March 8, 2019

The Green Book, Neverland, and the Possibilities of Tainted Art



Song as old as time: Can we enjoy art by awful people? Can we enjoy art that is compromised by outdated social tropes?

These questions have dogged us ever since Wagner and Homer were unpacked by twentieth-century social critics, and they've come up again this month. Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Michael Jackson's music has been taken out of rotation by some radio stations in the wake of the damning documentary Leaving Neverland.

Green Book is an interesting case. It's a film about an Italian-American bouncer, Tony Vallelonga,  who takes a job driving a black classcial pianist, Don Shirley, around the South on a concert tour. In its favor: It's well-intentioned regarding race, it features two fantastic performances by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortenson, and it's funny as hell. But it makes the white character the star; it has a bit of a fairy tale quality to it in how well the two soon get along; it's perceived by many black people as condescending; and, it is alleged, it makes racism seem like a problem that can be solved by people getting to know each other and being friends.

I'm aware that the movie offends many black actors, movie makers, and audience members. And really, they are better judges of its offensiveness than I am. I'm aware, too, of how many black intellectuals have asked that white people, even allies, just kind of shut up and listen rather than jumping into the fray with their opinions and dominating the dialogue. Ultimately I like giving my opinion too much to do this, but I do acknowledge the secondary worth of my reactions here.

I would not have given Green Book Best Picture, but it is a very well-made film. Acting, plot, pace, wit . . . there's a lot to like. The script was written by the white character's son, so it's hard to fault it for telling the story from his perspective. While the movie focuses on the growing friendship between the two men, I don't think it posits personal friendship as the solution to racism. The trip through the South reveals all sorts of embedded nastiness, some of which is only "solved" because Shirley has friends in powerful places. His fame and talent are enough to rescue him from the worst outcomes (being taken in police custody) but not all of them; he is still forced to use an outhouse at one concert venue and is barred from the hotel's dining room at another. The white managers of these places sometimes try to downplay the insult and sometimes take a nasty satisfaction in holding the line against an acclaimed black man. The film portrays Shirley as gay, which adds another layer of difficulty to his journey, and he's portrayed as someone in limbo, not quite fitting in any social world. He doesn't connect to traditional black culture (the much-maligned fried chicken scene), he's humiliated within the white world of high-brow art, and his gayness puts him in a further vulnerable position within both worlds.

Critics denounce the film as a white-savior narrative, and defenders argue that the two characters instead save each other. Vallelonga exposes Shirley to the joys of the low brow, and Shirley opens Vallelonga's eyes to the finer things, as well as to the humanity of a black man and the difficulties of racism. Here's a link to a podcast that argues that this dynamic was real, the two enjoyed each other, that Shirley felt he "improved" Vallelonga, and that Vallelonga was genuinely changed by his year and a half chaffeuring Shirley through the South.




But while their friendship appears to have been real, the movie fails in portraying an equal friendship. When the movie starts, Vallelonga is in a bit of trouble when the nightclub he works at closes, his prospects are shaky, and he is upset when his wife allows two black workmen into their home (he throws away the two glasses that the men drank from when his wife offered them some water). Don Shirley, on the other hand, is esconced in his grand apartment above Carnegie Hall. He's dressed in robes and sits on a kind of gold throne while he interviews Vallelonga for the chauffeur job. There's a bit of African king to him here, presiding over a luxury apartment and his eclectic possessions.



By the end of the movie, Shirley seems a bit beaten down. He has declined in status in a way, being caught with another man and being so consistently saved by Vallelonga in his travels. He comes home to an empty apartment and eventually accepts Vallelonga's invitation to come to his house and meet his large, talkative, fun Italian family. While the "saving" may have gone both ways in the film, by the end it has taken a turn. Where are Shirley's friends? Where is the vulnerability on Vallelonga's part? Where is the scene that shows Shirley giving Vallelonga something that only he can give, that puts Vallelonga in the role of grateful recipient?



