Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Misogyny, NXIVM, Trump

 have been disturbed lately over facing an onrush of misogyny and sexism. I have, for example, bumped up repeatedly against the motif of women in adoring service to the "great man," as can be seen in such "critically acclaimed works" as the musical Hamilton, and the 2017 film Phantom Thread, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.* The unspoken assumption in these works is that a woman has no higher calling than to adore a dominant male. 

Male sexist fantasy reared its head as well in Morris’s Utopian fiction, News from Nowhere, which I recently read. Here, Morris depicts an ideal society filled with attractive women who embrace as "natural" a desire to wait on men--this is a mild sexism, but sexism all the same. The handmaid theme emerged in an uglier way in a  time travel short story by Robert Heinlein called  "By His Bootstraps." In this story, the male protagonist, Bob Wilson, is serviced in a future world by a bevy of willing, young, and beautiful females who seem to have no other desire but to adore and wait on him (including, it is suggested, sexually servicing him). Needless to say, he needs to do nothing to deserve this treatment.  Being a man is ample qualification for worship, despite the story characterizing him as both stupid and callous. 

In the past and up to today, I have been concerned about what I call ritual humiliation of women in filmed media. This first came home to me when at the end of 1997 I watched a lovely 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film called Little Shop Around the Corner. It was remade shortly after as You've Got Mail. Seeing the two films back to back I couldn't help but notice that the female lead in the later film was subjected to humiliation by the male before she could be worthy of his "love." This aspect was completely missing from the earlier Lubitsch version, in which the two opposite sex leads are treated as equals. It uneasily came to me that we were going backwards on sexual equality. 

After, this I began to notice that most current films had a scene in which a woman is ritually humiliated. In one romantic comedy, a woman who owns a bakery has to chase after her "man" and beg for help with car repairs when she is stranded on the side of the road. At the end of Game of Thrones, the uppity women leaders who have not yet been properly disciplined through repeated rape, cruelty, and abuse are killed. The men triumph. Among Trump supporters I have noticed a meme of "cute" cartoons in which a "FemiNazi" (often depicted as a female head on a cat's body) speaks out and is bested and silenced by a much larger Trump, who gets the final word. 

I have also been reading about Incels (involuntary celibates), an Alt-Right group of aggrieved men who feel that they deserve to date not any women, but what they consider the “hottest” women of the world: white, blond, sorority members. This is pointed out in Elizabeth Sanifer's excellent evisceration of idiot male Alt-Right "thinkers" in her book NeoReaction: A Basilisk. I have also read Kate Manne's recent work Entitled, which discusses male Incels among other examples of male privilege. 

Lately, too, Roger and I have been watching HBO’s The Vow, about the cult  NXIVM. The leader, Keith Raniere, is a sociopath very much in the Trump mold and mindset. Raniere was recently found guilty of a host of crimes, including sex trafficking. He  literally branded female sex slaves that he felt he “owned.”  I find—or so far have found—the series fascinating, as I can understand how one would be attracted to a group that professed to want to build a more ethical world, though it becomes clear that Ranier’s idea of “ethics” was based on the savagery of Ayn Rand. Like Trump, Ranier is an arrested adolescent attempting to play out sick and puerile fantasies. Unfortunately, like Trump, he got far too far. 

Ranier and his brand. It is a sideways "KR:"  his initials.

It is profoundly depressed to read the passage below about Ranier, his sex cult, and his deep misogyny towards women. What disturbed me is that Ranier pinpointed what are, I believe, common attitudes among men: feelings that women are “entitled” (which seems to mean resentment that they want to share the voice, space, and resources once the sole domain of men), that women use their sex to get advantages, and that women are undisciplined (which seems to mean “unmanly” in the context of the sadistically brutal way some men are formed). He also seemed filled with rage that women might dress “provocatively:” this is another complaint I have often heard men level at women, as if the clothes we wear were not designed (especially for young women) by the male fashion industry to be provocative—even for little girls, as I found trying to dress a young daughter in the 1990s.** 

As is typical in what we see in filmed media, Raniere wanted to humiliate women into “obedience.” 

Encountering so much misogyny leads me to wonder why some men hate women so much and have such distorted views of women. This has real urgency, since a man who displays all the worst tendencies of misogynist men and flaunts this as a positive feature, playing into sick male fantasies, has highest power in the US and may be reelected or even become our dictator at a time when climate change threatens human extinction. Men have to get over these attitudes if we are going to survive as a species.  Woman are not here to adore and service them. That, in fact, is a fatal and disgusting disease that too many women have been conditioned into perpetrating. (Mutual support between equals is another story.) Women, also, are not “entitled" because they want equal voice and power to men.  We need this equality to happen if we are going to survive.  

The following on Ranier and NXIVM is from a May 13, 2019 Rolling Stone story:

In 2013, Raniere decided that he wanted to open up the SOP [male only] curriculum to female members of NXIVM, dubbing the new course SOP Complete. Although Vicente [who turned on the cult] testified that he initially had “concerns” about opening up the group to women, he later relented when female members of NXIVM’s inner circle spoke with him and said they wanted to take the class.
Those concerns turned out to have been justified, however, when Raniere introduced SOP Complete to group members by telling them the primary tenets of the group: i.e., that women “lack discipline,”  were “entitled,” and were “misusing their sexuality to gain an advantage in the world,” Vicente testified. The goal of the curriculum, which was authored by Raniere, was to give women “the experience of being a little boy in a man’s world,” or to essentially tease and bully them until they were forced to grow up and assume responsibility for their actions. “‘We’re gonna help them find themselves and push them the same way you were pushed,'” Vicente recalled Raniere saying.
SOP Complete, Vicente testified, was “run more like a boot camp” than an academic curriculum. In addition to using hazing and other military-inspired tactics, such as forcing group members to do “penance” for misdeeds in the form of planks or wall-sits, SOP Complete instructors also used props, such as fairy wings, to humiliate female members into submission.
At one point, Clare Bronfman, the billionaire Seagram’s heiress who had at this point assumed a central role in NXIVM, was given a “jock strap” for being “too bossy,” according to Vicente. Raniere also suggested that male group members take photographs of the women if they were dressing provocatively and then make a video slideshow to humiliate them.
Although Vicente said that he had reservations about SOP Complete, testifying that even his wife had approached him with her concerns about the group, he nevertheless kept participating in the group. “I believed with some reservation that the women wanted to feel stronger and this would help in some ways,” he said, before eventually coming to the realization that the aim of the group was to “make women submit to men and be obedient, no matter what.”

Raniere is a sick and sadistic person who starved his sex slaves so they would conform to his beauty image and had them branded with his initials naked and without anesthetics. It is worth noting that NXIVM was a highly hierarchical organization: hierarchy is part of the warped social order that gives some groups and people undue power over others. 
I don't know why deep atavistic male fantasies seem to center on wanting women as adoring and obedient sex slaves, but the stakes couldn't be higher for abandoning that idea and creating a post-misogynist world. (As has been much noted, for example, the countries doing best against Covid are run by women.) I have much more to say, but will stop here; fortunately we live in a world where, despite all attempts to the contrary, women are getting more of a voice and are more and more realizing there is no "empowerment" in trying to replicate stereotypical masculinity. 

A a final note, a long line of women writers who continue to be influential solace me greatly, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Jane Austen to Mary Shelley to Virginia Woolf and on up. We need to listen to what they are trying to tell us. 

*Phantom Thread was nominated for a slew of Oscars, partially in an attempt to give Daniel Day Lewis his “due.” I have to say that I was appalled that "honoring"  Lewis was considered a reasonable excuse for amplifying a sick film in which adoring handmaids tolerate a “great man’s” cruel and verbally abusive behavior on the unstated assumption that women can have no higher goal than to service and worship the 'heroic" male.  And did this entitled white male (Lewis) really need an Oscar nomination? Could he not have simply gotten lifetime service award? Or just lived on his laurels? 

**I had to sidestep little short-shorts with ruffles on the rear end and tee-shirts in pink decorated with hearts and mottos like "I am your little sweetheart." 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Pandemic Year: Three mid-century cooking pamphlets and one home entertaining guide

The pandemic inspired me to clean out a cupboard. I found old cooking pamphlets there ranging  from 1934 to 1959, given to me by a generous friend.  These pamphlets were produced by companies trying to sell their food products.

1934's The Latest Cake Secrets, was released by the Consumer Service Department of General Foods Corporation to promote Swans Down, the "original cake flour" and "the most popular and successful cake flour used in the land."  The company is still in business: Swans Down can be purchased on Amazon.

The cover of 1934's The Latest Cake Secrets. We learn that Swans Down flour is "perfect for cakes..."

As with all these pamphlets, The Latest Cake Secrets is an advice books as much as a cookbook. Here, we learn to "trust good rules--don't trust luck."  We find out that all the pamphlet's recipes have been tested and retested, and that  "the perfect cakes is a proud work of art". All of the cakes and pies in this 1934 pamphlet are shown shown sliced, as we see on the cover photo.

Serving a coconut cream pie, 1934. What strikes me is that everything in this photo could be used today without anyone finding it odd or archaic.

The easy jelly cake roll of 1934

1945's Recipes for Good Eating produced by Proctor and Gamble to sell Crisco puts an emphasis on home economics as a serious and scientific endeavor. We learn that:
The Crisco Kitchen is a practical sort of kitchen.  It has all the latest equipment and is staffed by well-trained Home Economists. But these women are more than scientific experts. They themselves keep house and understand the problems of preparing home cooked meals.
The cover of this 1945 cooking pamphlet depicts baking as a serious but homey endeavor being passed on to a daughter whose role as a replica of her mother is reinforced by the identical aprons they wear. 

I was fascinated with the meal suggestion of fried cold cuts in Recipes for Good Eating, from a recipe we might blanche over today, called Fried Meat Slices: "Slice luncheon meat, boiled tongue or bologna. Dredge slices with flour or coat with egg and crumbs. Fry in hot Crisco in skillet until brown on both sides."

The breaded and fried lunch meat in this photo looks thick to me. The directions in the pamphlet imply that women in the 1940s regularly bought lunch meat in chunks, such as a whole salami or half a bologna, and cut it themselves. This would allow for thicker slices than the paper thin ones we are accustomed to using. Of course, this photo may also illustrate working with tongue, a food utterly alien to me. 

In both 1945's  Favorite Recipes for Country Kitchens and Recipes for Good Eating we are presented with an idealized domestic world and photos that show little girls being indoctrinated  into a culture of female domesticity. This is an entirely white, northern European society, though undoubtedly girls of color learned cooking skills from older female relatives as well. In these books talk of industrial kitchens and scientific techniques are juxtaposed with homey images of daughters learning literally at their mother's apron strings.

