Friday, June 29, 2007

The Imaginary Invalid redux

My notes on farce last night were a little bland, frankly. I do think that the identity/mocking dialectic provdes a lot of the charge in farce, but the notion of farce as antidote is a little flat. So I want to play with another idea by starting with the simultaneity of identifying with the farcical character and mocking him ... in other words, participating in mocking oneself as one is reflected in the character with whom we ironically cannot help but identify.

I think that the root of this simultaneity is in a rhetoric of deception. So a little terminological set-up:

Rhetoric is the art of manipulation of the relationship between author and audience. In that art, neither author nor audience are fixed or singular concepts. Both shift both in terms of their biological or real being and more so in terms of their representation and play in the text. Manipulation, then, in rhetoric is never singular ... it always involves simultaneous manipulation of both sides of the pairing, each of which is at least multiple and ... being coy ... multifarious.

Multiple, in this sense, points to the author being a real person when he wrote the text, and a real person after he wrote the text, and an implied or represented person in the text, and a reflected or perceived person when the text is experienced by its audience. And, multiple points to an audience that walks into a theater and watches a performance, or reads a book, and that is also implied or represented in the text, and that is often recreated or predicted or defined in the text through the vehicle of an internal audience who witnesses the action.

Multifarious is multiple but more so; it points to the possibility that each of these authors and audiences can change within a performance or a reading or the length of a novel or story. Perhaps I use multifarious in too coy a manner, so I found a couple of definitions (skip to the next paragraph if you want the short version): "uniting usually in an improper way distinct and independent matters, subjects, or cause" [ Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law. Merriam-Webster, Inc. (accessed: June 29, 2007)] and "1593, from L. multifarius 'manifold,' from multifariam 'in many places or parts,' perhaps originally 'that which can be expressed in many ways,' from multi- 'many' + -fariam 'parts,' perhaps from fas 'utterance, expression, manifestation,' related to fari 'to speak' (see fame)" [ Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. (accessed: June 29, 2007)].

Having credentialed, let me paraphrase: uniting in an improper way distinct matters through manifold utterances. Well that, it turns out, is the essence of farce. I am certainly not saying that all rhetoric is farce, because there are many rhetorics dedicated to other purposes. But all rhetorics involve selection from multiple possibilities, and that selection always has the possibility of deception through elimination as well as deception through copious or overlaid saying. In the case of farce, the eliminated choices are obvious and open, even stated, and they are replaced in statement or utterance by additional overlaid and contradictory utterances. So what the farcical character does is to obscure the obvious and state the obscure. He does it baldly. Soon enough, he will be hung by his own petard, as it were, and we will laugh at him. But in the end, the farcical fool ends up with the last laugh if only because he carries on, or because the obscure becomes the obvious. Argon starts as patient, and ends as doctor to himself as patient.

In the Imaginary Invalid, the scene opens with a man obsessed with his medicines and his pains and his fears, and yet his actions belie his words and fear. He pines for his doctor, threatens to marry off his daughter to the doctor's fool son solely to have a doctor in the house, and then ends up by becoming a doctor himself. As I said yesterday, I think that the American Conservatory Theater performance pulled it off. I should add that Anthony Fusco's performance as the scheming notary, Monsieur de Bonnefoi, and as the truly twisted apothecary, Monsieur Fleurant, was exceptionally pleasurable. The notary, attached to the gold-digging evil wife, schemes and manipulates; but he is a bad guy and is eventually chased off and humiliated. The apothecary, however, embodies our fears and our vicarious hopes ... he is the mean man with the enema, yet we can openly hope that the enema is delivered and we can take pleasure in the discomfiture of poor ... well not so poor ... Argon. Fusco made a fabulous evil enema-dealing apothecary.

But every step on the way in this farce is a peculiar representation of deception ... whether Argon deceiving himself, or his wife is deceiving him, or his daughter is deceiving herself, and so on. And meanwhile, the author is deceiving us because he constructs characters again and again who are not who they seem to be, but they are, and we know it, but we pretend we don't so we can laugh.

Farce is a rhetoric of deception that is unusually open about its purposes and its methods. Part of its allure is that the author's toolkit is on full display. I am intrigued by the idea of a rhetoric of deception in every text, and I hope to return to it frequently. But starting with farce, I think, allows us to look at the elements of deception with exceptional clarity.

So those elements include an author with multiple purposes, an audience hoping to be deceived but reserving its savoir faire and savvy, characters who are not what they seem, and devices in the author's toolkit such as that juxtaposition and reversal to which I allude in this blog from time to time.

I plan to return to this theme in thinking about the movie C.R.A.Z.Y. when I get around to watching it again.

Click here for my previous post on the Imaginary Invalid.

Photo by Arod, down by Fisherman's Wharf

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Imaginary Invalid

Didn't think I had the mojo to blog tonight ... it's MRU course catalog time and I am buried in the avalanche of minutiae that constitute the life of a catalog editor ... each tiny fact essential to someone and hence to the integrity of my publication, so there is no slacking on even the most minor little thing. Every jot and dot is life and death.

In that context, thinking about the American Conservatory Theater production of an adaptation of Molière's Imaginary Invalid. Now, I am given to enjoy theater, and hence to like productions unless there is some glaring fault, and this production had the advantage of having its audience in stitches through much of our time together. There was a little lag mid second act, and I thought that the maid Toinette's turn as a fake male doctor was a little weak, but these are quibbles. I laughed at a play 334 years old, and that alone is a recommendation.

The play got me thinking of farce. It is a send-up of a hypochondriac, and of the machinations of an evil gold-digging wife, an excessively innocent and by implication stupid daughter, a money grubbing doctor and his fool son anxious for an easy catch of a pretty wife, and a by turns fumbling and frothing suitor. In other words, all the characters are stock elements of comedy, not so much people or personages as they are caricatures from the moment they appear on stage.

In the A.C.T. production, John Apicella portrays Argan, the “imaginary invalid", and his tour de force in the opening scene where he fudges and fusses over obviously useless remedies and potions establishes both him and the play as farce. We empathize with this fool and we ridicule him at the same moment. That is something that farce both indulges and enforces ... to be both with the character and mocking him simultaneously. In other words, farce requires both intimacy and distance, both empathy and knowing superior disdain. With only empathy, you would have only pathos; with only disdain, glum self-satisfaction. You cannot enjoy farce if you are convinced only of your own superiority, but if you cannot luxuriate even briefly in superiority, you are equally immune to farce.

I am the invalid and I ridicule him.

As an aside, this is another example of juxtaposition and reversal, and I am going again to defer an examination of this feature of performance and text ... but I want to note it for future reference.

Farce tends to end happily because tragedy would break the bubble created by the unacknowledged tension between interiorizing the fool and mocking him at the same moment. This farce ends in a betrothal between beautiful but simple daughter and handsome but simple lover, and it ends in the invalid becoming his own doctor. In other words there are two conflations here: the expected conflation of destined lovers, and the unexpected conflation of patient and healer. In this case, the patient is not a patient, and the healer is not a healer, so perhaps the lovers are not so much lovers as they are children in a sandbox, another set of fools to whom we may feel ourselves superior even as we acknowledge ourselves in them.

So the farce is an antidote to the seriousness of an everyday life in which every jot and dot is life and death, because jot and dot in farce leads only to ridicule both of self and the other. There is no greater relaxation both because it encompasses all the elements of living even as it lets us out of our cage for a while. Laugh and be merry because tomorrow it's back to work; laugh and be merry because I am the fool I mock, and still tomorrow it is back to work.

I have absolutely got to crash ... I am exhausted. Perhaps tomorrow I will try the farce technique I have outlined above on myself, and perhaps I will be laughing a little more than grousing when I get home.

Click here for my next post on the Imaginary Invalid.

Drawing by Honoré Daumier, ca. 1857, Le Malade imaginaire.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ritual Roasters

Just spent an hour and a half proofreading in Ritual Roasters, or is it Ritual Grounds, or are they one and the same. I have always called this place Ma, because their logo looks like the mirror image of the Arabic letters mîm-aleph, which would be pronounced Ma. Funny how when you get something like that in your head you can't get the right name in without a lot of effort. I'll take a pic of the place on the way out and mount it tonight.

Working in a cafe is the way I was meant to live ... not sure how they make any money in a place like this with all the underconsuming, eyes-to-the-screen, Web 2.0 geeks plugging up the place, but there is a steady line of customers.

Gotta go ... I am able to work-from-cafe today because my roommate has a day off ... we normally commute together to MRU. I think I'll have a bite to eat on the way to work, though. At this time of year ... I produce the course catalog for MRU ... I work at home every night and all weekend, so I do not feel guilty having a slightly easy morning.

