Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Night Birds by Leon Wieseltier

TNR/August 24, 2011

A few questions: why do "the birds have it better"; is there not something gratuitously irritatating about a man wallowing in the complacency of his own blameworthiness and not doing anything about it:

...We make so many people invisible. It is a cognitive expulsion, but we are its victims. We do not expel the others, we expel ourselves. We blind ourselves and then we act as if there is nothing to see..;

what exactly is Burchfield's "moral affliction"; why does he have to bear it alone; why is that the "most tragic loneliness"; what is "tragic" about one's decision to seek out and then fulfill his desire for his own isolation; why doesn't Burchfield's communion with nature obviate such "tragic aspect" as his self imposed isolation creates for him; why does Burchfield have to be driven to loathing by a businessman being principally about his business; what is it to Burchfield; why can't he live and let live?

Why isn't a lot of this piece flowery, precious, self absorbed, self satisfied, and, ultimately, of no real meaning or point?


"Why isn't a lot of this piece flowery, precious, self absorbed, self satisfied, and, ultimately, of no real meaning or point?" Basman

Wieseltier: "He studied birdsongs, and captured them brilliantly in language, and even transcribed some of them into musical notation. He saw the utility but chose the beauty, and was stirred by the music that is best heard in the dark."


... "He studied birdsongs, and captured them brilliantly in language, and even transcribed some of them into musical notation. He saw the utility but chose the beauty, and was stirred by the music that is best heard in the dark...

Perhaps a perfect example of this piece's preciosity and highfalutin fatuity:

Why need to choose beauty over utility, a false opposition if there was one; and why valorize the hearing of music in the dark--"best heard"--or choosing beauty over utility, making a self glorifying Platonic ideal out of personal choice rather than letting the latter simply be what it is?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Little More on Deadwood and Something on Myth

James Ellroy quote:

was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception. Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight. ..It’s time to demythologize an era and build anew myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to define their time. Here’s to them.


I think it well exemplifies Deadwood. My best guess (and a quick google search) leads to me to James Ellroy.


But what's the point of building a new myth, if a myth is a lie? Is he saying we need to, or should, replace one false version of the past with another? If Deadwood is in one sense historical reconstruction, isn't the point of that to show in art an accurate iteration of the ways things were? If that's so then the new myth is myth in a thin sense, in the way that every fiction is a myth, or is myth in even a thinner sense, that every historical account being an account only, a necessarily selective story of events and significances, albeit presented as history, is also perforce a fiction, which is to say, a myth.


I don't think he's making existential point about the inescapability of myth-making; seems to me he's saying that American was built by self-interested motherfuckers whose dignity resided in their strength and guile but not their kindness or idealism.

I think he thinks these self-interested motherfuckers are still running the country, but they present themselves as saints following in the sanctified steps of some mythical, saintly founding fathers. If the public isn't careful, we may be tricked into thinking these men are doing right by us and by future generations. If we debunk that myth, and present these self-interested motherfuckers as they are, then we can both defend ourselves against their wiliness, while recognizing their bloody, ruthless talents.

And maybe that's the pleasure in watching Deadwood; it draws us softies into that hard and unforgiving world. You'd last five minutes out there with an attitude of trust in and love for your fellow man. But the best of them were tough and smart and subtle. Likely the real people didn't sound so poetic and brilliant all the time. That's a bit of the myth thrown in there.

Of course, I think that's a pretty tough and cynical way to think about the best of people. If that's what America was built upon, is there any way to transcend that bloody past and build something a little gentler and more generous? Is that what the state - hovering out there in the outskirts of Deadwood - could also represent?


I’m not sure where the notion that somebody is making an “existential point about the inescapability of myth-making” comes from given the below. What, again, I’m suggesting is that Ellroy’s quote free standing or as it may relate to Deadwood posits a difference between a fake idealized past and a “realistic” account of the past that entails “the gutter to the stars,” “self-interested motherfuckers whose dignity resided in their strength and guile but not their kindness or idealism.” If so then I’m not sure where a new myth comes in any thicker sense of myth, i.e. one associated with falsity rather than mere fiction.
Your point about seeing our present “motherfuckers” for who they are—not for the instant arguing the aptness of the characterization— I think strengthens the point of my query.
On a different point, now that the instant has elapsed, I think that Deadwood and in miniature Ellroy’s quote present the moral Gordian knot of original imperial conquest as an intractable fact. Neither the program nor Ellroy wallow in it. Nor do they, as I see it, present that conquest as the template for the America that emerged out of it.
They don’t show, I’d argue, that America is actively morally infected by that conquest, but, rather that the conquest is an indelible mark left on the country. So that that mark does not preclude America today from being a relatively civilized, moral nation. I think a Deadwood theme is that—I still have to watch Season 3 mind you—as civilization emerges, as evident in the growth and evolution of Deadwood itself, the coincidence between self interest and a larger good, or a society—Deadwood exemplifies the growth of a society—narrows and thus intensifies.
All of which, I’d add and argue, lends even more force to the point of my query.
I finished the book (Reading Deadwood) and thought a lot of the essays mediocre, a few terrible, some impossibly ridden with needless jargon, and a few quite good. The essays I thought the best were those that were less speculative, less attempting-to-be-theoretical and less ideology-mongering but rather engaged in old fashioned “textual analysis” in making sense of the series’ meanings on the solid evidence of what was actually in the different episodes.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Christie Blatchford on Jack Layton and his Letter

Aug 23, 2011/National Post

By the accounts of those who knew him best and loved him most, if there was a truly private side of Jack Layton, it was but a sliver of the man who happily lived virtually his entire adult life in the public eye and who was a 24/7 politician who was always on.

Yes, his death at 61 was sad and too soon; yes, he made an enormous contribution to his party and a significant one to Canada (though I would quibble with NDP MP Libby Davies’ characterization that “He gave his life for this country”); yes, he fought a brave battle against cancer, as, mind you, does just about anyone who has it; and yes, he was a likeable, agreeable, smiley man.

Yet what was truly singular about him was how consumed by politics he was and how publicly, yet comfortably, he lived.

How fitting that his death should have been turned into such a thoroughly public spectacle, where from early morn Monday, television anchors donned their most funereal faces, producers dug out the heavy organ music, reporters who would never dream of addressing any other politician by first name only were proudly calling him “Jack” and even serious journalists like Evan Solomon of the CBC repeatedly spoke of the difficulty “as we all try to cope” with the news of Mr. Layton’s death.

By mid-day, after Prime Minister Stephen Harper had offered a few warm words about Mr. Layton’s death and rued that their oft-talked-about jam session had never happened, Mr. Solomon even expressed sniping surprise that “Jack Layton wasn’t the sole focus” of the Prime Minister’s remarks.

Mr. Harper, who clearly had not spent the day watching the national broadcaster and thus was unaware that the NDP Leader’s death was the only story of note, had gone on to mention the families of the 12 people (including six-year-old Cheyenne Eckalook; now there’s someone who died far too young) who perished in the Arctic plane crash on Saturday and the tumultuous events in Libya.

The PM in fact was one of a very few voices of reason to be found on the airwaves — he remembered Mr. Layton kindly and with evident regard, but he had perspective and did not fawn.

And what to make of that astonishing letter, widely hailed as Mr. Layton’s magnificent from-the-grave cri de coeur?

