Friday, September 29, 2017

Kate Millett v Norman Mailer


Here's a wonderful essay on Kate Millett and on what she got wrong (among other things?) in Sexual Politics. 

But apart from Shulevitz's main argument, concerning Millett's deep dissing of family, I'm shocked ands dismayed (not really, more bemused) to read her taking Millett's side in her contretemps with Mailer as it came out in his Prisoner Of Sex. 

Shulevitz is a whip smart, erudite and feet on the ground intellectual whose judgments I presumptively trust and have confidence in. Hence my shock/dismay/really bemusement: when I read Prisoner Of Sex many decades ago, around 1970, I thought it was great literary criticism as Mailer championed Hemingway, Lawence and Miller. I thought it marked Mailer as an extraordinary literary critic. I thought he was in brilliantly sympathetic tune with the writers he championed and what they literarily made of sex. And I thought he quite put Millett and other feminist critics like Susan Brownmiller in their boxed-in, mechanistic place, especially when it came to their critical treatment of sex. 

With Shulevitz siding with Millett over Mailer, I see that I have to reassess my long ago judgments. Maybe, they were the result of my then impressionable callowness, of not enough raised consciousness.

I'll at a minimum have to reread Prisoner Of Sex. 

Anyway here's the essay, a must read I'd think for anyone interested in these kinds of goings on.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Of Transgender, Male And Female, And The Issue Of School Washrooms


On transgender, body against mind and the issue of washrooms

An essay in First Things

My tweet storm response:

1 This piece is in places pretentiously cryptic. I take the essence of the argument to be....

2 the contradiction between gender theory denying the biological and social reality of male and female, yet...

3 wanting, needing and cleaving to that antimony in the dysphoric state claimed, the personal expression of that state and (for example)...

4 wanting the right to a sex specific bathroom even while disclaiming the reality of binary sexual specificity.

5 Pace Milton, if a law refutes either itself or the premises it's necessarily built on, hence law itself, then that law cannot stand.

6 Therefore, a law (say the transgender washroom law) that embodies or necessarily implicates denying the objective truth of male and female.... 

7 anchored in the body undermines in-Milton's sense-the law forbidding discrimination on the basis of sex.

8 A problem is that the impetus for the transgendered washroom law needn't implicate that denial.

9 It's easy to see both clear cases of transgender and to see too the objective truth of male and female.

10 In theory, once the transgendered have finished their sex change the issue goes away...

11 but that completion won't largely typically happen for public school kids.

12 Sex change itself affirms the body as the anchor referent for gender.

13 So kids before that change are in more of a limbo than in a state of denial about make and female.

14 They're not yet in a position to accommodate their dysphoria medically and align body and gender identity.

15 And its that limbo that policy has to meet not Shafer's exaggerated concerns with the outer limits of gender theory.

16 Shafer wrongly extrapolates from the washroom issue, eliding the limbo, a false fixed paradigm of male female denial.

17 The issue of washrooms, unless maybe they're all retrofitted, raises problems arising from this limbo...

18 and not from some necessarily implacable denial of the objective truth of the male female binary.

19 The limbo doesn't admit of perfect solutions and the cost benefit of the alternatives need to be weighed.

20 If retrofitting is prohibitively expensive or even if it's not and parents understandably...

21 object to unsegregating kids' bathrooms, then the imperfect alternatives broadly speaking...

22 are either letting dysphoric kids use the school bathrooms of their choice or privately accommodating them...

23 even if they're set apart by that. To my mind, while neither solution in this limbo state is ideal...

24 I'd argue for the private accommodation. It's a case of two rights pitted against each other...

25 (often cited as a definition of tragedy.) But Shafer has with sweeping misconception and exaggeration blown the issue way out of proportion.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Review Of Charlie LeDuff's Detroit


‘Detroit: An American Autopsy,’ by Charlie LeDuff

FEB. 22, 2013, NYT

Detroit is one of those taxing places that require you to have an opinion about them. This opinion expresses no mere preference. It amounts to a stance, from which may be inferred your electoral leanings, your racial politics, your union sympathies and the general sunniness of your disposition. 