But, oh, to be young, geeky, and working from a cafe every day. That would be the life.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Kenneth Burke

Been playing with LibraryThing ... the obsessive-compulsive bibliophile's online toy. Tonight I entered a lot of
Kenneth Burke in my library ... my favorite literary critic. Bemoaning how little time a working stiff has to spend browsing in a lifetime's bibliographic gathering. So I looked him up in Wikipedia, and they had this sweet line": "Language, Burke thought, doesn't simply 'reflect' reality; it also helps select reality as well as deflect reality."

Not reflect, but select/deflect. Reflect is the first refuge of anti-dialectical thought .. the first refuge of common sense, the obvious, the easy. Select and deflect imply not just the obvious choice so much as the contradictory impulses of engaging and avoiding. Select/deflect imply choice and activity, engagement and intellect. They imply thought and abstraction. Reflection is passive and receptive. Select/deflect is activity and resistance.

Not sure where in the prodigious output of Kenneth Burke one would find his ruminations on these words, but this is what always attracted me to him ... engaging the artist, empowering the audience, demanding of the intellect.

More posts on Kenneth Burke here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Gay Activist

Found the pic I was looking for.

Gay Day is always so evocative, and thinking about and writing the post immediately preceding this one made it the more so. No doubt everyone feels the same way confronted with themselves 30 years ago. That said, it is yet another of the unexpected challenges of writing a blog.

This is me speaking at the National Gay Rights Rally in 1976. I cannot remember where in Toronto that speech occurred, though I think it was at City Hall. But the moment itself when I was speaking is burned into me. And, not to be too maudlin, I am still proud of that moment.

Oh well ... here's the photo, the moment, time frozen, long ago, still present.

No idea who took the photo, though I think it was on film in my own camera since I believe that I have the negative. Context here.

Gay Day

Today is Gay Day ... that's what gay guys called it for years, especially after it became such a long name it was essentially impossible to remember the order of the honored. Nowadays people seem to call it Pride, and it's officially the 37th Annual San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration. I thought I would write about my past in the gay movement on this day that does, indeed, fill me with pride. The pride is not so much for being gay ... that is no particular accomplishment though it is certainly a joy ... it is for being openly gay, and for what we gay people have done in the course of the last four decades. We went from unmentionable and reviled, and criminal and sick, to accepted, notwithstanding that we are the one minority that it is still acceptable to openly hate in America today. We are the authors of our own freedom, and that is what makes me proud.

The photo is of me in ca 1975 or 76 ... I include it because I cannot locate the photos I intended to use. The photo is a self-portrait ... I took it immediately after I finished painting the pillar beside me which my good friend Robin Simpson gave me ... Robin is gone, alas.

I was always gay ... I just didn't know the word for it until I was 14. Learning the name for it was not a pleasant experience ... I classically thought I was the only one, and that life would be hell. I wondered if people could read my thoughts. I remember fantasizing about being grown up and happily gay, living in an apartment in Vancouver ... I was in high school in Winnipeg at the time ... and it is strange how true my teenage vision turned out to be.

I came out in December of 1972. I was only 19, but I thought at the time that it far overdue. I remember walking the length of College Avenue in Toronto one day because I knew that there was some sort of meeting of gay youth at U of T. But I bumped into somebody I knew, and that was excuse enough not to go all the way. So I ended up moving to Windsor, Ontario, and helped to organize a gay liberation group there before I had been in a gay bar ... indeed, before I met more than a handful of gay people, and when I was, shall we say, only once removed (and clumsily at that) from virginity.

That gay liberation group was Windsor Gay Unity. It replaced a pre-existing group that was called, I think, the Windsor Homophile Society, but it was not really a functional group. In those days, gay was replacing homophile, and that says a lot about the affect of the young gay liberationists. Many of the oldsters of the era resented and feared us. We ... and by we I mean in the broadest sense the gay men and women who comprised the movement ... took a lesson from the black movement's slogan "Black is Beautiful" and created our own slogan: "Gay is Good." No matter how long gay liberation has gone on, no matter how many years, no matter how comfortable we have become, that slogan remains the core of our movement and our freedom. It is the simple truth with which we changed the world, and if we have pride it should be pride in the fact that we have proven that gay is good.

The most vivid memory of Windsor Gay Unity was the aftermath of our first dance at the University of Windsor ... gay lib groups then often held public dances as a way of being out of the closet. A bunch of thugs attacked us, so I wrote a leaflet entitled "Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win" ... we distributed in the bars around town frequented by our straight young peers. We stated that we would defend ourselves, and that thugs would not force us back into the closet. At the next dance, a couple of guys from Ann Arbor who were karate types dressed in drag and paraded around in front of the event, daring a challenge. But there was none, and we held our dance in peace.

I attended the first national gay rights coalition in Quebec City in the summer of 1973, and subsequently played a role in Saskatoon in 1974, Ottawa in 1975 (at which time I came out to my parents who never hesitated a millisecond in their love and support), and Toronto in 1976. I gave the keynote address at the 1976 Gay Rights March in Toronto, and there is a clip of that in a recent documentary about the struggle for gay civil rights in Ontario ... if I ever get a copy of it, I will put a clip on YouTube.

Those were the days when gay liberation was a tiny band of stalwarts, believers, lovers, and friends. It was overwhelmingly male, but that was because the women by and large refused involvement ... I remember all the arguments about how they had to choose between women's liberation and gay liberation, and it was certainly true that the women's movment of the 70s was profoundly homophobic. I once addressed a rally of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action Coalition (CARAL) on behalf of the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE) in Vancouver .. they tried to prevent us from speaking by talking us to death underneath the dais, so I just marched on to the stage in between speakers. You could have heard a pin drop, but I used some of the same verbiage from that 1976 Toronto march and I got a great cheer. I gotta say that was one of the best moments in my life.

But before that, in 1974, I left Windsor. I only told two of my army of comrades there that I would never return. I pretty much snuck out and went cross-country by train ... Toronto ... Winnipeg where I stayed with a gay couple who had a monkey, and I cut off my pony tail ... Saskatoon where there was a conference, and where I briefly considered stopping to try to become a student ... Edmonton where I stayed with a gay activist who was a Slavic scholar and on whom I had a crush ... and ended up in Vancouver where I started out by crashing with Maurice Flood and Bob Cook who were two-fourths of the central core of GATE. The third fourth was Michael Merrill who moved back to the States a few months later but remained a best friend till his death in 1989. The fourth fourth was Ian Mackenzie who is still my best friend 33 years later.

I'll write about Maurice on some other occasion ... when I refer to him nowadays I call him my-friend-turned-enemy-now-deceased, but as time has passed, I don't like to think of the enmity phase. He was a truly single-minded man, and brusque and hard to a fault. But he had a single-minded vision that gay liberation was about civil rights first and foremost, and he fought the ultralefts and the compromisers with equal force and venom. He would roll over in his grave to read this, but I think it was Maurice who taught me that the truth is generally in the middle.

In the six years that I lived in Vancouver, my life was the gay movement. We took a gay rights case to the Supreme Court of Canada, and lost! I was at various time the chairman of GATE and the editor of Gay Tide, our regular publication. We used to sell it in the bars for a quarter, and the bars were aligned with a compromiser organization called SEARCH (I think that was the Society for Education, Action, Research and something on Homosexuality) ... it was basically a tool of the bar owners. I was this scrawny, pushy little activist ... I remember one time a SEARCH dude whose name I will not mention since he later became a bit of a saint in another context ... he too is gone ... tried to prevent me from selling Gay Tide by chasing me around the tables in a bar.

I went to my first San Francisco Gay Day parade in 1978 ... pretty sure it was 78, the year when the parade famously started with banners of Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, and Anita Bryant! It was my second visit to San Francisco, but I had conceived the notion that it was here I needed to be. I landed a job that sponsored me for a green card, and I moved here on January 1, 1981. Gay Liberation in San Francisco was on the verge of leaving the "heroic" period of purity and activism, but we had one last shot of it in a brief and ill-fated group called Solidarity, bizarrely named after the Polish workers' movement of the time. I never understood that. The group had a meltdown after less than a year, and I was a former activist for the first time in my life. It was a hard adjustment ... took me years. Of course, along came AIDS and that changed everything.

But on Gay Day I can say that I am inordinately proud of what I did in the 70s, of the role that I played in the gay movement. But far more so I am proud of our movement because, to repeat myself, we are the authors of our own freedom. Young gay men and women should never forget, they should never take it for granted. Because the frothing bigots are still there, and they would slaughter us as guiltlessly as they would lie about their savior. As we live our lives of comfort and satisfaction, we should not forget that the battles we fought and won are still being fought and unwon in places like Iran and Russia and Poland and China, not to mention Alabama and Colorado Springs and the Vatican.

