19 November, 2011

Technocrats and the disgust with the "Common Man"

This article by David Brooks offers an excellent, succinct description of what's going on in Europe just now. He hits the nail on the head when he acknowledges what most Americans don't get: that the EU is essentially anti-European, and that any ordinary people who actually strongly support it tend to be those who lived through WWII and see such a super-structure as the only way to prevent that sort of thing. (And of course the students who are still being told that government is smarter than the Common Man, but who seem to grow out of that soon enough--just like American students.)

09 November, 2011

Les Règles des jeux

Take the singular of this post title and you've got the title of a very excellent Jean Renoir movie from 1939. It's consistently ranked within the top ten best movies of all time, and if you watch it (there's a French language--no subtitles--version on youtube, but probably others on Netflix, etc) you'll see why. I have little to say about it that is not already very well said in this astute and lengthy analysis by Arthur Goldhammer.  Jean Renoir is, incidentally, a director whom I highly recommend. La Grande illusion is also a phenomenal film; Elena et les hommes is well-made, but more fun than anything--and you get to see the ever-engaging Ingrid Bergman speaking French and wearing enormous Belle Époque hats. Another interesting one that's a bit outside the Renoir canon is This Land is Mine, an anti-Nazi propaganda film made in the US in 1943 to avoid German censoring and drum up American support for entering the war. If you can take the film's occasional descents into preachiness and the rather jarring sound of "Germans" and "Frenchmen" speaking with the most Americanized of accents, it's an interesting look at what it was actually like to be a Resistance fighter during the occupation. The movie centers around a moral dilemma that Americans, having never had to suffer through an occupation, tend to forget entirely: how does one justify resistance if the occupiers will target innocent civilians by way of retribution? As I said, interesting, despite the flaws inherent in being a propaganda film.

Turning to a different sort of game entirely, here are three recent RCW articles that incisively discuss the origins of the EU and why it's poised to break up now. The role of nationalism is a common focus, and it's indeed interesting to see the European Far Right (especially in France) gaining momentum as the economic crisis worsens. (I'm also very pleased at being vindicated at every turn in my claims that there is such a thing as European conservatism, and that not every European is on board with the idea of creating a United States of Europe.)

Europe's Nationalism Problem
The Crisis of Europe and European Nationalism
Europe's Opacity Problem

Oh, and here are two very short more-news-less-analysis articles, just for fun.

The New Face of Digital Populism
European Far Right on the Rise Online

08 November, 2011

Poems by Northerners

I wonder what it is about the American South and the American North makes the former pretty darn good at writing stories but mediocre at poetry (really, Tate?), while the latter produces relatively few magnificent story-writers, but plenty of really brilliant poets. North of the Mason-Dixon line (and in New England more than any other region) you've got Bradstreet, Emerson (a good poet from a technical perspective more than anything), Longfellow, the Lowells, Robinson,Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, and Elizabeth Bishop. And that's just to name the more recognizable ones. Heck, Maine alone has four Pulitzer Prize winning poets. And that's a state of barely a million people...one sixth of the size of the city in which I attended university.

Then you've got the expats and exiles. Marianne Moore and T.S. Eliot both were born in St. Louis but maintained strong connections with New York (Moore) and Boston (Eliot). However much the latter might have rejected the American Unitarian culture in the process of his move to England, conversion to high Anglicanism, and alignment with monarchism, the fact remains that a good deal of the imagery he resorts to in his less angst-driven poems is that of the New England coast. Walcott moved to New England. Even (ok, this is getting into fiction, I admit) Cormac McCarthy has roots up here.

Now, I really don't have any strong theory about what might be at the root of these differences. Population certainly has something to do with the numbers, I know. If one were to start listing novelists, sticking with the greatest, and then list the great southern novelists, the numbers would actually be similar. But that may be attributed more to the fact that the north has a much more highly concentrated population; I suspect that if you were to do a per capita comparison, the number of novelists of southern origin would turn out to be more impressive than an initial glance might indicate. In either case, the great novelists of the north remain very much overshadowed by the poets.

Someday, when I've read a lot more and have time to spare, I'll probably begin thinking about this phenomenon in earnest, evaluating my current hunches (isn't the word "hunch" a hideous one?) and comparing the numbers more carefully. What I'm more interested in observing now is that I absolutely love New England poetry, and that I think there's something to be said for reading works that have their roots in your home.

Before getting into that first observation, however, I should note that the fact that I and other New Englanders have a "literature" at all is rather strange, by American standards. I have learned since college that comparatively few people in America have strong local roots; New England and the Old South seem to be two of the only places where local identities have developed and actually become part of the consciousness of kids as they grow up. And hence there actually is such a thing as "New England" literature and there is such a thing as "Southern" literature, but barely a, say, Texan or midwestern literature, and even less a Californian one.

Here in Maine you still have town meetings and lobster fishermen, and people who make their living wading through knee-deep mud to dig for clams, and dairy farmers, and kids from The County getting off school for a few weeks to help with the potato harvest. You'll find the names of your neighbors on 300-year-old tombstones in the private plots dotting the roadsides. You might grow up, as my siblings and I did, playing in a bowl-shaped hill that is actually the ruins of the house that your neighbor's family used to live in. . .during the French and Indian war, and you'd know that one of them was scalped but survived and that the age and eventual success of the family is why the neighbors own all the surrounding land for several miles. You'll know why there's nothing quite like eating clam chowder on a cool August evening, and you'll recognize the smell of dying leaves and fresh apples in October. You'll know what it's like to canoe through the bog and come face to face with a moose.