The entire city signifies. It can get tiring.

No Parisian is as impatient with American mispronunciation, no New Yorker as disdainful of tourists needing directions, as is a certain strand of born-and-bred Detroiter with the optimism of recent arrivals and their various schemes for the city’s improvement. You’re right, some of these abandoned spaces are big enough to farm. Yes, something interesting could be done with the train station. It’s an exasperation summed up by Mike Carlisle, a homicide detective in Charlie LeDuff’s often terrific “Detroit: An American Autopsy.” “It’s a dead city,” Carlisle says. “And anybody says any different doesn’t know what . . . he’s talking about.”

LeDuff knows what he’s talking about, and as his subtitle makes plain, he’s squarely in the Carlisle camp. It’s risky territory these days, as LeDuff is well aware. His background as a newsman (he’s a former reporter for The Detroit News and The New York Times), his move into television (he’s now a reporter for a local station) and his encompassing sense of civic outrage can remind one of David Simon. 

But whereas Simon earned liberal accolades for exposing Baltimore’s underbelly in “The Wire,” in Detroit such a focus can seem, if not politically conservative, at least culturally retrograde — a backward stance. The relentless exposure of violence, corruption and their consequent thwarting of human potential — the traditional staple of the reporter-as-progressive-advocate — goes largely unappreciated by the city’s statistically small but culturally ascendant creative-class boosters. Though almost invariably liberal, they wish to accentuate Detroit’s positives, and will claim, correctly, that LeDuff’s book is unbalanced.

But balance is not always a literary virtue, and many of the best American books are notable for their lack of equilibrium. Quite a few, in fact, are flat-out bonkers, and LeDuff spends much of “Detroit” — “a book of reportage,” he says, “a memoir of a reporter returning home” — in a near-manic state.

In the reportage column, we get Detective Carlisle working “in a city with more than 11,000 unsolved homicides dating back to 1960.” We get firefighters risking (and, in one case, losing) life and limb to save abandoned structures — some of which, including the frequently ablaze Packard plant, might be better left, at long last, to burn down. 

We get the incomparable former city councilwoman Monica Conyers — “the perfect political caricature wrapped up in a real human being” — who, if I read it right, attempts unsuccessfully to seduce LeDuff. After politics, she tells him, “I’d like to design brassieres for plus-size women.” (After politics, she’d serve time.) And, inevitably, we get the former mayor, and frequent defendant, Kwame Kilpatrick: “It was as sad as it was appalling: a black city in which the most prominent leader plundered, pillaged and lied, all the while presenting himself as its guardian angel against the White Devil.”

But what does LeDuff really think of Detroit? “It is awful here, there is no other way to say it.” Not that the city’s awfulness is new. In fact, “it was never that good in the first place.” Now, though, it’s “an archaeological ruin.” He’s past finding the city “frightening anymore. It was empty and forlorn and pathetic.”

It’s certainly no great place to grow up, and LeDuff puts that pessimism to productive use when he writes, movingly, of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, killed in a mistaken police raid, and of Keiara Bell, a 13-year-old who chides Conyers for calling then Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr. “Shrek.” Bell is one of the book’s heroes. “I’m ashamed,” she says when LeDuff visits her at home. “I’m ashamed to be poor. And I’m ashamed to live here. And I don’t know if I’m ever going to get out. I just want to move away.

The book’s memoir sections detail LeDuff’s upbringing in working-class suburban Westland (“the only city in the world that renamed itself after its shopping mall”). The family teetered on the edge of disrepute, with LeDuff’s beloved sister a teenage runaway and sometime streetwalker who died a too-early death (as did her daughter, of a heroin overdose, years later) and his brothers high school dropouts, one of whom “got lost in the blizzard of the ’80s crack cocaine epidemic.” 

The family was held together by LeDuff’s mother, “militantly loyal and rabidly Catholic,” who worked in an east side flower shop. The adult struggles of LeDuff’s brothers are exemplified by Billy, who made good money “shuffling subprime mortgages” during the boom and, after the bust, found work in a screw factory making $8.50 an hour and “living the nightmare of every suburban white guy.”

