24 April, 2012

Reading, Part I: Literature

It's amazing how much of a luxury real literature becomes when the bulk of one's reading is confined to The News and various articles of political analysis. Certainly not all of these are abysmal from a literary perspective; the latter genre tends to be by far the better of the two, with writers like Walter Russel Mead, Peter Berger, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer furnishing consistently readable columns for the more grammatically snobby among us.

However, it's beyond refreshing to be getting back into (English language) literature mode of late. (There's been plenty of French literature, which is fun in its own right: my current read in that language is Monsieur Larose, est-il l'assassin, a wonderfully vocabulary-and-slang rich psychological parody of the detective novel by one of Belgium's greats, Fernand Crommelynck.) Of course, getting back into the English stuff has required that I reconcile myself with the (rather abhorrent)  idea of "reading books online." I'm not a fan for several reasons, not restricted to my Bourgeois bias in favor of the smell of paper and the palpable roughness of its surface (I tell you, it makes a difference, seeing the way the ink has sunk into the slightly porous pages, rendering the letters coarser, individualizing them in a way you don't get onscreen). Reading something on a laptop also  a.) restricts your movement to places with an (accessible) wireless connection, b.) kind of wears on your eyes after a while, and c.) makes the reading feel cursory. However, it's not like there are English used-book stores everywhere around here, and I'm not about to buy any book that I don't love for full price at one of the many Barnes and Nobles-like establishments in the city. Admittedly, "not everywhere" and "unavailable" are two very different things: I could find the used English books if I wanted to, but motivation is lacking, since I then face the problem of transporting them back to the States.

Fortunately, I did bring one American novel, Saul Bellow's The Victim, along with me; I've been hoarding it up for the "ideal moment" as stingily as I used to hoard up Easter candy as a child. With the end of the semester now in sight, I've begun it, but am still reading it very slowly, preferring to savor it in the park during those rare afternoons when it is actually not raining. It's a good book so far, though I'm loathe to judge before having finished the story. The writing, at any rate, is elegant--simple in the best of senses, and adept at conveying and making realistic an emotional state (chez the main character) that could be easily overwrought or absurd. The violence of the "antagonist's" emotion and the sense of self-disgust that begins to pervade the protagonist's  mindset about halfway through the novel reminds me a lot of Dostoevsky. In fact, I'd have to say it's one of the most thoroughly Dostoevskian post-Dostoevsky works I've encountered. The notable difference here is that the most "Dostoevskian" character is in fact not the protagonist, but someone who's set himself up to work on the protagonist and force the poor guy to share (penitentially, as it were) in his own sentiments of self-loathing.

My more recent online reading (after an excellent short story by Edith Pearlman, available at Commentary magazine) has been Kate Chopin's Awakening. Once again, I'm only about halfway through and thus unable to comment on the story itself. The writing, however, is lovely; not quite Virginia Woolf lovely, but certainly lovely enough to lure the reader into the romanticism of Old Louisiana even as the plot remains somewhat critically aloof of the society it describes. Should be interesting to see how it concludes.

Apropos of little, I've also been reading a lot of Foucault and Hume lately. Mostly for my own "edification" (if one can say "edifying" of either one with a straight face--I am doubtful). Hume I'm rereading mostly out of interest (causality is a continually fascinating topic). However, Foucault's discussions of the discourse of power inherent in any formulation of history and of the way that history itself shapes notions of ethics is certainly relevant to my studies regarding the development of national identities and nationalism (and the ways the different historical circumstances of the Middle East makes certain presuppositions about those societies frankly absurd).

19 April, 2012

Feminism, Wages, and How Protest Movements Support "The Man"

I guess I'm kind of a feminist. I'm an educated woman living in the 21st century. I have a B.A., I'm enrolled in a Master's program, I've spent a year in Belgium on a Fulbright grant. I intend to have a career. I hate movies and books with weak, fainting heroines. I get angry when I hear about Muslim women being stoned to death at the mere accusation of "impurity," and I find it repulsive that until 1981 in Italy, a “crime of honor”—killing your wife for being unfaithful or your sister for having premarital sex—could be treated as a lesser offense than other murders (and that the attitudes allowing for that law seem to have been operative as late as 2007--though I don't know the details of the case).

But then again, maybe I'm not. Not a feminist, that is. It all depends, really, on what you want the term to mean, and as I've gotten older I've come to realize more and more that like most labels in contemporary life ("capitalist," "conservative," "liberal," "environmentalist"), the term is wildly ambiguous. That ambiguity is one of the more frustrating aspects of the contemporary experience; how can you expect to have a fruitful, rational discussion about, say, political positions, with anyone when the terms "conservative," "Tea Party," "liberal," "progressive," and so on all need to be painstakingly redefined before the conversation can even begin?

See, my gut instinct is to recoil from the term "feminist" as though it were the verbal equivalent of a big, hairy wolf spider (the worst kind, barring tarantulas). That's because when I hear the word, I immediately envision State Representatives at the Governor's mansion scribbling the words "Girl Power" in bubble letters on a white board within a border of bloated, magic-marker flowers. I recall sitting around in circles at Girl Scouts, weaving and painting flower pots while being encouraged to talk about "feelings"--because apparently "Girl Power" means casting off boyish things, such as actual fun (camping, hiking, canoeing -- isn't that what scouting should be about?). I also remember heartily despising it all. This sort of feminism (and its proponents) appeared rather stupid...even to a second or third grader. I also despise several positions that by many are considered staples of feminism:  most importantly pro-abortion-ism. (I disagree with the typical secular feminist positions on contraception and the "bias against women" evidenced by an all-male priesthood, but I don't despise them, because for those lacking the proper theological background they're not without a logic of their own.) I certainly despise the idea that to be a strong woman, in charge of your own body, you need to have a "right" to kill babies--half of whom are, of course, future women. (Whatever happened to Madeleine Albright's "I have always said, there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women"? Ah the hypocrisy.)