This sense of imbalance is heightened by the fact that, while Vallelonga's attitude toward black people genuinely changed as a result of his year and a half with Shirley, this transformation is shown to occur really, really quickly and easily. He takes to his role as a subordinate to Shirley rather easily and, once they hit the road, he's shown as open, friendly, and even compassionate. This is less white savior than Cinderella. Vallelonga's racism seems to disappear with the wave of a wand. It's unfortunate that some tone-deafness in these couple of scenes compromised the film.

As I've gotten older, I've focused more on what is good and interesting in a work of art than what is bad or what fails. You can be aware of failings without them filling the whole of your vision of what a work of art is. Until, that is, they are so big and glaring that they do fill your vision. When that might happen is a post for another day, but it's certainly different for different people.

This is a question, too, for the music of Michael Jackson after the release of the documentary Leaving Neverland. I never had any doubt that Jackson was a pedophile but many have been newly shaken by the testimony of the two men featured in the documentary. I find I can listen to covers of Jackson's music without a whiff of guilt or discomfort, but it's been years since I've deliberately listened to Jackson himself. Jackson designed his entire life around the abuse of boys, from his gloves and his skin color and his resculpted nose to his sequined toy soldier dress and his Neverland Ranch. He insinuated his way into families, married to cover his tracks, developed an entire mythology of himself as lover of children, lover of peace, ambassador to the world, and it was all—every bit of it—a cover for heinous acts of child abuse. If you haven't seen it already, the documentary is a must-watch. I also recommend highly the article on pedophiles published by the Baltimore City Paper in the 1990s. If I can find a link online, I'll post it.

February 5, 2019

Longbourn and the Bull of Wall Street


Charging Bull, a bronze statue by Arturo Di Modica at Bowling Green, Manhattan, New York City.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License.

As I was thinking about Jo Baker's appropriation of Pride and Prejudice for her novel Longbourn, another work of art came to mind: Charging Bull, the great bronze sculpture by Arturo Di Modica near Wall Street in New York. Right from the start, this iconic work became a tourist favorite. People the world over come to take pictures beside it. Installed in 1989, it was intended by the artist to represent the optimism and vigor of Wall Street.

Somewhere along the way, however, things took a turn. 

Who knows who the first person was to sit below the bull's haunches and grasp its monumental balls, but doing so has proved to be an irresistible temptation. For millions. Some go further and "explore the artwork" in ways I can't bring myself to detail. 

I'm not sure how Di Modica feels about the indignities visited upon this noble creature by enthusiastic tourists, but I do know how he feels about the second sculpture that was installed just a few yards away from Charging Bull in 2017. In March of that year, sculptor Kristen Visbal placed Fearless Girl, a smaller bronze of a girl with hands on hips, directly opposite Charging Bull. Visbal has said that girl is intended to look strong and proud, not belligerent. Nonetheless, many viewers perceive her as standing in opposition to the bull with a look of defiance that turns the bull, as Di Modica claims, into a villain, a symbol of greed and aggression. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fearless_Girl.jpg

Di Modica feels that he has been forced into a collaboration that he never agreed to, and he has asked that Fearless Girl be removed, since it intrudes upon and subverts his work. But whether she is read as a companion piece sharing strength and optimism with the bull or as a kind of David to the bull's Goliath, there is no doubt that Fearless Girl is just as beloved as Charging Bull. Do Fearless Girl's quality and popularity override the Di Modica's intention? Can the two pieces still be perceived independently, without the shadow of one being an inescapable part of the other? 

Interestingly, both pieces originated as a kind of guerrilla art. Both were installed without permission under cover of dark, and both survived their illegal installation only because of the instant love they garnered. In 2018 New York mayor Bill De Blasio announced that Fearless Girl would be moved to another site near Wall Street, citing safety concerns because of the hundreds of people who are daily gathered around tiny Bowling Green Park, where the statues were situated. The move happened in December 2018, and it appears that, because of Di Modica's incessant threats of legal action, the two may be permanently separated. It will certainly be a long time before they are separated in American cultural memory.  

