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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The laughing dancing ducking Miss Austen: Persuasion, eyesight and Admiral Croft


Intrigued by Arnie Perlstein's argument that Anne Eliot has poor eyesight in Persuasion, I looked back at the scene where Anne runs into Admiral Croft staring at the ship print in the shop window. This seemed an apt starting point for testing the theory: surely, if Anne can see details of a painting in a shop window, that would suggest her eyesight is acute.

Admiral Croft gazing into the shop window. I love this because of the cat.

Not for the first time on revisiting Austen, I was impressed with her artistry. She sets up the scene without missing a beat. We learn, right before Anne runs into Admiral Croft staring at the print, that every day, Lady Russell takes her out for a carriage drive. On these drives, Anne "never failed to think of them [the Crofts], and never failed to see them." Austen writes that it:

"was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could, delighted to fancy she understood what they might talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral's hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe the eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her."

This paints an utterly charming "picture of happiness." I love the "little knot of the navy" phrase, as we think of naval people as great knotters of ropes. On first glance (no pun intended), it certainly seems as if Anne sees perfectly well. Yet I am one who, like a handful of others, including Arnie, believes in a double text or alternative story, and given that, I understand how this lovely vignette could be read both ways. It all hinges on the word "picture." Is Anne really literally seeing this scene or is it a "picture of happiness" (after all, "happiness" is an abstract concept) painted in her imagination?

The "picture of happiness" in the Crofts that Anne likes to imagine. Does she really see it?


The word fancy means to imagine in 19th century England, as it does today, but while we might use fancy and imagination interchangeably, in that period fancy held a connotation of weaving a fantasy. Wordsworth, for instance, distinguishes between fancies and imaginings in The Prelude, with fancies more far-fetched, perhaps involving wizards or fairies. When Anne "delighted to fancy" what the Crofts said to each other, this indicates that can't hear them and thus is weaving their conversations wholly from her own mind. What she sees from the carriage window--the possibly blurry scene of the Crofts walking--"equally delighted" her: is it, in reality, as fanciful?

I think its not by accident that Anne runs into Admiral Croft when she does--we know she has been hoping to meet with the Crofts and there is that mysterious (and in Austen always red flag type of throwaway phrase): "about a week or ten days after the Croft's arrival, it SUITED HER [ANNE] BEST TO LEAVE HER FRIEND, OR HER FRIEND'S CARRIAGE ... and return alone to Camden Place." We are not told why it "suited" Anne to do this, but we might surmise it would be to encounter the Crofts and learn whether Wentworth is engaged to Lousia--and lo and behold, right away she stumbles on Admiral Croft.

Anne sees Admiral Croft "staring at a picture." She obviously can see well enough, even if near-sighted, to discern this. The word "picture," occurring so soon after Anne's thought of "picture of happiness" about the Crofts, might lead us to believe that the apparently real picture of the Crofts that Anne sees from the carriage is just as much an imaginative (and distorted) picture as the picture of the boat. Croft calls the boat a "cockleshell"--which means a flimsy ship--ready to capsize. However, a cockleshell also stands for a cuckold, as in the nursery rhyme "Mary, Mary quite contrary." Some have interpreted the "cockleshells" in that rhyme to mean Mary Queen of Scots was cheated on by her husband. (See Wikipedia's entry on the nursery rhyme: some printed 18th century editions replaced "cockleshells" with "cuckolded.") Significantly, too, we don't witness Anne seeing the ship--we witness her HEARING Admiral Croft describe it.

The color version of the scene above. Note that Anne looks at Admiral Croft, not the ship print.
After this, Anne and Admiral Croft promenade together along the street. He takes her arm, saying "I do not feel comfortable if I do not have a woman there." Croft's running dialogue tells Anne what is going on, not Anne's own eyes, lending further credence to the impaired eyesight theory. The running dialogue from Admiral Croft, rather than Anne, describes and also interprets the scene. We should be suspicious. Croft tells us that "Brigden stares to see anyone with me but my wife," and notes Drew (hhm sounds like drew a picture): "Look, he sees us; he kisses his hand to you; he takes you for my wife." Then we get the repetition of the idea of Anne not being Mrs. Croft: "as she was not really Mrs. Croft..." she has to bide her time for Admiral Croft to spill his news.

Admira Croft and Anne walk arm-in-arm in Bath.


