Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Man in the High Castle, Swastika Night, and l'Ecriture Humaine

I finished Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which I read as a companion piece to Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night, both novels imagining a future in which the Nazis have won World War II. I will briefly discuss The Man in the High Castle (Swastika Night is covered in other blog entries) and then evaluate both as l'ecriture humaine. L'ecriture humaine works from the premise that the stories we tell have implications for the lives we lead. What kind of stories are we telling as culture? Are they humane or inhumane? Do they lead us toward or away from compassion? 

L'ecriture humaine has four aspects:

1. It shines a light on personal domestic spaces, the spaces often overlooked, dismissed or derogated by the dominant discourse. These  spaces depict small scale community, class difference and sociality. They are where human relationships can be nurtured or exposed. If, as Stalin said, the death of one person is a tragedy and the death of a million a statistic, l'ecriture humaine focuses on the one person.

2. It tends toward the circular, not the linear. Life is not progress towards a defined end goal but a series of reiterative relationships, a return to the same ground in order to deepen it.  

3. It rejects degradation or humiliation of any individual or group as a rite of passage or a definition of their humanity.

4. It foregrounds empathy and compassion.

This is  always a literature of truth, not lies, of sentiment, not sentimentality,  of telling difficult stories with an ethical compass pointing at empathy, compassion and forgiveness.

A work of  l'ecriture humaine can be filled with violence, such as much holocaust literature is, but it nevertheless asserts humane values and censures degradation and horror. A l'ecriture that is not humane can, conversely, have no overt violence and can seem very beautiful and civilized while promoting an ethic of degradation and cruelty. To use the Nazi example again, as the good/evil divide is so clear there, much fascist literature uses beautiful language and description to exalt the 'Aryan' and whitewash violence and genocide as noble and pure.

Before reading The Man in the High Castle, I had watched the recent serialization of it through streaming it. It was an interesting experience to read the book after seeing the miniseries.

The series includes a compelling section not in the novel at all: it creates the story of John Smith, an all-American who throws his lot in with the Germans to become a very high-ranking and ruthless Nazi who yet loves his family. In this sub-plot he has to protect his son, who has a hereditary disease, from Nazi policy that require the adolescent boy be euthanized. The series also creates a dead sister for Juliana and makes Juliana a more central and sympathetic figure.

The book is more static and cerebral than the series, a luxury novels can afford, and focuses more intently on the Japanese occupation of the San Francisco area, Tao philosophy, and the I-Ching. Tagomi, a high ranking Japanese man, is a moral center in both the novel and the series, and in both cases, is able to cross the dimensional barrier between alternative histories, moving at times (though only once in the novel) into the world we know, in which the U.S. won the war. Spirituality and ethical living are central to Tagomi.

The bones of Dick's philosophy are buried under a plot that seems oddly peripheral to the central story, and therefore his philosophy becomes more ambiguous than in Burdekin. In a "say hello to the new boss/ same as the old boss," theme, the novel argues at the end that it doesn't make much difference who won the war while whoever is in charge oppresses those below, behaves violently, and has the nuclear capacity to destroy the earth. At the same time--and bumping up against this--is a portrayal of the Nazis as particularly evil, corrupt, stupid, and malevolent.

Burdekin makes an unequivocal case for nonviolence and woman's equality. Woman's equality is not  a subject on Dick's radar, and he shows ambivalent attitudes towards violence. Tagomi is deeply upset when he kills two Nazi agent/thugs, as killing violates his deepest moral principles. Juliana, however, almost mechanically uses a razor to cut the throat of Joe, her Nazi lover, after she discovers he plans to assassinate Hawthorne Abendsen, the "man in the high castle." (Abendsen, in Dick's novel,  wrote the alternative history novel that posits the Allies won the war.) Abendsen and his wife thank Juliana for her violent act, even though Abendsen lives unprotected and assumes he will be killed eventually.

Although all of Burdekin's central characters are men because the women have been reduced to a very low intellectual state, hers is far more the woman's novel in its sensitivity to women's plight and advocacy for appreciating the fully humanity of all people. Dick's characters are primarily men too, and they occupy a male world of business and politics. Even Childan's dinner at a Japanese couple's home is framed primarily as doing business--and Childan's interest in the Japanese wife is wholly sexual. The one female character to be fleshed out, Juliana, is exoticised and "orientalized," swinging between a surface self that is little more than a mildly sophisticated version of the "sexy, good-looking, crazy chick" and a mystical natural being with special spiritual insight. Abendsen calls her:

'a dathnon. A little chthonic spirit that ... roams tirelessly over the face of the earth.' He restored his glasses in place. 'She's doing what's instinctive to her, simply. expressing her being.'

Juliana in the novel is therefore a sex object, a crazy fucked up chick, and a mystical, spiritual, natural being--she is killer whore or redemptive goddess or nature symbol.

Burdekin's Swatiska Night works consistently in the genre of l'ecriture humaine:  the focus throughout, while espousing solidly articulated, general humane principles, is on the particular. There's no discussion of large scale military movements or battles, as in Dick's novel, which enjoys re-envisioning World War II battlegrounds.  This places Burdekin firmly in a mid-century feminist movement that included woman such as medieval and economic historian Elaine Power, and Virginia Woolf, who made it part of their politics to sideline war narratives, believing that real history lies in human community and that a constant narrative glorifying war meant ending war would be impossible.

Both Burdekin and Dick were interested in the spiritual. Burdekin ridicules Nazi spirituality but makes an impassioned defense of Quakerism--and her biography tells us she was interested in alternative religious views. Eastern religion is central to Dick.

