Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Didacticism of Fantasy

The conflict between good and evil is good business: superhero narratives, the Harry Potter and Star Wars leviathans, role-playing games, the majority of horror films, that is, the most valuable intellectual property right now promulgates moral paradigms that are dualistic and assumed as objective. Our fantasies take place on a military plane; as protagonists, we imagine ourselves incarnating good and creating utopias built upon the carcasses of the evil we have annihilated. It's tempting to believe that good pitted against evil has no genuine alternative but moral relativism, thought of as a doctrine that ranges from dunderheaded, sugary pap for the privileged to the sort of emptied out logic that skids right into justification for genocide. Of course, if we're honest with ourselves, most of the moralities by which we attempt to abide are relative, simply because otherwise we are positing ourselves in a vacuum, a hardly imaginable human state.

Magic, whether it's called the Force or a superpower, is the instrument of our fantasies, a weapon. Sometimes magic becomes a synonym for love or a sign of God's favor, but only if wielded by the hero. Is a vicarious belief in magic some kind of vestigial clinging, a childish regression in response to the traumas of modernity? Such is the framing we usually give to tarot card and psychic readings, even as we gorge on these stories of good and evil, and, more significantly, draw lessons from them. Why are these stories so valuable to us? Defenders (though heaven only knows why they need defending, given that their detractors are decidedly in the minority) argue that these stories teach us how to behave and how to define ourselves. They're supposed to galvanize us into taking action. In other words, they are didactic and inspirational.

For, despite a current allergy to the word 'didactic' (if I could only claim a dollar for each book or film review I've read of late that praises its object as not didactic, only to delineate its message, or what it teaches us), fantasy narratives, whether optimistic or pessimistic, are responded to as parables, stories that teach us how to be. This is why audiences get upset, for instance, if a protagonist says something flippant about a marginalized group. It's a problem not because the thing was said, but because we assume we're being taught to say it.

What would happen if we stopped searching for lessons or messages, stopped trying to decode a morality or ideology from our fantasy? I'm not arguing against analysis, but against analysis that presupposes that stories function first and foremost as instructional fables. The difference between art and propaganda can be difficult to parse and the line between them can be crossed and crossed again (for instance, in the case of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi films or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin), but propaganda is generally supposed to yield only one interpretation. If art does that, it's bad art. The strongest case to be made that pop culture has an artistic dimension, and isn't merely consumerist entertainment, lies in a refusal of didacticism. Thus, instead of evaluating the message of a film - usually a bromidic generality, such as 'be true to yourself' (every Pixar film's motto) - as either correct or incorrect, morally speaking, the critic would try to understand what good actually means in the context of the book or film, what evil means, what it means for a protagonist to be assumed as the character that aligns with good, why we assume that the reader or viewer only relates to the good characters, what it means that violence is so often evoked as a means to peace. A deeper analysis could yield lessons, but lessons aren't much use if the complexity of reality demolishes their meaning as soon as one attempts to enact them in our daily lives.

For instance, Pixar films, when interpreted didactically, usually yield up the lesson I cited above: 'be yourself and you'll be happy and fulfilled.' This is a lesson we like as a culture; it doesn't threaten capitalism - Buy this product and you'll be happy! Not happy yet? Buy it again! - and it falls into line with identity politics. But what the heck does it mean to 'be yourself,' even assuming there's such as a stable, discrete self? What if 'yourself' is a bully? What if 'yourself' is selfish, or prone to violent tantrums? And further than that, what does a happy ending look like for living, breathing people? The credits don't roll as soon as we've hit peak happiness. Politically engaged criticism, especially of pop culture, has fallen into a shallow evaluation process that evades questions of real import and displaces responsibility for moral progress onto works of art, letting people on the ground off the hook. Evaluative critical practice lets us believe that seeing a film about a woman superhero in the theatre somehow strikes a blow for feminism. It doesn't. An empowered female character in a film, or novel, or game, might make us feel better for a while, but her existence doesn't alter the gendered power dynamics that are active in our own lives. The real magic is the magic we perform on our own minds, a magic that deceives us into believing that finding the right lessons in our entertainment is the same thing as enacting those lessons in the world we live in. The Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, in his extensive work on magic and ritual in the Italian South defined the practice of magic as a means of coping with a negative that cannot be overcome by the individual. If the deception we're practicing on ourselves is our liberal, 21st century, American magic, the unfortunate corollary is that we're doing it because the negative in our lives cannot be overcome by each one of us as individuals.

