Friday, August 31, 2012

More on Miss Jean Brodie and Sandy Stranger

There is an interesting "book club" discussion of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie available through iTunes Podcasts. It's free and you can find it by going to iTunes and searching for "Muriel Spark".

Listen to it carefully and I think you will see that Muriel Spark plays some interesting games with her interlocutors. She is, as many have said before me, very much of the never apologize, never explain school. A lot of the time you can hear her thinking, "If you're not smart enough to figure this out for yourselves, I'm not going to help you."

Three things really jump out at me.

The first is when the host asks the readers what they felt about the betrayal. And the first guy says he finds it reassuring and that it is great the there is this "sense of omniscience" that is going to make sure she [meaning Miss Jean Brodie] doesn't get away with it. That is very telling. I don't think anyone with even a tiny understanding of Muriel Spark should find the "sense of omniscience" reassuring. If you are on that side, you are on the wrong side.

Spark says that she thinks there is always a misuse of power. "This is human nature."

The second is after this goes on a while and then Spark, obviously impatient that no one is asking her says, "Would you like to know what I think of Sandy?" When they agree, she says, "I think her a nasty little bitch."

I'd add to that, read the book and tell me if you don't sense a sense of foreboding about Sandy. You can see her closing on on Jean Brodie through the little stories she makes up.

One of the interlocutors says, "She [meaning Sandy] doesn't seem very happy" and Spark, very emphatically says, "Quite right."

The other moment, and by far the most important one, is at the end when one of the interlocutors starts talking about closed communities and talks about jealousy and asks Dame Muriel if Jean Brodie was a victim of jealousy and she says, "She was a victim of jealousy, quite right."

PS: I have good friend who will appreciate this remark of dame Muriel Spark's: "I think that a  teacher and a classroom is pure theatre and it succeeds or doesn't succeed on that basis."

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Radio silence explained

Dear readers,

 I had a miserable night Tuesday involving a long, and boring, visit to the emergency ward of the hospital in the wee small hours of Wednesday morning then came home and went to bed and then went out that afternoon for tea fully planning to make my daily entry when I got back only to find, when I did get back, that my Internet was down. Having no other outlet for my non-job related writing this morning, I began a novel. It's not the first time I've tried but it feels different somehow this time.

Anyway, this update is all I've got for today. I'll get something better up tomorrow.

Sincerely yours, Jules Aimé Costigan

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Get your topless photos right here. They're red hot

Ann Althouse calls our attention to a collection of photos from the "Go Topless' protest at the White House. Breasts, of course, are always worth checking out but her additional reasons for sending us are really good:
... which I recommend not for the usual gawking at breasts, but for the careful contemplation of the expression and demeanor of the various women. The pictures tell a story, and each woman is different — not just in the size and shape of her breasts — but in her attitude about joining this demonstration... and the way that attitude evolves as the demonstration progresses and as the various women perceive the differences in breasts and attitudes of the other women. 
To which I add, What she said!

There is a device called a plethysmograph that measures sexual arousal in women. The first thought that is going to occur to you as you scan those photos is that one of the women, if she had been monitored with a plethysmograph, would have registered readings way up the scale. She's really happy to be there and overjoyed that everyone is looking at her breasts; not that they have much choice the way she keeps sticking them in everyone's face.

Check out the other women too. You can tell right away which women feel good about their bodies and breasts and which ones don't.

But the most interesting thing, and this is what I believe Althouse is getting at when she writes "the way the attitude evolves as the demonstration progresses," is that there is a real pissing contest going on here. And even in this  atmosphere where everyone is supposedly supporting these women, you can see that the losers in that contest know damn well who they are.

The vast majority of women already know this even if no one talks about it much. For public purposes, women play up "sisterhood" but they all know perfectly well what it's really like when the gloves bras come off.

Actually, it's like that even before the bras come off. Women are in cutthroat competition not for sex but for sexual status. Watch women in a group where there are no men present and you can be sure you'll see the women with high sexual status put the women with low sexual status in their places. You can't stop this from happening but one thing you can be sure of is that the competition will get more vicious the less clothing women have on.

Added below the read more is a mini screen capture essay.

Sorta political: of racism and civility

The Liberals are losing in Quebec. It's not clear who is winning or even if anyone is winning but the Liberals are losing.

That means it's time for someone to scream "raaaaacist!". It's an odd trick as the Liberal parties (federal and provincial) in Canada are all pretty darned white (also pretty darned male, not that there is anything wrong with that).

Because I know a lot of card-carrying Liberals, I've been getting it all my life. Quebec nationalism they tell me incessantly is racist and draws on deep right wing roots from the 1930s. It's a mark of their deep cognitive dissonance on the subject that they can do this right after finishing angry rants about "the Jews" and Israel.

I hadn't seen much of the tactic this election. It has gotten a little hard to pull off ever since the whole thing blew up in the Liberals faces last time around. Recent revelations that Pierre Trudeau had a past of right wing sympathies himself that he kept secret while, on no actual evidence, hypocritically accusing others of having secret right wing sympathies in their pasts didn't help either. Finally, the excesses of human rights laws recently exposed here has tended to make people suspect that there is at least as much political gaming as there is genuine concern for others behind the racism and other human rights accusations.

But losing has a way of throwing people back on old tactics that worked in the past. A friend of mine tried it a while ago on Facebook. He's a pretty active Liberal so I'm guessing that's a sign that when Liberals outside Quebec get together to weep about what is happening in that province they blame the "raaaacists" on the other side.

They haven't had many takers. The media just aren't responding this time. That's telling because you are officially allowed to hate Quebec nationalism in Canada. You can say anything you want about these people—even things that normally would get you run out of polite society for actually being hateful, as opposed to the political tactic of accusing someone of being "hateful".

There is a painful irony in that by the way. Anyone who has spent any time outside of Quebec will no that the angry talk about "the nationalists" in Quebec tends to spill over and get thrown at all Quebecois after the second beer. And little wonder, the nature of the attacks is to apply long-held hatreds of French Quebec to one little segment of the population.

So why do the Liberals do this? And by extension, why do the Democrats south of the border apply the same tactic?

Well, that in a sense is backwards. The Liberals learned the trick from the Democrats. Both parties kept using it because it worked. It's lately stopped working on this side of the border. (The US side is an interesting question. If I were a Democrat, I'd be very worried about the way Obama's "likeability" ratings remain high while his approval ratings are poor. To me that suggests that US voters are getting better at separating race from issues about performance. That could translate into a jarring defeat come November 6.)

I think the thing to keep in mind, here, is that both these parties are brokerage parties. Brokerage parties, of necessity, have to keep fueling animosity between the segments of society that they claim to broker between. If there is no tension or distrust, there is no reason to have a broker.

To put it another way, there is point where the broker becomes an obstacle to progress. I think we have reached that point.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Proustian thoughts

Cross posted from my Proust blog

Two twists today. First this post in coming up on Monday; I won't even pretend I'm writing on Sunday. I just have too many things to do Sunday so all Proust posts will appear on Monday from now on and be cross posted to my other blog, although I may continue to date them to Sunday. Second thing, I'm going to talk about Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

I just finished it last night—it's long been on my list of books I ought to read but had no enthusiasm to actually read. Having finished it, I think my lack of enthusiasm must have been driven by my having some sense that this is one of those novels inevitably assigned by the kind of English teacher who ought to be driven out of the profession.

If you read it at the surface level, it is very much their sort of book. It seems to be a simple moral tale pushing a pretty conventional liberalism that everyone can get behind. It also has that gift of pushing views that everyone can instinctively agree with while feeling terribly much like they are being terribly unconventional. It does this in two ways ...

Before I go on, if you haven't read this novel you probably want to stop reading right here.

... first of all the major moral turning point seems to be the Fascist sympathies that develop into Nazi sympathies of the Miss Jean Brodie who gives the novel its name. Who would hesitate to condemn a Nazi? Second, the book subversively encourages us to distrust the teacher, which must give a real thrill to the sort of teacher who would put this novel on a Grade 11 or 12 or undergraduate reading list. "Don't trust me, use your own critical faculties," the teacher daringly says, forgetting that she set the whole curriculum up and that her poor students get to do a rushed reading and then get one, maybe two class sessions on a novel that she has much more knowledge about and has had much more time to prepare than they do. She pretends to be giving them freedom when the whole discussion is just as loaded in her favour as a Vegas crap game is loaded in the house's favour.