It was extraordinary, though it is not Mr. Solomon’s repeated use of that word that makes it so.
Rather, it’s remarkable because it shows what a canny, relentless, thoroughly ambitious fellow Mr. Layton was. Even on Saturday, two days before he died, he managed to keep a gimlet eye on all the campaigns to come.

The letter is full of such sophistry as “We can restore our good name in the world,” as though it is a given Canada has somehow lost that, bumper-sticker slogans of the “love is better than anger” ilk and ruthlessly partisan politicking (“You decided that the way to replace Canada’s Conservative federal government with something better was by working together with progressive-minded Canadians across the country,” he said in the section meant for Quebecers).
The letter is vainglorious too.

Who thinks to leave a 1,000-word missive meant for public consumption and released by his family and the party mid-day, happily just as Mr. Solomon and his fellows were in danger of running out of pap? Who seriously writes of himself, “All my life I have worked to make things better”?

The letter was first presented as Mr. Layton’s last message to Canadians, as something written by him on his deathbed; only later was it more fully described as having been “crafted” with party president Brian Topp, Mr. Layton’s chief of staff Anne McGrath and his wife and fellow NDP MP Olivia Chow.

Mr. Layton wrote it, as Mr. Topp told Mr. Solomon, “in his beautiful, energy-retrofitted house” in downtown Toronto. These people never stop.

The reaction to his death — it was still shocking how fast it came, despite his cadaverous appearance in late July when he stepped down, temporarily it was hoped — was universally described as unique and of course, the day’s adjective, as extraordinary.

Held out as evidence of Canadians’ great love for Mr. Layton were the makeshift memorials of flowers, notes that appeared at his Toronto constituency office and on Parliament Hill, and in condolences in social media.

In truth, none of that is remotely unusual, or spontaneous, but rather the norm in the modern world, and it has been thus since Princess Diana died, the phenomenon now fed if not led online. People the planet over routinely weep for those they have never met and in some instances likely never much thought about before; what once would have been deemed mawkish is now considered perfectly appropriate.

Certainly, Canadians liked Mr. Layton, but the public over-the-top nature of such events — by fans for lost celebrities they never met, by television personalities for those they interviewed once for 10 minutes, by the sad and lost for the dead — make it if not impossible then difficult to separate the mourning wheat from the mourning chaff. His loss — his specific loss and his specific accomplishments — are thus diminished.

His greatest moments — the bravest and most admirable — came during his fight with prostate cancer, the subsequent hip surgery and his most recent battle with the cancer, whose nature he never disclosed except to say it was new, which killed him.

He must have been in pain; he may have been afraid. Yet again and again, waving the cane that became in his clever hands an asset, he campaigned tirelessly.

In the end, it was Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, a family physician whose Toronto practice once counted Mr. Layton’s family as patients, who said it best and with a physician’s sorrowful pragmatism: “As family doctors, we don’t have magic wands…this street fighter lost to the body betrayal.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Reason and Revelation

Jason Dulle:

Seeing that God has the ability to reason, and we are made in His image, it follows that God has intended for us to use our reasoning ability to discover and contemplate truth. Many truths, however, can only come via revelation. Revelation and reason cannot be separated from the life of the Christian. That we cannot divorce reason from our lives in favor of ‘revelation only’ is evident from the fact that those who hold to a ‘revelation only’ view must give logical and reasonable arguments for their position. They call upon our reasoning abilities to prove that their view is correct. On the flip-side, any attempt at pure rationalism divorced from revelation is also futile because not everything can be proved. Something is always presupposed or simply believed behind every provable belief. Justification, which comes by reason, must stop somewhere.

That reason is necessarily connected to revelation is evidenced by the fact that we are called upon to decide true revelation from false revelation (testing the spirits—I John 4:1-2). How can we do such discerning apart from reason, even if it is reasoning from the Scriptures? It must be remembered that there is a difference between reasoning to see whether something is revelation, or to determine what in the Bible is revelation. The former is a noble endeavor (Acts 17:11), while the latter is not. Belief is blind and unworthy unless it tests whether something is revelation or not. It is foolish to believe everything without applying reason to test its believability or truthfulness, but likewise it is arrogant to assume that everything must be accepted by our reason before it can be accepted as God’s Word, or truth.3

Part of the tension can be resolved by viewing the issue from two different perspectives: epistemologically (what we know) and ontologically (how we know). There is a difference between the way we know reality and what we know about reality. If God is the source of all truth, then truth must come from the "top down," and thus be known by revelation; however, epistemologically we start from the "bottom up" to determine whether or not God exists.4 In the epistemological sense, then, reason is prior to revelation, since reason must be used to evaluate whether or not the Bible is indeed revelation.

Reason precedes faith as a method of knowing the existence of God. One cannot believe in a God in whom they have no knowledge of, and cannot truly know something without reasoning about that which is to be known. A certain amount of knowledge (and thus reason) must be known of God if one is to have saving or experiential faith. One may have knowledge without faith, but one cannot have faith without knowledge.

Reason and revelation work together. God bestows faith simultaneously with our understanding. We do not have to crucify our intellect in order to believe. Faith may sometimes go beyond our ability to know something or understand it to the fullest extent, but faith is not illogical. Healings may seem illogical to some, but we know from God’s Word (revelation) that He heals, and therefore can believe (reason) that He will heal.

All other views besides ‘revelation and reason’ produce logical complications concerning salvation. The idea that one can move only from faith to understanding, and never from understanding to faith is lacking for reasonable support. Michael Bauman said it best:

Saving faith is not without its necessary prior theological content. To become a Christian requires one to come to at least some rudimentary conclusions about God, about Christ, about one’s own spiritual status and need. In other words, it requires (correct) theology…. … Adherents to such a view … do not seem to realize that their position actually eliminates the possibility of saving faith because it asserts that saving faith is the sine qua non of theology. The truth, however, is quite the opposite because correct theology of some sort (however primitive and unsophisticated it might be in the case of some new converts) is the sine qua non of saving faith.5

For the above reasons we conclude that both revelation and reason are gifts of God to men for the purpose of knowing and understanding truth, and subsequently knowing and understanding the God of all truth. By rejecting either revelation or reason, or under-emphasizing either aspect, we are discarding part of the equipment that God has endowed us with to know Him. As a result our understanding of God and the spiritual grow He intends for us be stunted. To dismiss one aspect or the other is like cutting with a pair of scissors having only one blade. To minimize one aspect over the other is like cutting with a pair of dull scissors. Only by emphasizing both revelation and reason can we cut the truth straight!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Original Sin and the Socialist Project

(published with the permission of a guy I know, Don, who wrote it.)

In Adam's Fall
We Sinned All

Thus goes the old nursery rhyme with which many Christians were introduced to the Doctrine of Original Sin, the Christian doctrine that provides a rationale for the universal fact that, notwithstanding the good that is in us, humans, individually and in groups, are all too prone to evil-doing, sometimes of monstrous proportions. The Doctrine of Original Sin also explains to those who accept it why redemption from evil cannot come from the efforts of human agency, but only from something external.