If the work of criticism is to have positive political repercussions, it has to start examining how art confronts the negative, not merely re-enacting the battle of good versus evil by dropping each book, movie, game, song, and so on, into a box marked either good or evil. If art merely teaches, and doesn't complicate, indoctrinates, and doesn't question, intones, but never sings, then it's no art at all. As critics, we can choose not to read didactically. We can choose to think rather than consume and reason rather than agree (or disagree).

Monday, February 26, 2018

Book Review: Carlo Levi's "Christ Stopped at Eboli"

Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli was first published in 1945. A fictionalized work of reportage, the book was a colorful, impressionistic account of the year Levi spent in exile in Southern Italy. Since that year at the height of the fascist period and the colonial war in Ethiopia, Italy, and the world entire for that matter, had undergone the tortures of World War II and its extramartial horrors. Levi wrote in hiding in Florence as the Germans occupied and then fled Italy. As a result, this is no ordinary work of journalism, nor is it an ordinary memoir. It recounts a moment of political suppression from the vantage point of a maelstrom. Levi couldn't consult any reference works; he had only his memory and whatever books he'd managed to squirrel away. He couldn't know whether the book he was writing would ever see the light of day, whether it would damn him forever as a subversive or re-open a political discussion that had raged since Italian Unification. As a result of the Allied occupation of Italy and subsequent victory in Europe, Levi's anti-fascism was vindicated and Christ Stopped at Eboli became the first major work of Italian literature to be published post-war.

I stress the climate of extreme uncertainty and risk because the book's hopefulness, its basic insistence on the human being rather than the mass, the individual rather than the representative, can't be taken for granted. Levi's cri di coeur was anti-fascist, a recording of the results of his anti-fascism, but he was also addressing a future, a future that he dared to hope wouldn't be fascist or totalitarian. At the same time, this is not a polemical work. Levi doesn't insist on democracy, or communism; instead he pleads for thinking beyond those forms of already theorized political governance that exclude the Southerners that had been seen, since before the foundation of the Italian state, as a problem to be solved. "It's necessary that we render ourselves capable of thinking and creating a new state, one that can't be fascist, liberal, or communist, completely diverse, but substantially identical forms of the same state religion." (All translations in this review are my own.) Fascism insisted on the new superman, a nationalist symbol that never came into being, while democracy required ready-made citizens, participants in a voting system estranged from everything the peasantry had known for centuries, and communism was too closely allied with a northern proletariat with no understanding whatsoever of the different problems and needs of the peasantry.

Levi's reflections on this issue are anguished, but utopian. However, his essentially humanitarianism didn't apprise him of his own blind spots. His cosmopolitan eyes saw the peasants he lived among as closer to animals than he himself; over and over, peasants are described as "animalistic," their movements and expressions are compared to those of sheep, goats, foxes. Women in particular have bestial qualities: "The women, closed in veils, are like wild animals. They don't think of anything but physical love, with extreme naturalness, and they talk about it with a freedom and simplicity of language that astonishes." This is not language that pleases us in this day and age; it smacks of colonial imperialism and its accompanying racism. The strangeness that we would call difference today puzzles him, amazes him, sometimes disgusts him. His compassion and pity are unable to get out from under the carapace of paternalism that his Northern bourgeois cultural background assumes towards the South. Still, Levi doesn't immediately dismiss Southern customs and he doesn't expect Southerners to metamorphose into the citizens envisioned by outsiders. There might be condescension in his meticulous recounting of, for instance, the practices of witchcraft or an alternate understanding of time, but he doesn't dismiss the first as mere superstition and the second as backwardness.

