Thursday, March 15, 2018

Darkest Hour


I just saw Darkest Hour and I liked the movie a lot. I read that Churchill’s grandson, who now sits in the British parliament, said that besides some understandable artistic license, the movie is an accurate portrayal. 

I can’t judge how far off from the historical record the portrayal of Churchill is but I see it as of the emergence of this great shambles of a highly, highly talented man, imperfect in many respects, a failure in many respects, to great leadership and resolve when the times most called for it. 

So I don’t see the portrayal of his many warts and blemishes as our moments’s need to downsize greatness. I see it rather as an effective dramatization of his dealing both within himself and externally with the all the incredible pressures raining downing on him at this time of greatest existential peril. 

In fact I think that critics are too harsh in judging Lord Halifax as the movie presents him. I think the movie gives his argument fair force and dramatizes superbly the Churchill Halifax/Chamberlain debate with compelling arguments on both sides as to whether to negotiate or fight. 

Sure, Darkest Hour, (which is just before dawn,) gets schmaltzy near the end with the subway ride and Churchill drawing strength and wisdom from the people as King George advises him to do. But there’s nothing schmaltzy about Churchill’s great parliamentary speech that ends the movie on a properly rousing note. 

And hey, any historical inaccuracy notwithstanding, Gary Oldman’s performance is one for the record books....

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Reverse Modest Proposal: Conrad Black, Jonathan Swift And Justin Trudeau?


A reverse Modest Proposal? 

Sure, there is a certain bluster in his tone, an overweening self confidence that might be taken down a notch. But for all that, there is in his journalism an authoritativeness in combination with his wide and deep understanding of a broad range of policy issues, born of his erudtion and experience, that marks Conrad Black’s unique excellence among Canadian journalists. Not many can match him for erudition and polemical forcefulness.

Here his advice to Justin Trudeau reads like Swift’s Modest Proposal. Not that his culminating hope, namely: 

....It is not too late for the Trudeau government to assemble a good record for its re-election, and it is time for better government in Toronto and Ottawa, whether by change of party or the grace of conversion....

rests on advice akin to the poor Irish selling their children to the wealthy for their dining. Rather the satiric absurdity of Swift’s proposal measures how remotely far from probability it is that Black’s sane policy advice will be taken up by the liberals as opposed to the virtue tolling that marks so much of liberal policy. The heights of this tolling seem evident in Trudeau’s ridiculous costuming of himself and his family in traditional Indian get up, a photo op bridge way  too far. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

My Take On Three Billboards Outside, Ebbing Missouri


Three Billboards: 2.9 out of 5.

I’m long to be sure as to why but what the hell.

Spoiler alerts up the yin yang. 

I didn’t much like Three Billboards Outside, Ebbing Missouri, which I saw yesterday.

It focuses on two central characters, Frances McDormand as Mildred and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, who both have ugly souls, and are near to crazy, near to sociopathic. I don’t see where the screenwriter-director, McDonagh, has any sympathy for them save for an undercut smidge at movie’s end when he allows some humanity in, some of it showing up as McDormand and Rockwell drive to Idaho debating whether to kill a guy who had nothing to do with the rape and burning to death of McCormand’s daughter but who, they think, must have raped and burned some other girl. 

After initial enthusiasm to go and do it, doubts emerge in both of them as they start their drive to Idaho. They’ll decide as they go, they agree and so the movie ends, pointlessly. 

To me, the intense drama and the black humor, abundant in the movie,  mitigate each other. So what is the point of including them both? Black humor is at bottom a mode of fantasy; it involves cruelty, hurt and violence wrenched out of all realism, like a Roadrunner cartoon, so that we laugh at what we’re seeing and maybe our laughter gets us some insight into our own insensitivity to the human darkness of what we laugh at. 

So black humor doesn’t sit consistently or easily with intense drama, which wants to rivet us so that our emotions respond to that intensity. Intense drama and black humour come at us from opposed thematic premises and when mixed together the effects are incoherent, which is to say, pointless.

