Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Note To A Friend On Scorsese’s The Irishman

‪I’m afraid I join the small minority of critics and reviewers, a paltry few, who were disappointed by this movie though my take is likely idiosyncratic. ‬

‪The acting is of course boss. The recreation of those times and characters is superb. And the arc is interesting. But I’m baffled by the point of it all. We have the mildly humorous, never condemnatory, humanization of a low life, murderous, soulless creep of a thug, laced with too many comic touches, in the telling of his story. This movie, after all, isn’t “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” These were terrible, terrible people, but that doesn’t really come across. The humour, the series of virtually comic, flippant subtitles about the guys who were murdered by X number of bullets, the murderous gangsters coming across like lovable old uncles all lend a mild, entertaining tone that cuts against a vivid sense of how homicidally bad these low life thugs  were.‬

‪I don’t get the point of that.‬

‪It seems to me that the great amount of undeniable craft is wasted on a subject unworthy of it all. ‬

‪As I say, I found the movie soulless. And that it’s a kind of docudrama that surveys a series of historical events diminishes, for me, what dramatic power it might have otherwise have had. I wasn’t, for example, moved by the seeming dilemma for Frank in needing, having been ordered, to take out his very close friend, Hoffa—(and it’s disputed, maybe even debunked, that he even did it.) His fairly easy compliance erases any sense of his dilemma and any drama. Plus, the murder of Hoffa scene is excruciating in its unnecessary slow length. ‬

‪I was never exactly bored but some parts of the movie stretched out too long. I found myself at times getting impatient and looking at my watch. ‬

‪I have an extra acute sense of disappointment likely because my expectations and excited anticipation were so high. ‬

‪So, in a nutshell, my view is of the movie’s pointlessness. My wife loved the acting but was neither here nor there about the film. We rode down in an elevator to get to my car and I was humming In The Still Of The Night. An elderly woman riding down with us smiled at my humming. She’d seen the movie and she loved it. So, go know. ‬

‪If I had to score it, I’d give a disappointing 3.5 out of 5, 7 out of 10, 70 out of a 100.‬

Monday, November 4, 2019

A Foursome Of Notes On To Kill A Mockingbird


‪1‬

‪I'm approaching the 1/3d mark of To Kill A Mockingbird.‬

‪A few interim thoughts.‬

‪Why not?‬

‪I generally know the story and saw the movie quite some time ago. So I do have a few preconceptions I'm trying to keep in check. And I'm not looking at any reviews or criticism as I read. My responses are straight from what I've read so far. I'm seeing something quite wonderful and one thing in particular that is raising some doubt.‬

‪The wonderful part so far, first 1/3d, is the portrayal of childhood in a particular setting, a small Alabama town seething right at its surface with racism, backwardness, violence and white trash. Foreboding is in the air as childhood innocence slowly recedes.  ‬

‪A few things occur to me as to what makes the portrayal so vividly and beautifully affecting. One is that the first person telling is framed by Jean Louise as an adult recounting her young years simultaneously from the perspective of how she took in things back then, including her thoughts and words in her own young kid words merged with her adult understanding and explanations of that understanding in her own grown up thoughts and words. ‬

‪Another is how Lee so sharply delineates Jean Louise, Jem and Dill too, making them come alive in the consistent particularity of each with all their childish behaving and misbehaving and talk. What is remarkable is how Lee seems to penetrate the essence of what it means to be 6 or 7 or 12, in this place at this time as revealed in these kids' playing, their deviltry, their wonder, their incipient strengths, their weaknesses, their hard and growing education in the ways the world goes, and their experiences with others, relatives, elderly neighbours, other kids, and principally of course with Atticus. ‬

‪Calling him "Atticus" rather than "Dad" or "Father" seems a perfect touch, consistent with him being an older father, 50, both righteous and slightly world weary, a little bit detached yet warm and loving too. It's amazing how without saying so Lee makes us feel the absence of a mother in Jean Louise's and Jem's lives, makes us feel what it's like for them to live only with their relatively elderly and only slightly starchy father. His kids calling him "Atticus" conveys so much of all this.‬

‪Enhancing this seeming penetration of the essence of their childhood are two things at least (among others I'm sure): one is the detailed, concrete sense of place, local colour, revealed in virtually every sentence; and what makes that revelation striking among other things is the unerring use of language to convey this sense of place, the colloquialisms, the tropes--the poetry of them, the formalities and informalities in the ways of speaking, the idioms, the manner, forms and rhythms of southern speech, all of it adding up to a particularly identifiable and believable sensibility and world, making, in short, setting resonant in language. ‬