February 4, 2019

Longbourn and the Art of Stealing



Longbourn is a 2013 novel by Jo Baker that revisits the world of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants, principally the young housemaid Sarah. (Note: Spoilers, mostly of a vague kind, follow.)

I've always been hostile toward works that feed off other novels. I've never read Wide Sargasso Sea, the alternate history of Jane Eyre, my favorite novel. I eschew the mountains of detective spin-offs in which, say, Jane Austen herself or Sherlock Holmes's imagined wife is the detective. But a trusted reader-friend loved Longbourn, and I decided it was time to move past my prejudices and stretch into a literary discomfort zone.

First things first: Longbourn is a fantastic novel. The writing is wonderful on a line-by-line basis (something that even Austen wasn't that good at). Every single page is worth reading for its detail, vividness, cleverness, and insight.

But the novel as a whole is subversive. It takes something given (in this case a work of art) and uses it to communicate or value something other than originally intended. Subversion refers to acts intended to destroy an established system. In this case, that system is the one that Jane Austen created in Pride and Prejudice—and elite literature created as a whole. This system is often labeled bourgeois, in which these conditions prevail:

* The experiences of certain classes are attended to, while other classes are unexamined.

* The experiences of certain nations or ethnicities are attended to, while others are marginalized.

* Personal conflicts are attended to, while labor, the material bases of existence, and the sufferings of others—history, in other words—are erased.

Baker approaches this task in a couple of ways. First, the protagonists are all from the servant class. Sarah is the principal character, but others include Mrs. Hill, the cook; James Smith, the footman; Polly, a young girl working at Longbourn; and Ptolemy Bingley, a black former slave from the Bingleys' estate in the Caribbean now working for the Bingley family in England. (In the Austenverse, the source of families' wealth is elsewhere touched on only in Patricia Rozema's film adaptation of Mansfield Park.) The protagonists from Pride and Prejudice appear as side characters. Baker does a beautiful job of using the timeline of the original novel while keeping the servants' stories as the driver of the plot.

Second, the physical labor demanded of the servants in the initially idyllic world of Longbourn is insisted upon. This includes the servants washing out menstrual stains and chamberpots; a boy who has ridden through the night to deliver a letter to the Bennets; a footman waiting outside of a ball on a hard plank in the cold. The return of Baker's eye to the labor and suffering of those who make the upper class's lives possible is relentless. And Baker pointedly includes not just general work but work related to some of the most beloved elements of the original novel. For example, she takes aim at Elizabeth's love of long walks tromping across fields—and to readers' love of this trait in Lizzie—with the line: "If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them."

Third, Baker highlights how the emotional drama of the servants' lives is as vivid and important as that of their employers. We see a man finding a way to be homosexual in a closed society; a woman dealing with heartache and no resources to comfort herself; a young girl vulnerable to the depredations of a privileged man; and most of all, we see the servant Sarah in love and we feel the absolute necessity for this love to succeed, just as we do in Pride and Prejudice. But to the rich personal lives of the servants another layer is added: how dwelling on their personal lives and acting on their emotional needs are luxuries they can't often afford.

Finally, Baker employs a kind of historical probability to the Bennets' treatment of their servants and other matters. This feels tricky since she is now not only adding new characters to the story but creating facets of the original characters' personalities that Austen didn't intend (best case) or positively rejected (worst case). In one scene, Sarah, desperate for news of the footman James Smith, approaches Col. Forster to ask if he has heard any news of him. Col. Forster is appalled that a servant would dare to approach him and dismisses her heartlessly, dramatizing the gulf between the tremendous needs of the lower class and the upper class's refusal to extend the smallest effort to relieve them. It can be argued that this would be a normal reaction in that social world, and Austen certainly doesn't paint a completely enough portrait of Col. Forster to make it incompatible with his character in Pride and Prejudice. I don't think the same can be said of Lizzie Bennet when, as a newly married Mrs. Darcy, she is not only insecure and alienated from Darcy but unfeeling and even cruel to Sarah as a result. 

