Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Hey, what's your name anyway?"


"Really?" Austin said. "That's the name of the guy who just dropped me."

Julien smiled, Austin guessed, not at his misfortune but at the explicitness of his remark. Sometimes it's okay to be American, Austin thought; we have a reputation for being brazen we must live up to.

--Edmund White, The Married Man

Sunday, May 24, 2009

FIFTY HORROR MOVIES WHICH SHOULD EXIST: The amazing list of a Final Girl. I'm definitely not giving you all the terrific ones.
2. The Eyes Have Eyes
7. Wicked Harvest: You Are Food
18. Death is My Co-Pilot
34. And A Child Shall Kill Them
36. Black Thesis
37. Black Thesis 2: Ibid

more! (unsurprisingly, the comments also offer up some cursed gems)
(In every cycle there is a candidate reporters and liberals fall in love with whom they do not call liberal but call instead fresh or new or independent or a laughter-loving Aphrodite.)
--Richard Brookhiser, Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement. I like Rick a lot personally--too much to feel like I can review this memoir--and I'm enjoying his latest book immensely, as I've also loved his books on Washington and Hamilton.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

SOME SUNNY DAY: If you live in or near DC, I can tell you one thing you need to do right now: Go and fetch yourself a ticket to the Studio Theater's production of Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll. I haven't been blown away by other Stoppard I've seen, but this thing is just fantastic on every level. I'll be reviewing it, so I'll say more then, but... it's about the Velvet Revolution, and ethics vs. Dionysos, and the materialism of dialectical materialism, and... it's really funny, and it earns its ending. Dooooooo eeeeeeeet.
FOUR LINKS: "Troops take cues from classic plays: Theater of War spotlights symptoms of depression." Via Thunderstruck.

Jack Balkin: "The Rotation of the Justices: A Thought Experiment." So fascinating!
Do you want to know how Robert Bork became Chief Justice? Why the Court never heard Bush v. Gore? Read on.

well, read on why doncha!

My friend Brian Hughes has a piece in the Wall Street Journal, "Gays Have Served Honorably in the War on Terror."
...Straight and gay soldiers have been fighting side by side in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond without incident. More than 20 of our closest allies have integrated gays into their ranks, including all of NATO except Turkey. American troops work and live with these forces without incident.

Here at home, every government service is integrated, including the paramilitary sections of the CIA that work hand in glove with the armed services. The presence of gays in these organizations is a nonissue. The idea that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines would have any greater difficulty adjusting is an insult to their professionalism.

more--I think I agree with every word of this piece

And finally, right now at MarriageDebate you can read about the decline of muses, American fertility exceptionalism, equal protection, donor conception across national borders, and unwed motherhood on the rise in the US and worldwide. And more.
IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS: I missed it, but yesterday was the feast of St. Bernardino of Siena, patron of preachers, publishers, and boxers.
We should therefore be wary of any modern appeals to medieval traditions that oppose male to female or equate flesh with sexuality. We should also understand that there is little basis in late medieval art or devotion for treating body as entrapment rather than opportunity, suffering as evil to be eschewed rather than promise to be redeemed. My argument then is not titillating antiquarianism. It is rather a challenge to us to think more deeply about what our basic symbols mean. There may be warrant in the Christian tradition for equating the penis with maleness and maleness with humanity, but I would argue that medieval theology at least as explicitly equates the breast with femaleness and femaleness both with the humanity of Christ and with the humanity of us all. There may be warrant in the Christian tradition for seeing the resurrection as triumph over body, but I would suggest that medieval piety (at least in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) speaks far more urgently of life coming from death, of significance located in body, of pain and suffering as the opportunity--even the cause--of salvation. A better understanding of the medieval past might thus enable modern people to give to age-old symbols new meanings that would be in fact medieval. If we want to express the significance of Jesus in both male and female images, if we want to turn from seeing body as sexual to seeing body as generative, if we want to find symbols that give dignity and meaning to the suffering we cannot eliminate and yet fear so acutely, we can find support for doing so in the art and theology of the later Middle Ages.
--Caroline Walker Bynum, "The Body of Christ in the Later Middle Ages: A Reply to Leo Steinberg," in Fragmentation and Redemption (citations omitted)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I'M TOO LAZY TO LOOK UP PICTURES ON FACEBOOK so here are two quizzy things I liked.

