Thursday, June 28, 2012
In Tristes tropiques Claude Levi-Strauss writes that to understand other cultures is to understand one’s own, since what we find in such cultures, in eye-catchingly unfamiliar guise, are the same unconscious laws which regulate our own symbolic universe. Myth is the way the Other or unconscious thinks in pre-modern peoples; but this same Other also thinks in us, and it is on the ground of this Otherness, paradoxically, that we and those who seem foreign to us can effect a genuine encounter. What we and they have in common is a signifying structure which is profoundly opaque to us both. Ironically, then, the fact of a universal unconscious means that apparently remote cultures are far more intimate with us than we imagine; but it is also what gives rise to a certain self-estrangement, as we come to gaze upon ourselves with new eyes through a recognition of others as our kinfolk. We must see ourselves, Levi-Strauss remarks in a fine flourish in Structural Anthropology, as ‘an other among others.’
It is thus that Levi-Strauss makes a fetish neither of difference nor identity. On the one hand, the structuralism he founded in the anthropological field represents one of the last great surges of Enlightenment reason, with its faith in the fundamental unity of humankind. As a Jew and a foreigner in France, Levi-Strauss writes in the wake of the orgy of unreason known as the Second World War, with its lethal cult of ethnic difference. Yet in his Race and History he also advocates cultural pluralism, and resists the reduction of diversity to sameness. Moreover, though the West and the ‘savage mind’ may share the same deep mental structures, this does not put the two camps on the same level. On the contrary, Levi-Strauss finds much in pre-modern societies that is superior to modern civilizations, and from which we refuse to learn at our peril. The ‘well-ordered’ humanism he sees at work in tribal mythology is not the dominative humanism of the West; it is rather a humanism which “does not begin with itself, but puts things back in their place. It puts the world before life, life before man, and the respect of others before love of self.”
There is no question that structuralism, apparently the most value-free, technocratic of theoretical models, is (at least in the hands of its now lamentably neglected founder) a profoundly ethical affair. Today, when everything that happened ten minutes ago is ancient history, even the mildest proposal that some features of the past were more estimable than some aspects of the present is likely to be derided as primitivist nostalgia. Despite the fact that Levi-Strauss consistently elevated the cognitive power of science over that of myth, and was deeply engaged in the history of his own time, his admiration for tribal peoples can only appear like dewy-eyed sentimentalism to the traders in futures. Reading him after environmental politics, however, which scarcely existed in his day, it is possible to see a certain ecology, both natural and spiritual, as his abiding motif from start to finish. In his later writings, he concluded in elegiac spirit that it was too late for the world to be saved, and that the precious resources of la pensee sauvage were lost to us for ever.
The Event Of Literature by Terry Eagleton; Yale University Press, 2012
Thursday, June 21, 2012
The final inconclusive chapter of Mornings in Mexico contemplates the primitive American experience from the northern Italian shore of the Mediterranean, where, on St. Catherine’s Day, Lawrence sips vermouth, back in the world of exact time and significant place. And clarity too: he imagines going to bed back at the ranch in New Mexico after “the dangerous light” has gone out. Where he is now, even “the night is very bright and still.” It virtually has “place.” The “dark” of the New World Mexicos is a function of their paradoxical antiquity, which the traveler can sense uniquely from the vantage place of the Mediterranean,
So eternally young, the very symbol of youth! And Italy, so reputedly old, yet for ever so child-like and naïve! Never, never for a moment able to contemplate the wonderful;, hoary Age of America, the continent of the afterwards.
Lawrence was now growing old himself. Even if he was only 42, his poor “bronchials” warned him that he hadn’t long to live. As his time grew short he thought much about his end, although he said nothing directly. In the “grotesque and monumental art of the Aztecs in Mexico,” he had seen, as David Cavitch says, “the Indian awe of death.” But he knew there were other attitudes and other styles, and in pursuit of them he turned to the tombs and funerary urns of ancient Etruria ( northwest of Rome), finding in “the Etruscan preparations for a continuing existence the images, the mood and the strength to express his own passage.” In contrast to “ the great pyramid places in Mexico,” he discovered in an Etruscan necropolis a “kind of homeliness and happiness.”
With his American friend Earl Brewster he visited the Etruscan sites for only about a week, in the cold early April of 1927. In June he began the essays that make up Etruscan Places (http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900381h.html), published in 1932 after he had been dead two years.
“Lawrence loved the Etruscans,” Huxley reports, “because they built temples which have not survived.” Only the painted underground tombs survive, and one reaches them across fields of asphodel, literal asphodel, real flowers. But entering the tombs, one feels none of the creepiness the modern West associates with “The Underworld”:
The tombs seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them. It must be partly owing to the peculiar charm of natural proportion which is in all Etruscan things of the unspoilt, un-romanized centuries. There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free-breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the underworld walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit.
The effect of the Etruscan tombs is the opposite of the Western notion of the Inferno, whose imagery adheres to an Eliotic vision Lawrence once experienced in wartime London before he was able to flee. In 1915 he wrote Ottoline Morrell: “London seems to me like some hoary massive underworld, a hoary ponderous inferno. The traffic flows through the rigid grey streets like the rivers of hell through their banks of dry, rocky ash.”
The modern archeologist Emeline Richardson has warned against Lawrence’s interpretation of the Etruscans: “The reader will believe anything Lawrence says about ancient Etruria and the Etruscans only at his own risk.” But the point is that what he says about these remote people and their art which greets death with quiet joy is less about them than about his own need:
Death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither and ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life.
To Lawrence, educated by the Etruscans, death seems even “the wonder-journey of life,” the final travel of man conceived as by nature a traveler. The Etruscan instinct for the imagery of travel surfaces even on their alabaster funerary ash-chests, with their repeated motif of the dead setting off gaily in covered wagons. “This,” says Lawrence, “is surely the journey of the soul.” He can interpret so boldly because he is writing “a travel book,” that is, a book about himself in relation to unfamiliar stimuli. In the process he creates a lively meditation on death fit to be brought next to Sir Thomas Brown’s Urn Burial (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/hydrionoframes/hydrion.html), another work which baffles generic classification.