Gay is good.

Photo by Arod, self-portrait, ca 1976.

Laurine and me

This is a pic of Laurine Harrison, whose untimely and sudden death I wrote about two days ago, and me at Christmas at the apartment of my friend whom I nicknamed Dodge. The year is probably 1978, perhaps 1979. I opened a box looking for something else, and there it was.

Photo, I suspect, by my friend GK, ca 1978.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Walkin' with Loki

Exquisite day today. We got moving early because this is one of those days with no pause ... I'm able to blog for a bit only because Trader Joe's does not wake up very early.

Panhandle: They've put up an intriguing temporary bandshell in the Panhandle, made entirely of recycled materials ... car hoods, water bottles, and circuit boards, as well as recycled lumber. It is for a summer long festival of non-amplified music, poetry, performance, what not. As I photographed it, I talked about it with a 30-something rugged-looking homeless guy with a square box black tattoo on his face. He bemoaned that somebody would probably graffiti the thing ... but we agreed it is great to get people into public spaces for art. As he walked away I noticed he had a loin cloth hanging over the ass of his pants ... I've seen that before with homeless folks. I wonder what it is for, or if it just style.

I kept thinking all walk long about Sebastiane. I did not expect the film to have such an impact on me in terms of thinking about the modalities by which Christianity conquered the Roman world. I wrote in my dissertation about Anthony Johns' notion of modalities for explaining how Islam conquered the Malay world, and I have been thinking that this would be a fruitful way to answer one of the big questions that got me reading the middle ages over the last year ... why did Christianity win? I am going to take a few days from this, even though I think I have some fruitful paths to follow at this point. I want to spend the next few days thinking about Gay Day and gay liberation and all it has meant to me and mine.

Of course, thinking about gay liberation and thinking about Sebastian have some crossovers.

An old friend, Laurine Harrison, passed away very suddenly in Vancouver this week, and I heard from another old friend who now lives in Los Angeles about it. I guess that is part of getting older ... you hear about things when people die. I had a decade of I call "the Deaths" when I lost an army of friends, acquaintances, and passers-by to AIDS. But no amount of death seems to prepare you for more of it. Laurine was a good person who made a good life, and by report was an iconic figure at Simon Fraser University. I haven't spoken with her in easily 20 years, and now I wish I had. Of course, it is a vain hope to stay in touch with everybody, but the longing for the things we have to pass up is all the more acute when we no longer have the choice.

Squabbling monkeys: A couple of pointless squabbles in my life yesterday. We are monkeys, of course, and we squabble. Unavoidable but loathsome. I am a bit of a coward about conflict ... I just want everything to be calm and pacific ... rather than, say, squalling and atlantic. Does that mean anything? All will soon pass, but I always promise never to squabble again, and it always comes to a bad end.

Walkin' with Loki: Of nasty stuff, redux, oft comes good ... I am happy that I stopped walking on Saturday mornings in the Gough area consequent upon the desecration of the Hebrew Free Loan Association about which I blogged a while back because I am encountering the Haight anew. It is certainly better to walk the Haight very early, and in the sunny morning it is beautiful and calm, a little paradise, or more to the point, a bunch of little paradises nestled into each other. I like to look up because there is more beauty there, and in the Haight you have to watch what you might see if you look down too much ... don't want to step in it though, so one has to be alert.

Photos by Arod, taken today.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Evocative Vocative Disambiguation

I kept wondering why the film is called Sebastiane when Sebastian's Latin name would pretty clearly be Sebastianus. Then it struck me that this is the vocative ... O Sebastian. The vocative case of a second declension noun in -us is -e. So the name of the film addresses Sebastian, and this supports, I would argue, the notion that the film is really about Severus as a stand-in for the audience. He/we cry out, O Sebastian, and then we arrow him.

Other posts on Sebastiane:
More Thoughts on Sebastian
Sebastian: Patron Saint of Gay Men

Thursday, June 21, 2007

More Thoughts on Sebastian

I am reminded in thinking about this film of the arguments of the fabulous Cal Professor Carol J. Clover in her explosive Men, Women, and Chainsaws who, to reduce an argument far beyond what it deserves, achieves the association of the intended audience not with the victimizer but with the victimized ... she argued that the young men who love slasher films are not vicariously murdering women, but rather vicariously becoming women who are murdered or, in the case of the heroines, threatened with murder. Let me pause to say that anyone who loves structure or argument in fiction or performance needs to visit Carol Clover's work. I'll get back to why she comes to mind in thinking about Sebastiane.

This film is about Severus. Remember that Severus is the blond long-haired, fabulously sexy commander who ties up and tortures Sebastian, but cannot bring himself to rape him. The film is about Severus because he is the subject of Sebastian's erotic and unattainable objectness. As subject, as actor, it is Severus who cannot penetrate, that is to say he cannot be active, and ends up by substituting the arrowing execution for his impotence. The impulse to activity is reduced to impotence by nothing more than witnessing the Christian in his refusal of body, sensuality, and the old gods.

The film when it appeared was deemed "controversial" because of the saturated male nudity (only one erection, by the way, which the British censors excised, as it were) and the open and positive expressions of male homosexuality, a first by many reckonings. Most common critics seem to focus on this controversy, but the controversy really amounts to nothing more than one part of a doubled deception by the auteur, Jarman. Both the controversy and the covering provided by the only apparently positive portrayal of a Christian saint obscure the penetrating insight into what Christianity actually meant in the late empire, and how in the end it succeeded in destroying its foes and compelling them to its will. So when you think about this film, ignore the pseudo-controversy, and confront the layered deceptions of authorial intent.

One central deception is that we think the film is about Sebastian. But he has only one action in the film ... to be or have become a Christian ... while Severus continually confronts his impotence, his inability to assert his due authority, his failure to take the one he wants, and the fact that that failure transmogrifies into desire. When he states that he loves Sebastian, it is only because he cannot have him, and he cannot have him not because Sebastian actively forbids it, but because Sebastian's passivity undermines his activity. Sebastian in the middle of being tortured passively intones that Severus can never have him and never did have him. Christianity is about denial ... denial of passion, eroticism, human contact.

Here again, Jarman represents Christianity in action before the state, in the form of Constantine, adopted and transformed it. The action is passive ... Christianity bears witness but does nothing. It forces the cults and the practices and the orgies and every activity of paganism both in its moribund classical form and moreso in the new mystery cults that arose in the vacuum of dessicated Roman religion ... it forces them slowly to come round to it. It does so in the same way that Sebastian ensnares Severus by his sublime passivity. This is the great insight that Jarman, both by his weak narrative and his strong structure, communicates in this consuming film. Christianity won by its sublime passivity. Later, of course, it consolidated its victory by ferocious activity, but this is not Jarman's project to elucidate.

It may appear curious that Severus does not appear at the execution; his final penetrating victory takes place in his absence ... and why is that? This is where the subtlety of Jarman's vision hides in plain sight. Because the absence of Severus proves the identity of the victim and the victimizer. For the audience who has been deceived into thinking that the film is about Sebastian whom they never can become, rather than Severus who they indubitably are, the absence of Severus at the climax allows the deception to achieve its effect. There is Sebastian, expiring and ecstatic, in agony and yet fading ... we want to be him, to take him, to absorb him ... but in that longing, we have become Severus, and his absence points to our being there in his place. The deceptive author has stripped him out of the action and forced us to be there. And in being there, we who are Severus cannot help but try to identify with the very Sebastian who has told us we cannot have him.

But the arrowing does not need us any more than any other part of the film needs us, and so it is quiet, impassive, lacking in the drama that any execution should naturally have. And that is because in the end this film is not about us, it is not about Sebastian ... it is about Severus and his world that Sebastian and you and I have destroyed by our infernal passivity and resignation and acceptance of that which ends up happening.

The double movement of denial, followed by denial of denial. We are not there, and we deny that we are not there.

Back to Clover ... "What makes horror 'crucial enough to pass along' is ... what has made ghost stories and fairy tales crucial enough to pass along: Its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings ... just as the attacker and the attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares, so they are expressions of the same self in horror film." (pp 11-12). Severus and Sebastian are the same. But Sebastian is unattainable, so we are stuck with being Severus ... desirous, frustrated, defeated, catharsized. And Christ, unnamed, "you'll never have me, and you've never had me." Christianity as the unattainable, bodiless, anti-erotic. See what we have lost, what has been taken from us. This is Jarman's genius.

