these things casually, but must choose on the assumption that you will be fighting for it, by means of either pen or sword. A great deal is at stake in this decision: an entire worldview, a way of life, the social and political order implied or expressly demanded by the theology you embrace. 

In college and for some time after, I assumed I would have obviously liked to be a Calvinist of some sort, most likely English, so that I could be a Puritan, but Scottish Presbyterianism would be acceptable as well. And if not that, then surely some other respectable sort of Protestant - an Anglican, if necessary. But time and study have revealed to me the hard fact that, all things considered, I would probably be happiest as a Jesuit. (Yes, I realize I would have to be male to qualify, but that's no less improbable than time travel, so I'm unperturbed by that technicality.) This realization goes against all my entrenched sympathy for Protestantism over Catholicism, which can alternately be understood as a preference for early America over everything else. It has been hard to come to terms with this new understanding of my hypothetical historical self and its implications for my previous staunch Puritan partisanship, but I am trying.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A secular prayer for those afflicted by the World Cup

In the manner in which nondenominational, vaguely deontological benedictions were delivered to us in college:

We call this day upon the Great Benevolent Substance-Form That Infuses The Universe With Reason to preserve us against the irrational scourge of global soccer fandom by which we are quadrennially visited. From Thee, we seek patience and forbearance, especially those of us married to individuals of South American descent or those from the benighted nations of Europe and Africa whose peoples worship globular gods of synthetic leather on vast altars of turf. We ask

That when the screaming from the pub on the corner downstairs threatens our sleep, we may calmly close our windows and return to our slumbers and not launch projectiles in its direction.
That when we are shocked out of our sidewalk reveries by a car bearing foreign flags blaring its horn for no traffic-related reason, we are able to re-compose ourselves and continue on our paths rather than screaming obscenities after it.
That when we speak to our spouses whose heads are glued to their tablets, they do not respond with, "Gogogogogo...YES! GOAL! GOAL!" and then take a victory lap around our living rooms before re-affixing their tablets to their faces.
That when we are trapped in conversation about the relative merits of the various priests of this fanatical false religion, we may be permitted to pass through them unharmed with a non-committal response of "yes" to every question.
That when we are in close proximity to disputes waged by partisans of its competing sects, we may be preserved from the ensuing blows of their fists.
That when we are in the vicinity of partisans of a sect which has gained a recent victory, we may be spared the necessity of engaging in celebratory dance with them.
That when partisans around us have imbibed overzealously, we may avoid being the inadvertent receptacle for the contents of their stomachs.
That when we are dragged to viewings of these cultic rituals, we recall that with each additional enactment, we come closer to the conclusion of the whole.
That we may simply ignore our Facebook, Twitter, Feedly, and NYT feeds for the duration.

We beg of Thee a speedy deliverance from these and other instances of unreason which will beset us in the coming weeks, which we understand come as a logically necessary re-education for our ethically unsupportable actions of the past four years. For these things do we beseech you, Great Substance-Form, whose wisdom is complete and whose judgments are a priori just.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

John Cheever: not schlock

The opening of "O Youth and Beauty!":
At the tag end of nearly every long, large Saturday-night party in the suburb of Shady Hill, when almost everybody who was going to play golf or tennis in the morning had gone home hours ago and the ten or twelve people remaining seemed powerless to bring the evening to an end although the gin and whiskey were running low, and here and there a woman who was sitting out her husband would have begun to drink milk; when everybody had lost track of time, and the baby-sitters who were waiting at home for these diehards would have long since stretched out on the sofa and fallen into a deep sleep, to dream about cooking-contest prizes, ocean voyages, and romance; when the bellicose drunk, the crapshooter, the pianist, and the woman faced with the expiration of her hopes had all expressed themselves; when every proposal—to go to the Farquarsons’ for breakfast, to go swimming, to go and wake up the Townsends, to go here and go there—died as soon as it was made, then Trace Bearden would begin to chide Cash Bentley about his age and thinning hair. The chiding was preliminary to moving the living-room furniture. Trace and Cash moved the tables and the chairs, the sofas and the fire screen, the woodbox and the footstool; and when they had finished, you wouldn’t know the place. Then if the host had a revolver, he would be asked to produce it. Cash would take off his shoes and assume a starting crouch behind a sofa. Trace would fire the weapon out of an open window, and if you were new to the community and had not understood what the preparations were about, you would then realize that you were watching a hurdle race. Over the sofa went Cash, over the tables, over the fire screen and the woodbox. It was not exactly a race, since Cash ran it alone, but it was extraordinary to see this man of forty surmount so many obstacles so gracefully. There was not a piece of furniture in Shady Hill that Cash could not take in his stride. The race ended with cheers, and presently the party would break up.
This might be the most perfect opening - ironic, foreshadowing, and bizarrely funny - of a story that I've ever read.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

