Saturday, May 21, 2011

Fiction and Discourse

 Philosophy and poetry seem particularly apt for comparison. Since Plato’s Republic, we have a standard juxtaposition of the two forms. We do seem to have a sense of what to say when asked to discuss their contrasts. But most of us find ourselves at a bit of a loss in our attempts to delineate narrative from either poetry or philosophy. We don’t quite know how to say they are all different.
Poetry may have a narrative aspect, but the prominence of novel metaphor and strict form gives it a stunning distinction from philosophical discourse (and the roots of any critical enterprise are philosophical). One might define poetry as the mode of language that engenders metaphor, and in the creation of metaphor we are given a new way to experience the world. A metaphor that sticks with us is one that provides us with new insight on the concept it describes, and thus poetry is the place in human language for robust conceptual re-description. Before we read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover, we do not see a hawk as the “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin.” But once the metaphor has worked on us, our understanding of what a hawk could be, what a hawk could symbolize for us, has become something more, something greater. The Windhover is not narrative; it is, in a sense, the construction of symbol. Linguistic representation is both constitutive and constituting of its object.
Philosophy – all critical writing, in fact – gives us an argument in (hopefully) clear terms. The writing has an aim, to convince us of something, to appeal to our rationality in such a way so that we change the way we think or behave. This does not mean that there isn’t some blending of the modes - poetry can certainly make claims, and there are plenty of philosophers who have created novel metaphors – but, to put it bluntly, poetry appeals to our hearts, while philosophy appeals to our heads. Poetry makes us see the world differently through the experience of understanding metaphor – the hawk is no longer just a hawk - whereas philosophy looks to our rationality to change our behaviors and beliefs.
Narrative is tension-filled; it straddles a line between the poetic re-describing of the world and critical arguments concerning reality, artwork, or what have you. But narrative is neither of those things, and we have trouble hitting on exactly what it is. Narrative surely creates metaphor – any form of symbolism is metaphorical in nature – but it too has a streak of rationality. To use the blunt metaphor from above, narrative appeals to both our heads and hearts. Although we should remind ourselves that both poetry and philosophy usually have aspects of narrative (there are no easy distinctions), the most obvious version of narrative in contemporary life is fiction, so it seems best that we focus on it in our considerations here.[1]  One might argue that fiction, as our representative of narrative, blends the defining features of the other modes of linguistic discourse together.
But it is naïve, if not dangerous, to cast fiction as something like “critical discourse with poetic faculties.” It is not philosophy dressed up in fancy prose, nor is it poetry stretched out so that extended theoretical considerations might be plumbed. Fiction is both philosophy and poetry, and it is neither, which might leave us with the question, “if it is just some jumbled medium, why do we read it at all?”
One might respond that fiction should be seen as some kind of hybrid mode of discourse, something created out of the fluidity between philosophy and poetry; a middle ground where the two play off against each other, a space where novel metaphor can rub shoulders with analytic argument. This would seemingly ignore the works of naturalist writers such as Zola in favor of writers like Proust. Fiction, in this view, is a kind of translator, letting two disparate, nigh-incommensurable, forms of communication talk to one another. It is the form of communication for forms of communication, the discursive mode that allows discursive modes to interact.
But that seems to me to be the wrong way to answer the question, in that it actually answers the question. Instead, we should wonder whether the question should be asked at all. Rather than trying to explain why fiction as a jumbled medium has its place in human life, we should instead be arguing that fiction is nothing of the kind, but its own mode that happens to resonate with the other discursive modes around it – it creates for us a space where poetry and philosophy can speak to us.
It seems to me that a brief foray into what great fiction can do is enough to silence that question. Though we may not give an adequate definition as to what fiction is, we may be able to provide a litany of differences from other discursive modes of language. My suggestion, then, is to turn to a work of fiction that is both critical and poetic, but is neither criticism nor poetry – and cannot be criticism or poetry. By cannot, I mean that by attempting to translate the work into either critical poetic discourse, the work is lost. The work of fiction a form of communication must then be incommensurable with other forms. We cannot translate or paraphrase, we can only experience.
J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals is an astounding work for prose style, deep characterization, and ability to make a series of academic lectures actually interesting. Wax as I could on the merits of the book, it stands to me as a perfect example of how fiction can subsume the questions and objects of poetry and philosophy, and cast them in an entirely new light – as part and parcel of the experience of a particular narrative. The novella concerns itself with the visit of Elizabeth Costello, an older Australian writer notable for recasting Joyce’s Ulysses, to Appleton College, American liberal arts college[2] of Costzee’s creation. Costello, ostensibly invited to lecture on literature or her creative process, instead speaks of our treatment of animals, and our lives as animals. Her decision and words spark debate and strife within the insular academic community of Appleton, which includes her physicist son and antagonistic daughter-in-law.
One might – and plenty of intelligent people have[3] - read The Lives of Animals as merely a staging ground for ethical arguments about our treatment of animals. This reading believes that the book has a thesis (what that thesis is will depend on the reader) that is expounded via narrative. This kind of understanding of the book is ultimately a misunderstanding. Coetzee is a strict vegetarian, and most likely shares some of Costello’s more radical notions about human activities towards animals, but to read Costello as her creator is similar to reading Ishmael from Moby Dick as Herman Melville. Connections between characters and their creators are a natural part of the creative process, but we should be wary of equating Coetzee with his creations.
But neither could the story be thought of as purely poetic. The novella is almost plot-less; more than anything it is series of interactions between the various characters than a tale with a specific skeleton. But the story is not simply made up with the images it creates for us – striking as they are. If it were so, the real intellectual and emotional conflict between Coetzee’s creations would be lost. It is unclear what Coetzee thinks of his characters – in many of his novels he uses real people as parts of his casts, including himself – but one gets the sense that they are neither the kind of exact creations of someone like Zola nor pure expressions of artistic whimsy of Dickens. They seem to be somewhere in between, which makes them all the better examples for my argument here.
Elizabeth Costello is not merely a mouthpiece for a particular thesis about our horrific treatment of animals, but a living breathing woman – or as close to one as fiction can create. During her lectures, Elizabeth’s son John, in exasperation, thinks to himself, “Why can’t she just come out and say what she wants to say?” (Coetzee, 37). That is a question the superficial reading of The Lives of Animals would ask as well – “Why doesn’t Coetzee just come out and say what he wants to say in these lectures? Why isn’t he straight-forward with us?” John is exasperated because his mother will not enter the typical critical mode of discourse – she will not state in plain language what she means. This is a pretty basic frustration of human existence. We very rarely just come out and say what we want to say, sometimes because we are afraid, or unwilling, or angry, but other times because there is no way to just come out and say what we mean to say. Communication instead has to come through a kind of instigation of empathy, a sharing of a world-view. A fundamental fact of human interaction is that we often manage to communicate quite clearly by not saying what we mean.
The reason Elizabeth cannot say what she means is because she has no thesis, no dictates that can be easily summarized. Her talks are meant to explore a kind of thinking about animals, not to codify it. “I was hoping not to have to enunciate principles,” she says, “If principles are what you want to take away from this talk, I would have to respond, open your heart and listen to what your heart says” (Coetzee, 37).. Again, Elizabeth Costello is not a mouthpiece for a moral code or critical thesis, but a woman with a particular perspective on the world. And in The Lives of Animals, she tries to share that perspective – not convince us it is right, not enunciate it, not show its logic, but to share it. And that, in turn, is exactly what The Lives of Animals does as well; it shares a world with us.
The Lives of Animals gives us the world of Elizabeth Costello. It allows us to inhabit it – if only for a while – and lets us confront her as she grapples with our callous and superficial stances on the things and creatures we exist amidst. We watch as she embodies the wounds that our lives with animals create. The book creates a space where she can ask us to listen to our hearts, and we can perhaps follow her advice. But it also gives space for those who disagree, for those who question or don’t understand – other academics who respond to her lectures, of course, but also her son, John, proud of his mother, yet ultimately confused about why she acts the way she does. We might share in his confusion – the book has space for that as well.
At the beginning of the second chapter (or lecture, as it may be), John finds himself defending his mother