Other posts on Sebastiane:
Evocative Vocative Disambiguation
Sebastian: Patron Saint of Gay Men

Both images from my TV, the first of the arrowing, the second the ineffable, unattainable Sebastian at his moment of denial.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sebastian, Patron Saint of Gay Men

Thanks to Netflix, I finally watched Derek Jarman's Sebastiane last night, a compact 84 minutes of casual male nudity, conjunctural and committed homosexuality, and eroticized proto-Christian masochism. The plot is thin ... we know its broad lines going in, after all, so in that sense this movie is about the eloquence of the telling not the mystery of the outcome, using the terms of Kenneth Burke which I discussed with reference to McCabe and Mrs. Miller: "We cannot take a recurrent pleasure in the new (in information) but we can in the natural (in form)" ... the key word is recurrent, we cannot enjoy something again and again when it is focussed on the new rather than on the style or the form.

So let us start by looking at this film as form, not as plot ... as natural in the sense of the action occurring "as if" it does not need an audience rather than as openly contrived for a defined audience whose ignorance of the outcome and desire for entertainment is the force behind not merely the narrative but the fact of the film itself. What is that silly runnaway bus film with Keanu Reeves ... that sort of film is made with the audience in the foreground. Sebastian makes the audience squirm because it does not know if it is supposed to be present.

This seems funny in the first place because of the unflagging eroticism of the film from beginning to end. The first scene is a bacchanal in presense of Diocletian, the pagan emperor who unleashed the last major persecution of Christians before Constantine's decree of tolerance in 313. The ultimately cruel Maximus, one of those coarse jackasses who populate every workplace in history, tells us that he next saw the sublimely sexy and obviously homosexual Sebastian at an outpost to which both were assigned not knowing why. The bacchanal serves only to situate us where we do not belong, to remind us of the mythology of the Christian writing of history and to establish that the auteur sees no there there. It is an empty device, perhaps essential to reminding us that we do not need to be there, but empty in the sense that it does not matter to plot or to us, the audience for whom the author has no time.

Cut to a stone fortress, a rocky desert, an empty scene in which only the nearly always nearly nude soldiers appear. Except for the initial bacchanal, nudity is as natural and unaffected as the rocks in the desert in which Sebastian and his comrades are posted. They fight, and Sebastian refuses to fight. They gambol, and they make crude sexual insults. Male love appears without narrative motivation, as natural as the spashing water in the long, strangely clean scene of wet intercourse between serenely beautiful Anthony and Adrian until they are called away by Severus, the commander in the sun, who wants them to hurt the reluctant and homoerotically charged Sebastian. This is where we first see in its full articulation the play betwen the unsatisfied and lustful sadist ... Severus ... and the passive masochist, the Christian Sebastian. The commander stakes him spread-eagled in the blazing sun rather than raping him.

Christianity is the oddity, here, though it is certainly noble or rare or at least as refined and sublime as the long wrassle in the water. Rape too is natural, like the hot sun, burning, unpleasant, but known and inevitable.

Why is Sebastian a Christian? Why does he never mention Jesus by name? He refers to him as sublimely beautiful, as more beautiful than Adonis, as if he has substituted the unavailable beauty of the invisible unnamed Jesus for the pressing, insistent and ready-to-go beauty of Severus ... as if the new erotic god who cannot be touched supersedes the old gods whose worship always entailed touch and pleasure. Is Christianity, then, nothing more than frustration, the weakness of a character facing his own sensuality who transforms himself so that he has the strength to resist urges, pleasures? Why is Sebastian more sublime than the lovers in the water? Is it because he allows Severus to hurt him while the lovers allow Severus to bully them?

What is at work here is what I like to call the pretense of unselfconsciousness ... it is "as if" we would not notice when things turn into their opposite. You see, and there is no way around this in the film, Sebastian is as gay as anybody else, as wrapped up in his sensuality and his ability to allure as any of them. But he has slyly turned himself into his opposite. He is a gay man whose erotic force has reversed itself so that it is directed not toward the physical men who surround and desire him, but toward an imaginary figure whom he associates with the Sun. He frustrates his willing rapist, Severus, to the point where he can be martyred. And we are not supposed to notice; we are invited to pretend to feel the sorrow of his loss.

Jarman captured an essential fact of pre-Constantine Christianity, that it served in its history to metamorphose the fulminating movements of spritual and emotional change that roiled through Roman life in the second and third centuries, to transform them drip by drip back ino the empire. It took on the cults, overwhelmed them, and made them temporarily into a rebellious if unarmed Christianity, all the better to reharness them after Constantine to empire and dominance. Now, there is a teleology here ... that is, I am implying that those who operated before Constantine knew that he would follow, and this is false ... but Jarman argues from after the fact. His pretense of unselfconsciousness works because he knows what happened, and he allows Sebastian to represent in his martyrdom not the victory of Chrstianity but the defeat of the erotic.

The climax of the film for me is the torture scene in which Sebastian, tied arms over his head is pinched and struck and threatened and hurt by a Severus who ends up being impotent ... the impotence not apparent, but obvious by the fact that he does not rape his prisoner. Masochism triumphant, sadism humbled. Then the soldiers sitting around apparently torturing someone (I think I missed something here because I cannot identify for you the one with the crown of thorns and the wound in his side that the soldiers were hurting) and they are called ... "Sebastian is to be killed."

The execution by arrows is quiet, slow, the pain is on the face. He does not seem to die. The penetration hovers been life giving and film ending. He is an object of desire, penetrated, strung up, inaccessible, unavoidable. It is difficult watching this to distinguish between pleasure and pain. Is that what Christianity was? Did the martyr merely compress all the ecstasy into one auto da fe?

The film ends, and Sebastian is still an erotic object. The patron saint of gay men.

I will try to return to some of these themes in the next few days. I have been reading an essay on Hellenism and Heresy that dovetails nicely. Another weird connection is this ... Severus reminded me of the hippie who rejected me in Yellow Springs. That is a little juxtaposition and reversal.

Other posts on Sebastiane:
Evocative Vocative Disambiguation
More Thoughts on Sebastian

Both images from my TV, the top overlays Sebastian on Severus, the bottom is Severus.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sir Salman

Bravo to the Brits for knighting Salman Rushdie. Predictably, the pustulent zealots who terrorize the Muslim world are rioting again, calling for killings and slaughter and maimings. They're good at that, their only stock in trade. We ... and by we I mean rational lovers of freedom ... we need to remind these swaggering bigots that we have a history too. We fought religious bigotry in our world for centuries, and we beat it back. We will not be dragged back into the dungeon in which these monsters live and where they drool and rub their hands in glee as they torture their victims.

Salman Rushdie is without a doubt one of the greatest English authors of the period, perhaps in history. When I was at Cal, I taught his Midnight's Children, an epic saga set in Bombay during the birth of India and the horrid Partition visited upon Indians not by the British but by bigoted Islamists. Graduate students often end up being rather sequestered in what they study. My tiny, fraught-with-squabbling department was predominantly concerned with South Asian studies, and the few us involved in Southeast Asia had little choice but to teach South Asian material. I viewed it as an opportunity to get out of my sequestered life for a bit, and I chose to teach the literature of Partition because I had never read it before ... if I could not stay ahead of a bunch of freshmen, then I didn't deserve to be teaching them. I remember that reading of Midnight's Children as one of the intellectual oases of my graduate career.

Two little quotes, out of context, that illustrate both his style and his prescience:

Is it possible to be jealous of written words? To resent nocturnal scribblings as though they were the very flesh and blood of a sexual rival?

And this paragraph that ends the book:

Yes, they will trample me underfoot, the numbers marching one two three, four hundred million five hundred six, reducing me to specks of voiceless dust, just as, in all good time, they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first generation, until a thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died, because it is their privilege and the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.

Salman Rushdie is my hero. Shame on his professional Muslim haters. They have nothing to offer but the bile of their frothing nightmares.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Yellow Springs

Curious article within the last day or two about Antioch College of the innovators in free education ... curious how free can means both cheap and liberated, even though the cheap nowadays enslaves us. The "free" of Antioch was the free of the spirit. The New York Times article will be buried in their archive shortly, but you can read the statement of the Board here.

Antioch has run its course, and they have decided to suspend the undergraduate program at the end of AY 2007-08 ... AY being academic year ... because they are getting too few undergrads to be economically viable. Antioch, frankly, betrayed its heritage with a ludicrous and infamous sexual harrassment policy in the 90s in which, by report, they mandated that consensual partners were required to seek permission for each separate step on the way to consummation ... may I caress you now ... may I now move to slip my fingers under the waistband of your boxers ... I'm not making this up, I am only changing the identity of the undergarments in question.

I visited Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the summer of 1973. I lived in Windsor, Ontario, at the time ... I was an earnest "progressive" proselytizing simulataneously among the straight leftoids and a bunch of my gay party brothers for a progressive gay movement. I am being a little snide, I guess, but I learned a lot in Windsor, and the one thing I have done in my life that definitely changed the world was my involvement in gay liberation in the 70s.

