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.

Casey Back at the Bat

August 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

Reading next: Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.

Don’t we all find the postmodern retelling of the classic tale a little played out by now?  Aren’t we more or less sick of old stories from new perspectives (as my wife Jaime says, books following the The [insert traditionally male occupation]’s Wife/Maid/Daughter template have truly reached the saturation/nauseatingly trite level), contemporary retellings of “timeless” legends, extensions and expansions of bare-bones myths and folktales?  Or is it just me?  Is this, in fact, Barth’s “literature of exhaustion,” or is it me that’s exhausted?

Actually, though, to be honest, I’m more often exhausted by the idea than I am by the stories themselves.  I like this stuff — I like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gardner, all those scavenger-sorcerers digesting and regurgitating literary history.  (Did I just admit to liking literary vomit?  I guess I did.)  Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber might be my favorite example, but there are many, many others.

Coover has seemed exhausted a few times so far in this collection — especially the first story, “Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee,” a little metafiction about Puff the Magic Dragon, which dragged on and on.  But other times he’s been in fine form; enough that I’ll probably have to do a little top-5 recap to cover all the stories I really liked here once I’m done.  I’m surprised that I bought this a few years back, and a little surprised I still wanted to read it: it contains a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, for chrissakes, which I really felt no need to read another version of after reading Angela Carter.  Also a ribald version of Snow White.  I have never said to myself, “Someone needs to write a ribald retelling of Snow White.”

And yet I’m still reading.  The story that kept me reading was “Playing House,” mysterious and wonderful and sinister.  The story that showed me something I didn’t know (or remember) about Coover was “The Return of the Dark Children,” which is a straight-up awesome horror story that happens to also build on the Pied Piper tale.  (This story could easily be a J-Horror blockbuster at a cineplex near you.)  And the story that crystallized for me why I’m still reading is “McDuff on the Mound,” which is “Casey at the Bat” from the pitcher’s point of view.

I value a story like this because it exists to make you think about why it was written, and why you are reading it.  It’s a kind of literary riddle, or postmodern thriller (which there is an actual riddle-story in this collection, too): the suspense builds from all the wrong angles, as you try to guess why it was written, and what the author will do with it.  Instead of absorbing you in the details of the plot, it absorbs you in the mind of the author, and in your own ideas about what literature is for, and why you value it.

In “McDuff on the Mound,” you get strangely sucked into the buildup of Mudville’s bottom of the ninth; McDuff, utterly fatalistic, feels wrapped up in a system beyond his control as two horrible hitters make it on base.  He feels the inevitability of having to face mighty Casey.  Astonishingly, even though you know exactly how the story has ended, you realize that you do not know that that is how Coover will choose to end it here; every retelling is an opportunity to rewrite, to find the recessive genes that were hidden within the DNA of the story.  (Incidentally, this is perhaps the most incredible thing about Inglourious Basterds, which I just saw last week.  Do you anticipate the audacity of rewriting history — of showing a revision of the world, in all its gory detail?  I found myself flabbergasted at the scene in the theater — still do, actually.)

Or not; it may be that the story exists to more fully map the story’s DNA, but not to change its ultimate expression.  And this is the true subject of these retellings: you and the author, thinking about why stories work the way they do, and what you want out of them.

Me, I suspect Coover began this story with (or perhaps wrote this story as an excuse to include) this kick-ass exegesis of the name Casey; certainly the slapstick passages earlier in the story feel like padding compared to the energy and enthusiasm in this paragraph:

And Casey: who was Casey?  A Hero, to be sure.  A Giant.  A figure of grace and power, yes, but wasn’t he more than that?  He was tall and mighty (omnipotent, some claimed, though perhaps, like all fans, they’d got a bit carried away), with a great mustache and a merry knowing twinkle in his eye.  Was he, as had been suggested, the One True Thing?  McDuff shook to watch him.  He was ageless, older than Mudville certainly, though Mudville claimed him as their own.  Some believed that “Casey” was a transliteration of the initials “K.C.” and stood for King Christ.  Others, of a similar but simpler school, opted for King Corn, while another group believed it to be a barbarism for Krishna.  Some, rightly observing that “case” meant “event,” pursued this meaning back to its primitive root, “to fall,” and thus saw in Casey (for a case was also a container) the whole history and condition of man, a history perhaps as yet incomplete.  On the other hand, a case was also an oddity, was it not, and a medical patient, and maybe, said some, mighty Casey was the sickest of them all.  Yet a case was an example, cried others, plight, the actual state of things, while a good many thought all such mystification was so much crap, and Casey was simply a good ballplayer….