All this was rejected by radical thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment, including the great Kant, who nevertheless smuggled the Doctrine of Original Sin into the back door of his philosophy when he observed that nothing straight has ever been made with the crooked timber of humanity. It was thought that the DOS is just too primitive to be believed by educated modern men and women, and the subsequent successes of capitalism in removing, or mitigating, many of the ages-old evils that have afflicted mankind have reinforced the Enlightenment view. For the Doctrine of Original Sin, the Enlightenment and its heirs substituted an outlook that is best called Political Rationalism, the view that enlightened human beings can become, individually and collectively, Rational Maximizers of the Good, minimizing, if not eliminating altogether, social, moral and natural evil through the assiduous application of rational and scientific methods to the solution of human problems. This attitude is common to all forms of the modernist outlook, liberalism, social democracy, socialism and even most forms of conservatism. It is rarely ever questioned.

The behaviour that Rationalism enjoins, viz., always so act as Rationally to Maximize the Good (whatever content is given to “the Good"), may not even be possible in view of our deeply ingrained capacity for self-deception and the inherent impossibility of predicting with much accuracy the consequences of our individual and collective actions even in the short run, but even if Ratoinal Maximization of the Good were possible, Political Rationalism would still be a defective, one-dimensional, theory because of its intellectualistic bias. Political Rationalism makes value-defective behaviour out to be a matter of intellectual error, a failure to perceive the Good, or a failure to apply the correct rational techniques in maximizing it, or both. This view is simply false. Sometimes value-defective behaviour is a matter of error or ignorance, but for very many other cases, it is a matter of morally defective wills, not error or ignorance.

The history of the 20th-century has produced widespread disillusionment with the complacent, optimistic, faith of the Enlightenment project and its progeny, particularly socialism or social democracy, but also ‘free-market’ capitalist liberalism. Because disillusionment with modernity often takes the form of an obscurantist Fundamentalism invoking the Doctrine of Original Sin as an excuse for dismantling the welfare-state and doing nothing collectively to grapple with our many social problems, people on the Left have given insufficient attention to the possibility that the many manifest failures of the Left may be due to something intrinsic in the human condition and the possibility that insight into our failures may be had by a serious consideration of whatever truth there may be in the Doctrine of Original Sin, as Christian critics of socialism/social democracy maintain.

The Doctrine of Original Sin is a religious version of a truth about human nature that can be re-formulated in a way that is logically independent of its religious associations. Nothing in this article depends in any way upon a Christian world view, although it is consistent with Christianity, and Judaism as well.

If we accept, as I certainly do, the modern view that man is a risen ape, and not a fallen creature, we must accept an evolutionary view of human nature and reject a Platonic/Essentialist view of human nature as a once-and-for-all-time given. Ideological evolutionists argue that the idea of human nature has no empirical content simply because of the fact that we are evolved beings (although there is considerable scientific doubt that we are still evolving). The ideological evolutionist argues that human nature was something a half-million years ago, is something else today, and may be something else a half-million years hence, so that we cannot speak categorically about human nature; it is just too plastic and changeable.

This argument is acceptable if we mean by “human nature” some fixed essence. But the essentialist view is not the only possible construal of “human nature”. There is an empirical view that holds that while the facts of human nature are only contingent facts, and hence subject, in principle, to change, nevertheless changes in human nature occur only as a consequence of genetic changes, and these work very slowly, indeed so slowly that human nature has not changed a discernible whit since the dawn of recorded history, nor is it likely to in the foreseeable future unless, improbably, extremely powerful methods of genetic engineering are developed. Clearly neither religious conversion nor social engineering has ever done the trick. The contingent facts of human nature are hard contingencies, changeable in principle, but not by us. So even if we cannot speak categorically about human nature, where this means “metaphysically”, i.e. “unqualified by empirical considerations”, we can speak categorically about human nature where “categorically” means “without qualification by reference to soft contingencies such as highly variable, easily changeable, socio-historical factors”. Basic human nature is not a social construct.

It is a fact that there is a universal tendency among human beings to go around doing harm to each other, very often knowingly to prefer evil to good. That this tendency is a fact is self-evident to common sense observation and to honest introspection, and requires no proof. It does require an explanation, and any adequate explanation must be in terms of causal factors/conditions that are as universal as the phenomenon to be explained; no historically limited and particular social contingencies will do. This fact of human nature is the rock upon which all Utopian schemes for perfecting human beings in a perfected society crash. Offer mankind solidarity, peace, happiness and plenty and they will likely as not reject them in favour of crime and aggression, as they have done from time immemorial.

It would be much more realistic and rational to take as a basic principle of all one’s political thinking the clear truth that the hearts and minds of men are often dark and very often desperately wicked, and certainly no help in the form of one-size-fits-all theories of Racial Purity or the Classless Society or the Free Market or other secular salvational nostrums is forthcoming. This radical flaw in human nature will sink any scheme that does not have the essential truth in the Doctrine of Original Sin as an ingredient.

Nothing worthwhile can be done in society if the will is in a state of error or ignorance, or is malevolent. The correction and disciplining of the will, and the harmonization of good wills is the difficult and never-ending task of politics that the Political Rationalist fails to acknowledge. Socialists/social democrats must learn to recognize that evil is a pervasive and elemental force that can subvert the noblest schemes, but which can also be checked, but not eliminated, by insight into human nature together with the judicious use of rewards, coercive punishments, comprehensive regulations of the economy, and vigorous on-going reforms in other important sectors of society. A ‘Good Society’ is not an end-state, a goal to be achieved through political effort; it is always and forever a never finished work in progress.

Well, what are these constitutional facts of human nature that underlie the flawed and universal tendency to wrong doing that I have attributed to mankind? They are so banal and platitudinous that it embarrasses one to list them. But discussing them is necessary because every scheme for improving human nature in some large and permanent way involves some form of denial or negation of one or more of these elemental, unchangeable, facts:

F1 All human beings share a common comparable vulnerability to harm.

F2 All human beings have imperfectly informed and fallible intellects.

F3 All human beings have a limited capacity for benevolence and limited sympathetic imaginations.

F4 All human beings live in a world in which the resources necessary for human well-being are limited and usually difficult to develop and distribute, and to obtain which they must often compete, often violently.

Wordage limitations permit me to indicate only how three or four schemes involve some form of denial of these facts, but the knowledgeable reader can do this exercise for himself. Plato’s Republic requires denying F2 and F3 by positing, for the ruling Philosopher-Kings, total information and rationality and total unselfishness. Hobbes’ Leviathan state requires denying F3 by positing the total selfishness of everybody. Kant’s “society of holy wills” denies F2 by positing complete rationality and complete information. Heaven, the paradigm of all Utopias, requires negating all four facts by positing a total transcendence of the earthly limits of Natural Man. And so on.

Because these Four Facts are unchangeable (so, e.g., no matter how well educated and psychologically well-balanced we become, nobody will ever be perfectly rational and perfectly informed or perfectly benevolent, or even come close), we must reject any idea of the radical social engineering of human nature and society. Human nature is doomed to remain forever an arena of unending conflict, within every individual and every conceivable society, between good and evil, a struggle between our elemental natures as constrained by the original, i.e., constitutional, Four Facts and the higher demands and ideals of civilized moral and social life.

These eternal conflicts will always constitute a powerful tendency to subvert the integrity of our projects, confuse our efforts, limit our achievements, and to produce irresolvable conflicts both within the individual personality and in society. Apart from evil flowing from psychosis, e.g., serial murders, most bad behavior stems from one or more of the Four Facts in conjunction with particular circumstances. We can only stumble through life, as we always have had to, sometimes achieving amazing and wonderful successes, never transcending the basic facts of our nature. In the end, and even before the end, the jungle will always re-claim the clearing.

