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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

John Le Carre as a woman's writer: the vulnerability of the body

Ellen Moody mentioned John le Carre seeming to her to function as a woman's writer. I have been thinking about this while watching the mini-series The Night Manager, based on a le Carre novel of the same name. However, it was not until I watched the first episode in season four of the series Luther with my husband that I understood how le Carre reflects a woman's stance.

Luther, a British series, focuses on the angst-ridden policeman Luther (Idris Elba), who investigates violent crimes. The season's opening episode involves a serial killer/cannibal of the most gruesome sort, who eats pieces of his victims' bodies. Although officially not working as a police officer, Luther is soon on the trail of this man.

In The Night Manager, Jonathan Price (Tom Hiddleston), the British night manager of a Cairo hotel, fails to protect the life of an Egyptian woman he has fallen in love with, the mistress of a high-powered Egyptian criminal who murders her. Price is recruited by Angela Burr (Olivia Coleman), who runs a somewhat maverick British intelligence group, to infiltrate and bring down Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a powerful illegal arms dealer associated with the Egyptian woman's death. 




Jonathan and Jud, center, have bodies that are painfully vulnerable to abuse by alpha male Roper, on the left.


The Night Manager had me riveted with anxiety for the main character, Jonathan, because he is rubbing shoulders with a sociopath (Roper) who we know will brutally (and with torture) wipe him out if he suspects him of betrayal. To make matters worse, Jonathan falls in love with Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), Roper's highly off-limits American mistress, and she with him. They take what seem to be extreme risks to be with each other. We worry both that Roper will find out they are in love and that he will discover Jonathan is a government agent. Meanwhile we also know that corrupt intelligence officers high in the British secret service will protect Roper and throw Price under the bus if they find out about him. The strong, rather than protect the weak, side with the strong.

It may be The Night Manager is more riveting and anxiety provoking than Luther because it is better directed (Susanne Bier, the director, won an Emmy for the series.) However, I think there's more to the story than good direction, and that the tension the le Carre evokes come from fundamentally reflecting a female point of view.

As I watched Luther, not very anxious despite the machinations of a serial killer, I realized that I was comforted because of Luther's god-like (male) qualities. For all his various inner angsts, we know he is invincible. He is a crack cop, better than anyone: against him, what mere serial killer has a chance? He keeps London as safe as it can be kept.


Luther's body is protected, not vulnerable and is aggressive rather than aggressed upon. 


Jonathan, on the hand, exudes vulnerability. He's gentle, not tough, a hotel manager, not a trained, savvy police officer. He's sensitive, without (like Luther, who also is caring) being hardened. Watching his unprotected body as he walks beside Roper, one feels a primal fear for him: he has no real way to defend himself. He is in the position of the woman, his body at the mercy of a nearby male who claims aggressive ownership over it. Over and over we see him vulnerable. (This is problematized because he does kill a man, perhaps necessary to make him palatable, but the overall thrust of Jonathan is vulnerability.)

Roper, of course, does not exert sexual ownership over Jonathan, but he does openly exert alpha male control. He renames Jonathan without thinking to ask him what name he would like, insists he participate in corporate crimes that make him vulnerable to arrest, and demands that he be absorbed into Roper's plans and organizations and that he adjust to them without question. Jonathan is there for one reason: to serve Roper. He is expected to have no agency outside of Roper's desires. He does (or is expected to do) whatever Roper tells him. All of this makes him like a woman. Like a woman, he smiles often and makes himself pleasant, agreeable and non-threatening to Roper through words and body language. 

Price is supported by other vulnerable people who happen to be women: Angela Burr is visibly, heavily pregnant and also under attack by higher-ups in British intelligence for getting too close to Roper. Jed, Roper's girlfriend, is unhappy and has a body equally as vulnerable to assault as Jonathan's, as well as a young son her work as Roper's mistress supports.  I may have some issues with using motherhood to buttress the moral worth of female characters, but it underlines their bodily vulnerability. As we see during an attack on Roper's young son, children's bodies, like women's, are easily assaulted.