But I'm not primarily writing to complain about bad childhood experiences with a Spice Girls-inspired girl power doctrine, nor to rant about our cultural blindness to "murders of convenience." I'm writing because of this article recently published in the Atlantic. The issue it treats, that of the oft-cited income disparity between men and women, is one about which I have mixed feelings.

Now, speaking from my experience alone, the idea that women are discriminated against appears more than a little ridiculous. I've definitely grown up in a time, place, and social circle that tends to a.) see women, especially young women, as much more dependable and therefore job-worthy than guys of the same age, and b.) explicitly privileges women in many of the ways that the author of the above piece mentions. I know that I've had greater access to scholarships than many of my male peers, and I've sensed in more than one college class (even at a school as conservative as the University of Dallas) a certain bias towards female students (in that my reasons for being late or missing a class were often given more credence than a guy's equally valid ones). To an achievement-oriented personality, this privileged position can actually chafe a bit. I want to achieve things because I achieve them, not because of my gender. It's vaguely humiliating to imagine that some of what I've accomplished has been enabled by the fact that I was born a woman, and the mere possibility lessens the amount of satisfaction I find in having accomplished "this much." I look at the demographics of the Fulbright grantees in Belgium (one guy, eight girls), for instance, and have to wonder whether, as a male student from UD, I would have won the position.

The article above also brings up the highly misleading quality of statistics. It's another pet peeve of mine that people tend to put so much faith in one of the most inexcusable instances of reason-from-instantiation of which I can conceive (I hold a grudge against Auguste Comte for essentially founding the social sciences on this basis. Adolphe Quetelet was at least as responsible though). I've already given a few examples in this blog--Ron Paul can be read as a pro-abortion radical if you take certain votes out of context, much as Rick Santorum can be read as a raving progressive. If you only poll in the bluest of the blue states, the "pro-life" movement appears to be a fringe crusade; if you look at the unemployment numbers in the states without realizing that they account for only a fraction of the actually unemployed, our economy doesn't look so bad. Seventy-seven cents to the dollar looks like a pretty bad statistic. Maybe it is. Maybe women really are still secretly being discriminated against in a way that I've never had an opportunity to see. I admit: that probably is the root of some portion of the disparity.

The real question though, is "is gender-based discrimination a sufficient causal explanation for the wage disparity between men and women?" While the answer may or may not be as cut and dry as Marty Nemko suggests, it seems to me that there are plenty of other possible explanations for this "hard evidence that women are still subject to widespread discrimination." One bit of information that I found particularly interesting is summarized in a table reporting wage disparity in relation to age (about a third of the way down on this page).  Essentially, we see here that the "77%" statistic is by no means a constant as people age. At my age and slightly older, women's earnings are very close to equivalent with men's: nearly 93%. The percentage drops at a fairly constant rate until it comes to women's earnings after age 65, at which point it rises slightly. To some, this would indicate one thing and one thing only: women's status in the workforce is improving, if slowly; the greater wage disparity between older men and older women indicates that when these women were entering the workforce, they faced greater discrimination and enjoyed less opportunity for advancement than did their male peers. This might indeed explain some of the gap. There's another rather important point to consider though. What about all the women who take time off to raise children between the ages of, say, twenty three and forty? What about all of those who prefer to hold a part-time position while their children are still young? Now, I'm not saying that the wage disparity is explained by averaging the earnings of working women with the lack thereof of non-working women (or the low ones of the part-time employees): these statistics are only looking at full time employees, obviously. No, what I'd like people to consider is the very very basic question "how do people get raises?" From what I understand, you tend to get bumped up to a higher pay rank after you've worked in a place for a long time. Higher levels of experience also count for a lot when you're applying to a higher-paying job. Think of what that does to wages: for the men (and women) who remain in their careers long-term, wages rise gradually, almost inevitably with time. If you're returning to the full-time workforce after several (or more)  years away from it, or of only part time involvement, of course you won't be making as much. It's a fairly simple observation, and one that certainly holds true at least to some extent. Whether it can account for the entirety of the wage gap is another story. It probably can't.

Another, oft-cited point is that women and men tend to make different choices regarding their type of employment. Women often choose to find work in the education profession (especially elementary school), in secretarial positions, as nurses rather than doctors and as dental hygienists rather than dentists. It's not that they can't handle the higher levels of education and experience required of say, college professors (though that's by no means a male dominated field), CEOs, doctors, or dentists. But if you are a woman who does want a family, you're facing essentially the same dilemma that many career women in their twenties face: a family or a high-powered job/extra education? When people point out that men tend to earn more in many of these traditionally female-dominated careers, I have to wonder how much of that is sexism and how much of it might be a.) encouragement (male elementary school teachers are unfortunately hard to come by), or b.) if a man is going to choose such a profession, it's probably because he's either unusually good at it or because it's a higher-paying position in the first place: you're more likely to find a man working as a secretary for a CEO than a man working as the secretary at your local dentist's office.

