Shame and Slavery: Tarantino, Lincoln, and Shelby Foote

December 31, 2012 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote; Across the Land and the Water, by W. G. Sebald.

It’s the Emancipation Proclamation’s sesquicentennial tomorrow.  Big deal, y’all.  We’re in the midst of the every-fifty-years retrospectives of our Civil War, too.  And I’m in the midst of a confluence of culture concerned with these events: in addition to my beginning of Shelby Foote’s massive narrative history (which I’m reading intermittently, between other books, probably all of next year and then some), the past week has featured viewings of Django Unchained and Lincoln.  I can’t imagine three more different treatments of slavery and its end.  To my surprise, I’m most bothered by Foote’s history (though, of course, I’m very early in this 2000-plus-page project), though all of them are problematic in their own ways.

(Inescapable SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.)

Django is built around a hyperbolic version of slavery — a Tarantino “movie” version of slavery — featuring a capital-E Evil Slave Master whose passion in life is pitting slaves against each other in fights to the death.  This never happened, pretty obviously, or if it did, there’s no trace of it left to history.  But Tarantino’s stated mission in this movie is to “break that history-under-glass aspect” of slavery in other historical films: he wants it be visceral, and in 2012 you have to be pretty damn brutal to get popcorn-moviegoers to pay attention.  (Although, let’s be real, it’s not like Q has been a model of restraint in other movies.  You know what you’re getting if you go to his movies, including movies about slavery.)  The clever point here is that it could have happened: it would only take one decadent, imbalanced plantation trust-fund kid, after all.

The movie has a number of queasy-making scenes, and the reasons why they were queasy-making for me in a way that nothing was in Inglourious Basterds are interesting.  White American audiences are never comfortable with equivalencies between Nazis and anyone, but especially between Nazi Germany and what we still weirdly call “the institution of slavery.”  We tend, I think, to be acutely sensitive to “exaggerations” of the horrors of slavery.  We are also terribly uncomfortable with even discussing the subject, and I don’t think Django is going to do much to change that: it’s a satisfying cartoon revenge fantasy and that’s that.  It’s especially queasy-making, that Tarantino, Q, my fellow white American, chose to end his movie by encouraging us to heap scorn upon, and cheer the murder of, a loyal house slave.  But it’s of a piece with the rest of the film: it’s motivation is completely justified rage, a desire for exorcism, not white guilt.

And but so newsflash: for all the lazily scornful talk of “white guilt,” white Americans are very bad at feeling guilty and being ashamed, mostly because we remain mostly unwilling to atone for our shames.  We are also acutely uncomfortable with any notion of our history that does not follow lovely inevitable parallel moral, economic, and political slopes to paradise.  We just assume we’re going to win and that if we’re doing so, we’re doing so the right way.  (See also Hollywood, 1900-present; utter lack of national outcry about torture, 2001-present.)  I think that, by and large, the white citizens of this country have managed to convince themselves that the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of African people, the marginalization of those peoples for a hundred years thereafter, and the silencing and abuse of women throughout our history, were inevitable “lessons learned” on our path to freedom.  In other words, no cause for shame.

The best thing about Lincoln — and however much it could be seen as a “history-under-glass” movie in Tarantino’s view, it affected me far more deeply than Django — might be how it makes clear that nothing about abolishing slavery was inevitable or easy.  It was messy and sordid and very nearly did not happen, even with no Confederate states represented in the government.  We, as a nation, were fighting this idea tooth-and-claw, 150 years ago, in both the Union and the Confederacy.  We were still fighting the concept of full equality less than fifty years ago.

It is worth remembering that slavery ended seven or eight generations ago.  That means that there are elderly people alive today whose grandparents or great-grandparents could have told them about their lives as slaves.

Imagine how they might feel watching a Civil War reenactment.  Imagine how they might feel seeing a Confederate flag above a state capitol.  Imagine how they might feel about those men dressing up as Confederate soldiers, fighting to keep millions of black people enslaved.  For that matter, I don’t need to imagine it.  I know how I feel.

What would you call a German reenactor of World War II battles? I think you’d call him a neo-Nazi.  You would not find him an eccentric history buff.

If you live in the South, you hear plenty about how lovely those old plantations are.  I do commend Tarantino for showing just how blood-soaked those white plantation walls were, and for blowing the damned building up at the end.  It’s refreshing.

If you live in the South, you also still hear a lot of comments along these lines:

I am a Mississippian.  Though the veterans I knew are all dead now, down to the final home guard drummer boy of my childhood, the remembrance of them is still with me.  However, being nearly as far removed from them in time as most of them were removed from combat when they died, I hope I have recovered the respect they had for their opponents until Reconstruction lessened and finally killed it.  Biased is the last thing I would be; I yield to no one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on when the war broke out, fourscore and seventeen years ago.  If pride in the resistance my forebears made against the odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American’s normal sympathy for the underdog in a fight.