It’s typically considered polite, at this point, to express regret that this book — about a city that is more than 80 percent black — is written by a suburban white guy.

Except LeDuff himself is black, in an Elizabeth Warren sort of way. A grandfather, he learns, was “mulatto,” making the white guy pictured on the book’s cover — and referred to therein as “a white boy,” “Whitey,” “Mister Charlie” and “just a redneck” — “the palest black man in Michigan.” LeDuff doesn’t know what to make of this late-in-life discovery (“How much of anything am I?”), and no one else much cares. “Black people . . . would simply wave me off with a go-away-white-boy smirk. White folks laughed and called me Tyrone.”

It’s necessary, at times, to separate LeDuff’s reporting from his writing. His reporting is immersive, patient. His writing just about bursts from revved-up impatience. Too many lines want to be lines. “The feds had been laying more wire in Detroit than the cable guy.” “The strain was showing on Monica Conyers like a cheap cocktail dress.” “Players were going through phone numbers like they were Chiclets.” 

When sentiment and style sync — “Detroit is full of good people who know what pain is” — you’re reminded of how solid a writer he can be when he plays it simple and straight. You suspect that Reporter LeDuff, who notes the shoulder pads in Kilpatrick’s suits, would distrust the occasionally puffed-up nature of Writer LeDuff’s prose.

Many city supporters will object to the “autopsy” in the subtitle, though it’s not the suggestion of civic death that rankles. Rather, it’s the suggestion of the surgically precise. LeDuff notes that whatever its racial makeup, the Detroit Fire Department’s spirit is Irish, and much the same can be said of this book and its author. “Detroit” is not an autopsy; it’s a wake — drunk, teary, self-dramatizing, sincerely sorry, bighearted and just a bit full of it. What’s the point of being from Detroit if you don’t know the world’s going to break your heart?

LeDuff returns, by the book’s end, to the bar where his sister was last seen, only to find it unrecognizable. A black man outside explains the changes. “They trying to put something nice up” in this hellhole, he says, speaking of the bar specifically, though his words spread across the city and pay tribute, in equal measure, to its dreamers, its pessimists and to those, resigned and wrung out, who love it despite all. “Can’t say it’s working. 

But what you gonna do? You ain’t gonna be reincarnated, so you got to do the best you can with the moment you got. Do the best you can and try to be good.” LeDuff has done his best, and his book is better than good.

An American Autopsy
By Charlie LeDuff
Illustrated. 286 pp. The Penguin Press. $27.95.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

More On Henry Miller's Tropic Of Capricorn


More on Tropic Of Capricorn 

When about 1/3 in Tropic Of Capricorn I noted I had mixed feelings about it for different reasons, some I listed. 

Now I'm about 2/3ds through and I'm all in, the breadth, depth and life of it, an exuberance that reminds me of what I remember of Whitman, is bigger than and takes in the mingy "buts" I first felt bugging me. 

One thing Miller does is write graphically, joyously and vividly about the most amoral, sometimes immoral, scabrous and delightful too, earthy carnal things, all dripping juices and whatnot, ejusdem generis for the whatnot, -:), and then for some of it through crazy flights of wide ranging language and all manner of reference--literary, historical, mythic--he makes cosmological meanings out of them, somewhat in the way Donne in some poems starts from him and his lover on their bed, mind you never in the joyously grubby, vulgar ways Miller does, and then expands outwards creating a world that both moves outward from and pivots on the fulcrum of that bed with lovers on it.  

Always too, Miller's language from the most earthy to the most high blown fits where he's at in his telling.

That's but one thing Miller does. 

Another is to recall with vivid particularly with precise linguistic brush strokes the neighbourhoods he grew up in, the boys he was friends with and the strange, bizarre really, outsiders who weren't part of the gang. 

So many times he brought me back to my own growing up, especially to the working class and middle class streets of the North End of Winnipeg where I lived from 6-13. 

