Pym

June 17, 2012

In Pym, Mat Johnson has created a wildly satirical novel that takes a tremendous bite right into the heart of American civilization – slavery and its racial aftermath.  You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or have read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucketer to like this book, but it does add another delicious dollop of cultural allusion and dissection to it.  The book stands on its own as the very darkly hilarious (Any metaphorical use of light/white and dark/black have to be tentative in discussing this book, lest one become part of its subject!) riff on Poe’s only novel-length work, American history, and race, not to mention contemporary American taste as exemplified by The Painter of Light.

The narrator of the tale is Chris Jaynes, an African-American scholar of American Literature, who can’t hack it in the tenure track of Academe.  He confronts the president of the small college that has canned him in a very funny scene, only to retreat, humbled, after ripping off the man’s bow-tie. It’s a clip-on job:  appearances, appearances.  Obsessed by Poe’s tale of Pym and his perilous adventures in Antarctica,  and convinced it has a profound racial subtext, he strikes pay dirt when he comes into possession of an authentic manuscript written by one of the tale’s characters.  It isn’t fiction, it’s fact!  What a scoop!  He manages to scrape together the funds for an expedition to Antarctica to get to the bottom of it all.

The story of Arthur Gordon Pym involves cannibalism, and the drawing of straws to determine the victim, strange, gigantic figures of perfect white, devilish black natives of a strangely warm land in the antarctic, known as Tsalal, who fiendishly dispose of most of the white visitors, and it is enigmatically broken off at the end.  Pym cleverly mimics and inverts much of the narrative, substituting street-wise jive for Poe’s absurdly melodramatic prose.  It also displays much wonderful deadpan humor: In this passage, the narrator, having discovered the real Arthur Pym, miraculously still alive after more than a century, tries to talk to him:

“I’m a Natucketer,” he replied.

“Well, are your family landowners?”  At this, the supposed Nantucketer shook his head with enthusiasm and then annoyance that I would even question that fact.

“Well, you’ve been gone awhile, things have gone up in value,” Nathaniel followed, and this time Pym deigned to hear him directly.  “Land in Nantucket sells for about two million, two hundred thousand an acre on today’s market.  You probably have quite an estate to attend to.”  Already growing a bit more alert, at the sound of the figure Pym’s eyes seemed to gain a greater level of consciousness.  The ghost of a man leaned in toward me.

“Is this true?” he muttered.

“Yes, it is,” I told him, relieved that we finally seemed to be getting closer to an actual conversation.

“In a world where people would pay so much for sand,” Pym started, clearly awed by the thought of this, “how much did these niggers cost you?”

Pym, who is a caricature of Poe himself, in this story at least, generates a lot of humor by saying in a completely nonchalant way things that are, today, completely outrageous – but they weren’t in the ante bellum USA.  And among some people today, they probably are not yet.  The characters on the expedition, all black, are thrown up against their own notions of race and class, and their status as free men and women when they are taken on as slaves by a race of giant, antarctican white hairy ape creatures.  And then there is that painter who has created his own pleasure dome down there, but who becomes part of the conflict.  It all gets pretty crazy:  it’s reminiscent of the best parts of The Planet of the Apes.

Well, race, and slavery based on race, is a crazy idea, but as we like to forget, it is what the Hispanic and Anglo empires built North American civilization with.  And though it ended with the Civil War (not really with the Emancipation Proclamation, but with the abolition of slavery by individual states, starting with, of all places, Texas, as commemorated this week with Juneteenth), Reconstruction saw to it that much of its cultural apparatus remained intact for another hundred years.  And what was it all based on?

As the narrator of Pym reflects on the One Drop Rule at several points, it is clear that it is based on power pure and simple.  What can you make of a rule that says that a person is “black” if they have one drop of black blood in them, no matter how white they look?  Logical, in a sick way, on the face of it, but why does it run only in one direction?  In today’s NYTimes, there was an article about Michelle Obama’s ancestor in the ante bellum South, a woman slave who had a child by the son of her owner.  So, why isn’t Michelle Obama white by a One Drop Rule?

Weelll…the One Drop Rule only goes one way, except, perhaps, in a society where everyone is black…like Tsalal, for example.  Which is where the expeditionary crew in Pym ends up, with predictable consequences for Arthur Gordon Pym.  It’s the ultimate literary irony of the book.  And just how did the writer ever get his manuscript to print, anyway..?