Lawrence’s travel books were ad hoc and, as we say, “occasional.” Yet, because he lived with such intensity of perception and such shrewdness of imagination, his four travel books seem to sketch the stages of his own life. And because the emanations of genius touch on all of human life, his travel books do more than that: they seem to designate and explore the four stages of everyone’s life – youth, whose happiness is inseparable from satisfied sensual love; young adulthood, where happiness derives from social awareness and social self-hood; older adulthood, when vacancy and disillusion trouble the spirit; and old age, the moment for elegy and the wish for peace. Twilight in Italy , with its fervors about “reconciliation” is about youth; Sea and Sardinia, devoted to social comedy, is about young adulthood; Morning in Mexico is about loneliness and disappointment in Etruscan Places, about dying happily. For Lawrence to produce in half a normal lifetime, and in a genre sometimes thought literal-minded and trivial, a virtual allegory of a full span of life is an attestation of his self-knowledge and his understanding of life in general. The achievement is no small part of a gift Frieda said “he gave in his writing to his fellow men,. . . the hope of more and more life.”
Abroad; British Literary Traveling Between the Wars by Paul Fussell; Oxford University Press, N.Y. 1980
Friday, June 15, 2012
Of all the memoirs of the Great War, the ‘stagiest’ is Robert Grave’s Good-bye to All That, published first in 1929 but extensively rewritten for its reissue in 1957. Like James Boswell, who wrote in his journal (October 12, 1780), “I told Erskine I was to write Dr. Johnson’s life in scenes,” Graves might have said in 1929 that it was “in scenes” that he was going to write of the front-line war. And working up his memories into a mode of theater, Graves eschewed tragedy and melodrama in favor of farce and comedy, as if anticipating Friedrich Durrenmatt’s observation of 1954 that “comedy alone is suitable for us,” because “tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, and a sense of responsibility,” none of which we have got:
In the Punch-and Judy show of our century . . . there are no more guilty and also, no responsible men. It is always, “We couldn’t help it” and “We didn’t really want that to happen.” And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and of our forefathers . . . That is our misfortune, but not our guilt . . . Comedy alone is suitable for us.
And in Grave’s view, not just comedy: something close to Comedy of Humors, a mode to which he is invited by the palpable character conventions of the army, with its system of ranks, its externalization of personality, its impatience with ambiguity or subtlety, and its arena of conventional “duties” with their invariable attendant gestures and “lines.” “Graves,” says Randall Jarrell, “is the true heir of Ben Jonson.” Luxuriating in character types, Graves has said few things more revealing about his art than this: “There is a fat boy in every school (even if he is not really fat), and a funny-man in every barrack-room (even if he is not really very funny). . . .”
In consideration of Good-bye to All That, it is well to clear up immediately the question of its relation to “fact”. J. M. Cohen is not the only critic to err badly by speaking of the book as “harshly factual” and by saying, “It is the work of a man who is not trying to create an effect.” Rather than calling it “a direct and factual autobiography,” Cohen would have done better to apply to it the term he attaches to Grave’s Claudius novels. They are, he says, “comedies of evil.” Those who mistake Good-by to All That for a documentary autobiography (Cohen praises its “accurate documentation”) should find instructive Grave’s essay “P.S. to ‘Good-bye to All That,’” published two years after the book appeared. Confessing that he wrote the book to make “a lump of money” (which he did – he was able to set himself up in Majorca on the royalties), he enumerates the obligatory “ingredients of a popular memoir:
I have more or less deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed into other popular books. For instance, while I was writing, I reminded myself that people like reading about food and drink, so I searched my memory for the meals that have had significance in my life and put them down. And they like reading about murders, so I was careful not to leave out any of the six or seven that I could tell about. Ghosts, of course. There must, in every book of this sort, be at least one ghost story with a possible explanation, and one without any explanation, except that it was a ghost. I put in three or four ghosts that I remembered.
And kings . . . . People also like reading about other people’s mothers.. . . And they like hearing about T .E. Lawrence, because he is supposed to be like a mystery man. . . . And, of course, the Prince of Wales.
People like reading about poets. I put in a lot of poets. . . . Then, of course, Prime Ministers . . . a little foreign travel is usually needed; I hadn’t done much of this, but I made the most of what I had. Sport is essential. . . . Other subjects of interest that could not be neglected were school episodes, love affairs (regular and irregular), wounds, weddings, religious doubts, methods of bringing up children, severe illnesses, suicides. But the best bet of all is battles, and I had been in two quite good ones – the first conveniently enough a failure, though set off by extreme heroism, the second a success, though a little clouded by irresolution.
So it was easy to write a book that would interest everybody. . . . And it was already roughly organized in my mind in the form of a number of short stories, which is the way that people find it easiest to be interested in the things that interest them. They like what they call “situations.”
Furthermore, “the most painful chapters have to be the jokiest.” Add ‘the best bet of all is battles” to “the most painful chapters have to be the jokiest” and divide by the idea of “situations” and you have the formula for Grave’s kind of farce.
“Anything processed by memory is fiction,” as the novelist Wright Morris has perceived. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes puts it this way: “Imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers considerations hath divers names.” And in An Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney apprehends the ‘poetic’ – that is - fictional – element not just in all “history” but specifically in history touching on wars and battles:
Even historiographers (although their lips sound of things done, and verity be written in their foreheads) have been glad to borrow both fashion and perchance weight of poets . . . Herodotus . . . and all the rest that follow him either stole or usurped of poetry their passionate describing of passions, the many particularities of battle, which no man could affirm, or . . . .long orations put in the mouths of great kings and captains, which it is certain they never pronounced.