Five things you can reach from where you're sitting: Saints: A Year in Faith and Art; a corkscrew (and a Bible Literacy Project mug filled with white wine); sea salt; amoxicillin (last day!); a 1982 Pizza Hut collectible glass, etched with a picture of E.T. and the slogan, "Be Good."

Five things you loved when you were little: pictures of unicorns; Eugene Debs (for certain values of "little"!); wolves; "The Mysterious Cities of Gold"; pillbugs.

Monday, May 11, 2009

ALIEN SHE: I'm loving Fragmentation and Redemption, but the first essay does have one premise I'd like to challenge a bit. Bynum writes, "If one looks with women rather than at women, women's lives are not liminal to women--but neither, except in a very partial way, are male roles or male experiences."

That might be entirely true of the medieval women's narratives she's discussing. I certainly don't know enough to challenge her there! But she does seem to be implying that it's true per se--women aren't liminal to women because we are women--and that I think is false.

One of the facts of women's lives in what you can call patriarchy (although I think that term's focus on fatherhood is misleading, both because women-as-mothers do an immense amount to shape and transmit culture and because you can have male domination of culture despite a severe diminution of fathers' status and presence--anyway, let's move on) is that women are alien to ourselves and "other" to ourselves.

There are obvious disadvantages to this fact of emotions. There are perhaps less-obvious spiritual advantages. Self-alienation can be a strong source of insight, self-questioning, and Christian submission. (This possibility is really important w/r/t Bynum's essay, because she's arguing that medieval women's religious narratives generally rested on continuity of identity rather than radical conversion of identity: Because they already identified with Christ-the-suffering or Christ-the-lowly, they could imitate Him without a radical transformation or "reversal" of identity.)

My own perspective on this stuff is really weird because of being lesbian--I talked about gay alienation as a precursor to Catholic conversion here and here, and alluded to it here. I don't know to what extent my personal focus on the benefits rather than the (real, obvious, and painful) drawbacks of self-alienation and viewing women as Other are related to my sexual orientation, and I'd be interested in any comments you all have there. But on the more basic point about women's self-alienation (and therefore, although I know these aren't synonymous terms, self-liminality), I've heard lots of straight women support my position.

Where this goes, I don't know. It does, at least, complicate Bynum's final call to "stand with" women when doing history; how do you "stand with" someone who doesn't entirely stand with herself? (Should we seek to "stand with" ourselves?)
OH, HOW THE GHOST OF YOU CLINGS!: So, five favorite smells? This is hard.

Tentative list: tulip trees, blue ditto ink, lilacs, honeysuckle, cigarettes.

(I don't smoke. There should probably be a sub-entry for "cigarettes mixed with Pert Plus," for reasons largely explained by the heading of this entry.)

If I could add five more: salt water + suntan lotion, the vents of laundries (you know, where the fluff collects), old blankets, fresh basil, hamburgers on the grill.
The eucharist, albeit a recapitulation of Christ's execution, was not therefore a symbol of death but of life, birth and nursing. As I have argued elsewhere, it stood for Christ's humanness and therefore for ours. By eating it and, in that eating, fusing with Christ's hideous physical suffering, the Christian not so much escaped as became the human.
--Caroline Walker Bynum, "Women's Stories, Women's Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner's Theory of Liminality," in Fragmentation and Redemption

eta: Oops! "Hideious" was a typo, not a pun....

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"THANKS FOR YOUR HEART, BART." I loved Barton Fink from the very first shot, where the yellow(ed) wallpaper becomes the site of horror. Here are some thoughts on why this movie completely works for me in every moment (whereas The Big Lebowski, for example, is smarter and perhaps more essential, yet sloppier--they're both totally awesome).

First of all, Sean Collins is right as usual in saying that this is a horror movie. In fact, it's very close to an exercise in writing "If the movie of The Shining were funny." It's also a horror-comedy beating up on the idea that art is ethics, which is intensely awesome and right. Sean's review is fantastic and touches on several aspects I don't talk about here. I don't think I disagree with anything he says.