So what do you think, with that setup in mind?  Knowing what you know (or don’t know) about Robert Coover, what’s he do with this story?  What do you want him to do?

Doing Good, Being Cruel: The Tenth Day

June 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Decameron.

Travel, unfortunately, delayed this last post on Boccaccio, but I thought there was enough of interest on the tenth day to write a little something, however stale in my mind. (Besides, there’s no way the structuralist in me would allow a post on every day but the last.)

The stories on this last day, Panfilo’s, are largely a fun game of one-upsmanship: each teller tries to tell of the most munificent deed he can think of. Fortunes are awarded, wives bestowed, the “dead” returned to life. Many of these stories center on the deeds of the nobility or the enormously wealthy, and Filomena makes the excellent point that “Those people do well… who possess ample means and do all that is expected of them; but we ought neither to marvel thereat, nor laud them to the skies, as we should the person who is equally munificent but of whom, his means being slender, less is expected.”

The most interesting stories are the last, Panfilo’s and Dioneo’s. Panfilo’s is especially remarkable: it seems lifted from the Thousand and One Nights, and dramatizes the remarkably complex attitudes at the time toward Islam and the “East,” though I’m not sure whether Italians of the time would even think of it as such a thing other than directionally. It features Saladin, the Muslim ruler who recaptured Jerusalem and many other territories from the Christian crusaders. He travels to Europe in disguise as a merchant from Cyprus to scout his potential foes and is received very hospitably by a Messer Torello, whom he happens to unwittingly capture when the crusades actually begin. Saladin treats his servants very well and keeps Torello as his falconer; when Torello reveals his identity, Saladin does all in his power to restore him to his family and then some. I’m not an expert in medieval or Renaissance literature by any means, but the story seems remarkable to me for its depiction of respectful relationships between Christian and Muslim; it’s also remarkable in the Decameron for its use of magic, as Saladin’s magician whisks Torello back to Italy in one night to stop his wife’s marriage to another.

Then comes the last story, and this truly does seem a response to Emilia’s of the previous day, the wife-beating story. It is also remarkably cruel, especially for Dioneo. Gualtieri, a rich young man, succumbs to the pressure to marry and takes a very poor but virtuous wife, Griselda. After she gives birth to their child he “was seized with the strange desire to test Griselda’s patience, by subjecting her to constant provocation and making her life unbearable.” (The setup resonates, for me at least, with King Lear, in that it concerns a capricious ruler demanding ridiculous levels of deference for no good reason of his remarkably patient beloved.)

So, for about twelve years, he “pretends” to hate her and despise her low condition. He pretends to have their children killed (he really sends them off to stay with relatives). He ostensibly divorces her, forcing her to return to her impoverished family in only a shift. He pretends to have a new wife coming and wants Griselda to prepare his house and wait on her, since she’s a good cleaner and knows where everything is. Then, finally, being convinced that this girl (her own twelve-year-old daughter) is to be her husband’s new wife, Gualtieri says, basically, “Gotcha! It was just a goof.” And, one would hope, out comes Griselda’s machete. But no: she accepts it all, patient as ever (just like maddening Cordelia).

This is adapted by Boccaccio, I think, from a French folktale. And Chaucer uses it too, in the “Clerk’s Tale.” So you certainly have that sense of suspended reality, of humans acting inhuman to make a point about humanity. But it’s a pretty crappy point, here. Dioneo does, at least, end his story by acknowledging that Griselda’s trials were “cruel and unheard of,” and that it “perhaps would have served him [Gualtieri] right if he had chanced upon a wife, who, being driven from the house in her shift, had found some other man to shake her skin-coat for her, earning herself a fine new dress in the process.” Perhaps? Perhaps it would have served him right if Griselda came after him with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. She certainly should have screwed around, according to the logic of the previous 99 stories.

(Actually, since I’ve been Tarantino-riffing, thinking about Kill Bill is interesting in comparison to this story.  Imagine if Bill had reconciled with the Bride at their climactic meeting.)

