Caricature, Maiolica, and Medieval

September 25, 2011

I visited the Met today to see the exhibition on caricature - Infinite Jest.  Among the things I learned was that Delacroix was heavily into satire and caricature early in his career, and that he studied my favorite, James Gillray, very closely:  The show had studies by Delacroix of Gillray’s cartoons.  Of course, Gillray was well represented, including his most famous image, and one of the most famous political cartoons of all time, The Plum Pudding.

There were several by Daumier of course, including the one at the top here, showing Louis Phillipe as a three-faced pear-headed fellow.  Each face sees a different time, past, present, future, and they are all bad.  Daumier did many variations on the King-as-pear theme, including one showing him, popular and democratically inclined at first, slowly mutating into peardom as he sinks into corruption and incompetence.

Another Daumier shows the Marquis de Lafayette, the one who helped George Washington in our Revolutionary War, dreaming a very bad dream that he is oppressed by a pear standing in for a succubus.  Lafayette publicly embraced the king when he took power (shown in the picture on the wall behind him) and grew to mightily regret his early support.

Elsewhere in the museum, time continues to stand still. These Renaissance plates, maiolica ware, show Actaeon, a favorite theme of mine (see here and here), and the death of Achilles.  I’ve never seen Actaeon turned into a stag with his full suit of clothes still on him, nor have I seen Diana and her nymphs bathing in such a crowded fountain.  As for Achilles, I never imagined that Hector was so darn close to him when he got in his lucky shot at the heel of the invincible hero.  These images have a slightly cartoonish look to them, I think.

In cartoons, sometimes you see into the hearts of characters, literally.  This marvelous statue group of The Visitation, the mother of Jesus and the mother of Saint John the Baptist meeting and greeting each other, provides each figure with a large rock crystal lozenge on the breast of each woman.  Originally, you would have been able to see a little image of the Christ child and the Saint growing within each of the women.


Life Among the Lowly

September 20, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of those tremendously important novels that I never wanted to read.  Yes, Lincoln greeted Stowe with the remark, “Here is the little lady who made this great war,” and it incited the howling protest of the south (as well as scores of ‘rebuttals’), but I expected a melodramatic and not very satisfying literary experience.  I was wrong.  The book is suspenseful, direct, and extremely powerful.  As an American, that is a person who lives with the political and social legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow all around me, it is at times, a harrowing read.

In American English, an Uncle Tom is a black man who is compliant and subservient to his masters, often in an obsequious and fawning manner – that’s the cliché.  The character of Tom in the novel, however, is not like this at all.  In the introduction to my edition, and this NYTimes piece on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the book, the writers account for this contradiction by pointing out that the novel, which was incredibly popular, was immediately copied, parodied, adapted to the stage, and eventually found its way into, of all things, Minstrel Shows.  Along the way, a novelistic broadside against racism and slavery became a comedic entertainment perpetuating racist stereotypes.  Such is the wending path of culture.

The book is sentimental at times, particularly in two areas:  the description of the slaves; and the treatment of religion.  Stowe portrays the slaves almost always a fine souls, at the worst, a little ridiculous:  not genuine people who will be good, bad, or indifferent.  They are filled with noble sentiments, and their faults are only the product of their degraded state in life.  They are described often as having the positive attributes of childhood:  sincerity, directness, empathy.  Whether this was Stowe’s actual view or a means to make her characters more attractive to her readers I do not know. As the editor remarks in the introduction, this sentimentality has a radical element in that directing such feelings toward African slaves involved contradicting their status as chattel, often regarded as members of a non-human or sub-human species. 

The treatment of religion, especially in the depiction of the death of the little angel, Eva, is a fine example of Victorian religious sentimentality, and might bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.   But it is sincere nevertheless:  Stowe was serious in her belief that adherence to Christian teaching would make the institution of slavery impossible.

Abolitionists, of which Stowe was one, sometimes criticized Uncle Tom for being too light in its criticism of slavery.  This may have to do with the fact that the slaves are, for the most part, house servants and higher level members of the plantation staff, and have relatively good masters.  Perhaps Stowe felt she could not write convincingly of the thoughts and feelings of workers spending their days toiling in sugar cane and the like, and in this, she followed an important writers’ guideline:  write what you know.  By focusing on the hardships of slaves under benign masters, who nevertheless face servitude and the potential breakup of their families, she opens, but leaves unanswered the question, how much worse would it be for those with hard masters?  The slaves live in fear of “being sold down the river,” (I never knew the origin of that phrase!)  i.e. shipped off to plantations further south where the hard labor kills them off quickly.  Then she brings that about for Tom, who is sold to the vile Simon Legree.