That’s Shelby Foote, in the “Bibliographical Note” to the first volume of his Civil War history, published in 1958.  That’s shocking, I think.  That should be far more shocking than blood-soaked Django, than the number of times the n-word is uttered in either that film or Lincoln.  “Sympathy for the underdog in a fight”: that has been the argument for Confederate pride for 150 years, now.  Sorry: underdogs are only sympathetic if they’re fighting the bad guys.  If you’re defending your right to keep people as property, and your economy is based on concentration camps, you’re not worthy of sympathy.  You’re worthy of shame.

Shame.  This is shameful.  And we’ve done our best to forget about it, these past 150 years, and especially these past four years, with talk of “post-racial” America.  The desire to “turn the page and move forward,” our most prevalent national mixed metaphor, is just another way of saying you’d like to bury history and leave it buried.  Reading Sebald is an antidote to that: the ways in which he reveals that the merest scratch beneath the surface of his life shows all the ways in which historical atrocity affect all of our lives.

Top Fives for 2012

December 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

I read a lot of great stuff in 2012, though a lot of it was canonical.  I hope to read more contemporary fiction in 2013, especially short stories.  As in past years, I have top fives of both non-canonical and canonical books.  Without further ado, the non-canonical list:

5. The Children’s Hospital, by Chris Adrian.  I read this on a September vacation to Ireland, and it was a fantastic book for the experience: long, immersive, very strange, very otherworldly.  The tale of another flood, an apocalypse overseen by four angels, the only survivors of which are those in a US children’s hospital.  The hospital is magically transformed into a floating ark, complete with “replicators” that provide any basic desire of the residents (but nothing too complicated, like a puppy, or a person).  Jemma, an exhausted med student, is pregnant with the supposed savior of the new world; flashbacks to her childhood with her complicated, fascinating brother, Calvin, who killed himself in a bizarre ritual, are the best parts of the book, especially the incredible Christmas chapter.  It falters a bit near the end, and some of the discussion on the reasons for the apocalypse are rather facile, but Adrian should be commended for the boldness of his vision, and for a book that can provoke discussions about American religion, concepts of sin, and childcare that might actually be interesting.

4.  The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.  See posts here, here, and here.  Terrific book; the opening fifty pages or so are some of the best baseball writing I’ve ever read.  As I said in one of the posts, if I hadn’t picked up and enjoyed a book about baseball, Melville, and a small Wisconsin college, American publishers may as well have stopped trying and shut down completely.  I am the target audience.  As an aside, the post on Aparicio Rodriguez has quickly become the most popular post on this blog by a very wide margin, so clearly people are reading the book, and clearly there’s a lot of confusion about whether Aparicio is a real ballplayer or not.  (He’s not.)

3. The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien. See post here.  O’Brien is criminally under-read, at least in this country.  He’s the trickster god of Irish literature.  This marvelous, hilarious, surreal book involves bicycle centaurs, hidden treasure, long footnotes on an eccentric inventor, an eternal labyrinth, and most of all, very funny dialogue.

2. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin.  See post here.  Borderline canonical, but no one to whom I mention it seems to have read it, and most have not heard of it.  Nevertheless: one of the great utopian novels of the twentieth century, and an essential book for the 21st.

1. The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.  See posts here and here.  One of the great works of literature.  Period.  Everyone should read it.  You: read it now.  This hit me like a bolt of lightning, especially as I really did not expect it.  I had heard of Sebald, and knew I should try him out at some point, but this was a book that was just sitting on my shelf for years.  Now I plan to read everything of his that has been translated in 2013.

Books that just missed the cut: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray; Talking Heads: Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem; Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart.

The canonical list:

5. Mythologies, by W. B. Yeats.  See post above for The Third Policeman.  Utterly wonderful, even Yeats’s weird mystical/hermetic writings, some of which work beautifully as fiction.

4. The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.  It belongs on this list, too.  It hangs with the heavyweights.

3. Malone Dies and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett.  See post here.  Not quite at the level of Molloy, but damned close.  Masterpieces of language and, it should be emphasized, character.  The characters created through Beckett’s fabled control of language are just as vivid and memorable as the language itself.

2. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.  This was a rereading, and a deeply enjoyable one.  On my first reading, in college, I was floored by the plot pyrotechnics (some literal: spontaneous combustion, anyone?).  On this reading, I was more interested in the language, and the way in which this book can seem the Dickens novel least dominated by character (coming after the book most dominated by character, David Copperfield), especially because its main internal narrator, Esther, is rather boring herself.  This book is all Dickens’s eye and ear, roving across London, through the fog, into the slums, creating cinema.