But I have a question for all of you folks who have read the novel: Can we trust Sandy? Or, to put it much more bluntly, what if Sandy, later known Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, is a lying liar-head who lies?

Here, for example, is (as far as I can tell from Googling) a pretty conventional reading of the novel in four quotes:
  1. As the story develops, one member of the set, Sandy Stranger, emerges as a central figure. Her changing perception of Miss Brodie colors the reader's understanding of the schoolteacher's character and significance.
  2. This is an important step in her relationship with Miss Brodie, who, from her first lessons, encouraged the belief among her pupils that her own opinions were facts.
  3. Similarly, Sandy's gradual realization that Miss Brodie's opinions are not only subjective but often dangerous leads her to lose faith in this mentor and ultimately betray her.
  4. This manipulative style of teaching is made more remarkable by the fact that Miss Brodie claims to be using a very different style. Her familiar refrain about education is that it should be "a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul," not "a putting in of something that is not there".Similarly, Sandy's gradual realization that Miss Brodie's opinions are not only subjective but often dangerous leads her to lose faith in this mentor and ultimately betray her.
But what if that is exactly backwards?
  1. What if, Spark cleverly uses the dominant consciousness of the Eleatic, I mean Sandy Stranger to colour the readers perceptions in ways that obsure reality?
  2. What if she lets us quietly assume for ourselves that Sandy/Helena's opinions are facts?
  3. What if Sister Helena is really trying to justify her own betrayal of Jean Brodie that was really driven by her inability to make her one-time lover Teddy Lloyd take her as seriously as he did Jean Brodie?
  4. What if Sandy/Helena is such a good student of Jean Brodie that she surpasses her in the ability to manipulate others?
A few hints why this might be so:
  • Although it is also commonplace to say that young Sandy is exposed to Calvinism through her upbringing in Edinburgh, the text lets slip at one point that the opposite is the case. Sandy has been raised by modern people who quite explicitly deny her access to Calvinism and she has to go out of her way to learn about the God who resembles the authorial role in a novel.
  • Sandy is prone to fantastic imaginings all of which turn around Jean Brodie. At one point a mysterious character who strongly resembles one of Sandy's imaginary characters named Joyce Emily. She barely touches anyone's life, to the point that the memorial service for her death is just a tossed of detail that no one discusses.
  • Joyce Emily is supposed to have died because Jean Brodie convinced her to go to Spain and fight on Franco's side. Think about this one for a while: a teenage girl is supposed to have run away from her home in Edinburgh in the 1930s and made her way all the way to Spain to fight!!!! for Franco. Does that sound even remotely credible? And remember that this appears in the novel as a minor, almost incidental, detail. Teenagers do do incredible things sometimes but suppose that young Joyce Emily had made it all the way to Spain only to be killed, don't you think that much more fuss would be made over such a girl than a perfunctory remembrance service?
  • The death of Joyce Emily is Sandy's supposed justification for betraying Jean Brodie. That is odd because we have a novel that is otherwise just drenched in sex and where we have endless foreshadowing that Jean Brodie's downfall will be over a matter of sex. Jean Brodie's politics, meanwhile, flat along in the background as merely an odd quirk before very suddenly and mysteriously flowering into her getting an innocent girl killed.
  • Note also that we learn that Sister Helena later meets other fascist sympathizers in the Catholic church whom she describes as much worse than Jean Brodie. How exactly were they worse than a woman who supposedly got an innocent girl killed?
  • Sister Helena's book is called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace* and she clings to the grille when people visit her at her convent in a way that suggests a prisoner rather than someone freed.

I could go on but won't.

I hesitate in advancing this thesis just in case it's a commonplace in the better English classrooms but it seems to be that that is Spark's really intention. When we first meet Sister Helena she is an adolescent girl named, wait for it, "Sandy Stranger"! This from a woman whose first novel was about a woman who slowly comes to realize that she is just a character in a novel. Not surprisingly, the public found that a little daunting. But why not write another story about a woman who is just a character in a novel only never let the cat out of the bag. Most people can read it at face value while a few spot the joke and get to laugh up their sleeve through a few English classes before, wisely, writing their term paper about something else so as not to shake up their teacher/professor too much.

What can we learn from this?

First, I'd suggest that, for the late twentieth century, the Fascism played a role not unlike  the Dreyfus Affair did in the first have of the twentieth century. Both are affairs that seem remarkably clear-cut in hindsight.  Both are events that liberals have relentlessly used to separate sheep from goats after the fact. But both were once far muddier. There were, as Proust likes to remind us, moral imbeciles who supported Dreyfus and good people who opposed him. I don't think many people have had the courage to say so, but similar issues arise when considering attitudes towards fascism in the 1930s. Lots of good people failed to see the dangers.

Second, I think that Spark is doing something somewhat Proustian here. She is revisiting and reconstructing her past. What she has done that Proust did not do, is to allow art to overflow reality. In Proust, reality keeps failing to live up to art. Here art becomes a way to vanquish reality.

Let me explain what I think is happening here.

Muriel Spark is remembering a dominant figure from her adolescence. She is remembering a woman who had a commanding presence and was sexually powerful at a time when she was neither of these things. This woman was a rival, we might even say a mimetic rival. As an adult she is trying to deal with these memories and even to justify her moving beyond her teacher but this moving beyond feels like a betrayal. It will always feel like a betrayal.

So she makes a fictional story about it which turns on an actual betrayal. She makes up a fiction that just can't be taken seriously. Sister Helena is not an unreliable narrator, she is an unreliable consciousness. And here we depart from Proust, for Spark's point, it seems to me, is that when people are gone, all we have left is our stories about them. There is no special experience—no Madeleine, no Hawthorns in bloom, crooked paving stone—that can ever bring these things back. Lost time is forever lost and we cannot erase our sins by cleverly recreating a time of innocence.

* Corrected, an earlier version had the wrong title.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A good piece on Hanna Rosin

There is a nice examination of some of the contradictions in Hanna Rosin's arguments here.

A little light culture: hookup happiness?

Hanna Rosin has written an article on the hookup culture. She did it to counter the view being promoted by writers such as Caitlin Flanagan that college sexual culture is hurting women because it is so degrading. (And let me admit right up front that I have mixed feelings about Caitlin Flanagan's views. I am glad that voices like hers are being heard but, as I have argued elsewhere, wonder sometimes if Flanagan just isn't capable of dealing with maleness. I also suspect that she has a bit of a hang up about fellatio and just can't understand the enthusiasm that most women, in my experience anyway, have for the performing the act.)

Rosin's first move is interesting. She begins by admitting that the culture is crude and degrading. She goes out of her way to show us that women in college today are exposed to a barrage of porn and crude sexist humour from men. Then she goes on to says that this is a good thing. That women may not be outwardly enthusiastic about this culture but that they are willing to tolerate and enable it because it is in their interest to do so.

It's an interesting argument and regular readers will recognize it is being very close to views I regularly express, such as, for example, this. But Rosin's argument does seem a little novel coming from a feminist perspective.  I think, however, that it is typical of a major current in feminist thought today. Feminists have noticed that no one is even remotely interested in following them so they have resorted to the favourite tactic of ineffectual leaders everywhere: find the latest trend and try and put yourself at the head of it. Thus this conclusion:
To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.
I think if you read the thing for yourself, you will find that Rosin doesn't offer anything that even looks like a convincing argument that women are perpetuating the hook up culture. She argues instead that they are accepting of it in degrees running from "putting up with it because they can't get anything better" to "enabling it because it seems like a fun thing to do for a while". To make the case she wants to make, she'd have to advance some evidence that college boys are less enthusiastic about hook up culture than college girls are and she, wisely, doesn't even try that. (To put it another way, when Rosin says women are "cannily manipulating it [hookup culture] to make space for their success" she misses that women are the trophy and not the winner in that scenario.)