Now, one may argue of course that women shouldn't have to choose between family and a great career. They should be able to have it all. Society should help them with childcare so that they can go ahead and get that education, so that they can grab that promotion. Maybe one would be correct. I know that, for myself I can't help at least sympathizing with the frustration, only because, as already mentioned, I'm achievement-oriented and want a career. And a family.

I also want to be the world's greatest mountaineer, a black belt in every variety of martial arts, a marathon runner, an expert in botany and a much better pianist.

Sometimes we have to choose between "wants."

Maybe there is still gender discrimination out there in the US. There certainly is in the rest of the world. But see, what really gets me riled up about the whole gender inequality debate is the way it privileges a certain definition of "success" and "worth" over any other. The same goes for most formulations of the race debate. And the social class debate. We've gotten so used to seeing success and worth in purely economic terms that even those who rail against "corporate America and its amorality" are still using the same definitions to give an account of what makes life worth living. (That's my biggest problem with Marxism too, incidentally.) How is it liberating to argue that what we need to do to destroy the monopoly of big business and the allure of excessive wealth is to ensure that those who by some standards don't have it, get it? Women are only really liberated if they are just as interested as men in high-powered careers (because if they're not, the only possible explanation is that the male-dominated hierarchy has been brainwashing them from infancy to be submissive). They're only liberated if they're willing to put academia and a paycheck above family and friends.

So, the best way to be a feminist is to encourage women to become the worst possible version of the (male) WASP stereotype? Remind me again why it's bad to want children? Oh, right, because they get in the way of education/career. Why is education/career better than children? Because it just is! Because we (feminists) say so. Because if you think otherwise, you must be conforming.

As I already said, and as is probably fairly evident from this blog, I'm the last person to start devaluing education. Or careers. And the satire in the above paragraph is, like all satire exaggerated. The feminist movement has, over the past hundred and fifty years or so, accomplished a lot of good, in my opinion. And most individual feminists are probably (especially now) willing to admit that children are not an inherently bad thing and may even be to some extent desirable. Nonetheless, even that mild version of feminism buys into the pervasive rhetoric of money-as-power, and degree-pursuant education as the primary worthy achievement. Insofar as it does that, feminism is useless. It's useless because it can't change anything fundamental; it can only turn the tables and make men the underdogs.

A truly counter-cultural feminism, one that would really stick it to the proverbial man, would be one that celebrated all of a woman's accomplishments as having their proper dignity. One that recognized the responsibility of caring for a human person as at least as challenging, exciting, and heroic a enterprise as that of starting a business or being granted a Ph.D.

And hey, let's not forget that that sort of cultural revolution would do an awful lot to get men on board with the child-raising. Right now we say "women should have what you have because it's worth more; get ye to the family and feed the kids." So the family remains the item of lesser importance and the men relegated to its care grow to resent it. Smart, smart move.

Note: After writing this, I remembered that I also wanted to relate our society's broken value system to our tendency to consider certain jobs as "more worthwhile" than others. What annoys me the most, for fairly obvious reasons, is the way we cast aspersions on those in the teaching profession, especially elementary and middle school educators. There are plenty of bad teachers out there, which is unfortunate. But there's nothing about the profession itself that warrants the denigration it receives. In point of fact, education is one of the most influential professions out there, and "underachieving" female teachers are in a position to shape the way the CEO's of tomorrow think. (Which is, of course, a fantastic reason to give the profession a little more respect and stop glutting it with people who can barely do basic math, but that's another point entirely.)

25 March, 2012

Oh, Academia


These two rather delightful webpages have made a bit of a splash in the UD facebook world of late. Each one, taken on its own, does more to explain why I'm not going into academia than would several hours of lecturing on the "state of higher education." Of course, these are satirical, but the oh-so-true part of it all is that a good half of half the critical articles I read over the course of my undergraduate (in particular those I read while studying Mrs. Dalloway) sounded more or less like this. That is, a good portion of the authors seemed perfectly comfortable with taking a few key words from their main argument, combining them almost randomly, and using them to fairly blatantly pad the writing. I thought we learned not to do that in high school?

03 March, 2012

Capitalism vs. Corporatism, Again

I've expressed my disapproval of the current usage of the term "capitalism" several times before on this blog. My recent perusal of "Project Syndicate" updates led me to this article, which upholds my basic point, but elucidates it in much more economically savvy language than I would have been able to come up with. Capitalism vs. Corporatism. A rather important distinction to be able to make.

09 February, 2012

Salomé, Wilde, and Freud

What I knew about Oscar Wilde's play "Salomé" before last night was as follows: he wrote it in French while gadding about in Paris with a bunch of symbolists. He was particularly influenced by none other than Maurice Maeterlinck; he's quoted as attributing his use of French to Maeterlinck's example, since "a great deal of the curious effect that Maeterlinck produces comes from the fact that he, a Flamand by grace, writes in an alien language." And if Strauss' German libretto is any indication, Wilde was influenced by the Belgian in more than his choice to write in a foreign language. Repetition, repetition, repetition. The obsessive, incantatory, at times even frantic repetition that structures Maeterlinck's theatrical works from start to finish is very much in play in this opera. Of course, when you think of Maeterlinck, you're thinking of a theater of non-action (or as close to it as one can get: in his "ideal world", you would have had marionettes performing his plays, moving only when absolutely necessary). Characters stand around in ominously darkened castles, aware that a nameless "something" is wrong; the repetitive dialogue (or more often, alternating monologues) manifest the interior dramas of the various characters as they react--not just once, but over and over, obsessively--to the fact that "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". Salomé is, by contrast, about as visually dramatic as you can get, in some respects. Yet despite the dramatic allure of the Biblical story to a decadent aesthete like Wilde, the core of the drama here is interior as well: we're essentially watching the Freudian conflict between eros and thanatos play out, and beneath that (and possibly more crucially) a  kind of semi-neo-platonist conflict between eros-as-sexuality* (material) vs. eros-as-religious-impulse (spiritual) (both of which are, from the little I understand of Freud, allowed for in his definition of eros).