No one should read YA books

Allow me to intervene into and mediate the important internet dispute about who should be reading YA novels. The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot endorses YA books for everyone, while Slate's Ruth Graham suggests that books for children should be read by children. A meager third-way is advanced by The American Conservative's Catherine Addington, who says that while everyone should read YA books, adults should also remember that they are intended for children. That, in practice, means very little. So I have another, more conciliatory solution: no one should read YA books. They're bad for adults, yes, but they're also bad for young adults. This is because they're bad books.

First, let's be clear that when we refer to adults and young adults here, we almost exclusively mean women. Adolescent boys do not read YA books. I'm tempted to say that they do not read books, but will relent and say only that maybe they read other things - genre fiction and comics, perhaps. They do not squee over Edward the translucent vampire hottie in Twilight, or sigh over Katniss the inexhaustible post-apocalyptic warrior-princess in The Hunger Games, or melt over this new cancer romance that's apparently a Timeless Work of Literature, despite the fact that "Green is male and his first books featured boys as protagonists his new novel seemed capable of reaching both genders." Talbot's reportage tacitly admits that this capacity was never realized when she describes the movie preview:
Thousands of fans had lined up for free tickets, and, after the screening, they screamed when Elgort strode down the aisle for a Q. & A. But they screamed louder for Green. “We love you, John!” they called out...One questioner, who had to apologize for hyperventilating as she spoke, asked the five actors onstage to name their favorite lines from the book. Woodley was partial to “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”; Elgort cited “The world is not a wish-granting factory.” I had never watched a movie in a theatre where there was mass crying—not discreet nose-blowing, or stifled sniffles, but wracking sobs.
I've never watched a movie where there was mass crying either, but I have watched movies of mass crying and of shrieking, hysterical fandom like this - think of those videos of Beatles concerts in the '60s - and noticed that hyperventilating mass criers tend to be all of one sex. YA is for girls, and now also apparently for women who recall their girlhoods (too) fondly.

Second, it seems that everyone who is so enthused about this new cancer romance and wants to promote the virtues of YA for everyone has a very short memory for what they're promoting, because they have overlooked the great Lurlene McDaniel, author of eleventy million such books in the '80s and early '90s, all essentially identical except for some variation in the particular disease plaguing the characters. There would be a boy and a girl, both highly attractive and intelligent, but suffering from some horrible and usually terminal illnesses, who meet in the hospital, fall deeply and passionately in love, muse sentimentally on the meaning of their doomed romance, and then promptly die. You read one such book, have a good cathartic cry into your pillow at the end, then chuck it into the pile of never-to-be-reread YA drivel and immediately start in on the next one. Last time our lovers died of leukemia, before that of lupus, but this time, cystic fibrosis shall be their demise! This is not an original or daring foray into the edgy new territory of dying and grief; it's one of several well-worn tropes of YA lit (look at that long list of tearjerking titles on McDaniel's wikipedia page!).

But it's not just that YA is formulaic schlock, but that it's a genre whose origin is in a political effort to undermine parental authority, or at least the authority of insufficiently progressive parents, and reinvest that authority with YA authors, another point that none of these commenters notice. The banner for this effort is YA's supposed "realism," by contrast with the cloying, unrealistic moralism of its predecessors in the children's book industry. Reality is horrible things that happen to some people, while unreality is good things that happen to most people. None of this cotton candy be-good-and-you'll-be-loved stuff. Reality is do-good-and-you'll-be-raped. Books for children must depict rather than evade reality to be educative. Reality's constitutive elements may be summarized as: divorce, drugs, disease, depravity, dissolution, and death - often in combination or all at once. That's both what adults want to keep from children and what children most need to be exposed to, so they can be ready when their own turn to be ground down into powder comes. Have no fear children, YA authors are here to rescue you from the enforced ignorance in which your heartless parents would keep you! I've written about this all so many times that I won't belabor it again here, but you can read my previous posts here, here, here, and here.