Therefore Frances McDormand’s unrelenting fury over her daughter’s horrific murder, her fury blackened even more by the crime having become just another cold case, is at first understandable. The three billboards are understandable. But her gnawing, one note anger starts to wear a little thin. Her inner ugliness becomes dominant and she wears it vividly in face, body and dress. 

After Harrelson as Willoughby the sheriff explains to her that case has gone cold and that he’s dying of cancer and would she please take the billboards down, our sympathies shift. She refuses. He’s right and her she’s wrong. 

Her rapt fury, intensifying by the minute, comes to seem increasingly  unjustified and unhinged. She drives a dental drill through the finger of an opinionated dentist, who proclaims his loyalty to Willoughby. She’s a crazed antihero, a crazed vigilante, fuelled by her own resolute, absolute sense of moral justification. She fire bombs the police station and then lets the town’s dwarf car salesman alibi her, which then gets her to promise him dinner but only with an assurance that he can’t fuck her. So the horror of the fire bombing that nearly burns Rockwell alive becomes in the end bizarrely blackly comic. 


To what end?  

Why is her crazed, embittered self righteousness made in the end here laughable? As I say, the movie ends with her, in a more mellow tone, wondering whether maybe she shouldn’t kill a guy who had nothing to do with her daughter’s death after all. So, again, what’s the point? 

I could make a similar run through Rockwell as Dixon, a swaggering, drunken, comic book-reading, dumb, violent racist cop who is also the mama’s boy to an old, salty boot of a mother who guides him in trying to force the removal of the billboards by suggesting that he manipulatively arrest McDormand’s friends.

But in this do we maybe have a clue as to Three Billboards’s point? Maybe he’s not as dumb as he seems;  no one is all that they seem to be; continually the movie undercuts our expectations by details and little incidents that defy them. This all gives way to the theme of a more complex humanity than we might otherwise have expected. 

So Willoughby in his ante-suicide letter to Rockwell tells him he has the makings of a good detective if he’d only stop and think before he acts out of rage. And the letter lets us know that Rockwell’s father died when Rockwell was young and he had the burden from then on of needing to support his mother, which has fuelled his own malevolent anger. 

Similarly, Willoughby, a seeming saint of a man, in the right against Mildred being in the wrong as to the unsolved murder, has twists to him. His sewer mouth before his children, two little girls, takes us at least mildly aback. His suicide, a unilateral act, is morally ambiguous, at a minimum. 

Why shock his wife and kids that way? Why take his own life right on his property where his dead body with massacred bloody head will be shockingly found? Why not eke out more life with his family before living becomes unbearable? There’s no indication he’s in pain or even dysfunctional: as his unknowing wife says to him on the evidence of her own body and just before his shoots himself,

 ...That was a real nice day. That was a real nice fuck. You got a real nice cock, Mr. Willoughby...

Most of all, Willoughby while alive abides on the  job his dumb, racist thug deputy, Rockwell, the very Rockwell who tortures prisoners, who beats on the blacks he arrests, who’s a drunk on the job, who’s menacingly violent on and off the job, who’s in a nutshell the archetypal good ol’ boy southern Sheriff like Jim Clark. And Willoughby, as I noted, tells Rockwell in his letter to him that he’s got the makings of a good detective. 

There’s been a criticism of the movie that it oughtn’t have allowed Rockwell any semblance of redemption. That criticism may be overwrought and may misread the ending. True enough, he and Mildred find some compassion for each other later in the film. In that, Rockwell sacrifices his body and endures a vicious beating to get the DNA of a guy—a dark presence in the film—he thinks has admitted to the rape and burning murder of Mildred’s daughter.