This casual cruelty of the upper classes, the refusal to give a second's thought to the harm they do to others, was poignantly rendered in E. M. Forster's Howards End. The wealthy Wilcox family is responsible for poor Leonard Bast losing his job, a loss that devastates his fortunes and his ability to provide for his pregnant companion, but the Wilcoxes reject any responsibility for their life-destroying carelessness. It's a plot line that I've always admired and a theme that is important to me. But it feels different when when an author is lassoing and distorting someone else's creation to do it. 

Bringing to light the material bases of life and the people who are indispensable to it is more than a good thing. Artists throughout history have done this, but it feels like an especially modern project, to bring everyone into focus and to unmask the full circumstances of our world. Books like Longbourn are testimony to something noble in our modern consciousness. An allegiance to the full truth and the recognition that you can't be virtuous if you don't acknowledge social injustice. That's why, on its own, I love Longbourn.

But Longbourn doesn't exist on its own. I doubt that anyone who has read it will ever be able to read of Lizzie tramping across the fields to Netherfield without thinking of those petticoats. Longbourn intrudes, possibly irreversibly, on Pride and Prejudice the way that a film adaptation intrudes on a novel. A reader can still enter the novel's world but the film always colors it just a bit. 

I admit that my own bourgeois sensibility bristles at this (I like my pretty love story and don't want the characters changed), but I think there are legitimate reasons to object. Much of literature has elements of fantasy, and I would defend this. If labor is erased from Pride and Prejudice, it is in Harry Potter as well; in fact, Harry Potter is a world where labor has been rendered completely obsolete because of magic—there can hardly be a more complete erasure than that. Perhaps ignoring labor can be a matter of focus rather than masking. Longbourn's setting in the past rather than the current day is a masking of its own. It's not, after all, the story of a London writer going about her business while children in Asian factories assemble the iPhones she uses or poor workers in India, in horribly hazardous conditions, disassemble the container ships that delivered her electronics to England. Why pick on Jane Austen and not ourselves?

In spite of Baker's dedication to realism, she creates an out for Sarah and her lover, a way to be neither servant nor master, a "third way" that is one of the great fantasies in literature. It's most evident in novels like The Lord of the Rings and Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. In these novels there is almost always some class of creatures that is presented as unaligned with good or evil and only concerned with their own sovereignty. In The Lord of the Rings, it is the eagles—fiercely independent and beholden to no one. In The Golden Compass it is the Gyptians—fiercely independent and, um, beholden to no one. It's a lovely idea, that when you are trying to be good and the forces of evil are at your tail, there is someplace or some people outside the arena of conflict who will provide safe haven. In a strange way, the life that Sarah ends up living feels very much like one of these places.

Obviously, reading Longbourn was a conflicting experience. On the one hand it espouses values that are cherished to me. On the other hand it does so at the expense of someone else's labor and imagination. In interviews Jo Baker affirms her love and admiration of Pride and Prejudice, but it's hard not to read hostility into the way every character is re-formed: sympathetically for Mrs. Bennet and Lydia and not so sympathetically for Lizzie, Jane, and Mr. Bennet. Nonetheless, this is a moving, truthful novel that, if one is going to allow for stealing, manages the art of stealing beautifully.

January 29, 2019

"The Coldest Winter"


The Coldest Winter (January 20, 2017)
Lynn Weber

Snow falls outside the White House, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It’s different this year.
The dog hardly moves from his polyfill bed.
The heat pump grinds haplessly.
Layers are applied.
Doorflaps are rigged.
“If your feet are cold, put on a hat,”
my father always said. So I do.

But nothing quite buffers us from the outside,
the chill that’s made our bones brittle.

I always boasted that the cold didn’t bother me.
I loved the snow,
the trees silhouetted at twilight.
Maybe it’s the cancer, but for the first time in my life
I think of moving,
the hope of beauty frozen still by the
wicked, wicked winter of 2017.