Stowe is not the least sentimental when she skewers the hypocrisy, intellectual, theological, and political, that surrounds the peculiar institution.  A lengthy section in which Tom is owned by Augustine, a jaded and refined member of the plantation élite, provides a stage to walk on and dismantle all sorts of notions that were argued about slavery in the pre-Civil War days.  Augustine knows all the arguments, and dismisses them all as humbug.  He knows it’s wrong, and that slavery is based on nothing but might and self-interest, but he does nothing about it – does not free his slaves – because he claims to be lazy and indifferent, but he is kind and thoughtful to his human property.  His cynicism masks the corruption and despair of a soul polluted by the institution that makes his leisured affluence possible.  His wife, a clear ancestor of Tennessee Williams’ neurotic belle, Blanche Dubois, spends her days in bed with headaches and complaints, and has nothing but contempt for her servants.  Augustine is also an atheist, which Stowe sees as the cause of his moral inertia, but with the death of his daughter, he is shaken loose of his torpor, but too late.

Augustine, a typical Victorian ideal figure – he has a Grecian profile, alabaster skin, golden curls, and a noble temperament – may represent the class of people Stowe was trying to influence.  Certainly the grim and vulgar Simon Legree is a species of the white trash, in the North and South, with whom she would not bother.  Ophelia, Augustine’s Yankee cousin who comes to stay with him, represents a properly religious northerner.  Although she is abolitionist to the core, she is stung when Augustine truthfully points out to her that she is disgusted by the Africans in her midst.  As always, the southerners claim that you northerners don’t know how to treat our negroes.  Ophelia, in touch with her Christian faith, changes however, and repents of her moral error.

Very often, Stowe points out with brutal clarity how what would be considered immoral and intolerable among whites is considered perfectly normal for whites to inflict on the slaves:  breaking up families and selling them off like horses at auction, for example.  In one stunning passage, she explicitly compares an escaped slave, George, who holds off his pursuers with a rifle, to Hungarian freedom fighters opposing Austrian oppression, a cause supported by many Americans.  What is the difference, she asks, other than color?  So much for sentimentality.

In many passages of the novel, Stowe references the sexual degradation that awaits pretty girls sold to less than humane masters, something which brought to my mind the statue The Greek Slave Girl by Hiram Powers, one of the most popular pieces of art in the 19th century.  Copies were made and widely distributed, and crowds lined up to see it.  The press did not often make the connection between Greeks sold into slavery by Turks and American enslavement of Africans, but some people did.  Moreover, literary accounts of ‘white’ girls, i.e. women who were legally black although of very light skin and hair, and were sold as slaves, were sometimes a sensation:  perhaps a truly white girl could, by mistake, find herself enslaved?  The knot of social/sexual issues surrounding all this is so huge, how can one hope to cut through it?  It is just this sort of mental/moral frisson, if not outrage, that Stowe calculated on producing in her readers.  Her armory was large:  if expositions of intellectual hypocrisy don’t convince try religion; If appeals to religious truth and values doesn’t work, try sex and violence; If that doesn’t work, try the sentimental.  They all lead to the same place – abolitionism.

I’m nearly through with the book, and I still don’t know why it’s called Uncle Tom’s Cabin…


Adjustment Bureau

September 11, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau is a romantic thriller with a sci-fi/fantasy premise.  The world is directed by an organization of bureaucratic nerds in small brim fedoras who keep things going “on plan.”  It’s for our own good – when they step back, things like WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis happen.

Matt Damon plays Norris, a politician on the fast track to the White House whose path through life needs a bit of adjustment now and then – he’s too impulsive.  If he stays on track, he can save the world, maybe.  He meets Elise (Emily Blunt) another impulsive type and they fall for one another – that’s not in the plan…or is it?

In the original short story by Phillip Dick, Damon’s character was a real estate salesman, but this is Hollywood.  That would have fit better with the satirical edge to the premise, the black humor inherent in learning that our ‘free will’, all our strivings, are guided by dull men (all men) in charcoal grey suits who look like they missed the 7:20 from Long Island, c. 1964.  If it weren’t for Ms. Blunt, the movie would fall flat:  she’s wonderfully sexy, and she and Damon make a great pair of romantic seekers in the world that isn’t what it seems.

