Kings of America

From a review of NBC’s Kings by Heather Havrilesky at Salon:

During hard times, we hunger for the reassurances of fate. We long for some divine force to guide us through a cruel, unpredictable world, to indicate, through some glorious and elegant spectacle, that we’ll make it through the storm.

Here in America, for all of our democratic ideals, we’re more than happy to treat our leader like royalty, so long as he has the stature and dignity to deserve our adoration. Because, just as a bumbling frat boy who stumbles on his words and blithely drops bombs on nonbelievers can make the entire world look like a hardened, messy, incomprehensible hell, a graceful, eloquent man seems to magically transform our planet into a shiny, hopeful place populated by humble, pure-hearted people who have the courage to believe that they’ll make it through the darkness. Even the atheists among us relish the sense that some eternal, celestial force has finally descended, to cure our blindness and set us free.

We’re fragile children, after all, and we’d prefer to believe that there’s a benevolent and wise parent somewhere who loves us unconditionally. Even if our actual parents sipped gin and tonics and mumbled halfheartedly in our direction as Walter Cronkite confirmed their worst suspicions about the world, we still can’t quite let go of our deep desire to be soothed and led, like docile lambs. Grown up and burdened by a million and one responsibilities, we still yearn to be told stories and fed and tucked into bed, assured that the path ahead is clear and simple, flat and smooth, set forth by a mystical power who reigns over every living thing.

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Marilyn

From a review of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde by Pam Rosenthal:

marilyn1How did a perpetually frightened and insecure young woman summon up such powers of illusion? Out of what fathomless need did an illegitimate child who spent years in foster homes command so much attention and so much love, even 40 years after her death? How, out of a series of doomed affairs and marriages and some not-very-good scripts, did she manage to tell us so much about sex? And what kept her from ever satisfying her own needs for love and respect?

Oates presents her story as a tale of the grotesque, a horror story akin to Stephen King’s “Carrie,” another book about an unhappy child with a mad mother. Like most horror stories, “Blonde” is a tale of freakish overcompensation, impossible wishes granted, awesome power ill-used, demons finally undefeated — the story of an injured child who can’t be healed, even by the love of the millions. There’s nothing supernatural in it, of course, unless you consider the immense sway that movie images and technology hold over all our imaginations.

Unlike genre horror fiction, though, “Blonde” is a huge, incantatory, expressionistic work that doubles back on itself to retell stories again and again, building its themes and variations through a seeming infinity of retakes. Description approaches hallucination. The action is told by numerous voices, some singular and famous, some anonymous and plural. Sometimes the narrative voice is breathless, almost gasping — the ghostly Marilyn Monroe voice, oddly formal and well mannered, too high and thin for the body that produced it.

Read the whole thing here

Milk

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Harvey Milk

Hilton Als on Milk and Harvey Milk at NYRB:

Milk received eight nominations for this year’s [Academy] awards; among them are [Gus] Van Sant for Best Director, [Dustin Lance] Black for his script, and [Sean] Penn for his impersonation of a man who did not find his true calling until he was forty-three years old. In the film, Milk doesn’t make much of a point about those lost years. “Forty years old and what have I done with my life?” he asks a new lover near the beginning. But the script is never explicit about what prevented him from living fully before 1973, the pivotal year in which he opened his camera store in the Castro. For a better sense of the painful secrecy Milk endured as a closeted gay man living in a pre-Stonewall world, and of the subsequent, purposeful freedom he felt during his belated coming-out, one can turn not only to Robert Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s exceptional 1984 film, The Times of Harvey Milk (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1985), but to the bits of documentary footage Van Sant inserts into Milk‘s manufactured world.

Especially moving are the silent black-and-white images that make up the movie’s title sequence, in which well-groomed, thin, and for the most part white young men are rounded up in bars, cuffed, and arrested, while newspaper articles act as a kind of graphic voiceover: “Homosexuals and Police Clash”; “Tavern Charges Police Brutality”; “Police Start Crackdown on Homosexual Bars, Arrest 6.” These prefatory images, set apart from the main narrative, remain the film’s clearest statement of an essential fact: for most of his life, Milk lived in terror of arrest, interrogation, and punishment.  [more]

Galumph Don’t Glide

From Donald Fanger’s review of Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll:

There is a lot here about how poetry comes into being. Speaking of Robert Lowell’s “epoch-making poems like ‘For the Union Dead’ and ‘Near the Ocean,’ Heaney explains: “They came from where he was cornered, in himself and his times, and were the equivalent of escapes, surges of inner life vaulting up and away. Every true poem arrives like that, with self-consciousness giving way to self-forgetfulness in the glee of finding the words.” An aside on Lorca finds him making the same point in other terms, finding in the Spanish poet’s essay on duende an implication “that poetry requires an inner flamenco, that it must be excited into life by something peremptory, some initial strum or throb that gets you started and drives you farther than you realized you could go.” “The image I have,” he writes later, “is from the old cartoons: Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse coming hell for leather to the edge of a cliff, skidding to a stop but unable to halt, and shooting out over the edge. A good poem is the same, it goes that bit further and leaves you walking on air.”