Having experienced stuff like this first hand certainly makes a poem like Elizabeth Bishop's The Moose or Wilbur's October Maples, Portland resonate a little more deeply. Not that one can't understand and appreciate them without being from the region. You can still look at the meters and imagery and be quite moved wherever your origins might be. But the lovely thing about a line that describes autumn leaves "yield[ing] us through a rustled sieve / The very light from which time fell away" can be understood two ways: through intellectual recognition, a recognition that hinges on understanding the words and being able to compose of them a coherent mental image, or through empathetic recognition, hinging on having experienced roughly the same types of things, so that you barely have to imagine the "gravelly roads,. . ./ rows of sugar maples,/. . .clapboard farmhouses / and neat, clapboard churches, / bleached, ridged as clamshells, /. . . twin silver birches"--you see them quite clearly, and the scene resonates emotionally not only by virtue of its objective aesthetic qualities, but also because you have your own set of memories associated with it. 

Of course, it's pretty obvious that the line between the two types of "recognition" involved in reading poetry gets pretty blurred in practice. For one thing, we only understand language at all through empathetic recognition, as I see it. Intellectual recognition is possible because one can apply what one has understood empathetically to situations and settings that one has not experienced first hand. It's a very basic analogy-making process: yes, I know what "yellow" is from my memories of seeing yellow things, so I can make the "tincture," the "sanguine glow" of the maples a bit more concrete, and if I have any associations at all of yellow with beauty, I can have some idea of what Wilbur means when he says that the sight "cannot fail to leave a lasting stain." On the other hand, the "empathetic recognition" of which I speak will necessarily involve intellectual recognition to an extent: even if you happen to know the exact northern New England/ Canadian town of which Bishop writes, you still have never seen it at precisely the same time she did, from precisely the same perspective. And so the power of the intellect to supply what is lacking in the experience by means of analogy working to fuel the imagination is essential. Even for the readers whose cultural and geographical roots are most nearly identical to those of the poem.

The difference, then is perhaps technically no more than one of degree. One is more familiar with the imagery of art from one's own region, but the action of the imagination is by no means made unnecessary by the increased proximity. However, to admit that the difference between reading your region's poetry and the poetry of, say, Baudelaire's Paris is nothing more than a difference of degree, is not, I think, to deny that there is something peculiarly appealing about one's "own" poetry. It's rather like friendship in that respect: there's nothing about your friend per se that makes your acquaintance with him or her qualitatively different from your acquaintance with anyone else. But the fact that you're more familiar means also that you are more invested in the friend than in other people: you may sympathize quite genuinely when you hear of a tragedy it the family of an acquaintance, but that will not affect you nearly as immediately as would a tragedy in a friend's family, which can have almost the effect of a tragedy in your own. The more your understanding of a poem (or a painting, or a person) may be characterized by this empathetic recognition, the more you are invested in the object of understanding. And with that investment comes a much greater reward with each increase of understanding.

All of which is to say that while I appreciate the depth of Bishop's discussion of the nature of knowledge in At the Fishhouses, what I (not-so secretly) appreciate the most is the fact that the poem is so right when it says that:

"All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches, 
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls."

07 November, 2011

American Intolerance

A former fellow-UD student posted this article earlier today.  The article itself says pretty much everything, and what's particularly interesting is that this is a Muslim perspective on the current controversy at CUA. As usual, it's members of the supposedly marginalized group who see little to complain about. No Muslim students have voiced any complaint about "intolerance" at CUA, and if crucifixes in prayer rooms offend anyone, they should jolly well realize that it's a Catholic school. If they don't like it, no one's forcing them to attend. Which the students seem quite open to understanding. Tellingly, Banzhaf has a record of suing over so-called "discrimination" issues. Which, as a lawyer, gains him a certain notoriety. I don't know about money, since I'm not familiar with such details about the workings of the legal system, but self-interest does seem to be playing a role here, since he's certainly not advocating on the behalf of any students.

One of the really disturbing characteristics of contemporary American litigiousness is its penchant for attacking free religious expression under the guise of supporting "separation of church and state". There are several problems with the situation. For one thing, there's the nagging question of how a private institution that is open about its religious orientation can legally be considered "the state". Last time I checked, Catholic U. was a privately-run university, and should have a right to express its religion freely; at least, it should if you're going to let the First Amendment mean much of anything. Generally the litigious types tend to get around this by confusing "state" with "public"...in other words, if it can be seen, it's tantamount to the state assenting to it, which does not mean that the state is merely tolerating it; it must mean that the state is actively forcing it on everyone else as the official religion. Risible logic.

Are we really willing to take the European route and opt for pure secularism? I.e. no, or at least very limited, public expression of religion? I have problems with that, but hey, at least they're consistent about it in Europe. The same standards apply to Christians, Jews, and Muslims when it comes to religious practices. The second big problem with the American situation is that it's always the Christians who have to pay. It makes sense. We like underdogs here, so minorities are pretty romantic things to have around. If you decide to make an easy buck suing someone over religious expression, it had better be Christians that you target, because they're the majority, and it's easy for everyone to forget that denying them freedom of religious expression is just as unconstitutional as denying it to minority religions. Just to clarify things for the record: I'm very happy to see a Happy Hanukkah sign in a store, but I think it's ridiculous that Merry Christmas has become a legitimate litigation target. Go ahead and wear the hijab or wear a cross to school: you should be treated the same either way.

Now, I don't think that there would ever be (not within a hundred years or so at least) a written law explicitly limiting public religious expression in America. The ideal of religious liberty is far too important to us even today, when more than half the population can recite two words of the Declaration.  What I'm more concerned about is the effect of litigation on the de facto law. If everyone knows that Christians can get into big financial trouble simply for putting a cross in a classroom because they have the misfortune to be a historical majority, then that's as much discrimination in practice as a written law would be.