The brightly colored ad idealized photo of a farm porch shows mother and daughter welcoming the men to dinner. There is more to serving a meal than just cooking the food.
In Favorite Recipes for the Country Kitchen a different girl watches carefully as her mother slices a Silver cake with Strawberry Fluff topping. Other food shown in this vivid two-page spread of "Whee--Good Food," includes glazed ham loaf,  tuna pie, vegetable ribbon mold, and fried chicken with biscuits and gravy. 

In a web post called "The Strange, Secret History of Betty Crocker" by Sam Worley, (https://www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/betty-crocker-history-100-greatest-home-cooks-in-america-article)  I learned that Majorie Child Husted was the inventor of--and seemingly model for-- Betty Crocker. One of the disillusionments of my teenage life (since my brother and I had spent many an afternoon making recipes from the Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook) was learning that Betty Crocker was not a real person, but a corporate creation. However, it was only in the last few weeks that I became interested in who was behind her: who, in essence she might be.

Majorie Child Husted

Like so many women of her era, such as Brownie Mae Humphrey Wise, who invented the Tupperware Party, Husted was largely responsible for the rise in her company's fortunes, though she was only paid a fraction of what the company's top salesman earned. (Wise, likewise, was unceremoniously fired as a liability for being a woman when Earl Tupper put the Tupperware company on the market.)

Later in life,  Husted wrote:
It is very interesting to me to look back now and realize how concerned I was about the welfare of women as homemakers and their feelings of self-respect. Women needed a champion. Here were millions of them staying at home alone, doing a job with children, cooking, cleaning on minimal budgets—the whole depressing mess of it. They needed someone to remind them they had value.
Husted, who would have been in her late 60s in 1959, and retired at the time, seems nevertheless to be the voice behind Betty Crocker's Guide to Easy Entertaining. I was shocked by this guide, with its first edition coming out in 1959, as it seemed utterly of another era--though it strains at the same time to try to adapt to "new" realities.

These "new" realities include, as outlined on the page above,"vastly" changed lives. Changes included smaller houses, as illustrated in the pictures above and below the Introduction, in which small single family homes have replaced the large townhouses above. Another change is the new world of caring for "our homes with little or no help," which has replaced the world of servants. (This is interesting difference from the earlier pamphlets, which assume no help at all.)

We also learn that "the five-day week is now standard in virtually all industries. Men have more time for fun and friends. So have women, even though so many are holding jobs as well as running their homes."

Much of this book's advice reflects the idealization that is standard, showing a picture of a domestic world as it might perfectly be, not as it is. It is hard to imagine too many women in 1959 being part of a social world that ever included a live-in maid. However, an ideal --or flattering portrait--might be to depict readers as coming from an elite social set that is brightly adapting to new, less luxurious realities. The true story is that most were  escaping joyfully to Levittown suburbs from dark, roach-infested, smelly, overcrowded urban apartments. So it is not hard to imagine this book pieced together from an earlier, more formal and elite guide, now pitched with dim awareness at a suburban audience.

In any case, we learn that it is acceptable for the modern hostess to remove dinner plates "two by two:" she is, after all, "not a maid," which means she does not have to remove plates one at a time from the right.

Elegant sandwich loaf for the Afternoon Tea you might be serving in 1959 in your Levittown home. 
Such statements that disavow having to remove plates one at time are perplexing. Do they represent a longing for a return to a time when (white) women will have maids again and need this tidbit of information? More likely, this represents a quick update of an older text that had become archaic.

Finally, in a complete switch from today, in the section "What do you do about guests with special diet problems?" some of the burden is put on the guest with special needs. We learn:

"It is not kind to ask a hostess, who has her hands fulls anyway, to prepare an entirely separate meal for one. It is even more unkind to refuse the party dishes she has gone to such trouble to prepare. In this case, it is better to say, "We are not dining out at all while Bob is on a limited diet, but we'd love to join you anytime you're planning an after-dinner party." 
This gives the hostess a chance to say, "We'll miss you--put will you join us after dinner?" ... or ... "We'll plan an evening together soon."

This quote, in which a guest is extorted to be thoughtful, brought me back to an article I read in a glossy Town and Country magazine in 2007, in which a renowned south of France hostess declared she had put her foot down after being confronted with too many special food needs: eat what I make or bring your own, she said in a blanket statement to all guests.

While I think it is sensitive to care for guests needs--and Betty Crocker does, too, as the anecdote before this one illustrates (in that, a hostess is relieved to learn of a guest's onion allergy so she can accommodate it)--I have also been thinking about this advice in light of mask wearing and Covid. The refusal to wear masks, though they are primarily helpful to protect others, especially the vulnerable, seems to be a symptom of a society that has veered too far in the direction of rampant selfishness. While much in these books seems archaic, Betty Crocker's desire that hostesses be considerate of their guests' needs and guests sensitive to their hostesses' needs seems the  kind of  baseline mutual courtesy needed for a civilized society to thrive.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Zizek, Pandemic, and World War I

Zizek, who has very quickly produced a book called Pandemic!, noted in an interview that the Covid crisis is a combination of 1918 (pandemic), 1932 (economic collapse), and 1968 (social unrest) all rolled into one. He also stated:
The life that they knew will not return. Both the left and the right don’t understand the reality of the epidemic, and refuse to accept the full consequences of it.
As  people are looking backwards for parallels as they look forward to possible futures, I feel inclined to jump into the fray.  World War I keeps popping into my mind--in other words, 1914--as a frame of reference, a touchstone year, more so than 1918, 1932, or 1968.