The views I have presented are logically independent of the religious form of the Doctrine of Original Sin, but they are historically linked with Christianity, and while there is no doubt that Christians have often been the perpetrators of bigotry, intolerance, narrow-mindedness and bloody cruelty, Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has also cultivated and promoted the values we all need to try to live by, such values as generosity, kindness, patience, understanding, loyalty, self-control, conscientiousness, a perpetual awareness of one’s own imperfections and an effort to struggle against them, and humility in the face of one’s successes as well as one’s failures — the basic values that go to make up what we call common decency that have their historical locus for the West in the cultural-religious climate of our civilization.

Common decency is logically independent of Christianity or any religion, and is found in persons of all religions and none, but it is an open question whether it is psychologically independent of religion and can be maintained for long on a purely secular basis; it is still too early to tell. In any case it is important to point out that the secularized version of Doctrine of Original Sin that I have presented has an important anti-democratic, or anyway non-democratic, implication in that acceptance of it requires that severe restraints be imposed on what large democratic majorities may do, even enlightened socialist majorities. Such majorities will always be to some degree ignorant and sometimes will be imbued with morally defective wills, and therefore require constraining by constitutional and organic laws of society that express the better self of a people and that prevent the baser self of a nation from getting out of hand. A well-made constitution is a political form of self-discipline and is as necessary for a free society as individual self-discipline is for a free individual.

The implications of all this for socialists/social democrats are unwelcome but need to be faced, to wit: (1) Some very large although indeterminate probability of failure is endemic to the socialist project because of the scope and scale of its vaulting ambitions; (2) revolutionary Marxist socialism of the Leninist/Stalinist/Trotskyist types has always involved some form of denial or negation of one or more of the Four Facts, and will always fail for that reason; (3) evolutionary socialism, i.e., the modern democratic socialism of cumulative improvements, many of quite large scale, will inevitably be beset with failures and set-backs, but is the only project with any hope for the Left for at least modest, if always precarious, progress.

A strong dose of intellectual and moral humility — exceedingly rare qualities on the Left in my experience — is called for, both by the Doctrine of Original Sin in its religious form and by its secularized version.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Robert Fulford on Arts and Letters Daily From a Few Years Ago

Robert Fulford's column about Arts & Letters Daily(The National Post, January 22, 2002)

On one level, Arts & Letters Daily operates simply as a Web site providing links to other Web sites, a system that's also used for spreading information about everything from movies to hotel accommodations. But that's only the format. The content makes Arts & Letters Daily unique in cultural history. It's an engrossing magazine that only the Web could have spawned -- cheap, fast, smart and full of surprises.

Telling people about it, I sometimes say it's an intellectual Reader's Digest (except that it doesn't condense the articles). It sounds easy to produce, but after my first few online visits I realized that putting it together involves imagination, energy, critical judgment and intense curiosity. Denis Dutton, the editor, invented it as a response to cybernetic chaos. He compares the Web to an Australian goldfield, covered with mountains of low-grade ore. Finding the gold on the Web calls for careful sifting.

Dutton is an American who teaches philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and also edits Philosophy and Literature, a journal published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He conceived A&LD when organizing online discussions among readers and writers of Philosophy and Literature.

A&LD went online in September, 1998, in an elegant text-only format that mimics the broadsheets they read in 18th-century London coffee houses. The impression it's made in 40 months or so demonstrates that there are ways the Web can serve the intellectual world better than print. One way is speed. The magazine's motto, Veritas odit moras, from Seneca, means "Truth hates delay."

Articles that used to take weeks to travel across continents now make the journey in a twinkling. A newspaper writer produces a new idea in London on Tuesday, the editors at Christchurch spot it Wednesday online, and that night I'm reading it in Toronto.

The Web has decentralized the control of ideas, as A&LD proves. A few years ago the exchange of opinions and theories had to be managed by people living in great metropolitan centres, the intellectual world's version of imperialism. But with the Web it can be done anywhere. The idea of Christchurch, New Zealand, as the thought-control centre of the universe has both charm and originality.

Something else stamps A&LD as a product of the Web: Because the articles it selects are already offered free online, A&LD doesn't need to negotiate copyright or pay royalties. Pre-Web, producing such a connector-publication on paper would have been impossible. The New Republic, for example, would never have allowed its articles to be reprinted the day after their original appearance. But it seems entirely natural on the Web, since The New Republic and hundreds of other publications have their material already in cyberspace, just waiting to be located.

One part of A&LD connects us to a multitude of newspapers, magazines and radio services, as well as a list of columnists so ecumenical it encompasses Noam Chomsky and Mark Steyn. But that's peripheral to the real work: pointing us toward new and valuable articles and essays.
Dutton and his colleagues add fresh material six days a week. When a new item goes on, it starts at the top of one of the columns, then begins sliding down the page over the next few days until finally it slips off into the archives.

On any given day there are about 80 articles, most of them serious and substantial: Wole Soyinka's lament over Nigeria's collapse into tyranny, Martha Nussbaum's philosophical analysis of emotions and narrative, the meaning of The Plague by Albert Camus, the pros and cons of forgiving the debts of poor countries.

A&LD loves historical and cultural surprises when they are well grounded. One recent introduction to an article says: "Was foot binding really so bad? Were Chinese women morons and their men perverts? How far are bound feet from nipple rings and tongue studs?" Dutton loves challenging conventional views. One blurb reads: "Oprah Winfrey? Compared to the whining, spoiled, conceited snots of the high-art literary world, she's an exquisite, classy lady."

On crucial events, Dutton assembles a range of opinion. He knows that when an important figure dies, we want to read more than one obituary.

Recently A&LD marked W.G. Sebald's death by linking us to six substantial obits and an interview with him; it treated the recent deaths of Ken Kesey, the novelist, and Ernst Gombrich, the art historian, in much the same way. Dutton also knows we want to read more than one opinion on a major new book. He provided us with three articles each on Saul Bellow's and Alice Munro's recent collections.

For writers, appearing on A&LD has startling consequences (it's happened to me a few times). The e-mail address that many papers run at the bottom of articles long ago intensified the relationship between writers and readers, but A&LD adds another dimension. Sometimes, if the A&LD editors don't tell you they have added your piece to their site, you learn about it by getting an e-mail from someone in Helsinki or Johannesburg.

In December, Jeannie Marshall wrote a National Post piece about reading anxiety, the feeling that it's impossible to keep up with what we want to read or feel we should. After A&LD included that piece, e-mails began pouring into Marshall's computer from all over the world, maybe 100 in all. It was the perfect article for A&LD, whose entire audience likely suffers reading anxiety at least sometimes.

She heard from university professors in England, a policeman in New York and a 14-year-old girl who was relieved to know that others shared her own uneasiness. A message from some unidentified location and person contained only one sentence: "Do you think I should read Proust?" Jeannie Marshall of course said yes.