Beta-minus

May 26, 2012

I figure that in Huxley’s Brave New World,I would rank as a Beta-minus, on the scale from Epsilon-minus up to Alpha-plus.  Not on the basis of my intelligence, mind you, but on examination of my status in society and the nature of Huxley’s dystopia.  Hmm…maybe I should exit for 1984.

It has been eighty years since Huxley’s satire was published, and it remains fresh and entertaining, and sharp, precisely because it was written as a satire, and not an attempt at ‘science-fiction’, which hardly existed as a genre in that day.  Of course, he was remarkably prescient on some points, genetic engineering, before genetics was even developed in its modern form, for example, but that’s a small thing next to his wicked skewering of industrial-consumerist-ideology and religion.  The people of his future world worship Henry Ford, swear by him, “By Ford!”, and display ‘T’ pendants (for the Model T, that is) everywhere, conveniently similar to the ancient Christian cross.

Huxley gets in a sly observation about the literary history of cults and religions, the way that popular culture and orthodoxy twist and mold the facts of history, when he remarks on Ford and Freud.  Freud too, is revered in the new world, but his name is unknown.  His ideas are assumed to have been those of Henry Ford – how could two such moral and mental giants have existed?  Scholars, exegetes, and philosophers have simply determined that Ford, when he spoke of matters psychological, chose to speak under the name of Freud.  The prophets have their ways.

The book is marvelously funny, and the device of having Mr. Savage, a visitor from the ‘uncivilized regions’, speak constantly in Shakespearean verse, a result of his compulsive reading of the only book he has ever seen, is wonderful. Sometimes, I feel exactly the same way when I read The Bard, i.e., that the glorious quality of his words is somehow an ironic comment on, and critique of the world I live in.  It also provides a frame on which Huxley can hang his implied and explicit speculations about culture, civilization, and politics – always the weakest point in any of his books.

Despite his brilliance and originality, Huxley always seems to me to be tip-toeing through the muck of modern culture: shocked and appalled by it, and so concerned that it not dirty his clothes.  How paltry all this is, he is thinking all the time.  Oh dear, nobody has time for real culture, but these…ordinary people…are so interesting at times, their pastimes and songs, and whatnot…  For me, his work’s appeal is limited by the fact that it is that of a man who never quite shakes off the upper-class twit aspect of his social background.


Alpha Noir

March 8, 2012

Alphaville (1965) is Jean Luc Godard’s noir-sci-fi mash-up, and it’s pretty darn good.  The film seems like a stylistic riff on those genres, with a hunk of surrealism thrown in, and at times it has, I think, its tongue in its cheek, but always just so:  the control of tone never wavers.  Sort of like Flaubert… Those French!

I don’t quite understand the use of music in French films of the 50s and 60s.  I commented on The 400 Blows that I thought its music was intrusive:  In this film, the soundtrack is purposely so, but sometimes it borders on romantic schmaltz.  But then, there’s that ironic, stylistic mash-up again…

A noir thriller with a main character called Lemmy Caution (Not sure, but I think there was a series of films or books with that character in France at the time…) played by an American expatriot actor whose face looks like it’s seen a lot of action, that ends with the destruction of an entire city.  Well, maybe not.  “Maybe all the inhabitants will heal and it will become a happy place,” Lemmy tells us as he drives away with his princess who saves herself and ends the movie by speaking the words she never learned, “I love you!

The story begins with Lemmy, aka Ivan Johnston, a secret agent from the Outer Countries, running around Alphaville in a fedora and raincoat looking for Dr. von Braun.  He snaps pictures of everything with a cheap camera, pretending to be a journalist.  The film is shot in haute and not so haute moderne architectural sites around Paris.  Part of the near-campy weirdness of the film is that it’s supposed to be in the future – not sure how far – and it’s supposed to be on another planet, but everyone talks as if they just got off the subway in NYC.  Lemmy drives American cars, of course.

Things happen that don’t make sense, but since it’s  a noir, it’s all rather deadpan.  A man breaks into Lemmy’s room, and Caution, not being too cautious, shoots him.  Later, interrogated by the Alpha 60 computer that runs the city, he says he was nervous and doesn’t take chances.  How was he to know it was just a psychological test?  Lemmy is pretty quick with a gun at the end, shooting people right and left with aplomb as he decommissions Alpha 60 and sets the city on its ear.