It's hard not to feel acute anxiety over the fate of these vulnerable people fighting Roper, especially Jonathan and Jed, who are so physically close so often to a ruthless man. We feel viscerally their bodily weakness, the risks they are taking and the courage they display.

I find it hard to feel as acutely over Luther, who blankets us in the sense that he is strong and invulnerable, that he will take care of the people in the series and hence of us, the viewer. This is the male stance, ultimately tough and impregnable. It argues, using an individual, that strong, violent males (and by extension groups of strong violent males, ie armies) are what keep us safe. 

Le Carre's argument, that the strong alpha male ultimately threatens, rather than protects us, seems to me more far more realistic than the protective capabilities of the alpha male. As Le Carre shows, violent men inside and outside of legitimate organizations work together to oppress the rest of us: they aren't enemies to evil, they are its friends. And as the protagonists in the The Night Manager illustrate, women (and most men), instead of trying to emulate the violent alpha male, should be using their brains to defeat violence, rather than trying to hide behind the faux protection violence offers. Feminism took a very wrong turn when it decided that its role model would be the ruthless female CEO in spiked heels who outdoes that most ruthless male CEO. Instead, and more realistically, we should, like Le Carre, try to show the inherent problems with the accumulation of power/violence into too few hands-- and insist on other solutions. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On biography: Woolf and Fell

In participating in an on-line group read of Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, I've also been part of a larger conversation about biography: Do we approach biography primarily through the lens of a puzzle or a question or through an emotional identification with the subject?



Virginia Woolf had a fascination with biography. This shouldn't surprise us: Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, laid his claim to fame in part on biography: he was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and wrote many of the entries for it. Woolf, in turned, strained to envision a biography that would push beyond the hagiographic and genteel Victorian conventions of her father's day to arrive at a more authentic depiction of a subject's life. 

Woolf explored what she called moments of being and non-being. Non-being she understood as the normal, repetitive routines of life that we largely forget--she mentions her daily walks in Hyde Park as a child as examples of non-being. She knows she took them, but largely can't remember anything about most of them. I think of doing laundry as a college and graduate student: I know I did it, but mostly have forgotten any details. In contrast, Woolf identified moments of being as those moments we remember, moments that are luminous. She tried, in part through voluminous journaling, to capture are many moments as possible, so that they could (possibly) become moments of being.

Yet she recognized in women's lives in her era that much of existence was in moments of non-being. How does one capture these moments and give them being? Woolf  attempted to create a form of biography that would tell the reality of a woman's life, including non-being, by writing a fictional biography of a fictional subject: it's a fascinating example of how she uses fiction to work out intellectual problems.  In this work, she gets beyond hagiography to show the reality (ironically through fiction) of a woman's life.

 Biography being much on my own mind, I am thinking of trying to write a short sketch of a real historical woman (rather than create a fiction), in which I would enter into her life primarily emotionally rather than through a question or a puzzle. I finally, in one of those flashes of insight one has, settled on Margaret Fell, one of the founders of Quakerism and later wife of George Fox, usually credited as Quakerism's founder, and am reading a biography of her written in 1913.

My flash of insight--and this is where I am willing to get fictional as I simply at this point don't "know"--is that while Fell was an extremely intelligent woman (definitely a foremother to Woolf) and deeply, sincerely, a religious woman,  the emotion that may have driven her was being in love with Fox. That's a woman's trope, and for that reason might be denigrated, but the feminist in me wants to celebrate it as a worthy component of an intelligent, active, ethical life. I see it too as a parallel to Woolf--love for men and women was a deeply motivating force in her life's work.

Margaret Fell, from an etching in which she and other family members wait on a great man, presumably Fox.

It also seems to me a parallel exists in Ruth von Kleist-Retzow being in love (if we allow, as we should, a 60-something woman and grandmother  sexual feelings) with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Ruth's case, the best she could do was to arrange an engagement between Bonhoeffer and a granddaughter who reminded her of herself, and satisfy herself vicariously with that. Margaret, though a decade older than Fox, was actually able to marry him after her first husband died.