‪....Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum...‬

‪One aspect of that resonance is the mixture of high sounding elegant language with the all the informalities, the colloquialisms ungrammaticalnesses, ain'ts" for one instance, and such. I'm reminded of Huck Finn's use of the verb "commence" as in (say) "I commenced to wonderin,'" such a peculiar and resonant Southern phrasing, fusing the high sounding with the slightly ungrammatical, informal and contracted, each setting the other off to form a vividly perfect phrase. To Kill A Mockingbird is filled with these kinds of locutions.‬

‪My one seed of doubt is the portrayal of Atticus. He's, so far, so idealized and so filled with such mighty rectitude, sympathy, empathy (and all the other good thies), compassion, wisdom, patience, wry humour, strength, and all like that, with no discernible chinks in his upright, righteous armour that he's verging on caricature, on the utterly and rather unbelievably saintly. I'm not rushing to this judgment. It's but a gnawing partially formed sense that I'll keep an internal tab on.‬

‪2‬



‪I'm just at the point at which the repressed, imperious  aunt has moved in for a spell and is trying to suppress everybody else, inflicting her life denying snobbery, classism, racism, and "manners" on our poor Finches, including Atticus who's engaged in an eternal struggle within himself in how to deal with his minor monster of a sister. The point is made by Jean Louise narrating from an adult distance how in all her imperious negation Alexandra makes for a perfect fit with Maycomb and it with her. ‬

‪The argument between Atticus and Alexandra about her wanting to get rid of Calpurnia, which Atticus calmly disposes of without high emotion of any kind, not even a hint of intemperateness, add another notch to the gun-handle of his seeming saintliness. ‬

‪But when he makes Jean Louise apologize after she rightly and righteously lashes out at Alexandra for piping up that she, Jean Louise, "certainly cannot visit Calpurnia at her home," paraphrase, intoning in that opinion everything that is wrong with her and the attitudes she typifies, we may be seeing the first chink in the armour of his saintliness, a too ready inclination to bow down before, or at least give in to even by merely putting up with,  all that Alexandran negation. ‬

‪Same touch of human failure when he comes onto Jem and Jean Louise to deliver the Alexandran directed sermon as to how these kids must understand their superior Finch lineage and live up to it, not down from it as they have been, as Alexandra sees it. ‬

‪Conflicted and taken out of himself, against his own inclinations, Atticus delivers this sermon, shocking his kids into thinking their world has been turned upside down, that everything they've been taught and how they've lived are wrong and must be corrected, and shocked and made panicky and tearful at the thought that they have "lost" their father. ‬

‪Thankfully, in an instant it all passes. They know they have him back as Atticus of old, back to himself, as he tells them they should forget what he just told him. Here's another rare display of something transitorily weak and indeterminate, therefore human, therefore psychologically rounded and more real, in Atticus.‬

‪3‬


‪I'm at the point in To Kill A Mocking Bird where it's just after Atticus has lost the rape case.‬

‪(I have no idea as to how the eventual appeal turns out. I don't remember that from the movie, or if the movie even deals with an appeal.)‬

‪One thing of interest to me was my initial sense of the possibility of an unreal saintliness in Atticus to the point of caricature. There have been things he's said and done in his ultra sage raising of his kids that have tended to drive me round the bend with his excess of wisdom and goodliness.‬

‪But his losing the trial and his marked world weariness after it are quite humanizing as is too his quietly competent trying of Tom Robinson's defence. No Perry Mason, no flashing legal brilliance, no legal miracles, just, rather, a hard working, diligent, undramatically effective, committed, conscientious and totally human defence counsel facing impossibly long cultural odds. ‬

‪Pretty good that.‬

‪4th and last‬

‪I finished To Kill A Mockingbird.‬

‪I weighed my judgment of Atticus as I read it.‬

‪So here's a (probably idiosyncratic) morally based take on the novel as a matter of my first raw impression of it. This note is purposely unaided by reading any secondary material, be it reviews or more formal literary criticism.‬

‪If anyone has the patience or interest to read all this, I'd love to discuss it and be shown where I'm misreading and not seeing things right. ‬

‪At times I found Atticus's tendency to saintliness insufferable and not to be believed. At other times, in his failures, his world weariness, in his occasional weaknesses in (say) bowing to Alexandra, in his age showing more, in his tender love for his children, doing the best he can to raise them as a single parent, I liked him and believed in him as a formed and rounded character with strong and admirable values in word and in deed.‬

‪So I had, as I went along, mixed and opposed feelings about him. But two final things tipped the balance thumbs down, aesthetically and substantively. ‬