Lemmy is a hard-boiled type.  He knows his way around the hi-tech world, but he prefers old technology.  I concur – you won’t catch me with a smart phone.  He finally catches up with von Braun who tries to bribe him with gold and women, the two things Lemmy told the central computer he cares about.  But he was probably fooling – he’s a romantic under his tough exterior.  He tells von Braun he’s used to living with the fear of death:  “For a humble secret agent like me, it’s a constant companion, like whiskey.”  Hard-boiled, indeed!

 

Of course, women in Alphaville are mostly at the disposal of men, and come in various seductress levels, with numbers tattooed on their necks.  Lemmy isn’t tough enough to resist this one (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife), his own femme fatale who reminds me of the one from Zamyatin’s We.  Lemmy even says she has “sharp teeth” like the characters in old vampire movies.  She’ll betray him, of course.

When Lemmy goes on the rampage against the computer, we aren’t quite sure what he does, but it all begins with him speaking illogically about love.  The shot below is a portent of 2001.  With Alpha 60 on the blink, the citizens literally start to climb the walls, acting like termites in a nest where the queen has died.  Alpha 60, like Hal 9000, speaks, but with a voice that is distorted with a synthesizer.

Typical sights in Alphaville…huh?

The use of sites is very clever.  While we hear narration about the ways non-normals are executed, we see a theater with banks of seats that are rotating into a recess in the floor, and learn that a large group was electrocuted while watching a show.

Ivan/Lemmy is a cool customer with a semi-automatic, and he uses it without hesitation.  The thugs disarm him, however, by commanding the girl to recite story No. 434, which gets a laugh from Lemmy:  then they pummel him into submission.  Still, isn’t this film the forerunner of other noir-sci-fi faves, such as Blade Runner?  Maybe not – it’s so French.  Readings from the surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain figure prominently in the narrative (every Frenchman with pretensions to cool would have known the text), and there is much abstract talk of love, conscience, humanity, and such existentialist cliches…

Mission accomplished, the girl rescued, Lemmy drives off on the ring road to inter-sidereal space, returning to his own galaxy in the Outer Countries.


Pudd’nhead Wilson

September 26, 2011

I owe a note of thanks to the Argumentative Old Git for his comment that led me to Pudd’nhead Wilson, a rather neglected work by Mark Twain.  This very funny, very darkly humorous and ironic tale is a twist on the Prince and the Pauper and all those switched-at-birth fables and comedies – this time, with a slave and a slave owner as the subjects.

The title character is not really the main character, nor is he the fool (puddinghead) that everyone takes him for on the basis of one offhand remark he made twenty years before the main action of the novel in Dawson’s Landing, Missouri.  Of course, the slave woman Roxy doesn’t seem to be what she is, because she is white to the eye, but a certified, bought and sold negro.  So too with her son, Valet de Chambers.  She cares for him, and The Master’s son, Tom, whom her own child resembles.  As with all slaves, Roxy lives in fear of being ‘sold down the river’ to hard servitude in the deep South, but she fears even more for her son:  What might happen if her good and kind master dies and his heir or creditors are hard hearted?  She resolves to protect the future of her son by switching him with Tom, and Tom’s rather negligent father is none the wiser.

Her son, now Tom, grows up to be an arrogant, profligate, disreputable gambler, while the real Tom grows into a typically obsequious house slave.  So much for blood telling all.  There are some Italian twins who visit, a murder, a trial, and a thrilling resolution by Wilson, a frustrated lawyer who finally gets his chance to show his wits in court, saving the falsely accused twins with his fingerprint collection, a hobby he has pursued for years.  Of course, these same prints reveal the secret about Tom and Chambers, and their situations are set right, in traditional comedic fashion.  Of course, the story was originally called The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson because things don’t turn out so well, when people are restored to their proper places within the social system.

Twain is savaging just about everything in this short novel.  The reader has the sense that he was throwing up his hands with disgust at the fatuousness and cruelty of the human race.  You can read the entire text of this strange work, and view some fascinating illustrations and associated materials at this excellent website.


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.