A lot of the effects are clever, I love the emphasis on hats – they are an essential element in the Adjusters’ uniform – and many scenes are in grand NYC office spaces that I’ve always found a bit ominous and oppressive – glad to know it isn’t just me and my paranoia!  Terrence Stamp is marvelous as Satan figure known as “The Hammer.”  He’s a bit unsubtle in his adjustments.

Which brings up the Big Questions:  God, predestination, fate, free will, etc.  These are just mentioned, but a lot of reviewers seem to feel that this is what the movie is about – I think it’s just the device that gets it all going, nothing more.  The entire idea of the story is preposterous on the character level.  After being informed of The Truth, and warned that if he tells anyone, his brain will be “reset,” i.e. erased, Norris goes on with his life.  No depression, no strange changes in behavior, no suicidal thoughts?  It’s the equivalent of being abducted by aliens, and he just accepts it and carries on.  Not likely.  Nor does he ask much – never inquires, “Just what is the plan?”

The director said that “The film asks questions – that’s what art is supposed to do.”   Leaving aside the fact that for most of human history, asking questions is pretty much the last thing art was supposed to do, the characters in this film ask remarkably few.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun to watch.


Mentalités: Old and New

September 9, 2011

A relief in the apse of Narbonne Cathedral showing the mouth of Hell filled with damned souls.  To the right, a donkey pulls a cart with more unfortunates destined for the same.  The Virgin surmounts it all.

A storefront on a small street in Narbonne.  Not quite sure what the missing link between shopping and Darwin is, but clearly our view of mankind and its needs and ends has changed a bit.


Ontological Fallacy

June 28, 2011

I am reading this little book that gives a history of the arguments for the existence of God that have been advanced by theologians and philosophers in Europe.  Naturally, Anselm’s proof, known as the Ontological Proof, is given pride of place.  Wikipedia summarizes it thus:

1) Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
2) I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
3) Therefore, God exists.

Never seemed convincing to me, and a surprising number of churchmen, including Thomas Aquinas, were not swayed by it.  On the other hand, the great atheist, Bertrand Russell,  during his early Hegelian phase, said: “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!”   “God in boots?”  Doesn’t say much for Hegelianism.  The ‘proof’ lingers on, and I hear it thrown about by theistic journalists now and then.

I deal with it this way:  I can get no clear and distinct idea of what God is supposed to be.  It is a fuzzy, flexible, and profoundly unnecessary concept.  (That is, it explains nothing.) Q.E.D. God’s existence is not proven.

I cannot prove that God does not exist, but why trouble oneself with that?  I cannot prove the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.  A concept that makes no sense and cannot be proven is best discarded.


Douthat in Hell

April 25, 2011

Oh Ross, you devil, you!

In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat makes ‘a case for Hell.’  This is what we are offered as the intellectual ballast of the ‘conservative’ political movement today:  a shallow exercise in theology.

One sentence in his screed stood out for me, emphasis added:

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

Using GoogleBooks, I read through the introduction that Douthat cites:  some pages were left out.  Maybe they were the ones where Esolen makes this rather astounding argument about a poem that is often considered a literary summa of the medieval world-view, but I doubt it.  More likely, Douthat is not interested in what the terms Christian, Humanist, and Medieval actually mean, at least in literary terms.

The list of attributes he gives above are not normally associated with humanism, even in the simple version I recall from grade school textbooks, i.e:  man the measure of all things;  skepticism; finding truth with reason; lack of dogma; joy in daily experience, etc.  They are  associated with the medieval, Christian-allegorical way of seeing the world.  But for Ross, that is the only way, I suppose.

Douthat is the clever catechist:  He concludes by asking

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

If he had read The Inferno, he would know that Gandhi is certainly in hell, down on the First Circle, with all the righteous gentiles and unbaptized infants who died too soon.  They just sigh a lot – no torture – lamenting their missed chance at salvation.  All those intelligent B.C.E. philosphers are there too!  As for Tony Soprano, if there is no hell, there is no heaven.  I doubt any theologian really thinks what Douthat claims they think.

  

It would seem that the entire intellectual concept is rife with contradictions…


Then End is nigh, again.

April 10, 2011

Folks, the Apocalypse is due on May 21, 2011.  That’s the word from this inspired electrical engineer.  Read more, if you dare, right here.  The late, great scholar, Norman Cohn, had a lot of interesting things to say about the historical precedents to this.


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