from the attacks of his wife, Norma. Norma attempts to put a kind of rational framework around

Costello’s first lecture. “Presumably she was trying to make a point about the nature of rational

understanding. To say that rational accounts are merely a consequence of the structure of the human

mind; that animals have their own accounts in accordance with the structure of their own minds, to

which we don’t have access because we don’t share a language with them” (Coetzee, 47). Norma gives

Costello’s remarks a particular form, saying they exist as a kind of argument – and, notably, suggesting

that Costello actually has a thesis, although her mother-in-law may deny it. John, asking what is wrong

with the depiction Norma gives, is told that his mother is being naïve and shallow. Here we are given a

particular depiction of Costello, one which we are free to ignore, argue against (in our thoughts, of

course), or accept. We may in the end agree with John, remaining confused about what Costello wants to

tell us but also willing to defend her from Norma’s criticism. 
The Lives of Animals, then, gives us the chance to understand Elizabeth Costello’s opinions, not Coetzee’s. And, through the repudiations and interactions with other characters, we are given the space to interact with and repudiate her ourselves.
So how is this accomplished? The world-sharing-ness of fiction cannot simply be attributable to its narrative structure. If that were the case, it would be indistinct from good anthropology or common journalism. As I noted before, fiction must be able to say what it means without saying what it means, and while plot points can do this kind of work[4], the author certainly has recourse to far more than just a plot.
Consider the perspective of The Lives of Animals. Elizabeth Costello does not tell her story, nor is she the character the narration remains closest to. Her son, John, is the ostensible protagonist. We learn his thoughts and feelings, not those of his mother. Everything we find out about her we must infer from what she says, what other characters say, and what John thinks about her. We are presented with multiple levels of discourse – there are the words on the page – the descriptions, quotations, etc. - and then what we can infer from those words. Our work in assessing a piece of philosophy or criticism is not to look for subtext or hints of the narrator’s intent[5], but to glean meaning from the statements the author makes. There is no “first-order” meaning in an academic text, because there is no “second order” meaning to contrast it to. Elizabeth is in second order – we are not granted direct access to her, thus we must make our opinions about through her son’s perspective – all the while acknowledging that this perspective is necessarily skewed.[6]
This kind of opinion-making or inference is exactly what we do in our everyday lives. I have no access

to your thoughts or feelings, all I can do is form an opinion of you through interaction and experience.

While we cannot personally interact with Elizabeth, we experience other people’s interactions with her,

and experience her words as they ring out in our minds. Considering this, it becomes clearer how fiction

differs from poetry or philosophy. Fiction is mimetic of everyday human experience, in that it gives us

the ability to share in the perspective of another – something we do each and every day of our live.

Poetry and philosophy may discuss everyday experience, make claims about it, or give new metaphors

for understanding it, but neither can recreate it.