In the overt story, this is simply a lovely scene showing Anne--and the reader--kept in inadvertent suspense by a kindly man about news she is yearning to have. But it also adds up in the covert story to bad eyesight. Why otherwise would Admiral Croft have to say to Anne that Drew "kisses his hand to you?" In the overt story, he is simply making cheerful and pointless conversation. In the covert story, he knows she can't see well. And further, if Anne actually is only painting distorted mental pictures of the Crofts (like the distorted boat), of the two out together happily (because she can't see well at all and only sees a blur), what if she is seeing Adm. Croft on the arms of other women and yet weaving her own fantasy of domestic happiness? Maybe Adm. Croft is a womanizer--he starts off by saying he doesn't feel comfortable without "a woman" on his arm--and perhaps people are staring, not for the reasons Admiral Croft supplies, but because they want to take in his latest possible paramour?

Also, we have to rely on Adm Croft's word that Mrs. Croft is not with him because of a blister on her foot: this is the kind of detail easily overlooked, but one we might want to fact check as the story emerges. As it happens, Mrs. Croft's blister never comes up again, and by the time we see her again, she is fine.

Working against the sight-impaired theory however, is the following scene, just a few pages later. Anne, her sister and Mrs. Clay have taken cover in Mollards, a shop, against a rainfall. We learn that

Anne, as she sat near the window, descried, most decidedly and distinctly, Captain Wentworth walking down the street.
If she is badly short-sighted, how can she see Wentworth "most decidedly and distinctly?" But, of course, she doesn't see him, she "descries" him, a word that means, according to dictionary.com, "to see (something unclear or distant) by looking carefully; discern; espy." A secondary meaning is "to discover, perceive, detect." The dictionary's suitably nautical example is "The lookout descried land." So to descry something can mean to see it hazily in the distance, but can also mean to perceive or detect. We are told that Anne "descried" Wentworth "most decidedly and distinctly." Is that literally possible on a rainy day, through shop a window, or does it suggest a more intuitive perception or  ability to discern him distinctly without needing to see him clearly? It would make sense to look more carefully into what descry connoted in the Regency and if Austen uses it elsewhere.

Not enough attention is placed on intertextual links between the novels or the way they might function as a metatext. If we look back at Mansfield Park, we see that admirals don't come off well. While it's possible that Mary Crawford exaggerates about the rears and vices of her uncle's naval friends, we know she is staying with her half-sister because her uncle has brought a mistress under his roof, rendering her former home no longer respectable and forcing her into her country exile. Could not our only admiral in this novel be cut from a similar cloth, and our characters blinded because each for their own reasons has an incentive to think well of him? 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Inkle and Yarico: Notes from a Conference

Islands, the theme of this year's College English Association conference, inspired papers on the relationship of utopias to islands. Islands often function as the space "out there," the original Atlantis or the imagined Avalon, places more perfect than our current locations. While in some ways the concreteness of the island theme-- as opposed to more abstract themes from prior years such as "imagination" or "borders"--could interfere with papers, it also led to many rich explorations.


An 18th century depiction of "islanders"

One speaker explored artistic representations of the story of Inkle and Yarico,  popularized by Richard Steele in "An Ekphrastic Interlude," in The Spectator 13 March 1711. It remained a famous tale throughout the 18th century. 




The Spectator version follows, based on a true story:

Thomas Inkle, shipwrecked in the Americas, was befriended by the  Indian maid, Yarico. The two became lovers, and Inkle promised to marry Yarico if she would help him escape to England. He said he would dress her in silk gowns and promised her all the good life civilization offered. She hailed a ship, the two boarded it, it arrived at Barbados and there Inkle immediately moved to sell Yarico into slavery. She revealed she was pregnant with his child, begging him for this reason not to sell her, but he used this information to raise her price and proceeded with the sale. After all, as Steele explains, he was a "prudent and frugal" young man.

Inkle and Yarico: she protected him. He sold her.