Now, Talbot assures us not to worry about all that because The Fault in Our Stars is "tamer" than the average YA book, which I take to mean that it contains fewer items serially copied from the Catalogue of YA Issues and more character development rather than exposure to the rawest depravity of which people are capable. That's probably good. But I still don't see how it makes schlock into great literature; it just makes this into less schlocky schlock than the other schlock with which it shares shelf space. As with musical schlock, you can consume and enjoy it, but you ought not forget that it's schlock, which is to say not simply that it's aimed at a younger audience, as Addington suggests, but that it's objectively bad. There is great literature about love and death, and though I can't say for sure, having never read it, I'm willing to bet this book is probably not an example of it.

Does that mean that it can't still be a good warm-up for children, a gateway to the good stuff? Here we should be careful. Garbage fiction is not on its own going to turn anyone away from better things. Most young readers are pretty indiscriminate. I consumed reams of trash fiction between the ages of about eight and 18, and it didn't prevent me from reading better books both simultaneously and later on. However - and this is the real reason why no one should read YA books, not even the "young adults" at whom they're aimed - adolescents do not need training wheels for literature. They've already gone beyond children's literature, and they're ready for adult books - fiction, but also that collection of everything else that what we call "non-fiction." The real disservice adults do to children is not to hide "reality" as defined by Judy Blume from them, but to hide real books from them by propping up this genre of mawkish, salacious crap in front of them at the moment when they would otherwise move on to something better on their own (well, out of necessity really, unless they want to keep re-reading Little Women forever).

Graham says, "If people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something." I'd only take this one step further to include, among "people," young adults. And she in a sense admits this herself, despite holding out for the value of YA lit for adolescents:
I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up.
But "the YA mark" is not some natural developmental hurdle you have to leap before you're ready for the real stuff. If you can understand The Hunger Games, you can understand Animal Farm and 1984, which are more politically sophisticated (and logical) dystopias. If you can understand teen girl romances, you can understand at least one level of Jane Austen. If you want to read about love and death, you can read Anna Karenina or even War and Peace, though you should be prepared for a long haul with some boring expounding of Tolstoy's theory of war if you go that route, but the point remains that the books are not beyond the intellectual grasp of a well-read adolescent (girl). If you can follow a bildungsroman, you can follow probably half of all American fiction. Maybe Faulkner and Melville and Joyce will still elude you for a while (or in my case, possibly forever), but that hardly requires crawling back to Judy Blume and the anticipation and exhilaration of...wait for it (and you will be waiting for it, for 250 pages)...a first period! And none of these books may yet render to the adolescent reader the satisfaction of full mastery on first reading that a YA book will, but that's only further evidence of how subpar YA books are.

So basically, I agree with whoever it was that suggested a single standard for evaluating all literature, only I'd make an exception for literature for actual children, like Winnie the Pooh, because I don't know in what terms one could compare it to, say, Henry James, unless we just laud its delightful whimsy and admit this is simply one of the possible good qualities of literature that James lacked. I suppose I could be open to this approach, although it might become difficult to compare children's books against one another, since they'd all be degrees of whimsical.

Friday, June 06, 2014

More on musical schlock

In a stroke of timeliness, here is an entire essay in ambivalent defense of musical schlock, accompanied by a list of the 150 Greatest Schlock Songs, an eclectic list of goodness. It's a little crazy, calling for us to develop theories of schlock, because it's "too important a tradition not to take seriously and taking it seriously means making astute judgments about that tradition." Well, even if that were a bad idea, someone on the internet is gonna do it anyway, so whatever. I'm pretty much in agreement with the main point though, which is that I continue to like music, and not just music from my misguided yoof, that I'm rationally ashamed of liking and yet viscerally desire to (and do) play on repeat in my home. And that's schlock. But it's ok, because music is mainly about good feels, and schlock makes good feels:
Schlock, at its finest, is where bad taste becomes great art. Schlock is music that subjugates all other values to brute emotional impact; it aims to overwhelm, to body-slam the senses, to deliver catharsis like a linebacker delivers a clothesline tackle. The qualities traditionally prized by music critics and other listeners of discerning taste — sophistication, subtlety, wit, irony, originality, “experimentation” — have no place in schlock. Schlock is extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama, the biggest statements, the most timeworn tropes and most overwrought gestures...

The truth is, big corny windswept sentimentality might just be the thing that pop does best. Music is the most immediate, the most visceral and ineffable of human inventions, and its essential power, the trump card it holds over the other arts, is its bald appeal to the emotions, the way a rapturous tune, a stirring beat, a charismatic voice, can override everything, transporting us to a realm beyond concerns about tastefulness or “cool” or even coherence...