But what’s the upshot of this semblance of redemption? Rockwell and McDormand presumptively agree to kill that guy in some bizarre attempt at revenge and expiation even though they both know he’s innocent of that crime. And that’s all they know. (It’s to be remembered that Mildred fought with her daughter, who could no longer stand living with her, on the fateful night, refusing her use of the car. Her daughter screams at her, paraphrase, “Ok, I’ll walk. I hope I get raped.” Mildred screams back at her, paraphrase, “I hope you do too.” Mildred throughout the movie is trying to expiate her guilt over that. In trying to do that she rides remorselessly roughshod over others.)  Mildred is an unconstrained ugly bag of human misery: but she’s been that before the murder; and she’s even more of that after it. 

So what’s the point of this illusory redemption; what’s the thematic resolution here, which can include coherent irresolution? I’m saying there’s none, that Three Billboards collapses in its own incoherence with its director, McDonagh, too clever by half, thematically flailing in his unholy mixing of intense drama and black humor, each biting into the effect of the other.

I have two other considerable bones to pick.

First, for all the moral deficiencies and enigmas marking almost all the white characters, why are all the black characters shown as wholly good and  morally uncompromised? This cleavage cuts against what I strugglingly understand the movie’s theme to be: something like that people and events are wretchedly ugly but complicated, with the worst people having back stories that provide some ameliorating understanding and with the repulsive characters having some smidgeons of decency and humanity, all of which continually defies our expectations. 

One example: McDormand in a restaurant walks menacingly up to her wife beating ex husband and his extremely dumb 19 year old girlfriend, who doesn’t know the difference between polo and polio, menacingly carrying a bottle of wine but then winds up giving them the bottle and admonishing her ex, paraphrase, to “take good care of her.” 

But there are no surprises complicating the black characters’ unmitigated goodness. Seems like some sucky, virtue signaling pc to me. 

Second, apart from the black characters, why is almost everyone else in the film so sneered at, so looked down on, so presented as miserable, dumb, ugly fucks? To me it smacks sharply of harsh fly over dismissive condescension, an awful lot of shitting on southern midwest hicks. That together with the angelic representation of the black characters stamps this film with the blurry ink of the worst kind of smug, elitist liberalism. 

Is all what I think anyway.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

More On Wordsworth’s A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal: As I Was Saying To The Other Guy...

A slumber did my spirit seal; 
I had no human fears: 
She seemed a thing that could not feel 
The touch of earthly years. 

No motion has she now, no force; 
She neither hears nor sees; 
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, 
With rocks, and stones, and trees. 

You say that the redundancy of rocks and stones shows the poet’s numbed reaction to death, the numbness why he near to repeats the same noun. And you say what’s key in poetry is expressing the poet’s attitude to his subject, poetry as such as dramatic poetry. I say that I don’t understand the redundancy and I’m unpersuaded that it’s the poetic dramatization of numbness. 

There’s an entirely plausible reading of this poem that precisely discredits your view. 

While she was alive he slept, albeit benignly-“slumber.” While she lived he was in effect under a kind of protective plastic. He was sealed in. To be sealed is to be tightly, even claustrophobically, hemmed in, cut off from externality. He had no human fears. He was without fear and,so, less than fully human, limited, really an innocent like Blake’s lamb. And his sense of her was accordingly stifled, superficial, reduced to appreciating only what she “seemed” like, with no sense of the fullness of her. 

It was Edenic, but as Blake would have it, a stifled, shorn innocence. She would of course feel the touch of human years but  his lack of full understanding made her into a “thing,” “a thing that could not feel...” what in fact inexorability does to us all.  

So his first stanza’s looking back is shot through with insight as to how limiting his sense of her had been, how dehumanizing, how reductive. So the first stanza is double visioned: he fuses how, sealed off, he saw her together with a more maturely full understanding of what that sense of her lacked. This hardly numbed reaction. 

Now with her gone, he is struck by an understanding of the fullness of what she was and went through as the touch of human years has now made its full claim. His slumber is over, its ending marked from the time of what the fact of her death finally awakens in him, that he missed all the touching of the earthly years of her. 

So now for the first time, measured by the experience fed realization of what he has lost, does he confront, too late, her being gone, the full reality of what she was. Negation, “no force...neither hears nor sees” breeds perception. 