Rosin's real argument is that, whatever reservations we might have about it, girls are doing just fine under the current college culture so we should stop worrying about it. She offers two kinds of evidence for this proposition: Real evidence and anecdotal evidence. To take the second first, this article depends to a simply ridiculous amount on what used to be called "new journalism". The writer went somewhere and talked to people and managed to get an accurate picture of the culture. Well, no, Rosin went to a couple of elite universities pre-equipped with a whole bunch of assumptions and biases and managed to find anecdotes that match her assumptions and biases.

In that regard, the most interesting thing about her claims is the degree to which she has to admit that maybe girls aren't quite all on board with this. For example, she tells us about a girl she calls "Tali" who arrived at Yale and loved the hook up culture for a while but then:
She got tired of relation­ships that just faded away, “no end, no beginning.” Like many of the other college women I talked with, Tali and her friends seemed much more sexually experienced and knowing than my friends at college. They were as blasé about blow jobs and anal sex as the one girl I remember from my junior year whom we all considered destined for a tragic early marriage or an asylum. But they were also more innocent. When I asked Tali what she really wanted, she didn’t say anything about commitment or marriage or a return to a more chival­rous age. “Some guy to ask me out on a date to the frozen-­yogurt place,” she said. That’s it. A $3 date.
Well, that's kind of sweet isn't it? Lots of girls want that. So do lots of boys.  So what does Rosin do? Well, she gives a clinic in dishonest argument.
But the soda-fountain nostalgia of this answer quickly dissipated when I asked Tali and her peers a related question: Did they want the hookup culture to go away—might they prefer the mores of an earlier age, with formal dating and slightly more obvious rules? This question, each time, prompted a look of horror. Reform the culture, maybe, teach women to “advocate for themselves”—a phrase I heard many times—but end it? Never.
Notice how her language telegraphs her intention. The soda fountain nostalgia "dissipated"? Only because you wanted it to Hanna. The words "formal dating and slightly more obvious rules" did the trick. It's not that the girls might not want that if they knew what it was. The problem is that Rosin has offered them the choice between the devil they know and the option of living in a strange land where the rules and expectations are completely foreign to them.

It's a pretty safe bet that you could go to any culture in the world and ask people who have become accustomed to its practices and who have some frustrations with them if they would like to completely change the rules and get a look of horror. This rhetorical strategy is a favourite of reactionaries every where.

In this article Rosin is really telling us what she wants to be the case, nothing more and nothing less. That's a kind of argument and it's a worthy argument. The problem is that she is lying about what she is doing. She is arguing her opinions with some supporting evidence but pretending to be simply reporting. (At the most ridiculous point in her argument, she shifts to fiction and starts using what happens on the TV show Girls as evidence of how women deal with the challenge of the hook up culture.)

Read her article carefully, however, and you will see that there is plenty of evidence that lots of college girls are not "perpetuating the hook-up culture" the way she pretends. As a general rule, Rosin quotes individual subjects, anonymously, when she wants evidence that girls are down with hook up culture but the more objective evidence suggests something else altogether.
You could even say that what defines this era is an unusual amount of sexual control and planning. Since 2005, Paula England, a sociologist at New York University, has been collecting data from an online survey about hookups. She is up to about 20,000 responses—the largest sample to date. In her survey, college seniors report an average of 7.9 hookups over four years, but a median of only five.
 And if that sounds pretty restrained, wait until you read the parenthetical comment that follows that quote:
(“Hookups” do not necessarily involve sex; students are instructed to use whatever definition their friends use.)
Whoa, "hook ups" don't necessarily involve sex!? Are you getting the feeling that the whole "hook up" culture might be a little bit mythical?

Note also that this is a voluntary, on-line survey. That is to say, it is a survey that is more likely to attract college students who exceed norms than those who exemplify them. If anything, accurate numbers would be even lower. Which is to say, the actual sexual practices of today's college girls are probably exactly the same as they were when I went to university in the early 1980s. In fact, while girls today are no doubt somewhat more promiscuous than they were when my mother went to college in the mid 1950s, the actual sexual practice of the current generation is  still close enough to that earlier era to suggest that there is some constant force at work here; something that you might call "human nature" if you weren't scared of seeming a little outré.

What isn't a myth, of course, is the outward trappings that go with this culture: girls may not behave like pornstars but they sure do dress like them. While girls may not be mastering the reverse cowgirl for some guy in his dorm room and they certainly aren't enthusiastically embracing anal sex or double penetration, they are painfully aware of these things and are responding to the pressure to outwardly act as if they are comfortable with it.

In a sense, we have reversed the game. In the 1950s everyone went along with a public game that girls saved it for marriage while the evidence suggests that most did not, in fact, do this. Now we have a culture where everyone goes along with an outward sexual culture that suggests that all girls are promiscuous while most are actually quite restrained.

I think you can argue that, whatever she thinks she is doing, Rosin actually provides evidence for four (overlapping) claims in this article:
  1. Girls want to be able to do some sexual experimentation without consequences.
  2. Girls like the feeling of power that comes from getting a lot of sexual attention and are willing to play up or down to boys' expectations to get this attention.
  3. Given the choice, most girls prefer not to be promiscuous and they, in fact, don't need to be promiscuous to get what they want.
  4. Girl's don't like a lot of raunchy, in your face, porn-sex culture but they are much more willing to tolerate it than their self-appointed defenders think.
I don't think any of those things are terribly surprising. Do you?

I mentioned above that Rosin offers two kinds of evidence. The other kind is evidence that girls are doing really well under the current system. I'll come back to that next Wednesday.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Neo noir Thursday: Swimming Pool

One thing I have insisted upon when discussing neo noir is the maleness of the genre. Ned Racine is male and could only be male and the many attempts to imitate Body Heat since it first appeared in 1981 have tended to focus on males as well. The major new component in neo noir has been explicit use of erotic elements and these have been very effective in drawing out aspects of the modern male predicament.

But could you do it the other way? Could you use erotic elements to draw out aspects of the modern female predicament? Before we answer that, we should also ask whether you'd want to. Using sexuality to expose male weakness is a natural but, in the west at least, we have tended to deny that women collectively show any moral weakness in their response to sex. And we are, if anything, even more reluctant to go there since feminism.

You can't simply reverse the genders in any of these movies. A typical male neo noir hero, as I have discussed before, tends to want to make up for the past and feels entitled to "make it". Oftentimes this is shown by his obsessive pursuit of the femme fatale. You could not credibly reverse that.

It's not that some women don't do stupid things in the pursuit of sex. When I was at university there was a woman who got obsessed about the idea of having group sex with members of the university's water polo team and made a major fool of herself over it. But no one would think her story made any general point about the moral challenges of being a woman. She is just too individual and would immediately be taken as an exceptional case. A character like Ned Racine is not like most men but lots of us can easily imagine how we might end up like him if they let certain natural traits have their head.

Francois Ozon, a French film director—a male French film director—and  Charlotte Rampling are the only people I can think of who have made a truly convincing neo noir with a female lead.

Like other neo noir, the set up is familiar to the point that it risks cliché. An English woman goes to the south of France to work on a mystery novel and runs into a French girl and their attitudes clash. When the English woman,  Sarah, says she loathes swimming pools, the French girl, Julie, says, "Yeah, I know what you mean. I prefer the sea too. The ocean. The crushing waves. The feeling of danger that you could be swimming and at at any second be swept away. Pools are boring. There is no excitement, no feeling of infinity, it's just a big bathtub." Sarah replies, "It's more like a cesspool of living bacteria."

This is not unfamiliar territory: for one woman the pool is too safe, for the other it is too dangerous. The actress playing Julie dresses like trash, when she dresses at all and she just might spend more time topless in this movie than she spends fully dressed.

And Sarah dresses much the way an uptight woman "with a broomstick up her butt" as Julie describes her, might.

We see her here mixing artificial sweetener with yoghurt.

She chokes this crap down even though she obviously hates it. When she is offered an aperitif, she takes tea. You know the drill.

Julie, on the other hand, eats very well.