We expect a memoir dealing with a great historical event to “dramatize” things. With Graves we have to expect it more than with others, for he is “first and last,” as Jarrell sees, “a poet: in between he is a Graves.” A poet, we remember Aristotle saying, is one who has mastered the art of telling lies successfully, that is, dramatically, interestingly. And what is Graves? A Graves is a tongue-in-cheek neurasthenic farceur whose material is “facts.”
Asked by a television interviewer whether his view that homosexuality is caused by the excessive drinking of milk is “based on intuition or on what we would call scientific observation,” Graves replies: “On objective reasoning.” His “objective reasoning” here is as gratuitously outrageous as the anthropological scholarship of The White Goddess, the literary scholarship of his translation (with Omar Ali Shah) of The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam, or the preposterous etymological arguments with which he peppers his essays.
But to put it so solemnly is to risk falling into Grave’s trap. It is to ignore the delightful impetuosity, the mastery, the throw-away fun of it all. Graves is a joker, a manic illusionist, whether gaily constructing flamboyant fictional anthropology, re-writing ancient “history,” flourishing erroneous or irrelevant etymology, over-emphasizing the importance of “Welsh verse theory,” or transforming the White Goddess from a psychological metaphor into a virtual anthropological “fact.” And the more doubtful his assertions grow, the more likely he is to modify them with adverbs like clearly or obviously. Being “a Graves” is a way of being scandalously “Celtish” (at school “I always claimed to be Irish,” he says in Good-bye to All That). It is a way – perhaps the only way left – of rebelling against the positivistic pretensions of non-Celts and satirizing the preposterous scientism of the twentieth century. His enemies are always the same: solemnity, certainty, complacency, pomposity, cruelty. And it was the Great War that brought them to his attention.
Actually, any man with some experience and a bent towards the literal can easily catch Graves out in his fictions and exaggerations. The unsophisticated George Coppard explodes one of his melodramatic facilities in Good-bye to All That with simple common sense. Graves asserts – it is a popular cynical vignette – that machine-gun crews often fired off several belts without pause to heat the water in the cooling jacket for making tea. Amusing but highly unlikely –Coppard quietly notes that no one wants tea laced with machine oil. Another of Graves machine-gun anecdotes collapses as “fact” upon inquiry. At one point he says:
There was a daily exchange of courtesies between our machine-guns and the German’ at stand-to; by removing cartridges from the ammunition belt one could rap out the rhythm of the familiar prostitutes call: “MEET me DOWN in PICC-a-DILLY,” to which the Germans would reply, though in slower tempo, because our guns were faster than theirs: “YES, with-OUT my DRAWERS ON!”
Very nice. But the fact is that if you remove the cartridges from the belt the gun stops working when the empty space encounters the firing mechanism. (These stories are like the popular legend that in a firing squad one man is given a rifle secretly loaded with a blank so that no member of the squad can be certain that he has fired one of the fatal bullets. But as attractive as this is as melodrama, there’s something wrong with it: the rifle containing the blank is the only one that will not recoil when fired, with the result that every man on the squad will end by knowing anyway. The story won’t do.)
But we are in no danger of being misled as long as we perceive that Good-bye to All That is no more “a direct and factual autobiography” than Sassoon’s memoirs. It is rather a satire, built out of anecdotes heavily influenced by the techniques of stage comedy. What Thomas Paine says of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France applies directly: Burke, says Paine, makes “the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect.” No one has ever denied the brilliance of Good-bye to All That, and no one has ever been bored by it. Its brilliance and compelling energy reside in its structural invention and in its perpetual resourcefulness in imposing patterns of farce and comedy onto the blank horrors or meaningless vacancies of experience. If it really were a documentary transcription of the actual, it would be worth very little, and would surely not be, as it is, infinitely re-readable. It is valuable just because it is not true in that way. Graves calls on paradox to suggest the way it is true:
The memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities. High-explosive barrages will make a temporary liar or visionary of anyone; the old trench-mind is at work in all, over-estimation of casualties, “unnecessary” dwelling on horrors, mixing of dates and confusion between trench rumors and scenes actually witnessed.
In recovering ‘the old [theatrical] trench-mind” for the purposes of writing the book, Graves performed a triumph of personal show business.
He was in an especially rebellious mood when he dashed off the book in eight weeks during May, June, and July of 1929 and then sent the manuscript to Jonathan Cape. His marriage with Nancy Nicolson had just come apart, he owed money, he had quarreled with most of his friends, his view of English society had become grossly contemptuous, and he was still ridden by his wartime neurasthenia, which manifested itself in frequent bursts of tears and bouts of twitching. His task as he wrote was to make money by interesting an audience he despised and proposed never to see again the minute he was finished. Relief at having done with them all is the emotion that finally works itself loose from the black humor which dominates most of the book.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
The need for a stiffening of the home front morale at the beginning of 1916 can be gauged by the Poet Laureate’s issuing in January an anthology of uplifting spiritual passages of a neo-Platonic tendency titled The Spirit of Man. Such was the military situation, Robert Bridges implied in his Introduction, that “we can turn to seek comfort only in the quiet confidence of our souls.” We will thus “look instinctively to the seers and poets of mankind, whose sayings are the oracles and prophecies of loveliness and loving kindness.” The news from Belgium and France, not to mention Turkey, was making it more and more necessary to insist, as Bridges does, that “man is a spiritual being, and the proper work of his mind is to interpret the world according to his higher nature. . . “ Such and outlook is now indispensable, for we are confronted with “a grief that is intolerable constantly to face, nay impossible to face without that trust in God which makes all things possible.”