One striking example comes in his discussion of the famous lines from his early poem “Digging.” Heaney explains: “In the case of the pen ‘between my finger and my thumb’, ‘snug as a gun’, and all the rest of it, I was responding to an entirely phonetic prompt, a kind of sonic chain dictated by the inner ear. It’s the connection between the ‘uh’ sounds in ‘thumb’ and ‘snug’ and ‘gun’ that are the heart of the poetic matter rather than any sociological or literary formation.” That aural susceptibility is everywhere on display in this book, as when he comments: “I always hear the tinkle of a whitesmith’s hammer in the word ‘tinker’, the rim of a tin can being beaten trim”—or when he speaks of “poems full of linguistic burr and clinker.” (“If I couldn’t altogether escape an Irishy/Britishy formality,” he comments, “I had an inclination from the start to dishevel it. I’ve always been subject to a perverse urge to galumph rather than glide.”)

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Africa’s World War

A book review of Gerard Prunier’s Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, by David Rieff at Truthdig:

Why does Darfur arouse such passion in decent people all over the world, but the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC (the country until a decade or so ago known as Zaire), which has taken the lives of far more people—4 million between 1996 and 2001, according to some informed estimates—for the most part remains what relief workers brutally but not inaccurately call an “orphan conflict”?

[…]

Prunier [writes of the  lack of interest at the [Western] government level, and the short attention span of the general public” with regard to African crises. Where the crises in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC are concerned, Prunier observes, the effect was to reduce a situation of major conflict and appalling human suffering “to a comic book atmosphere in which absolute horror alternates with periods of complete disinterest from the non-specialists.” And he is withering about the way in which the Western default position rarely strays from stereotyped categories about Africa. Thus, he observes, “the desperate African struggle for survival is bowdlerized beyond recognition, and at times the participant-observer has the feeling of being caught between a Shakespearian tragedy and a hiccupping computer.”

[…]

“Wars begin where you will but do not end where you please,” Machiavelli instructed the Prince. The Congolese war exemplifies the truth of this adage, and not only for the Rwandans. What Prunier lays out in great detail and with great authority is the extent to which all the belligerents blundered and improvised, while, all the while, it was the Congolese people who paid the price for the ambitions of modern-day princes from a dozen countries. As Prunier puts it, although all wars are terrible, “the Congolese continental conflict was particularly horrible, not only because it caused the deaths of nearly four million human beings but because of the massive suffering it visited on the surviving civilian populations.”

Read the whole thing here and buy the book here

Thank You William Kleinknecht

At last, a US writer takes down Ronald Reagan at whose feet he lays America’s present economic decline.  I think it’s deeper than Reagan but it’s fine by me if we start there.  And about time too.  From Allen Barra at Truthdig:

In a fiery and lucid introduction he writes, “This book is born of annoyance: a great bewilderment over the myth that continues to surround the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It gives voice to a vast swath of psychically disenfranchised Americans, millions of them, lumped most thickly in the urban areas on either coast, who never understood Reagan’s appeal.” Kleinknecht’s thesis is nothing less than that Reagan was the “obvious enemy of the common people he claimed to represent, this empty suit who believed in flying saucers and allowed an astrologer to guide his presidential scheduling. …” The great conundrum “is this: none of [the] unmistakable harbingers of American decline is being laid where it belongs—at the door of Ronald Reagan” [emphasis Kleinknecht’s].

In the tradition of most previous Reagan critics, Kleinknecht doesn’t try to draw a bead on Reagan from an ivory tower. He goes after Reagan from the blue collar on up: “He enacted policies that helped wipe out the high-paying jobs for the working class that were the real backbone of the country. … His legacy—mergers, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, globalization—helped weaken the family and eradicate small-town life and sense of community.”

Reaganomics did create fortunes, but mostly for those at the top of the economic ladder; it also brought “a reversal in the slow gains that the working class and the poor had made in the previous two decades.”

Read the rest of the review here and buy the book here

Seen One, Seen ’em All

From Terry Eagleton at the London Review of Books:

Romantic literature, with its cult of the poetic personality, might seem just the opposite of this. Yet the Romantic poet’s richly particularised voice is largely a way of giving tongue to the transcendent. From Wordsworth to D.H. Lawrence, one speaks most persuasively when one articulates what is not oneself, whether one calls this Nature or the creative imagination, the primary processes or the dark gods. The self runs down to unfathomably anonymous roots. Men and women emerge as unique beings through a medium (call it Geist, History, Language, Culture or the Unconscious) that is implacably impersonal. What makes us what we are has no regard for us at all. At the very core of the personality, so the modern age holds, vast, anonymous processes are at work. Only through a salutary repression or oblivion of these forces can we achieve the illusion of autonomy. Anonymity is the condition of identity.