Our first hint that something out of the usual might be about to happen comes from Sarah. She is offered the chance to stay at her publisher's house in France but from the second she arrives she acts a little off. She behaves more like a teenage babysitter voyeuristically looking through the stuff in the house.

And then Julie acts a little too wild, a little too self destructive, a little too much like a character that someone might make up rather than an actual teenage girl. And there is a major porn film vibe about it as the guys she picks as lovers are incongruous just as male porn stars tend to be. As soon as you see them, you think, "She could do better than this.

I don't think that is accidental. Here is the most significant of the male figures:

The photo below is the infamous porn start John Holmes. Tell me if you think the resemblance of the actor above to John Holmes is a coincidence? Or do you think he was picked for the role precisely because of that resemblance?

I won't say anymore because I wouldn't want to spoil this magnificent film for anyone.

One thing you really want to watch for, however, are repeated visual motifs. For example, one of the things that clearly makes Sarah antsy about France is its Catholic heritage. When she finds a cross on the wall of her bedroom, she must peel it off and put it in a drawer.

When Julie shows up a short while later, one of her first actions is to peel the solar cover off the pool that so disgusts Sarah and go skinny dipping. We, seeing it from Sarah's perspective, see Julie coming swimming out from under the cover and do this:

That is only one of a number of recurring evocations of the crucifixion in this movie. Contrary to what is usually the case in artsy movies, there is actually a point to it as there is a death and resurrection theme but who, how and where is something I can't tell you about without spoiling the movie for you.

What is worth talking about a little, I think, is the relationship between the two women. As I said at the top, no one would ever believe a tale about a woman in pursuit of a particular lover says anything about the moral predicament of being a  woman the same way that the obsessive pursuit of a particular sort of woman definitely does say something about the moral predicament of being a man. But a woman contemplating a younger, wilder self she might have been does, I think, say something about the larger moral issues of being a woman. Who a woman is and how she became that woman and what she gave up along the way and did she give it up because that was the right choice, the prudent choice, or did she give it up because she was chicken—par délicatesse, j'ai perdu ma vie—is very much to the point.

We get the camera flanneur for full twenty minutes in this movie. Stuff just happens without any seeming story line. And our heroine gets on board the TGV and rides to the south of France. And there she is in the Luberon with the winds coming through and the pine trees and the ruins of the Marquis de Sade's castle. This is familiar territory and familiar territory for the English experience of France thanks to Peter Mayles.

Imagine it's you suddenly cut loose from all your social ties in this far away but familiar exotica. What would you do? What would you fantasize about? More to the point, think of a woman you know and love, aren't you curious about what she might fantasize about or even do in such a  situation? And don't you think she herself might wonder what she might be capable of in such a situation?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

While I'm doing followups

There was a nice little bit about Helen Gurley Brown in a column by Sarah Nicole Prickett in last Saturday's Globe and Mail:
In 1982, Gloria Steinem interviewed Brown for a cable show. "Do you think you're viewed as a serious person?" asked Steinem. "You giggle and flirt ... and tell stories aboiyt bedroom manners. You're a much more serious and complicated person than that."

"Oh, Gloria," said Brown, "you're trying so hard to make it seem as if I'm victimized."

Sorta political hangover

Following up from yesterday's post about why I can't get worked up about the Pussy Riot case, note that an eleven or twelve year old girl in Pakistan is facing possible execution for allegedly burning the pages of a Koran. She'd gathered scrap paper to light the fire for the family dinner and someone saw that some of the pages had Arabic script on them and concluded they were the Koran. ANd the entire Christian community is now threatened with violence. So tell me, where is the mass campaign of liberal bloggers screaming for justice?

It reminds me of these people who  bemoan low voter turn out and then push for special exceptions to make it easier for university students or blacks to vote. If the only efforts you're willing to make to improve voter turnout are carefully targeted at groups who are going to vote for your side, you are a fraud. Likewise, if the only time you are willing to defend free speech is when it involves photogenic people whom you think are pushing a message you find congenial.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sorta political: Why I failed to show up at the Pussy Riot

I know, it's so unlike me.

And the sentence really is unjust. They should have gotten tickets with a fine of the equivalent of a few hundred dollars each, and that should have been the end of it. This is really unjust.

On top of which, the religious aspect of the Pussy Riot protest seems to be genuine. They really are driven by genuine religious belief and offence at corruption in the Russian Orthodox church.

But I just can't get into the spirit of the thing. Not because of them but because of us. The nature of the protest the west has mounted is just so shallow. The attraction is the suggestive name and the suggestion of desecration of religion. It's all so selective too. For every single year of my lifetime, the state of Cuba has been responsible for abuses that exceed this one in every way and yet the western response has ranged from mute to openly apologetic for the monster that is Castro.

Sorry but I just can't get worked up about this one.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Yes, I've been slow today

I had a bit of a hard weekend then all sorts of errands this morning so not much energy left to blog.

And then I started to surf around this afternoon and found out that, in some quarters at least, it is considered a story that someone had a few drinks and then went skinny dipping. I can't tell you how sad that made me.

Perhaps I will have recovered enough to look at the world with hope again tomorrow.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Some developments on the shaving front

It's Friday, so something light seems called for. Like Psalm 51 perhaps.

Something light on the blog I mean—Friday is a day of repentance in real life.

Shaving oil
I've started using one. Mostly for sensual purposes. I love the way it smells. My barber puts it on my skin before she shaves me and the whole thing is a sensual pleasure of the highest order. A beautiful young woman dotes on me and cares for me for the better part of an a hour, cutting my hair and shaving me. In one especially delicious moment, she puts oil on her hands and massages my face.

I always get a haircut and barbershop shave on the Monday after First Friday of each month as a reward for remembering to go to confession on First Friday. At moments like that I pity the great sultans that they lived such impoverished lives, completely empty in comparison with the rich, sensual existence I live. Using the shaving oil at home doesn't quite reproduce that sensation but it feels good and smells good.

And added benefit is that it makes your skin tingle. I'm guessing that it is eucalyptus oil perhaps with some other stuff such as mint extracts that does this (Shaving oil isn't medicine or food, so J Crew don't have to tell us what goes into it). But the question is: what does it signify?

I have a suspicion that most women I know would respond to my saying that I like the tingle by saying, "That's because you can feel it working." I don't think women are stupid or silly, although they are almost certainly wrong when they say things like that. But they've been trained to say things like that by advertising. Here is an example of the sort of ad copy that is levelled at women:
Feel this rich lathering cleanser tingle as it deep cleans down to the pores. The water-based formula with camphor, menthol and eucalyptus dissolves oil and removes dirt and make-up.
I don't know if you could pack more stupid into two sentences. What, for example, is so good about a water-based formula? "Water," you say, "why water is good, all living beings need water." But so what? Here is a teaspoon of cyanide guaranteed to kill you. I will now stir it into a glass of water. Okay, here is a glass of water-based formula, want to drink it?

(And do you know what will do a better job of cleansing your pores than any "lathering cleanser"? A good hard work out that makes you sweat followed by a shower.)

There is lots of stuff that tingles when you put it on your skin. Maybe it has antiseptic qualities, maybe it doesn't. But it feels good doesn't it?

Why isn't "because it feels good" a good enough reason to do something?

I'll grant you that there are plenty of occasions when we do things we know are wrong because they feel good. But why is it that we can't bring ourselves to do something simply because it feels good in the absence of any reason not to do it? How did we get to be such appalling puritans we have to make up pseudo-scientific nonsense to justify our sensual pleasures?

"Because there are people suffering while you're decadently smearing costly cosmetics on your face, you idiot!" Maybe but there were also people suffering while you surfed the net instead of starting work this morning. And you felt guilty when you finished wasting that time. I felt good after shaving. And people have jobs making those cosmetics because of people like me so show respect you puritan!

Eau de toilette as aftershave
This is my latest discovery. Eau de toilette literally translates as 'toilet water", which isn't very appealing, but it actually means scented stuff that is heavily diluted in in alcohol. If you put it on it leaves a scent that a woman can only smell after she has gotten close enough to you to let you kiss her.