By “everyday experience,” I do not mean something like “the rote necessities of human life,” or “the dull

repetition of human life as it moves forward.” By everyday, I mean to describe what normally happens to

us in our interactions with the world. Fiction obviously can share with humdrum existence with us, but

that isn’t my point.  Think of everyday experience as that which we all go through – learning,

understanding one another, making educated guesses, exposing ourselves as thinking, feeling creatures.

Furthermore, fiction is not realistic to everyday experience in the sense that what it portrays could always

actually happen[7], but realistic in the sense that we can interact with characters and events in the way

we interact with people and events in real life. In his aesthetic work, Stanley Cavell argues that we treat

artworks the way we treat people. Perhaps that is the case, but we most certainly treat characters in great

fiction as people – they may be flawed, or not fully fleshed out, but we still laugh at their jokes, and cry

when they perish. We might feel that most – if not all – characters in stories are not fully dimensional to

us in the way that real humans are. There can easily be thought of as mere technical constructions of the

author – and on many occasions they are that; consider most of Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind for example.

That intuition is not without grounds, but, I think, if we consider how well we really know the many

people in our lives, we might come to think of many of our fellow human beings as holding a kind of

two-dimensional place in the narrative we create for ourselves. Characters in fiction can appear as artistic

reproductions of emotional responses, or mouthpieces, or automatons, but so can regular people. A failed

character is one that does not resonate with the reader, not one that is constructed this way or that.

Likewise, a failed human connection is one where empathy cannot be shared.

Fiction, like everyday reality, allows us the chance to broaden our understandings of others, to share in

their perspectives. Now, as suggested above, sharing perspective does not mean something as simple as

sharing a belief. If perspectives and beliefs were equal, then Costello’s preference not to talk about her 

principles wouldn’t make any sense. The kind of communication I’m pointing to is non-propositional in 

nature. To be sure, there are plenty of claims made about Costello throughout the novella, and Costello 

herself does certain aver a number of things. But, the sense of Elizabeth Costello we get from reading 

The Lives of Animals is not adequately expressed in a series of claims – nor is it presented that way. The 

interactions with her daughter-in-law, provide an example of this. After reading The Lives of Animals

we may very well be able to state Costello’s beliefs as propositions, but that is only because we have 

either shared in her perspective, or, like Norma, we feel the need to create a framework of argument 

around Costello’s words.

To share in another’s perspective, then, is to see how she understands her place in the world. Part of this

understanding is her beliefs, no doubt, but it is also in the way she moves, in how she talks; it is in her

comportment. By spending enough time with that person, we get a sense of the way she behaves – and

why she behaves. We may not be able to articulate the way and why logically, or propositionally, but 

that does not mean that we lack an understanding of it.[8] The common metaphor in western culture is 

seeing through another’s eyes – and the common emotion noted is empathy. I’m a little concerned by the 

saccharine connotations of both the metaphor and emotion, but alas I have no better way to bring across 

my point. Once again we have multiple levels of discourse, as in The Lives of Animals, which we read 

and synthesize into a whole.

So we are able to empathize with Elizabeth Costello – and we do so in a robust sense. The point is not

that we understand how she feels in certain situations, but that we understand how she sees herself fitting

into the world around her. The former is simply emotional content, the latter is the amalgam of

everything that makes us human. When we treat another human being as another human being, we see 

her – as much as we can - as she sees herself. This does not mean that we always see her as she sees 

herself, or that the sharing of perspective somehow overshadows or clouds our own position[9]. What 

we get instead is an opening up of our own understanding of what it means to be in the world. That, in 

the end, is what fiction does for us. Both poetry and philosophy are attempts at capturing and describing 

the world, but through different channels. Different modes of discourse give different kinds of 

information.  Fiction, by recreating our experience of other creatures in the world, broadens our 

understanding of how the world can be experienced by a subject.

Indeed the act may be world forming in a particular way. The Australian philosopher Raymond Gaita

argues in his book The Philosopher’s Dog that many of our basic concepts of cognition, ethics, and 

empathy are partially formed from our thousands of year old relationships with other species. So, for 

example, our concept of loyalty has been partially formed by our ongoing relationship with domesticated 

pets such as dogs and cats. Thus, Gaita argues, when we speak of “animal ethics” versus “human ethics” 

we not only do a disservice to the animals of which we speak, but also our very concept of ethics.

The same argument seems true of literature. Fiction in its modern form is relatively new, but narrative

certainly is not. I would say that many of our concepts surrounding empathy and solidarity are partially

formed by our understanding of characters within a narrative. This is not a particularly original thought –

Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Lear argue as much in various books[10] - but I have never heard it

phrased this way. My point is that the empathetic qualities of fiction – the world-sharing qualities – have

in fact become integral to our conceptual understanding of our worlds, and the worlds of others. Again,

this claim is not as sui generis as it may seem; one need only read a book to be reminded of it.