As in Maeterlinck's plays, repetition here is a signal of obsession. Salomé comes out from a banquet into the courtyard, disturbed by her stepfather's obsession with her; her complaints are interrupted by a cry from John the Baptist, who is imprisoned nearby, but just out of view. Instantly, she becomes the one obsessed, now with the Baptist, whom she clearly recognizes as someone in some way "special". And here the "structure of threes" commences. The opera takes place in three main parts (I don't know if you'd call them "acts" exactly or what; my technical opera vocabulary is non-existent), but beyond that nearly every interaction between characters is threefold: question/demand-answer-comment and then repetition of the pattern with slight variations. Salomé tries three times to seduce Narraboth, the main guard (who is himself clearly a bit obsessed with her), in order to get him to go against his orders and let her see John. John is accordingly let out when Narraboth capitulates; Salomé is fascinated by his intransigence and complete dedication to a higher calling, and tries three times to seduce him.

It's here, during the attempt to seduce John the Baptist, that we really start to see the tragedy unfold. Her first appearance gives us the impression (at least, as the role is performed by the very excellent Nicola Beller Carbone) of a spoiled, slightly scatterbrained young girl, appropriately disturbed by her stepfather's inappropriate interest, but otherwise very much what you might expect the stereotypical "princess" to be. It's when she's interacting with the Baptist, however, that we begin to realize that she's dangerously on the verge of a complete collapse into madness. And it simultaneously becomes tragically clear that the single figure who the audience might expect to be able to help her is utterly incapable of doing so. John is an intransigent figure here, faithfully proclaiming God's judgment of Herod's house; he is moral, yet also inhuman. The guards, Herod, and the party guests see the prophet accordingly only as a threat, either to royal power or orthodox theology: his unearthliness causes him to be treated not as one dedicated to God, but simply as a non-human. Salomé is the only one to break from the mold in her treatment of the prophet. She recognizes him as a human being and attempts to interact with him as such; she is clearly in some ways susceptible to the message he proclaims. What keeps her from being able to accept it is first John's own intransigence, and second, her own inability to comprehend any sort of "love" beyond the sexual.

So then, Salomé tries to seduce the prophet three times. He rebuffs her three times, as he is clearly supposed to do. Rather than attempting to show her the proper way to respond to his message, however, he can see her only as the offspring of sin. Hence the maledictions and accusations: she is "the daughter of Herodias", the member of a house accursed by God; nothing more. Around his third refusal (if I'm remembering the numbering correctly), he does seem to begin to realize that there actually is a person in front of him, pleading in her own misdirected way for recognition. He still cannot help her, but he does tell her essentially "Look, I can't help you; you're from a cursed house and my role is to proclaim the judgment of God. But there's this guy from Galilee who forgives sins...you should head over to him." All well and good, but then we realize just how incapable Salomé is of taking this advice: the words make no impact whatsoever. She repeats verbatim what she had been insisting before (I think it was "I want to kiss your mouth, Jochanaan" at this point). We begin to realize that whatever her history may be (and it is hinted more and more as the opera goes on that this history involves Herod and his incestuous interest in her), it has left her incapable of comprehending any form of eros beyond the sexual; thus John's religious eros attracts her, yet she is without the resources necessary to respond appropriately.

That is more or less the heart of the drama of the play. Salomé is eventually driven to such a frenzy at John's refusal that she shoots Narraboth, killing him, before she returns to the banquet just before the intermezzo. Things are kind of going pretty badly.

The second "act" is by far the most visually interesting, possibly to make up for the fact that this is now more or less the Biblical story as we know it. The settings modernize the opera; the courtyard outside had been a bullet-riddled cement wall with furniture stacked hastily at one end, pointing to the fragility of Herod's reign. This "reign" is in the second act implied to be little more than a series of parties in a "gilded cage" (again, the obvious reading of the set here; the room is surrounded by a cage-like wooden framework, softened by gauzy sheets stretched between beams, the whole rendered chintzily glamorous by the extravagant banquet table at the center and ostentatious chandelier overhanging it all). I was a bit skeptical of the modernization in the first act--really, guns, black suits, and machine guns are kind of hackneyed by now--but was quickly won over by the fantastic performance and kind of magnificent lighting. On the other hand, the modern setting worked really, really well in the second act. Herod was a fat, dirty, sunglasses-wearing dictator; the type you'd associate with some petty tyranny somewhere in the Balkans or, more recently, the Middle East. Herodias was a vile, spiteful woman in ostentatiously-bejeweled red, whose hatred of John for "saying bad things about her" was overwhelming; even so, as my friend pointed out, she was allowed her brief humanizing moments in her not completely self-interested distress at Herod's behavior towards her daughter. The minor characters here made it all the more fun to watch: at one particularly excellent point, the Jewish elders attending the banquet begin to argue about who John the Baptist is; it soon degenerates into a theologically-motivated pie-fight in one of the really funny moments of the performance. Herod, in the mean time, runs around with a video camera, videotaping arguments and pie-throwing in his drunken hilarity, only to always end up getting distracted by recording Salomé who through much of the scene sits in a chair in the corner, doing nothing, visibly preoccupied by her interview with John.