This recognition of strangeness, or difference, as having its own legitimacy may not seem especially ground-breaking today, but we are talking about a book published in 1945, based on Levi's experiences in 1935 and 1936. If he can't quite restrain a certain exoticizing, romanticizing impulse, he works hard, and sometimes successfully, to root out his own sense of superiority, at least where men are concerned.

Christ Stopped at Eboli is most precious as a repository for the rich treasures of a culture and way of life that would for the most part disappear by the end of the century. This is why the book, though lacking a rigorous methodology, has been so important for anthropologists. Levi records the legend of Maria 'a Pastora, a female bandit who rode away after her bandit husband's death and was seen no more. Was she a legend or a real person? Levi is intelligent enough to recognize that such a question has no meaning in the folkloric tradition of these towns. This slippage between what a cosmopolitan, post-Enlightenment culture delineates as real and imaginary or legendary isn't smashing a binary, but refusing the imposition of a binary. The supernatural creatures that dot the landscape, the fruschi and the monachicchi, the werewolves and witches, are not strictly separated from the human. Double natures are the norm rather than the exception and Levi hears many eye-witness accounts of people who encountered angels, demons, ghosts, and those pesky monachicchi, the souls of unbaptized children. Levi himself knows several witches, including his housekeeper, Giulia, who teaches him incantations and the secrets of potion-making. "The continuous magic of the animals and things weighs on the heart like a funereal enchantment. And nothing presents itself, to liberate oneself from it, than other modes of magic." Levi bends to this other world, compared more than once to an island in an empty, forbidden sea, and for brief, bleary moments succeeds in rivivifying an instinct for it. This world, he claims, exists outside of time and this lack of time, this rejection of linearity, makes it impossible to connect, let alone merge, the two worlds. It is a world defined by death, indeed his descriptions call up Dante's Inferno and the ancients' Hades. The landscape is quite literally strewn with bones.

Unquestionably, Christ Stopped at Eboli is deeply subjective, but it is not Levi who claimed objectivity - rather, his readers did. If the book is still read as the textbook on the Southern question, that's a sign of the larger culture's failure to distinguish that the book is an autobiographical novel, not a work of social science. Its idiosyncrasies and prejudices are not separable from the insights and ethnographic details. I see nothing sinister in this, the way I do when I read a work of deeply flawed, prejudicial social science such as Edward Banfield's The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, which claims to present facts rather than nonsensical propaganda, objective analysis rather than racist fairy tale, although Banfield couldn't understand a word spoken by the subject of his study. Like so many great works of literature, Christ Stopped at Eboli balances its gorgeous prose and dubious social criticism, its compassion and its snobbery, its artful juxtapositions and its flat-footed misogyny. Timelessness is an overrated quality; it's also one that is historically determined. Christ Stopped at Eboli isn't timeless: it belongs to the past, which is all to the good, for without such literary time machines we remain trapped, hopelessly, in the present.

Friday, February 23, 2018

6 Great Books by (Women) Nobel Laureates

The Nobel Prize in Literature, though still regarded by most literary establishments as the preeminent such award, and the only one with genuine pretensions to being considered a global literary award, has increasingly been viewed as a subject of controversy and critique. Some of these complaints are quite valid - how, indeed, can one jury assess all of world literature when so little is available in translation and its members can only read so many languages? - and some are a tad silly - some Nobel winners have faded into obscurity despite being awarded, a claim that seems to presume that a worthwhile writer couldn't possibly be forgotten (or rediscovered, for that matter). As one would expect, the Nobel Prize has been given to more men than women, and most of the winners are European. Rather than focus on all the thousands of worthy writers that the Swedish Academy hasn't honored - an endless, and ultimately thankless, task - a more fruitful approach looks at the long list of winners as one more source of great books for readers. With that in mind, here are six great books by Nobel Prize recipients, six of the fourteen women (out of 114 winners overall) who have won:

Reeds in the Wind - Grazia Deledda (1926)
Only the second woman to win the Nobel, Deledda wrote more than thirty books, most of them still unavailable in English. She is the most famous writer to emerge from her native Sardinia, with the exception of the political and cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci. Her most famous novel, Reeds in the Wind, set in Sardinia like most of her books, tells the story of the Pintor family, once noble and now fallen into poverty after one of the daughters ran away to the mainland and destroyed the family's honor. When her son, Giacinto, returns years later, looking for a share in the family patrimony, their faithful servant Efix, a martyr to guilt, sees a chance to expiate his part in the scandal. Unlike most of the writing on the Italian South and honor, Reeds in the Wind refuses to traffic in stereotypes, though it is deeply rooted in specifically regional traditions. Yearning and wistful, but without the pious sentimentality of poverty porn, this novel is a monument to a way of life that died long ago. I also recommend Cosima.

Dragon Seed - Pearl S. Buck (1938)
The first American woman to win the Nobel, Buck was not only a writer, but an activist who courted controversy with her progressive views on race and gender. Her writing, both stylistically and thematically, is quite out of fashion today, but her books built bridges between the West and the Asian countries, especially China, she refused to exoticize. She grew up in China and spoke fluent Chinese, but was banned from returning to her adopted country after the communist revolution. Dragon Seed, like most of her novels, is set in China; its protagonists are the peasants who suffered the Rape of Nanking when the Japanese invaded in 1937. Buck's insistence on privileging a view of history from the point of view of those with no political power is especially striking when one considers that this novel was published three years before World War II ended. I also recommend The Good Earth, The Mother, and Pavilion of Women.

Map - Wisława Szymborska (1996)
The first Polish woman to win the Nobel, Szymborska cultivated an elegant, acerbic, and ironically luminescent poetic style. Though she is often labelled an 'accessible' poet, and certainly her poetry offers a great deal of pleasure and rarely resists a simple surface interpretation, Szymborska's work yields rich sediments of meaning when read and reread with attention. She nimbly walks a tightrope between a visceral intimacy with her readers and a slightly sardonic aloofness. This is poetry that exudes an Arctic coldness that is nevertheless profoundly human and giving. Map collects all of Szymborska's poetry that has been translated (by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanisław Barańczak) into English.

Women as Lovers - Elfriede Jelinek (2004)
It's small wonder that cinematic provocateur Michael Haneke adapted Jelinek's novel, The Piano Teacher, since the director's surgical and pitiless take on humanity finds its match in Jelinek's radical, anti-capitalist, feminist critique of the state of things. The inherent violence of pornography and sex in a climate of misogyny is a constant theme in Jelinek's work. In Women as Lovers, two girls who work at an underwear factory take opposite approaches to marriage: one follows the inclinations of her heart and the other calculates on the best possible material future. In a capitalist economy run by men, there is a right choice and a wrong choice. This is bitter stuff, but it's also unfailingly brilliant. I also recommend Lust.

The Grass Is Singing - Doris Lessing (2007)
The author of more than fifty books, Lessing began her career with this searing novel set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) about the twisted relationship between a white farmer's wife, miserable in the heat and perennial failure of her husband's agricultural efforts, and their black 'houseboy.' Originally published in 1950, the book catapulted Lessing into the center of raging controversies surrounding racial oppression in the British colonies. Though she would later write science fiction, Lessing remained resolutely anti-utopian throughout her career, cutting deep into the rottenness of racism, economic exploitation, misogyny, and imperialism without giving in to the easy temptations of didacticism or strident polemicism. I also recommend The Golden Notebook, The Fifth Child, and Mara and Dann.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - Alice Munro (2013)
The first Canadian winner of the Nobel, Munro is justly worshiped as a high priestess of the short story. I remember the burst of devotional ardor that greeted the publication of this collection, and it is indeed a tour de force. Munro has a special talent for rendering the minute psychological meanderings of her often quite ordinary protagonists as fascinating as any epic journey filled with incident and drama. Two teenage girls write fake love letters to a middle-aged housekeeper, a woman with cancer simmers with fury at her cheating husband, a new widow finds an unexpected note in her dead husband's pocket. Munro's fiction is free of sensationalism, but has too much lyric subtlety and moral complexity to participate in a social realist tradition. I also recommend Friend of My Youth and Lives of Girls and Women.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Film Review: Baarìa

Giuseppe Tornatore's Baarìa has a big, expansive heart, but a rather disappointingly small brain. With an enormous cast and cameos by major stars, including a wordless, topless scene for Monica Bellucci, Baarìa exemplifies all of the best and worst tendencies of Tornatore's filmmaking, finishing up as a sweet, shallow movie. 