The comforts purveyed by The Spirit of Man were badly needed, for 1915 had been one of the most depressing years in British history. It had been a year not only of ironic mistakes but of a grossly unimaginative underestimation of the enemy and of the profound difficulties of siege warfare. Poor Sir John French had to be sent home, to be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig as commander of the British forces.
One doesn’t want to be too hard on Haig, who doubtless did all he could and who has been well calumniated already. But it must be said that it now appears that the one thing the war was testing was the usefulness of the earnest Scottish character in a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention. Haig had none. He was stubborn, self-righteous, inflexible, intolerant – especially of the French – and quite humorless. And he was provincial: at his French headquarters he insisted on attending a Church of Scotland service every Sunday. Bullheaded as he was, he was the perfect commander for an enterprise committed to endless abortive assaulting. Indeed, one powerful legacy of Haig’s performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. Haig could be said to have established the paradigm. His want of imagination and innocence of artistic culture have seemed to provide a model for Great Men ever since.
By the end of June, 1916, Haig’s planning was finished and the attack on the Somme was ready. . . .Out of the 110,000 who attacked, 60,000 were killed or wounded on this one day. Over 20,000 lay dead between the lines, and it was days before the wounded in No Man’s Land stopped crying out. If the pattern of things in 1915 had been a number of small optimistic hopes ending in small ironic catastrophes, the pattern in 1916 was that of one vast optimistic hope leading to one vast ironic catastrophe. The Somme affair, destined to be known among the troops as the Great Fuck-Up, was the largest engagement fought since the beginnings of civilization.
The disaster had many causes. One is traceable to the class system and the assumptions it sanctioned. The regulars of the British staff entertained implicit contempt for the rapidly trained new men of “Kitchener’s Army,”: large recruited among workingmen from the Midlands. The planners assumed that these troops – burdened for the assault with 66 pounds of equipment – were too simple and animal to cross the space between opposing trenches in any way except in full daylight and aligned in rows or “waves.” It was felt that the troops would become confused by more subtle tactics like rushing from cover to cover, or assault-firing, or following close upon a continuous creeping barrage.
Another cause of the disaster was the total lack of surprise. There was a hopeless lack of cleverness about the whole thing, entirely characteristic of its author. The attackers could have feinted: they could have lifted the bombardment for two minutes at dawn – the expected hour for an attack – and then immediately resumed it, which might have caught the seduced German machine gunners unprotected up at their open firing positions. But one suspects that if such a feint was ever considered, it was rejected as unsporting.
On January 1, 1917, Haig was elevated to the rank of Field Marshall and on March 17, Bapaume – one of the main first-day objectives of the Somme jump-off nine months before – was finally captured.
On April 9, the British again tried the old tactic of head-on assault, this time near Arras in an area embracing the infamous Vimy Ridge, which for years had dominated the southern part of the Ypres Salient. The attack, pressed for five days, gained 7,000 yards at the cost of 160,000 killed and wounded. Sometimes dignified as the Third Battle of Ypres, the old folly of reiterated abortive assaulting was begun again on July 31, in an attack towards Passchendaele. The bombardment churned up the ground; rain fell and turned the dirt into mud. The British assaulted until the attack finally attenuated three and a half months later. Price: 370,000- British dead and wounded and sick and frozen to death. Thousands literally drowned in the mud.
The Germans counter-attacked in the Somme area, beginning on the morning of March 21, 1918. It was a stunning victory. The British lost 150,000 men almost immediately, 90,000 as prisoners; and total British casualties rose to 300,000 within the next six days. The Germans plunged forty miles into the British rear. . . Haig felt sufficiently threatened to issue his famous “Backs to the Wall” Order of the Day: “Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each must fight on to the end.” In its dogged prohibition of maneuver or indeed of any tactics, this stands as the model for Hitler’s later orders for the ultimate defense of positions like El Alamein and Stalingrad.
Eventually, the German army was destroyed by its own success. Which reiterates the point that in the end war itself is the one that always wins.
Sir Henry Newbolt, a lifetime friend of Douglas Haig, later wrote ; “When I looked into Douglas Haig I saw what is really great – perfect acceptance, which means perfect faith.” This version of Haig brings him close to the absolute ideal of what Patrick Howarth has termed homo newboltiensis: honorable, stoic, brave, loyal, courteous – and unaesthetic, unironic, unintellectual and devoid of wit. To Newbolt, the wartime sufferings of such as Wilfred Owen were tiny - and whiny – compared to Haig’s: “Owen and the rest of the broken men rail at the Old Men who sent the young to die: they have suffered cruelly, but in the nerves and not the heart – they haven’t the experience or imagination to know the extreme human agony of the Newbolt Man.”
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell; Oxford University Press, 1975
Sunday, June 10, 2012
Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever – something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascination. For a thing to be really BAD, it must exhibit elements of the pretentious, the overwrought, or the fraudulent.
Plain bad has always been with us. It goes back as far as the history of artifacts. In Rome there was certainly a chariot-wheel maker who made bad wheels, a wine seller who dealt crappy wine. Introducing sawdust into bread-stuffs is a time-honored practice, but it becomes BAD only when you insist that the adulterated is better than any other sort. BAD, that is, is strictly a phenomena of the age of hype – and, of course, a special will-to-believe in the audience. To achieve real BAD, you have to have the widest possible gap between what is said about a thing and what the thing actually is, as experienced by bright, disinterested and modest people. There is a bit of BAD visible as far back as 1725 or so, when the earliest newspaper began printing ads, and by the nineteenth century BAD was very well developed but for genuine deep BAD, you have to arrive at the twentieth century, especially the part following the Second World War.