Will I do this? I don't know: I have a busy fall schedule: but I find it interesting to think about. I also wonder why I lit on another religious figure rather than a literary figure. I also don't know enough about Fell to know if I truly have an emotional affinity. Jane Austen would be another possibility. Who would you do?


Monday, August 15, 2016

Defining fascist literature

A fake "Vermeer" by van Meegeren. Is it fascist art? 

A Tim Parks essay reviewing a book about fascist artist Mario Sirono from the August, 2000 NYRB renewed my interest in defining the attributes of fascist literature. I found Parks insightful, for I have struggled to understand what makes fascist art (painting and sculpture)  fascist. For example, Errol Morris's 2009 NYT series on Dutch art forger van Meegeren posed the question: how could the Nazis (and others) have possibly fallen for van Meegeren's "Vermeers," given how badly executed they are? Morris decides they appealed to the fascist tastes of people like Göring, but not to our tastes, because the fascist aesthetic became a "dead end" in art history-- but Morris never defines that aesthetic, except as bad art. 

Returning to Parks, I was amused when he quoted a contemporary of Sironi, who commented in the 1930s that every time he came across writing about fascist art:

 "I read it from top to bottom, carefully, applying my intelligence to the utmost, and every time with renewed desire, the renewed hope that I will come away from it having understood what is meant by fascist art. ... but that desire, that hope, remains unfilled." 

That sense of puzzlement has often, if not always, been my experience. Parks however, offers an answer: that what makes Sironi's art fascist is its "static" quality: "The figures are rigidly separate," he says.  Parks contends this creates, rather than a story, a sense of figures "waiting for a story to happen to them." That made sense to me and seemed to describe van Meegeren's Vermeer forgeries as well. However, my main interest is not in fascist painting or sculpture, but literature. Thus, I have identified the following attributes, using as a frame my background reading on Nazi ideology and aesthetics for my Bonhoeffer book, pieces of Mein Kampf, Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism," and bits of fascist literature produced in the 1930s and 40s.  



A Sironi painting called Italy in the Arts. I agree that there's a static, disconnected quality to the figures.


A more explicit frame I use is a romance novel by Elizabeth Bailey called Fly the Wild Echoes, written in 1982 and reissued in 2012.  Here are the attributes of it I found fascist:

1. A "superior," upper-class protagonist, an exceptionally beautiful and talented (and famous) movie and stage actress from a superior, talented family--a version of the "superman," or, in this case, "superwoman."

2. Overwrought prose. 

3. On the same note, no touch of  irony. Everything is intensely "poetic," serious, and important.

4. Heroic heroes and heroines (again the ubermensch.)

5. The setting as a castle that had been converted into an upper class sanatorium-- the aristocrat and backward-looking surround.

6. The sanatorium's religious aspect, eg as a place of retreat and purification. Everything there is beautiful, elegant, elite, rarified.

7. The male as savior. In this case, he is the handsome psychiatrist who falls in love with our heroine during their overwrought dawn and dusk meetings in the rose garden. He in turn has a male mentor, the wise man who began the sanatorium. As Sontag would argue, sex here functions a form of purification: the great man will save our heroine.

8. A female character who is unquestioningly disposed of because of her inferiority. The handsome psychiatrist is engaged to this woman, the daughter of the founder of the sanatorium, but she has qualities that make her entirely unsuitable to marry, most notably a masculine, stocky quality that is completely unlike our delicate, ephemeral auburn-haired heroine, Fliss, in her silk flowered print dresses. There's a sense that the fiancee would compete as to who would run the sanatorium after her father's death, threatening to usurp the male role. But what is most striking is how dispensable she is, how she is treated with such narrative contempt. There's no real question of her feelings, her being: she is simply so much trash to be discarded, a problem that protagonists are (unfairly) forced to deal with rather than a human being. Is this how the ordinary people are to be treated by the ubermensch? 

9. A static quality, ala Parks on Sironi: while the Bailey book is clearly set in 1982, to the point of featuring an answering machine and a Sony walkman, it really could be set in any time period from, say, 1800 to today. It's an alternative universe that has no bearing on real history. The heroine has little relationship, if any, with anyone outside of her "fuhrer worship" relationship with the psychiatrist who will save her.