But back to Antioch, two high school friends of mine were there. I decided that summer to set out for Winnipeg on my bicycle. I got as far as Sudbury, via the Bruce Peninsula, and realized that I had bitten off a little more than I could chew (I cannot write this without making mention of the crazy dude I met on the ferry from Bruce Peninsula to Manitoulin Island whose face is burned in my mind even if I do not remember his name ... the face, after all, is essential and the name a mere passing icon ... and with whom I spent a passionless night in a tent on the far end of that Bruce Pensinsula/Manitoulin Island ferry ... older than I preferred at the time, but I have never forgotten him). So at Sudbury I grabbed a train, returned to Toronto and hid out at my then recently ex-girlfriend's house ... Paula ... yes, I was briefly straight, and I truly loved her, but being a fag at heart, it had no chance ... and then I headed south. I got a ticket frm the OPP on the QEW somewhere past Hamilton because I did not want to climb the escarpment ... for those not from Ontario, suffice to say that I cycled on a freeway to avoid a really big hill ... it sounds a lot more ridiculous now than it did in the "innocent" 70s ... time is always innocent at a distance.

I passed through Buffalo, and then through Erie and then to Cleveland ... each of these places an adventure that I must write about some time. But I ended up in Yellow Springs and crashed at the house that one of my friends lived in. We all went off to a anti-war demonstration in Dayton ... I remember a lot of reverberant yelling in some kind of mall downtown. And we returned to Yellow Springs.

A night or two later I managed to find my way to a Dayton gay bar. I am not sure how I got there because my friends were straight and being gay in 1973 was a distinct way to be embarassed among straight leftos. Liberals like to project present attitudes to points in the past, but the reality of the early 70s is that gay guys were an embarassment to the left, especially when we got horny. We were 20, after all.

I met this hippie dude, Aaron, a few years older and a few inches taller than I, with the hair and the twinkling eyes that were standards of the period ... I fell hard for him in some disco bar in Dayton. But he had his eye on some preppy thing, and we ended up all three of us in a car heading back to Yellow Springs. Aaron was rejected by the prep dude and then turned on me for witnessing his failure. In 34 subsequent years of being out of the closet, no moment has been more painful than Aaron yelling at me to get lost. That is my memory of Yellow Springs. Adolescent, frustrated, uncomprehending, incomprehensible, earnest.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Been a little distracted over the last few days ... rather consumed by two long-time best friends in town, and the typo referenced a few days ago.

DH and I met at Cal in an introductory Indonesian language class in 1985. He has globe-trotted ever since, and whenever he stops off in SF we take a long drive either up or down the coast. This time we went to Santa Cruz with a stop in Half Moon Bay for green eggs and ham at a nice little place. We abandoned our former preferred breakfast place ... can't for the life of me remember the name ... because it moved and that seems to have drained at least the aesthetic funk of the place. Besides, we would have been condemned to wait for half an hour with an unusually dour lot of larger-than-they-oughtta-be burbanites out slumming for authenticity in the tickitty-boo Half Moon Bay. By all of that, I mean that we snottily thought ourselves better than the other customers.

We picked the rather cooler place down the street. The waitresses were all young women with tons of hair, frankly amply endowed, and humorless to a fault. The busboys were all fetching young men who never stood still. The bartender was a stud. Seems to be some sort of hiring paradigm at work. The green eggs and ham were passable.

So it was on to Santa Cruz via HIghway 1, a favorite drive in my amazingly peppy '86 Honda Civic. DH opined that no economist has come close to assessing the true cost of the Iraq War. We agree that it is the single greatest blunder in American history. DH states that the U.S. has spent an additional 5 trillion dollars on oil .. he compared barrel prices pre-war and now, and he discounts world demand increases because he states that production has kept pace.

Certainly it is amazing how lily-livered most of the commentary remains even as we come to the sickening realization of how colossal the idiocy at the top has been. Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart are far ahead in terms of their sharpness. I like the curiously muscular Anderson Cooper, but he retains a phony "balance" in the face of an irreducible imbalance of evidence. There comes a time when we have to call things by their real names.

When we got to to Santa Cruz, I managed to maneuver us into a permanent traffic jam by the beach ... it turned out that everyone was lining up to get into two or three parking lots, but the good city managers of laid-back Santa Cruz have not managed to figure out how to do this without creating gridlock by the pleasure fair. Ludicrous. We nevertheless enjoyed the views, the eye candy, the opportunity to reflect on the crassness and the gaudy beauty of a great amusement park. I vowed to come back one rainy Sunday next winter with dog and camera to photograph the place.

I eventually wormed back to the "historic downtown" and we walked the length of the street and back. The photos are from some hoardings.

DH is one of the best conversationalists I have ever known. We once drove a friend's car from San Francisco to New York via New Orleans in five days, and that included the only 24 hours I ever spent in the Big Easy ... the conversation never flagged even for a moment.

We had a long slow drive back up the coast talking about our lives, and ended up having dinner at the home of the other old friend in town at the moment. Time shooting the breeze with old friends is the best time.

Photos by Arod.

Friday, June 15, 2007

God and a Bag of Flour

Inadvertently expressive piece about the association of god and misery today in the Chroncle in an article about the takeover of Gaza by Hamas:

A resident of a Hamas-dominated neighborhood, identifying himself only as Yousef for fear of reprisal by his neighbors, said Gazans would always back the winner, regardless of ideology.

"Today everybody is with Hamas because Hamas won the battle. If Fatah had won the battle they'd be with Fatah. We are a hungry people, we are with whoever gives us a bag of flour and a food coupon," said Yousef, 30. "Me, I'm with God and a bag of flour."

I think it is the bag of flour that counts, but invoking some god serves both as a talisman in the magical sense of religion and a prosaic, distinctly secular, but hopeful plea that Yusuf might be spared by his neighbors should they find out about his blunt statement by reason of his belief ... in the sense that "I'm one of you, I believe, don't kill me." Good luck, Yusuf. We know it is rough corner of the world.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Typo

Had a bad typo today ... not gonna talk about it. When you print publications, life is a series of hopefully long, peaceful interludes between the gnashing agony of the typo that gets through. I have a mental list of every one I have ever printed. Today's was nasty ... only upside is that we have to reprint, so at least it will never see the inside of an archive. Agony.

So I had best appease the typo gods with this little paean that I have long had taped to some visible spot in my office.

The typographical error is a slippery thing and sly;

You can hunt it 'til you are dizzy, but it somehow will get by.

'Til the forms are off the presses, it is strange how still it sleeps;

It shrinks down in a corner, and it never stirs or peeps.

That typographical error is too small for human eyes;

'Til the ink is on the paper, when it grows to mountain size.

The boss just stares with horror, then he grabs his hair and groans;

The copy reader drops his head upon his hands and moans.

The remainder of the issue may be clean as clean can be;

But the typographical error is the only thing they'll see.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Tony Soprano

I have perhaps watched a cumulative 10 minutes of this series, much praised by the critics. I prefer comedy ... and news, science, sports, documentaries ... not much into drama except for Columbo-type things. And I think that gangs are scum ... no romantic here about thugs who victimize the innocent and all the rest of us.

But I believe, notwithstanding the paucity of my experience, that the man was rubbed out. Shot. Gunned down. Dead as a doornail.

Think of the Arabian Nights. Shahrazade keeps telling stories because if she stops, Shahryar kills her. So the story is life, the end of the story is death. That is how a frame tale works ... a frame tale being a tale that is the container for other tales. Story equals life; end of story is death.

Therefore, end of Sopranos means Tony is toast.

Remember also that Shahryar's motivation for killing virgins he has defiled the night before is the infidelity of his wife. This whole mob tale is based on an utterly fictional concept of fidelity, and any fictional breach of the fictional fidelity means death. So breach the fiction, kill the story, the whore is dead. Tony is the story and the whore, and he croaks.

That was satisfying ... nice literary argument based upon absolutely not a whit of knowledge of the story in question. The pure argument, unsullied by knowledge or experience.

Still, I think the guy is pushing up daisies.

Monday, June 11, 2007

McCabe and Mrs. Miller redux

Had a few more thoughts about McCabe and Mrs. Miller today ... but first the personal context ... funny day at work as we are less than a week away from the biggest day of the year at MRU, and my big boss is retiring at the same time to great sadness for those of us he leaves in the saddle. He is a fine man, possessed of an obvious and evident stability and bearing that is a little more rare in the halls of the academe than one might expect. He manages to manage an executive administative post with the panache, intelligence, and flexibility that one expects from an academic and intellectual. Anyway, I doubt he will ever read this, so I can say unashamedly that I admire the man, and am selfish enough to regret his leaving us for the deserved relaxation of retirement.