1. Dubliners, by James Joyce.  See posts here and here.  Also a rereading; a book that I appreciated immeasurably more than on my first reading, in part due to reading Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Joyce, and Joyce’s early “Epiphanies.”  “The Sisters,” “Araby,” “A Painful Case,” “Grace,” and “The Dead,” masterpieces all.  “The Dead,” especially, was incredibly moving to me on this reading.


Sebald’s “Winter Poem”

December 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished: Hard Times.

Now reading: Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, by W. G. Sebald.

I finished Hard Times deeply sad to see it go.  In a lot of ways, it’s the book that best displays the genius of Dickens, by being non-Dickensian: the salient features are there, but in their compressed state it’s hardly the same thing at all.  I was most sad that there wasn’t more of Sleary’s Circus, precisely the kind of secondary feature that Dickens would’ve explored in more depth and delight if this were a longer novel in monthly parts, as he did the Crummles troupe in Nicholas Nickleby, or the entertainers in The Old Curiosity Shop.  

Because it was so short, I’m reading the Victorian pastiche of Wesley Stace’s Misfortune, which is off to a fine start.  We have already had a preternaturally gifted, homeless balladeer named Pharaoh; a foundling; and a haunted “Gothick” manse called Love Hall (inhabited by the Loveall, no s in the plural, thank you very much).  Oh, and there’s a governess-turned-librarian named Anonyma, who is building a fine collection of bibliographical literature in Love Hall’s Octagonal Library.  (This private-librarian-to-the-rich-and-famous gig happens to be my partner’s dream career path for me.)  She’s already explained the making of parchment and the process of manuscript illumination to her young charges much more accurately than you normally see in contemporary novels.  This makes me happy.

Finally, I’m reading Sebald’s poems (translated by Iain Galbraith), which are ambiguous, melancholy, and beautiful.  The short poem below is not as simple as it seems, not as comforting; nothing ever is with Sebald.  He had in mind, I think, Herod’s massacre of innocents, and those Jewish children hidden in Flanders and elsewhere to avoid a much later massacre.  Nevertheless, as we deal with our own massacre of innocents here in the U.S., this poem did present itself as a worthy site for meditation, and a balm.

Winter Poem

The valley resounds
With the sound of the stars
With the vast stillness
Over snow and forest.

The cows are in their byre.
God is in his heaven.
Child Jesus in Flanders.
Believe and be saved.
The Three Wise Men
Are walking the earth.

Mrs. Sparsit’s Wet and Wild Adventure

December 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

There’s a depth of emotion to the second half of the second book — the climax of the affair between Louisa and Harthouse — that is hard to locate, exactly.  The action is filtered through the nasty little eyes of peeping Mrs. Sparsit, until Louisa returns home and the emotion all spills out in the typical Dickensian fashion.  What Dickens seems to do in the chapters preceding this is work all of his emotion into the scenery and the metaphor.

In such a short book — and really, I’m beginning to near the end, and I feel like I’m just getting my bearings; I’m poorly calibrated for short Dickens — a chapter is spent on explaining “an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy” that Mrs. Sparsit develops:

She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming.

It became the business of Mrs. Sparsit’s life, to look up her staircase, and to watch Louisa coming down….

The eleventh chapter is remarkable in a number of ways.  Mrs. Sparsit tails Louisa to her tryst with Harthouse, and there is this remarkable transition from the industry and bustle of the railway journey to the country house to a garden to a dark wood:

All the journey, immovable in the air though never left behind; plain to the dark eyes of her mind, as the electric wires which ruled a colossal strip of music-paper out of the evening sky, were plain to the dark eyes of her body; Mrs. Sparsit saw her staircase, with the figure coming down.

(Amazing, that.  The plain thing, here, is an imaginary “immovable” staircase.  It is compared to the plainness of a fanciful staff on the night sky, made of electric wires.  Dickens gives the lie to Fact and Progress once again.)

An overcast September evening, just at nightfall, saw beneath its drooping eyelid Mrs. Sparsit slide out of her carriage, pass down the wooden steps of the little station into a stony road, cross it into a green lane, and become hidden in a summer-growth of leaves and branches.  One or two late birds sleepily chirping in their nests, and a bat heavily crossing and recrossing her, and the reek of her own tread in the thick dust that felt like velvet, were all Mrs. Sparsit heard or saw until she very softly closed a gate.

