The Second Person in Citizen: An American Lyric

January 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.

Reading next: Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, by Charles Brockden Brown.

Citizen seems a more or less unclassifiable piece of literature, as you read it, but its genre is right there in the subtitle: An American Lyric. That’s a choice that points in multiple directions. Most immediately we think of song lyrics.  While much of the book does not strike the reader as lyrical in this way — there are (what look like) paragraphs of prose along with sections that use line breaks we associate more with poetry — it’s a perfectly appropriate association for the kind of multimedia, multivocal, multigenre artwork that Rankine creates here. It also hints at the of-the-moment nature of the subject, of the violence that continues to be inflicted on black bodies, minds, and souls — particularly thanks to the book’s cover design, which pairs the title with artist David Hammons’ piece In the Hood, which immediately brings Trayvon Martin to mind (though its creation predates his murder by 20 years).  Lyric can also refer to a certain clarity, lightness, and moderation in a singing voice; I’m not sure I see that definition applying here, but I’d love to hear from someone with more musical knowledge than I have about it.

Then there’s the other definition, less everyday to us now but perhaps more resonant here, of the millennia-old tradition of lyric poetry which is focused on the direct expression of the poet’s emotions and passions. Not epic, not drama: affect, not action.  And a claim to a particularly American version of that tradition. The two valences of the title and its subtitle come together, in a way, in the work’s most famous passage, which is, I venture, the first iconic poetic verse of this century (at least insofar as we’re separating song lyrics from written poetry):

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black people are dying

That was really the only passage I knew from Citizen before reading it, along with the powerful “In Memory of” page it follows, which includes the names of African Americans killed by police in recent years (sadly updated with new names as the book is reprinted).  So I was surprised to find that most of it is written in the second person, from the point of view of a nameless “You.”

This seems to me a bold, brilliant choice.  The “You” narrator places the reader in an uncanny position. On the one hand, the reader is directly addressed, placed in the position of the subject of the work: the one experiencing the emotions, the reactions to the countless slights and aggressions and accumulation of daily “mistakes” that lead to the sense that “You” are something less than a full citizen of the nation.  On the other, “You” has a peculiar distancing effect. Because we are much more familiar with works in the first or third persons, in which we immerse ourselves in the perspective of an “I” or a “he/she/it” with whom we can identify but who is distinctly not us, the narration introduces a kind of dissonance into the reading.  There’s a numbness to narration by a “You,” a flatness.  A sentence like “You are enraged by what you just experienced!” comes off as cartoonish.  It wouldn’t work (or, rather, it works only in very specific contexts, such as text-based video games, role-playing campaigns, and some children’s books).  Another master of the “You” narrator is Lorrie Moore, and many of her stories have a similar deadpan manner that introduces equal parts comedy and grief.

So much of what Rankine writes about here relates to the lived experience of the ideas of W. E. B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, and many others, of African-American double and/or dual consciousness: of seeing one’s self through the eyes of the dominant, colonialist society, of the African, European, American parts of one’s heritage and culture leading to a feeling of fragmented identity. (Apologies for this surely gross oversimplification.)  The “You” narrator allows Rankine a particularly powerful tool for expressing her experience across races and genders, and bringing readers into that experience.  How is it received within the body of African-American readers, of African-American women readers? I’m curious.

Postscript: I tend not to read criticism until I’ve written something down, and I came across two wonderful series about Citizen from the L. A. Review of Books after writing this.  All are quite a bit more cogent and fluent discussions of the book than mine and very much worth reading if you’re interested in the book; on the “You” narrator, see especially Evie Shockley’s “Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘American Lyric'” in Symposium Part 1: Roundtable Part 1, Roundtable Part 2, Symposium Part 1, Symposium Part 2.

On the Nickering of Thunder

August 17, 2013 § 2 Comments

Just finished: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell.

Reading next: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.