On the one hand, it's an enormous relief to see a film set in Sicily, and very specifically so, without getting sucked into the usual mafia exposé. The mafia isn't ignored, but it's not permitted to take center-stage. On the other hand, the politics of the film are so vague, despite the fact that the protagonist Peppino (Francesco Scianna) is a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, at various points running for election as a communist, that any perspective beyond the woolliest and faintest of sympathies for the left proves impossible. For those familiar with Italian politics, the outline of the various factions is there, but when Peppino's wife (Margareth Madè) scoffs at her husband's political commitments, it's hard not to agree with her: both he, and the film, are incapable of articulating a lucid political agenda. 

Tornatore, however, is more interested in exhibiting his memories of his hometown, Bagheria, than in digging deep into politics, and the film is more successful on that front. Many anecdotes take up only a scene or two, but strung together, they are the pearls of this film: a grandmother, a mother, and three children mop a tile floor and lie down on it in their skivvies to get relief from the heat, a painter tries to use locals as models for his painting of the apostles only to have the priest whitewash it to stop the gossiping during mass, Peppino's brother asks the pharmacist for medicine to make him die and the pharmacist obliges him with a harmless glass of liquor. Baarìa has some shocking, brief moments of violence and the occasional moment of awful taste - in the above-mentioned Monica Bellucci scene, a teacher tells the boys in his class they can watch Bellucci's prostitute with her client if they stay quiet - but the majority of it is just a string of disconnected memories, and it's at its best when it is just that.

As always, the women are beautiful or strikingly weathered. They have little to no personality and exist almost exclusively as objects of dreamy desire that will transform into humorless, nagging spoilsports once they become mothers. This is a film written and directed by a man who has never bothered to question his own views. The simple-mindedness of his writing of women is expected, but especially disappointing in a film that echoes the Fellini of Amarcord. Though Fellini was no feminist, there is room in his films for women to take up strange roles and to define themselves as stubbornly unstereotyped; Tornatore sees nothing but Madonnas and whores, virgins and mothers.There are no grotesques, like Fellini's enormous-breasted tobacconist, but there are moments of flat-footed magical realism, hobbled especially by low-quality computer imagery,  of coiling black snakes, smashed eggs, and statues of monsters. Tornatore doesn't succeed in blurring the line between dream and reality, so that these moments of premonition and nightmare instead reinforce that line. 

If Tornatore has a filmmaking superpower, it's his sentimentality. That's not generally a popular quality, but for English-speakers Italy is the country of la dolce vita, where love, wine, and pizza awaken Protestant Anglo-Saxons to the joyfulness in life. The addled, feel-good version of Cinema Paradiso that made Tornatore's reputation in the United States was stripped of its bitterness, so it confirmed that Italy was an amorous, gluttonous playground to the Americans for whom the film was recut. Even the director's cut is thoroughly sentimental, but it has a bite. Baarìa, instead, has lost its fangs, if it ever had them, and goodness knows it could have, but a strolling sausage-vendor's arrest by the fascists is played for laughs, no destruction from the American bombardment beyond a bit of flying plaster is shown onscreen, and the murders of communist party workers are merely discussed, their names unattached to bodies we can recognize. Sentimentality can be a wonderful thing: a nostalgia for the past can rescue the moments of happiness and connection that otherwise get lost when discussing the lives of poor, illiterate people and that richness restores a complexity to our total understanding of the dead, especially the dead who left behind no diaries, few or no letters, perhaps not even a photograph or a lock of hair. The value in Baarìa lies almost exclusively in its sentimentality, for sentimentality is a movement into the past that embraces and loves, that restores a little humanity to those usually defined by their misery. There is depth and substance in the small boys stuffing filched lemons into their shirts and the dancing couples, women with women and men with men, in two separate circles, but the film is otherwise resolutely shallow. One yearns for a little introspection to go with the wonder, a little questioning to go with the convictions. At two and a half hours, Baarìa lacks the piquancy and pith that might have given it a brain to go with its swollen heart.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Playing Russian Roulette with the Literary Canon