Schlock isn’t what we want, at least not what we want to believe that we want. We want to be connoisseurs and, lord help us, we want to be cool. Schlock delivers something more profound: what we need...Which is why, despite our high-minded instincts, we’re stuck with schlock. There are times in life when only thing that will do is a great big tear-jerking cliché, gusting along atop an even bigger melody. As the poet said: We’re livin’ just to find emotion.
I don't quite know from this how schlock is different from kitsch, schmaltz, treacle, and all other foreign and food-based co-optations by English to indicate the phenomenon of tasty things that are regrettably bad for you. Kundera taught me that kitsch is the low road to totalitarianism, and I was sad about that for a while, and then I decided that the effort necessary to weed kitsch from my life would be so great that I'd be too busy looking up song lyrics, scrutinizing children's toys, and analyzing movie plots for traces of manipulative nostalgia to notice if an actual totalitarian regime took power. So I stopped worrying and whispered the words of wisdom, let it be. (Sorry peeps, self-restraint is really hard.)

Thursday, June 05, 2014

I am an agglomeration of all my embarrassing former selves, and other thoughts on Natalie Merchant

In my misguided yoof, I was, for a time, Natalie Merchant's #1 fangirl. The thing is, I realized around this time that I possessed an exquisite and probing sensitivity, a really poetic soul. However, no one but me seemed to be aware of this facet of my being, which was, as you might imagine, quite frustrating to me. In order to remedy this widespread ignorance, I entered on a very Lilith Fair-y phase, one which coincided with my tenure on the staff of my high school's poetry magazine, my acquisition of puffy peasant blouses, my burning of candles and incense in my room, and also - if you wish to date this precisely - the actual existence of Lilith Fair, which I never attended but sincerely wished to. I cultivated a persona of perpetual moodiness and angst to indicate the sensitivity within. The goal was perhaps something like the 1990s rendition of Slyvia Plath, whom I also read during this time, found deified online by the adolescent girl bloggers of America, and maybe mistook for myself.

In any case, for the purpose of becoming '90s Sylvia Plath, Natalie Merchant's then newly-released album Ophelia was an ideal muse. Of course, for the purposes of stoking and expressing one's own girl-angst by listening to other people's music, nothing could really top Alanis Morissette's epic Jagged Little Pill, but Ophelia appeals more to the points along the melancholic/longing end of the girl-angst spectrum than the angry/vengeful side, which Morissette so fully captured. Ophelia was all about the bleak hopelessness of my suburban middle schooler existence, the way it was just like living in a gutter, cold and friendless, with roaches nibbling at your toes. (Such were the lofty and not wholly congruous sentiments also conveyed by my very excellent and sensitive poetry.) Consider, for example, these for-real lyrics to one of the songs, "Break Your Heart":
People downcast, in despair
See the disillusion everywhere
Hoping that their luck will change
Gets a little harder every day

People struggle, people fight
For the simple pleasures in their lives
But trouble comes from everywhere
It's a little more than you can bear
It wasn't really more than I could bear, because the whole despairing teenage poet persona requires you to revel in despair, which promises to be your vehicle to acclaim. But it might've been more than Natalie Merchant could bear, because a lot of the songs sort of dissolved into sad oooohing by the end, and she didn't put out another album until I was almost in college. (I recall this specifically because I triumphantly obtained the album poster for my dorm room by asking the guy at the music store how much it cost when it was hanging on his wall, and he replied, "That album was so terrible; why don't you just take it for free?" The kindness of strangers!) That next album was equally full of sads, and after that, nothing more. (Although she did make a nice compilation of children's folk songs at some point in-between.) Until now! But more on that later.

Being Natalie Merchant's #1 fangirl consisted of the usual fandom activities - scrupulous collection of all her music and obsessive attention to her life, intensive participation in online fan message boards full of flat-out loons (and one other fangirl with whom I stayed internet-friends and whose life has since unfolded along an uncannily similar trajectory to my own), and, once, submission to an essay contest that she held from which I won something like $200 (but not first place) in what seemed to be Merchant's personal funds, at least judging by the form of the check I received.

However, problems with Natalie Merchant fangirldom began when, after a couple years of intensive playing-on-repeat, I began to wonder if her repertoire wasn't a little...tedious? In a single 10,000 Maniacs album, for example, the following Serious Political Issues are explored in song, one per issue: child abuse, depression, illiteracy, alcoholism and domestic violence (a two-fer!), the prospects for world peace, the predations of capitalism, and a metaphor for what seems like poverty and homelessness in Los Angeles. There were only 11 tracks on this album, so that leaves a paltry four songs devoted to something other than consciousness-raising. The good news is that those four songs are pretty good. But good luck finding them in this peripatetic constellation of political causes. Taken together, Natalie Merchant's group and solo albums will one day serve as a comprehensive historical index of every American liberal cause celebre, 1980-2001. The only significant item missing is the rage for saving the whales, a desire which I guess was just too hard to put into song.

