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.

City of Historians and Liars

November 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.

Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville.  (Really, this time.)

It’s oddly fitting that I should read Melville after finishing City of Saints and Madmen.  The book is influenced by Moby-Dick — I mean, the name of the fictional city is Ambergris — but, then, so are a lot of books.  What’s different here is how this book gave me some sense of how contemporary readers of Moby-Dick must have felt.  In a very different way than Melville’s masterpiece, VanderMeer’s book is  overstuffed, messy, encyclopedic, cryptic, digressive, formally and typographically adventurous, ambiguously narrated, obsessive about strange central metaphors and images.  In MD the central mystery and metaphor is the whale; here, it’s fungus (and also, perhaps, squid).  What you end up thinking is, Where the hell did that come from? It’s out of left field in the best way.

Labels and genres are beside the point here; this is interstitial/new fabulist/new weird/insert-buzzword-here fiction.  It is closest to fantasy in that it creates a world and populates it with a history, a mythology, a cast of characters; it’s also part of the charming subgenre of steampunk, for which I’ll admit I’m kind of a nerdlinger sucker.  What I was most impressed with, though, was the way that the book becomes about the subject of writing history; this is historiographical fiction of the highest order.

VanderMeer makes some obvious nods toward Nabokov, as well, and the unreliable narrator is the order of the day.  However, that’s not exactly groundbreaking.  What’s really interesting here is how the book is structured: there are four novellas followed by an “AppendiX” as long as the novellas put together, made up of bits and pieces shedding light on the writing of the novellas and the book as a whole.  Bibliography, genealogy, glossary, periodical, souvenir, bureaucratic memo: all are put to the service of literature.

Through it all, there’s an emphasis on the difficulty (impossibility?) of getting history right: of telling the story properly.  For instance, the second novella is “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek.”  There we learn that the primary source on Ambergris’s founding is the journal of one Samuel Tonsure, whose identity is more or less unknown.  Tonsure kept an apparently secret and frank journal, but also wrote a hagiographic history of the town’s founder, Cappan John Manzikert.  And we also learn that there are rumors that the secret journal is a forgery.  And Shriek is disgruntled about writing this guidebook/history for the general public anyway, and subverts the form by filling his text with digressive footnotes that overwhelm the body of the text with detail and equivocation and axe-grinding against rival historians whom he considers crackpots (and vice versa).  Alternate readings of events and the evidence they leave behind are everywhere in this book, and presentation is key, as we find out that works written in the third person are supposed to be autobiography, and even (maybe especially) bureaucrats, doctors, and bibliographers tell their “narratives” with hidden agendas, from the skewed perspective of the present.

As someone who deals with manuscripts and contemporary printed accounts, the creation of a fictional universe with an intentionally imprecise and unknowable history — one with the wires of its own creation exposed — is really interesting to me.  We in the world of archives and special collections libraries are always extolling the importance of students (and faculty, for that matter) learning the importance of “primary sources”: those original documents that can shed light on history from contemporary perspectives.  We often don’t get into the complexity of this importance: along with the assumed value of  primary sources as verifications of secondary accounts presented as “facts,” those sources also serve as important muddiers of waters that were presumed clear.  They’re messy, they almost always contain incomplete or inaccurate or irrelevant information, and they are dependent on the interpretation of flawed human beings who are prone to jumping to the conclusions they want to find based on the evidence they happen to see.

What’s coolest about this book, I think — and a lot of it’s cool: indigenous fungus-beings bent on revenge, squid-worship, ekphrastic descriptions of scary paintings, a legendary Wagnerian composer-politician, encoded stories within stories — what’s coolest, though, is the way that VanderMeer represents the messiness and deep, deep complexity of history, and the way it’s entangled with the creation of narrative.  Behind everything in this book there’s the uneasiness of the city-dwellers at the history within their midst: these “mushroom dwellers,” these “gray caps,” whose city was destroyed by colonizers.  Who live on their streets, who collect their trash, who seem to infiltrate people’s houses and snatch citizens away into their underground world.  History is all around the people of Ambergris, layer upon layer of it; it seems impossible to ever reach the heart of the truth of how things happened.

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