And so now he comes to his fullest understanding: the rolling planet has claimed her, has enfolded her in “earth’s diurnal course.” And the double vision of the first stanza now refocuses  and fulfills itself in comprehensive understanding of her death being part of ultimate cosmic processes. 

“Diurnal course” isn’t harsh. It’s capacious in intimating something larger than us in our lives and our deaths and in that largeness contains us. There’s an intimation of the divine in that circular rolling, “rolled” not a harsh verb either. 
Sadness and wisdom commingle. 

In these terms, noting the life-fullness of “trees” as against “rocks and stones” isn’t, I argue, picky irrelevance. It’s to the point, one focus of the double vision that is the irretrievable paradox of the poem: a kind of life in death even as death is death. The juxtaposition of inanimate “rocks” and living “trees” precisely image that paradox. 

And so one, or I as one, is left wondering why near to repeat “rocks” with “stones”? Numbed impact disconcerting the poet doesn’t cut it, I don’t think. That’s belied by the presence of mind to say “diurnal,” as I noted, by the evolving double vision working its way through the poem and by the poem’s final and ultimate paradoxical insight.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Why “Rocks, and stones, and trees” Exactly In Wordsworth’s A Slumber Did...


This is fun.

An exchange born of a subthread here on the last line of Wordsworth’s A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.

Hang on to your hats and wigs: it’s a thrilling, roller coaster of a ride and it’s not over yet.

A Slumber did my Spirit Seal

A slumber did my spirit seal; 
I had no human fears: 
She seemed a thing that could not feel 
The touch of earthly years. 

No motion has she now, no force; 
She neither hears nor sees; 
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, 
With rocks, and stones, and trees. 


Why “Rocks, and stones, and trees” exactly? 


The speaker is so deeply moved that he is indifferent to the redundancy? The two  ands  is very good. There is a debate about whether the poem is pantheistic and Lucy is now part of the divine whole or whether she is now a thing.  Or something like that. 


It’s the redundancy I don’t totally get.

I wonder if “stones” suggests gravestones but even if it does I can’t work out why “rocks, and stones.”

I’m in the pantheism school; and she is a thing: all things are shot through with divine spirit.


It expresses the speakers abcorption in his state of mind and indifference to eloquence, though of course eloquent in the Worsworthian manner, the power of common speech to express what standard poetic eloquence cannot.  That was Wordsworths great invention and still dominates poetry.  Many readers in his day found him clumsy, simply unpoetic.  Which in their terms he was.  


What I wonder about when I ask myself “why ‘stones’” is whether any number of words could have been used, seemingly, in place of “stones,” which then suggests an arbitrariness to “stones” that dispels the idea of perfect placement, that only that word can do. 

Why not “Rocks, and bones, and trees”?

Arbitrariness seems to me to take away from what I might call the “aesthetic authority” of the artist and any particular work. But that may be my naïveté about these matters, as though there isn’t an element of the arbitrary always in all works, good, bad or indifferent, as long as the choice, however arbitrary, works. But “stones” being a smaller brother of “rocks”doesn’t work necessarily. 


Bones is bad because of the rhyme, and the morbidity.  You want some sort of meaning, and I think Wordsworth wants the words to express the speakers state of mind, in this case the impact of a death that numbed him. The speaker should not sound sophisticated, poetic, intellectually subtle or deep.  Neither the pantheism nor her becoming a thing is intellectually deep.  It expresses a feeling, the emotional “slumber” induced by her death, and the redundancy helps express that.  


....A slumber did my spirit seal; 
I had no human fears: 
She seemed a thing that could not feel 
The touch of earthly years. 

No motion has she now, no force; 
She neither hears nor sees; 
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, 
With rocks, and bones, and trees...

I wonder if you aren’t making my point. 

What if Wordsworth had said “bones”? 