As historian David Stevenson writes in 2014 in "World War I and the 'Short War Illusion,'" when World War I began in 1914, there were runs on the British banking system and panic food buying, but many people thought the war would be over quickly--by late autumn or Christmas. Even after the war became literally entrenched, many clung to the hope it would soon end, what Stevenson calls "wishful thinking." Military commanders who knew the war would last longer hoped it would not last more than 18 months to two years and did not anticipate the catastrophic death rate.

An opulent way of life that had lasted many decades ended with World War I.
What interests me most about the World War I era--let us say 1914-1918, though 1920 might be a better end date--is how much life changed. As I was researching my Bonhoeffer book, I became aware of an endless trail of upper and middle class European lament about a culture that had been destroyed by the war, a world that to many seemed unshakeable. Interestingly and frustratingly, these laments assumed that none of what changed needed to be explained.

 This nostalgic mourning goes on for decades and is captured in Jean Renoir's 1938 film about World War I, The Grand Illusion, a movie anachronistic now but wildly embraced at the time. It paints a flattering, idealized, and nostalgic picture of international upper class solidarity and shared values from a "lost time" viewed through highly rose-colored classes. The idea that somehow life would spring back to "normal"--ie, the prewar model that was desirable for people of privilege--seems to have persisted up to about 1950.

The Grand Illusion: A nostalgic and idealized view of the World War I world.

I became interested in this, too, because of the unexplained evidences of change that occurred, say, in the life of Virgina Woolf. Before the war, she (and after her marriage, she and Leonard) lived comfortably on her inherited income. The money she earned writing book reviews was, before her marriage, her "mad" money, to be spent as she willed. She and her siblings, before her marriage, took months-long holidays  in the English countryside, repeating the pattern they grew up with, traveled to Europe, maintained homes with servants in downtown London, and seemed to do all of this financially effortlessly. By 1920, however, money has become a much more acute problem: the Woolfs needed Virginia's review income to live, trips to Europe were curtailed, and very tight budgets had become the order of the day. As Jane Harrison put it, the 1920s Woolfs were as "poor as rats."

In a fine, engaging new biography of Edith Nesbitt (The Life and Loves of Edith Nesbitt, by Eleanor Fitzsimon), much of what happened is spelled out in more detail. Though children's author Nesbitt continued to produce her books, money seemed to evaporate after 1914 to the point that this enterprising and always romantic minded woman was organizing growing and selling flowers at the end of her front yard (on a well-travelled route) and growing vegetables to survive.

While happened between 1914-18 was hyperinflation. At a certain point, the British government, completely broke but needing to finance a costly war, simply resorted to printing money. The country was supposedly on the gold standard, but, out of resources, it bought armaments with paper that had no gold to back it up. This led to rapid inflation as cash with literally no value flooded into the society. The inherited incomes that once sustained comfortable lives lost purchase power--and never fully recovered.  The trauma was so deep and widespread that nobody at the time needed to explain it: it was understood. 

On the principle that reality imitates art, I keep thinking of Dr. Zhivago. The Russian Revolution was the direct outcome of a wealthy and out of touch, utterly incompetent wannabe strongman  (Czar Nicholas II's) mismanagement of World War I. A fraud like Rasputin is not so far off from the "advisors" around our great leader today. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Nicholas II, and Donald Trump are the result of putting an out-of-touch elite in charge and allowing reality to take a back seat to wishful fantasies. 

Right now, we are in a moment when, as in 1914, we think this crisis will pass quickly. From the resurgence of disease the reopening is causing, it seems instead that the pandemic might be the beginning of something that will last far longer than we think.

Adding to stress, Covid is coming on top of the fact that in the U.S. we haven't recovered yet (not for the average person) from the 2008 stock market crash. Many of us have been longing for the pre-2008 world to reemerge, or to use a better metaphor, for the ship drifting off course for 12 years  to get turned back so it can start steaming toward that distant shore. Now it looks like that ship has been blown by hurricane a thousand miles the other way. 

On the other hand, life is endlessly surprising--and as a friend says, this is a moment to live in the Now and appreciate all it has to offer. On the positive side too, if old systems come tumbling down, we have a chance to build a more earth-friendly world, one that may make our carbon-based present economy seem as barbaric (and unnecessary)  as the slave owning past. It is also worth noting that the pre-World War I had a belief in progress that the war undid: maybe our own crisis will undo persistent dystopic visioning and show that life can get better.

Friday, June 12, 2020

L'ecriture humaine: Hamlet's pacifist subtext: two kings' fight for land

In Act I scene 1 of Hamlet, Shakespeare's begins his startling pacifist subtext. Part of what makes the opening so ominous is Claudius' war preparation. The two palace guards stand uneasy on dark, eery, misty castle ramparts late at night, knowing that the world is changing but not what any of it means. They realize that the more powerfully connected Horatio will have information. When he arrives, they ask him about the feverish arms build up while hoping that he will validate the existence of a ghost.

Horatio explains the background. Fortinbras, king of Norway, dared Hamlet (Hamlet's father), king of Denmark, to hand-to-hand combat over a piece of land. The loser was to forfeit the contested territory. King Hamlet won by killing King Fortinbras. Now, however, that both kings are dead, Fortinbras' son Fortinbras is marching with an army to avenge his father and regain the small territory. 

This is a remarkable story, one that seems a fantasia. How often have people asked: why not save all the suffering and bloodshed of war by having the leaders of two countries fight to settle a dispute? The thinking is that if they had to risk their own lives, world leaders would be less likely to jump into conflicts. Beyond that, how much easier, how much less horrible, to have disputes settled this way? 

Here, Shakespeare gives full reign to this fantasy as part of the play's prehistory.