A Boy and His Dog

September 14, 2011

1970s post-nuclear apocalypse, bad sound quality, low budget, grainy images, cult status: that’s A Boy and His Dog, based on stories by Harlan Ellison.  Don Johnson plays Vic, who traipses across the desert with his highly educated, cynical, and telepathic dog, Blood.  The dog calls him Albert to annoy him.   If you hadn’t read the story (or the Wiki article) you might think Vic is hallucinating and talking to himself, but it seems that before The End, civilization got into some pretty advanced biological experiments.

Vic is trapped, lured underground by a piece of ‘cheese’, a beautiful girl (Susanne Benton), to a surviving community where things look nice, but society is ruled by a committee of three and Christian pap is pumped over loudspeakers endlessly.  Vic is needed for his sperm – he’s a good, healthy specimen of a male.  When he learns the reason for his abduction, he’s all for it!  He doesn’t realize that the process will be rather mechanical. 

This movie is pretty slow, and it’s hard to watch because of the quality and low budget…but there’s something to it.  Especially in the second half, it’s so crazy and darkly satirical, that it comes together.  Of course, there’s that ending after Vic and the girl escape back to retrieve Blood, left topside in the desert.  I won’t spoil it for you.


Mrs. Clarke’s Preferences

May 16, 2011

The latest addition to my collection of Regency satirical prints:  A Parliamentary Toast by Thomas Rowlandson.  Alas, mine isn’t so clean and bright, and it’s mounted on card.  The officers are bantering on the price they paid to get their commissions.  The recipient of their bribes was the Duke of York, or his mistress Mrs. Clarke, who was proven to have worked her will on him to corrupt the military promotion process.  She wrote a scandalous memoir that was suppressed only with difficulty.

Of course, there had to be more than mere money involved, don’t you think?  The fellow sitting on the far right urges, “Come Jack, honor us with a toast,” and the standing officer obliges with a pun on the male anatomy: “Here is the Lady that can raise five hundred members!!

Rowlandson did a series of prints on this scandal.  The one directly below makes an oblique reference to Mrs. Clarke’s female anatomy, which is the sure road to advancement.


Divorce Italian Style

May 8, 2011

This film is a pitch-perfect satire of male chauvinist culture.  The photography is wonderful, the plotting is hilarious, and Marcello Mastroianni is simply fabulous as the smug, morally corrupt, defunct aristocrat in a Sicilian backwater.

The Baron lives in a decrepit palace that he shares with his wife and another branch of the family – the rest of the building is unused because they haven’t the money to keep it up.  His father is a filthy minded gambler, his wife is a voluptuous, dark-haired southern woman (they all have faint moustaches) who is childishly and effusively loving.

He despises her now, having married her in a moment of weakness brought on by her marvelous hips.  He is lustfully infatuated with his sixteen year old first cousin, a fair-skinned blonde vision of loveliness.  On a family outing to the beach, he takes a break from the sun to retreat to a flowery glade where she is gathering blossoms.  It is their first loving encounter – the cool, lush hollow makes a stark contrast to the blazing sun and white sand where the families remain.  Is it real, or a dream? 

  

Divorce is not legal – the baron’s only recourse is murder.  He dreams of liberation from his fawning spouse, and hatches a plan to lure her into adultery with a long-lost admirer who returns as a professional

 

art restorer at work on the palace.  A local trial of a woman who shot her adulterous husband gives him the idea – crimes of passion and of honor are approved in his world.  The woman, she is a woman after all, was given only eight years.  Certainly, he will get off lightly with less than three:  after all, he is a man, an aristocrat, and he has a college degree!  The defense lawyer was marvelous:  he will be sure to retain him.

The ironies of the presentation or many-layered.  We know that the baron is a selfish and corrupt brute, despite his slick exterior, but we can’t help rooting for him as he plots his crime.  His wife and her silly lover are so stupid and absurdly melodramatic, not to mention the fact that the lover is a philanderer with a family and that he can’t keep away from the palace serving girl.  