While Frank Felsenstein, the presenter, gave out a photocopy of the Steele version of the story, I lost it, so was pleased when I got home to find it in one of my collected volumes of The Spectator. In this essay, Steele frames "Inkle and Yarico" as the response of a lady, Arietta, to a male's derisive telling of Petronius's "The Widow of Ephesus," a tale of female inconstancy. In this story, a woman is mourning her dead husband in an underground tomb. Bodies of disgraced, "hanged" (crucified) criminals are nearby, and a guard watches over them so that their families can't steal the bodies and bury them. The guard brings the widow food, and soon the two are in love. Unfortunately, the guard spends so much time in the tomb with the lady that a family is able to steal back a body. Rather than lose her new lover to punishment for neglecting his job, the widow gives him the body of her dead husband to crucify in place of the missing corpse. This is held up as an example of female fickleness, annoying to Arietta, who, Steele dryly comments, like most women "out of a nicer Regard to their Honour, or what other Reason I cannot tell, are more sensibly touched by those Aspersions which are cast upon their Sex, than Men are by what is said of theirs."

Arietta counters the Petronius tale with the story of saga of Inkle and Yarico. Clearly, the point is made: the betrayal and sale of a living woman is far worse than using a dead body to help someone out of a jam.

Felsenstein used slides to show how artists represented the Inkle and Yarico story. It was, for example, turned into poems and included in a 1750's book of poetry, written more than once into a play, translated into other languages, put on an American coin and painted on vases and Wedgewood plaques. This ubiquitous tale was even used to illustrate the letter Y in an 1811 children's alphabet book, with Yarico shown partially dressed.



The abolition movement, nonexistent in 1711 but gaining steam as the century progressed, adopted Yarico, and for obvious reasons began to represent her as increasingly africanized rather than Native American. As with Uncle Tom's Cabin, her story was increasingly ridiculed in the 19th century after slavery was abolished. 

Felsenstein cited an article by WJT Mitchell on "Ekphrasis and the Other," which connects ekphrasis, the depiction of art in literature, to female otherness by arguing that we privilege speech over visual representation in the culture, and thus the ekphratic object is subject to the male gaze and must rely on others as its voice.While at first glance this does not seem to relate to Yarico, as clearly images of her carried a powerful narrative force in their own right and became a shorthand for abolition, Yarico becomes reduced to an object under Inkle's gaze. Inkle sees Yarico not as fully human but as a thing whose use value changes based on context and whose worth is framed by his own needs. Given that the story is situated within a proto-feminist debate about the sexes in Steele's telling, one wonders if the saga would have played out the same way if Inkle had been a woman and Yarico a man: would a white female Inkle have sold her deliverer into slavery? Interestingly too, the Steele story emphasizes the mesmerizing effect on Yarico of Inkle's long, beautiful locks of hair: Mitchell makes much of the gaze of the snake-haired Medusa, leading to the idea that Yarico was perhaps hypnotized by Inkle's sexual power, tragically mistaking it for love and compassion.

As an interesting parallel, another paper on the panel discussed the use of animals in Robinson Crusoe, arguing that Defoe reveals a complex and sympathetic relationship to animals in his novel, putting pressure on the abstract distinction between humans and animals. Crusoe initially relies on animals for companionship, and feels compassion and empathy towards them. However, these emotions battle with his desire to establish a hierarchy and exploit animals: in the end, as with Inkle, prudence and frugality win and Crusoe uses animals for his own benefit. Perhaps we need to reevaluate prudence and frugality as virtues?

Crusoe and his parrot


One must imagine that Jane Austen was familiar with the story of Inkle and Yarico, and that she had probably read the Steele account, with its pro-women framing. She was no stranger to the idea of women thrown under the bus--or carriage wheels--in the interest of prudence and frugality. Certainly Sense and Sensibility shows the gradual reduction of John Dashwood's sisters to objects willingly sacrificed, with the urging of his wife, to "prudence and frugality."

Finally, as eco-feminists point out, treatment of animals is related to treatment of women, and, as we know, women are often derisively characterized as animals, revealing the contempt in which both are held. Arguably, humane treatment of animals is related to humane treatment of women, and leaders who refer to women as cows and pigs are not behaving innocently. I certainly wouldn't dishonor animals by likening them to some of our revered heads of state. 





Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hannah Arendt and the opposition of violence and power

Given how violence-saturated our culture continues to be and how wedded we are in the U.S. to thinking of violence as the only viable form of power, it's refreshing--and  important-- to read Arendt argue that violence is the antithesis of power. She and Audre Lorde think along similar lines: that power arises through community or the deep relationship building that Lorde called erotics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Quaker Thomas Kelly also advocated the formation of strong, deep (in their cases, spiritual) community as the key to speaking truth to power. It's also notable that all but Lorde formed their convictions about community in response to the shattering ultra violence and worship of violence that characterized the Nazi regime (and is now characterizing many of those in political power in this country).