But that has nothing whatsoever to do with McCabe and Mrs. Miller. There's another issue in this film, beyond the issue of eloquence which I addressed yesterday. Let me get to it presently.

When John McCabe first appears on screen, you know he's going to end up dead. But for two-thirds of the movie, the action moves slowly, languidly. The first killing develops out of nothing more than a pair of socks. It is shocking not because you do not expect it, but because it is so senseless; it is the more shocking because the murder is infused with sexuality, both of the recent visit to the whorehouse, and of the invitation by the killer that the presumptive victim strip off his socks. But the internal audience of townspeople, led and represented by the barkeep Sheehan, the Rene Auberjonois character, cowardly watch the action without protest or movement. The film languishes on the body of the dead boy, so recently running half naked among the whores, in the freezing water ... the observer keeps wondering if he will rise, if he is truly dead. The killer, a kid himself, has a face twisted by the presence of death. He coolly contrived a situation in which he could freely kill by duping the boy to pull out his gun. As soon as the gun is there, the bad boy shoots to kill. No one protests, no dialogue is wasted on explaining what is obvious but incomprehensible. It happened, it is over. No one retrieves the body.

That is the first of six killings in this little town which is both actually and literarily manufactured out of wilderness as we watch the film. None of the killings exacts comment, only one is witnessed by the spineless locals. The second killing, of the preacher in his temple, is shocking, brief, and over. The third killing, where the first killer gets his just deserts, is the closest thing to suspense in the film, but it too is over before it starts, and the body floats in another water, this time a vat. The fourth killing takes place through a window, and we do not even know for a long minute if the bastard is dead. And the fifth killing, of the assassin, is obvious, dramatic and fast. A derringer shot to the head, drops dead.

Again, none of this is witnessed. No one in this town, notwithstanding the burning church that is strictly a background action, a coloring of an otherwise ochre scene, no one notices that six men have been shot to death, that their bodies litter the streets. No one hears the shots. No one sees McCabe expire slowly in the snow, the only victim who did not die instantly.

In rhetoric, there is an idea called the implied author. See this as counterposed to the real or biological author. The biological author of the novel is Edmund Naughton. Perhaps we can say that the biological author of the film is Robert Altman, but it is also the producer and the actors ... a film has a committee of biological authors. The implied author is the author whom the observer can construct from observing. It would be a mechanical reduction to assume that the implied author matches the real author ... a real author can play the same sort of game with the implied author as he can play with an unreliable narrator. The implied author is a source of deception, of misdirection, of both innocence and complicity. The implied author is one of us, even is he is not of us. We observe, he pretends to create.

The curiosity of this amazing film is that the implied author is so passive, so uncaring, so unobservant. Live, die, what's the difference. There is no tragedy here. McCabe, who arrives in town exuding threat, turns out to be weak, confused, bamboozled. He has no chance, he never had a chance. Like a cur, he lives till he dies, and no one notices. The strangely flat Mrs. Miller is stoned on opium in a Chinese tent as the bloodshed mounts. She cannot care, she could not care. All that will matter to her is whether she can extract her 1500 bucks. But the film, the implied author, does not bother to tell us that. The implied author does not care.

This relationship between implied author and implied audience (which is to say us as we are predicted and implied and constructed in the text) drives this work, but the driving is weak, just like the townspeople, just like McCabe, just like Mrs. Miller. Six cadavers scattered around, and nothing matters. It reminds me of Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts:

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind upon a tree.

What does this teach us ... do not innocently give in to the affect of the work of art, even as you resign to its conceits. For it is not only, perhaps not especially, the named author with whom we interact, but it is also a chimera, a falsehood, a deception, the author who never existed but who is created each time the text is experienced.

That is why I loved this film ... it left me weak, resigned. It made me a dog going on with my doggy life in a world I neither control not fully understand.

So I leave you with this thought ... this is precisely the Malay idea of pesona, often translated "enchantment". I will return to that on some future occasion.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

I have more or less bypassed movies over the last few decades, and Netflix is allowing me to catch up. Watching movies often fills me with a little dread, and again Netflix allows me to watch the heavier ones in shifts, as it were, so that I can spread the dread enough to get through it without falling into a funk. And it also allows me to live in a filmic world over a longer stretech, and luxuriate in contemplating that world in between snippets.

In the case of Robert Altman's 1971 McCabe and Mrs. Miller, my friend JG more or less pressed it on me ... that is fine since I certainly need help in picking movies given that I have been absent from cinema for so long. He told me that Leonard Cohen, whom I adore and have worshipped since I was a teenager, did the music, so I managed to watch it in two sittings spread over a week.

I noticed that there is not much story, or leastwise that the story is not what drives the experience. Altman confirmed this in his commentary, saying that the story was not particularly well written, and contained so many stock elements that he knew that the audience would know, so he did not have to spend much energy as a director in telling the story. Instead, he could view the movie as a painting.

This approach is the essence of preliterate storytelling, more properly called radically oral storytelling or oral formulaic storytelling. This is the form of storytelling that has been the basic mode for most people for most of history. My dissertation was about a form of storytelling in the anicent Malay world in which writers wrote down stories intended to be performed for radically oral (that is, non-literate) audiences, and I treated of the problems of expressing complexity and contrarity in a language and form which was, formally at any rate, additive rather than recursive, to use the word my friend IM and I were discussing today.

I am a little tuckered out today consequent upon one too many Monte Carlos, a rye and benedictine drink, consumed last night to celebrate IM's return. So I will leave this brief thought about McCabe and Mrs. Miller by referencing my favorite literary critic, Kenneth Burke, on the subject of what drives the radically oral storyteller ... I think it dovetails perfectly with Altman's thoughts about his own work.

In his Counterstatement (1931), Burke wrote an essay, "Psychology and Form" in which he argues for a distinction in art between a psychology of information as against a psychology of form. He sees us having entered an age in which art loses sight of the psychology of audience and substitutes a psychology of information. He writes: "... the great influx of information has led the artist to lay his emphasis on the giving of information with the result that art tends more and more to substitute the psychology of the hero (the subject) for the psychology of the audience ... Proposition: the hypertrophy of the psychology of information is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form."

Why do we watch Hamlet, he asks, even though we know the plot? He answers that we watch because of the eloquence of the performance, the form. "We cannot take a recurrent pleasure in the new (in information) but we can in the natural (in form)."

The suspense in a film like McCabe and Mrs. Miller is minimal, and once you have seen it a first time or figured out the likely direction of the plot, you can safely ignore the minimal suspense and luxuriate in the eloquence of the telling, of the form. I think a principle like this can be applied to Altman's work throughout, but I should probably do a lot more research before advancing that thesis with any confidence. McCabe does have a rather Hamlet-like make up.

That little essay by Burke influenced my thinking about art and storytelling more than any other single piece of writing. It really deserves a lot more exposure than it gets at this point. I will return to it frequently, I suspect, in this blog.

(BTW, it is curious also that Altman noted that the town was built as they filmed, and that the film was shot in scene order. That too dovetails with the additive nature of radically oral storytelling in which complexity is indicated by juxtaposition and reversal ... so as the story grows, the town grows, and as the town becomes more complex, so does the story. Again, more on these sorts of ideas down the road.)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Pedro and the Tools of Ignorance

Crazy game last night between the Giants and A's. It ended in the 10th on a Shannon Stewart hit to left that scored 2 for the A's. The Giants lost another tight one, and they did it after loading the bases with one out in the 9th and not scoring. But that is not the story.

The story is also not about how much the Giants are stinking up the joint these days. It becomes obvious in a baseball season pretty early that some teams are not going all the way. When this happens in basketball or hockey, it turns the season into a rotter ... a long boring slog where even the faithful lose focus. When it happens in football, it becomes a kind of apocalyptic public meltdown ... football is far too close to war-mongering for most fans, and the paucity of games leads to a volcano of breast-beating. If you like football, or basketball for that matter, the best games are in college.

No, the Giants are going nowhere, but the dramas and side plots of the baseball lifestyle are sufficient to keep the faithful watching. And I am among the faithful. So Bonds' sad long slide into obscure and infamous destiny is compelling if sorrowful. I hate to see him hobbling around, and he seems to have lost the bit of power he had at the beginning of the year ... as if the start of the season provided just enough testosterone for a dozen home runs, and then he ran outta gas. Sad. There is also the ongoing sweet work of the incomparable Omar at short. And the Lincecum story, and Matt Cain, the tough young bruiser with hard luck losses. And there is always a hard biting curveball to make your heart jump.