Debates about the literary canon, which continue to rage, though with less fury than in the '90s, tend to presume that the canon itself is relatively stable and unchanging. This opinion is stated as fact on Wikipedia. Complaints about the canon are usually founded in a critique of power structures: since wealthy, white men have historically held power over other people, their works have been enshrined within the cultural world as important, essential, and serious, while literary works by people who don't fall in that demographic are more often dismissed as specialized, fluffy, and inconsequential, or simply lesser. There is a lot of truth in this complaint, though in part the difficulty is rooted in a history of unequal power. As Virginia Woolf wrote nearly a century ago, if women (and by extension, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.) haven't produced as many masterpieces as men have, it's due to larger social and cultural structures: people who can't read or write, or afford writing materials, or be treated as human beings by publishers and editors are just not able to participate in the creation of a recognized culture. That stark fact, one that many of us find profoundly frustrating, does not, however, mean that the white male writers who dominate the canon can so easily be toppled from their pedestals. Shakespeare is essential because his work influenced nearly every western writer to live after him. No re-formulating of the canon will change that.

However, the belief that the canon is stable and unchanging seems utterly absurd to me. Canonical literature has something in common with pornography; as Potter Stewart said, "I know it when I see it." The difficulty is the same, since a clear delineation doesn't exist. We have no metric for determining whether a particular work is in the canon or not. As a result, the arguments about the canon tend to devolve into objections to finite lists determined as much by, for instance the languages the particular compiler can read or the university where he or she studied, than by the inequities of race, class, gender, and other demographic factors. This absurdity is thrown into stark relief when one speaks more than one language. On the English-language side, authors like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, John Milton, and Ernest Hemingway tend to be prominent in discussions of the canon, but on the Italian side, one is more likely to hear Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Leopardi, Manzoni, Verga, and Pirandello. The canon shifts constantly as it travels across borders, whether geographic, linguistic, ethnic, or anything else. It's true that women writers and writers of color are less likely to be included, but the canon itself isn't stable and really can't be without falling into irrelevance of its own accord. 

That should be heartening to those of us who feel frustrated treading water over the same texts a thousand times over. At the same time, one does have to reckon with pesky problems of lineage, influence, and context. Any Italian writer with even a high school education will have familiarity with The Decameron, The Divine Comedy and La vita nova, The Prince, The Canzoniere, and The Lives of the Artists. These are books that can't be dismissed and saturate the literary landscape in Italy, just as The Flowers of Evil, The Three Musketeers, Tartuffe, Madame Bovary, and The Red and the Black remain inescapable monuments in French literature, and Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, Walden, and Moby-Dick preside over American literary culture. These canons create a common language of conventions, myths, archetypes, and tropes that can be transgressed, altered, mocked, critiqued, attacked, or otherwise tampered with, but without that common language, it can be difficult to formulate a coherent discourse in any given context.

It should be a joyful task to constantly make and re-make the canon for anyone who cares about literature, not a subject for outrage and mockery. It is quite literally impossible to read every book in the canon, even if one restricts oneself to a single language. One needs to accept that the best-read person in the world will, unlike the Nowhere Man, have some holes in his education. Completism is impossible; the canon is a useful tool, despite its constant evolution, because it helps us chart a course through millennia of written material.