It's important that we not accept, even if half consciously,  the canard that violence is the only form or the best form of power, despite that message being dunned into our heads over and over through the propaganda machine, including the fictional culture (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Westworld, etc). People keep noting the peaceful nature of the women's marches last Saturday: that's obviously important. Any whiff of violence simply gives the other side the justification to respond with extremes of violence. We also have to keep noting that non-violence can bring significant change, despite the persistence of the belief in the popular culture, reinforced by TV fictions, that it never works and is a sign of weakness and ineffectuality. As with violence, sometimes nonviolence wins and sometimes it loses. The fact that war so often is a dead loss never seems to delegitimize it: we can't let the fact that non-violence sometimes doesn't work blind to us to the many times it does work. 

  From the New York Times:

 Arendt draws a sharp distinction between power and violence as well as between liberty and necessity.
What does this mean? In her lexicon, power and violence are antithetical. Initially this seems paradoxical — and it is paradoxical if we think of power in a traditional way where what we mean is who has power over whom or who rules and who are the ruled.
Max Weber defined the state as the rule of men over men based on allegedly legitimate violence. If this is the way in which we think about power, then Arendt says that C. Wright Mills was dead right when he declares, “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.”
Against this deeply entrenched understanding of power, Arendt opposes a concept of power that is closely linked to the way in which we think of empowerment. Power comes into being only if and when human beings join together for the purpose of deliberative action. This kind of power disappears when for whatever reason they abandon one another.
This type of power was exemplified in the early civil rights movement in the United States and it was exemplified in those movements in Eastern Europe that helped bring about the fall of certain Communist regimes without resorting to violence. Violence can always destroy power, but it can never create this type of power.


As humane people, we have the important task of keeping non-violent protest front and center as shake up and turbulence increasingly characterize the political discourse.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Eye of the Tiger

During a vacation, I saw a row of cards on display in a person's home.

Most of them showed pictures of tigers. I took them down and read them. Each one praised a person who had just graduated from college for hard work and dedication. Each one urged this person to be the "eye of the tiger."



What does it mean, I wondered, to be the "eye of the tiger?"

The internet offered some answers. According to the "Gratitude Guy,"* the eye of the tiger is the black spot behind each of a tiger's ears. When a tiger is about to move in for the kill, he flattens his ears forward, exposing these two black spots. These "eye spots" can confuse other animals as the tiger is about to attack.

In popular culture, the term means:

someone who is focused, confident, and has the look of being intense, somewhat cold but very fierce with a never say die attitude. ("Gratitude Guy)

It's also the popular  song associated with Rocky movies. Rocky had to develop the "eye of the tiger," the hunger and motivation to win and become a champion.

So when the parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles urged this college grad to have the "eye of the tiger," they meant to be focused on goals. They also meant being fierce and never giving up ("never say die.")

Because it is associated with a predator, the phrase can't help but suggest "going in for the kill." After all, the second "eyes" don't show until the tiger is ready to attack (kill) its prey.

I wondered what kind of ethic this is to urge in a young person. On the other hand, it seems a very "normal" way to think in American culture. We want to "win."

But are we "tigers," solitary, predatory animals? Social science teaches that humans are, above all, communal creatures. We are built to live in groups, and we function best in groups. We are very alert to social cues and try to be liked by other people. Being alone is one of the biggest predictors of early death. We are not mighty tigers. Instead, we are a species that is weak while all alone. We are built to depend on each other.

I imagine that the relatives of the college graduate meant to encourage being hardworking and striving for success. But it is troubling that the phrase has such a "killer" aspect.



After all, tigers will soon be extinct in natural habitats, surviving only in zoos, where they are dependent on others to protect them.

Maybe being an aggressive predator is not the best path to success.

Maybe "kill or be killed" means you die.

 People will tell me the phrase on the graduation cards is meant only in the most positive, encouraging way. It is meant only to build confidence.

All the same, I can't shake the idea that phrases like "eye of the tiger" promote a self-centered, aggressive attitude that is not realistic or helpful to society or the people in it in the long run. I wonder how much this kind of "off-hand" thinking or unexamined habit of mind led to the election of Donald Trump.