I like the aesthetics of that. It's not advertising. It's sort of a secret benefit that comes after she has committed herself. An extra sensory trigger that she can associate with you in her memory. Very Proustian that. Of course, you can also ruin it bey being a complete creep and she can thereafter think hateful thoughts of you every time she smells the key scent ingredient. That, it seems to me, is the manly way to think of these things.

But what is wrong with aftershave you ask? There is nothing necessarily wrong with it. In the beginning, all aftershaves were simply eau de toilette relabeled for the male market. "Eau de toilette" sounds girly and suggests some babe in her boudoir feeding bonbons to her Pekinese while maiden servants spritz her with eau de toilette. But that equation has now reversed. Eau de toilette is the simple goods while aftershaves have become the decadent product sold with all sorts of narcissistic mystique. Most of the price you pay is for the brand name on the front and the personality you think you are buying with the product.

The other problem with current aftershaves is that they are too damned strong. Some of these so much so that if you step on the bus and people start diving for the exits. But even if not that bad, no woman not about to let you kiss her should ever smell your scent. It just isn't manly to advertise like that.

In any case, check it out eau de toilette as an option. I have been using Lothantique "Marine".

By the way, one of the best things about a nice subtle scent is that you can smell it. It adds just a little extra sensual pleasure to your life. You'll be a better person for it.

Oh yeah, the alcohol really tingles when it hits your just shaved skin. It's bracing and makes you feel like a man. That's a good feeling. In fact, I'm not sure there is any better feeling. It's another reason to praise God and give him thanks.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Manly Thor's Day special: Feminism doesn't sell

File this one under "reality check".

Without looking it up, what do you suppose the best-selling magazine in North America is? The answer is Cosmopolitan. The magazine business is not as influential as it once was. If you look at the data at the link I've given, you'll find that almost all of the top twenty-five best-selling magazines are in decline. It's worth discussing Cosmopolitan for a number of reasons though.

The first is that it's success is entirely the work of one genius named Helen Gurley Brown, who died last week at the age of 90. Brown was a real-life Peggy Olson who made it in the advertising business back in the day when it really wasn't easy and was given the chance to run a magazine. She chose to Cosmopolitan. It was an odd choice because the magazine was then failing and would probably have been shut down, just as so many other classic magazines were in the 1950s and 1960s, if Brown hadn't come along and saved the day.

She also wrote a very influential book called Sex and the Single Girl. Which leads me to this odd line in one of the obits
When Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique ushered in the modern women's movement a year later, the two works and their authors helped lead the growing national dialogue about the place of women in society and popular culture.
Here is how that "national dialogue" worked out in real life (as opposed to journalistic memory) just think of "the modern women's movement" as as Bambi:

Brown's giant innovation was to recognize that magazines such as Cosmopolitan sold because of what people saw on the cover. The woman who would by the magazine had to see a picture of a  woman she wanted to be and see teasers for articles that spoke to her. Thirty three years ago this month, the issue of Cosmo on the newssstands looked like this:

You know, a woman looking like that could walk out the door of any fashionable store or restaurant today and fit right in. She'd actually be cutting edge because that cheek-bone enhancing shadow she is wearing is just coming back in. And articles based on those teasers would probably do well today too. You'd need to update some of the celebrity news, no one knows or cares who Lily Tomlin is anymore. Likewise, worries about losing your teeth are less of a concern since the fluoride revolution.

But otherwise, this is attractive stuff that women actually want. Women don't call their boyfriends their "old man" today but a teaser that said, "you're blossoming but what about your boyfriend?" would pull in readers. Cosmo as rethought by Brown became such an incredible success that pretty much every other woman's magazine was remade in it's image. Women's site on the 'net such as The Frisky owe everything to Helen Gurley Brown.

You could have a long argument about whether modern women should want this stuff but it is what they do want and Helen Gurley Brown called it right and "the modern women's movement" called it wrong. It's really that simple guys.

Helen Gurley Brown was, by a long, lone way, the most influential woman of the last fifty years. Change was coming anyway, but Brown and not the Friedan saw the future and influenced the future. Walk around and look at women and you see her influence everywhere. Betty Friedan? Just a blip on the cultural radar by comparison.

Well, this is embarrassing

I forgot what day it was yesterday. I was firmly convinced it was Thursday yesterday. I don't know why. Anyway, no Neo noir Thursday this week. There is a post on Helen Gurley Brown and feminism coming up later this morning.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Feast of the Assumption

No other posting today. Neo-Noir Thursday returns next week with a new theme. All summer I've been doing movies that led up to but weren't quite neo noir. Next week I'll do ... something new. It may be a very short series. I hope that is cryptic enough.

Meanwhile, today is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here is one of Caravaggio's masterpieces related to the theme. The Lemon Girl and I saw this on our honeymoon.

This painting is absolutely consistent with the doctrine of the Assumption. That is true but would shock many Catholics with strong Marian devotions. The doctrine of the Assumption is one of a small number of bits of Catholic dogma that was carefully written to satisfy strongly opposed factions within the church. It starts of seeming to say something clear but then it makes qualifications and, when you get to the end of the qualifications, it isn't at all clear what it says.

You might call it the feast of the great mysteries because it involves all the great mysteries of catholic faith.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The joys of subversive teen fiction

Back in the 1990s we had a young woman working for us who one day opened up to me all about her relationship. Chloe was in her first long-term monogamous relationship in her life and she and her boyfriend had gone to the STD clinic together. Not because they thought they might have an STD but in order to establish they both didn't so they could stop using condoms.

The staff at the clinic had taken Chloe aside and attempted to dissuade her from this plan. They didn't, she told me, try this with her boyfriend. They worked on her on the basis of three assumptions: 1) that the plan to stop using condoms originated with her boyfriend, 2) that they had a right and duty to try and run her life, and, 3) as they tried to convince her, that she shouldn't trust him to remain faithful so she still needed protection. The first assumption was backwards. It was her idea. She'd only had sex with condoms and she hated the things. (Although it is not much publicized, there is research that indicates that the majority of women agree with her by the way.)

Anyway, when they couldn't dissuade her, the staff encouraged her to wait six months and come back with her boyfriend and get tested a second time before putting her plan into action because that was how long it could take for antibodies indicating the presence of HIV to form. Chloe said waiting was driving her crazy. She really, really wanted to stop using condoms. She hated the feel of them, she hated the smell of them, she hated the taste of them and she hated the antiseptic feeling they gave to love.

What I'd like to suggest is that Chloe lives in a world where vampire fiction makes perfect sense. Girls who grow up being "educated" to fear contact with a penis unless it is sheathed in latex are girls who are going to start having an odd compulsion for a love that can infect you such that you will have to remain with the person who infected you forever.

And this is even more subversive because the boomers and Gen Xers who had done this educating of young girls like to think of themselves as part of a permanent rebellion. "How you dare rebel against us, we're the real rebels." Well, perhaps they rebel because you are a bunch on interfering busybodies who feel you have the right to run other people's lives for them. That's just a wild guess.

If it were up to the "educators", the Twilight series would not even have been nominated for the NPR poll of the best teen fiction. But even an expert panel couldn't very well exclude the series because it is so incredibly popular. More than 116 million copies were sold between 2005 and 2010. To help you put that in perspective, that is more copies than the Beatles sold in records between 1965 and 1970.

And NPR is the old persons network. If the poll had been held by by an institution more likely to attract youth participation, it would have rated much higher.

The central pleasure of any teen fiction worth reading is its sheer subversiveness. And in an era where  the teaching profession is dominated by people who are politically liberal and sexually permissive, subversion is going to take forms such as vampire novels and traditional English schools disguised as schools for wizards.

Let's kill Mum and Dad
One thing you find over and over again in the best teen fiction is that Mum, Dad or both get dispatched with amazing efficiency. To take one of my favourites the TV series Dawson's Creek had four principle characters:
Joey Potter's mother was dead of cancer and her father was in prison for drug trafficking,
Dawson Leery's parents were immature idiots who needed his guidance,
Jennifer Lindley had been sent away from her home to Cape Cod to live with her grandmother, and
Pacey Witter has distant, authoritarian parents who think he is a loser and pretty much have left him alone to bring himself up.
If you want to write teen fiction that kids actually like, as opposed to the stuff that librarians, teachers, and NPR listeners say they like, you want to get Mum and Dad offstage as quickly as possible.

