Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: Howard Pyle's "The Garden Behind the Moon"

How does one recommend a children's book about death? For, that is the subject of Howard Pyle's The Garden Behind the Moon. The question of how to explain mortality to a child is hardly an easy one, nor a task, I imagine, many parents relish, and yet, it's a necessary one. That being said, The Garden Behind the Moon is not the sort of book a child psychologist would be likely to recommend. It's too complex, too dense with layered meaning upon meaning. It seems to me that the fact of death has been too absolutely spurned from our modern life - few people die at home, among their families, and the loss of young people is regarded as a bizarre anomaly, as though modern medicine were capable of solving any health problem, which it is not. The assumptions that good health is normal, rather than desirable, and that a long life is natural, rather than determined by factors as variable as genetics, access to healthcare, and sheer luck, were not shared with us by the Victorians. Nor were such assumptions shared by Pyle, though in his case, any illusions he may have held in that regard must have been ruthlessly shattered when his young son died suddenly, while he and his wife were out of the country. Six years later, in 1895, Pyle published The Garden Behind the Moon, an allegory about the children that leave us while they are young. The Victorian cult around the child, innocent, angelic, vulnerable to death, and blessed above grown people, has left us few artifacts more powerfully persuasive than Pyle's novel. 

The book, in exquisitely simple language, tells the story of David, a "moon-calf" who is teased and bullied by the other children because he is quiet and thoughtful, more interested in the imaginings of his mind than the mundane realities of life in his small village. He learns to walk the Moon-Path to the Moon-Garden after he meets with the Moon-Angel and it is there, behind the moon, that David is tested by an adventure that brings him to manhood, conquering the Iron Man and retrieving the Wonder Box and the Know-All Book it contains. The book is heartbreakingly wistful, permeated with a sense of deep loss, but David himself does not ever seem to feel that loss. In fact, he's rather passive for a hero. Even as a man, he remains beholden to older figures, whether it is Hans (the cobbler who shares his belief in the Moon-Garden), the Man-in-the-Moon, the beloved teacher who cares for the children who live in splendid happiness in the Moon-Garden, or the Moon-Angel himself.

The Moon-Angel is an angel of death, but also of renewal, and we witness him explicitly leading the souls of the dead to a shining white city, in an absolutely devastating scene David witnesses through the magical Moon-Window - a slave-woman dies on the ship carrying her to the market with her infant in her lap and she is thrown into the water, and her living baby, after her. The Moon-Angel goes to the bottom of the river to carry them up to the city and there is rejoicing, "for there is as much joy and gladness over one poor black woman who enters into that place as there is over the whitest empress who ever walked the earth of Christendom." This scene is crucial to the story, for it reveals one of the deepest facets of the book's philosophy: everyone's death matters and everyone's entrance into heaven is a joyous occasion, no matter a person's race, age, or gender. Everyone is vulnerable to death, men, women, and especially children, and even the monster David must face to complete his quest and become a man. Though the blunt wording (and the underlying assumption that most, wrongly, believe black lives matter less, if it all) shows the book's age - 120 years old as of this writing - the sentiment, that all people, of all races, deserve to be loved and celebrated makes the book feel surprisingly modern, especially when compared to other children's books of the era, such as E. Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet, with its blatantly racist island of savages. The Moon-Angel loves all alike.

Though the symbology is Christian, the book rejects a strictly Christian perspective for one steeped in an erudite mythologized pantheism, much in consonance with Rudolf Steiner's theosophy, and influenced by medieval and chivalric ideologies, Greco-Roman myth, and the rather chilly sensuality of the Art Deco movement. The story of Adam and Eve is reconfigured; there is no tempting serpent, knowledge is obtained by the reading of the Know-All Book, and the expulsion from the Garden is the result of fear of suffering, rather than punishment. This is a Christianity that insists on forgiveness and rewards the brave pursuit of knowledge.

If the book has a flaw it is that Pyle is unable to be as cruel to his hero as perhaps he ought. David grows into a strong man of courage and completes his quest, winning the hand of the woman he loves from the time they are both children, but he himself never alters except in body. It becomes impossible by the end of the story to fully comprehend which is the realm of the living and which of the dead, which constitutes reality and which fantasy, whether David is alive, dead, or passed into some odd twilight stage betwixt the two. Perhaps Pyle was unable to face the death of David, when he had no choice but to face the death of his own son.

From the perspective of gender, the book is old-fashioned, but not as prejudiced as many of its contemporaries. There are three positive older male figures - Hans the cobbler, the Man-in-the-Moon, and the Moon-Angel - and three positive female figures - the teacher in the Garden, the old woman with the red petticoat (who explains the quest to David), and the Iron Man's cook, without whom David would not survive his quest. Thus, David looks up to both men and women. His love, Phyllis, is an ideal, and undeveloped, and yet, I see no reason why the gender of the two couldn't be reversed: one could simply change the names to Davida and Philip and the same story could be told, though in a pleasingly transgressive form, without alteration. The story is allegorical, though deeply complex and at times ambiguous to the point of obscurity, and David does not really have to represent an explicitly male protagonist. 