Ultimately, both books have strongly anachronistic elements yet both make points that are, sadly, still highly relevant today.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Parasite: Some thoughts on class

I recently saw the Korean film Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, which features a sewage flood, and in one of those serendipities that often happens, a few days later, our toilet overflowed in what seemed an endless cascade of water that flooded our bathroom. The water was about a quarter inch deep, flowed into the hallway and even into the bedroom across the hall, then  leaked volumes into our basement. It was a mess, and even if at a much smaller scale, eerily similar to the raw sewage flood that goes shoulder high through the basement apartment of the poor lead family in Parasite.

The upshot of our personal contretemps with a flood of overflowing toilet water was exhaustion. I cleaned myself up and went to yoga, too tired to make the dinner I had planned. Roger, a valiant water battler, and Nick went to Subway.

This illuminates the logic of the poor family in the movie. The main poor characters almost always seem to eat out. I am aware, living in Barnesville, that an acute part of the class divide here is summed up in who cooks in--makes "real" meals--and who relies on fast food and junk food. Not making home cooked meals is looked down upon as a mark of being lower class.

Parasite captures that: When our poor protagonist family earns some cash folding pizza boxes in their apartment, we next see them in a fast food type joint drinking sodas and eating bags of chips. Later, when the adult son and daughter land tutoring positions with a rich family, the first thing the foursome (including the parents do) is go to a cheap fast food buffet where they pile their plates high with food.

Folding boxes in their cluttered basement apartment

 The day after the unfortunate flood, the bathroom rugs duly washed, dried, fluffed and returned to the bathroom floor, I did make my planned meal of mushroom stroganoff, and as I did  I ruminated on how emblematic my easy ability to do so is of class position: how can this seemingly simple task be possible for people living in precarity?

I could make a stroganoff because I am not working on my feet all day or dealing with irate customers or facing a harrowing commute home, all of which easily leaves one too spent and exhausted to cook a complicated meal. I have also lived in the same home, with plenty of room and a large kitchen, for 11 years: therefore, I have all I need to cook at hand--thyme and worcestershire sauce in the cupboard, flour, butter, fresh mushrooms, onions, garlic, wine, organic vegetable broth. These are expensive and time consuming to gather all at once--for such cooking to be possible, such items have to be part of the normal flow of life, along with a full array of cooking utensils--measuring cups, spatulas, wire whisks, pots and pans, strainers, good knives, wooden spoons. And one has to have the energy to clean all this up.

It is easy to see how especially the mother in Parasite might not want to come home and cook and clean up after cooking and caring for another family all day. It is easy to see how the family, living precariously and in a home that might be prone to flooding, might not accumulate the necessary items to put together a home cooked meal even if they somehow could muster the energy.

Who can judge them for eating out?

Happily eating out:food is good when you have been hungry

The movie is a twist on the 1970s series Upstairs/Downstairs: as I was watching the poor family, who all insinuate themselves into employment as servants,  take advantage of the rich family's camping trip to bath in their tubs, eat their food, drink their alcohol and sprawl on their furniture, it instantly brought to mind a classic episode of the original series when the servants to do the same, though in their case they primarily dress up in their master's clothes--and drink their alcohol.

Likewise, the idea of the people at the bottom as tricksters who must live by their wits, fooling those at top, is a classic theme--and how often we have seen it in play. Further, when the rich family goes on a camping trip and thunder strikes, we know what is going to happen if they poor family, astonishingly, does not. But then, maybe not--how in touch would a poor urban family be with nature?

What the movie brought home--yet again--is the way poor working people have to efface themselves and be endlessly pleasant, upbeat, and helpful to their employers, who are oblivious to what they are undergoing. I was reminded of an article I read some years ago of Latino nannies in the L.A. area who learned very quickly to tell their would-be employers they had no children, as the employers didn't like the idea that the nannies they employed had loyalties to any children but their own.  This left the nannies not only with children at home, but having to juggle this without their employer's knowledge--a system very weighted to the emotional ease of the employers, who simply were alleviated of having to worry about another person's children, and to the added emotional stress of the nannies, who had to carry any childcare problems without employer support.

The husband in Parasite's rich family talks more than once about maintaining the "line" between the servants, in particular  his driver, the father in the family, and himself. The employer doesn't like servants crossing the "line." On the night the poor family is having a fine time and the storm drives the rich family home early, the rich couple decide to sleep on the living room sofa so they they can watch their son, who is outside inn a teepee. The father of the poor family is hiding under the sofa, and grows increasingly humiliated and enraged as the rich husband talks about him "crossing the line" with his bad smell of radishes. The rich husband reveals how oblivious he is to the challenges the poor family faces simply keeping clean to his standards.

The spacious, gracious uncluttered home of the rich is a contrast to the poor families' dingy, crowded apartment.

A surprise to me was finding out about others living secretly in the rich people's  house, but this shows that the secret lives of the poor have layers upon layers. A key privilege of class is the ability to remain oblivious, but this movie now makes that a little harder to do.

The poor family is not romanticized. They have a hard streak, well hidden (except in the case of the daughter) from the upper class through most of the movie. As an aside,  after watching this movie, Virginia Woolf leapt to mind: her delight in the later 1930s when she bought a piece of technology we all take for granted: a modern gas (or perhaps oil) range in which she could regulate the temperature. This meant she didn't have to incessantly watch whatever was cooking: she could put a cake or a roast in the oven, set the timer, and go back to her writing. This alleviated her of needing to hire a cook, for which she was ecstatic. She, too, talks about the line between servants and masters in her essays: in her case, the willingness of servants to engage with employers about their own lives after World War I was an important sign of social change.

I don't want to give away the ending of the film, but from the film, from Woolf, from so many others, it becomes clear that not needing servants is a boon to everyone involved, perhaps especially the servants themselves--as long as there are other, more productive means of employment, which it seems a wealthy, industrialized country could provide.