David' Oath of the Horatii shows the mourning of the women.

While there are no modern equivalents to two kings settling a dispute through hand-to-hand combat, there is an ancient one of proxy warfare. Livy tells the story of the Roman king and the Sabine dictator deciding to avoid a war through a fight to the death between six of their warriors. The Romans send out their three Horatii to fight the three Sabine Curiatii. Rome wins.  The peace lasts as long as a peace usually does.

Moving back to Hamlet we learn, too, in these early scenes, that Hamlet's ghost is suffering terrible torments in purgatory as his sins are burned away. If he were allowed to speak of them, he tells Hamlet, the torments  would stand Hamlet's hair on end. This offer a contrasting portrait of his father from the one Hamlet presents. Hamlet describes his father as  a Hyperion--a sun god--in contrast to the oversexed, animalistic "satyr" of Claudius. Yet Hamlet senior's own testimony suggests he has much to atone for--while at the same time, perhaps it is commendable when a king, unable to repent of sins before death, ends up in purgatory rather than hell.

By the end of the play, Hamlet has achieved an inner peace. What he considers his miraculous escape from death at the hands of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in England leads him to believe that a benign God has the world in his hands. For the first time, Hamlet rests easy. He tells Horatio:

...  our deep plots do pall, and that should teach us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will—

The deep plots that do pall or pale or fail are Claudius' against Hamlet. God, Hamlet thinks, is on his side and protecting him. He does not, as people don't when God' grace seems to fall on them, question why God would favor them but kill others. Hamlet doesn't wonder that God allows Rosencrantz or Guildenstern--or for that matter his own father--to die. His own sense of divine protection is enough.

Hamlet does not kill Claudius until he realizes Claudius has poisoned Gertrude by letting her drink from the poisoned chalice meant for Hamlet. As it has been throughout the play, only the threat Claudius poses to his mother can motivate Hamlet to kill a fellow royal.

A subversively peaceful subtext run through Hamlet. Two kings fight to the death over a piece of land to spare their armies the bloody cost of battle. A prince who loves his murdered father loathes the idea of avenging his death. When this prince tries to use the example of a fellow prince marching on his country to inspire himself to revenge, he ends, instead, profoundly questioning waging a war for something as fragile as honor. Being a prince, Hamlet is inherently a dangerous individual because of the power put into his hands. At the same time, the soul of this prince, self-deluded as it is, longs for peace. Through him, Shakespeare encourages us to question vengeance, warfare, and privilege--and to dream of a world in which princes would fight for land themselves rather than putting armies in the field.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

L'ecriture humaine: Hamlet's pacifist subtext and the problem of the prince

I held off posting this because it seemed frivolous against the George Floyd killing, but the more I thought about it, the more I understood Shakespeare's meditation on the relationship between murder and power is relevant for our times. Floyd's killer had too  much power to kill with impunity. Floyd, like those Hamlet killed, was dehumanized. 

Hamlet as a character doesn't cohere in ways I would like.  

In Hamlet's character, Shakespeare created, on the one hand, an introspective, sensitive, and humane prince who deeply questions and critiques the revenge and war ethic. By doing so, Shakespeare played a double game in this play, writing a revenge tragedy that would satisfy his audience's desire for bloodlust while at the same time undermining the bloodlust ethic.

This Delacroix painting captures the reality of Polonius as a person.

Yet while Hamlet is his vehicle for critiquing violence, Hamlet turns into a heartless killer. Hamlet murders Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius as he hides behind a tapestry ("arras")  in Gertrude's room.  Later, Hamlet orchestrates the deaths of courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Why, one wonders, did Shakespeare turn revenge-averse Hamlet into a murderer?

Notably,  Hamlet does not have a problem killing people of lower rank. His hesitancy comes into play only when it is a matter of killing a person of his own status.

Hamlet is callous towards both Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In terms of Polonius's murder, it is possible that Hamlet, who has most likely hallucinated, rather than actually seen, Claudius' ghost in Gertrude's room, is half mad at the moment he strikes, hardly knowing what he is doing.

Yet even the calmer Hamlet disparages rather than shows compassion for the dead courier. In Act three, scene 4, he says to Gertrude:

I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room. ... Indeed this counselor... was in life a foolish prating knave.

Hamlet contrasts Polonius' still serenity in death to his foolish chatter in life. By doing so,  Hamlet implies Polonius is better off dead. He also, at this moment, implies he will deal harshly and cold-bloodedly towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are accompanying him to England--even though he notes they are childhood companions, individuals he knows and for whom one might imagine he would feel some empathy. He states, however, that he plans to punish them for being the willing tools of Claudius, hoisting them with their own petard:
For ’tis the sport to have the engineer/Hoist with his own petard. And ’t shall go hard

In Act V, scene 2, having returned from his off scene trip, he explains to Horatio how he tricked the two courtiers. He opened and read the letter Claudius sent with them in their pouch. In the letter, unbeknownst to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Claudius called for Hamlet to be immediately beheaded upon landing on English soil. Hamlet, who has his father's royal signet ring with him, rewrites the letter to turn the tables: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to be killed, without even time to "shrive" or repent of their sins, but be put to "sudden death."

In ruminating about this, Hamlet says that the two courtiers are "not near my conscience." They deserve what they get, he says, because they "made love" to their profession. Essentially, he is indifferent to their deaths. He argues that they brought it on themselves:

Their defeat /Does by their own insinuation grow.
He states that when "baser" natures come between "mighty opposites" they get what they deserve. 

Ironically, this images affirms the humanity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, something Hamlet cannot do. 