Harry Potter's parents are murdered. Bella Swan's mother gets a new husband so she has to move hundreds of miles away to live with her father. Katniss leaves her home to participate in reality show fight to the death. And we find the same pattern in the classics. Huck Finn has no mother and runs away from his father. Anne Shirley is an orphan.

No one would really wish such a thing on themselves. No real orphan ever thought that being an orphan was romantic. Children really were kidnapped and taken to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and it was a brutal, horrible thing and yet millions of kids have read the Robert Louis Stevenson book Kidnapped with great excitement. No kid wishes their parents dead and yet back cover note telling prospective readers that Harry Potter's parents will be murdered early in the story is a major selling point. Just as the vast majority of girls fantasize about being raped even though they would hate to have such a thing happen in real life, so too the vast majority of kids fantasize about being forced to get by without their parents. (The perennial popularity of British boarding school fiction derives to a large extent because it separates kids from parents.)

And just as fantasy rape gets girls aroused, the fantasy of living without loving and caring parents is fun. Major fun!

And this is where busybodies writing teen fiction make their biggest mistake. They take the removal of Mum and Dad as a dark, scary thing and assume that most teens want to read about dark scary things like cancer, suicide and drug overdose. There is a market for this stuff but it's not what most teen readers crave. Good teenfiction will have scary stuff in it but it's best to make it part of a fantasy that ends with a joyful romp.

(Go ahead and kill your character off  if you want, by the way. Just don't imagine you are writing something that will comfort anyone who has a friend or relative in the cancer ward, or is there themselves. Death can be romantic so long as it is resolutely fictional.)

Lore, lore and more lore
Kids love lore. Anyone who has bashed their way through the middle books in the Harry Potter series will remember that Rowling sometimes piles on chapter after chapter where she seems to be doing nothing but showing off her knowledge of magical lore. In an adult book this would be a major flaw but it's a feature in a teen book. Kids love lore and you can find it by the bucket load in all the classics of the genre. Magic lore, superstitious lore, pirate lore, gang lore, historical lore ... it's all good.

And that shouldn't be a surprise. This fiction is aimed at people who haven't lived enough life to have inside knowledge of anything so they crave it.

Sometimes the lore is just hinted at. To really get Anne Shirley, you have to go find her favourite poems and read them yourself. And you have to to see the Lake of Shining Waters; the real thing is just a farmer's pond, you have to cross it with a sensibility trained by reading 19th century literature like Tennyson in order for it to become a lake. My family summered on Prince Edward Island in the 1970s and the place unfailing fills up with girls who have a deep need to visit all the places where Anne lived and went. You see this in adult fiction too, of course, but it's a compulsory in teen fiction.

Another point about these books is that a clear plot arc is only occasionally a good thing. It is often only the first part and last chapter of novel that has a clear plot arc. After that has been established, it is expected and even desirable that the story meanders and even gets entirely sidetracked. In a series, and it is telling that so much teen fiction gets turned into series, the later books usually merely recreate and amplify the atmosphere created by the first until the final book which most often simply replays the themes and plot from the first.

Conservative with a vengeance
One of life's genuine surprises is to actually see the movie Rebel Without a Cause and discover that the hero's problem was that his father is cold and distant and he wishes he would spend more time with him. You'd never guess that without seeing because of the way the movie is typically described. However, subversive the starting premise seems, teens want a return to normalcy by the final chapter.

One of the things that you find over and over again in teen fiction is deeply conservative values.  Katniss and Merida may both be good with weapons but they don't kill people with them. They achieve their goals by displaying traditional female virtue such as constancy and being nurturing. Families are torn apart to but in doing so the story usually ends up demonstrating the importance of family. Again, the absence of traditional marriage in most teen fiction just ends up affirming how important it is.

Sorta political: Inflation?

Glen Reynolds has a had a lot of fun pointing out how the word "unexpected" keeps showing up in headlines about bad economic news during the Obama administration. Today's example comes from the London Telegraph:
Blow for commuters as UK sees unexpected rise in inflation
The article also hastens top tell us that economists are certain the inflation in question is just a blip. Well, let's hope so.

Anyone old enough to remember the last time we had such pervasive nannyism in government, however, will get a sinking feeling in their stomach when they see those numbers. In the late 1970s, we had an extended period of slow growth and high unemployment just like we have now and then we got inflation too. That happened after the Americans elected Jimmy Carter President and he pushed policies that look a lot like what Obama has done. It wouldn't be entirely unexpected if the same kinds of policies produced the same bad results would it?


Monday, August 13, 2012

Is teen fiction necessary?

I was very kindly asked to expand my views on teen fiction and it seems to me that the question above is the right one to start with. Not because it's a terribly difficult question to answer. The answer is plain and simple and the answer is "No".

No one needs teen fiction. Children's fiction serves several different roles including, among others, bonding with parents and learning language. By the time you get to be a teen, the bonding function is accomplished with other things (and often against your will as you would prefer to be alone in your room) and the books you need for learning are all supplied by your school. Reading for a teen is a purely decadent activity. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

And some kids, I was one of them, start reading fiction the way other kids eat potato chips and drink soft drinks. Huge amounts of fiction are run through. My nieces and nephews grew up with Harry Potter and they and their mothers would stand in line to get the new volume on a Monday and then they'd go home and disappear into their rooms and come to breakfast on Wednesday morning having consumed the whole thing. They'd consume four, five, six, seven hundred or even a thousand pages a week if it was available.

I call this sort of reading book-diving. It's done for no other reason than that it feels good. You just plunge into the book and disappear. It might be doing you some good to be doing all that reading but that thought never occurs to you. You pick these books up and you start reading. You can tell within pages whether it's going to give you the experience you want and, if it will, you dive right in and don't come out for days.

What you are looking for I'll get to tomorrow but suffice to note here that it isn't elegant prose, carefully constructed plots, brilliant metaphors or deep insights into the human condition. You tear through this stuff always more interested in the next page than the one you're on.

Teen fiction exists solely to meet the desires of girls and boys like my nieces and nephews. Especially girls. By teen years, girls have already distinguished themselves as much heavier readers of fiction than boys. Some women never stop reading teen fiction.  Some market analysts estimate that one third of the teen fiction sold is purchased by adults for themselves. And an awful lot of the novels that women do read as adults is just teen fiction transposed to an adult setting the way a lot of science fiction is just cowboy fiction transposed into space, "the final frontier". New York is just one big high school for the Sex-and-the-City girls.

And one of the big themes of all teen fiction is the lead character's efforts to both belong to and differentiate herself from various groups—a big high school preoccupation. The other big theme is ... well, let's leave that until tomorrow and consider first the giant distortion.

Fixing the market
If you look at the NPR list, one of the first things to strike you is that some of these books and series are on the list because they pretty much have to be; The Harry Potter books, The Hunger Games and The Twilight series. What distinguishes these books is the sales. Harry Potter and The Twilight books have probably each individually sold more copies over the last ten years than all the other books on the NPR list put together.

And that is important to keep in mind because these books are in an entirely different category than the others. They are the books that teens read and reread as much as they can. The rest, well, the rest is a lot like the sort of stuff that the hard core sports fan will watch when there isn't a really big football, basketball or hockey game to watch but he wants to watch something.

A lot of others are perennial classics, the Tolkien books, the Bradbury books, To Kill a Mockingbird. These are also there because kids keep reading them despite busybodies best efforts to the contrary. You can bet that an awfully lot of teen girls would have voted for Jane Austen if they'd been given the chance too.

Most of the other books on the list got there largely through attempts to distort the game by adults. One trick, which I noted in the previous post, is that the vote was fixed by an expert panel. They excluded as much of the stuff that teens actually want to read as they possibly could—you'll notice for example, that the Gossip Girl books were excluded from the nomination list.