What I found to be particularly excellent about the choice to modernize the settings, however, was the way it allowed the piece to reimagine the (in)famous "Dance of the Seven Veils". That of course, is what both play and opera are most famous for, its mere inclusion having been a pretext for banning both from the stage in the US and England for years after their debuts. And the performance has, from what I see, certainly ranged from slightly sketchy to very, very much so indeed. Here, the "dance" shown on stage was very brief indeed, soon giving way to the projection of a dvd filmed so that Herod appears to be holding the camera (I'm not certain that most of the reviewers are correct in thinking that he actually was holding the camera; the guard visible in the mirror kind of belies that reading, as does Herod's excitement at seeing it). Anyway, just as the dvd starts to get really sketchy, the projector is turned around so that the image is now invisible to the audience but projecting out onto it. Now that's certainly directorial innovation; both a commentary of sorts  the controversial history of the opera and a questioning of why the audience is there. Surely we are not voyeurs like Herod...right?

Not surprisingly, it was this innovation that's drawn the most critical condemnation. It was a "'Salomé' privée de sensualité", one paper said. "Très clinquante et trop froide" declared another. The English-language reviews were likewise critical of the decision, saying that it departed catastrophically from Wilde's intentions in the original play, that it was "cold" and insufficiently sensual (by contrast everyone seemed to find the singers anything but "cold"; Carbone's performance in particular was highly praised). Well, yes, the way it was presented did play down the sensuality of the scene and play up its disturbing aspect. But I have to wonder whether that is so very destructive to Wilde's interpretation of the Biblical story? True, shocking sensuality is something he probably intended, knowing Wilde. But this simple shock value, as this director seems to have realized, can distract from the fundamentally Freudian conflict driving the opera.

I am unsure as to whether or not Wilde was familiar with Freud's writings (I think the latter was a bit later), but the two writers do come from the same artistic generation, and Freud's  "discoveries" are less "discovered" than coherently articulated by that author. Basic concepts like the potential for confusion between eros-as-sexuality and eros-as-religious-impulse (neoplatonism, anyone?) or the conflict between eros and thanatos (Greek plays, obviously) have been present in art and philosophy throughout history, and were so much at the forefront of thought in Wilde's time that I'd be very surprised if his original play didn't involve those subtexts. What's more, Strauss recognized them in the play and deliberately highlighted them in the opera, from what I've read.

The projection of the dvd out onto the audience and the implied commentary on the audience's reasons for being there is, as I already admitted, a directorial innovation. But the very existence of the dvd, with a very child-like Salomé as the object and the suggested identification of Herod as filmmaker, if not in fact than in principle, has the effect of highlighting the implication that Salomé's inability to respond properly to John's eros-as-religious-impulse is due to Herod's behavior. About as importantly, it ensures that the audience will be disturbed by what is going on without being distracted from the fact that it ought to be disturbed. I don't necessarily find that to be a bad thing. Of course, if art is solely a question of pushing boundaries and violating the (non-existant, by now?) "bourgeois comfort zone", then, yes, the dvd was a sell-out. As it happens, that's not how I see art, so....

The structure of threes continues throughout this act and into the final one. You see Herod's threefold appeal to Salomé to eat; her threefold refusal. Herod's threefold appeal to her to dance, culminating in her agreement when he makes the fateful promise "I'll give you anything you want". When she finally requests the head of John the Baptist, Herod tries to bribe her three times to change her request, and finally gives up upon her third refusal. You also notice the three "unnatural loves" that are the reason anything happens at all: Narraboth's "unnatural" class-denying love that allows Salomé to meet the Baptist in the first place; Herod's unnatural "love" for Salomé, and finally the initially ignorant, and eventually completely perverted love of Salomé for John.

The final act is the bringing of John's head to Salomé, and features the only real prolonged solo of the opera. The threefold structure of response-answer-comment that had ruled over Salomé's previous interactions with the prophet gives way. He is no longer even capable of the most unhelpful response, and so she must answer her own questions which she poses to the prophet's slowly-bleeding head. It becomes painfully obvious, if it hadn't already been, that she has remained so stuck in materiality, unable to ascend to John's spiritual heights, that her desire for him has been reduced to desire for his body--here, obviously, the head. She repeats the praises of his eyes, hair, and lips, as in the first act. Response now is even more impossible than it had been, and John's head stands on the table now utterly objectified. That is, of course, the irony of the play. The only character who had been remotely capable of interacting with John as a person has found it impossible to communicate with him, and has ended by making him, quite literally, an object. Material and nothing more. The obsessive repetition-- "your eyes, your hair, your lips", again and again--crescendos until she finally kisses the head and sings in tragic triumph her last words in the opera: "Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan." Herod, disgusted at what has happened without, of course, seeming at all conscious of his own role in the matter, violently supplies the final response: "kill this woman".