‪The two things are: Atticus's telling Jean-Louise, paraphrase, "No, in not hating anyone, I don't hate Hitler;" and secondly, his insistence at novel's end that Jem face the legal music, even if sure to be exonerated, for stabbing Bob Ewell to his death, when Atticus thought that was what happened. ‬

‪Atticus not hating Hitler is consistent with his preachment to his kids not to hate anyone, to walk in their shoes before judging others, to try to see matters as they might before judging them. The problem is that Hitler exemplifies a limit to that preachment, that it is inhuman and unbelievable that this preachment doesn't hit a wall in the instance of a Hitler. ‬

‪The novel makes clear that it's not insufficient knowledge, as in "We simply don't know enough to judge," that inhibits hatred. For Jean Louise's teacher has made it known to her what Hitler is doing to Jews. Atticus not only refuses to hate him but patronizingly says after Jean Louise, somewhat morally confused, tells Atticus that her teacher hates Hitler, "I'm sure she does." Atticus implies by this that the teacher's hatred is morally undeveloped, lesser, inferior to his own high minded refusal to indulge in such low emotion. Here, Atticus's is an irritating piety at odds, I'd argue, with the man Lee thinks she portrays.‬

‪But the more damning instance of this insufferable piety is in Atticus wanting Jem officially to confront killing Ewell even after Hec Tate, the sheriff, insistently contrives a narrative for good reason that Ewell accidentally killed himself by falling on his own knife. At this point, Atticus wrongly thinks the reason for Tate's contrivance is to spare Jem the need to deal with the consequences of killing Ewell. ‬

‪He fights Tate every step of the way, rejecting the out he believes Tate's offering. No, no he intones, he must (as I gloss it) sacrifice Jem--a 12 year old sensitive and sheltered little boy, who's just been through hell, has been almost murdered, has been knocked unconscious, has had his arm badly broken, and has, so Atticus thinks, killed Ewell to protect Jean Louise--sacrifice him on the altar of his, Atticus's impossible piety, his impossibly superior morality. ‬

‪Atticus must, he says, live publicly just be as he does privately; he says he must live up to his own ideals; he will lose his children otherwise; they will see him doing something hypocritically differently from what he's taught them all their lives; better, much better, he says, to bring it all in the open (and, implicitly, let the chips fall where they may); if he agrees to Hec Tate whisking Jem's killing away, why then he will not be able to live with himself, he says. No, no, he says, Jem must face up to what happened even as Atticus presumes self defense will lead to acquittal. ‬

‪What kind of high mindedness is this? Isn't it more a kind of inhuman self righteousness, almost fanatical? What father, what kind of a father, in all these very particular circumstances insists that his broken up, traumatized 12 year old son court the possibility of criminal prosecution in order that he, the father, can live up to his own unflinching, unwavering moral code? What kind of a man can't here bend a little for the sake of his son's well being, for the sake of protecting his son, can't find another way with his son to deal with all this short of inviting legal process? Is he Abraham willing to slay Isaac in order to heed God's command? What kind of moral preciousness is this? ‬

‪There are (at least) two problems I see with Lee having Atticus take this firm position. One is that it fails aesthetically. It's simply not believable that a man like Atticus who is not shown throughout to be at his core a rigorous fanatic, who is shown having weak moments, who is shown knowing the way of the world, who is not a naïf, who knows what evil lurks where, wouldn't take the out he thinks Hec Tate offers. ‬

‪The second is that Lee means to shows Atticus as morally exemplary in his fine refusal to make an exception of his son even in these benighted circumstances. But this high morality is really an (unmeant by Lee) repugnant moralism, both inhuman and unreal, that gets away from her. And presenting Atticus so is of a piece with a certain thematic soft headedness that flaws this novel. ‬

‪In touching on that, I ask why exactly is Atticus ok with the contrived "fell on his knife story" once he comes to understand that in fact Boo Radley killed Ewell and Jem didn't? Why the bending now? Why the exception now? Sure Jem is Atticus's son and Boo Radley isn't in Atticus's charge. But, still, Atticus is a lawyer, an officer of the court, duty bound to do the legally right thing and here's a sheriff fabricating a false narrative to spin the reality of what happened in order to spare Boo Radley all manner of legal and other consequence (including even being bothered by the Maycomb community in thanking him.)‬

‪But now not even a word in protest, no counter argument that in principle it's not right. Why alright for Boo, but not for Jem? Why solicitous compromise sparing Boo but all inflexible moral stricture for Jem? My argument is that it makes no sense and is ill thought through. ‬