The London Observer once called A&LD the best site on the Web; certainly it's the best I know. Because I have it installed as the page that pops up when I switch on Netscape, it's the one item that gets at least a glance from me every morning. If I had to express in a phrase what I love most about the World Wide Web, that phrase would be Arts & Letters Daily.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

John McWhorter on The Help

TNR/August 17, 2011

In the week since its release, The Help, a movie telling the story of a group of black maids in the South in the early 1960s, has been derided repeatedly in blog posts and reviews as a lazy collection of racist tropes, an irredeemable expression of naive bigotry. In an article in the New York Times, film critic Nelson George condemns the filmmakers for failing to properly “come to terms” with America’s racist past. In her review, the University of Georgia’s Valerie Boyd simply called The Help “a feel-good movie for a cowardly nation.”

But I suspect more than a few Americans—many of them black—are coming out of The Help asking their companions “Um, was that movie really racist?” The answer, simply, is no—and the absence of bigotry in the film ought to be apparent to anyone watching it with an open mind. Unfortunately, many people obviously aren’t.

But the ubiquity of the insults against The Help, despite its evident lack of racism, is itself instructive. All too often, charges of racism are the products not of reasoned analysis, but cognitive dissonance: an implacable pique at white America for never quite “owning” its racism, despite a lack of clarity as to just what this owning would entail.

It is a frame of mind that is the product of one of the glummest detours in black history. Just when the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts gave thoughtful black people the grounds for a truly autonomous and positive racial self-image, identity politics and the hard-left turn in the world of letters taught instead that that there was a higher wisdom in hearkening ever back to despair.

The second shoe having yet to drop, many blacks have been left with a self-conception that is perpetually incomplete—they are ever-questing, ever-owed, never truly whole. Told they were nothing for centuries, many black people are choosing to keep that legacy alive by assailing the depredations of an abstract and evil other, rather than adopt a more self-directed and positive self-image.

In media criticism, this world view manifests itself in the pedantic dismissal of nearly all commercially viable depictions of black people as stereotypes, insults, and other evasions of that eternally withheld “acknowledgment” of racism. Though it is presented as a form of pride, this studiously joyless way of taking in films and television is actually a lack of self-sufficiency and independence of mind. In that way, black pundits’ reflexively hostile take on The Help is a more articulate testament to the depredations of racism than anything in the movie itself.

LET’S REVIEW THE PLOT of this supposedly so benighted piece of work. Emma Stone’s Skeeter, fresh from college and seeking a writing career in contrast to her housewife friends, compiles an oral history book from her Mississippi town’s black maids, starting with one friend’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis). Despite her employer’s pitiless treatment, including restricting her to a separate bathroom, Aibileen comes along only reluctantly, scarred by her son’s death from racist neglect after an accident and memories of violence inflicted after black people she knows even tried to vote.

Even her fiery-tempered friend Minny comes along only with trepidation, meanwhile getting fired from her job for an especially colorful act of insubordination. Local NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers’ assassination, and a more local injustice sparked by Hilly Holbrook, an especially bigoted queen-bee friend of Skeeter’s, spur 31 more maids to come forward for the book. It’s a hit. It gets Skeeter a New York writing job she reluctantly leaves home to take, but leaves Aibileen jobless for contributing to it. Walking away from the employer’s house for the last time, she feels a certain freedom, but she has no job, and also despairs at abruptly leaving the white child who thought of her as her real mother.

This is a “feel-good movie for a cowardly nation”? How could it be that this film, hardly The Sorrow and the Pity but honest and thoroughly affecting, is being treated like a remake of Imitation of Life?

We must dismiss out of hand a discomfort with this sad period being “packaged” by Hollywood at all. The Help certainly includes swelling strings on the soundtrack, what Nelson George terms its “candy-coated cinematography,” and neatly intertwining stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Some might prefer a visually peculiar, spiritually ambiguous, narratively desultory art-house opus. But that film would be seen by only a few, which would contravene the imperative that America as a whole needs to see it to learn about its racist past.

Consider for a moment the opposite case: Say that Hollywood, with its fundamentally commercial orientation, decided not to touch topics as sensitive as the Civil Rights story. The very same critics would no doubt despair that, “Hollywood doesn’t want to address America’s racist past.”

The critics who inveigh against The Help for its mass market appeal are being duplicitous. Long ago, black film and television historian Donald Bogle counseled that “black films can liberate audiences from illusions, black and white, and in so freeing can give all of us vision and truth.” That’s a very debatable proposition—but, in any case, it would require that this “responsibility” be exercised within realistic commercial parameters. To be liberated, the audience has to show up.

Within these commercial bounds, then, a major beef of the critics is that the film fails to, as Nelson George judges the issue, “come to terms” with America’s racist past. George dislikes that the film treats Medgar Evers’ murder as a background occurrence, impatient with the story’s dwelling on kitchens and living rooms. But writers have used interpersonal interactions to bring historical periods alive for a very long time now: Is George opposed to the genre of historical fiction? Surely not—but apparently the Civil Rights movement is an exception, incommensurate somehow with the “responsibility” Bogle referred to, perhaps.

But even here, would George allow even an Evers-centered version of The Help as having finally “come to terms” with racism, given that in his article he even feels that Spike Lee’s Malcolm X fell short of the task? And what, exactly, do we mean by “coming to terms”? We must know, if these critics’ complaints are to qualify as constructive counsel. The difficulty of conceiving an answer is indicative. It is not unreasonable to wonder if there is a plausible development in film that could ever qualify as having done the deed. Is complaint the goal itself?

Or take Valerie Boyd’s objection that “The movie never links [Evers’] assassins’ behavior to the relatively benign, comedic behavior of Hilly and her ilk.” Again, in terms of how a film is written and performed, just how would this “linking” be done effectively? Is a character supposed to give a speech about the nature of institutional racism, only to look like a pasted-in mouthpiece? “Coming to terms with racism” is today an almost musical phraseology in the guise of concrete suggestion, along the lines of claims that there is a “conversation” of unspecified format on race that America “never has,” as Attorney General Eric Holder referred to in 2009 and Boyd, predictably, references.

THAT THESE WRITERS are driven more by a frozen animus than a response to the film itself is especially clear in that they miss so much in the narrative that contradicts their analysis. George asks of films about black history, “Do the filmmakers put us inside the head of the black woman braving a gantlet of cheering whites to integrate a segregated school?” and proposes that “It is this nuanced humanity that this movement demands.”

Nuance, we suppose, such as when Aibileen, soberly describing what it’s like to raise other people’s children while your own are at home—or dead—recounts to Skeeter how another white toddler she all but raised asked why she was black and Aibileen jokingly said it was because she had drunk too much coffee.

Davis imitates the toddler’s facial expression and drifts into laughter through near tears. It’s a heartbreaking passage, worthy of an Oscar alone. No “nuance” here?

“The sense of physical danger that hovered over the Civil Rights movement is largely absent,” George decides—of a film in which the police crack one maid over the head with a club so soundly that the audience I saw it with winced, and other black women make assorted references to beatings and burnings that have scared them into submission? The Help denies “the casual, commonplace quality of racial prejudice” in favor of cartoons, George says, about a film that includes a bus driver casually saying “a nigger got shot” to black riders, plus the scenes involving the separate toilets, and much else.

Boyd, meanwhile, misses that Abileen is paid for the book along with Skeeter; that, while Skeeter does not stand up and make a speech about the evils of bigotry, she is so disgusted with Hilly’s racism that the two are no longer friends by the middle of the film, at which point Skeeter embarrasses her publicly; and that the maids do not “inexplicably” consent to be interviewed about the hardships of their lives—they do so slowly and reluctantly, and always fearing for their lives.