And what if there were 170 years of literary criticism expounding on the vivid sharpness of “bones,” its counterweight to any gentle sentimentality over death, its emphasizing “dead is dead” sitting in brilliant tension with the life of “trees,” emphasizing Wordsworth’s sure sense of the implacability of her absence, and expounding on the effectiveness of the stark physicality of “bones” breaking so meaningfully, even shockingly, so remarkably with the tone of the rest of the poem? 

Then what if, against all those years of explication and the question of a mere thing against a pantheistic vision, someone had ventured “stones” instead of “bones”? Wouldn’t we then be inclined to say “No, “stones” is bad. It’s the same as “rocks,” and, so, redundant, a wasted word that erases all the complex, striking effectiveness of bones?”

P.S. “Diurnal” doesn’t register too much numbed impact to me. It’s a learned word that cuts against the idea of numbness shown by the slight redundancy in the last line.

P.P.S.S. I don’t get “the rhyme”  as one reason why “bones” is bad. “Stones” has the same rhyme.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Pinker And Douthat: Enlightenment Now: Science Versus The Irrational


I just read the linked-to-above piece by Ross Douthat on Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now. 

I disagree with everything Douthat says.

His argument is that Pinker’s liberal, scientific, data driven optimism is smug in its dismissal of the irrational and the virtues of the irrational, of how those virtues are evident in an intensely curious drive, akin to science, which can give us answers, based on the “evidence” of the self, to our deepest personal perplexities, answers for which science and secular liberalism offer no help.

His argument concludes with noting Pinker’s lament for the loss of appreciation of science, for, by necessary implication, our deeper dive into the irrational, and with suggesting that his smug, dismissive “secular certainties” may be among the causes of that loss since these certainties, as Douthat has it, tend to smother the questing curious spirit common to the quest after the irrational and to science.

...Which is why if Pinker and others are genuinely worried about a waning appreciation of the inquiring scientific spirit, they should consider the possibility that some of their own smug secular certainties might be part of the problem — that they might, indeed, be stifling the more comprehensive kind of curiosity upon which the scientific enterprise ultimately depends...

There is so much I think wrong with Douthat’s argument that I scarcely know where to begin. 

His first mistake is to mischaracterize Pinker’s position as one of smug liberal certainty, as though he were a naif in his faith in inevitable human progress including North American social progress. But Pinker’s not that. 

Pinker cites evidence for his theses of demonstrable progress, the engine for which is the combination of enlightenment values best encapsulated by the scientific method. (And nothing will do but to refute his evidence, a refutation  Douthat says is beside the point in his piece-Pinker’s “bright line” between science and “obscurantist” non science.) 

Pinker is far from smug. He knows our progress is fragile, reversible, fraught with dangers threatening massive human destruction. He knows that science is trial and error and, so, full with errors. And, so, we move forward but in a highly contingent and zig zagging way. 

Douthat’s second mistake is to vaunt the virtues of the irrational-astrology, fad diets, faith healing, ecstatic prayer, all kinds of new ageism-as manifesting an independence of spirit that makes those who pursue them jmore independent minded than secular liberals who incline “to meekly submit to authority.” Because the divers into the irrational, an existential quest to be sure, rely on the “evidence” of the self, they quest after personal truth the way scientists do after phenomenal truth. And those who dismiss (say) prayer as illusory without actually seeing whether it works are anything but empiricists: 

....If you refuse any non-F.D.A.-blessed treatment for chronic illness because there’s no controlled study proving that it works, or have a religious experience and pre-emptively dismiss it as an illusion without seeing what happens if you pray, you may be many things, but you are not really much of an empiricist....

That the secular liberal are meeker than (say) astrologists is a presumption so absurd that I wouldn’t have expected it of Douthat. Those who in their distress turn to the irrational for answers offer no model for admirable living. Irrational responses to heightened despair aren’t admirable curiosity; nor do the off side routes and processes to answers beyond evidence have anything to do with science, literally or metaphorically. The “evidence” the self provides is wavering, irreplicable and unfalsifiable subjectivity. In using the imagery of science to celebrate glossolaliasts and macrobioticists, Douthat conflates the literal and the metaphoric. And if he’s not, then he’s stretching  the metaphor of science past snapping in trying to attach it to the obviously unscientific.  