Right near the beginning of the first story in Karen Russell’s first book, there’s a short sentence like a litmus test:

The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker.

How’s that grab you?  Out of context, at the basic level of language, I would say that it’s lovely: rhythm, assonance, the particular sound and sense of place and time that it evokes, the spice of unusual word choice and the use of the adjective “gentle” as a verb.  Beautiful.

There are complicating factors, however.  There’s that “has.”  We’re in present-perfect tense, and the story as a whole is in the present tense.  And there’s the fact that the story is narrated by a twelve-year-old. The twelve-year-old is not, apparently, any kind of savant, or genius, or literature aficionado.  The twelve-year-old is a twelve-year-old, in a swamp.

So whether or how you can justify to yourself a twelve-year-old’s usage of the sentence “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” will go a long way to determining whether you can appreciate, or even tolerate, the stories in this collection.  Many of them are concerned with and narrated by twelve-year-olds and others on the verge of adolescence, in the present tense.  The situations in which they find themselves are brilliantly imagined and otherworldly, partaking of the “new weird” or new fabulist blending of genres.  There are underwater ghosts and  a sleepaway camp for those with unusual sleep disorders and a minotaur on something like the Oregon Trail and the titular home for the children of werewolves.  And yet it’s hard to focus on any of that when the stories are perversely in the present tense, and narrated by twelve-year-olds who compose thoughts and/or sentences such as “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” but who are not, by all accounts, graduates of well-regarded MFA programs.

Patriots’ Day

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Novels in Three Lines, by Felix Feneon.

Finished: The Angel Esmeralda, by Don DeLillo; The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon.

It was Patriots’ Day (Observed) in Boston.  It was also tax day.  And two pressure-cooked bombs went off.

The past two days have been very strange for everyone.  The strangeness in my case is due to spending the last two days in transit.  I was in an airplane when the bombs went off.  When I arrived at my destination in Alabama, I was told the news.  I packed what I needed to pack into the U-Haul and drove, out of Alabama and into Georgia, flipping the dial through static to find snippets, details, all the sifting of information that occurs in the hours after Something Happens. And then stopped at my cheap motel room, sad but somehow not surprised. And then, unable to sleep, drove through the day until mid-afternoon.

So yes, I had basically turned into a Don DeLillo character in a Don DeLillo story for a couple of days.

Mostly I was unsurprised not due to any DeLilloesque philosophical exploration of terror and the contemporary American condition, but because I’d been reading about bombs for weeks. In The Lazarus Project, anarchism in early 1900s Chicago is one of the main subjects; the Haymarket bombing lurks behind everything.  When I was driving, I thought, “When is this going to happen to Chicago?” before I remembered that it happened 127 years ago.  (Not that it can’t happen again.)

And on the plane yesterday I read Novels in Three Lines, a truly amazing compilation of very short, very stylish news briefs filed in a Paris newspaper by the critic, anarchist, and clerk Felix Feneon in 1906.  Many of his columns reported at least one bombing or (more often) failed bombing.  They were everywhere, in 1906.

As prose it’s an incredible book, each three-line snippet full of character and complexity.  It its litany of stabbings, beatings, shootings, accidents, strike-related police brutality, and (yes) terrorist bombings, it’s surely one of the most violent books, line for line, in history.  And yet there’s something comforting about it, too.  As I implied above, there’s non- or anti-news here as well as news: “bombs” that turn out to be nothing but sandbags, accidents averted, fires contained and suppressed quickly and efficiently, shots fired and missed.  These terrible things happen over and over, in 1906 as today as 2000 years ago.  It is part of human life, and human life goes on.  And the lines often make clear that it is our response to such awful occurrences (or the fear of awful occurrences) that makes us human or less-than-human.

This particular awful occurrence hurt a lot.  Though I’ve never lived there, I love Boston.  I consider it one of “my” places.  But I turn to David Foster Wallace’s piece on 9/11, “Just Asking,” after such events.  Whoever did this, for whatever reason, let’s remember and honor the fallen they struck as Patriots, as heroes of life in an open democratic society.