In having Hamlet say that he and Claudius are mighty opposites amid baser people, Shakespeare highlights the problems and psychopathy of princedom, as well as the strong identity Hamlet feels with Claudius that his conscious mind wants to deny. Hamlet might hesitate to kill someone as royal as he is--and he might hesitate to sacrifice an army to gain a small conquest--but he shows his ruthless belief in his royal prerogative to kill when it comes to the little people around him.

Why would Shakespeare do this? One argument might be that  he wants to show that Hamlet is deteriorating as the play goes on. Hamlet moves from passion killing to coldblooded murder, plotted as Claudius might have done, because the disease and corruption of the Danish court has started to infect him. 

But another, more compelling answer is suggested by Tolstoy, who, writing not about Shakespeare but the artist in general, asserts in Anna Karenina that the true artist is:

inspired directly by what is within the soul, without caring whether what is painted [or written] will belong to any recognized school [genre].

Shakespeare did clearly care about genre. But he went deeper than genre, as Tolstoy did, telling the truth as he saw it. A truth he knew--and makes clear in many of his plays--is that princes are inherently dangerous. Shakespeare uses Hamlet the prince to articulate what is within his writer's soul--a distaste for revenge and violence and a belief that the powerful, buttressed by ideologies of bloodlines and far too much power, are inherently dangerous. In Hamlet, Shakespeare leaves us with a dilemma: those with the most power to end the violence plaguing humankind are those most hardwired to justify their own use of violence. In this ragged, brilliant play, Shakespeare makes us uneasy by raising more questions than answers.

Friday, May 22, 2020

L'Ecriture Humaine: Schitt's Creek as the humane

“The essence of egalitarianism is rejection of the idea that one person has the right to exercise power over another.” Samuel Huntington 

"It didn't matter what the words were; or who sang what. Round and round they whirled, intoxicated by the music.” Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts. 

Much of the series' action takes place in the Cafe Tropical, which is very much like the restaurants I know in my rural area. In fact, although the setting is deliberately vague, I was sure it was set in rural Ohio, evidence of how well the show nails small town life today.

I wrote earlier about the series Schittt's Creek as pastoral: (https://janeaustenandotherwriters.blogspot.com/2020/04/journal-of-plague-year-schitts-creek-as.html). Now that I have finished all six seasons, I would like to laud the show in more general terms: I simply can't recommend it too highly. Lara Zarum, writing for The New York Times, sums it up as:

Sweet but never saccharine, the show has tracked the evolution of the Roses — who arrived in Schitt’s Creek full of disdain, with nothing but the couture on their backs — as they’ve been absorbed into the tiny town in the boonies
The formerly wealthy Roses, Johnny, Moira, and their adult children David and Alexis, come to love their adopted home, a sharp contrast to some of their snobbish friends back east. The Roses mature (or renew in the case of the older generation).  They thrive as the family grows closer. They also grow as individuals in their new and humbler home. The series has a special resonance for me as I made a similar move with my family to small town America 12 years ago. I also have been changed by the experience in profound and positive ways. I can connect with Catherine O'Hara, who plays family matriarch Moira, when she says of the series' characters, "it's like we're aliens learning to be humans." I too learned to become more human--and humane--living in a new and quieter place.

 I am delighted this show got off the ground and has become a slo-mo hit. A documentary at the end of season six highlights, too, what I hadn't fully noticed: that the series has become a beacon to the LGBTQ community because of its matter-of-fact depiction of a loving relationship between two men as something natural, not angst-ridden. I found it heart-warming on the documentary to see the show's embrace by the LGBTQ community.

Patrick (Noah Reid) and David (Daniel Levy) have a loving relationship.  

The community and family support David and Patrick in a very natural way. 

I also registered the degree to which the fan devotion depicted in the documentary shows a hunger for kindness. And this gets to the heart of the show. It has been nominated for four Emmys, is beautifully acted and scripted, and thoughtful in developing characters, but the main point is its modeling of  kindness and compassion--and a profound equalitarianism--in human relations. It is an exemplar of l'ecriture humaine. And all of this is managed in a non-syrupy way that nonetheless can bring a tear to the eye.

Notably, according to Zarum, the series was turned down by all the U.S. broadcast and cable networks before the producers were able to "cobble together" funding from CBC (Canadian Broadcasting) with a distribution agreement from Europe's ITV Studios. "Finally," as Zarum says, a word that can be read as a sigh, Pop, a U.S. for-pay television channel signed on.

Moira (Catherine O'Hara) in town hall. One of my surprises was finding out that the clothing, which I had thought was an overtop parody of designer clothing, was actual designer clothing, another evidence that the rich are not like you and me. The program budgeted for couture fashion to avoid having to tell people in every episode that the Roses had fallen from wealth.

I am not surprised that all the major US outlets refused the series: in fact, I would have been surprised if it were otherwise. The innate, gentle humanity of the show would be anathema to the backers of such psychopathically hard-hearted mini-series as "Game of Thrones" and "West World" or some of the cruel sitcoms out there. Yet, as is so often the case, marginalization was a boon for the show. The series developed under the radar, largely unnoticed--as if, in fact, the Levys were in Schitt's Creek. As Zarum notes:

Levy says the show’s distance from the Hollywood hoopla gives him a certain level of freedom as a storyteller. “We operate very much in an isolated bubble up in Canada,” he said. 