What do you think?

*(https://www.facebook.com/thegratitudeguypage/posts/837445546370387)









Tuesday, January 10, 2017

John Clare: "Peasant" poet

Although we don't normally think of England having a peasantry in the European tradition, the Encyclopedia Britannica calls John Clare a "peasant" poet. Clare was the son of a farm laborer and had little education, but made a splash with his first book of poetry. People like Charles Lamb took up a subscription so Clare would have an income and be free to write, but it wasn't enough to support his subsequent seven children and indigent father.  Clare ended his life in poverty. Britannica calls Clare a "Romantic" poet, but the poem below, which I liked for its matter-of-fact description of the natural world with no attempts at varnish, is far different from, say, Wordsworth and his ecstatic utterances about daffodils and solitary reapers. It's hard to image John Clare would miss the intense, back breaking labor of a reaper or the ugliness she might see the way Wordsworth does. 

John Clare seems to me less Romantic poet than a precursor to Hardy, at least in the verse below:




John Clare, "The Mouse's Nest"

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at her teats
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Man in the High Castle: Spoiler blog: feminist and peace series

The Man in the High Castle, based loosely on Phillip K Dick's novel of an alternate history in which the Axis wins World War II and occupies the United States, is extraordinary in look and feel, acting, complexity and theme. The plot can be murky in places, as it is complex--there were moments in the series I had no idea what was going on--and drags in places (this is to say it is an imperfect work of art.) But nonetheless, it is extraordinary and worth watching.

New York in Nazi hands.

I call it feminist because the plot hinges on the actions of a woman, Juliana Crain, who lives as an oppressed American in Japanese-controlled San Francisco. She is not a catalyst for a male hero to act and save the day: it is precisely her own actions and her humanity that are all important. How often do we see that? And while she loves and is loved, that isn't the pivot of her life or the plot. In fact, it is some of the men who are more obsessed with her than she is with them, again, an extraordinary, feminist stance that the series enacts quietly.

Juliana Crane. Her actions derive from her courage and compassion. Her moral center is not evil.

Juliana gets dragged into the action, into history so to speak, when her sister, a member of the anti-Japanese/Nazi resistance, is killed. Juliana decides to deliver a film (in place of her sister) to the neutral zone between the Japanese and Nazi territories. "The man in the high castle," as he is called, has a large cache of films showing an alternative history in which the Allies won the war. The Nazis are after these films--to destroy them.

Juliana is motivated throughout the series not by ideology but by personal relationship and basic human compassion and decency. She has a moral compass rare to see in a TV protagonist these days: she actually cares about other people because she is able to put herself in their shoes and empathize with them: she is not about using others as "tools" for achieving her own  agenda (as is valorized (while disingenuously disavowed) in Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, West World, Game of Thrones, etc.) Thus, from the start, the Man series questions and problematizes blind adherence to ideology or groupthink or self above all else.  The series is centrally not about selfish personal ambition but about the larger good. I can't tell you what a (moral/ethical) relief it was to watch this.

Juliana makes mistakes because this is a series not prone to black and white distinctions. A big error is to trust a young man called Joe Blake who she meets in the neutral zone. He is at heart a decent person and he does genuinely fall in love with her. She feels all this and decides to trust him. What she doesn't know is that he is working undercover for the Nazis to get films for them. Because she trusts him, he gets hold of  an all-important film. But to complicate matters, Joe too has his heart in the right place. He is doing this, if I remember correctly, to get out from under the thumb of a prominent Nazi, John Smith and rebels against turning the film over to his Nazi overload. He, in fact, turns the film over to a group of insurgents, but is himself being played: once the film is on their boat, the Nazis blow it up, killing people. Joe looks like the Nazi traitor he is not: his intention was not to betray the resistance. Juliana also never meant for people to die, but they do.

In any case, Juliana doesn't lose her compassion and humanity: they are core to who she is and core to the survival of the human race in this series. She ends up having to flee and ask for asylum from the Nazis in New York: John Smith, to serve his own agenda, takes her under his wing. She doesn't want to have anything to do with him, but the Resistance insists she infiltrate his home and make friends with his wife and wife's friends (all married to prominent Nazis) or they will kill her for having given the film to Joe.