He has one amazing--a word I don't like too often to use--part where he goes into a divine litany of all the subjects he and his friends would discuss away from parents, schools, anyone not them, in uninformed boyish earnestness, all manner of topics, celebrities, athletes, stars, earthly and heavenly, God, hell, girls, sex, school, teachers, gossip, death, life, fights, sports--I literally cannot do his poetic list even a smidgen of  justice. 

And it reminds me of one particular, indelible boyhood memory. We all lived right next to a virtually square block of an untended vacant lot we simply called "the field." The grass and weeds were too thick and wild for playing sports. But I remember one time, there were many others too, four or five of us on a warm spring or summer day just lay in all that unkempt grass likely chewing on a long straw-like piece of grass and just talked in that boyishly holy way Miller gives exact voice to, holy because the talk was the divine Spirit of the divinity of our own tight even insular world creating friendship and bondedness. 

As I say just amazing.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Slightly Strange Early Second Note On The Henrys: Miller And Kissinger


In my last note I in a throwaway and a goof mentioned Henry Miller and Henry Kissinger in the same sentence breath.

But it now strikes me that these two guys can be compared and contrasted, if anyone in the know still uses that tired but true phrase.

For one they both share the same first name.

For two, my mention of them was in saying I'm now reading Miller's Tropic Of Cancer and Kissinger's World Order, an encyclopedic account of the changing nature of world orders over history.

Two more disparate books you couldn't imagine. 

But here's one: c and c, the visions of America emerging from both books: 

my take:

for Miller a literarily absurd and romantically sentimental rejection of all things American even as he laves in what it provides him; 

for Kissinger, an immigrant from an oppressed minority living in and then as a child leaving an oppressing country, the promise of freedom and opportunity to rise and do as well as his gifts and diligence enabled him to, which he did with spectacular success.

An Early Note On Henry Miller's Tropic Of Capricorn


I'm reading now Tropic of Capricorn (and also Henry Kissinger's sweeping World Order. Two different sorts of books I'm tempted to guess.) 

As to the first, I'm about a little more than a third through, and my responses to it are quite muddled: I'm impressed by his honesty, by him laying himself bare, perverse warts and all; I'm put off by the sentimentality of his occasional rejections of all that is American, the presumptuousness of his sweeping dismissal of masses of people, the sentimentality of his morbidity and preoccupation with death; I'm impressed by his literary intelligence and the vividness and breadth of his language; but I'm put off by the places where the prose is purple, overwritten; I like his detailed descriptions of the specifics of his job, his sexual adventures, the eccentric and pathetic people he knows and meets, his scoffing at so much convention--it's politically incorrectness on stilts; I'm put off by his sheer amorality. 

All in all, I find myself pulled compellingly along with it, magnetically attracted to continue reading it. 

His prose is the poetry of the id.  

A guy I know called Miller a "bohemian narcissist"--la phrase parfaite.

Someone teaching modern American literature--although this book is so politically incorrect that it's hard to imagine it being taught--might want to think about giving a wild assignment:

C and c, or something to that effect if that phrase isn't too antiquated, Miller's description of his night at Roseland in Tropic Of Cancer and Albert Murray's essay on "the Saturday night function."

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Male And Female


On the categories of male and female. 

I've tried, imperfectly I'm sure, to work out an idea. I don't know if I've done it at all successfully.

As I understand Jordan Peterson for one, he argues that gender fluidity taken to the point of exposing male and female as merely arbitrarily imposed social constructs is Post Modern. 

He says it's Post Modern due to that view denying any objective social reality and holding that social truth is but the ascendancy of certain modes of power expressing themselves in class, race and gender. 

In that view history itself is historicism, the study of the impacts of changing conditions of ascendant power over time. 

Therefore, category shattering gender fluidity ostensibly attacks the "patriarchy's" imposition of male superiority in oppressing women. 

Gender fluidity exposes the arbitrary parading as the necessary. 

And in this case the denial of social truth even entails a criticism of scientific truth, the essential biological division between male and female. 

Peterson argues that good biology obviously differentiates between male and female--for Post Modernism, bad biological essentialism--and that social recognition of that differentiation in animals, including of course and chiefly humans, is a truthful social mapping of biology. 