Pyle is probably best known as an illustrator, rather than a writer, and a good edition should by rights include his ten full-page illustrations and the decorative headers for each chapter. The illustrations are unabashedly romantic, but drawn with a careful attention to realistic detail and texture. Here is a favorite example:

This beautiful book is unlikely to appeal to most children, but then, Pyle seems to recognize that. The book is for children like David, the moon-calf, children who don't make friends easily, children who dare to try to step onto a moonbeam and escape to the lands beyond our meager realities. For such a child, and especially for a such a child who has felt a deep loss, The Garden Behind the Moon is a rare and wonderful gem.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Some Feminist Musings on Guinevere

Guinevere, Arthur's queen and Lancelot's lover, lady of Camelot, can't catch a break. Whether in literature or film, she is almost never portrayed with the sympathy granted to either of the heroic men in her life. (I have used the spelling favored by each auther in discussing these characters. I favor Guinevere myself, but the name has been spelled in perhaps half a dozen different ways and this is the case with many, many characters of Arthurian legend.)

In Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Guinevere is kidnapped by Sir Maleagant, but when he discovers that Lancelot is on his way to rescue the queen, he begs her forgiveness and mercy, which she grants. Lancelot, in a righteous rage, wishes to kill Maleagant during the rescue, but is prevented by Guinevere. However, when Maleagant rightly suspects that the queen has gone to bed with Lancelot, she convinces her champion to fight her former kidnapper. This combat, the outcome of which decides whose cause is right, is the product of Guinevere's choosing, rather than Lancelot. In Malory's framing of this episode, Guinevere comes in for the most censure. Her vengeance is calculated, in contrast to the Lancelot's fury. Maleagant is, of course, right - the queen has committed adultery with her champion - but both men are depicted as victims of Guinevere's machinations, despite the fact that Maleagant abducted her and only ceded her because he was afraid and Lancelot is at least equally guilty of the adultery of which she's been accused. It's ridiculous to hold Guinevere most worthy of blame, unless she, as a woman, is being held to a more stringent moral code of conduct.

This episode, rarely included in cinematic adaptations of the Arthurian legends, is one of the most brutal in Marion Zimmer Bradley's gynocentric re-imagining. In this telling, Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar, in the Welsh spelling Bradley employs) is brutally raped by Maleagrant, intending to sire a child and therefore compel Arthur to cast her off. This is a key turning point for gwenhwyfar in Bradley's telling. The heroine, Morgaine, warns her not to be fooled by Maleagrant and Gwenhwyfar is thus framed as being foolhardy and rather stupid, in keeping with her character up to that point. After the rape, she gives herself free license to commit adultery with Lancelot, reasoning that if God will not protect her when she prays for his help in resisting a loathed sin, she may as well commit the sins she wants to commit. There are a number of issues with Bradley's text - after Bradley's death, her daughter came forward, alleging that she had been sexually abused by her mother throughout her childhood, and this accusation puts a number of sexually charged scenes in a different light - but I feel particularly troubled by how poorly Gwenhwyfar is treated. In a book that explores with such sensitivity and nuance the often demonized characters of Morgaine and Morgause, even granting Lancelot's poor love-struck Elaine a certain degree of agency, Gwenhwyfar's rough dismissal strikes me as tone-deaf. While the three other heroines (as well as Nimue) use witchcraft to attain their ends and cause men to fall in love with them, sleep with them, or otherwise do their bidding, Gwenhwyfar is herself subject to love. She is resented by Morgaine because Morgaine loves Arthur and by Elaine because Elaine loves Lancelot. In other words, Gwenhwyfar is the victim of unfortunately catty jealousy and slut-shaming.

In the end though, Guinevere is most often reviled for failing to produce Arthur's heir. The "blame" - that is, if one is willing to assign blame for infertility - has to be hers because we know that Arthur is not infertile and neither is Lancelot. Arthur has a son, Mordred, by his half-sister Morgause (or Morgan, depending on the source) and Lancelot has a son, Galahad, by Elaine. Thus, Guinevere, despite engaging in multiple sexual relationships with fertile men, never gets pregnant. In the Medieval and Renaissance worlds, in which childlessness could be publicly ascribed to God's disapproval, infertility can indeed be a significant signifier of a woman's wickedness, but in the relative sexual liberation and the drastic fragmentation of the Christian moral system in the wake of the scientific revolution, industrialization, and numerous civil rights movements, why should we, still, blame Guinevere?

Though T. H. White was not terribly adept at writing female characters in The Once and Future King, ironically he seems to better understand the complexities of any moral judgement on Guinevere, though this is always tempered by a strictly gendered perspective that assumes that women exist primarily in relation to men. On the one hand, he writes that "she had all the proper qualities for a man-eater"; on the other, he very sensibly points out that the two men "whom she apparently devoured, lived full lives, and accomplished things of their own." The difficulty at which White arrives is this: he explicitly recognizes Guenever as what he calls "a real person," that is, a complex character that didn't always act in one, single consistent way and this stymies him because she's a woman and he is accustomed to assuming a person as explicitly male. This in and of itself is a remarkable step for a writer that blithely dismisses crying women as "repulsive" and angry women as "revolting." White also recognizes that Guenever's childlessness is at the heart of her trouble and he even goes so far as to feel pity for her condition as a woman. While Arthur and Lancelot busy themselves with warfare, adventures, the administration of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail, Guenever is stuck, bored to death, at home and "unless she felt like a little spinning or embroidery, there was no occupation - except Lancelot." White's compassion for Guenever prevents him from indulging in the moral condemnation of Malory or the haughty dismissal of Zimmer Bradley.