Thomas, a devoted young Nazi, is condemned to death by Nazi ideology.

She does infiltrate and to make a long story short, learns an important secret about John Smith's family: the son has muscular dystrophy. A doctor has come to euthanize the son, Thomas, because Nazi ideology dictates death to somebody carrying a hereditary illness. However, John loves son and like Juliana, put relationship above ideology: he stabs the doctor who has come to euthanize Thomas with the very needle filled with poison meant to kill Thomas. John is not going to sacrifice his beloved son to an ideology: here we have another complicated character, both a loathsome Nazi who is capable of cold-bloodedly killing enemies but also a loving father and a man who in the end works to prevent World War III at considerable risk to himself. (It's also clear that prior to the Nazi victory John and his wife were good Americans, and later Nazis: this seems a very real depiction of how people react to circumstances, as with the many die-hard Nazis who quickly became communists in East Germany after WWII.)

John Smith, American turned Nazi. He is more evil than good, but complicated, not a stick figure.

So as not to go on endlessly: the Nazis have the atom bomb, which the Japanese do not. When Hitler dies, his Nazi successor decides to immediately launch an all-out nuclear war against Japan, on the theory that this will usher in peace for all times (so absurd the series doesn't even have to comment on that as ridiculous). However, a wise, high-ranking Japanese (I am cutting out his story) delivers a film (actually an alternative history film) that shows the explosion of the hydrogen bomb on Bikini Island, in this world an island utterly in Japanese hands. John Smith is able to deliver this film showing (though falsely) that the Japanese have a superior weapon, causing the Nazis to cancel their nuclear strike. Peace prevails through ingenuity and courageous action rather than violence.

In this ever problematizing series, however, violence does play a role in preserving peace: the course of history does depend on Juliana, as mentioned before. She finds out the Resistance has a film that shows Thomas confiding in her that he has a serious illness. The Resistance plans to give this film to the media, which would ensure that the loathed John Smith would be arrested and executed for protecting his son. Juliana protests this, saying a young teenaged boy (who of course would be euthanized) shouldn't be sacrificed. After she successfully defends herself against the Resistance's coldblooded and pre-planned attempt to kill her now that they don't need her anymore (she's no longer a useful tool), she makes the decision (which she hates) to kill the man who has the tape, and then she destroys the tape to protect Thomas. Unbeknownst to her, this act is what allows John Smith (who otherwise would be in prison) to fly to Berlin with the film of the hydrogen bomb that averts war.

I call this a peace series because instead of valorizing ruthless slaughter of the "enemy" and pursuit of one's own self-aggrandizing agenda, the series valorizes compassionate empathy and caring for other human beings, even if that particular human being is on the "enemy" side. This is what saves the world. I contrast this to, for instance, a scene (largely gratuitous except to communicate a toxic ideological message) in Game of Thrones where a group of peace advocate who refuse to fight are slaughtered: the message is fight or die, kill or be killed, peace is for hopelessly naive pussies. However, getting back to Man, the narrative is problematized: Juliana protects a Nazi teenager who sincerely, if naively, believes wholly in Nazi ideology. Yet this is what makes the series interesting: if Juliana had been a Nazi who protects a Jew, we would not stop and think "What???": we would simply approve. Here, we do have to stop and think and realize that we are just as bloodthirsty and stupid as the Nazis if we kill others simply on the basis of ideology, rather than extending compassion to innocent, if misguided, people.

This is a peace series as well because it shows the ugliness of killing: in another but connected storyline, Frank Frick, a problematic character too, a resistance fighter who is too abrasive, self-absorbed and too willing to sacrifice friends to ideology, becomes the central player in a plot to blow up a Japanese military installation that is developing atomic weapons. The plot succeeds, but the series unflinchingly shows us dead, dismembered, people: it shows us the brutality and ugliness of this action. It isn't just a scene of the enemy factory blowing up in a spectacular but distant and heroic (let's all cheer!) explosion of fire and smoke: it is a scene in which innocent humans getting horribly killed.

It is difficult finding oneself at times sympathizing with Nazis and condemning US resistance fighters, but that is what makes the series extraordinary: it actually evokes thought rather than a black and white narrative in which one unreflectively "cheers" on the "good guys" killing the "bad guys," for here, as in life, everything is more complicated.