By the way, how much you want to bet that a lot more teens are devouring Fifty Shades of Grey than are plodding through any of the worthy teen fiction preferred by the "expert panel" who narrowed down the NPR list? When I was a teen, girls just gobbled up The Fountainhead and it was an open secret that the rape scene was a big part of the attraction. But you can be sure that no librarian is going want to let them vote for "a book like that". We can't let girls admit they like reading books about being sexually submissive and we don't want to think too much about why girls are drawn to such stories in the first place.

Meanwhile, it is a lot easier for adult busybodies to make the kinds of books they wish teens were reading look popular than you might guess. You see, the thing is that there are a lot of libraries out there and a book can get to be quite a bestseller simply by appealing to librarians and other busybodies who want to impose their ideas of what would make good teen fiction on kids. If every library in the country buys your book, you have it made.

And some actual book-diving teens will read it because they crave books and go looking for them. Well, they'll read a few pages anyway. They may not read it all the way.

If you've read Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, you'll remember the scene where the hero is asked to read to a sick boy and the book he gets stuck reading is a horrible bit of "improving" fiction called A Bishop Among the Bantus. Well, however horrible that book may have been, it couldn't possibly be as awful a prospect as The Book Thief:
Trying to make sense of the horrors of World War II, Death relates the story of Liesel — a young German girl whose book-stealing and storytelling talents help sustain her family and the Jewish man they are hiding, as well as their neighbors.
That is a book that an adult picks for a kid. Many of the kids it is picked for will think, "Kill me now before I have to read it".

(By the way, notice how The Book Thief sets up the moral issues: it's about a "young German girl"  and her family who are protecting a Jewish man and who are apparently near starvation. This picks up the treatment of WW2  a lot of intellectuals seem to prefer  these days wherein the good Germans are victims of some weird subgroup called Nazis who take over as opposed to actually facing that they might be individually and collectively responsible for what happened.))

Having described what makes a lot of recommended teen fiction awful, I'll turn to what makes the illicit kind so damn good tomorrow.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Another image: What are they selling?

Preparing the teenfiction post for earlier this morning, I came across the cover of A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle. The book is pure hackery but that cover is brilliant.

Notice how the dolphin's reflection and its body produce a circle. The girl is on her own little world confronting the universe. That should seem familiar because it evokes one of the genuine classics of the genre:

That's brilliant and so is the deliberate evocation of it on the L'Engle cover done by Fred Marcellino.

But it's not quite the same is it? There is something in the Marcellino cover to A Ring of Endless Light that you don't find in Le Petit Prince. I mean, she sure is "riding" that dolphin isn't she?

And notice what her hands do. A dolphin's fin is roughly triangular but her hands block part of it out such that it looks like ... well, you tell me what it looks like.

That's not an accident folks. It works like the symbolism in a Japanese garden. In a Japanese garden, everything is what it is. That rock is a rock. But look at it in the right frame of mind and you can see it as a Mount Fuji in the midst of a vast landscape instead of a rock in a small garden. That's how you sell sex to teenage girls folks. An obviously sexual image would put the teenage girl off. She doesn't want sex, if you'll pardon the expression, thrust upon her. That girl has to be riding a dolphin but just maybe our young reader looks at it in the right frame of mind, say on day fifteen of her cycle, and she sees something else.

A little light culture: Teenfiction

The good folks at NPR had a poll asking readers to pick the best teen-fiction novels ever. I thought it might be fun to take their list and cut out everything published since 1992. I also cut any series of novels still continuing after 1992 even if it began before 1992.

My argument for this is simple: nothing that has been around for less than 20 years has stood the test of time. I think I was being generous making the cut off point just twenty years and I think a good case can be made that anything that hasn't lasted 50 years has not stood the test of time.

You might think, by the way, that the heavy emphasis on recent books is the fault of the teens and their parents who voted for these things but you'd be wrong. NPR receieved 1200 nominations from readers and had them narrowed down by an "expert panel" and they put together a list that is heavily oriented towards recently published books. It's not hard to figure out why NPR listeners were denied the chance to vote on such obvious classics as Mark Twain, just one of several who clearly belong on such a list.

Only 27 books are left after we cut off everything published since 1992. That, all by itself tells you what a joke this is, the notion that 63 73 of the best teen fiction novels ever written were published in the last twenty years is ridiculous.

Without further ado, here is what is left:
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960) 
  2. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) 
  3. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (1951) 
  4. The Lord of the Rings (series), by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-1955) 
  5. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953) 
  6. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (series), by Douglas Adams (1979-1992) 
  7. The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton (1967) 
  8. Anne of Green Gables (series), by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908-1921) 
  9. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (1954) 
  10. Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes (1966) 
  11. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London (1903) 
  12. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous (1971) 
  13. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (1959) 
  14. Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965) 
  15. The Dark is Rising (series), by Susan Cooper (1965-1977) 
  16. Forever..., by Judy Blume (1975) 
  17. The Song of the Lioness (series), by Tamora Pierce (1983-1988) 
  18. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883) 
  19. The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (1984) 
  20. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury (1962) 
  21. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (1974) 
  22. A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L'Engle (1980) 
  23. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948) 
  24. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle (1968) 
  25. The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley (1982) 
  26. The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley (1984) 
  27. Betsy-Tacy Books (series), by Maud Hart Lovelace (1938-1955)
These stories have a lot in common (with one notable exception). I haven't read them all but, of the ones I've read, you get a highly artificial emotional crisis where stark decisions between right and wrong have to be made. You may say that some of them—To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace, to take two of the better books on the list—describe situations that are credible. And that is true but nothing like that was ever going to happen you you as a teenager was it?

The point is not that that sort of fiction is necessarily bad; it can be very good. The point is that if you are reading for the emotional charge that comes with that stark moral crisis, it doesn't have to be good in the same way that any old rotgut mixed with frozen grape juice will do if you are drinking to get drunk.

Not surprisingly, even on this relatively rarefied list, most of the books are the worse kind of hackery. We get the execrable Judy Blume for example. And Go Ask Alice a book that was actually a fraud—it's a faked diary of a supposed teenage drug addict—now read as fiction.

If one of my nieces and nephews asked me about these, I'd tell them that no great harm (beyond wasting a few hours of your life) could come from reading any book on the list but that only four have any real literary merit and one of those four is particularly good.  Three with literary merit are: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace and Treasure Island.

 The really special one is Anne of Green Gables. It's given as a series here but, as is usually but not always the case with a series of novels, the first one is the one to read. And what makes it really special is that it reverses the usual teen fantasy. In it we have a heroine who craves the sort of emotional crisis with stark moral decisions that make up most teen books but is constantly denied such a thing by life which insists on making her into an adult who must make an adult choice between two goods. Even better, the book doesn't treat this progression from childhood to adulthood as an unalloyed good.

When you're a kid, you read the story of Anne growing up. Read it as an adult and you will see that it is really the story of Marilla Cuthbert and what she sacrificed. And it's a very sad but beautiful story when you read it again. No other book on that list has that depth.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Near noir Thursday: The Low Life

Another movie that isn't noir but shares a lot of noir characteristics. Really, the only thing missing is a murder. It features the perfect noir victim and he dies but he doesn't get killed, although the movie attributes guilt for his death.

Here is our hero:

That's an exterior of the building where he has his apartment. A lot of the scenes take place in his apartment. Others take place at work and yet others in a bar. The whole thing could have been done on stage and probably more convincingly.

Anyway, he looks like a noir hero. He wants to be a writer and he writes a letter to his Uncle Darr, who seems to have raised him in the absence opf any real father. Uncle Darr writes back,
Good to hear your plans. I know we'll have a writer in this family yet, no matter what your mother thinks. But don't forget, discipline and hard work are what counts. The petty seductions of this world are best left to other people.
As ever, Uncle Darr
Somehow, that advice gets translated into, "Don't care about other people and don't get involved in their lives anymore than you have to". How is that accomplished? My guess is that the people who made the movie think hard work and discipline are the mark of a cold, uncaring person.

And hard work and discipline went missing in the writing of this film. For example, the filmmaker, George Hickenlooper was a guy who grew up in St. Louis and then went to Yale and then went to LA to make it in the film business and the hero is a guy from St. Louis who went to Yale and then went to LA to make it in the film business.