The Vietnam War is a good example as any of the way something bad could be made acceptable for quite a while, until people began to see that what was bad was really BAD, with Lyndon Johnson and William Westmoreland serving as admen. So shrewd and ubiquitous is ‘paid publicity’ that rugged and sometimes contemptuous criticisms is the only antidote. But even then, few newspapers rejoice to print scathing notices for, as Lewis Lapham has observed, they are largely engaged in ladling out indiscriminate dollops of optimism and complacency, preserving “the myths that the society deems precious, reassuring their patrons that all is well, that the banks are safe, our generals competent, our presidents interested in the common welfare, our artists capable of masterpieces, our weapons invincible and our democratic institutions the wonder of an admiring world.”
BAD, all of it. Thus, underneath, this book is about the publicity enterprise propelling modern life, which seems to make it clear that few today are able independently to estimate the value of anything without promptings from self-interested sources. This means nothing will survive unless inflated by hyperbole and gilded with a fine coat of fraud. If in some ways the subject suggests the tragic – all those well-meaning people swindled by their own credulity – looked in another way the topic proposes all the pleasures of farce. BAD projects anew and continuously the classic comic motif, the manipulation of fools by knaves.
Although now and then it tries to cover its shame and put on airs, television is a grossly proletarian medium. Efficient at merchandizing denture cleansers and incontinence diapers, beer, laxatives, cars and laundry supplies but death to books, ideas, the sense of history, and the complexities, subtleties, and ironies of civilized discourse. Rehearsing for one talk show about “culture,” I was asked to find an easy synonym for anthropological, a term, I was assured, way over the heads of the audience. This is why it’s not the programs aiming at popular conceptions of “entertainment” that are BAD. Women’s wrestling, The Oprah Winfrey Show, the childish prime-time sitcoms, the inflated dramatic “specials” where all characters act on comic-strip motivations – these are successfully bad, but hardly a threat to intelligence, since only the already lost could be found still watching After a thirty-second trial. It is certainly bad that more American households have TV sets than have flush toilets and that the average family watches seven and a half hours a day, which can mean every night from, say 4:30 until midnight, absorbing the values of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and the artistic subtleties of Alien Nation. That’s bad, but still not BAD.
For BAD, you’d turn first to the news shows where events are either sentimentalized or melodramatized to keep the watcher from switching channels until the heart of the matter, the next commercial, is arrived at. Equally BAD are the relentlessly middlebrow quasi-intellectual and pseudo-analytical news specials, where a ‘panel” agrees with itself. Here, the illusion presides that the proceedings are as free as in any old locker or seminar room, but actually an inflexible set of personality clichés and ad hominem ideological conventions tales place. Lewis Lapham notes: “Despite its seeming fluidity, TV is a remarkably rigid medium that makes use of personae as immutable as the characters in the commedia dell’arte,” another way of illuminating the distance between between appearance and reality always present in the case of BAD.
You can say of television today what Charles Lamb said of the newspapers long ago: you never open one without a slight thrill of expectation, and you never close one without disappointment. If you are at all bright, your initial slight titillation is rapidly overcome by the bromides and formulas, the constant victory of presentation over substance, the unremitting wheeling-out of the tried and the tested instead of anything original. TV is a place where nothing exciting or interesting can possibly happen – except when sports are being broadcast live. Will the Indy car crash? Will a fight more interesting than usual break out on the basketball court? Will the Olympic ice-dancing couple slip and fall? Will that poleaxed football player get up or will he be removed, apparently dead, from the field? Moments like those might engage curiosity and, for a moment, satisfy, except that a voice is always butting in to comment, explain, relate, and certify – the play-by-play commentator must certify each play before we are presumed to understand what’s going on, even when we can see it perfectly well. The assumption is clear: nothing is real unless validated by commentator and interpretation.
In TV news everything must be made into a ‘story, even things clearly self-sufficient without commentary: a volcano going off, a whale surfacing, soccer fans beating each other up, fifteen wrecked cars strewn over a California thruway. Former newspaper reporter Tom Wolfe recognizes that TV does “set events” like these well, and he goes on to say that these and their like all the “news” it should present. In fact, he says, “It’d be a service to the country if television news operations were shut down totally and they only broadcast hearings, press conferences, and hockey games. That would be television news. At least the public would not have the false impression that they were getting news coverage.” As it stands now, TV news programs are the very essence of BAD: the gulf between the pretended and the actual is dramatized five times a week in the familiar “Dan Rather (or Brian Wilson) reporting,” when he is usually not reporting at all but acting and reading – and reading from the TelePrompter, as Lapham says, language “configured to the understanding of a six-year-old child." Wilson’s is a small deception, to be sure, a part of the tired world of show business masquerading as life has been the material of TV from the outset. But even Brian Wilson (or, say, Charlie Rose) is contributing to a way of life that has elevated banality and deception to cultural principles, for after all, if your main business is to sell largely worthless, unnecessary and sometimes very dangerous products, mendacity and mediocrity must govern. They are not just unfortunate by-products of television: they are its very reason for being.
So powerful is the pull of mendacity once profit enters as a motive that it’s now leaking into once-pure public television from the openly mercantile and cynical channels. When public television has to admit that a powerful commercial sponsor is behind a given program, which means that certain interesting things can’t be noticed or said at all, its sense of shame (not fully placated by a “disclosure” that some things will not be noticed or said) impels it to avoid a phrase like sponsored by in favor of euphemistic formulas like ‘This program is made possible by a grant from,” implying with grant that the whole operation is taking place in the high-minded, disinterested realm of foundations, universities, and similar non-tainted institutions.
Despite the horrors that real life now and then obliges it to notice, television news is (like its print counterpart, USA Today) unfailingly optimistic, and its anchormen and women are never far from the convention of obligatory show-biz smiles. The optimism of the commercials is indistinguishable from the optimism of the “reporting”. In order for TV’s ads to seem ‘a bonus –not an intrusion,’ the rest of television first had to change in many subtle ways, imperceptibly, taking on the qualities of the commercials; BAD, America’s main contribution to the world, the thing that we are best at.