[1] I personally would call creative non-fiction and good journalism narrative mediums as well, but considering that fiction is the modern archetype, it seems best to focus on it here.
[2] The Lives of Animals was in fact first presented as the Tanner lectures at Princeton, adding a rather strange meta-narrative quality to the work. Mulling Coetzee’s intentions in presenting a novellas as series of academic lectures is fascinating in itself, but should be saved for another time.
[3] Peter Singer being a notable example.
[4] Consider the “moral” of a story. Aside from nursery tales, the moral of a story (if the story has a set moral at all) is not stated baldly, it is inferred from the conclusion of the tale. Of course my point seemed to say that great fiction does not advance a clear thesis in the way philosophy does, so perhaps this is a bad example. But most fiction does not rise to such sophistication, and still provides an aesthetic experience, so it does not seem all that bad of an example in the end.
[5] Though this is sometimes intriguing. Reading a philosopher’s writing in a psychological light can sometimes yield some interesting information. But to do this is to break the tacit agreement the writer has with you – you are meant to accept the words she uses as meaning exactly what she contends they mean, nothing more.
[6] Does this mean that first-person narratives are somehow lesser in their ability to create experience for us? Certainly not. Even with a first-person narrator, there are usually multiple levels of meaning in a work (unless, of course, the work is bad). Ishmael in Moby Dick provides a perfect example of this.
[7] We would lose nearly all of great literature if that were the case.
[8] It has been a silly assumption since Socrates that we must be able to articulate what we know. Indeed, you’ll have to forgive me for my rather shaky depiction in these pages, since it’s remarkably hard to describe something that does not always have propositional content.
[9] It can, but it certainly does not need to.
[10] Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice and Lear’s Radical Hope for example.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

New Song on Bandcamp

Hey everybody, got my bandcamp finally set up (it's a long story). There's a new song up.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Action Movies in a Post Racial Era - The Warriors as Paradigm

My title would suggest that I believe we are in a post-racial era. We certainly are not - the repeated claims that President Obama is a Kenyan by birth are enough to shatter that hope we had in 2008. But my point in this post is not to make any specific political claim, but look at how film might provide interesting insight on a post-racial world.
Walter Hill's The Warriors, based on a novel by Sol Yurick, takes place in a post-apocalyptic New York. The film is a fever dream, taking place almost entirely at night as gangs of young men (and, sometimes, women as well) clash on the fetid and dirty streets. There is no rule of law - indeed, the film begins with a failed plot to bring every hoodlum in NY together to bring down what's left of the police force. Nearly everyone in the movie is vicious, and it's surprising how many lives are spared considering the brutality of the action sequences. But what interests me more about The Warriors is its take on racial (particularly black-white) relations.
The movie, like the novel it comes from, is partially based on the Anabasis by Xenophon. The history involves a group of Grecian mercenaries hired by Cyrus of Persia to help him defeat his brother in battle and take control of what at that point was the most powerful empire in the world. Cyrus dies, leaving the Greeks to fight, barter, and trek their way back home. Xenophon is an interesting man for many reasons - a friend to Socrates, obviously a skilled warrior - but his political skills are quite astounding. The ten thousand Greeks paid to help Cyrus were from all over - Sparta, Crete, Athens to name a few places - but in their flight home they became one. They were known as the "marching republic," with elected leaders (such as Xenophon).
The idea of otherness is quite interesting in this case. One must assume a certain level of chauvinism from the Greeks against the Persians (obviously working for a Persian was not something to scoff at, but considering the many wars between the two peoples, there is certainly bad blood between the two). In that sense, one can divide the Anabasis on ethnic lines - Greeks against Persians, one group against another. This is overly reductive, though, and I am not familiar enough with ancient Grecian politics to be comfortable arguing that the Greeks' dislike of Persia had anything to do with differing ethnicities. Even the idea of ethnicity, like that of race, is an anachronism here. Certainly there is a sense of the other, though. But, one might expect a similar sense of otherness between the different groups making up the ten thousand Greeks. But miraculously, Xenophon and the other leaders of this army managed not only live, but fight cohesively for a substantial period of time.
I think when most people see the connection between The Warriors and the Anabasis, they're inclined to talk about the journey or fighting in impossible odds or some sort of reductive relation between the stories. But what's most interesting to me is that the film (I can't speak for the book), in following Xenophon, gives us a multi-racial brotherhood. The Warriors are of varying (and sometimes ambiguous) ethnic makeup, but no thought is given to black vs. white politics. One might think of this as eluding reality, especially given the race relations in 1979 New York. But that would suggest the movie has a kind of naivete about it, that it ignores the possible tensions between its characters. That doesn't seem to be the case. Instead, we are given a dystopian future where what binds men together are ties of geography and, in a sense, tribalism. Tribalism not based on any ethnic background, but (the movie never tells us) something else.
The Warriors, like the Anabasis before it, gives a look at what post-racial cohesion could be. Now to be clear, this is something more than just "hey blacks and whites can work together" - there's something to that extent in the movie Predator, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers having a kind of competitive friendship. Firstly, their friendship is competitive, as seen in that ridiculous arm wrestling scene (quick note, I love Predator, but it's not a great movie, let's be honest). Secondly, Arnold is the only one left standing at the end of that movie. What's important and compelling about The Warriors is that not only do most of them survive, it is their group unity that leads to that survival. The single character who attempts to break that unity over and over again (James Remar as Ajax, maybe his only great role) ends up breaking off from the group and being arrested. Unity is underscored in this film in very obvious ways.
Also, when the characters are attacked by what they call "skinheads" there are very clearly black members of the skinhead posse. So even the idea of what a skinhead is has been co-opted into some new, post-(racial? maybe post black/white?) form. None of our usual notions of race relations apply in this film. In a sense we have no stepping stones to understand how different ethnic groups interact, because the social world seems to be so dynamically different from ours.
This is not an obvious point, and the film doesn't spend any time telling us about it - which is good, since if it did its power would be lost. Through The Warriors we're allowed to look at how a post-racial world might function, all without the movie or characters commenting on that functionality. And someone could watch the movie and not notice any of this at all; that's what makes the movie so brilliant.
So what we have here is an example, through a low-budget action film, of what the future may be like - both good and bad (this is a dystopian story after all). 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Finding Atlantis: Journeys without Destination

One of my former professors at the University of Chicago, Oren Izenberg, once talked about the poetry of ease. We have a tendency in our depiction of poetry to forget poems which highlight a kind of rest, a view of the work which does not force us to act, but lets us remain as we are, content to float forward. Izenberg's point was to flesh out and attempt to defend ease as a genuine aspect of great poetry, and I will leave such a task to him, but the idea of idleness as a boon has remained with me, and I find it in two great meditations on the wayward journey: W.H. Auden's Atlantis and Joni Mitchell's Barangrill.