I’m not sure how to take this, and especially how to read its correspondence with Emilia’s story of a less psychological torture. It would be comforting to me to imagine that he’s actually being deliberately over the top to point out the cruelty and absurdity both of his own story and of Emilia’s, but it seems unlikely. Somehow Love and torture coexist — and can actually depend on one another — in this universe. (I suppose for many, it is a less foreign concept than I’d like to believe.)

There are all kinds of interesting things to say about the conclusion and epilogue, too, but I have to stop. (Too much good stuff in Dog of the South to think about.)

Laying My Vengeance Upon Thee

March 7, 2008 § 4 Comments

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

**Reading next: E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.**

The connection I’m going to try to make here is probably tenuous at best, but the connection in question struck such a chord when I read a certain passage tonight that I have to spin it out a little.

Nat begins to blossom as a preacher as, paradoxically, the hate he feels for white people begins to fester and dominate his life in earnest.  A poor, white “sotomite” named Ethelred T. Brantley overhears Nat preaching to a group of slaves in town one day and asks Nat to save him, however possible.  After a little discussion, Nat recommends a week of fasting and meditation, at the end of which he will baptize him.

When the day of baptism arrives, they find the pond they’ve arranged to use surrounded by a crowd of antagonistic white folks.  But Nat pushes on, and the passage he recites before dunking Ethelred is from Ezekiel (37:6): “I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live, and ye shall know that I am the Lord…”

Maybe you see where I’m going here: when I read that, I instantly thought of Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in Pulp Fiction.  Allow me a fanboy rant at this point: this is, quite simply, one of the greatest film performances of all time.  It’s such a perfect match of role, actor, and film that I don’t think Sam’s ever quite gotten over it.  (As an aside, it is, in retrospect, positively ridiculous that all the hype at the time was about Travolta, and that Miramax (I assume) made the decision to enter Travolta on the Oscar ballots for Best Actor, and Jackson for Best Supporting Actor.  Go ahead, watch the movie again.  Tell me who’s leading and who’s supporting; tell me who the true star of the movie is.)

And of course, Jackson’s recitations of Jules’ version of Ezekiel 25:17 at the beginning and end of the film are the greatest parts of the film.  (Here it is, very little of it actually in Ezekiel: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”)  It is, on paper, more or less a ridiculous speech.  And it could have been really bad, just this really bad Tarantinified blaxploitation reference, but when you see the movie: damn!   It’s real, it’s fierce, it’s utterly cryptic and compelling and you can feel Jules all the way through it.  I mean, the crescendo of “and you will KNOW my name is the LORD!” in the first speech compared to the taut, thoughtful delivery near the end: it’s absolutely perfect.

Interesting, comparing Styron’s Nat Turner and Tarantino/Jackson’s Jules.  Avenging angels, both, speaking from opposite ends of the civil rights movement.  Both have developed a more or less homemade, individual, somewhat mystical religion for themselves: Nat sees visions of black angels in the sky, calling him to wreak havoc, and Jules recites his pseudo-Biblical verse before blowing his employer’s enemies away, then decides to hang it up and “walk the Earth” after a junkie misses him at point-blank range.  Both are perplexed by their relationship to God, unsure what they can know about him but sure of what they are being told to do.  And both, in spite of their rage and their guilt, are (as Jules says) “tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”

Coincidentally, both also deliver their Ezekiel quotes to white men whose salvation or damnation they hold in their hands.  Nat’s verse is couched in the anger and wrath of Ezekiel just as Jules’ is, but it’s a creative verse; “you shall know my name is the Lord” here is comforting, life-affirming, if still slightly threatening.  Jules’ is, at first, pure destruction, but he shifts his view at the end of the movie, trying to glean a creative (or at least non-destructive) message from it.

Styron and the character embodied by Jackson have, I think, similar motives here in their creations as a whole.  Jules, looking back on a life of violence and anger, is trying to reconcile himself to that past, and find a peaceful way.  Styron, in the midst of the civil rights (and Black Power) movement, is writing about slavery and trying (I suspect) to connect the violent, ugly, oppressive past with the unfocused, unharnessed anger he saw around him, and find its motives, and its alternatives.

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