The future of BAD is immense, to echo what Mathew Arnold said in 1879 about the future of poetry. He was wrong, of course, but not as wrong as we will be if we imagine that a little kicking ass and taking names is going to retard the progress of BAD. The new Goddess of Dullness is in the saddle, attended by her outriders Greed, Ignorance, and Publicity.
In short, BAD has gotten such a head start nothing can slow it down much, even if we should blow up the teachers colleges; nationalize the airlines; make C, not B, the average grade again; reinstall Latin in the high schools; stop demeaning children by calling them kids and policemen by calling them cops; get rid of intercollegiate athletics; curb the national impulse to brag; raise the capital gains tax; teach a generation to sneer at advertising and to treat astrology with contempt; build bridges that don’t collapse; stay out of space; persuade educated people that criticism is their main business; speak and write English and other languages with some taste and subtlety; get the homeless into a new Civilian Conservation Corps; produce intelligent movies; develop in the Navy higher standards of courage and discipline; start a few sophisticated national newspapers; give diners at BAD restaurants the guts to say, after the manager has asked them if they enjoyed their dinner, “No”; abandon all remains of the self-congratulatory Cold War Psychosis; improve the literacy of public signs and the taste of public sculpture; get people of artistic talent to design our stamps and coins; and develop public television into a medium free of all commerce. Because these things are not likely to happen, the only recourse is to laugh at BAD. If you don’t, you’re going to have to cry.
Saturday, June 9, 2012
The press has come to be regarded as an organ of direct democracy, charged on a wide scale, and from day to day, with a function often attributed to the initiative, referendum, and recall. The Court of Public Opinion, open day and night, is to lay down the law for everything all the time. It is not workable. And when you consider the nature of the news, it is not even thinkable; as social truth is organized today the press is in no way constituted to furnish from one edition to the next the amount of knowledge which the democratic theory of public opinion demands. The news is primarily constructed of stereotypes according to the press’s own peculiar code and the urgency of its own self-interest; ‘a dome of multi-colored glass which stains the white radiance of eternity’ (Shelly). At its best the press is a servant and guardian of institutions; at its worse it is a means by which a few exploit social disorganization to their own ends. In the degree which institutions fail to function, the unscrupulous journalist can fish in troubled waters, and the conscientious reader must ever gamble with the uncertainties which the news presents.
The press is no substitute for institutions. It is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision. Men cannot do the work of the world by this light alone. They cannot govern society by episodes, incidents, and eruptions. It is only when they work by a steady light of their own, that the press, when it is turned upon them, reveals a situation intelligible enough for a popular decision. The trouble lies deeper than the press, and so does the remedy. It lies in social organization based on a system of analysis and record, and in all the corollaries of that principle; in the abandonment of the theory of the omni-competent citizen and decentralization of decision, in the coordination of decision by comparable record and analysis. If at the center of management there is a running audit, which makes work intelligible to those who do it, and those who superintendent it, issues when they arise are not the mere collisions of the blind. Then, too, the news is uncovered for the press by a system of intelligence that is also a check on the press.
That is the radical way. For the troubles of the press, like the troubles of representative government, be it territorial or functional, like the troubles of industry, be it capitalist, cooperative, or communist, go back to a common source: the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice, by inventing, creating, and organizing a machinery of knowledge. It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.
Today the machinery of social and political science are so little perfected ( and when they are developed unavailable to average citizens) that in many serious decisions and most of the casual ones, there is yet no choice but to gamble with fate as intuition prompts. But we can make a belief in reason one of those intuitions. We can use our wit and our force to make footholds for reason. Behind our pictures of the world, we can try to see the vista of a longer duration of events, and wherever possible to escape from the urgent present, allow this longer time to control our decisions. And yet, even when there is this will to let the future count, we find again and again that we do not know for certain how to act according to the dictates of reason. The number of human problems on which reason is prepared to dictate is actually very small.
There is, however, a noble counterfeit in that charity which comes from self-knowledge and an unarguable belief that no one of our gregarious species is alone in his longing for a friendlier world. So many of the grimaces men make at each other go with a flutter of their pulse, that they are not all of them important. And where so much is uncertain, where so many actions have to be carried out on guesses, the demand upon the reserves of mere decency is enormous, and it is necessary to live as if good will would work. We cannot prove in every instance that it will, nor why hatred, intolerance, suspicion, bigotry, secrecy, fear, and lying are the seven deadly sins against public opinion. We can only insist that they have no place in the appeal to reason , that in the long run they are a poison; and in taking our stand on the view of the world which outlasts our own predicament, and own lives, we can cherish a hearty prejudice against them.
We can do this all the better if we do not allow frightfulness and fanaticism to impress us so deeply that we throw up our hands peevishly, and lose interest in the longer run of time because we have lost faith in the future of man. There is no ground for this despair, because all the ifs on which, as William James said, our destiny hangs, are as pregnant as they ever were. What we have seen of brutality, we have seen, and because it was strange, it was not conclusive. It was only Berlin, Moscow, Versailles in 1914 to 1918, not Armageddon, as we rhetorically said. The more realistically men have faced out the brutality and hysteria, the more they have earned the right to say that it is not foolish for men to believe, because another great war took place, that intelligence, courage and effort cannot ever contrive a good life for all men.
Great as was the horror, it was not universal. There were corrupt, and there were incorruptible. There was muddle and there were miracles. There was huge lying. There were men with the will to uncover it. It is no judgment, but only a mood, when men deny that what some men have been, more men, and ultimately enough men, might be. You can despair of what has never been. You can despair of ever having three heads, though Mr. Shaw has declined to despair of even that. But you cannot despair of the possibilities that could exist by virtue of any human quality which a human being has exhibited. And if amidst all the evils of this decade, you have not seen men and women, known moments that you would like to multiply, the Lord himself cannot help you.