Atlantis may not seem like a poem with any sense of ease. The reader may be wracked by "gales of abnormal force", and must make a "terrible trek" through the wilds of the island to at last reach the fabled city. Indeed, even the rhyme scheme is not totally in sync - the first line slant rhymes with the fifth, for example - giving the entire poem a shaky quality. The quatrains don't quite fit together. But nonetheless, Auden does not frighten or bewilder us. The journey has a kind of lazy quality, where the reader must ramble from one set of circumstances to another, all the while knowing that he or she may never reach the intended destination.

Indeed we do not. Only a glimpse of Atlantis is seen before we are meant to say "Good-bye now, and put to sea." And in the end we are not blessed by a god of knowledge or salvation, but by the master of the roads, the patron god of travelers. Atlantis, in the end, is not the point, or if it is, it only provides us a moment of peace before we embark again upon the journey. But there is not sense of hopelessness about this poem. Instead there's a breezy quality, as if seeing Atlantis is just one more sight to see, that the dancing with the Thracians or the nights spent with the Corinthian tart play just as large a role in our salvation. The ease, then, of this poem is the ease of letting things take one as they may. We might have to make a terrible trek "through squalid woods and frozen tundras where all are soon lost," but nonetheless we must "stagger onward rejoicing." We may be set on getting to Atlantis, but we are happy enough to enjoy the detours. The end goal of the journey remains, but Auden gently reminds us that a certain perspective of travel - or enlightenment, really - changes the nature of the journey itself.

It seems to me that this kind of idleness exists in Barangrill as well. There are a number of structural similarities - the narration is to the listener, in the second person, and once again we have a ambiguous final destination - and these most likely account for the tonal resonance between the two pieces. The short description of Barangrill I found on wikepedia’s (which we all know to be the world’s most reputable source for information) page on For the Roses was a “sprightly rap which extols the uncomplicated virtues of a roadside truck stop.” It is somewhere on the way, presumably not intrinsic to the journey nor providing some unexpected impact. But the appeal of this truck stop and Mitchell’s passing encounters there carry the weight of the song, the destination in question only called out after at the end of each verse – and never replied to. The closest we get to knowing anything about Barangrill is that it is hopefully on the way to Folly, the presumed final destination. 

Symbolism of the names aside, Barangrill provides another example of the wayward encounters which Auden expounds in Atlantis. Indeed, Barangrill could be a missing stanza from the poem. Mitchell seems to share in Auden's suggestion that a sense of ease about the journey is the only way to move forward. The song is bright and "sprightly" as wikipedia says, though it also feels comfortable, it is a snug song to listen to. Although Mitchell can certainly have an ironic edge, I don't believe that the amiability of Barangrill is meant to ironically mask a darker meaning. It's meant to be an easygoing song - it may very well be the embodiment of easygoing-ness.

I don't mean to suggest that we can take platitudes from these works - something like "it's not the destination, but the journey" or other such nonsense. The point instead is to show how a certain perspective of ease can ultimately help the journey along, or make it broader and stranger than if one headed in a b-line towards one's final destination. Maybe Auden and Mitchell are just telling us to stop and smell the flowers, but that seems a bit reductive to the wild pagan dances of Atlantis or the waitresses talking about zombies of Barangrill.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Allegory and Irony in My Kinsman, Major Molineux

Hawthorne’s My Kinsman, Major Molineux, allegorizes the cultural rift between agrarian, country-based America and industrial, city-based America. Robin, the protagonist and a “country-boy” everyman, spends his first night in the city thwarted and laughed at by the various customs and people. But Hawthorne’s use of allegory is, as always, subtly ironic. While Robin’s night in the city creates a tale of the clash between the urban and rural that existed during the time of the story’s genesis, My Kinsman, Major Molineux undercuts this tale with its resolution, hinting that town and county are not so diametrically opposed after all.
Our introduction to Robin casts him in an allegorical light, portraying him as a representative of the rural life that existed during Hawthorne’ time,
He was a youth of barely eighteen years, evidently country-bred…upon his first visit to town. He was clad in a coarse grey coast, well worn, but in excellent repair…his stockings of blue yarn, were the incontrovertible handiwork of a mother or a sister; and on his head was a three-cornered hat, which in its better days had perhaps sheltered the graver brow of the lad’s father. (4)