The playing of “Sweet Caroline” tonight, at Yankee Stadium and elsewhere, is an excellent start.  Congregate.  Dance.  Play ball.

Time Passing, Time Stopping

February 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just finished: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.

Reading next: Tales of the Unexpected, by Roald Dahl.

Some alternate titles that popped into my head while reading To the Lighthouse:

Ulysses Takes a Holiday.

Daddy Dearest.

Art Is Hard.

People Thinking.

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.

None quite right to summarize the entire book, though.  It’s a demonstrably great work of literature; a work great enough to title its tour de force middle section covering the years of World War I “Time Passes,” the ultimate boring title.  As it happens, time passing is one of the main areas of inquiry for Woolf, one of the central mysteries of life as a human.

“Time Passes” is beautiful, full of gorgeous allusion and lyricism, in fifteen or so artful pages documenting the death and misery of the Ramsay family as World War I approaches and ends, and the decay in their vacation home, which sits abandoned for ten years.  Nature’s operations on the island form a kind of expressionist depiction of the war.  Deaths occur in subordinate clauses, in passing.

This short section comes between two much longer sections which each document less than a day each, slowing time to a crawl, skipping from one mind’s workings to another, as not much of anything happens.  As incredible as “Time Passes” is, it’s much easier for me to understand how it was written, and to see myself writing something similar to it, than to understand how Virginia Woolf could possibly have had the patience to write out the excruciating details of interpersonal minutiae which, to be honest and more than a little ashamed, drive me crazy about so much of the English high modernists.  I simply cannot imagine myself sitting down and facing the blank page day after day and continuing to write about nothing happening, continuing to parse every single motion and interaction for its sexual, socioeconomic, political, and/or generational significance.  To build up a collage of impressions of the eminent Victorians, the Ramsays, and the doubtful artist, Lily Briscoe, from symbols, and flights of mental fancy, and memory and dream, as time stands still for pages on end.  It would drive me to despair.

As an example, there are the long, comma-larded sentences like this:

Mrs Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.

Sentences like this provoke in me equal parts exasperation and awe, a mixture that seems unique in my experience to reading modernists such as Woolf, Forster, and Beckett, though oddly hardly ever Joyce (with whom I hardly ever feel exasperated — well, maybe the “Oxen of the Sun” section of Ulysses).   The transition into and out of “Time Passes,” with its wonderful and elegiac  movement, lyricism, is so beautiful and poignant as to justify the investment in such sentences, the investment in the fine web of allusion and symbol that Woolf creates.  The way in which time passes only very slowly in the rest of the book is precisely the point: the capturing in amber of the days in which art is created, insights discovered, people remain alive, learning how to live and understand each other.

The Vertigos in Vertigo

February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Vertigo; 20 Lines a Day.

Reading next: The Encantadas, by Herman Melville.

There are physical and metaphysical kinds of vertigo in Vertigo.  Sebald also incorporates the themes of the better-known text entitled Vertigo, the Hitchcock film, into his text. He makes his meditative, memoiristic work a kind of thriller, too.  A tongue-in-cheek reference to this aspect of the work occurs when he says to the manager of the hotel he stays at in Limone that he’s writing what may be “a crime story” that “revolved around a series of unsolved murders and the reappearance of a person who had long been missing.”  And indeed, the serial murders perpetrated by the “Organizzazione Ludwig” do appear as a subplot in the work.

A motif of vertiginous seasickness appears throughout, as does vertigo inspired by standing at the edge of high places; people are often standing at the edge of a cliff, abyss, or void, and trips in a boat or ship also appear throughout the text (sometimes in dreams or paintings).  These two kinds of vertigo inspired by physical conditions both refer to one of Sebald’s touchstones, Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus.”  The hunter falls to his doom from a high cliff in the forest after chasing a chamois; he then sails the seas in a state of living death.