‪The encapsulation of what I call Lee's soft headed piety--on display in Atticus being too morally superior to hate Hitler, on display in his (intended by Lee as admirable) insistence that Jem be made to face the consequences of killing Ewall--is evident in symbol of the mockingbird and in the maxim that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. The theme in this is that it's a sin to kill something so innocent, that makes no problem for anyone--not like (say) those thieving blue jays--and which only sings prettily, copying the songs of other birds. Atticus knows that Jean Louise understands the wisdom of covering up what Boo Radley did when she says that to pursue him for killing Ewell would be like killing a mockingbird. Atticus approves and agrees.‬

‪This supposed insight, however, accords Boo Radley not an iota, not an ounce, of human agency and contradicts what Atticus has been trying to teach his kids about Boo throughout the novel in order to demystify him, that, in effect, he's a person too, to be understood as such and respected as such. Boo watches the kids, plants gifts for them--some of which he made. Not only does he watch them, he watches over them. He too is their protecter. And so he fulfills what Atticus has been trying to teach about him. ‬

‪If so, then how does the mockingbird come to stand for him, for a flesh and blood human being capable of love and violence and who acts out of his own agency to kill Bob Ewell? Why is the mockingbird, without its own song, merely singing prettily other birds' songs and, so, mocking them, likened to him? My argument is that Lee has undermined her novel thematically and symbolically in this deep inconsistency with Boo. ‬

‪While likening Boo to a mockingbird is textually explicit, it's arguable that there's a similar likening of it to Tom Robinson. True it is that he has a record for fighting, but in relation to Mayella Ewell, he's a total innocent, merely doing her kindnesses, taking no money from her for them, befriending her in ways on seeing how pitiable and ill used she is, even to the point of not wanting to upset her or make her feel rejected when trying to resist her. And he's killed in his innocence. ‬

‪So in fact it's highly arguable that the symbolic and thematic import of the mockingbird attaches to Tom Robinson too. If so, then the just discussed flawed contradiction concerning Boo Radley is even more deeply and offensively apparent in relation to Tom Robinson. To deny him, a mentally fit man, agency by way of the symbol of the mockingbird is, finally, racism, unaware racism, but racism nonetheless. The descriptions of Tom reflexively running away enhance that depiction of him. ‬

‪I can see an argument that Lee subverts, or chips away at, the pedestal on which she places Atticus. But in my heart of hearts I think that's a stretch, a way of rationalizing his flawed piety. The book just doesn't read to me that way. For example, with Atticus's refusal to hate Hitler, the teacher who in contrast hates him is later shown to be a hypocritical anti black racist, which reinforces Atticus's smug dismissal of her hatred of Hitler when he says, "I'm sure she does." The symbol of the mockingbird seems so misbegotten to me for among the reasons I note that I can't see Lee capable of such subtle subversive tough mindedness. ‬

‪I understand that a novel isn't a polemic. It's not an argument to be picked apart by showing how it doesn't stand up for any number of reasons, or to be counter-argued. That said, still a novel must be thematically and symbolically coherent. It must, so to say, be able to live with itself. Where it has incoherence, things that can't stand together, parts that defy believability, then it is fairly criticized for those failings. I think this is the case with To Kill A Mockingbird as I read it.‬

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

More On Where’s My Roy Cohn And A Little On Citizen Cohn

‪J:‬

‪Haven't seen the flick, but with their purple prose, "K" and "Me" make a caricature of Cohn.  Well, he was a caricature of himself, too.  I suggest you view or re-view James Woods' Cohn, to get a more three-dimensional look.  If McCarthy weren't his Prince, then Cohn might be just another pitbull litigator, depending on your view of aggressive lawyers.  For more perspective, see Woods as Danny Davis, in Indictment: The McMartin Trial.  Both stories are chilling.  Compare and contrast Cohn with Darrow, Rogers, Nizer, Belli, Balley, who had their vices.  Or maybe Cohn the political hit man is more interesting than Cohn the lawyer. ‬

‪I'm reminded of the history of labor relations.  For a long time workers with grievances were mugged by company goons.  Then unions got their own muscle, and companies had to listen.  Of course, that muscle inevitably came from gangsters, who used union pension funds to finance their projects or launder their money, like Las Vegas and Miami Beach.  But that's what it took to level the playing field for the worker.  Prosecutors have an outfit behind them.  Some lawyers have their own outfits.  Hey, it's the adversarial system!  Fun and games with justice.‬