Robin is ‘barely’ eighteen; he is on the brink of legal manhood, but the use of ‘barely’ instead of ‘just turned’ or ‘newly’ suggests that he is still holds youthful qualities such as naiveté. The word ‘barely’ gives the sense that Robin has not fully matured into adulthood. This already connotes the stereotype of a “country bumpkin,” someone less alive to the ways of the world as his city counterparts, and Hawthorne cements this connotation with “evidently country-bred;” it is obvious that Robin is out of place in the town. At least for now, Robin is depicted in the stereotypical role of a country youth in the city, a fish out of water.[1] As if giving proof of the stereotype, Robin’s clothes are described as part of an obviously rural lifestyle. His coat is “coarse,” and thus probably hand-made, but in “excellent repair,” owing to the rural, agrarian tradition of mending clothes and handing them down in the family[2]. His stockings are not made from a textile establishment, but hand-made as well. Textile mills certainly did not exist at the time the story takes place, but they did for Hawthorne’s readers, and knowing that something was hand-made has an anachronistic resonance. Because of the position of Hawthorne’s writing – knee deep in the industrial revolution – his contemporary readers would equate hand-made with rural and of an earlier time. Robin’s clothes suggest he is outdated, and this is most clearly seen in his hat. The hat itself has “seen better days,” and presumably belonged to Robin’s father, so in appearance it is probably ragged and does not fit Robin’s head very well. His father’s brow is called “graver,” probably in the sense of “more important,” thus Robin looks like a child dressed in grown-ups’ clothes. Since the hat is old it is probably out of fashion, adding to the shabbiness of his looks. In these few lines Hawthorne gives us what we would expect from stereotypical country boy stepping into the city for the first time, someone who looks out of place in his own clothes as well as the urban environment around him.
While his clothes connote a country stereotype, descriptions of his equipment, name, and body connect Robin to nature. The cudgel represents another aspect of the allegorical conflict between urban and rural life. It is “formed of an oak sapling, and retaining a part of the hardened root…” (4). As opposed to a pistol or knife – man made weapons – Robin holds what can be called a “natural” weapon. The making of the cudgel has none of the complex physical processes that go into making more modern weapons like swords and guns, weapons common in cities. The cudgel itself is from the root of a tree, the part responsible for nourishment, connecting Robin with the natural process of growth. By carrying a piece of wood as his weapon – as an extension of the power of his arms - Robin ties his strength to the natural world. This connection with nature is furthered by the introduction of his name. The robin is a naturally occurring species in New England, thus Hawthorne connotes his protagonist with bird imagery, and nature. Furthermore, his “curly hair, well-shaped features, and bright, cheerful eyes were nature’s gifts” (4, italics mine). By depicting Robin’s body as something marked by nature, Hawthorne cements the connection between his protagonist and the natural world. Robin is not only a stereotypical country boy; he appears in the tale as a sort of avatar of nature, clearly out of place within the city.
This avatar quality is further strengthened by Robin’s encounters in the city, and the effects those encounters have. As the night progresses, he “seem(s) to feel more fatigue from his rambles since he crossed the ferry, than from his journey of several days on the other side” (8), as if the city itself is enervating. This enervation appears again in the last page of the story, where Robin’s “cheek (is) somewhat pale, and his eye not quite so lively as in the earlier part of the evening” (17). One can mark up such physical changes to the futility of his search for the Major, but considering how closely Robin is tied with nature imagery, it seems fair to say that the city itself saps his strength. Placing a natural figure in an urban context leads to the weakening of that figure, and Robin is no exception.
There is one more critical aspect of this urban versus rural allegory that must be put in place before considering how Hawthorne undermines the allegory. The reason Robin comes to the city at all is to acquire the patronage of Major Molineux. The narrator explains it as such,
The Major, having inherited riches, and acquired civil and military rank…had manifested much interest in Robin and an elder brother…(and) had thrown out hints respecting the future establishment of one of them in life. The elder brother was destined to succeed to the farm…it was therefore determined that Robin should profit by his kinsman’s generous intentions, especially as he had seemed to be rather the favorite, and was thought to possess other necessary endowments. (13)