Consider finally his last paragraph quoted a few paragraphs above. If Pinker and his ilk contribute to a decline in the appreciation of the scientific spirit by way of their smug “secular certainties,” if they are helping squelch the comprehensive kind of curiosity science depends on, and if science and the intense pursuit of the irrational have that curiosity in common, then why is the appreciation of science declining while the pursuit of the irrational grows, that growth the obvious corollary of that decline? If Pinker and fellow secular liberals stifle that common curiosity, then how can chasing after the irrational be growing? 

I want to say that the incoherence of Douthat’s last paragraph is of a piece with the confusion, conflation and category error that mark his piece.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Banality As Evil


2. M: 

I've read it a couple of times and taught it once.  I think I tended to see it as a type of meditative non-fiction that is maybe closer to the modern novel that Arendt never wrote, than to an analytic report on a trial.  The account of how Eichmann got to be the high administrator of genocide is fascinating and does present a disturbing picture of how anonymous bureaucratic structures can be moved toward something like the Holocaust without disrupting the office work, so to speak.  In respect  of the Bellow/Sammler commentary, I think it's certainly arguable that the banality is a way of disguising evil for the modern secular world, but there is an unanswerable question at the heart of political philosophy, which is what a genuinely nihilistic modern politics would be.  As a political philosopher, Arendt was fascinated by the idea that it would look like basic administrative ability.

3.  Me:

This is a high powered comment that I appreciate.

Gotta ask: in what context or for what course did you teach it; and how did that go?

I wonder, and not to want to cavil, whether there may not be distinction between a journalistic account and an analytical account with the latter lining up with a meditative non fiction? Arendt’s “project” seems to have been at least in no small part to have advanced her thesis of Jewish under-reaction and complicity, and of, more so, rehabilitating her mentor’s idea of true evil lying in industrial capitalist modernity decimating the putative ideal, in Heidegger’s account, of a pastoral past unsullied by capitalism’s reduction of men and women into mere units of production. Wisse doesn’t say this as such but I do: namely, the corollary of this line of reasoning is the banality of evil. But I’d argue she does something like this as she highlights Norman Podhoretz’s characterizing Arendt’s book as the perversity of contrarian brilliance, throwing her obscuring of obvious and clearly understood categories like good and evil and what constitutes them back at her, borrowing her mo to take Eichmann In Jerusalem apart. 

I wonder if you’re missing something, at least from the standpoint of Wisse’s critique, in noting Eichmann’s rise as a case of bureaucratic upward mobility. She says Arendt downplays, advancing her thesis of bureaucratically following orders as a mode of evil, the lengths Eichmann undertook, including traveling to Jerusalem and reporting back on it, to become a “Jewish question” specialist and how vociferous he was in the pursuit of genocide even when orders came restraining him. Those incline to break the characterization of banality. 

The idea of banality disguising evil in the modern world is what I might call a second order point, no disrespect meant. I’d think the first order point is that genocide and operations and actions less than genocidal but unendingly horrifying, whether a few on many, many, or one or a few  on a more on or a few, are a main constituent of what evil is. That is, so to say, first order evil. That some states and entities euphemize the evil they do under numbing verbiage seems to me to be banality disguising evil.

Realism as a political school of thought is the closest we get to a nihilistic politics, I think. But in North American political theory it attracts its own counter thesis of a morality based politics sourced in spreading democratic values and in privileging morality over interest. Surely, realism isn’t so much nihilistic as it does the opposite of what its counter thesis holds: it privileges interest over mortality and, too, complicating the issue some, makes national interest coextensive with some notion of national morality. If Arendt was fascinated by the idea of a genuinely nihilistic political morality, that speaks to, I’d further tend to argue, an intellectual fancifulness, an intellectual remoteness, a level of abstraction, that all flaw her work.