January 17, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk


Spoilers, natch.

Barry Jenkins’ latest is a powerful art film. I specify “art film” because, at the beginning, I was put off by its lack of naturalism. The two young stars are too quiet and stare too much; they don’t come across as real people walking the streets—a complaint I have about French art dramas too, in which the characters always seem affected and unnatural. But as the movie went on, I accepted this (to my mind) flaw and a few others (did they really think inviting Fonny’s family over for an impromptu party was going to work out?) and began to feel the beauty and pathos of a remarkable movie.

If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of two young people in the early 1970s, Fonny and Tish, who have fallen in love and are ready to start a life together when Fonny is framed for rape by a vengeful white New York cop. Soon Tish discovers that she’s pregnant, and the rest of the movie shows Tish’s attempts to clear his name as her pregnancy progresses. She’s helped by her father and mother, Joseph and Sharon, and Fonny’s young lawyer. Through their journey, Jenkins, who adapted James Baldwin’s novel into a screenplay, shows the myriad stresses that living in a racist society causes.

Jenkins has the gift of visual expression. It sounds funny to mention it because, well, it’s a film. But not every filmmaker creates the kind of meaning that Jenkins does through his imagery, nor has his subtlety. The most common visual motif is hands: hands held in love, hands separated by glass, hands grasped and released, hands employed in violence, hands used to subtly oppress, and hands used to work.



Jenkins is also partial to faces in profile and straight on. The movie is punctuated with Tish’s visits to Fonny in prison, where the camera focuses on each of their faces straight on. With each visit, Fonny’s face changes: from relative confidence, to fear, to injury, to hopelessness and cynicism. Midway through Tish visits and finds Fonny’s face pummeled with bruises. He’s clearly been beaten, but it isn’t until the end of the visit, when Fonny briefly turns in profile, that the audience can see the full of extent of his injuries, the white of his eye completely red. It felt like a razor-quick commentary on black men’s pain, the way they must present a face to the world, and how only by looking carefully, or obliquely, can the extent of their injury be glimpsed. The myriad frontal shots of characters’ faces seem designed to elevate them to portraiture as well as document their progressive emotions and challenges.




Jenkins conveys the particular misery of being oppressed in a society in which the lack of oppression is touted as its greatest virtue—true for most but not for black Americans, who are forced to live with freedom and respect tantalizingly out of reach. Fonny is a sculptor, and he and Tish are poised for a bohemian life in a warehouse district where buildings are beginning to be converted to apartments. The landlord escorts them into a wide concrete space, and he and Fonny attempt to convince Tish of its potential: Imagine the walls here, imagine the refrigerator here, imagine the neighbors who might stop by. She laughs and gives in to their enthusiasm, but for the viewer, the empty warehouse floor seems like a stand-in for America and its promise its black citizens: See how our system has such great bones, how much potential it has, see how if you just wait a little while longer, it will be livable for you, comfortable for you, home.

You get that sense also in the scenes where Fonny is working on his sculpture, chiseling away at the block of wood little by little. The pair—and everyone they know—is also sculpting their lives, stroke by stroke, day by day, fashioning happiness and meaning for themselves, trying to turn potential into reality, materiality. In the end, the studio is empty, the work arrested, by Fonny’s imprisonment.


Without a bit of preaching the film conveys how this state of oppression threatens to distort every relationship in the film and every person’s sense of self. Tish must walk a tightrope at work in an upscale department store. Her mother Sharon (played by Regina King) must find a way to present herself and argue her case in a way that might convince the rape victim to retract her identification of Fonny as her attacker. The sheer emotional toll of putting on her wig and, again, sculpting herself to be acceptable to the outside world (in this case the Puerto Rican family of the victim)— knowing that lives depend on her successful presentation—is only outweighed by the agony of her failure. (It should be noted that Jenkins’ treatment of the rape storyline is excellent. The victim’s identification of Fonny was coerced by the police, and her utter, shattering pain is given full acknowledgment and respect.)