One senses that for many, the sheer fact that the movie is about black maids prepared them to sharpen their pencils to decry dusted off Queenies and Beulahs, with the actual content of the movie of little interest. “The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy,” the Association of Black Women Historians complains, a judgment hard to imagine from people who have actually seen both The Help and Gone With the Wind.

CRITICS ALSO SEEM UNCOMFORTABLE with the fact that the film includes comedy. Non-black critics, too, are regularly exhibiting the same supposedly wise skepticism of such “hijinks;” the New York Times’
Manohla Dargis considers the occasional comedy scenes trivializing, as if in the old South blacks and whites spending most of their waking lives with one another interacted solely in chilly, guarded fashion. We like to imagine it that way, as it comforts us that we are aware of the injustice of racism. But to dismiss about ten total minutes of edgy antics involving Minny and about five more involving commodes and bad hair days as rendering the whole movie “about ironing out differences and letting go of the past and anger” is, ironically, a dehumanization of the black experience.

We dishonor black people of the past in assuming that they spent their entire lives fuming at the white man and suffering his abuse. As human beings with a survival instinct, they carved meaningful existences out of what they had been given. This included laughing and good times and, yes, some of it was between whites and blacks.

Laughing, good times, and love, too. The titillation aspect assures that we are regularly taught about the carnal part—Sally Hemmings and such. But maids who raise people’s children have always come to love them, and even Jim Crow could not stanch this fundamental aspect of human nature.

It was once common in South Carolina and Georgia for white children to grow up speaking the maids’ “Geechee” dialect, so close was this kind of bond. Aibileen’s love for a little white girl seems to especially get under many critics’ skin: “The kind of ambiguity and complexity that a woman like Aibileen would have felt for that white child is too much for the filmmakers to handle,” Boyd complains. But it could be that it’s Boyd who doesn’t want to handle that a black maid could hate the racism of her society and yet love an innocent white child she spends six days a week one on one.

AT THE END of the day, it is hard to see what The Help’s creators could have done that would have passed muster. Those ever seeking for Hollywood to “come to terms” with black people have developed such an imposing battery of objection tropes over the past forty years that I suspect they would reject even Raisin in the Sun as a bag of stereotypes if it were new.

The Association of Black Women Historians, for example, has distributed a statement condemning the film for, among other things, not depicting white men sexually harassing their maids. But then if The Help had, say, Dennis Quaid as a white husband violating Aibileen, while later Minny’s daughter, starting out as a maid, underwent the same from, oh, let’s say Matthew McConnaughey, wouldn’t we be hearing that The Help is one more film soft-pedaling the strength of black women working hard to support their families, and instead depicting black women as vehicles for white male lust?

That was the word on the street, recall, about Monster’s Ball with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. Or, if Aibileen were shown writing the book herself, which various critics would prefer, wouldn’t it be time to gripe that it sugarcoated the remorseless limitations on advancement for poorly educated black women of the period?

Let’s try a version of The Help that might pass muster with its current critics. The maids would hold the white children at a polite arm’s length. Evers’ murder would be the dramatic focus. The white men behind it would be the main characters, while the maids’ women employers would be background figures. Also, to assuage a common strain in the criticisms, an obscure, very humble working-class black maid of modest education in 1963 would sense it plausible to pen a protest manuscript herself and send it to publishers, rather than rely on Skeeter to do the writing and submission.

To wit: The film that The Help should have been would be psychologically implausible, dramatically reductive, preachy, and not The Help at all. I cannot accept that this would be preferable for any reason to the solid, affecting Hollywood drama that I took in.

Of course, putting this burden on The Help might make a kind of sense if American society were actually as resistant to acknowledging racism as we are so often told. One might see the film as a precious opportunity to introduce a forgotten story, and understandably wince to see the focus on living rooms rather than streets, women in the afternoon rather than Klansmen at night, and sprinklings of harmony in a story that should be about gunshots and fire hoses.

But blissfully, time did not stop in 1963. Historians black and white churn out books and films on racism year round. There will soon be a black history museum in Washington, DC. There is a Black History Month. Mainstream media organs are assiduously devoted to coverage of the black experience: The New York Times is even disproportionately committed to covering white yuppies moving into poor black neighborhoods over countless other ethnic moving trends.

Colleges and universities regularly have black studies programs and departments. Stories about racism against black people are prime fodder for the media. Socially, being accused of racism is almost as feared as being accused of pedophilia. Recently, for a while there were three Broadway productions exploring racism, past and present, running at the same time: Race, Memphis and The Scottsboro Boys. The first two were hits. The third was brought to the Great White Way despite not having been a hit Off-Broadway, and by white producers. All three will have long lives in productions around the country.

Post-racial America is not, but is this an America in denial about racism? Yet The Help’s critics seek a relentlessly glum, purse-lipped threnody of a film—perhaps shot in black and white?—monotonously instructing America in its moral inadequacy. Yet if Hollywood did produce a string of race-related narratives that 1) did not “feel good” 2) were judged as “coming to terms with racism” by our critics and 3) were somehow seen by more than seven people, the new word on the street would be that America’d better not think it’s off the hook just because of a few movies.

This is not intellection; it is recreation.

More than a few black Americans harbor scars from the contemptuous treatment their grandparents endured from the likes of Hilly Holbrook. This is why it is perceptible that these critics are seeking The Help to heal not America, or black people in general, but themselves.
The Help’s director and producer Tate Taylor, white,
grew up with a black maid.

She’s still alive, and in the film as the first of the maids after Minny to testify for Skeeter. For the record, Tate brought her to the premiere of the film. She loved it.


I often disagree with McWhorter about one thing or another but here I agree with most everything he says. Like JackR, I enjoyed the movie a lot and I give it a 7 and a bit out of 10. McWhorter does a first rate job of dismantling the misconceived criticisms of the movie for not being what it never intended to be. He also effectively asks the plain spoken question that gets behind ready to hand locutions like "coming to terms with," "coming to grips with" "owning" or "having a conversation about" racism and the racist past, the question being in essence what do these locutions concretely mean, what would have they have one, or this movie, do to realize their imperatives? McWhorter is also persuasive in arguing that it's inaccurate to call The Help a feel good movie (as such) for a cowardly nation.

I would not go so far as him as to try to psychoanalyze the motives and needs of those critics, or some of them, knocking the movie: “More than a few black Americans harbor scars from the contemptuous treatment their grandparents endured from the likes of Hilly Holbrook. This is why it is perceptible that these critics are seeking The Help to heal not America, or black people in general, but themselves.”

I prefer to think that these critics, or some of them, miss The Help's rather quiet power. And they miss seeing that the movie’s perspective of the maids and Skeeter who takes in their stories and befriends them and grows with them in their telling to her of their stories is a unique, illuminating and expansive vantage point from which to see race relations in Mississippi in the early sixties.

I reject the argument that this movie simply fits into a narrative of black helplessness without a white savior. I think, rather, as noted, that this is movie about a young Mississippi fledging writer of a particular time, place and social context who is moved to the idea of seeing matters from the vantage point of "the help" and is about the women whose stories she hears and gives writerly form to as she and her interlocutors affect each other and grow through the experience.