10. Black and white characters. The lack of irony or humor means you never have to look for double entendre or complexity.

The book left me feeling deeply disturbed.

In sum,  I would define fascist literature as aristocratic, overwrought, humorless, non-ironic, heroic, callous toward the non-superior person, static, interested in purity and in enforcing rigidly traditional sex roles, preoccupied with the "beautiful" setting or surround (all gardens and castles, no factories or slums) and never messy. It imposes its will about what it would like the world to be rather than what the world is. Bailey's book reminded me of some of the fascist descriptions I read of SS men as exemplars of a Knights Templar medieval purity, stronger, harder, more crystalline, living at a higher plane of virtue and morality (if you can imagine) than the rest of humanity. 

To what extent Bailey's romance is a representative of the Harlequin type I don't know, but my suspicion is that there are many like it. Further, Harlequin and similar romances have a huge share of the book market. Tanya Modeliski, in her 1982 book about romances, Loving with a Vengeance, discusses these books as a way for women to deny the reality of male hatred by consistently devising plots in which the seemingly brutal man is found to have the woman's best interests at heart--in fact, to love the woman. Likewise, in 1984, Janet Radway published Reading the Romance, arguing that these romances create an illusion of comfort for the reader that allow avoidance of  confronting political realities. Both of these analyses seem to align with a fascist reading of these texts. I will try to look into more recent studies.



I think too of a book I have not read but hope to by David Imhoof called Becoming a Nazi Town: Culture and Politics in Göttingen  between the World Wars that discusses  Nazis infilitration of cultural institutions, such as symphony, to promote their worldview before they took power, in essence "softening" people to their ideology. One wonders about a correlation between female Trump supporters and consumption of romance novels: how much has our literary world (including movies and televisions, primed us for strong leader rather than democratic rule?

I will end with a link to a blog about fascism and careerism: http://forums.philosophyforums.com/threads/fascinating-fascism-susan-sontag-62596.html.

What do we think?

Defining fascist literature

A fake "Vermeer" by van Meegeren. Is it fascist art? 

A Tim Parks essay reviewing a book about fascist artist Mario Sirono from the August, 2000 NYRB renewed my interest in defining the attributes of fascist literature. I found Parks insightful, for I have struggled to understand what makes fascist art (painting and sculpture)  fascist. For example, Errol Morris's 2009 NYT series on Dutch art forger van Meegeren posed the question: how could the Nazis (and others) have possibly fallen for van Meegeren's "Vermeers," given how badly executed they are? Morris decides they appealed to the fascist tastes of people like Göring, but not to our tastes, because the fascist aesthetic became a "dead end" in art history-- but Morris never much defines that aesthetic, except as bad art. 

Returning to Parks, I was amused when he quoted a contemporary of Sironi, who commented in the 1930s that every time he came across writing about fascist art:

 "I read it from top to bottom, carefully, applying my intelligence to the utmost, and every time with renewed desire, the renewed hope that I will come away from it having understood what is meant by fascist art. ... but that desire, that hope, remains unfilled." 

That sense of puzzlement has often, if not always, been my experience. Parks however, offers an answer: that what makes Sironi's art fascist is its "static" quality: "The figures are rigidly separate," he says.  Parks contends this creates, rather than a story, a sense of figures "waiting for a story to happen to them." That made sense to me and seemed to describe van Meegeren's Vermeer forgeries as well. However, my main interest is not in fascist painting or sculpture, but literature. Thus, I have identified the following attributes, using as a frame my background reading on Nazi ideology and aesthetics for my Bonhoeffer book, pieces of Mein Kampf, Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism," and bits of fascist literature I read from the 1930s and 40s.  



A Sironi painting called Italy in the Arts. I agree that there's a static, disconnected quality to the figures.