I copy below four New York Times' commenters' comments, all surprisingly non-acerbic for the Times:

"I'm so obsessed with the show that I had a "Fold in the Cheese!" apron made up for holiday cooking. I found it marvelously funny from the first episode, but what caught me off guard is how I first cried at the end of Season 2, which turned to occasional blubbering in Season 3, and now I'm often a mess watching the stories unfold.
The very rare program that lets the characters grow in a natural and organic way, but retains each of their very distinct personalities and quirks as they expand to become more fully realized people.
It's also extremely significant because it's the first example I can remember in any television or film program that accurately depicts an LGBT romance/relationship as they so often are in real life...no big deal. There is no exaggeration, no heightened parody, no big statements. Just people being people and those around them embracing them for it. The portrayal is long overdue and means the world to so many of us." John 

 Honestly, this show has saved our sanity as we turn from the insanity of our politics and fear and tune in to this wonderful series.  This past season was poignant, heartfelt and just magical...I talk this show up to everyone who will listen to me.  We will miss them. Darby Stevens 

 “The show really has gotten us through the darkest time I can remember in our politics, and I'm Catherine O'Hara's age [60s].  Maybe we'll survive after all." Neenee

“The show is superbly written, no wasted dialog, respectful of each character, exquisitely funny and no inane laugh track to tell is what to think." Mike
The Roses live in a motel. One of my students, also down on her luck though she had not ever fallen from wealth, lived in a very similar hotel. I would drive her home after class because although she had recently had brain surgery (fortunately she had Medicaid) and could easily get dizzy and fall down, she could not afford a car. In other words, how the Roses end up living, though it can seem fantastic, is reality for many Americans--though most don't have the Roses' background. 

The series is an example of how l'ecriture humaine transcends the snobbish. Using Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, and EM Forster as exemplars of l'ecriture humaine can leave the false impression that this kind of writing is only the province of a certain type of literature and only for a certain kind of person, when nothing could be further from the truth. Part of this project is to go past pretty wrappings to the core of what a humane literature and media is.

Twyla (Sarah Levy) and Moira in the Tropical Cafe. The Levy family is responsible for the series and three of them, including Sarah, star in it.

Past blogs have shown that a l'ecriture humaine highlights the domestic, the circular, the point-of-view of the underdog, the empathetic, the rejection of ritual humiliation, and the equalitarian. Schitt's Creek has all of these attributes. What especially moves me is its radical equalitarianism--unlike a show such as Downtown Abbey, which celebrates a hierarchical society, there is no hierarchical pecking order in Schitt's Creek. We even learn something at the end about Twyla, the waitress, that makes it impossible to slot her into a 'lesser' category. When this ending first emerged, I thought it ludicrous, then realized it is a part of the radical vision of the show, which consciously or not,  creates a world where all people are equal. Pastoral and visionary literature thus merge.

Some will possibly reject the series for a few disgusting or raunchy gags, especially at the beginning. That would be a mistake in my opinion, but to each their own.

Monday, May 18, 2020

L'Ecriture Humaine: Hamlet's pacifist subtext

For a society in desperate need of rediscovering its moral center, Shakespeare stands out as a key articulator of human decency.  Yet though Shakespeare's humanity sometimes leaps from his work,  sometimes it is obscured. Hamlet, for example, a highly jagged, problematic play, veils its critique of revenge and war. The long version we have--four and half hours performed in its entirety--reflects Shakespeare's struggles, never-resolved, with this play's contradictions.

Hamlet is ripped apart as the play opens with grief over his father's death, angered and stunned at his mother's quick remarriage, and thrown into horror by his father's ghost's revelations.  In an overt reading, Hamlet enacts justice when he finally kills his father's --and mother's--cold-blooded murderer. Yet alternative ideas about revenge can be found  through the stories embedded within Hamlet that take us winding into the classical world in a way that undermines an overt reading. 

Two stories alluded to in the play highlight two possible responses to vengeance. In the first, in Act II, scene ii, Hamlet chats with the players who arrive at the castle. He starts a speech given about Pyrrhus, Achilles' son. Pyrrhus, entering the Trojan horse as part of the ploy to defeat Troy, is out for vengeance anyway he can get it, and his description in Hamlet lives up to his bloodthirsty reputation. 

European paintings heroize Pyrrhus, though modern readers often speculate that he was literature's first psychopath. Here, in a detail from an urn that is called "Pyrrhus kills Priam" we see the slaughter of Trojan women and children that was part of Pyrrhus' murderous rampage. I have not found, however, an image of him coated in bloody  gore baked onto his body or with blazing red eyes.  
Pyrrhus has coated himself in the thick, congealed blood of the dead: fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons. Further, he has lit fires in the streets to bake and paste the thick layer of blood to his flesh. He is "roasted in wrath and fire." He has been made larger with the bloody gore he has pasted to himself, and his eyes burn like red stones. This is a terrifying and dehumanized picture of rage and bloodlust:

Now is he total gules, horridly tricked/With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons/Baked and impasted with the parching streets, /That lend a tyrannous and damnèd light, /And thus o'ersizèd with coagulate gore, /With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus /Old grandsire Priam seeks.

The First Player then picks up the story and describes  how the merciless "tyrant" Pyrrhus, driven by fury, hacks the hapless Priam to death, dishonoring his body:

Pyrrhus at Priam drives, in rage strikes wide, /But with the whiff and wind of his fell swordThe unnerved father falls. Then senseless Ilium, /Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top /Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash

 /Takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear. For, lo, his sword, /Which was declining on the milky head /Of reverend Priam, seemed i' th' air to stick. /So as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood ...

This is a picture of mad revenge. 