This is, as one critic describes it, "ecstasy falling in upon itself, crumbling into the abyss". It's at this point, at the moment when thanatos--the destructive impulse that is in constant conflict with the creative impulse of eros--stands alone and victorious. We realize at this point why it is that destruction and disappointment has overshadowed the opera from the beginning. It's not simply that the audience (probably) already knows how the story ends (that certainly plays into audience response to the story, but how is not a question to answer now). It's that, again, Salomé has been from the beginning of distinguishing between the two types of eros, and John, who one might expect to be able to teach her, has been incapable of expressing it, precisely because he is incapable of recognizing her as a distinct human being. The two characters are opposites who "should" be made compatible, but "circumstances" have made that impossible: Salomé and John are both doomed from the start. Thanatos cannot but be victorious when eros is unnaturally divided against itself, and so that's precisely how the opera ends: with a jarringly discordant chord and two executions. Nice, eh?

*Throughout I'm making the distinction between "eros-as-sexuality" and "eros-as-religious-impulse"; that former term in particular is reductive. One of the most important points the opera/play brings up is that it is absolutely necessary to recognize other human beings as human beings if eros itself is not to succumb to thanatos. The ability to do so correlates within the confines of the narrative with what I awkwardly describe as "eros-as-sexuality". It is, however, apparent that if John could respond properly, or if Salomé actually  went "to the Galilean" as John instructs, this recognition of person-as-person need not be actually sexual  in the non-theological understanding of the term; that is, it's not John's celibacy that prevents him from responding. I've been using the term, awkward as it is, mostly as an acknowledgement that's the only means open for Salomé to recognize a person as a person: hence "eros" for her is even more limited than using the term as a blanket would suggest.

08 February, 2012

A Preface to Nothing, Really

I went to the opera tonight. No big deal...just sort of showed up about a half hour before and got "last minute" student tickets with a friend. Tickets for what would have been very, very expensive seats at La Monnaie.

Walking back, I had one of those moments of historical-hyper-consciousness (when lacking a better term one may as well use the most absurd, eh?) of the sort that Wordsworth would have worried himself to half his weight trying to describe. The sort that involves Belgian revolutions, the "historical trauma" of Walloon and Flemish collaboration and resistance during the 1940s, historical taboos vis à vis the mistreatment of the Congo, September 11, the TSA, ancient Rome, the development of nationalism in western Europe, images from the recently-watched Pianist and less-recently-watched Joyeux Noel, various and present challenges to the US Constitution, the weird (to an American) fact that Belgians actually have a king, Trappist breweries dating back hundreds (!) of years, demolition, Victor Horta, Joseph Poelaert, la Belle Epoque, shopping on Boulevard Anspach, and yes, Belgian revolutions...this time in relation to the EU.  But, as is typical during such moments, these things didn't really "pass through the mind" as things usually do; rather the moment was one of those in which the particulars are held before the consciousness while what one is primarily aware of is the fact that the self which is conscious of all of these things (a very je est un autre moment; thanks Rimbaud) actually is, and is in a historical context.*  That one exists in a history that is no less historical than any of the things about which one is thinking and that all the historical characters thought in a way that is very much the way one is thinking. That's something I think about all the time, intellectually. But intellectual "understanding" and emotional understanding are not identical, though the latter is properly a completion of the other, not something that ought to exist in isolation. (Which is another sense in which Wordsworth is quite right. I should really give that guy more credit than I want to.)

In any case, I don't know that being in Europe--and actually watching an opera at the place where the Belgian revolution from the Netherlands broke out in an opera house built by Joseph Poelaert (personal architect to that same Leopold II who was responsible for so many improvements being made around Brussels at the expense of the Congolese) in the effective capital of the EU--does all that much to encourage such moments. It makes a wider variety of historical experience more immediate, and being a visitor to a place does obviously heighten the je est un autre effect. But that latter can happen even on a trip to the ocean. And plenty of history has "happened" in any town in the US.

Well, that was all meant to lead into something about my reading lately. Which has been, not surprisingly, a lot of history. Some literary-critical, but even that has been history-oriented. However, since Operas tend to run Late, I am Tired, and wanting sleep. So my hopefully-brief post about the opera itself will have to be (forgive the exhaustion-induced pun, but I must make it) post-poned. And my post about historical consciousness, its manifestations in Europe, its curious absence from certain eras of American life (now is not one of them, I might argue), and what it means to be an American in Europe if your first name is not Henry, and how that affects your ability to empathetically comprehend your own historical existence ...well, that also will have to be postponed (but in this second case, I think it likely that the post will be written only in my head; pauvre lecteur!)

*Note: it is annoying to describe consciousness without relying upon philosophical terms, but philosophical terms generally lack a certain immediacy; poetic description would be better, but that takes real work.

26 January, 2012

Freedom of Conscience in the USA

"With her long tradition of respect for the right relationship between faith and reason, the Church has a critical role to play in countering cultural currents which, on the basis of an extreme individualism, seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth. Our tradition does not speak from blind faith, but from a rational perspective which links our commitment to building an authentically just, humane and prosperous society to our ultimate assurance that the cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reasoning. The Church’s defense of a moral reasoning based on the natural law is grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a “language” which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world. She thus proposes her moral teaching as a message not of constraint but of liberation, and as the basis for building a secure future."
 --From Pope Benedict's Address to the Bishops of the U.S., Jan. 2012

This paragraph really stood out in the midst of a generally excellent and very relevant speech on the role of Catholics in a society in which freedom of conscience is being increasingly infringed upon. Partly because the whole "natural law" concept is one of the most taboo ones you can bring up in academia, and academia is where I am right now, I particularly liked the italicized sentence:  a simple and eloquent way of putting it, even if that alone won't convince anyone adhering to (more or less) total relativism.