A more explicit frame is a romance novel by Elizabeth Bailey called Fly the Wild Echoes, written in 1982 and reissued in 2012.  Here are the attributes of it I found fascist:

1. A "superior," upper-class protagonist, an exceptionally beautiful and talented (and famous) movie and stage actress from a superior, talented family--a version of the "superman," or, in this case, "superwoman."

2. Overwrought prose. 

3. On the same note, no touch of  irony. Everything is intensely "poetic," serious, and important.

4. Heroic heroes and heroines (again the ubermensch.)

5. The setting as a castle that had been converted into an upper class sanatorium-- the aristocrat and backward-looking surround.

6. The sanatorium's religious aspect, eg as a place of retreat and purification. Everything here is beautiful, elegant, elite, rarified, otherwordly.

7. The male as savior. In this case, he is the handsome psychiatrist who falls in love with our heroine during their overwrought dawn and dusk meetings in the rose garden. He in turn has a male mentor, the wise man who began the sanatorium. As Sontag would argue, sex here functions a form of purification: the great man will save our heroine.

8. A female character who is unquestioningly disposed of because of her inferiority. The handsome psychiatrist is engaged to this woman, the daughter of the founder of the sanatorium, but she has qualities that make her entirely unsuitable to marry, most notably a masculine, stocky quality that is completely unlike our delicate, ephemeral auburn-haired heroine, Fliss, in her silk flowered print dresses. There's a sense that the fiancee would compete as to who would run the sanatorium after her father's death, threatening to usurp the male role. But what is most striking is how dispensable she is, how she is treated with such narrative contempt. There's no real question of her feelings, her being: she is simply so much trash to be discarded, a problem that protagonists are (unfairly) forced to deal with rather than a human being. Is this how the ordinary people are to be treated by the übermensch? 

9. A static quality, ala Parks on Sironi: while the Bailey book is clearly set in 1982, to the point of featuring an answering machine and a Sony walkman, it really could be set in any time period from, say, 1800 to today. It's an alternative universe that has no bearing on real history. The heroine has little relationship, if any, with anyone outside of her "führer worship" relationship with the psychiatrist who will save her.

10. Black and white characters. The lack of irony or humor means you never have to look for double entendre or complexity.

The book left me feel deeply disturbed.

In sum,  I would define fascist literature as aristocratic, overwrought, humorless, non-ironic, heroic, callous toward the non-superior person, static, interested in purity and in enforcing rigidly traditional sex roles, preoccupied with the "beautiful" setting or surround (all gardens and castles, no factories or slums) and never messy. It imposes its will about what it would like the world to be rather than what the world is. Bailey's book reminded me of some of the fascist descriptions I read of SS men as exemplars of a Knights Templar medieval purity, stronger, harder, more crystalline, living at a higher plane of virtue and morality (if you can imagine) than the rest of humanity. 

To what extent Bailey's romance is a representative of the Harlequin type I don't know, but my suspicion is that there are many like it. Further, Harlequin and similar romances have a huge share of the book market. Tanya Modeliski, in her 1982 book about romances, Loving with a Vengeance, discusses these books as a way for women to deny the reality of male hatred by consistently devising plots in which the seemingly brutal man is found to have the woman's best interests at heart--in fact, to love the woman. Likewise, in 1984, Janet Radway published Reading the Romance, arguing that these romances create an illusion of comfort for the reader that allow avoidance of  confronting political realities. Both of these analyses seem to align with a fascist reading of these texts. I will try to look into more recent studies.



I think too of a book I have not read but hope to by David Imhoof called Becoming a Nazi Town: Culture and Politics in Göttingen  between the World Wars that discusses  Nazis infilitration of cultural institutions, such as symphony, to promote their worldview before they took power, in essence "softening" people to their ideology. One wonders about a correlation between female Trump supporters and consumption of romance novels: how much has our literary world (including movies and televisions, primed us for strong leader rather than democratic rule?

I will end with a link to a blog about fascism and careerism: http://forums.philosophyforums.com/threads/fascinating-fascism-susan-sontag-62596.html.