Then what to do with the many examples  of gender dysphoria as but one real thing standing against simplistic definitions of male and female? 

I'm not sure what Peterson says about that, but it must be that he recognizes the many examples.

So moving away from him, I'd say that he's right insofar as far as I've outlined his view, hopefully correctly. 

I'd say that the many examples of transgender and gender fluidity in fact underscore the social truth of male female as a correct mapping of biological truth. I'd say so for three reasons that occur to me. There may be more telling ones. 

One reason is that these examples, for as many as there are, are still far to the margin of clearly understood male female designation and so function as exceptions proving the rule. 

Another is that these marginal examples still frame themselves within the dominating social and biological truths of male and female, either going to one or the other or taking on aspects of each. 

And third, the social truths of male and female can be inaptly rigid in too narrowly comprehending and insisting on their limits. 

Challenge, rethinking, refinement and broadening are but good for what's too rigid. 

It doesn't follow, however, from such challenges that the categories of male and female are merely arbitrary social constructs generated by oppressive power and unmoored from what is so, that in fact there is no what is so. 

The baby perforce survives the refreshing of the bath water.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Woozy Literary Memories: Miller And Orwell


Department Of Woozy Literary Recollections 

Just to say:

I read Orwell's Down And Out In Paris And London when I was in my early twenties back in the 1860s. 

I naturally don't recall it in detail but do have a pretty firm recollection of my overall sense of it: enjoying the recounting of the scuffling of his impoverished life in Paris, the crazy chaos of the hotels he worked in, the mad characters--I'm vaguely remembering some mad Russian who claimed he was an exiled nobleman--he met, and the tinge of bohemian romance to his life there; and then the unexpected sober shift to the abject misery of his tramping around England and his life in London,  all with men broken and immiserated by the cutting sharpness of their poverty, barely hanging on to life by their fingertips.

Why I mention this is that I've just begun for the first time reading Henry Miller's Tropic Of Capricorn and one thing it's done nothing so much as is to stir my long resting recollections of Orwell's memoir and more particularly his recounting of being down and out in Paris. 

And this then got me to thinking about Miller's Tropic Of Cancer, which I read as a middle teen, maybe 16, having heard of and, so, youthfully curious about and looking forward to its explicit sexuality. I only vaguely remember, again thinking about Orwell's memoir, how The Tropic Of Cancer is set in Paris, the explicitness of the sex and Miller's bohemian life there as a struggling young writer.  

I'll continue happily of course with Miller's book and I may be moved to reread after all these years Orwell's memoir and Miller's Tropic Of Cancer to enjoy them again and put them together better in my mind. 

By the way, I took a peek online and, not knowing of it, maybe I should have, quickly came across a fair amount on the connection between the two men, their meeting with each other on occasion, their notes to and on each other,  Orwell's reviewing Miller's Tropic Of Cancer in his, Orwell's, famous critical essay Inside The Whale and Miller's reaction to that essay.

Monday, September 4, 2017

I Called Him Morgan


I'm just finishing watching the doc I Called Him Morgan, which explores the relationship between Lee Morgan and his common law wife Helen Morgan.

I can't see the point of the last chunk of it.

It's interesting insofar as we get insights into Morgan's life in music, his rise, fall and rising again out of the ashes of his addiction through the prism of their relationship. In all of that either his playing or his failure to play is always at the center of what's going on. 

But then the left turn comes and the last 1/3d or so of the doc deals exclusively with the breaking apart of their relationship and elaborates in great detail on all the unlovely circumstances that led to Helen Morgan shooting Lee Morgan dead. In all that, what's truly important about him, namely his playing, his music, is as nothing.

I don't suggest skipping over how he died but I ask myself: what's the point of so much elaboration of it and why construct a doc that drives so intently to her killing him as its main point?

That I do not get.

I'll a note a small irony at the end. The final credits are shown against the background of his glorious playing. That's the important thing, his playing. So, asking again, why supplant that over the final chunk of the doc with all the squalid detail of how he came to die?