Sunday, June 3, 2012
The other night I sat up late reading one of those books on politics which are regarded as essential to any sort of intellectual respectability. It was a book that might be referred to in the Constitutional Convention at Albany. As I read along I was possessed with two convictions about the author. The first was that he had worn a high hat when he wrote the book; the second, that he had no teeth, which made him a little difficult to understand. And all through that hot mosquito-ridden night the disintegration of his vocabulary went churning through my head. . . “social consciousness. . .sovereign will. . .electoral duties. . .national obligations. . . on moral, economic, political, and social grounds. . . social consciousness. . . sovereignty. . . electoral. . . social. Sovereign. . . national. . . sovereign. . . “ Each word was as smooth and hard and round as a billiard ball, and in the malice of my sleeplessness I saw the toothless but perfectly groomed man in a high hat making patterns of the balls which were handed to him by his butler.
As the night dragged along, the callowest prejudices came to the surface and all fairer and reputable judgment deserted me. I heard myself say that this ass who plagued me couldn’t possibly have any ideas because he didn’t have any vocabulary. How is it possible, I asked, to write or think about the modern world with a set of words which were inchoate lumps when Edmund Burke used them? Political writing is asphyxiated by the staleness of its language. We are living in a strange world, and we have to talk about it in a kind of algebra. And of course if we only deal with colorless and vacant symbols, the world we see and the world we describe soon becomes a colorless and vacant place.
Nobody can write criticism of American politics if the only instruments at his disposal are a few polysyllables of Greek and Latin origin. You can’t put Bryan and Hearst and Billy Sunday into the vocabulary of Aristotle, Bentham, or Burke. Yet if you are going to write about American politics, can you leave out Bryan and Hearst and Billy Sunday, or even Champ Clark? The author I had been reading did leave them out completely. He talked about the national will of America as if it were a single stream of pure water which ran its course through silver pipes laid down by the Constitutional Fathers.
I tried to recall any new words which had been added to the vocabulary of social science. Boss, healer, machine, log-rolling, pork-barrel – those words which meant something at Washington or in Tammany Hall, but my author would no more have used them than he would have eaten green peas with a knife. Anyone who did use them he would have regarded as a mere journalist, and probably a cocksure young man at that. Then I remembered that the diplomats had made current a few fresh words within the last generations – hinterland, pacific penetration, sphere of influence, sphere of legitimate aspiration; they had meaning, because nations went to war about them. But the real contributions, curiously enough, have come not from the political theorist, but from novelists, and from philosophers who might have been novelists.
H.G. Wells and William James, I said to myself, come nearer to having a vocabulary fit for political uses than any other writers in English. They write in terms which convey some of the curiosity and formlessness of modern life. Speech with them is pragmatic, and accurate in the true sense. They are exact when exactness is possible, and blurred when the thought itself is blurred. They have almost completely abandoned the apparatus of polysyllables through which no direct impression can ever penetrate. They do not arrange concepts, they gather precepts, and never do you lose the sense that the author is just a man trying to find out what he thinks. But the political writer who gave me the nightmare never admitted that he was just a man. He aimed at that impersonal truth which is like the inscription on monuments.
He regarded himself as a careful person. His method was to retrieve in qualifying clause whatever he had risked in assertion. So he achieved a compendium of things-that-can’t-be-done, a kind of anthology of the impossible. His notion of getting at the truth was to peal it, like Peter Gynt’s onion, though Peter Gynt had the sense to be surprised that there was nothing to an onion but the layers.
My temper grew worse as I reflected on the hypnotic effect of books done in this manner, on the number of men whose original vision is muffled by verbal red tape and officialism of the spirit. The true speech of man is idiomatic, if not of the earth and sky, then at least of the saloon and the bleachers. But no smelly or vivid expression can win its way through these opaque incantations with which political science is afflicted. They forbid fresh seeing. An innocence of the eye is impossible, for there are no words to report a vision with; and visions which cannot be expressed are not cultivated. No wonder, I thought, political philosophizing means so little in human life. Its woodenness is the counterpart of a wooden politics, its inhumanity is the inhumanity of a state machine. The language is callous, unmoved and unmoving, because it aims to reflect rather than to lead the life upon which it comments. Dead speech is good enough for thoughts that bring no news, and it is to the timidity of the political thought that we must ascribe its preference for a dead language.
In these tomes over which we yawn at night there are occasionally ideas that might shake the world. But they do not shake it, for they are written for people who do not like to shake it. They are hedged with reservations, fortified with polysyllables, and covered over with appalling conceit that here is truth – objective, impersonal, cold.
I generalize rashly: that is what kills political writing, this absurd pretense that you are delivering a great utterance. You never do. You are just a puzzled man making notes about what you think. You are not building the Pantheon, then why act like a graven image? You are drawing sketches in the sand which the sea will wash away. What more is your book but your infinitesimal scratching, and who the devil are you to be grandiloquent and impersonal? The truth is you’re afraid to be wrong. And so you put on these airs and use these established phrases, knowing that thy will sound familiar and will be respected. But this fear of being wrong is a disease. You cover and qualify and elucidate, you speak vaguely, you mumble because you are afraid of the sound of your on voice. And then you apologize for your timidity by frowning learnedly on anyone who honestly regards thought as an adventure, who strikes ahead and takes his chances. You are like a man trying to be happy, like a man trying too hard to make a good mashie shot in golf. It can’t be done by trying so hard to do it. Whatever truth you contribute to the world will be one lucky shot in a thousand misses. You cannot be right by holding your breath and taking precautions.
The New Republic
August 7, 1915
What is huyou ? Originally it meant “to sway unsteadily” – like fishing boats bobbing in the waves, for example, or leaves shaking in the wind. Later it developed a new life as an idiom particularly popular in northeast China, derived from another phrase that sounds almost the same – “to mislead.” Just as variant strains of the flu virus keep constantly appearing, huyou has in its lexical career diversified itself into a dazzling range of meanings. Hyping things up and laying it on thick – that’s huyou. Playing a con trick and ripping somebody off – that’s huyou, too. In the first sense, the word has connotations of bragging, as well as enticement and entrapment; in the second sense, it carries shades of dishonesty, misrepresentation and fraud. “Bamboozle, perhaps, id the closest English equivalent.