Robin’s future is founded on both nepotism and patronage, things that were coming to an end by the time of the industrial revolution in America.[3] Robin’s reliance on these old customs is in direct conflict with the “mythos of equality” in America from the revolution onward. Hawthorne writes in a period where old symbols of patronage and nepotism, such as secret societies, have been publicly shamed.[4] Robin trades in outdated social conventions, just as he wears outdated clothes. That Robin should “profit by his kinsman’s generous intentions” and not his own hard work is something very “un-American,” especially in Hawthorne’s Jacksonian milieu. What may be rather common in a rural setting – indeed, without these customs young men would probably have no opportunity to make lives for themselves in an agricultural world – is sneered upon in the city. Robin comes to town expecting to be welcomed and rewarded, an assumption that shows just how in over his head he is.
But while Robin is clearly not the smartest lad – the use of “shrewd” as an adjective describing him is at least mildly ironic - we are not meant to laugh at him as the barber’s boys do. While he thinks very highly of the Major, there is not a sense in the book of Robin being arrogant. He makes mistakes, but they are due to a lack of understanding as opposed to a pretension on his part. If he were a comic figure the allegory would be backwards from the way it is in the story. It would be an allegory concerning how country-folk have pretensions about the city that are false and how they deserve comeuppance for such folly. But in My Kinsman, Major Molineux it is clearly the city that has a harmful influence – as discussed earlier – and is quite dangerous, as seen in Robin’s nightmare. Instead of a comic yokel, the reader is given a sympathetic country-boy who possesses all the stereotypes therein without losing his humanity. That in itself is evidence that the allegory of this tale is not meant to be taken at face value.
The nightmare also provides a place where the allegory is both strengthened and undermined at the same time. In a sense, it is the crown of the allegory – it is the last event Robin experiences before deciding to forsake the city, and it portrays the demise (at least in Robin’s imagination) of the Major. The nightmare shows Robin’s goals – embodied in the form of Major Molineux – tarred and feathered, destroyed by the city mob. From this alone, the allegory seems complete: city life, as represented by the procession, has destroyed Robin’s prospects, as represented by the Major. But instead of sounding a note of defeat in his dream, Robin joins his tormentors, taking part in the revelry, and laughing the loudest of anyone. This inclusion in the mob might suggest that Robin dreams that he has succumbed to city life, but Hawthorne’s description does not suggest a kind of subjugation by the mob. Robin, “sen(ds) forth a shout of laughter that echoed through the street; every man shook his sides, every man emptied his lungs, but Robin’s shout was the loudest there…the congregated mirth went roaring up the sky!” (17). Robin frolics best of all, not destroyed or subjugated by the city, but mastering it. Here the allegory goes awry, if urban and rural life were incompatible, Robin, who represents rural life, could not possess such a mastery of urban customs. While it is only a dream, this “dream mastery” suggests the possibility of acclimation, and it is just that possibility that the story ends with.
After the nightmare, when Robin decides to go home empty handed, it appears as if the tale provides a clear moral: agrarian country culture cannot survive in the face of the new, industrial, city centered culture. Robin, as a country-boy stereotype, an avatar of nature, and a proponent of old modes of economic ascendance, fails in his acclimation to the modernity of the city. But the story belies this conclusion with its final lines. The gentleman, who accompanies Robin at the end of his journey, upon hearing Robin’s resolve to head home, bids him to remain, “Some few days hence, if you continue to wish it, I will speed you on your journey. Or, if you prefer to remain with us, perhaps, as you are a shrewd youth, you may rise in the world, without the help of your kinsman, Major Molineux” (17). The gentleman does not offer Robin opportunity through nepotism, as Major Molineux has, but the chance to “rise in the world” by his own hand. He suggests that if Robin relinquishes his assumptions about how one can make one’s way in the world, he could do quite well. Thus the allegory changes from a simple tale of how the city corrupts and is impenetrable to country folk to a lesson on how one must change one’s assumptions in changing times.
The gentleman does not ask Robin to renounce every aspect of his countrified character, but to consider other ways of making a life for himself. This follows the remark he makes to Robin earlier, “May not one man have several voices, Robin, as well as two complexions?” (14). Several voices suggest several ways of speaking, which in turn suggests several ways of looking at the world. An understanding of this plethora of perspective seems embedded in the gentleman’s suggestion that Robin should stay. This plurality can avail Robin in his transition to city life, counseling that the inevitable clash between town and country – the clash this tale allegorizes – is not inevitable after all. This explains why Robin is able to laugh at the end of his nightmare. While it is a terrifying experience, he can also join the revelry, and indeed excel at it. Robin has already found this plurality of voice within his own dream life. When Robin comes to the town, he is deep in the old, usually agrarian, customs of inheritance and family ties. At first Robin naively believes that he has the power to acclimate to his new surroundings, noting to himself, “You will be wiser in time,” (5) as if it will only take a night for him to become accustomed to this new life. The gentleman’s proposition, that in time he may move up in the world, suggests that this presumption is not totally unfounded. By realizing that reliance on one’s family is not the only way to prosper, Robin perhaps might rise in the world. Thus the story suggests that urban, industrial life, and country, agrarian life are not incompatible – as long as one does not hold onto traditional assumptions of how the world works. Though, as always in Hawthorne, the tentative language – that “perhaps” Robin may rise – leaves such a conclusion tenuous.

[1] The country people stereotype predates Hawthorne’s writing, and thus would have been known to his readers - consider the distinctions between country and city people in works such as Pride and Prejudice, published twenty years before My Kinsman, Major Molineux, or in much of Dickens’ work which appeared in England contemporaneously.
[2] Obviously practices like this happened in cities as well, but remember we are currently dealing with stereotypes, not fact.
[3] It is true that nepotism lives on, but not without shady connotations. The point is that Robin is of a perspective where nepotism is the norm.
[4] Consider America’s reactions to the Masons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

January Hipster Music Roundup

The Decemberists' The King is Dead opens with a bang - a clash of symbols as Colin Meloy blows on the harmonica as hard as he can. It's a fitting introduction, and a statement of purpose. Unlike The Hazards of Love (which was awful, let's be honest) which began with airy singing and possibly a harmonium, this latest album wants to throw you right into it, and succeeds. Meloy's songwriting is as catchy and strong as ever, and the one-two punch of the opener Don't Carry it All and the second number, Calamity Song, remind us of why we all bought The Crane Wife in the first place. The Decemberists know rousing, jaunty numbers, and this is an album full of them, which in the end is a weakness as much as a strength.
The King is Dead is a good album, certainly - there's only one turkey in the bunch, but I'll get to that - but, as the Slate review rightly notes, it is the work of a chastened artist. No one liked The Hazards of Love, and even fewer people bought it. A return to one's roots is not always a retreat, but along with this step back comes a loss of adventure that marked their previous albums. The King is Dead in the end sounds like a collection of tracks that appeared on their earlier albums - July, July! and Yankee Bayonet for example. While July, July! came out as a unique sound in the midst of Castaways and Cutouts, here every song kind of sounds like every other one. What made their early forays into country so interesting is that those forays brushed up against prog experiments or sea shanties. This is what I mean by a loss of adventure - on their first four albums one was never quite sure what style or story they'd tackle next. Here it's the same tale, over and over. It's a good tale, true, but makes you wish they'd thrown in something like When the War Came into the middle of their proceedings.
Maybe they try to with the truly horrible Why We Fight. It's the most straight-shooting rock song on the album, but the lyrics are banal (something out of character and deadly for Meloy), and the whole thing kind of sounds like a Dave Mathews Band song. It almost obscures the two beautiful tracks that sandwich it, June Hymn and Dear Avery. But perhaps this is them being true to form as well, their first three albums all had one or two songs that should have become b-sides. While the album is certainly an enjoyable listen, here's hoping that their number one slot on the billboard charts makes The Decemberists stretch their legs a little bit on their next outing.
Grade: B