The whole speech is short, very worth a read, and available here. In case, by some chance, you are unaware of the circumstances surrounding the speech, here's an overview: http://www.catholic-convert.com/2012/01/21/obama-gives-catholics-one-year-to-learn-to-violate-their-consciences/

18 January, 2012

Two Notes

Throughout the last post Maritain's Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry was very much on my mind.  While discussing the surrealists, he talks about how theories inherently destructive to art can be held by very good artists: the key is that since the theory is destructive to art, the art they produce is produced outside of that theory. They're accomplishing something other than what they're attempting. Just another example of how artists are usually the worst at figuring out what's actually going on in a piece of art. The trouble starts when they begin using vague terms like "irrationality," "anti-rationality," "the beyond," "magic," etc. Oy.

Also, does this bit from Maurice Maeterlinck's "Fauves Las" remind you of anything?

Les chiens jaunes de mes péchés,
Les hyènes louches de mes haines,
Et sur l'ennui pâle des plaines
Les lions de l'amour couchés !
Awkward literal translation: "The yellow dogs of my sins,/ The squint-eyed hyenas of my hates,/ And on the pale ennui of the flatlands/ The lions of love lying down." Later there's the great phrase "les brebis des tentations": "the sheep/flock of temptations."

The first two lines in and the "flock of temptations" made me think of Eliot (no surprise there). For comparison:

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

 It's from "Marina," and  while the two poems are not similar in much else (the former is the quintessential anti-narrative poem, while the latter is much more narrative-driven than the usual poem), the use of animals as symbolic of things with which they have no conventional association is a classic symbolist move on Eliot's part. If anything, Maeterlinck's yellow dogs and squint-eyed hyenas are closer to being conventional symbols than Eliot's dogs and pigs. You can interpret the dog, hummingbird, pig, "ecstasy of the animals" as representing four of the seven deadly sins, of course. But then, interpretation is welcome in symbolist poems; it's just not going to be internally verifiable (contrast Wordsworth's reaper: he's a symbol too, but Wordsworth spends a whole poem interpreting him for us).

17 January, 2012

Symbolists and Parnassians: How good theory gets adopted by bad theorists

This is from Eccles' introduction to A Century of French Poets. It's an older work, a bit prior to the codification of literary theoretical methods in the later 20th century. But this is still one of the clearer, more succinct explanations of symbolism that I've encountered.
"Of the many tendencies imputed to symbolism this is the most characteristic -- out of an acuter perception of what all poets have always known, that words are insufficient if their power is bounded by their meaning, emerged an audacious doctrine which branded their representative function as inferior, and sought to shift the poetical interest from what they signify to what they may suggest. In the Parnassian system description was paramount, and feeling sprang from it immediately: the emotion which symbolism pursues bears no constant relation to the objects represented or the ideas expressed; rather it aims at the recovery of vanished moods by curious incantations, by the magical use of verbal atmosphere. To fashion a true likeness of the material world it holds a vain and illusory undertaking: It values sights, sounds, scents, and savours for their secret affinities with states of the soul .... "   
Three years of on-and-off study, and I still can't quite figure out what I think of the symbolists. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes; Eliot, Woolf, Faulkner, and the French classicists: the philosophers and the "idea" artists are a piece of cake ("idea" artists is a careless term that I don't care to correct beyond saying that I'm talking about "artists who have rational ideas, though their art is not limited to the rational; I'm not talking about platonists). It's these irrationalists that confuse me, these strange artists who believe in some sort of incantatory art--the symbolists--or the anti-rationalists--the Dadaists, surrealists, even (in my opinion) the more extreme existentialists. There's nothing more frustrating to an academic than not "understanding" something. Artists like the symbolists make good art and write terrible theory.

And is this terrible theory? Honestly, I'd be inclined to think so. The Parnassians tended to not be such good writers. They were more like skilled minaturists whose gorgeous description rarely attained its actual goal: that of making "feeling spring from description". But while the symbolists claimed to reject description, the idea that one can use words without "describing" anything is pure nonsense. Words are descriptive in a fundamental way: what you're doing when you're speaking is describing concepts which without language would be unformulated, and without commonly understood words would be incommunicable. These concepts in turn do not derive from some "idea cloud" floating somewhere overhead (sorry Socrates), nor do they have their roots purely in the individual psyche, at least not in any practical sense (even if one is to admit the rational possibility that our interaction with everything around us is "in our heads"--sorry Gilbert Ryle--we still act as though it were real). Concepts have their roots in those sights, sounds, scents, and savours that the symbolists value, but you can't separate these things from their physicality. If you want to communicate their "secret affinities with states of the soul," you have to deal with the thing which has the affinity as it is. To evoke these affinities you don't, it's true, want to have the physical itself as the final object of description. But you will need to use the physical as a means to communicate that final object, if only because concepts are incommunicable if undescribed--that is, if unarticulated.