In China today, “bamboozle” is a new star in the lexical firmament, fully the equal of “copycat” in its charlatan status. Both count as linguistic nouveau riche, but their rises to glory took somewhat different courses. The copycat phenomena emerged in a collectivist fashion, like bamboo, like bamboo shoots springing up after a spring rain, whereas “bamboozle” had its source in an individual act of heroism – the hero in question being China’s most influential comedian, a north-easterner named Zhao Benshan. In a legendary skit performed a few years ago, Zhao Benshan gave ‘bamboozling” its grand launch, announcing to the world:
I can bamboozle the tough into acting tame,
Bamboozle the gent into dumping the dame,
Bamboozle the innocent into taking the blame
Bamboozle the winner into conceding the game.
I’m selling crutches today, so this is my aim:
I’ll bamboozle a man into thinking he’s lame.
In “Selling Crutches” he proceeds with infinite guile, trapping the fall guy into one psychological snare after another, exquisitely employing deception and hoax to lead him down the garden path until in the end a man whose legs are perfectly normal is convinced he’s a cripple and purchases – at great expense – a shoddy pair of crutches.
When this very funny routine was performed in CCTV’s Spring Festival gala – the most-watched television program in China – the word “bamboozle” immediately took the nation by storm. Like a rock stirring up a tidal wave it triggered a tsunami-style reaction as phenomena long existent in Chinese society – boasting and exaggerating, puffery and bluster, mendacity and casuistry, flippancy and mischief – acquired grater energy and rose to new heights in bamboozle’s capacious ocean. At the same time a social propensity towards chicanery, pranks, and other shenanigans drew further inspiration from it. Once these words with negative connotations took shelter under bamboozlement’s wing, they suddenly acquired a neutral status.
Zhao Benshan put “bamboozle” on the lips of people all over the country, male and female, young and old. The word slipped off their tongues as smoothly as saliva and shot from their mouths as freely as spittle. Politics, history, economics, society, culture, memory, emotion, and desire – all these and more find a spacious home in the land of bamboozlement. It has become a lexical master key: in the palace of words it opens all kinds of doors.
Bamboozlement, of course, does not always have negative connotations. When one is in a nostalgic mood, “bamboozle” can serve to purge the word “trick” of its pejorative meaning . . . Just as “copycat” gives imitation and piracy a new range of connotations, “bamboozle” throws a cloak of respectability over deception and manufactured rumor. . .
There is really no end to stories of fraud and chicanery, for “bamboozle” has already insinuated itself into every aspect of our lives. If a foreign leader visits China, people will say he’s “come to bamboozle,” and if a Chinese leader travels abroad, people will say he’s “gone to bamboozle those foreigners.” When a businessman heads out to negotiate a deal, he’ll say he’s “off to bamboozle,” and when a professor goes to deliver a lecture, he’ll say the same thing. Social interactions and romantic partnerships fall under this heading too: “I bamboozled him into being my friend,” you might hear someone say, or “I bamboozled her into falling for me.” Even Zhao Benshan, the godfather of bamboozling, has become a casualty. A couple of years ago a text message appeared on many millions of Chinese cell phones:
Got access to a television? Be sure to turn on CCTV – Zhen Benshan has been killed by a bomb, the police sealed off the Northeast, 19 people dead, 11 missing, one bamboozled!
The one bamboozled, of course, was the person reading the message.
A friend and I once traveled together to a speaking engagement. Last ting at night he asked me for a couple of sleeping pills. He wasn’t planning to take them, he said, but simply to place them next to his bed as a form of subliminal tranquilizer. “They’ll bamboozle me into falling asleep,” he said with a laugh.
Bamboozlement can also give a new gloss to literary works. There’s a famous line by the Tang poet Li Bai: “White hair falling thirty thousand feet.” It used to be seen as the quintessence of the Chinese literary imagination, but people’s commentary now takes a different form: “That Li Bai sure knew how to bamboozle,” they scoff.
Bamboozling has practically become an essential fashion accessory. In the last couple of years schoolchildren have developed a new fad: buying so- called bamboozle cards. Which are the same size as drivers’ licenses. You see vendors hawking them on city streets and pedestrian bridges” Bamboozle cards – one yuan each! With bamboozle card in hand or purse, bamboozle the world for all it’s worth!”
“Here is certified,” the card reads, “that Comrade So-and-so possesses distinctive technique and rich experience in bamboozling: few are those who can avoid being duped.” The bamboozle card is embossed with a round, official-looking stamp just like other Chinese identity cards; its issuing authority is the National Bamboozle Commission. Schoolchildren greet each other by pulling out their cards and waving them in each other’s faces, like FBI agents flashing their ID in a Hollywood movie – the ultimate in school-age cool.
The rapid rise in popularity of the word “bamboozle” like that of “copycat”, demonstrates to me a breakdown of social morality and a confusion in the value system in China today; it is an aftereffect of our uneven development these past thirty years. If anything, bamboozling is even more widespread in social terms than the copycat phenomena, and when bamboozling gains such wide acceptance, it goes to show we live in a frivolous society, one that doesn’t set much store by matters of principle.
My concern is that when bamboozling unabashedly becomes a way of life, then everyone from the individual to the population at large can become its victim. For a bamboozler is quite likely to end up bamboozling himself or – in Chinese parlance – to pick up a big stone only to drop it on his own foot. I imagine everyone has probably had this kind of experience: you try to bamboozle someone, only to end up bamboozling yourself. I am certainly no exception, for when I look back on my own career, I find many such examples.