I loved this: "The Help’s director and producer Tate Taylor, white, grew up with a black maid. She’s still alive, and in the film as the first of the maids after Minny to testify for Skeeter. For the record, Tate brought her to the premiere of the film. She loved it."


I haven't seen the movie, which is a good thing, because what I say here won't be conditioned by it. (I read much of your essay but skimmed over the synopsis.)

Black demagogues and their white apologists peddle the image of a "domestic pla...ntation". They are liars. i grew up in the South. We had "help," a maid, a yardman/butler/chauffeur, and a white live-in housekeeper. They were all employees. But because they were longtime employees and shared our household space we had intimate relationships. We knew and were interested in each other's families. We were emotionally open. Our relationships were always cordial.

Except once.

During the civil rights mess, the maid took personally my adolescent insolence at everyone and everything. She accused me of dissing her because she was black. I was so flabbergasted that I forgot to point out that I treated EVERYBODY that way. But the rhetoric and demagoguery of the time poisoned minds, black and white.

Shortly afterward I accidentally barged in on her and the yardman (both married to others) loudly banging each other in the the bathroom. (I had thought the banging was the plumbing.) THEIR bathroom. Which points to one distortion of the film the reviewers seem to pounce on. Every house I knew had a "maid's room". They were never "deprived" of the family bathrooms because they had their own. I know saying they were "part of the family" invites accusations of patronage.

But let me give an example: When my sister had her first child, she named it after her husband's mother, Alice. Our maid's name was Alice. Until our maid died my sister called her Big Alice, so we'd know which Alice she was talking about. Of course the South wasn't a monolith, and relions with domestics doubtless varied. That said, for me the most accurate depiction of "the help" remains Driving Miss Daisy.


Two immediate things: I of course take for real every syllable of your account of your own and family's experience; and I of course defer to your experience as I grew up, 6 to 13, in the snowy, icy climes of Manitoba where we so poor that our butler, chauffer, cook, valet, clothes presser and sommelier were poor. (Actually the butler had quite a few bucks stashed away that he never told anyone about.)

I can't help but think, however, (despite it being a weakness of the movie that all the black help and all blacks are shown as ranging from saintly to, at a minimum, benign, except one guy, never on screen, who beats on his maid-wife and a weakness that the white wife overseers are overdrawn to the point of caricature) that even in the exaggeration and symmetrical contrasts we get a telling picture of how it was for domestics in the Mississippi south of the early sixties when Medgar Evers was murdered and change was coming and old ways were under threat.

If you take and then consider the details of the facts that whites and blacks were segregated in virtually every aspect of their lives from where they ate, swam, got schooled, pissed, shit then washed their hands and publicly drank water against a background of constant incipient violence bursting into beatings, murders, arson and lynching, with virtually no available justice or law, no one can tell me that generically in the deep south the more muted discordances and injustices between rich white house matrons and the help wasn't generically as this movie portrays it and no can tell me that this movie doesn't in its sotto voce way hold that world in its grain of sand.

I'd never believe it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From James Ellroy's American Tabloid as a Statement about Deadwood and as Statement Generally

"America was never innocent. We pooped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception. Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.-It’s time to demythologize an era and build anew myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to define their time. Here’s to them."


I'm lovin' it!

Me further though:

But what's the point of building a new myth, if a myth is a lie? Is he saying we need to, or should, replace one false version of the past with another? If Deadwood is in one sense historical reconstruction, isn't the point of that to show in art an accurate iteration of the ways things were? If that's so then the new myth is myth in a thin sense, in the way that every fiction is a myth, or is myth in even a thinner sense, that every historical account being an account only, a necessarily selective story of events and significances, albeit presented as history, is also perforce a fiction, which is to say, a myth.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Citizen Kane: What Am I Missing?


I'll get to schooling. Kane was the first movie to utilize: non-linear narrative structure (viewer finds out in the first scene that Charles Foster Kane dies); Deep Focus cinematography - Greg Toland's revolutionary use of deep focus changed film-making forever: low angle shots - never done before and completely changed pov of the viewer's perspective; unidentified narrator - the voice is disembodied and we never know exactly who the narrator is; special effects - way too many to cite: the Rosebud ball breaking, the mirror scene of Kane, the camera craning up to the workers who give the final judgment on Susan Alexander's performance; editing - nonpareil and done by a young Robert Wise!; the stories - the three stories - Bernstein, Leland & Susan - are separate but have an clear nexus and though it is a non linear narrative, when you see all three stories, there is a real linearity within the non linearity (I have asked scores of film buffs if they can tell me the story of Kane from beginning to end - AS IT IS PRESENTED IN THE FILM - and no one can! I have seen Kane probably 15 times and I still can't do it): Use of shadow and chiaroscuro lighting - the interplay of light and shadow give Kane a mysterious feel and was probably the first Film Noir ever filmed. In all, Citizen Kane was modern film making sui generis and nothing has ever topped it. Last, Orson Welles was 25 years old when he made this movie! 25!!! A bravura unsurpassed accomplishment. I can watch Citizen Kane every week and still find new things within the film.


Lesson appreciated, Ken, though not yet totally absorbed. For all of its undoubted technical achievement, its technical originality, which you aptly describe, I felt the movie cold and remote, dare I say somewhat empty and/or trite, the characters distant, unsympathetic and overdrawn, some overacted and trite—the Joseph Cotton story line; Bernstein; the second wife--some of the symbolism and imagery overwrought and overbearing, some of the themes—the main one, as I understand it?—cornball in relation to the extravagant, grandiose effects. I don’t mean to be contrarian for its own sake and I’m happy to presume it’s me not the movie, that I’m just not getting it. So I have some very mixed feelings about this movie. I’ll think about it some more and see it again sometime.

But, once more, I appreciate the time you took to try to and school me.


Itzik- I'm late weighing in on this, and can't add much to Ken's perspective, which is excellent, but I will say in terms of "Greatest Film Ever", I'm not so sure. It is impossible to divorce from its context, of course, but its stunning technical/story-telling achievements are what gives it the boost. In terms of enjoyment, it is helpful I think to view it as the first angry young man film, with both Kane and Welles giving a huge middle finger to the world, to tradition, to norms and to grace. Both are complicated and frequently loathsome, but it comes from a distaste for people in general. That certainly doesn't make it likable, but in a strange way Kane is kind of punk rock. Of course, your not caring much for it certainly doesn't make you "wrong"; I'm not that much of a snob. I've got a lot of friends who love film and know way more about it than I do who don't care much for it. But I think of it as sort of similar to Moby Dick- I think people often miss just how much goddamn fun it is, how rollicking, how full of bravura and wit. That is often the problem with classics, and with people who talk about them- they are too often passed down with solemn and dust-filled intonations: you must APPRECIATE this, instead of just enjoying it. The weight of expectation is a burden. First time I saw Kane I didn't care much for it, because I was too busy trying to figure out what made it great, instead of just watching a movie. Not saying that is what you did, or why you didn't like it.


Not a solipsistic ramble at all Bone—rather good thoughts. I agree that we can’t divorce form from content. That was a foundational premise for me in my pre law school English literature studies and still is. I’m less understanding of the notion in relation to film, because while the language of literature is language, the “language of film”—a metaphor really—is camera angles, and light and shade and innumerable other categories of technique that I don’t know too much about.