In short the symbolists a.) rejected Parnassian theory, but b.) went right ahead and put Parnassian theory into practice in a much more vigorous manner than the Parnassians did. The claim to use words "magically" (and yes, there was plenty of occult background chez some of those fellows; more the painters than the poets) to move beyond the material world is a frustratingly illogical one. ("Magic? Really? We've come to that now, have we?") But in point of fact, the symbolists accomplished something a bit more rational than their theory would indicate (which is why someone like the eminently rational T.S. Eliot claim to have found his artistic voice through reading symbolist poetry). They rejected Parnassian theory because the Parnassians applied their theory in a limited manner. For them, description was something like what Flaubert understood description to be, which is great for a novel, but I think rather stupid in poetry. The symbolists realized that the power of words to evoke is not restricted to situations in which those words are being used to describe a specific thing. Rather, you can use them as elements, notes, say in a musical composition. You do need phrases (we're not talking about atonal-ism yet), but you don't need to limit and order those phrases to form a description (think classical music) or to a narrative (think Romanticism in both music and poetry). You simply need to design a progression of moods, which cannot be achieved without recourse to description, but which need not get bogged down in one particular description or another. The perfect musical metaphor for this? Debussy. It's no wonder that they were contemporaries. Nor, to be sure, that japonisme was all the rage in Europe between 1870-1914.

09 January, 2012

"Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu'un long discours"

Nothing like using the French version of a clichéd adage to hide the fact that you're using a clichéd adage. Plus it's possible that Napoleon originated it. Which would be neat, but hardly possible to ascertain, given the multiplicity of origin stories for this one-time aphorism.

Either way, since pictures are Generally Appreciated by both those who don't have time to read and those who have plenty, here is a picture of going "To the Lighthouse" from a few years ago. I post it because it's one of the niftiest pictures I have seen, the histrionic sky and the "unhinged" angle (think of both definitions of that term) lending an otherwise ordinary composition a suggestion of drama in a manner quite appropriate to a Woolf reference.

08 January, 2012

From whence we draw our inspiration...

In this case from my sister's latest trip "to the lighthouse". I was rereading the book by bits and reveling in Woolf's exquisite prose (which stands in first place in my admittedly subjective aesthetic system). This bit is one of my favorites--though as soon as I say that I remember four or five other passages that deserve the distinction just as much. When one begins to quote Woolf, it's difficult indeed to stop. I think what I admire so much about her style is how very intertwined each passage of a novel is with the others. The rhythmic repetition of ideas and phrases throughout doesn't leave me bored, but fascinated, as though I'm watching a weaver at work creating a tapestry--less like the Bayeux tapestry than like a Persian rug in which the same theme is elaborated until any "perceived" is an organic emanation from the picture as a whole. Perhaps that's an excessively complicated way of saying that while you can take a chapter from, say, Jane Austen, and read it as it's own sub-narrative, almost every moment in TTL depends on all the others.

Yes, yes, all moments in a good novel depend on the whole for their full explication, and one can admittedly isolate narrative moments from the rest of a Woolf novel. The distinction is meant to mark tendencies; if the difference were as extreme as the rough Bayeux-Persian analogy, I'd find it difficult to even call Woolf's work "novels".

In any case, here's the quote, and if you go look it up in the book (third section of part II), you'll see what I mean by hating to have to stop here. In itself it's a highly poetic expression of the "modernist dilemma," and you can see from this some indication of Woolf's skill as an essayist. But it's rather unsatisfying on its own; it's a moment that deserves its context, so to speak. I've left out the only narrative moment of the third section, incidentally, which is very short in comparison to the rest, although a huge spoiler, if you care about that sort of thing. Again, read it in context though; that narrative moment makes all the difference.

But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

It seemed now as if, touched by human penitence and all its toil, divine goodness had parted the curtain and displayed behind it, single, distinct, the hare erect; the wave falling; the boat rocking; which, did we deserve them, should be ours always. But alas, divine goodness, twitching the cord, draws the curtain; it does not please him; he covers his treasures in a drench of hail, and so breaks them, so confuses them that it seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth. For our penitence deserves a glimpse only; our toil respite only.

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

[I should hope, incidentally, that anyone reading this would catch the Matthew Arnold reference. If you don't immediately see what I mean, please refer to "Dover Beach" for your own good.]

07 January, 2012

On Language

“How you must detest dining in this bear garden,” she said, making use, as she did when she was distracted, of her social manner. So, when there is a strife of tongues, at some meeting, the chairman, to obtain unity, suggests that every one shall speak in French. Perhaps it is bad French; French may not contain the words that express the speaker’s thoughts; nevertheless speaking French imposes some order, some uniformity.

--To the Lighthouse

06 January, 2012

Ron Paul and National Security

Yes, yes, I'm quoting Ron Paul, but please don't assume I'm a mindless follower. I'm still reading carefully, sifting through actual quotes and actual voting records instead of reading heavily biased things like, uh, this, which uses the whole familiar yet enticing "cite facts but only some of them" method of argument (which explains why this article can make an equally convincing case for the opposite interpretation of Santorum). But hey, you don't have to be a mindless follower to agree with someone on some of the things he says, right? And on this small point, I rather think I agree, having written what I did on December 21.

Speaking on the National ID card:
"As long as a government can stir up fear, sometimes real and sometimes not real, the people are expected to do one thing: sacrifice their liberty. If you’re fearful, the government, the people who believe in big government--big-government conservatives or big-government liberals--they like fear to be out there. Sometimes fear is normal & natural & real, and we have to deal with it. At other times it’s concocted. In times of war, whether it was the Civil War, WWI, WWII--just think of the violations of civil liberties during the period of war when people are frightened. The one conclusion I have come to since 9/11 is that there is absolutely never a need to sacrifice any of your personal liberties to be safe! That means we do not have to accept the notion that we can have warrant-less searches, a total loss of our privacy. We don’t need a National ID card. You don’t have to register the American people to make us safe. You have to deal with the problem much more directly."