And in one of the most poignant scenes, you see the potential of black male friendship, as Fonny runs into a friend from the old neighborhood. The scene is told in flashback (the whole movie moves forward and backward in time), and Daniel, the friend, eventually reveals that he has just been released from prison on false charges. As he talks, his face in profile, he gives Fonny a glimpse of the hell that he endured there. It’s unbearably sad, but you see the comfort these two men can provide each other, the openness and intimacy they are sharing. It’s a beautiful thing, or would be if you didn’t already know that, a short time later, the police rearrest Daniel to pressure him to recant his (honest) alibi for Fonny. We are never told what happens when the police rearrest him because Jenkins is such a smart and efficient storyteller; watching this terrible scene, we know that Daniel, under threat of being returned to prison, will not be able to resist the pressure to recant. Another relationship warped and deformed by oppression, which pits the oppressed not just against the powerful but against each other in order to survive.


If this litany of sadness seems daunting, be assured that there is beauty and joy as well. Many critics have praised the film’s portrayal of black romantic love. There is a mother’s love, a new life, a demonstration of our ability to adapt and survive, a father’s energy and agency, the protection that community can provide. These are people who, to borrow the phrase, lean in. Jenkins’ incredible talents allow us to lean in toward them too.


January 15, 2019

The Art of the PET Scan



Sitting in my oncologist's office yesterday, I was relieved to hear that while my abdominal tumor had grown, the cancer had not spread further into my system. These days I get a PET scan about every three months, and sitting in the oncologist's office while he explains the scan has become a familiar ritual. The doctor pulls it up and goes through each layer, pointing out organs, bones, and cancer.

The scan results in two images. One is of a cross-section of the body in which you can see each layer as you travel through the tissue from head to toe. Think of the body image like a loaf of bread that has been cut into thin slices. Each slice is an image of that portion of the body—cross-section of neck, cross-section of chest, cross-section of abdomen, and so on. These slices are thin and numerous, so that, put together, they allow you to travel up and down the body seeing what's there.

The other image is more like a TSA scan—a picture of the body from all sides that can be spun around 360. You see an outline of your naked form, along with a few interior objects and every fold and flap in the skin to boot. In my latest PET, you could see exactly three objects: my tumor, my heart, and my nipples (okay, four objects). It looked roughly like this:

Venus of Willendorf, by Don Hitchcock - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16414348.


Except, since I'm laying down, everything is further squashed. I guess like this:



So as the entire appointment proceeds, discussing treatment options, timing, and so on, this image is on his computer, spinning slowly and inexorably in a cruel 360, like a ballerina spinning on top of a music box. It's there in my peripheral vision as we talk surgery, growth rates, second opinions . . . turning, turning, turning.

Good times.

[Because of the issues that women generally have with body image, I am compelled to add that this bothers me not a bit. I find it hilarious, not distressing. We have got to stop feeling bad about ourselves. Fight the power, ladies!]


January 14, 2019

Achtung


Here are some things I wished I would have known before I was diagnosed with cancer:

One of the surest signs of cancer is unexplained weight loss. It needn’t be dramatic or super rapid. But if you are losing weight when you aren’t doing much different to warrant it, that is one of the biggest alarms your body will give you. I had lost about 30 pounds over the two to three years before my diagnosis. When my doctor asked if it was deliberate, I said, “Well, you know, I’m always trying to lose weight . . .” and she let it go at that. I might have even mentioned that the weight seemed to be coming off without much effort, but doctors are often too harried to really hear these faint alarms.

If you are feeling pings and pangs in what seem to be your organs (which we don’t normally feel at all), ask your doctor for a scan. It’s not normal. This was another thing I mentioned—to a different doctor with a similarly frantic schedule.

Lumps and masses are well-known later signs, but these two earlier signs are critical for early detection.

January 9, 2019

Monday's Question, Answered

How about this: Children who read Harry Potter grow up to be more tolerant, compassionate people. Science says so. 