The more metaphysical vertigo, the feeling of standing at the edge of the cliff of life, of existence itself, afflicts Sebald and others in the book.  Marie-Henri Beyle (aka Stendhal) experiences “a vertiginous sense of confusion” at “The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place.”  Earlier, Sebald tells us that “Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say destroy them.”  In Sebald’s telling of tales, it is difficult to untangle art from reality, especially given the presence of photographs as “evidence.”  Art, in memory, can take the place of reality, as lines from “The Hunter Gracchus” infiltrate the apparent reality of Sebald’s travelogue.  In Vertigo the film, art also infiltrates reality and memory, as in the portrait that Madeleine adores (of Madeleine’s ancestor, whom she resembles — and of course, Sebald’s narrator is also gazing obsessively at art throughout his Vertigo) and the reenactment of her suicide (both in staged artifice and then in accidental reality).

Kim Novak in Vertigo; note the spiral. Also resembles the profile in Pisanello's fresco inspected by Sebald in Verona.

Kim Novak in Vertigo; note the spiral. Also resembles the profile in Pisanello’s fresco inspected by Sebald in Verona.

When else does Vertigo strike?  It hits Sebald when he wanders the streets of Vienna, following (as Jimmy Stewart’s detective, Scottie, follows) a series of ghostly figures from his past; people long missing, either from the world or from his memory.  It recurs when he returns to his hotel after his epic, compulsive walks, and sees that his shoes are in tatters.  An association occurs to another episode of vertigo earlier that day, hearing children singing Christian songs in a Jewish community center.  A series of murders.  Missing persons. 

Later, twin boys who look just like young Kafka on a bus provoke another bout of vertigo, and the doppelganger theme so important in both Vertigos is introduced: the uncanny return of the dead, and/or the remaking of the living in the image of the dead.  (Sebald’s imagining of Kafka himself will also encounter twins and doppelgangers in the third section of the book.)

Finally, there are a number of references to vertigo symptoms from contact with others, from an encounter with the reality of other people.  Kafka, Sebald writes, feels “the terrors of love” to be “foremost among all the terrors of the earth.”  Stendhal suffers from “giddiness… roaring in his ears… shaking” due to his syphilis and the attempts to treat it.  (He also idealizes past lovers, and returns to woo his Beatrice, who he calls “Lady Simonetta,” eleven years after first conceiving his love for her.)  Sebald’s vision goes blurry when lightly touched by women he barely knows: a landlady, an optometrist.

The book is structured around returns and reenactments of the past, and the final section of the book “Il ritorno in patria,” acts something like the final act of the film Vertigo, as Sebald returns to his childhood villages and encounters as much of his life there as remains, just as Scottie convinces Judy/Madeleine to reenact the scene of the earlier, staged suicide.  And here, too, a “real” death, that of Schlag the hunter, is narrated, after (through chronologically earlier, in Sebald’s telling, creating a complex labyrinth of memory) the earlier “staged” deaths of the hunter Gracchus in Kafka’s stories, in the mannequin in the attic, dressed as a gray hunter, that has been haunting Sebald’s dreams for decades.

Alternative Prepositions for Sebald’s Writing

January 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Reading now: 20 Lines a Day; Vertigo.

In surely the most interesting passage I’ve ever read about prepositions, Harry Mathews discusses their use in the common phrases for writing, and alternatives used more rarely:

Would it be possible, and if so what would it be like, to write around, or in, or into — to write around politics, write in compost preparation, write into love, write at fiction, write inside the genesis of the universe, write outside a friend?… Writing around a subject or person seems a promising possibility.  The subject or addressee would play a role like the letter e in La Disparition — never appearing and at the same time figuring as an object of unrelenting attention, staring us in the face all the harder for never being named.  Writing in might require participation in the subject at the moment of writing… (All writing would be an act of writing in writing.)  Writing into: discovery, aggressive curiosity.  Writing at: against, or towards, or in haphazard approach…. And writing outside: out of a context larger than the subject, so that we can at last see it whole, as if we had only five minutes left to live, or five seconds.