So I’ll “stipulate to” the stunning technical achievement and appreciate Ken’s fine description of it. But as I was watching the movie, just for the first time mind you, I felt the impact, almost half consciously, of what was going on technically but rather than boosting my enjoyment, it raised the feeling in me of a lot of flashy stuff in the service of a remote, cold and ultimately banal theme—if I’m understanding this movie accurately.

The film never bored me and I felt Welles as the younger man just taking over the New York paper electrifying on screen. I also thought a high point was Joseph Cotton telling Welles/Kane, in an otherwise overwrought scene, that Kane romanticizes “the people” to better aggrandize himself in him championing his conception of their aspirations and telling him in effect “just you wait Kane until the people start organizing themselves and going after what they really want, then they’ll shatter your delusions of them.” That was a powerful insight. And I though it was one of instances when the theme of the movie transcended its banality.

I must say Bone that I didn’t find the movie rollicking fun and I wonder whether calling it “kind of punk rock” is doing it any favours. It sure does more than ear shatteringly play the same 2 chords over and over and over and over and over and screech along with them in expression of cultural rage.

I of course agree with your point about experiencing art personally and concretely and not with presuppositions in mind. But then, at least for me, some humility is in order in weighing one’s own contrarian responses in light of what, as Matthew Arnold said, the best have thought over time. I’m trying hard to do both things.


Great points, Bassie. Especially about punk rock- that was a pretty silly and self-defeating cliche. I think what it comes down to at the end is enjoyment. Movies are supposed to be enjoyed. I could get why, say, Antichrist is a powerful piece of filmmaking, but I didn't like it (I felt the same way about Franzen's Freedom). If someone doesn't like a movie, it is, for them, a failure, despite its "greatness". I may disagree with your opinion, but would never find fault with your taste or discernment...


Okay! I finally have a few moments. I can't really improve on what you both have contributed. I think that Bone's ideas really get down to the contention that in Kane, form follows function. Itz is absolutely correct that there is a distance/coldness to the characterization. I completely agree; however, I believe that this was Welles' intent.

The various stories - Bernstein, Leland, Susan, and even the bit with the smarmy butler (brilliantly played by Paul Stewart) refracted the viewer's perception of Kane, which by its very form creates distance. Compounding this distance was the unknown reporter. The non linear narrative was yet another form that conveyed a distance. I always believed that this refraction of Kane was an attempt to cast the question: Did anyone really know Charlie Kane? That was the very significance of Rosebud.

As for Itzik's larger question of being "right or wrong", that gets down to the very epistemology of art criticism: Can we really distinguish btw subjective (personal beliefs/opinion) and objective (some type standardized and accepted metric for excellence). I believe that for many types of art, there are accepted standards and examples of excellence, for instance, The Godfather is on every objective measure of film excellence, a better movie that Police Academy.

The real tension is when you look at Kane and as Bone said, informed and knowledgeable people can disagree on whether it is or isn't the greatest movie ever. I think that this is where it is very difficult to determine who is right and who is wrong. This takes us into caverns of discourse that are both exhilarating and ultimately inconclusive.


Boys--Don't we know Charlie Kane as well as we know any other complex film character? Do we know him any less than we know Godfather 2’s Michael Corleone or Unforgiven's Clint Eastwood or zillions of others? What real mystery attends Kane? Isn’t the significance of Rosebud straight forward—the name on his sleigh, an objective correlative of his shattered youth in his being rejected in his being outsourced by his mother, which lies at persisting core of his travails, searching for a unrecoverable wholeness, which paradoxically leaves him ultimately empty and alone surrounded by all the grandeur money can buy as the relational consequences of the vast fortune into which his mother cast him? What am I missing, what is the complexity I’m not getting, in my obviously simple minded view of all this?


I have a few more thoughts. I think that with most movies, the presentation of character is authorial, that is the character is presented within the narrative structure and we as viewers, form our perception of the character, be it Don Corleone, Dorothy Gale or Rhett Butler. Now, the directorial touch, deftly applied guides us as we do this but we have the illusion of relying upon our own sense of discernment. With Kane, this never happens; we see Kane "from our own perspective" only at the very beginning as Kane dies, drops the glass ball and utters the most famous McGuffin in movie history "Rosebud". After that, we "see" Kane through the newsreel, and the recollections of Bernstein, Leland, Susan and the smarmy butler, all within a non linear structure and narrative. Each story presents a different side of Kane: Bernstein with the happy ascendent Kane, Leland with the compromised Kane, Susan with the sad bitter Kane, and smarmy butler with the hollowed out husk Kane. We as viewers, digest these recollections and images of the man but the element of viewer discernment is removed. Add that by doing this, Welles abjures the Odyssean or Hero's journey - a key element of heroic story and movie making - and you have subversive - or as Bone cleverly calls it "punk" - film making at its best. ON TOP OF THIS is all the visual and cinematographic innovations from the likes of Greg Toland, Robert Wise, and Herman Mankiewicz, along with the bravura and mind boggling four-fer of Welles writing, directing, producing and starring in this film and you have, in my opinion, Le Pinnacle de l'art et la créativité. Now, I only hope that someday, Itz, Bone, John and I can go see Kane together!

Ken, interesting and thoughtful note.

A few comments, if I may. I’m not sure I buy your distinction between the author’s guiding is to perceive character as against our illusion of relying on our own sense of discernment, if I’m understanding you. Our sense of character emerges from the text be it film, play or literature. The text, all the techniques forming it, structures our sense of character, including the character’s own words, actions, and what others say about him and how they act towards him.

Often we have ambivalent or mixed responses corresponding to purposeful ambiguity in the presentation of character. Sometimes character gets away from the author and stands in organic disproportion to the text, taking on a life of his or her own, that life being sometimes discordant with the text. For me the most striking example of that is Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. A lesser example is Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, (as Holden Caulfield once noted.)

On this basis, does Welles really remove “the illusion of our own perspective?” And is there a *real difference* in the distinction you draw between, in Kane, the illusion of a self originating perspective and the perceptions and perspectives that arise from the various techniques you have so well described?

I’m inclined to argue in the negative.

I’m inclined to assimilate the different ways of presenting Kane to the general notion of character emerging out of the totality of the text, be it, as I’ve referred to, but in Kane specifically, his own words and actions, what others say about him, how they act towards him, what they say to him, what they say each other who know him and to third party others who don’t, what is revealed in public, institutional accounts—like the news reel.

My point is that what you call the displacement of self discernment is really a fancy way of talking something ultimately conceptually less grand—our perceptions and sense and emotional and intellectual response arising from a variety of sources and not simply from a straight forward forwarding moving story, be it the hero’s journey or the anti hero’s descent or whatever the linear narrative structure might be.

So I’m with you in applauding Welles’s technical innovations, camera work, anti linear narrative techniques. Let us call them brilliant and revolutionary even. I’m still stuck with my sense of being underwhelmed by it, with not finding Kane mysterious, with seeing a gap between grandiose effect and prosaic theme, with not finding Rosebud mysterious and with the reading I gave of its meaning in my previous comment.

As to taking in the movie with the worthies you list and your own fine self, and then going at it over an after show drink and a few, why that'd be a pleasure and a treat and a consummation devoutly to be wished