The hotel wallpaper is such a great starting image, basically because it's not what Sean calls the "monumental" horror image, something there which shouldn't be there--think of the twin girls in The Shining, or the wicker man in eponymous. (Argh, it's been years since I read Sean's fantastic essay, so if he incorporates this concept I apologize.) Instead, the horror of the wallpaper is the horror of something which really should be there in a cultural or ordinary-experience sense, something expected... and yet, in some other, emotional or metaphysical sense, still shouldn't--something which still isn't right. The normal course of the world is disruption.

And there are tons of other horror motifs throughout the movie--the use of music and sound effects, for example, is totally horror, and so is the hideous sticky dew of the peeling wallpaper. And in some sense you can say that the whole point of the movie is that even if you think you might be in a satire--and how awful is that, as a realization?--it's still even worse, because you're really in a horror flick. That I think is a fairly profound statement; and true.

More stuff about this movie.... I realize that I'm basically not rational about it, because it happened to employ one very specific symbol which shook my heart. Barton is a NYC playwright who gets hijacked by Hollywood. He checks into an adorably stereotypical hotel, with outlandish jungle palms and a knowing desk clerk and a duelling-scarred elevator man. (I really liked how this movie employed stereotypes without ever considering itself superior to them. Cliches are fun... and not random; they hook into some real anxieties here, even while being desperately overdone.) He goes up to his room. He sits down at his typewriter. He looks up.

And then he sees this photograph.

It's a picture of a pretty young lady sitting on a beach, looking out at the sea.

I can't even tell you what this thing means to me. It is so close to my own personal map of longing, of what George Orwell in 1984 calls "the Golden Country"... of the shores of Sans-Souci. It's what King Haggard means in The Last Unicorn when he says, about unicorns, "The first time I saw them, I thought I was going to die."

The moment I saw that photo I pretty much knew I was in thrall to this movie. And in fact, that photo turns out to be really important, used in really smart and complex thematic ways. (Check it out in the final scenes with Charlie Meadows, for example--his head is right up against the picture frame. And of course the finale uses this photo in a way I loved, even though I don't really understand it.)

There are probably other things I could say. I loved the exploration of a specifically left-wing Jewish horror, in which art-as-ethics suffered three distinct defeats:

1) The ethical artist really doesn't listen; his art is self-absorption. (This is really explicit in the text--"I could tell you stories," Charlie says at least three times, but Barton never asks about them; "You don't listen!" Charlie yells, at last. If the movie weren't funny this would come off as really heavy-handed, but I think the charming presentation and silly physicality--pus dripping from cotton-swabbed ears--makes it totally work. Plus the fact that the alternative presented, art-as-escapism, is equally awful!)

2) There are times when we experience moral vertigo, when "the right thing to do" is unclear, estranged, and horrifically far away. (This, and the point below, are I think big parts of why the "Bill Mayhew"/Faulkner cliche-fest is important.)

3) And after that, even when we regain some sense of morals, we still must confront radical evil--a kind of evil which makes all the talk of ethics ring hollow, where the question isn't, "What do I do now in order to be human?" but, "Why should I keep trying to be human, or to be anything at all?"

Also, it's funny. So nu, not as funny as The Big Lebowski ("Say what you like about National Socialism--at least it's an ethos!")... but still a good time at the popcorn house. And your laughter grants the movie its authority.
"'KISS'? WHAT IS 'KISS'?": So today, for the second time in a couple weeks, I came across that definition of postmodernism (Lyotard's?) where it's defined as the rejection of metanarratives. Here's why I think that's unhelpful. These thoughts are even more fragmentary than usual, which I suppose is appropriate....

I'm no more interested in a "definition" of postmodernism than I am in a definition of conservatism; both terms seem to imply more a tradition of discourse than an orthodoxy.

And within that tradition of discourse there are authors whose work relies heavily on certain highly-charged terms--words "surcharg'd with wine," as they say--and if you single out these words as especially important, that implies a metanarrative. This is still true even if the author doesn't attempt to discern or dictate much about the content of that metanarrative. The example I think of is Derrida's use of "the other" and "the avenir," both of which imply, I think, a sort of skeletal Jewish-or-maybe-Christian narrative. (And not, for example, a Platonist one, because of the emphasis on the avenir. Some narratives are excluded, which I'm pretty sure you can't do unless you do have a metanarrative, however parsimonious or covert.)