A brilliant entry in 20 Lines a Day, and a lovely, tangential description of many of the productions of the Oulipo.

This is also a useful framework for thinking about Sebald’s work: in its idiosyncratic blending of memoir, criticism, biography, fiction, etc., it seems to make more sense from the application of prepositional phrases like Mathews’ than from describing it as writing “about” any one thing, or within any one genre (or even any combination of genres).  I suspect, in fact, that Sebald might have thought of his own works in similar terms, though I doubt he ever read Mathews’ work.  Sebald and Mathews, writing in the 1980s, were both catching something in the mental atmosphere of the time.

In the “All’estero” section of Vertigo, Sebald describes the narrator’s (his) arrival in Milan, and purchase of a map:

My bag slung over my shoulder, I strolled down the platform, the last of the passengers, and at a kiosk bought myself a map of the city.  How many city maps have I not bought in my time?  I always try to find reliable bearings at least in the space that surrounds me.  The map of Milan I had purchased seemed  a curiously apt choice, because while I was waiting for the quietly rumbling photo-booth where I had had some pictures taken to yield up the prints, I noticed on the front of the map’s cardboard cover the black and white image of a labyrinth…

sebald

The arrow at the top of the map’s labyrinth is crucial: Sebald writes in and into labyrinths, and reading him requires plunging into that labyrinth, as well.  Labyrinths of memory, history, and geography, as well as labyrinths of fiction and nonfiction.  That this passage gives a glimpse of Sebald waiting for the development of those photos that would, at least potentially, populate his published books is a fine example of how he’s writing (and photographing) in the labyrinth as he experiences it.  (Incidentally, that inexplicably poignant image of the mustached German awaiting his snapshots make this one of my favorite passages thus far in the book.)  At other points, the narrator describes times on a train, at a hotel, in which he is successful in writing: he’s writing in the labyrinth as he himself experiences it.  Meanwhile, the first section of the book, a meditation and biography of the 19th-century writer Marie Henri Beyle, comes to be seen retrospectively as writing into the labyrinth.

At the same time, and to introduce additional prepositions to Mathews’ alternative lexicon, Sebald also writes atop or, perhaps, alongside.  Here, he is writing atop Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus,” with some sentences quoted verbatim in new contexts, and alongside much of Kafka’s oeuvre.  Indeed, “All’estero” seems a fine example of the concept of “critical fiction” currently being advocated by the writer and publisher Henry Wessells, interrogating the earlier work “to form a critical response and a satisfying fiction.”  (Kafka appears to lend himself particularly well to this form; Guy Davenport, for instance, has also explored his stories and biography in this way.)

Finally, and most obviously, everything I’ve read so far by Sebald is very much a writing around: of the Holocaust, of overwhelming grief.  And, in many ways, it is also writing against cultural amnesia and personal loneliness.

Melancholia

January 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Reading now: 20 Lines a Day, by Harry Mathews; Vertigo, by W. G. Sebald.

I find myself with shockingly little to say about T50YS.  Lovely, and I enjoyed it, but I found it rather more gimmicky and full of design-for-design’s-sake than the two “novels.”  I look forward to another book-length work from Danielewski.  (All the same, though, I’m still giddy that my parents got me the signed limited edition that comes in the five-latched box.  Nice to have a pretty, menacing object on the shelves.)