And then there is Pedro ... this is the story ... happy Pedro, I call him, because his name is Pedro Feliz, and because his face projects a beatific and unmoving solemnity. Pedro is a great third baseman with a spectacular throw across the diamond to first ... that throw is one of baseball's gems. He's a big puppy dog, one of many Dominicans in the game, who struggles at the plate, and seems doomed to be swinging forever at garbage off the plate down and away. Still, a persistent career .250 hitter with pop ... and those incredible moves at third.

But last night, we had two catchers go down, so Pedro was pressed into service as the emergency catcher. It was a hoot watching him put on the tools of ignorance, as catcher's gear is popularly known. He did a creditable job, saving one ball in the dirt and missing a wild pitch that no catcher could have caught except by pure dumb luck.

It's not so bad rooting for a losing team in baseball as long as the subplots have some interest. The beauty of the game is in its curious oppositions, the subtle relationships of distance and angle and conjuncture. People say baseball is boring ... by people, I mean non-baseball fans. Non-sports fans like to say that baseball is boring, but soccer is the good game. I swear, you'd be surprised at how many different non-sports fans have sagely averred that the only sport they would watch is soccer. Needless to say, they have never watched an entire soccer game. I do find soccer boring, but I grok why a soccer fan love's its beauty, because it shares with baseball similar subtle relationships of distance and angle and conjuncture. But it's not my game. (On another occasion, I will tell the story of watching the European Cup in Java, and trying to translate the English commentary into Indonesian ... this my only memorable soccer involvement as a fan.)

In basball, the plot lines are long and slow to develop. There are pauses in between every play where you get to draw up the conjuncture in your head, and try to predict both the moves and the results. The tension builds slowly, and its release is explosive.

And then you have the absurdities. A giddy Noah Lowry, athletic pitcher, suddenly playing right field. Randy Winn, outfielder, pressed into action at the hot corner (third base for the unwashed). And happy Pedro gamely placing life on the line as catcher, that position which combines thinking, plotting, strength, quickness, and mortal danger.

He did okay. Since we're not going to World Series ... no way ... I enjoyed the loss by reason of that weird, unlikely to be repeated, sight.

Friday, June 08, 2007

San Francisco Notes 2

Cities have an obligation to nurture both public space and private space to which the public is invited. A tourist city like San Francisco has a double obligation ... firstly to its citizenry and secondly to its financial future.

I took the day off yesterday to clean house ... got a little waylaid because the oil change on my '86 Honda Civic turned into a new radiator, new rear brakes, and a couple of tires. But I got some cleaning done, and took myself out to lunch. I went to Harvey's at 18th and Castro. This is a famous location. 18th and Castro is the moral center of the gay liberation movement ... our Vatican, as it were, a little slice of same-sex Mecca ... and it is still the heart of San Francisco's gay community. Harvey's, named after our martyr Harvey Milk, occupies the location that was once the Elephant Walk. It was the Elephant Walk that enraged San Francisco police officers trashed after the White Night riots in Civic Center in 1979 that followed upon the acquital of Dan White for murdering Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone. (White served five years for involuntary manslaughter based upon his novel Twinkie defense.) That was a turning point in gay history, and we have never gone back.

Harvey's replaced the Elephant Walk accompanied by some local grumbling a few years back. It is the only eatery on that great corner ... the other corners are a drug store, a bank, and a now empty former camera shop. Without warning a few weeks back, Harvey's windows were covered up, and a few days later there were announcements that the place was being renovated. Removations over, I thought I would check it out.

I guess they painted the place ... it has a vaguely Southwestern look, although I think they are trying for some kind of moederno-Italian chique. There are a couple of un-thought-through art pieces on a far wall, but the main wall viewable from Castro is big and empty and beige.

What are they thinking? This is the center of the gay universe ... the Castro is a huge tourist attraction particularly among gay men. And now the most visible eatery in the area has all the charm of a suburban mall cafe. There is absolutely no imagination in the place. The waiters have always been vaguely sexy in that "don't come hither" way of the self-assured unavailable ... too cool for school, frankly. But why can't they be funky, friendly, make the place a site, a location, somewhere people talk about. I made a little joke when I sat down, but he either didn't get it or didn't care.

Why don't they plaster the walls with the history of the place? Why do they play stupid rap music instead of doing a little research on the classic tunes that motivated gay men over the ages? Why do they just do the minimum, take their paltry profits, and avoid any suggestion that this place is more than they have made it? Really kind of nauseating.

This is where I believe that civic government has a responsibility. Tourists make us money, and public space, even privately owned, makes us a fascinating city. Why doesn't the city, or the local Supervisor, step in at some point and tell the owner, there's more here than your tiny head can see, so let's negotiate and see what we can make of this.

I guess that is not the American way ... better some dump than any hint of government involvement.

Meanwhile, the Castro is filled with empty storefronts, primary among them kitty corner to Harvery's where a camera chain abandoned its feeble efforts ... again, what is a chain store doing at such a central location? Local wags have it that landlords are all holding out for the big paydays from chain stores, and no small guys can afford the steroidal prices. Again, the city should intervene. I think they should ban chain stores in the area for five years, and enact some kind of commercial rent control. Give small business a chance to compete with the loss leader blandness of the cookie cutters that are crushing the life out of cities.

Photo by Arod of the famous Twin Peaks bar at 17th and Castro, the first gay bar ever to have plate glass windows.

San Francisco Notes

This is one of my pet peeves ... for the second time in three days at 16th and Castro, one of the most dangerous intersections in the city, some moron in an SUV made a no-stop right turn without looking and came within a few feet of me and the dog. I have a painfully loud voice when I need it ... my yell just about made him jump out of his seat, and he crammed on the brakes. These things happen so quickly ... I try not to put myself in harm's way, but eventually you have to get across the street. I think SUVs subtract about 50 points off a driving IQ ... people seem to be in more of a hurry, feel more invulnerable, more self-important. The guy looked sheepish, but no apology, and he semi-buzzed me after I was half way across the road. Another self-absorbed jackass in an SUV.

When did the cops decide that the California stop was legal? And we're not talking about a near stop any more ... we are talking about people routinely barely taking their feet off the gas while they blow through a stop sign in full traffic ... people actually accelerating before they have reached the intersection. The cops have a "Click it or Ticket" campaign these days ... I saw a cop hand out a ticket to some old guy on Polk Street on Saturday because he didn't have a seat belt on. A youngish homeless guy reclining in his tattered blankets told me the cop had handed out a bunch of tickets for seat belts. I don't care about seat belts ... let these morons kill themselves ... but when they run stop signs, they're gonna kill me, and for that I have no sympathy.

I think the city should declare that all stop signs require a full stop, and they should start agressively ticketing. Make San Francisco a full stop zone.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Unreliable Author and the Reliable Critic

Thesis: The most intractable problem with the retreat of literary criticism as an academic discipline into theory is that it has failed to argue for the utility of its methods and insights in other disciplines, preferring instead the sterility of its isolation and pride.

So now let me ignore that thesis, though I will give it a passing shout at the bottom of this piece.

I am much impressed with Robert Bartlett's The Making of Europe, a social history of the high middle ages. But it was a little extra thrilling to read his take on what we can learn from the Expugnatio Hibernica of Gerald of Wales, the 12th-century story of the conquest of Ireland by the Normans and their allies. He writes:

The Expugnatio Hibernica of Gerald of Wales similarly answers the questions, who were the first Anglo-Normans in this island, and what are the roots of our colony? His partisanship is very specific, however, and not all invaders are heroes. He is the champion of a group within the conquering élite, the first wave, who came mostly from south Wales, and, in particular, of course, his own family. The text itself reveals the strain between this predilection for the fitzGeralds and the need to keep a wary eye on the changes of royal patronage the work was dedicated to Richard the Lionheart of English and contains a eulogy of Henry II in a passage with the rubric 'Praise of his family' ... Gerald writes: 'O family, O race! Always suspect for your numbers and inborn energy (innata strenuitas). O family, O race! Capable by yourself alone of conquering any kingdom, if envy, begrudging them their vigour (strenuitas) had not descended from on high.' We can hear in this passage the grating discontent of a conquest aristocracy which felt itself bridled by the less than whole-hearted support it received from the English Crown. Despite — or because of — the tensions it expresses, the Expugnatio was a successful work.

The thrill for me was that this argument, in particular its last sentence, pretty much matches what I wrote in my dissertation about authorial/rulership tensions as expressed in the Malay chronicles of ca the 15th century. But even more so, this is an inadvertent, even casual, demonstration of what literary criticism can bring to the study of history.