We watch the story from several points of view:  the neutral camera view; the baron’s point of view, guided by his self-serving narration;  and the point of view of the male-dominated local culture, expressed in the soaring melodrama of the defense attorney’s speech which the baron hears in his head as he executes his plot.  The bombastic legal schtick is a brilliant counterpoint to the limp but determined evil character of the baron.  The lawyer’s script is balanced by the sermons of the local priest who unctuously reasons out why the congregation must vote for the Christian Democrats: democracy + Christ – spokesman everywhere reinforce the oppressive status quo.  The oppressive heat is a visual metaphor for the suffocating power of social convention.

The baron’s planning is given a luck break when Fellini’s movie, La Dolce Vita, comes to town.  The entire population buys tickets to see the orgiastic cinema spectacular, but his wife does not wish to attend.  Aha!  She will have a tryst with her foolish lover, and the baron can catch them in the act, shoot her, and be done with it!  Of course, Marcello Mastroianni is the star of the movie, lending a delicious self-referential irony to the entire affair – we never see him on    

screen, that is, not in that  movie, on this screen!  The stolid audience is not impressed by the hifalutin antics of Fellini’s cinema.  Things are very simple down there in Sicily.  People are more impressed by another sort of spectacle, such as that trial of the woman who shot her husband.  The defense attorney entrances them…

There are many little touches of humor and irony throughout.  A favorite of mine is when the baron finds his wife’s cache of mementos from earlier days, souvenirs of her romance with the artist.  We see his imaginings of their affair, a photo shoot in some ancient ruins.  He examines the picture:  It’s terribly blurred!  What an awful photographer!  What kind of a souvenir of love is that?  Just what sort of evidence…is…this? 

The baron gets his wish, it all works out for him.  His wife dead, a short stint in prison, and a wedding to his delectable cousin.  He’s all set up to be a cuckhold, for real, this time!


Class-Conscious Comedic Consequences

April 2, 2011

The Man in the White Suit (1951) is another Alec Guiness/Ealing Studio gem of a comedy.  Small in scale, understated, but with a vein of wicked satire, the pure pleasure of viewing it is all in the characters and the dialog, the little touches.  Guiness plays Sidney Stratton, a misfit chemistry genius who finally perfects his process for creating an indestructible fiber.  It doesn’t wear out, wrinkle, or get dirty.  Here, Miss Birnsby, the daughter of the mill owner that finally sponsors his work tells him that he is a knight in shining armor, relieving the world’s masses of the drudgery of doing laundry or working for money to buy clothes.  The shot captures the naive idealism of the characters, the irony of the film, and the wonderful, uncertainly proud character that Guiness projects.

A fiber that never wears out…that’s not good for business!  The aged, no-nonsense textile king, Sir John comes in to set Birnsby straight, and the assembled magnates decide to suppress the invention.  Stratton runs out – “How can we stop him?” shouts the wimpy Birnsby.  “Force!” retorts Sir John.  He’s a real capitalist!  They capture Stratton and hold him locked in the attic.  They nab him when he backs into a wall and knocks down a plaque showing Labor and Capital reconciled.  “Is he all right?”  “Yes, I think so…”  “Pity.” says Sir John.

Stratton doesn’t care for money, so they decide to use sex to get him to sign off on suppressing his find.  The textile magnates engage in some hard bargaining with Miss Birnsby who demands 5,000 pounds to seduce Stratton.   They agree reluctantly:  her father has some moral qualms, but for the others, only her high price is painful.  Sir John looks like he might be the model for The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns.

Miss Birnsby loves Stratton,  and she goes through the motions of seducing him only to hear him say that, no, he will not do it.  Just as she thought!  She’s elated, and helps him escape.

He escapes into the lower town where the workers live, only to get a rude reception there.  They want the invention suppressed because it will mean the end of their jobs.  They lock him up too.  While he’s struggling to get out, a worker’s delegation meets the magnates in Birnsby’s mansion.  One clever fellow points out that they, Labor and Capital, are in the same boat, they need each other…as always.  The scene is the most delicious send-up of class politics I’ve ever seen.

I suppose you could analyze the (middle class) politics of this film to death, but the point of satire is to demonstrate with humor the foibles of the human race, and here we see naked and short-sighted self-interest on hilarious display.  Just before the denouement, Stratton encounters his old landlady, a wrinkled little old woman who makes  some money on the side by doing laundry:  “What will I do when nobody needs my washing, Mr. Stratton?  Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?”  Stratton is abashed – unintended consequences he never foresaw in his single-minded pursuit.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 195 other followers