It is this bleak doctrine that Modernism will inherit, as a cult of impersonality takes over from the clapped-out Romantic ego. For Romanticism, the self and the infinite merge in the act of imaginative creation. To surrender oneself to dark, unknowable powers is to become all the more uniquely oneself. One must lose one’s life in order to find it. For one strain of Modernism, by contrast, the self is displaced by the very forces which constitute it – unhoused, scooped out, decentred and dispossessed. We are no more than the anonymous bearers of myth, tradition, language or literary history. The only way the self can leave its distinctive thumb-print, from Flaubert to Joyce, is in the fastidiously distancing style by which it masks itself. Language itself may be authorless; but style, as Roland Barthes claims in Writing Degree Zero, plunges straight to the visceral depths of the self.

Another strain of Modernism turns back to subjectivity itself, as if by way of refuge. The self may be fitful and fragmentary, but there is something we can rely on in the immediacy of its sensations. And though the essence of selfhood is now elusive, there are certain rare moments in which it can be fleetingly recaptured. Postmodernism, by contrast, rehearses the Modernist tale of the unhoused, decentred self, but without the consolations of an essential self. There never was such a thing, for Barthes any more than for David Hume, and we are doubtless all the better for it. What looks like a loss is actually a liberation. Unity is an illusion, and consistency is more a vice than a virtue. Postmodernism is full of personality cults, but they know themselves to be groundless. Like commodities, individual selves are basically interchangeable. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Read the whole thing here

Flannery

From a review of Flannery: A Life of Flanner O’Connor by Brad Gooch and Collected Works by Flannery O’Connor by Wendy Lesser at bookforum:

Even then, it was obvious she was a genius,” said Miss Katherine Scott, Flannery O’Connor’s freshman-composition teacher, speaking to a reporter many years later about her most famous student—“warped, but a genius all the same.” The teacher no doubt focused on the warped part when the seventeen-year-old Catholic girl with the spectacles and the searing wit took her writing class at Milledgeville’s Georgia State College for Women in the summer of 1942; and it was the warped part she noticed some ten years later, when she read O’Connor’s first book, Wise Blood, and flung it across the room. “I thought to myself that character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead,” she told the same reporter.

This was the sort of understanding and encouragement that surrounded Mary Flannery O’Connor from her earliest years in Savannah to her death at the age of thirty-nine in the Milledgeville area. But we should not be entirely sorry about that. Familial and social disapproval evidently spurred this writer on, enabling her to form a pearl around each painful speck of grit. That O’Connor’s pearls are among the most luminous and valuable we have in all of American literature does not detract in any way from their strangeness and hardness. Indeed, their value lies precisely in that hardness, that strangeness. However many times you read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Artificial Nigger,” and “Good Country People,” you will not be able to figure out the source of their enormous power; in fact, they will become increasingly mysterious to you as the years go by.

Read the rest here

Blind Photography

From a book review by Andy Ilachinsky at Tao of Photography:

Anybody with a decent camera can take a picture of a crack in the sidewalk – and have the image met with blank stares and mutterings of “Yeah, it’s a crack in the sidewalk., so what?” It takes a blind photographer to so effortlessly use a physical symbol – i.e., a photograph of some “thing” – to represent the deeper, inner experience of how “difficult it is to walk to class” on a campus built by people who can see. By not being able to see things, the blind photographer naturally focuses on using the things that the camera is able to capture to show what else things are. And that is what the very best photography has always been about.

[…]

The blind obviously have much to teach us sighted photographers how to really see. They teach us to pay attention to all of the little “invisible cracks” in the world, and to not rely exclusively on our eyes in doing so. There is no better place to begin the first lesson on this journey of illumination – which takes the form of a gentle admonition to just “close your eyes” – than to savor the examples in this magnificent book, Seeing Beyond Sight. Highly recommended.

If the book is as good as the post, it’s really something.  Read the whole thing here

Here’s Seeing Beyond Sight at amazon.ca

Chance Demands of the Day

Gideon Lewis-Kraus on Neil Gross’ Richard Rorty: The Making of An American Philosopher at n + 1:

Richard Rorty’s favorite sentence in all of Freud was from the book on Leonardo da Vinci. “If one considers chance unworthy of determining our fate,” Freud wrote, “it is simply a relapse into the pious view of the universe which Leonardo himself was on the way to overcoming when he wrote that the sun does not move.” On Rorty’s account, this “pious view of the universe” reflected a desire to see man as what Aristotle called a natural kind, something that “divides into a central essence—one that provides a built-in purpose—and a set of peripheral accidents.” To Aristotle, that central essence was the locus of human dignity; the peripheral accidents were matters of unworthy chance. Rorty spent much of his career explaining why we might all be better off if we gave up the attempt to uncover such built-in purposes, and instead located human dignity in the ability to invent novel ones. Such a view would encourage us to narrate our lives in terms of how we’ve adapted and enlarged ourselves to meet the chance demands of the day.

Read the whole thing here