‪Me:‬

‪I can’t go along with my prose as purple, but we could saw it off as mauve.‬

‪I’ll check out, try to, the James Woods flick, Citizen Cohn. And I’ll try to check out Indictment: The McMartin Trial. ‬

‪Good counterfactual point about what would Cohn have amounted to if he hadn’t worked for McCarthy. But he did and then he did what he did, so really there’s no need for supposin’.‬

‪The US yesteryear practice of law was pretty wild and wooly and the guys you list were larger than life and had their share of shenanigans. But except for Bailey, I’m unaware of any of the rest of them stealing from their clients and bullet proofing themselves so as to be immune from money judgments. I know Belli went broke while prosecuting a class action against Dow Corning after it did. But that’s not a comparable thing. ‬

‪And while Conrad Black is right to complain loudly and bitterly at the power US prosecutors have and how unethically they often wield it, what with gross overcharging and so on and having a near infinite list of laws and regulations to choose from, my impression is that civil litigation and criminal defense work in the US isn’t anything like what it was in the time of Darrow or Rogers. That Cohn and Bailey got disbarred is a sign of the changes, and those disbarments were some years ago. Cohn seems to me to outstrip all these guys in the way of wrong doing. He seems in a class by himself. And the doc didn’t do a a good job, as I argue, in making his evil vivid. ‬

‪Btw, we Canucks are pikers in the way of unlawful legal shenanigans. Our most prominent lawyers past and present are church mice compared to your guys. ‬

‪Me:‬

‪Hey, we just watched Citizen Cohn. It’s good. You’re so right that it gives a more rounded, “three dimensional,” picture of Cohn. I learned some things the doc never showed. It’s better than the doc in that. I think the doc is weak in any event as I’ve noted. But I make this point: in presenting a more rounded Cohn, the movie doesn’t veer in attitude from what the doc tries, not so well, to show—Cohn as unmitigatedly evil. In fact, the movie does what the doc doesn’t: give a vivid and dramatic version of his evil, however rounded its depiction of him is. So if the charge of purple (or in my case mauve) prose goes to K and I vilifying Cohn by over the top words in describing his rotten soullessness, well, the movie makes the case for those colors in language, purple, mauve, being apt.  ‬

Some Thoughts On Where’s My Roy Cohn

‪K:‬

‪Just saw Where's My Roy Cohn and to cut to the chase, I gave it 4.80 out of 5.00 stars. Superbly researched, fascinating structure, skillful intermixing of interviews, various clips from his tv appearances (the inclusion of cage fight btw Cohn and Gore Vidal alone was worth the price of admission) and extrapolations from then to now, both in terms of politics, socio-cultural rot, and the wretched denouement from Cohn to the Degenerate current befouling the Presidency, our nation, and our culture, was well crafted and engaging.‬

‪But, this comes with several caveats:‬

‪1) One has to know who Roy Cohn was, what gave him his start, and why, over the decades, this miserable diseased excrescence was able to manipulate the levers of power, to truly understand the movie. This lops off a huge portion of the potential movie audience.‬

‪2) And, even if the answer to the above caveat is yes, one has to be willing to spend time watching a documentary about Roy Cohn, which was akin to taking a deep dive into a sh*t filled sewer, with rats, disease, and lethal pathogens engulfing you. Again, this lops off another huge slice of the potential movie audience.‬

‪3) Finally, if the answers to #1 and #2 are yes, then go see it but beware: Even going in fully braced and aware that one is exposing oneself to an Earth Bound Satan, one never really knows the after effects of prolonged exposure to such Majestic Satanic Manifestation. I will be checking my limbs, heart, and soul for any Ebola like after effects from my 90 minutes of congress with Roy Cohn and, to make matters even more lethal, at the end, with Donald Trump.‬

‪However, if you can meet the challenge of these 3 caveats, then go see this superb documentary.‬


‪Me:‬

‪K, thanks for your review. We saw the doc Monday night. We thought it was enjoyable and informative. But I’ve had a nagging feeling about it ever since. ‬

‪I’m not familiar with this documentarian. He has apparently done a doc on Studio 54. I think I may have seen it a few years ago but I’m not sure. I have no problem with any such doc as such but documenting Studio 54 suggests to me his attraction to high life, bright lights celebrity even if he’s critical of it.‬

‪ And that’s what’s nagging at me about Where’s My Roy Cohn. The doc, to my mind, except for the continual showing of Cohn’s evil, smirking face, told me about his rotted, soulless wrong doing rather than showing it to me. For example, he gets disbarred, a huge deal based on moral turpitude, for, among other things, breaching his fiduciary obligations to his clients in a massively corrupt way by stealing their money. But there’s no dramatizing how awful that is. Rather we get the grey bespectacled lawyer who prosecuted Cohn telling us about it. What about words from and showing us the actual victims?‬