What really defeated Natalie Merchant however was that, one day, I woke up and realized that I was constitutionally incapable of exquisite sensitivity, my poetry was profound only in the sense of being profoundly bad, and peasant blouses, like all tent-shaped apparel, did not flatter my figure. Another phase, this one featuring Rufus Wainwright fandom, devoted reading of David Sedaris, and the collection of Converse sneakers was then inaugurated, in an effort to cultivate a new and marginally more plausible persona of sardonic irony. Then the intellectual demands of college diverted all the energy I'd previously devoted to cultivating personas into trying not to fail Greek. (Given how directly Natalie Merchant spoke to my mostly-manufactured girl-angst though, I must admit to some curiosity about what she ever did for Ross Douthat and Ari.)

Nonetheless, I never actually stopped listening to Natalie Merchant, though I did stop repeat-playing her and carrying on a shadow social life on fangirl message boards. I still have nearly all her albums in my rotation, even the really terrible ones recorded before she figured out how to enunciate words, at a time when the synthesizer was still classed among legitimate musical instruments. Even though recollection of my #1 fangirldom can now reliably induce full-body cringing and the songs are about - sigh - nuclear war, I still dig them. I can't defend what is good about Natalie Merchant or any angsty girl folk music anymore, but I also can't discard it from my music-listening life. This is true of pretty much all the music, tv shows, books that I ever loved in the past, no matter how complete my rational conviction of their badness now is. I'm fairly certain that I'm not being pulled in by the nostalgic association of this stuff with the good feels they initially produced. Maybe the thing is just that I never, upon reconsideration, discovered any of this stuff to be evil, only banal. So then Hannah Arendt was wrong after all.

So anyway, Natalie Merchant has a new album out now, and I listened to the excerpts, and it's just good enough in the way Tigerlily and Ophelia were good-but-actually-bad to maybe buy for old banal time's sake.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Life is like a metaphor for life

The most profound truth contained in Forrest Gump is not that life is like a box of chocolates, but rather that people really love hokey metaphorical shortcuts to thinking, like the claim that life is like a box of chocolates. These metaphors purport to instruct in some way, as if taking seriously that "You never know what you're gonna get!" could appreciably change your approach to things. And sure, life is full of surprises. The banality of these insights is on par with those of the "there are two kinds of people in the world, Xers and not-Xers." A binary that's always by definition true, but never very informative. 

How much do we love life is like a metaphor metaphors? If you've ever read college admissions essays, you will know that our love of this kind of superficiality runs deep. According to 17-year olds, pre-calc, homeless shelters, and loving your dog are all metaphors for life. Even dancing on the pom-pom squad is just like all of living, condensed into a five-minute kicking-and-jumping routine. And remember that time, back in the late '90s, when we all paused to meditate on the profound insight that life is like a plastic grocery bag, thanks to the penetrating writers of American Beauty? Yes, that was a good time. We live in a universe of nested synecdoches, with every part reproducing every whole in miniature, if you just look at it from the right perspective.

Country music also instructs us in the meaning of life via metaphor. Rascal Flatts, for example, informs us that, "Life is a highway," which is nice. Elsewhere, we can learn that "Life's a dance." Also fine. But here I would like to pay homage to the under-appreciated brilliance of one of the hokiest and best-loved of all these ballads, Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler." Every time I hear this song, I'm re-astounded by the intricacy and detail of the fundamentally insipid analogy it develops between poker and life. Life is a gamble, and is in its details like the particular gamble of poker, and the train to nowhere is a metaphor for the course of a life which is like poker, and the gambler is also a swindler, because life is a swindle as well as a gamble (as is poker), and the swindler is also the most perspicacious observer of life. And, the course of the gambler's metaphorical career having ended on the metaphorical train bound for nowhere, the gambler literally drops dead at the end! Every line of the chorus is its own metaphor, each one at once representing all of life and also the umbrella metaphor that life is like all of poker.

Now, substantively, it's all horseshit. But whoever wrote it (was it Kenny Rogers?) must be the greatest technical virtuoso of his craft. This craft is, admittedly, is to write schlock. But, as with all really great popular songs that are great because they so perfectly follow rather than transgress the rules of their genre, it's an impressive achievement in its own right.