She went up to the house, keeping within the shrubbery, and went round it, peeping between the leaves at the lower windows.  Most of them were open, as they usually were in such warm weather, but there were no lights yet, and all was silent.  She tried the garden with no better effect.  She thought of the wood, and stole towards it, heedless of long grass and briers: of worms, snails, and slugs, and all the creeping things that be….

She sees their interlude “by the felled tree” and Louisa’s struggle, “in the whirl of her own gratified malice, in the dread of being discovered, in the rapidly increasing noise of heavy rain among the leaves, and a thunderstorm rolling up.”  I love how this mention of the thunderstorm also comes upon the reader unsuspected, swept up like Mrs. Sparsit in the suspense of Louisa’s wooing by Harthouse.

Mrs. Sparsit saw her out of the wood, and saw her enter the house.  What to do next?  It rained now, in a sheet of water.  Mrs. Sparsit’s white stockings were of many colours, green predominating; prickly things were in her shoes; caterpillars slung themselves, in hammocks of their own making, from various parts of her dress; rills ran from her bonnet, and her Roman nose.  In such condition, Mrs. Sparsit stood hidden in the density of the shrubbery, considering what next?

The whole scene is so astonishing, and rushes so headlong, that you can miss that it’s a parody.  Dusk in the fecund forest by a tree surely felled by lightning, with a lover, as the sublime power of a thunderstorm descends?  This is Romance.  But it’s Mrs. Sparsit we experience it with, and see its ridiculousness.  (The key, perhaps, is that absurd bat that keeps crossing her path, and the strange phrasing of its introduction.  It jarred me out of the scene on my first reading.)  The passion is real, for Louisa, and yet Dickens shows how the stage is set, how the eyes are watching (including ours), how it would be a huge mistake to trade a life for a moment.  It’s ingenious.  And it manages to indulge us with the image of a sopping wet Mrs. Sparsit, to boot.

Perhaps it’s because I recently saw the new Anna Karenina film adaptation (which is wonderful), but I kept thinking of Tolstoy’s novel during these Louisa-Harthouse chapters, and wondering if they were an influence on his conception of the affair between Anna and Vronsky.

Hard Times for These Times

December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

After my latest long hiatus from posting, I’ve decided to try to get back to what I wanted to do with this in the first place: help myself think through, and better remember, the literature I read.  This should mean shorter, more informal posts.  More like an online commonplace book than the essay collection it had become.

What inspired me to start it back up?  Dickens, of course.  Specifically, this passage, right at the beginning of “Book the Second — Reaping” (aside: I love the purposefully archaic, Biblical book titles here, fascinating in a book about industrialization, labor, education, “progress”).  This passage: I am tempted to hire a billboard on which to post it.

The wonder was, it [Coketown, the industrial city in which the book is set] was there at all.  It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks.  Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made.  Handle them never so lightly and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before.  They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.

In the parlance of our times: THIS.  THIS THIS THIS.  I’m only halfway through, but Hard Times strikes me as a perfect book for a One Book, One City program.  There are passages here and elsewhere directly applicable to controversies about government regulation and employers who hate them (ahem, Obamacare); to the labor movement, its complexities, and its dark side; to methods and outcomes of education; to capital-N Nature and the environment, and industrial pollution.  Plus, it is short, unlike all other Dickens novels.  And the circus is involved.

I mentioned the environment.  The chapter following the passage copied above describes an extremely hot day in Coketown.  It reads as a premonition (or, perhaps, intuition) of man-made climate change.

But the sun itself, however beneficent, generally, was less kind to Coketown than hard frost, and rarely looked intently into any of its closer regions without engendering more death than life.  So does the eye of Heaven itself become an evil eye, when incapable or sordid hands are interposed between it and the things it looks upon to bless.

It’s hard to avoid thinking that we all live in Coketown now.

Dickens: his motifs, his metaphors, his idiosyncratic conceits.  Time — and specifically mechanical regulation of time — is one of the great motifs in Hard Times. This motif comes to a crescendo in the last chapter of “Book the First,” in one of the lyrical paragraphs that makes Dickens a joy to read:

Meanwhile the marriage was appointed to be solemnized in eight weeks’ time, and Mr. Bounderby went every evening to Stone Lodge, as an accepted wooer.  Love was made on these occasions in the form of bracelets; and, on all occasions during the period of betrothal, took a manufacturing aspect.  Dresses were made, jewellery was made, cakes and gloves were made, settlements were made, and an extensive assortment of Facts did appropriate honour to the contract.  The business was all Fact, from first to last.  The Hours did not go through any of those rosy performances, which foolish poets have ascribed to them at such times; neither did the clocks go any faster, or any slower, than at other seasons.  The deadly statistical recorder in the Gradgrind observatory knocked every second on the head as it was born, and buried it with his accustomed regularity.

Where Am I?

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