The series thus far (there will be a season three) has accomplished the followings:

     A woman's actions and compassion are made central to the plot.

     Women do not simply function as sex objects but have life and being apart from men.

     Compassion, empathy and mercy are not denigrated, sneered at and spat upon as "weakness."

     Compassion, in fact, is more powerful than violence. It is a genuine alternative to violence. It can work. It is not inherently weak.

    Narrative is important: the existence of a counter-narrative in the form of the forbidden films gives people hope and changes the course of history. The Nazis understand the importance of narrative: do we?

    The series drives home the point that what matters is what we do, not what our outer shell says we are as a role. Nazis can behave compassionately and Resistance fighters can behave as ruthless barbarians. If we want to defeat barbarism, we can't become barbarians.

A quick read of some of the response to season two (which admittedly, does have some murky, draggy episodes in the middle) tells me that some people are not "getting" the central message of this series. All the more reason to highlight it.










Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Man in the High Castle: Extraordinary, feminist peace series

I had been despairing about popular media's complicity in the rise of an ultra-violent society now headed by misogynist authoritarian who believes in muscular solutions to most problems, when I saw the extraordinary final episode of the series The Man in the High Castle. I don't want to provide spoilers, as I hope people will watch this program, but I am buoyed with hope. Creating peace narratives has been very much on my mind lately, as that is a necessary precondition to creating the more peaceful society we desperately need: "Without imagination, the people perish." But where, I have wondered, are these narratives?

In Man in the High Castle, the Axis has conquered America.

 The Man in the High Castle, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, imagines a world in which the Nazis and Japanese have won World War II and the United States has been divided between them. The Japanese run the Pacific Coast, the Nazis the eastern seaboard into the midwest, and a no-man's land exists in between. The story, which is complex, follows interactions between Americans who are members of a resistance movement fighting both the Nazi and Japanese occupations and their interactions with high ranking individuals in both regimes.

The action pivots on the decisions of Julianna, a compassionate character who exhibits strength and agency.

Without giving anything away, the series both shows the horrors (rather than the so-called glamor) of violence and refuses to draw sharp demarcations between good guys and bad guys, instead presenting complex characters. It teaches us not to judge by outward appearance, even if that outward appearance includes swastikas, iron crosses or emblems of a repressive Japanese regime: people are what they do, not the uniform they wear. No one--or any one nationality-- is purely good or purely evil--and a woman is the pivot of the action.

John Smith is a high ranking Nazi, but also a complex human being.

After sitting through so many highly popular and in most cases very good (high production values, superb acting, strong scripts) series that are predicated on the story arc of the "man with the biggest weapons willing to behave in the most ruthless way wins," it was a relief to watch an intelligent, well produced series that called into question that narrative, and in fact, portrayed that particular story line as Nazism, problematizing it (as it should be) from the start.

In Man, it is relationship, the humanizing of the Other, that averts lethal catastrophe. It illustrates Audre Lorde's theme in "The Uses of the Erotic" (and also the take-aways of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Kelly after their encounters with Nazi Germany) that political change comes from entering into genuine empathic relationship. Rather than the typical story line that depicts compassion as "weak," empathy in Man ends up to be the greatest strength.

I have to say I was dismayed when in West World, a prime example of a series valorizing "the most violent one wins," Delores, a gentle prairie woman in long dresses, has a pivotal moment in which she says (how cliched can we get?) having donned pants, "I'm not a damsel anymore" before blowing someone away to show her "empowerment." Aren't we tired of that yet? Really? Why do we continue to co-opt women as "tough grrls" into a male narrative of violence that never works, excepts to create ever more violence and dehumanization? It was heartening, almost exhilarating, to see here a story arc based on a different narrative (though with much violence along the way).

Audiences are expected to applaud when West World's Delores embraces violence and murder as if this represents "strength" and an "advance." We really need to progress beyond this kind of thinking. That this is the "masculine" solution is made clear by Delores's adoption of male clothes. 

Because Man in the High Castle has such a complicated story line and is predicated on moral complexity rather than black and white, good and evil characters, I fear that people won't "get" what the series is trying to convey. But hope springs eternal in the human breast.

I am writing this hoping that the series follows the novel, as that would make it a fine novel indeed, at least thematically, but I don't know. I also haven't yet read anything about the series, as I haven't wanted to inadvertently stumble across spoilers. I will try to find out more.