The second allusion to revenge comes when Hamlet asks Polonius in Act III scene 2, as they are getting ready to watch the Mousetrap play, if he has ever acted. Polonius says that as a university student:  “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’the capitol/Brutus killed me.” This foreshadows Polonius' death at the hands of Hamlet. But it also brings to mind Brutus’s father. This elder Brutus was murdered despite having been promised safe passage after surrendering to Pompey. The younger Brutus, the friend of Caesar,  never avenges his father’s death. He believes it would be better for Rome to let revenge go and put the needs of his country ahead of of the "dishonor" of his private domestic situation. 

Since Hamlet will later enact the role of Brutus in killing Polonius, he is explicitly identified with Brutus--a figure who does not enact revenge. 

Hamlet looks beyond the arras to see the body of Polonius, who he has just accidentally killed. 

Hamlet himself is a problematic character. Critics have often depicted him as the figure of indecision, while others, such as Rene Girard in The Theater of Envy, defend Hamlet for his humanity in thinking carefully and seeking confirmation before killing a man on the basis of the words of a ghost. As Girard notes in "Hamlet's Dull Revenge:"
Should our enormous critical literature on Hamlet someday fall into the hands of people otherwise ignorant of our mores, they could not fail to conclude that our academic tribe must have been a savage breed, indeed. After four centuries of controversies, Hamlet’s temporary reluctance to commit murder still looks so outlandish to us that more and more books are being written in an unsuccessful effort to solve the mystery. The only  way to account for this curious body of literature is to suppose that back in the 20th century no more was needed than the request of some ghost, and the average professor of literature would massacre his entire household without batting an eyelash.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare has Hamlet raise profound and important questions about a revenge and violence ethic.

Painters gravitate to the same scenes from Hamlet, such as this one in which Hamlet, in the graveyard, looks at Yorick's skull. At this point, Hamlet has begun to feel at peace about his destiny. 

Hamlet, from the start, in his heart of hearts doesn't want to to kill Claudius. He doesn't like Claudius, but that doesn't equate to a desire to murder him. In fact, the ghost's revelations only intensify Hamlet's suicidal ideation, turning his aggressions inward. His reluctance to mirror the bloodthirsty killing behavior of his uncle continues even into Act IV.

In Act IV, scene 4, while he is waiting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to board a ship to England, Hamlet meets one of Fortinbras' captains and asks him what is going on. Fortinbras has been threatening since the play began to march on Denmark in revenge for perceived wrongs done against his own father. The captain tells Hamlet bluntly that Fortinbras is asking for safe passage so he can march an army across to Denmark to reclaim a worthless strip of land:
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it.

Hamlet wonders about this, and yet attempts to use Fortinbras as a role model to motivate himself to avenge his father's death. He castigates himself for his indecision, calling himself a coward for overthinking the act of revenge. But the more he tries to hold up Fortinbras as a model, the more his words show that he, at least subconsciously, thinks his counterpart is a monster. Hamlet says that Fortinbras is risking many lives for what is no more substantial than an "eggshell:" 

 Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare/Even for an eggshell. 
Hamlet then defines being "great"  in the conventional terms of his society, but as he does so, he inadvertently speaks a double language. Hamlet defines greatness as  to quarrel over nothing --"a straw"-- for the sake of "honor." This idea of greatness is palpably absurd: 

... greatly to find quarrel in a straw/When honor’s at the stake.

Hamlet nevertheless continues to try to bury his doubts about violence by comparing himself to Fortinbras and wondering how he, Hamlet, can continue to "sleep:" 

How stand I then, /That have a father killed, a mother stained, /Excitements of my reason and my blood, /And let all sleep ...

Hamlet once again uses language that reveals that he thinks it is ridiculous to gamble with the deaths of 20,000 men for a "fantasy." He states that the number of lives Fortinbras is risking are more than could be buried on the land they are being asked to take, underscoring the absurdity of his rival's  quest:
 The imminent death of twenty thousand men, /That for a fantasy and trick of fame /Go to their graves like beds, /fight for a plot /Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, /Which is not tomb enough and continent/To hide the slain?

Using Fortinbras as a template, Hamlet decides he will stick to "bloody" thoughts. Tellingly, however, he does not break from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his powerless courtier companions, to return to the castle and immediately kill Claudius. Instead, he boards a ship to England, putting a sea between himself and Claudius--an astonishing negation of all he has  just declared in his soliloquy.

Hamlet doesn't come to "peace" with himself until he arrives in England. As Girard notes, he caught between a Christian and a pagan ethic in a culture where the two rest uneasily side by side. Girard is wrong, however, in seeing Hamlet as simply an imitator of other vengeful sons around him: Hamlet is not slavishly following the model of Laertes--or Fortinbras--in seeking revenge. Hamlet is his own person.

As he so often does (see, eg, Henry V, act four, scene 1) Shakespeare uses the bloodthirsty imagery of heroic language to undercut and point out the barbarism of his culture's notions of heroism. In weaving into Hamlet the story of monstrous Pyrrhus--and waving red flags at this story with a long quote from it--and by including a long soliloquy in which Hamlet cluelessly lays bare the barbarism of the very honor code he vows (but fails) to uphold--Shakespeare critiques the conventional ethics of the "great." He even goes so far as to gesture toward a figure in the pagan world--Brutus--who defines honor in a way that defies the revenge and violence ethic.

This will bring us to the next blog. For all his anguish over revenge, is distaste for violence, and a thoughtful, sensitive nature, Hamlet is also a prince--and this leads him to kill.  High rank mars this most introspective of characters.