For universities and the professors and graduate students who teach there, the solution to the conundrum of both ensuring students have an understanding of literary history and not thus neglecting the majority of humanity that has written, unrecognized, throughout that history is to accept that we are mere mortals and no one can lay claim to a complete knowledge of literature. That is part of its fascination. I might choose to pair The Prince with Moderata Fonte's The Worth of Women, Shakespeare's sonnets with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's, Hard Times with North and South, or Madame Bovary with Indiana, but choosing one book means deferring all the others. It will always be possible to complain that some absolutely essential book is omitted from a syllabus, a recommended reading list, or a generalized curriculum. One person's Pilgrim's Progress is another's Faust; you may insist on Candide, while I insist on Letters from a Peruvian Woman. Instead of attacking the canon, we could instead make use of it, bend it to our purposes political or otherwise, and thus contribute to its evolution, but to do that, we have to accept the limits of our human condition. It's bitter news for any bookworm, but in trying to read everything, we'll die both glutted and unsatisfied.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Problem with Literary Necessity

It's become a commonplace of critical praise to claim that a book is necessary. Books that receive this supposed encomium are usually topical, obviously and evidently tied to an issue subject to heated discussion on twitter, late-night tv, and cable news. A necessary book has a clear, delineated point of view that expresses a politics that fits easily into our current political binary (liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, etc. etc.). It could be a novel with a protagonist who is transgender, or a refugee, it could be a polemic against a powerful figure, ideology, or institution, it could be a personal essay that dissects a traumatic experience. The critic who employs the word necessary is telegraphing his or her agreement with the political point of view of the book under review.

There's nothing inherently wrong with deeming a book necessary, but it's a word that, used without a consciousness of its purpose, says little to nothing about the book itself and much more about the reviewer and the reviewer's politics. It's a euphemism that signals a belonging to a particular club, a defensive deployment meant to shield the critic from attack in a deeply polarized climate dominated by quick outrage and increasingly quantified methods of critiquing literature, for instance, the starred rating rather than a complex analysis.

When the critic deems a book necessary, the label functions as a means of dividing the presumed readership of the book. Anyone who reads that a book about the mass incarceration of black Americans, for instance, is necessary, receives a signal not that the book has some crucial function to perform in the world (though it may or may not - the course of history will indicate whether or not it performs such a function), but rather that the book bolsters a political belief that he may or may not share. The reader who already feels outrage towards the situation of black Americans in prison will feel positively towards the book; the reader who believes that imprisoned black people fare no worse than white people will feel negatively. As a result, the first group may very well read the book, share the review on social media, or otherwise indicate support for it, while the second is unlikely to do those things, or might take an actively negative action, such as purposely giving the book low ratings on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. Any book with controversial or possibly inflammatory content, once it's reviewed within this critical economy of necessity, is subject to this binary (including books that attempt to critique, dismantle, or question the existence of a binary). If this demarcation sounds simplistic, that's because it is, but that is where the line is drawn by the word necessary.

It's a word that is nearly always meant positively, though its effects are anything but. It's a means of preaching to the choir. The problem is that necessary is so very rarely followed by the answers to the obvious questions: to whom? for what purpose? to what end? The critic takes for granted that the reader can answer those questions already, isolating the book among readers that are most likely to share its point of view. Instead of persuading individuals to allow themselves to be challenged and to question their immediate assumptions and opinions, the critic who talks of necessity presumes that not only is his point of view fundamentally correct, it needs no qualification and no explanation. Necessary is an encrypted word; decoded, it says: "Agree or you're wrong."

To demonstrate how important it is to follow up any description of a book as necessary with an explication of why, to whom, and for what purpose it is so, I will employ a highly inflammatory example: Mein Kampf is necessary. Now, if I were using the word necessary the way that it is most commonly used critically today, I would have just declared myself a Nazi. So I will answer the questions that ought to be engendered by that statement: Mein Kampf is necessary as a primary source for research for people who study Nazism and anti-Semitism because it was historically a crucial and widely-read text for followers of Hitler and helps to explicate the history that followed it. The truth is that Mein Kampf did perform a function historically, one that in retrospect we can recognize as necessary to the events that followed. The fact that that function was genocide on an unprecedented scale does not make it less necessary, only more horrifying.