‪Plus, in the guise of documenting Cohn’s destructiveness, we get a lot of his “bright lights, big city” celebrity life, him on his yacht, him in the company of the ostensibly great and famous, movers and shakers, him hob nobbing at celebrated, expensive, exclusive places, him as loyal to his friends, him constant extolled as a great, smart lawyer, him depicted as someone who railed against and fought against power and the establishment and so on and on with this kind of sub textual, or not even so sub textual, praising him, under the umbrella of documenting his sociopathic rottenness. ‬

‪Which is not to say, there’s any problem with a complicated, rounded portrayal of him in all his fullness. But in this doc, my nagging self tells me, there wasn’t enough nor powerful enough taking him down and there was too much, likely unintended, basking in his ostensible glow. ‬

‪Lastly, my nagging sense is that there was much too much made of his homosexuality. Again, it’s not that that shouldn’t have been documented in the portrayal of him, but the director went overboard with it such that he lost balance. It became a distraction from Cohn’s sheer exploitative, sociopathic evil, the fullness and sharpness of which finally got a little lost amidst the images of his stuffed animals, his loyalty to the Reagans and Trump and the kinds of seemingly glamorous things about him we’re so often shown and that I’ve noted. ‬

‪Any thoughts on this? ‬

Saturday, October 5, 2019

A Small Slice Of Reasoning On Trump v The Ds On Impeachment

Me:

L., I know you think the whole thing is bad performance art and a bore, lagging in interest behind pro rasslin.’ But still, I wonder if you have any thoughts on why Trump just recently made a purposeful point in what he asked China. 

My own inchoate sense is that he’s doing it for among a few reasons: 

one is that it’s a calculated confrontational, in-your-face posture in taking it to the Ds and raising the issues to a high pitch; 

that calculation rests on a rationale that what he did vis a vis Ukraine is within his prerogative and so, therefore, is what he recapitulated with his China ask, that, in a nutshell, the impeachment theory is watery. 

the rationale includes assuming that as a practical matter in a worst case in the House, he has the Senate—2/3ds needed to convict—quite well tucked away; 

and, too, he’s calculated that he wins politically by the Ds hanging themselves by proceeding and by overplaying their hand. 

My sense of his reasoning for the legitimacy of his actions is that no real case can be made for a quid pro quo in his dealings with Zelensky. 

That gone, the Ds have shifted their theory to it being impeachable for Trump to lever the power of his office to gain oppo information against his political opponents, namely Biden, no quid pro quo needed. 

Trump’s answer to that is he’s facilitating the investigation of high US corruption, namely the Bidens’, both of them, doings in Ukraine and China. And, in that, that Biden J happens to be his potential presidential opponent is coincidental and incidental to that facilitation. 

The pattern of those doings presumptively raises conflict of interest issues and raises the spectre of Biden J substantively tilting his actions to assist the enrichment of Biden H. 

That being so, Trump calculates he stands on firm ground in asking, leader to leader, for such assistance. Trump figures too, I think, he gets support from past leveraging by others in or seeking high office for oppo research from Russian and Ukraine without the umbrella of presumptive wrongdoing. He can persuasively ask, “Why is it wrong for a US president to lever US power, its conferral of aid and the like to get help from other countries that serves US interests. 

In the meantime, he’s killing an already weakening Biden, so many nails in his waiting coffin.

There’s more, no doubt, in Trump’s and his team’s calculating but this is what on the spot occurs to me. 

L:

Yeah, I'm not following the details here because they seem just like the details of hundreds of similar brouhahas before -- feels too much like what used to be called a mug's game to get immersed in it. But I heard indirectly his China request and just shrugged it off as unsurprising -- a) because, as you say, it seemed simply a direct and mocking response to the Dems feverish excitement over Ukraine ("Watch, I'll now ask China to do the same"), b) because foreign-sourcing so-called oppo research is something all campaigns do, just not as overtly, and in fact was something the Clinton campaign did to him in 2016, and c) because other countries, not being stupid, don't really need an explicit bribe to investigate corruption. These aren't necessarily mutually consistent, but they fit with a Trump who is, as usual, just more open  about the sort of shenanigans that everyone's involved in, and that have frequently targeted himself. 