Speaking of stretching legs, The Decemberists could take a lesson or two from Sam Beam. The man has consistently expanded his sonic pallet from album to album, seemingly never looking back. Kiss Each Other Clean is another step in that opening up, and while it doesn't have the immediacy of Iron & Wine's previous album, The Shepherd's Dog, it has some of the best songs of his career.
I've already said enough about the opening track and lead single, Walking Far From Home (you can read my post about it here), but suffice it to say that in the opening five minutes Beam takes his place among American songwriters. The opening is transcendent and beautiful, which does make the next song a bit of a let down. At first Me and Lazarus doesn't come across as that impressive - especially considering that Nick Cave beat Beam to the punch a number of years ago - but the song does very well on repeated listening, becoming a funky consideration of death and life unfulfilled. Tree By the River, the next single from the album, is a kind of poppy version of Sixteen, Maybe Less from Beam's collaboration with Calexico. The sentiment is the same, but it's much more fun to sing along with this version of the story.
Maybe the best song on the album, though, is its centerpiece, Rabbit Will Run, a morality tale told by an unrepentant sinner with an ambiguous crime. The music surrounding Beam's alternately clean then effected voice is genuine creepy, moving from fuzzing synth to atonal fluting, all keeping the maniacal voice of the narrator rushing forward. Consider Rabbit Will Run something like Upward Over the Mountain turned on its head, with the singing not pining for the lost love of his mother and regretful of the wrongs he's done, but reveling in his misdeeds and contending that he has "furthered the world in his way." It's a haunting piece, and one that shows how strong a storyteller Beam is. There seems to me to be a lack of respect for songwriters who can inhabit the voices and minds of others - something we deeply respect in our novelists - and that saddens me. Listening to an Iron and Wine song is not getting into Beam's head, it's exploring a world he has created for us. There's a lack of solipsism here that I think we should be grateful for.
The album's closer, Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me - which many critics have noted is a kind of counterpoint to Walking Far From Home - once again amps up the jazz and the litany of ambiguous imagery. The song begins with a fast moving flurry of charges and mantras, all culminating in an almost religious repetition of the things we (humans? the characters in the song? who knows) will become, ranging from profound - the hammer and the nail, the wary and the wild - to absurd - an ice cream cone, a disco ball - suggesting that "we" are all things, all masses of contradiction. Like Walking Far From Home, a Whitman-like embodiment of all things becomes apparent in Beam's output.
Kiss Each Other Clean won't sound at first like an Iron & Wine album, and it may take you a spin or two to really engage with the songs, but take your time, it will be worth your while.
Grade: A

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Do You Believe in Magic?

Animated movies that intend to have any true emotional import must walk a very fine line. Normally such work is directed at children, and usually becomes cloying and saccharine. Usually understatement has been thrown out the window long before the first reel is set to the projector. Even somewhat "adult" movies such as Toy Story 3 miss the mark now and again.
But what about animated movies for adults? I don't mean those that adults can watch with the children, and read a subtext that the tots won't understand until they are seventeen and more able to pick up irony. I mean using animation as a medium to tell a story that perhaps only an adult will understand - or will only resonate with a person over a certain number of years. We have a tendency to think such movies don't exist - aside from indie fare like Waking Life, I suppose, but that movie is not animated in the normal sense. What about a movie that looks, even sounds like it could be for children, but fundamentally is not? Namely, that the emotions raised and parsed are those of maturity, and the conclusions the film reaches are not necessarily the most reassuring.
This is the predicament of Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist. This is not a movie for children - no, there are no racy scenes (though the backside of a rather drunken Scotsman is glimpsed) nor vulgar language (indeed, the movie is nearly without dialogue, and what there is comes mostly in French or Gaelic), but it is in the end a movie that children will not be able to understand.
The movie centers on a aged vaudeville performer, who peddles his magic act to diminishing crowds in near empty music halls which lack the luster they once had. Needing money, he ventures out to a tiny island in Scotland to perform at a local bar, and forms a bond with the girl who works of the establishment. None of this is a particularly novel setup for a plot, nor is it something beyond, the scope of many children's' movies, but what comes next is pivotal, and heartbreaking. I don't want to give too much away (you should see the movie yourself), but suffice it to say that the relationship between the young woman and the aged illusionist is not a simple one of a surrogate family. The two embark upon a shared fantasy, one that comes at a tremendous cost. This kind of mutual and self-deception is, I think, what makes the movie as powerful as it is (it is beautiful as well, but there are plenty of beautiful, terrible films).
A number of critics have complained of a lack of characterization in the film. I take issue with that - the characters are quite fully formed, but they are not prone to wild displays of emotion or personality. The whole movie is quiet, in its way. Perhaps one might think Chomet is a bit too subtle for his own good, but I am inclined to believe that if one pays close enough attention, all that is needed to feel involved in the lives of these characters is there on the screen.
It seems to me that for most of us if a movie is animated it must either be so visually alluring or so narratively innovative that it attracts our attention. Chomet's landscapes are dazzling, as are the little subtleties he puts within the frame, but they are not so different from a Disney film that we are shocked by his technical prowess. Nor is the plot utterly unique. But that should not dissuade you from seeing this gorgeous little film. It's not the tools at Chomet's disposal that we should judge him for, but what he does this those tools. And that, I think, is where his innovation lies.