What do we think?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Trump: A Meandering Old Man

Donald Trump came a week ago to Ohio University Eastern as part of his campaign kickoff. I easily got a ticket online (the price is now getting his “Crooked Hillary” twitterfeeds) and easily walked from my class to the athletic building where he spoke in the gymnasium. If I felt a little queasy about possibly being mistaken for a supporter, it was also a chance to be part of “history."

Trump walks onstage at Ohio University Eastern. I am right behind the woman holding up the cellphone.  

That morning, the beauty salon had chattered excitedly about Trump being in town, mostly because he was being endorsed by the beloved Bob Murray, the local billionaire coal miner who has been a vocal voice against Obama’s “war on coal.” The salon workers were abuzz with wishing they could attend the $100 a plate dinner for Trump that Murray was hosting. When I mentioned going to the Trump rally, I was admonished I might not get in—they do background checks on everyone, I was told—and that it might not be safe. Fights might break out. “I know some of the people who will be there,” my hairdresser warned darkly. “It may not be the right place for you.”

I set out after my class ended. I could have saved myself the bother of registering—while I had to go through a metal detector and security (the irony not lost—why are guns to be allowed anywhere except near the people who most advocate for letting anybody own guns?)—nobody checked my ticket. 

Eastern Ohio is mostly white, but even I was surprised at how completely white the audience was. You do occasionally see blacks and Asians here, but none attended the Trump rally, perhaps unsurprisingly. I found a seat behind the stage where Trump would appear.

A man in plaid (I don’t know who) warmed up the crowd with some surprisingly populist rhetoric in which he said the following:

A country is more than a bank account. It is citizens. Being citizens means something. 
Yes. He then went on to champion the citizen against the international corporations, and he got cheers.  He then said:
  People in power don’t want change now or in a thousand years.

This was followed by more cheers.

Next, our congressional representative, Republican Bill Johnson, spoke. He is running uncontested! How did that happen? He won his first election by the slightest of margins. Somebody has got to take on this man! Where are we, Democrats?

He had not much to say—why would he?—Trump is loathsome to his small government, low taxes, anti-citizen, Paul Ryan ideology, and he doesn’t have to earn any votes. He seemed surprised as he was leaving that people wanted to shake his hand, but gamely allowed his flesh to be touched by several members of the hoi poloi. Surely he could wash shortly thereafter.

Then Trump came on—a half hour early and I will give him credit for not forcing people to wait in a hot gym. 

Trump facing behind him, towards where I sat.

But dear reader—and I couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away—this is the frightening monster we are supposed to fear and loath? He came across to me as a rambling old man. I just turned 58 myself, so am sensitive to issues of aging and ageism, but the thought that flashed across my mind was “is he senile?”

There were no fights, nothing fearful, nothing particularly inspiring, no Nuremburg rally vibes, just a meandering aged guy with a muddy voice squandering his chance to rouse a crowd hungry for anybody who will speak up for their sense of disenfranchisment so that they stop getting screwed. Trump, I am afraid, disappoints. He had an opportunity to arouse a crowd yearning for a leader—and instead, he rambled. He couldn’t connect. He couldn’t find his audience’s vibe. He was throwing out set phrases and familiar talking points as if not quite sure where he was—and hoping something would stick.

Is this the best we can do?  This is the best the Republican party can come up with? This is what they are terrified of? As far as charisma and speaking ability to go, this man is a pale shadow of a Mussolini or a Hitler. Thank goodness—that’s good! We don't need a Hitler!—but I couldn’t help but be bemused at how much of a  tempest this murky old man has aroused. He is Oz—really.  Behind the curtain, nothing much.

A polite crowd listens to Trump. 


That’s not to say his miscued speech wasn’t offensive and that he wouldn’t be dangerous in office, if only because in a fit of fogginess he could just push the wrong button to "make us great again." He rambled on about the need to waterboard, putting it in the context of strength and weakness, a Game of Thrones match up, though he has none of the heft of that show’s elderly conquerors. “They,” meaning ISIS, beheads its prisoners and burns them alive—and we worry about waterboarding? The crowd was politely interested and cheered the idea of getting rid of ISIS, but not with the greatest gusto.