In great part, the difficulty facing critics at this moment implicates the fraught issue of identity. As we increasingly use online aggregators, complete with ratings and mini reviews, to catalogue our likes and dislikes, we also increasingly conflate these quantified masses of data with our very identities. It's no wonder, then, that a book's necessity becomes conflated with the degree to which we agree with it. As a result, the critic risks being locked into a position that demands allegiance rather than analysis, answering a yes-or-no question instead of a why, or how. Politically speaking, this is disastrous. If a book's necessity is determined by whether or not we agree with it beforehand, then persuasion in literary form is no longer possible. A necessary book, in today's critical usage, is a sterile book, a book without the very power the critic claims for it. Before we claim that any given book is necessary, we need to confront our reasons for doing so, and if we do so, we need to say why.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

If It Ain't Broke, It's Probably Boring

Though the franchise has never been as centrally situated in the entertainment landscape until now, valuable intellectual property has been exploited across media since the advent of modernity. Little Women spawned theatrical adaptations and character dolls within less than a decade of its release; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein were major stage hits; A Christmas Carol all but invented the capitalist bonanza that we celebrate today. It's understandable that producers and publishers, not to mention toy manufacturers, make use of popular stories, characters, and concepts to produce more content, and therefore more money, but it also means that the same works get adapted over, and over, and over, and even over again. This is a shame because it often means that less famous works get forgotten and passed over. 

Do we really need two more adaptations of Anne of Green Gables? L.M. Montgomery wrote twenty novels and dozens of short stories. A miniseries of A Tangled Web, for instance, a novel with well over two hundred characters, or the Emily series, with its ambitious, sensitive heroine, would offer many of the same pleasures without simply retreading the same ground. In fact, given the current predominant taste for dark, gritty stories of trauma, Emily - with her strange 'flashes' that could be indications of supernatural power, or the residual effects of the trauma of her father's death and her own desperate feelings of abandonment - is a far more apropos protagonist than Anne, preternaturally sunny, a believer that "Tomorrow is always a new day, with no mistakes in it." 

Jane Eyre, too, has been adapted dozens of times (and with decidedly varying success), but Charlotte Brontë's other novels have been neglected: Shirley, with its radical, land-owning, gender norm-flouting heroine, was adapted, in 1922, while Villette, an intense and rich story of a repressed teacher, was adapted in 1970 for television, but neither adaptation is available online (the former may even be a lost film). And, while no one can complain that Charles Dickens's works are under-adapted, my favorite, Dombey and Son, has suffered from the low-budget constraints of old-style BBC filmmaking. It would be a treat to see Mr. Carker, Captain Cuttle, and the formidable Edith Dombey onscreen, instead of the next in an endless line of Ebeneezer Scrooges, Pips, and Oliver Twists. 

One could cite oodles more examples: we are forever getting a new Peter Pan, while J.M. Barrie's other (better) work, such as The Little Minister and My Lady Nicotine, is ignored; another Anna Karenina, while the more politically invested Resurrection hasn't been adapted for the silver screen since 1934; another Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, with nary a Boy who Left Home to Find Out about the Shivers in sight; another Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, instead of a Prince Otto or Catriona; an endless string of Austen adaptations, while her forebear Fanny Burney's novels have never once seen a screen adaptation. There are two more Little Women adaptations on their way, after two silent and three sound films, plus a number of miniseries, while none of Alcott's other novels have received a single decent adaptation. And I haven't even mentioned Shakespeare.

While in the scheme of things, repetitive adaptation is hardly a pressing problem, it indicates a lack of creative imagination and an excess of conservative calculation in filmmaking that prevents the production of films that insist on forging new paths forward, following wild and strange new directions, and thus - in fact, rather than rhetorically - increasing the diversity of cinematic vision. There are occasional flashes of the frisson of adaptation, the fruitful merging of the literary and cinematic at its most successful, but they are rare. One thinks of Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden, which transplanted Sarah Waters's Fingersmith from Victorian London to Korea under Japanese Occupation, or Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship, based on the blissfully hitherto un-adapted Austen novella, Lady Susan. It's remarkable that in an age that claims to value the new, original, and innovative, that our entertainment conforms so strictly to a focus on the most popular, most adapted works out there. We're spinning the wheels, but don't seem to be going anywhere. With literal millennia of literature to choose from, what a pity that we can't see the astonishing treasure trove we have in even a small neighborhood library.