January 7, 2019

Rings, Wands, and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (that’s Tr*mp, not Voldemort)




At the end of the Battle of Hogwarts, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after the flashy heroics—Harry having let himself be killed (albeit with the Resurrection Stone in his pocket), Neville having killed Nagini with the great Sword of Gryffindor, Mrs. Weasley having dispatched Bellatrix Lestrange to hell—after all of those great deeds are finished and done, the greatest act of all takes place on a bridge. It is a quiet moment. Harry is there with Ron and Hermione, standing over a great chasm with the Elder Wand in his hand. The Elder Wand is the most powerful wand on earth, and Harry is its rightful owner, having taken it from Voldemort. He stares at the wand for a moment, then breaks it in half and drops it into the gorge.

The moment is remarkably similar to the climax of The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo takes the One Ring to Mount Doom to throw it in the fire and undo its power forever. In The Lord of the Rings, this act is even more central to its story than the Elder Wand’s destruction is to Harry Potter. The destruction of the One Ring is the raison d’etre of the entire three-novel series, the purpose of the hero’s journey from beginning to end. And the terrible challenge of letting it go—for both the power-hungry (or perhaps “power-desperate”) like Boromir and the pure-hearted like Frodo alike—is the central challenge and driver of the plot. While the journey may seem to be about enduring avalanches, battles, and subterranean horrors, it is actually about enduring temptation. It is about the difficult, heroic task of renunciation.

Renunciation is a tough sell in our culture. It can be unhealthy (cf. those wild-eyed, anorexic, teenage nuns of the Middle Ages, or the evangelical men enduring conversion therapy), but maybe we’ve gone overboard in renouncing renunciation. It’s the key to all moral behavior and is the basis of one of our enduring national myths (myth referring here not to a fiction but to an important, identity-building story). George Washington was revered in early America and was a military commander to boot, yet he gave up the presidency willingly, setting the example of a two-term limit that endured nearly 200 years. Interestingly, his reasons for retiring after his second term included excessive partisanship and the toll that political attacks and character assassination took on him, along with the simple desire to enjoy some leisure. But he also was wary of the corrupting influence of ambition and very much wanted to avoid the appearance of dictatorship.

This is why Tr*mp is so disturbing—he idealizes power rather than renunciation. When he attacks the press for negative coverage or federal judges for ruling against him, he is not just being indecorous in a way we have never seen from a president in our lifetime. He is assailing the very idea that there should be any obstacles to his power and believes that any denial of his wishes—irrational, whimsical, random as they may be—is an injustice unique in the annals of history. He discards the very idea that embracing limits of power is a treasured American ideal. For him the pursuit of the greatest possible power is natural, and he is not a person who believes in the restraint of natural urges.

When Tr*mp  was being briefed by a military transition team after his election, he asked “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” This is exactly what Boromir asks about the One Ring, and what Ron briefly suggests regarding the Elder Wand. In those stories, which we so love, heroic renunciation—of great powers and great weapons—by Gandalf and Galadriel, Harry and Dumbledore, prevail. So it’s a shocking development to have a president presenting so much like a Dark Lord, with his bottomless desire for worship, his casual cruelty, his dispatch of underlings who displease him, his command of vindictive throngs. One would think that the historical examples of fascism and Nazism would make these danger signs repellent to the older generation. If not—if the ideal of renunciation has lost its place in our national mythology and its seat of defense in the White House—it will be a telling test of the influence of literature to see whether the great literary mythologies of our time can rescue the younger generation from the seduction of power.


January 4, 2019

New Year, New Blog




When I first started this blog in 2012, I was determined to keep it focused on art and avoid the intrusion of the personal. Going into the second year of my cancer diagnosis, this is no longer possible. I’ve been mostly MIA from the blog in 2018 but am hoping for new energy to write this year, with whatever leeway is needed to make that happen. My interests remain the same: truthfulness, compassion, thoughtfulness, the beauty of art and nature.

Happy New Year, and I hope to see you here at the blog in 2019.