Me:


Well said.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Can We Learn From Fiction: Some Back And Forth

R:

I was sceptical of the idea that there was a significant relationship between fictions and faith, but now I might agree.  I believe we do not learn anything from fictions, from Antony and Cleopatra or Madame Bovary. Nor from TV soap operas or Harelequin romances.  Many works are didactic and intend to teach, but there it is clear what and how they teach.  The work illustrates the idea to be taught.  I don't think it makes what is taught true, just illustrates a truth already known, like Plato's Cave Allegory.  However, great works offer an intense experience, and that makes us believe that behind it there is something deep, significant.    That is what happens  I would guess in ritual dances and singing, during the mass, in hymn singing, etc.  They offer an experience that transcends one's self.  Mystics have other ways of doing it, but the result is the same, a sense of transcendence.  

Me:

A few points:

Didactic works apart, works of literature do teach us various kinds of things. Take Huck Finn, for example. Among others things, we learn about social formation as we see how Huck’s surroundings impinge on him so decisively; and another one we learn is about the contrast between a kind of isolated purity against corrupt and corrupting deeply embedded social convention that exerts such powerful formative influence; and, too, we learn how a society can be marked lousy by its deepest pervasive rot. Multiply these kinds of lessons by every worthwhile piece of fiction and drama and poem ever written, long and short, and lo and behold, learning galore. Contrary to what you say, as I take it.

Another thing we can learn from is the recreation of common scenes, as in visual art, so that we understand in them in new and vivid ways and keep for as long we have memory, like Wordsworth’s wandering lonely as a cloud, and then seeing a field of daffodils, or Milton’s “still doth sway” as a way of seeing motion in rootedness, or Stevens’s depiction of a bare wintry scene. Multiply these recreations of common scenes by every recreation in every worthwhile poem and every worthwhile piece of prose. And, you guessed it, learning galore.

And all this learning is without mentioning the ideas lurking within these recreations when they’re there. From the plainest single insight to entire cosmic systems such as Blake’s transvaluation of Christian values. 

That is all on top of, or, rather, the culmination of, the intense experiences of which you speak as we try to think through what they mean.

Another point applies both to didactic and non didactic works: we, in the way I’m arguing for what constitutes learning from literature, always learn something new from both types of work. Every exemplum of some common sense point—“haste make waste,” “look before you leap,” “slow and steady wins the race”—teaches us something new, adds texture and depth to the point. Similarly but exponentially richer and more complex is that kind of learning from worthwhile works.

So all of that takes me to your final point, faith and fiction, as I have it. As I have it, the sense that we’re in the presence of something deeply significant when literature has provided us with an intense experience, that sense is a matter of belief hence faith. And people have, you suggest, a similar sense, intuition?, when they’re in the midst of some deep going ritual related to their faith or related to their belief, their faith that is to say, in something beyond themselves. 

If I have that right, I, for one, discount any such significant relationship. My main reason is that being in the midst of such rituals comprises a, so to say, letting go of intellect and subordinating it to an emotional immersion, something shot through with faith from first to last. That exercise in faith doesn’t in the nature of things raise up reflection about it. 

That faith, like The Dude, abides. 

In reading great works, however, under the umbrella of our “suspension of disbelief” there are number of differentiations from ritual immersion. 

One is that in reading we’re not throwing the entirely of our beings into something in a way that suppresses our intellect.

Another is that in reading, something dialectical is going on, an evolving synthesis between what we’re imaginatively taking for granted and between our rational assessment of what we’re reading every step of the way. For it’s only that that allows us to emerge, as we invariably do, from what we’ve read with a critical assessment of it.

Still another is that that assessment involves a comparison between what we’ve read and what life is like, whereas immersive experience does not involve that comparison at all.

An iteration or supplement to that last point is, as I’ve suggested, that immersive involvement in rituals pointing and connecting adherents to the believed-in transcendent does not invite reflection on the experience, while the intense experience gotten from reading, a different order of intense experience btw, invariably invites such reflection: it’s institutionalized in a machinery that encompasses a spectrum ranging from book reviewing to the entirety of the academic discipline of literature. 

Of course, the most obvious difference is that the religious hold that that what they believe in is true. Literature readers know that what they’re reading isn’t. 

There are many such notable markers of difference but I’ll just mention one more: the faiths are qualitatively different. Religious faith underlies, pervades and informs the rituals that point and connect believers to the divine. The faith you speak of in the reading great literature is much thinner and immensely less significant. It’s our intuition, belief, in a word faith—stipulating to your characterization for argument’s sake—that because we’ve had an intense reaction to what we’ve read there must be something deep and significant “behind it”—your words.

