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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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.”)

Read the whole thing 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

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

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

Dangerous Dan

From a review by Elizabeth Hay of Robert Kroetsch’s The Man from the Creeks at Brick:

The Man from the Creeks is a gold story based on a dog-eared poem. In a stroke of playful genius, Kroetsch takes the figures in Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and brings them to life: Dangerous Dan, the lady known as Lou, and the man from the creeks. In the end, you have everything—tall tale, adventure, quest, history, romance, tragedy, poetry, music, sex. Everything you need to know about the Klondike Gold Rush and everything you could hope for in a story. You have everything, and the characters, as tends to happen in a gold story, have nothing.
      How could I not have known about this great book? I heard about it ten years after it was published when I went to the Yukon last spring and was told twice: “Then you must read The Man from the Creeks.”
      The narrator is Lou’s only son, Peek, a boy who loves his mother and an old man who recalls their story, one and the same. He is 114 years old with a perfect memory of himself at fourteen, caught up in circumstances bigger and wilder than any but he can understand. It’s a story that’s been saved up for a lifetime.
      The characters are grandly human, all of them; the women even more vivid than the men. Lou is “tough and busty and wise,” and always a step ahead of the story. The lovely man from the creeks, Ben Redd, is always a step behind. In the opening pages, he comes to the rescue, saving castaways Lou and Peek from being thrown overboard on the boat to Skagway. Kroetsch employs that wily old narrative technique of jumping from the frypan into the fire into the drink, his characters negotiating hardship after hardship, as necessarily creative as Buster Keaton in getting out of one fix after another.
      Action, yes. But the weight of the book is emotional. Lou and Ben find what they need in the beginning—each other—but they feel impelled to scheme forward. It turns out that harder than packing straight up the Chilkoot Pass in the dead of winter, harder than building a boat from nothing on the shores of Lake Bennett, harder than getting the 560 miles downriver to Dawson, is being honest with each other about themselves. And so Lou and Ben, “sparring and holding on to each other at the same time,” arrive in the gold fields and succumb to their own confusion and to Dangerous Dan McGrew, “handsome in a pale way, under his grey bowler.”

Read the rest here

The Man from the Creeks, Robert Kroetsch


From a review of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland by Alexander Cockburn:

… considerations of political economy are alien to Perlstein. The political mission of Nixonland is pretty clearly to set the stage for a candidate of liberal consensus and healing, who has since happily materialized in Barack Obama. It goes without saying that if the Illinois senator were actually to propose altering the distribution of income and wealth in America, the heavy artillery would come out against such ‘divisive’ rabble-rousing. Yet consensus—the wrong kind, naturally—has come through the fires of divisiveness. In late September, after an avalanche of phone calls to Congress had denounced Treasury Secretary Paulson’s planned $700 billion bailout at a rate of 99 to 1, the Republicans in the House of Representatives, along with 95 mutinous Democrats, rejected the plan—controverting the injunctions of both the Republican and the Democratic candidates. Both McCain and Obama—the latter heavily freighted with Wall Street advisers and campaign contributions—supported the bankers’ coup, consummated in Congress on October 4. Invoking bipartisanship, Obama declared that he would have to delay envisaged social spending programmes, and emphatically nixed suggestions that he use the moment of maximum negotiating leverage before the Senate vote to insist on regulatory reform, or relief for beleaguered homeowners rather than banks.

Progressives, perennially on the alert for the arrival of Stormtroopers on Main Street, have seized on Governor Sarah Palin as Nixonland’s new suzerain, distracting themselves from the unpleasant reality that it was the Democrats and their ticket that pushed through the bail-out. The us Treasury will now superintend a wave of foreclosures and evictions, amid the landscapes that nourished the young Nixon. Fertile opportunity lies ahead for right-wing populism. Perhaps the Boudicca of the Backwoods will be reborn in years to come as America’s echo of Poujade.

Read the whole article here

via 3 quarks daily

The Veil as Social Screen

From Hootan Shambayati, reviewing The Politics of the Veil  by Joan Wallach Scott:

In this book, one of the foremost students of France asks why has the head covering worn by millions of Muslim women across the world attracted so much controversy in recent French politics. Even in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world, where the veil is worn by large segments of the population, it has become a potent political issue with different societies and political regimes adopting very different approaches in dealing with it. The constitutional court in secular Turkey recently rejected a constitutional amendment because it could have potentially eased the ban on female university students wearing a headscarf, while neighboring Iran legally requires all women to cover their hair in public. Although, this book deals only with the French case, it has implications beyond the borders of that country.

As Joan Wallach Scott recognizes, there are many different styles of veil, from the full body covering and face masks to the more relaxed version that only covers the hair and the neck. In addition, each has a different meaning for both those who wear them and those who are concerned about them. Nevertheless, for the sake of brevity and to reflect how the term was used during the actual debates in France, she uses the generic term veil to refer to all forms of headscarves worn by Muslim women (p.16). Scott is also quick to warn the readers that “this is not a book about French Muslims; it is about the dominant French view of them.” She is “interested in the way in which the veil became a screen onto which were projected images of strangeness and danger – danger to the fabric of French society and to the future of the republican nation” (p.10). She pursues her quest by examining the circumstances that led to the adoption of a 2004 law that banned the display of “conspicuous” religious symbols in French public schools. As is well known, although legally the ban applied equally to all religions, its true targets were a small number of female Muslim students who insisted on wearing the veil to school. The question then is why did the veil become such a controversial political issue in French politics.

Read the rest here

Double-Bind Choices

At NYT Books:

Like a ferocious bulletin from an alternate universe — tumbling, pell-mell, brilliant and strange — comes this explosive and discomfiting fifth novel by Carolyn Chute. Form doesn’t just follow feeling in these pages, it chases it helplessly with a butterfly net, casting about in multiple directions, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. But watching Chute miss what she’s after is more interesting than watching a lesser, better behaved writer catch tidier prey.

“The School on Heart’s Content Road” is as idiosyncratic as it is engaging. A mytho­poetics of the Second Amendment isn’t exactly common in modern American literary fiction. But neither is the depiction of contemporary American poverty: of the slow, relentless grind of never quite having enough, of the leaching of hope and ambition from those for whom a job at Wal-Mart is a rare opportunity, of the impossible double-bind choices made by the poor every day. This is a beautiful novel, a polemical novel, a messy novel. It’s a love song to a part of America that doesn’t have much of a voice, and is armed. Chute is such an extra­ordinary, vivid, empathic writer that it would be tempting to swoon into the love and overlook the bullets. To do that, however, would also be to dim the considerable power here: if the despair and the tenderness are real, so are the guns.