Trump continued on semi-incoherently. “Something is going on that is  really, really bad,” he said. “We have the movement.” He said he was just the messenger, but “a good one.”

The main cheers and boos came for economic policy: Nafta was loudly booed, rejecting TPP robustly cheered. Cheers came for building a wall, along with chants of “build the wall, build the wall.” People cheered as Trump said TPP was “a rape of our country done by wealthy people who want to take advantage of us.” 

Trump meandered on about golf for a long time: he had recently returned from celebrating his son, Don Junior, opening a golf resort in Scotland that came. Trump didn’t play any golf while he was there. He didn’t even hold a golf club. He didn’t want anyone to photo him with a golf club in his hand, looking as if he were on vacation in the middle of his campaign. He was only in Scotland for a day, he said, to support his family. Surely, he asked, we all understood standing by your family. Wouldn’t you do the same? And who, he asked, as if amazed at his own feat, goes to Scotland just for a day? But he didn’t play any golf. None. He would have liked to but the campaign was more important. Obama, on the other hand, is always golfing rather than running the country. Which Trump would not be playing if he were elected.  

Trump paused during this ramble about his no-golf playing to introduce his son. That was a mistake. This handsome younger man spoke clearly, concisely and coherently, and connected with the audience almost instantly as he talked of how grateful was to be part of the campaign. Any thought that a poor sound system might be the cause of Trump sounding muddled was put to rest. The young Trump may be the one to watch. Next to him, Trump looked all the more like a foggy, disconnected old man. A woman like him would never have gotten this far. 

It was very hot in the gym and the crowd remained polite, maybe waiting for the energy that was clearly not going to erupt. I left early, weighing that nothing more was going to happen, and  I didn’t want to get caught in the post-rally traffic jam.

In summary, I’m bemused. This is the threat to the Western world?  I am also relieved: this old man, roundly spurned by the elites, doesn't appear to have the wherewithal to inspire the kind of populist following he needs to win an election. 

 I hope I am right.










Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Quakers and Literature, Game of Thrones, Virginia Woolf

Sadly, the recent shooting in Orlando makes an appropriate backdrop for my topic: the debut of new book on Quaker literature and the question of how we can move towards a more robust imagining of peace.


Quakers and Literature raises pertinent questions about the role of literature in society.

The anthology, Quakers in Literature, will be officially launched this month at the Friends Association for Higher Education Conference in Woodbrooke, England. I would like to praise this book and juxtapose it to my viewing of the series Game of Thrones.


A beheading on Game of Thrones. It's not uncommon: this beheader ends up beheaded, but the take-away isn't that violence is bad: the take-away is win at all costs. 

Game of Thrones, though not without its entertainment value, is characterized by cartoonish characters, cartoonish violence and cartoonish plots. Violence and ritual humiliation substitute the sensation of shock for genuine feeling. In this series, a viewer can get a faux emotional jolt or pay-off (of sorts) without a real emotional investment. 

The show is set is another time period, presumably very long ago. It's Roman European-esque in feel (and Middle-Eastern-esque)--pre-Christian certainly, but with a medieval overlay. The people are barbaric as a matter of course, and so are constantly chopping each other's heads off (or delving axes into people's brains) and perpetrating other acts of violence. 

The Hound learns that peacemaking is for losers. He goes out and kills a bunch of people to avenge the peacemakers.

Recently, a man named the Hound who was left for dead reemerged. He falls in with a wayward wandering group that has decided to renounce violence. Their leader even makes a strong statement about how more killing isn't going to stop the cycle of killing. Lest you think this might open an alternative path in the series, no ... all but the Hound, who happens to be away when it happens, are slaughtered (not that there is the least question this will occur), and the man who made the speech about peace is found dangling, hanged. This is replayed in the next episode too, lest we missed the message: peacemaking leaves you dead. Peace is for losers. Losers, losers, losers. Kill or be killed. Strike first and hard or die. 