R:

You didn't know before you read Huck Finn that "surroundings impinge . . . decisively" on people?  But of course I know that is not what you said---somehow.  

Plato knew it.  In a late book of Republic he has a brilliant chapter on how certain kinds of societies (aristocratic, democratic, oligarchic) produce different kinds of people.  And that idea is one of the dominant ideas of our age, culture shapes people.  Reading Huck Finn you recognize that Huck is being shaped, you don't learn it and you respond emotionally to the particulars of his fate,  

Me:

Learn, recognize—you’re splitting semantic hairs and not understanding me.

What I learn from Huck Finn, among many, many other things, is something I didn’t know before, an example of how that boy could be deformed in those social circumstances and how he could be reformed being away from them and in another set of circumstances, namely on the raft with Jim, and then again deformed. What I learned in reading that, then thinking about it and coming to some judgments about it, I took with me to the world. And some bland, bare notion of how convention affects us, how our environments affects us, got brilliant depth and texture in filling in that bare notion. If that’s not learning something, being taught something, then I have to wonder what as a prof you were doing in front of a classrooms all those years. 

And another obvious thing: Huck Finn is a thing in the world—like a rock or a bird or a bacteria—and I learned about it, something I’d never known till I read it. And that surely is learning about the world. 

So, in sum, I leaned more and something new about the world in virtue of simply experiencing the book, and in doing that I learned all kinds of things, such as I have mentioned, that the book has to teach me. 


Not for nothing was I instructed and delighted.

Monday, September 23, 2019

A Dead End In An Analysis Of Postmodernism’s Dead End

First this: https://bit.ly/2mFdFlb

Now me:

I was enthusiastically with Werner up to the end of his dismantling Foucault:

…”discursive formation,” which is defined as the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems…

My thought on reading this was that just as words stretched beyond their usual discrete meanings, say “racism,” become vacuous, so too do conceptions like “the total set of relations.”

And then Werner hammers the Foucault nail on its head so as to drive it into incoherence insofar as Foucault purports to give an ultimate account of how things are:

…To the extent that individuals and groups of people generate particular perspectives of the truth, Foucault was right. But the postmodern idea that there is “no underlying meaning” in the world apart from what people may produce is nonsense. That a certain perspective is exclusive and hinders access to other ideas is a comment on the limitations of the perspective, not on the degree to which truth can be known and shared…

The only real query I recall up to this point in the essay is: what does Werner mean by “the rhetorical approach to language” in teaching poetry? Does he mean something like the New Criticism or something like the techniques of rhetoric as “one of the three ancient arts of discourse” or something else? But that unclarity didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for what I was reading.

And his theme became well settled in my mind, that the particular shorn of the universal is ultimately and dangerously limiting, that there is underlying objective truth not bound by its particular circumstances, science and its method being the search for it.

But after Werner’s nice putting away of Foucault, his essay began eating too many calories and flab set in. To my mind, the flab has two distinct folds that hang over the lost leanness.

The first is, may I say, rhetorical. Which is to say, we get the basic idea. How many times and in how many different ways need it be repeated?

The second is substantive and an abiding unresolved tension marks it. In all the endless repetition of his theme, Werner with what he characterizes as universal ironically parallels his complaint about the particular shorn short of the universal. As the latter finally becomes meaningless, a wretched relativism, then too identifying a grand theme that can be the measure of all else itself becomes vacuous by deemphasizing the particular. For example:

…”My contention is that Darwinian evolutionary theory offers the truest basis with which to deal with the perils and opportunities of being human, as that awareness affects not only our work as teachers and scholars, but also our relationship with the nature which binds us to life on this decreasingly commodious sphere”…

Werner quotes Glen Love as to the above and says “his argument is my own.”

What can these airy words mean, however nice they sound? No one sensible will deny that our goal is to live safely, happily and securely in a safe, secure physical and human world. But with which specific conflicting approaches, conflicting policies, conflicting theories, theories, conflicting data, conflicting interests and so on do we go forward; by what criteria do we judge them; how do we even decide on those criteria? And so on.

These questions take us back to all the roiling that marks all of human life over time. Foucault saw a universality in particularity, was strongly telling in his analysis of power as determinant in human relations but ran into a brick wall in making particularity his universal and giving foundational premises to the Postmodernism against which Werner rightly inveighs. But, big but, Werner, as do others with like pleas, errs in asserting a universal without giving sufficient heed to the particular, such that in the way he frames his desideratum, he begs entirely the question of what is to be done.


In short, the universal and the particular are always in fraught and dynamic tension. Neither has meaning without the other.