There are some great shots of LA though. This is a gem:

If you look carefully in the foreground, just right of the highway, you can see the famous Capitol Records building. All covered in smog.

But, wait a minute, what year is this supposed to be? The movie was made in 1995 but LA hadn't seen smog like that for a long time by them. You have to go back to the 1970s to see smog like this. On the other hand, there are computers in one office scene, so maybe it's supposed to be the mid 1980s (not coincidentally, the same time our director was trying to make it in LA.) And then ... well, who cares, the film sucks. It could have been great but it isn't because it was made by people who have absolutely no understanding of humanity.

By the way, there are four Yale graduates in this movie all living the low life because this movie is set in that year when all the Yale grads couldn't get work so they had to wait tables or work for temp agencies. You remember that year right?

Lets talk women. Here is one, in a great bar shot worthy of noir,

That's Suzie. She's a Yale grad working as a waitress. She is young and beautiful and she ought to be happy except that her love life is a perpetual mess because she has an irrational attraction to British guys and so keeps closing the door on good bets for love.

Next girl,

That's Bevan. She is from the south (I think they told her to study Janis Joplin interviews to get her character down). She is young and beautiful and she ought to be happy except that her love life is a perpetual mess because she has an irrational attraction to French guys and so keeps closing the door on good bets for love.

There you have the breadth of humanity you find in this movie. After a while, I started thinking that maybe it would be a good thing to make all Yale grads work at crappy jobs with temp agencies because if this is an example of typical Yale competence, the world would be better place if they didn't get any real jobs.

Between them, Suzie and Bevan generate enough sex appeal to power a small tricycle, provided it is going downhill. In any case, you could eliminate both characters in their entirety because the movie is really about the relationship between these two guys:

The guy on the right is our hero and the guy on the left is Andrew who is this terminally geeky guy who tries to be our hero's friend but keeps getting brushed off because he is such a  weird little geek. And all our hero's friends mercilessly exploit Andrew. And then Andrew ends up dead and our hero finally gets that this was a human being and he failed to be his neighbour, in the biblical sense of neighbour.

Oh sorry, were you planning on watching it? Oh well, you didn't really want to see it anyway. Trust me.

After the death, our hero hitches a ride to Modesto to go to the funeral. And he cries at the grave side. He doesn't speak to anyone. He doesn't tell any of Andrew's family he is sorry for their loss. He just cries and feels sorry for himself. Because that is apparently moral development.

Our film maker, George Hickenlooper, also died by the way. He mixed a lot of alcohol and a lot of painkillers in his stomach and that, predictably, killed him. The coroner charitably called it an accidental overdose and we'll charitably assume he was right.

 There is one very nice touch at the ending. The minister at graveside reads from Ezekiel 34, wherein the LORD, speaking through the prophet, condemns the irresponsible shepherds.
And I will make with them a covenant of peace, and will cause the evil beasts to cease out of the land: and they shall dwell safely in the wilderness, and sleep in the woods.
And I will make them and the places round about my hill a blessing; and I will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing.

And the tree of the field shall yield her fruit, and the earth shall yield her increase, and they shall be safe in their land, and shall know that I am the Lord, when I have broken the bands of their yoke, and delivered them out of the hand of those that served themselves of them.
All of which suggests that there was a good, and possibly even a great movie waiting to be made here. But it didn't get made.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Creeping rigorism

A regularly recurring theme in my life and, consequently, on this blog is the dangers of rigorism. I think rigorism is a heresy. The Catholic Church has never condemned it as such but it has also been careful never to endorse it either.

Rigorism is hard to define but easy to see. Compare these two quotes and you will see it:
  1. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'
  2. Love your neighbour more than your own life.
The first is familiar from the Gospel according to Matthew. The second is from a sermon that was once attributed to Barnabas but whose author is now regarded as unknown. The move from "as yourself" to "more than your own life" is rigorism. This one line excepted, it's a great sermon.

The thing to note is that there are many cases where valuing your neighbour more than your own life is clearly admirable. Those who go to war for their country do this. More commonly, any loving husband or loving wife will sometimes value the needs of their spouse above their own. And any parent will do the same for their child.

The problem comes with making this a rule that should always apply in making moral choices. It one thing to occasionally make a  sacrifice by putting the needs of another above your own and another thing all together to make iot a moral law that you should always do this. (I won't go into it but any half-way clever person ought to be able to think of cases where loving your neighbour more than your own life is a bad thing.)

As I've said before, one of the big hints that this isn't a good approach to morality is that our enemies devote so much time to imposing it on us. They want us, as Christians, to all sell everything we own and give the profits to the poor not because they think this is a good thing to do, they have no intention of doing it themselves, but because they want to see us fail.

The pseudo-Barnabas readings comes from today's Office by the way. If we take the reading for the optional feast of Saint Dominic instead, we get this fascinating counter-balance:
He was a man of great equanimity, except when moved to compassion and mercy.
Equanimity means the calmness or composure from being well-balanced. This is something that is good for the person who has it. It is something that is good to have even if, to steal a line, all those around you lose it. You get it by taking care of yourself, which is to say by loving yourself. The only time Dominic abandoned that calm was when moved by compassion and mercy.

Note the obvious implication that Dominic was selective about these times. He was not moved by compassion and mercy all the time. Most of the time he was calm and composed even though he, like us, lived in a world filled with injustice. He even refused the chance to become bishop in order to maintain this calm. Let me give you that quote again in a larger context:
He was a man of great equanimity, except when moved to compassion and mercy. And since a joyful heart animates the face, he displayed the peaceful composure of a spiritual man in the kindness he manifested outwardly and by the cheerfulness of his countenance.
Take care of yourself and you will be a gift to others.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Instapundit links to a very good piece by Deirdre McCloskey about the ways we might define happiness. She talks about the perils of defining happiness in terms of how you feel right now rather than in terms of the longer story of your life.

It reminded me a of something that happened about thirty years ago. A woman I knew went to Queens and I was down in Kingston on Canadian Thanksgiving (Note to American readers, this is the same day as your Columbus Day) and I saw her. She was very upset with her roommates.

These roommates, all women, had been giving her a hard time because she had had five sexual partners between Frosh Week and that weekend. She said to me, "Everyone keeps telling me that I am hurting myself but I've never felt better about myself than I do now." I have no doubt she was telling the truth plain and simple. She probably felt just great.

The next thirty years of her life weren't so great.

Sorta political: likeable?

I have a  question for you.

First some background. One of the things that really stands out about Obama is how hesitant people are to criticize him. All the other presidents of my lifetime have been brutally criticized. LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2 were all subjected to scathing attacks. Reagan, who is the prime example people give of a president who was elected because he was likeable was regularly called a Nazi. Bush 2, another likeable guy, was also called a Nazi and had not one but two movies fantasizing about his assassination appear during his tenure.

Obama has been spared this. Yeah, there are some nutcases out there in the fever swamps, but he hasn't had the sorts of mainstream attacks others have had.

And people keep telling pollsters they like the guy even though his approval ratings are abysmal. People also kept telling pollsters they liked Reagan but Reagan's approval ratings were good.

So here is the question, do people not criticize Obama because they really like him or are they hesitant to do so because he is black?

I know, I know, how dare I ask such a question? I see that even Mickey Kaus, who normally doesn't shy away from touchy issues, shies away from this one. But, you know, this question is sensitive because ultimately it's not about racism. When people pretend to like someone more than they really do, what motivates them is not racism but the fear of seeming racist.

And it's incredibly important to ask this question. Currently the intelligent assessment is that the November election is close. If his seeming likeability, however, is an illusion, then Obama's chances at re-election are far worse than they appear.

PS: Bonus point: are undecideds really uniformed? Kaus also says,
... the race won’t necessarily be decided by relatively uninformed undecideds who only pay attention at the end
And that is true in one sense. If you quiz undecideds about current politics, they score poorly compared to committed voters for either side. But that is only significant if you think caring about politics all the time is a good thing. I don't.

I think it is far more "informed" to tune politics out most of the time and wonder sometimes if the last minute undecideds aren't a lot smarter than we give them credit for.