Mostly, I’m full of *FEELINGS* thanks to Sebald and Mathews.  Sebald I expected this from.  The possibility of bawling and/or hysterically laugh-sobbing comes with every page, and the second section of Vertigo, “All’estero,” is filling me with equal parts the quintessentially Sebaldian sense of uncanny melancholy, delighted wonder, and the weird pressure you get behind your eyeballs from too much emotion trying to spill out.  Here, he’s moved from Freud’s Vienna to Mann’s Venice to Pisanello’s Verona, where he encounters incredibly bad omens.  A pizzeria with the proprietors listed as “Cadavero Carlo e Patierno Vittorio.”  Cadavero?!

The man’s words seem to make me a mess for reasons as yet unclear.

Mathews, on the other hand, I also dearly love, but I didn’t expect such emotional investment in a book of writing exercises and journal entries, ostensibly written as starters to heavier labor of working on his novel-in-progress in the early 1980s.  The book opens with a few very lovely and very sad entries, from St. Bart’s of all places, preoccupied with the recent death of Georges Perec.  One, in which the wind is treated as a kind of didactic metaphor, or literal “plot” device, or neither, or both, is a kind of masterpiece of very short memoir or prose poetry.  He then moves on to his time teaching in New York, and a series of entries featuring “Billy Bodega” as an alter ego for Mathews himself are troubling, touching, and somewhat tricksy in their confessional tone.  Nevertheless, they kind of make me want to curl up in a ball, too.

I have a new theory that January and February are the months in which a person changes the most, precisely because they are the months when little is happening in day-to-day life.  I may have made a mistake, reading these books in January.  I’m loving them both but didn’t expect such a strong reaction to them.  Here’s hoping for plenty of sunshine this week.

Varieties of Weirdness in the American Short Story

January 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Finished: Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; What He’s Poised to Do, by Ben Greenman.

Reading next: The Fifty-Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

An odd connection to make, but Ben Greenman’s book of short stories reminded me of something that Stephen King wrote about one of his own stories, “The Moving Finger,” about a very long finger coming out of a toilet.  King writes to the effect (I don’t have the text directly to hand) that short stories are the form in which you’re still allowed, occasionally, to let weirdness happen with no logic or explanation, and that it’s one of his favorite things about writing stories as opposed to novels.

The comment’s always stuck with me, and I’ve come to think that short stories are an inherently weird form.  They are, by their nature, too short to explain everything.  In their own ways, short story masterpieces by Raymond Carver or James Joyce are as full of unexplained or inexplicable weirdness as “The Moving Finger,” just of a different kind: weirdness of character, of expression, of incident that would take far too many words to attempt to decipher completely.

I might suggest that this inherent condition of the short story has, perhaps contrary to expectations, been exacerbated in U.S. fiction by MFA writing programs in which everyone’s struggling to churn out stories, and looking for new angles to take.  Greenman is very skilled, and I enjoyed the book.  But some of the stories here are redolent of workshop and exercise.

The most obviously weird decisions in Greenman’s book are the settings of his stories “Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That” and “The Govindan Ananthanarayanan Academy for Moral and Ethical Practice and the Treatment of Sadness Resulting from the Misapplication of the Above.” Each story in the book is introduced with a “postmark,” in keeping with the theme of old-fashioned paper correspondence that runs through each story.  The postmark for “Seventeen Different Ways” is “Lunar City, 1989.”  It’s set on a moon colony, in the year 1989.  “Govindan…” is from “Australindia, 1921.”  It is set in a “former boomerang factory… on the border between India and Australia.”

But there’s other oddity that’s not so overt.  The first and last stories, each a single four-page paragraph (EXERCISE: write a story in one sentence/paragraph/quotation), exhibit Carver-style weirdness: characters left unnamed for stylistic and thematic effect, acting like strangers to themselves.  And another story with a truly excessively long title, “Country Life Is the Only Life Worth Living, Country Love Is the Only Love Worth Giving,” is narrated by a hilariously horny monster, with questions abounding from his every objectionable statement.  And yet it’s perhaps my favorite story in the book: you can get away with this over eight pages, with nothing but questions and laughter.  It’s the nature of the form.

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.

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.

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