There are likely other elements of Derrida's thought which would conflict with the narrative implied by the other-avenir stuff; but it seems to me that you then end up either discerning conflict between narratives, or reconciling them somehow (either of which implies a metanarrative about what constitutes conflict and what constitutes reconciliation). Or, you know, just saying one thing and then saying something else, but at that point you're just giving up on the self, like when you put your nose right up to a pointillist painting and all the people turn out to be cacophonies of dots; that is certainly one way to do postmodernism, but not the only one within this tradition of discourse. And in fact, to my mind it's the least interesting response to conflicting implied narratives, because it's the only one where you don't ever have to change anything at all about yourself. You can just keep "holding Yes and No together in one hand," in Anne Carson's terrific phrase, which is the same thing as standing still. No choices are required and therefore no sacrifices and no personal transformation. What is the point of a life like that? I mean, I suppose you could be happy. If that's what you really want.

Back to Derrida and implied narratives, which in turn imply metanarratives. Now, I admit that I'm an extremist here: I think words like "vulture" and "sparrow" imply a metanarrative. But I don't think you have to go that far (although I wish you would! Didn't Wilde teach us that we must "go as far as possible"?) to accept the point that some words which were crucial to actual existing postmodernists do imply metanarratives.

In fact, I'd argue that the term "postmodernity" itself, while obviously insufficient and kind of hilariously woozy with indeterminacy, implies a fairly obvious narrative, in which modernity is a thing which it's important that we're post-. So by the time you're pretending to define it, you're already accepting and/or creating a metanarrative. (I'm guessing Lyotard, or whoever, knew this and addressed it somehow or decided not to care, so I'm really not addressing him but more his popularizers.)

And this brings me to John Paul II, whom I consider the greatest postmodernist of the past century, and whose wine-charged word was so often "nuptial" or "gift" or some similar insufficiently-hardcore way of saying "kiss." Not only in his writings on the "theology of the body" but also in his writings on faith and reason, and on philosophical practice, he tapped into and further explicated a narrative in which the primary metaphor for our lives is the kiss: both otherness and reconciliation, with neither term conquering the other. So much of his writing is pretty obviously a translation of basic Biblical rhetoric into the new language/slang/pidgin of postmodernity.

My bitter-little-lady thought for the day is to wonder whether existentialist postmodernism is simply Christianity reconceived as intellectual promiscuity: kissing everything in sight in an attempt at self-expression.

So... yeah, this was obviously much more of a blog post than a treatise! But then, I reject treatises utterly--if you must write philosophy, write dialogues. My main problem with JPII, on a philosophical level, is that he shoulda just kept writing plays.
SAINT JOB: I think Sunday trumps, but if it doesn't, this is his feast day.
RESOLVED: THE CONSERVATIVE CANNOT BE A PHILOSOPHER. So how many of the posts at Secular Right really boil down to rejections of philosophy as such?

Surely it is possible to be conservative, in love with Sophia, and--at least for a while!--atheist. I mean, lots of my friends are in that position, and I'm going to tentatively say that if something exists then that thing must be possible. So where are their allies?
Any incident is comic that calls our attention to the physical in a person, when it is the moral side that is concerned.
--Henri Bergson, "Laughter," quoted in (a footnote to) Caroline Walker Bynum, "In Praise of Fragments: History in the Comic Mode"--introduction to Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion

I already have two epigraphs for the novel-in-progress (working title: New Wineskins), and three seems pretentious... but if I need a spare, this one's pretty awesome. I'm so excited about this book.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

THANK YOU FOR BEING A FRIEND: What kind of Cat'lick dyke would I be if I didn't ask for your prayers for our beloved Bea Arthur? Deadpool and I are mourning this sweet lady; Sean Collins provides the best summary of her unique charm.
Her ability to acknowledge her flaws but power past them made her the perfect foil for Rose's naivete, Blanche's narcissism, and Sofia's provincialism, all of which she parried with her own trademark characteristic: bullshit-deflating sarcasm. As The Missus put it last night while we were discussing Dorothy, "They took the 'straight-man' character and made her funny.'"


Friday, May 01, 2009

She was gazing slantwise towards the floor in some kind of coldly patient irony, he felt sick to death of himself.
--James Agee, A Death in the Family. I wouldn't do that with the comma, and this sentence probably doesn't work out of context, but given that I had this exact experience recently (from the man's position), well... here's the quotation.