The message dunned into the audience week after week --as was done in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and who knows how many other series--demonstrates that the most violent man wins. All religion is a scam or evil, so don't look to that for help. Strong woman are routinely humiliated--for example,  a queen,  Cersei, is subjected to one of the most intense scenes of ritual humiliation I have ever witnessed --as a penance imposed by a priest of some cult, she must walk naked through the streets of her city while being pelted with rotten vegetables and jeered at. 

Cersei dared to be strong: men get to see her naked and humiliate her. Rape and threat of rape are common tools used to control women.


As a Quaker and also as a sane person, I find this constant messaging advocating ultra violence disturbing. Of course, as with all these programs, the producers can coyly say they are depicting something outside of the societal norms of our world.  Naturally, they say they don't condone this behavior. But, as with  The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, everything about the rhetoric of these programs DOES condone it. Real men are validated for being ruthlessly violent. Ruthless violence wins. Compassionate morality is baggage for weaklings and nonentities. Who needs the Nuremburg rallies to whip up the base when you have Game of Thrones?

Therefore, it was refreshing to read an essay by J. Ashley Foster on Virginia Woolf's peace stance and the Spanish Civil War from the Quakers and Literature book--it's long but well worth reading. 

Woolf looking pensive in 1939, the year World War II began.

According to this essay, Virginia Woolf was involved with Quakers, such as Kathleen Innes, who published through Hogarth Press, (Innes published four books on the League of Nations with Hogarth) and they all advocated for peace. This article cites, of course, Woolf's Three Guineas as a feminist peace essay, but argues that, more fundamentally, "pacifism is one of modernism's idioms." This pacifism is internationalist in nature (rejecting fascist nationalisms). Woolf herself envisioned a fictional "Outsider's Society" in  Three Guineas made up of the daughters of educated men who would work for peace. Foster sees the corollary of this in peace efforts that emerged during the Spanish Civil War.

We remember there was a time when many non-Quaker women, and I think of Eleanor Roosevelt, believed that women had a particular role in promoting constructive peacemaking--building the conditions that would lead to peace that lasted through "justice and the rights of all."  Woolf's aunt, Caroline Stephens, was a feminist Quaker whose pacifism informed Woolf's feminism, and Roger Fry's sister Margery was a Quaker. Quakers published through the same presses and belonged to many of the same political organizations as the Woolfs and other modernists, and the Woolfs sold manuscript pages of Three Guineas to raise money to  aid Spanish Civil War refugees.

The Spanish Civil War

It was comforting to me to remember that Woolf, who I often think of primarily as a stylist, engaged in serious peace work and political work during the Spanish Civil War and to review her strong commitment to pacifism and her strong belief in the connection between peace and feminism. I remember too during this period (late 1933-early 1935) Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also in England, dedicated to pacifism and trying to build international coalitions to fight National Socialism, most notably at the Fano conference in 1934. I wonder if the Woolfs and Bonhoeffer ever brushed shoulders, but that's an aside--what I care about is that  intelligent women speak out for peace--and I can't help but wish for our own Outsiders group to push back against shows like Games of Thrones. 

I also can't help but think that the male producers of Game of Thrones (I looked up their bios and saw no sign of military experience) are advocating a warrior mentality and articulating a position that validates ruthless slaughter without having an actual experience of war themselves, which makes this program all the more dangerous. 

This brings me back to Quakers and Literature. It's no wonder that a culture that leans relentlessly on violence as the only authentic form of power would produce a constant stream of individuals who try to express power through slaughter or that they would be attracted to ISIS as the most ruthless group of all. A question I raise in my essay in Quakers and Literature, called "Quaker Literature: Is there such a thing?" is why Quakers have been sidelined into homespun, nostalgic domesticating fictions when so many serious issues confront us. Is this really a time for escapism? Or do we need to be concentrating more effort on a literature--fiction and non-fictional--that imagines solutions to our problems through a pacifist lens? After all, without an imagination, the people perish. I would argue that a culture that pornographically repeats violent images over and over again has lost its imagination and its mooring. We who look at it outside a perspective of violence--we the Outsiders--perhaps have a responsibility to pick up the work Woolf started and advocate more imaginatively for peace. Where can we start?