It is a commonplace to accept literary works as "reflecting" their times. But reflection in this sense is non-dialectical ... uni-directional such as to imply that the observer ought to be able to reliably infer a set of social circumstances by simple reflection upon what its chroniclers wrote about it. There is more than a little too much of this sort of thinking about, and it is such a simple idea to fall back on that one can hardly be surprised. But in fact, the most "reliable" texts are precisely those in which the tensions obscure or fracture intention, where the depiction of "reality" is unreliable because the narrator is pointedly, even openly, unreliable. Then you have a living text and the observer can engage with it as a living text and by teasing it extract from it not the facts of life, but the modalities of life.

So in the broadest sense what literary studies can bring to other disciplines is a deep investigation of the contradictions of unreliability in texts. But to do so, literary scholars have to remain involved with the texts, and I think that is where we have tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

(Took the day off work today to clean house in preparation for the return of my oldest friend who lives upstairs ... so I had better post this bloody thing and get back home to clean the kitchen floor.)

Metablog: Failing Your Way to Success

Not sure if yesterday's post was sharp or a pile of wet refuse. But, notwithstanding a bunch of micro-edits today, I'm going with it. I have not written a significant amount of criticism or rhetoric since I finished my dissertation in 1997. The ideas ... juxtaposition and reversal, the tyranny of relevance, reversal of authority and authenticity, as-if consciousness ... keep swimming around up there, and they influence how I observe and think. But applying them to subject matter and then publishing what I think is not an instantaneous route to success, as it were. Still, one must fail in order to succeed.

Part of the problem is in switching from a near-decade ago mode of dissertation writing in which no limit on length imposed itself to the decidedly aphoristic medium of a blog. Yesterday's post was around 1100 words, and I think that is the longest I have posted.

Clearly, I need to tease out what I think about relevance before I can rest with it. I distrust relevance as a concept because its validity escapes its statement. By that I mean, that the proof of relevance is not in itself, or in absorbing it, but in the relationship to which it points which is the relationship between a topos and some social being, whether that is an individual or a group. From my vantage, that means that there inheres in the idea of relevance a false consciousness in the present day precisely because of the expanding yet debased ideas of identity that we have adopted. If the proof of relevance is in a relation between an idea and a person, and a person is defined by an identity, then the speciousness of the idea of identity inheres in relevance.

This is the basis of the notion of the tyranny of relevance. I like to say that anything human is relevant to me, but that relies upon a smug conceit that I can be somehow more ineluctably human that others, particularly those who would not adhere to my distrust of identity. So even my own embrace of relevance as non-specific is founded upon a character flaw.

Ah, to err is human. And to be airy is human. I think I have managed both at once.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Redundancy and Relevance

Fudging on what to write about tonight. I have a post in my head about Horses and Peoples in relation to the erudite arguments of Robert Bartlett in his The Making of Europe, but after a long day of finagling with text at my job at MRU, I do not know that my perorations would be sufficiently directional. So I am going to take a shot at a little non-directional juxtaposition and reversal ... tugging at two ideas until they are side by side and then seeing if they will run away from each other.

I edit the course catalog at MRU. Since I started this ... I am on my seventh course catalog ... I have looked at a lot of course catalogs, and I unashamedly believe that ours is the best. It is a tight work, heavy in content, and as light in redundancy as I can possibly make it. What I have learned more than anything else in this job is how to detect even the tiniest and most hidden case of redundancy.

Academia is filled, not entirely unjustifiably, with redundancy. Let me posit two sources of that propsensity to "say it again, Sam, and again." On the one hand, the enthusiasm for one's subject, the monomaniacal focus that is the necessary concomittant of committed study, means that most redundancy seems more like emphasis than repetition. On the other hand, it is a form of occupational psychosis, to use the terminology of my favorite literary critic Kenneth Burke, in the sense that repetition is the most ready-to-hand technique by which one might draw attention to one's subject in an open marketplace where the meek risk ending up as afterthoughts ... tenured perhaps but living an "as-if" glory in the company of those whose glory is warm and real and remunerative. So repetition arrives for enthusiasm and remains for marketing.

Every time I edit a course description ... and edit them we do ... I come face to face with this occupational enthusiasm. Now, I argue that a course catalog must speak in a flat, measured, and authoritative voice, and to emphasize anything, to repeat anything that can as readily be said once, is to favor one thing over another, not to mention squander our charge for density of content. So redundancy ... so fertile in argument and enthusiasm, so essential to speech and drama and persuasion ... is our enemy.

Today, I confronted a particularly woolly description. I say "woolly" because it arrived as a tightly woven argument, and my job is to extract a list of topics. I have no idea what this prof will think when he sees the results of my jackhammering, but I offer that it was a delicate and humane jackhammer, the sort of thing a sculptor who works in concrete and steel would wield when confronted with a giant roll of coiled steel cable. Does that make sense? Maybe the editor should edit himself!

That said, I loved the course. An editor is like a dentist ... it doesn't matter whose teeth you are drilling, the job is to make them choppers, not to prefer one set over another. So like this course or not, I did my duty and this is one line from it: "How antithetical responses provoked by crisis demonstrate literature's capacity to produce and sustain apparently untenable contradictions; how this paradoxically may make literature a conciliatory force." Wow ... wish I'd said that myself; it is precisely the kind of contradiction and reversal that fascinates me in everything.

But the original was unashamedly more formidable, more armored, more predatory. It was one of those tightly bound up literary arguments that have made literary studies the object of ribaldry among the other disciplines not just because they are impenetrable but more so because they are gamefully repulsive ... that is, designed to repel the uninitiated with a cackle rather than embrace the novice with blandishments, let alone involve other academics in the particular arguments that criticism can generate and propel.

For the literary academic, the repellent or predatory argument has often become more attractive when it functions as collapsed interplay of public sadism and masochism. Yes, there is a sort of masochism here ... which is to say the masochism of the sadist who would hurt himself for the sheer joy of both ouching aloud and at the same time being the one who caused the ouch. Ouch! For in this little gem of an argument which I flattened into the phrase above, the author simultaneously shows his ability to hurt himself and to draw those who recognize this auto da fe to him, even as the bulk of the actual readers slide on by, neither repulsed nor attracted but distinguishing themselves by their disinterest.

Any redundancy here functions to intensify this public display. In academic literary critical circles, redundancy has assumed an arrogance of isolation. (At some point, I will argue that literary criticism needs to abandon this conceit not only for survival but for its own art.)

Okay ... relevance. Repetition, with which we started, is a cry for relevance, whether as enthusiasm or as something that should be consumed/marketed. Redundancy as enthusiasm repeats its theme so as, by juxtaposing itself to itself, to make itself bigger and thereby to attract and not to repel, and thereby to imply that it is relevant to the reader/listerner/observer/consumer. Redundancy as marketing, as occupational psychosis, is more like a peacock wherein the splendor is assumed to be the proof of the relevance. Relevance, in this sense, is a little abstract ... not relevance to something else, but a general, intransitive relevance which assumes a referrent without naming or specifying or delimiting it. But the problem with boundlessness in describing a phenomenon is that the lack of boundaries allows one to substitute anything ... I like to call this a "zero divider" because any result is possible when you divide by zero. So the intransitive notion of relevance can thereby come to mean that something is relevant only if in the narrowest sense it is relevant to "me" and who I define myself as. This is what relevance has come to mean in education (deferring a discussion of the degree to which this phenomenon matches a broader social issue) ... a topic is "relevant" if it can be demonstrated to touch the observer's self-identification.

By repeating and repeating, and by saying again and again that this is you, this is you, the topic becomes relevant, instransitively, for any observer who is thus simultaneously singled out and reduced to identity.

And so the oddity of our course description is that any redundancy in its tightly bound argument worked to isolate itself enthusiastically to that tiny set of students who could posit their intellectual identity in it. But at the same point, it had eschewed any larger marketing that might integrate it or insinuate it into a broader intellectual market. It turned both redundancy and relevance on their heads, but as with most of the present highly isolated literary critical impulses, it takes no advantage of that.

In editing that line, I sought, professionally and not ideologically, to open it to a less restricted audience and this flatness has the inadvertent effect of stripping off its isolation and suggesting that literary contemplation of paradox and antithesis is an essential tool that literary work can provide to other disciplines. I think that Bartlett, with whom I began this peroration, succeeded in that in one part of his book, and perhaps I can try to explain that tomorrow.

Hmmmm ... not sure that I have made my case, but I will leave it at this, and try to come back to the juxtaposition of redundancy and relevance on some other occasion from a different angle. (I want to add as a note to myself that the course description above in its unedited state started with a straw man argument; I saw this as a move to credential the course both as ironic and dialectical. Not the subject of this post, but this double credentialing is not uncommon in our discipline, both to good and ill effect.)

Photo by Arod.