White's compassion for Guenever also puzzles him and he makes an exception for her as an extraordinary woman with little in common with others of her sex. This is evident in what he writes about love in the Middle Ages. "In those days people loved each other for their lives, without the conveniences of the divorce court and the psychiatrist. They had a God in heaven and a goddess on earth - and, since people who devote themselves to goddesses must exercise some caution about the ones to whom they are devoted, they neither chose them by the passing standards of the flesh alone, nor abandoned it lightly when the bruckle thing began to fail." It never occurs to White that a lover may be female as well as male. The lover devotes himself to a goddess, the goddess to being beloved. His romanticism remains stubbornly phallocentric.

I would hope that modern feminist readers would have greater compassion for the character of Guinevere. Her thorniness, her moral courage, her refusal to give up what she wanted most, the sad fact of her infertility, her passionate love, and her unflinching tussles with duty - these qualities should endear her to feminists. But perhaps the fact that she is so relatable makes her less desirable as a feminist heroine. She isn't an aspirational figure because her life ends in tragedy and the ruination of everything to which she, her husband, and her lover had devoted themselves. Even so, if we reject such a character on the basis of her failure, which of us would not equally deserve rejection?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Elementary Politics of "Life is Beautiful"

Roberto Benigni's internationally successful and acclaimed film, Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella), is one of the most heart-rending and yet heart-warming films of Italian cinema. It's an undeniably beautiful film, but one that demands political analysis and in the course of that analysis, I will be discussing the end of the film, so, for those who care about spoilers, watch the film before reading any further.

The film opens in Arezzo in 1939, when the ever-cheerful, goofy Guido (Benigni), newly arrived from the country, comes to work for his uncle (Giustino Durano) as a waiter. He meets the upper-class Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), who is charmed by his antics and ability to laugh at himself, and who, more importantly, feels utterly stifled by her wealthy family, who have fascist sympathies. The two marry and have a child, Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini), but Guido - who is Jewish -  and his son are deported to a concentration camp. His wife chooses to board the train taking them away, rather than remain behind in safety. Desperate to protect his son, Guido invents a game, explaining to him that they are there to compete for a grand prize, a real armed tank, and distorting the brutal reality into a surreal, but child-friendly, competition. As news arrives that the Allies are on their way and the Nazis hysterically destroy evidence of the camp, Guido hides his son, but is caught trying to find Dora and shot. At the end of the film, Giosuè emerges from his hiding place to find a friendly American to take him for a ride in a real tank and his mother, who has also survived.

There are several salient issues that are likely to be lost on English-speaking viewers of the film. First, the concentration camp to which Guido and his family are sent is almost certainly intended to be the transit camp at Bolzano, one of the largest the Nazis set up in Italy and the only one that also functioned as a forced-labor camp. Most of the prisoners there were political subversives, though Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Romany were also imprisoned there. The camp became operational relatively late in the war, not until the summer of 1944, and was abandoned by the Nazis in late spring 1945, just before the Allies arrived in the area. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the only major deviation from the historical reality of the camp in the movie is the presence of gas chambers in Bolzano. Since it was primarily a transit camp, those destined to be murdered in gas chambers would have been sent on to Auschwitz or other extermination camps outside of Italy.

Second, the film tends to conflate fascists with Nazi sympathizers and though there was certainly overlap, this is somewhat dishonest. There is in fact only one, single Italian soldier in the film and he doesn't speak - he simply stands and salutes with a stony, unchanging face at an otherwise raucous party. Otherwise, the only fascists we see are bureaucrats, teachers, and an ordinary tradesman who has named his children Benito and Adolf. They are spouting disgusting ideas about "superior race" and toasting a "torta Etiope," a gargantuan cake celebrating the conquering of Ethiopia, but the only violence that they commit is ideologically symbolic - talking, saluting, leaving graffitti scrawled on businesses and property. At the very beginning, a few thugs knock down Guido's uncle, presumably because he's Jewish, but it's an unseen moment that hardly registers and leaves the uncle unharmed.

The Nazis we see in the film, in stark contrast, are all in uniform and only one, Doktor Lessing (Horst Buchholz), appears out of uniform at any point in the film. The primary evil in the film is anti-Semitism, obviously enshrined within Nazism, and seemingly so within Italian fascism, as presented in the film. The only other ill of the fascist regime that gets explored at all is the idiotic amount of red tape required to open a business, but in the end, Guido succeeds in opening his bookshop, so it's a mere annoyance. Thus, within the world of the film, fascists are bigoted, consistently better off economically, capable of nasty symbolic harassment, but not a particularly serious threat, but above all, anti-Semitic. The Nazis, in contrast, murder, torture, and most despicably in the case of Doktor Lessing, beg the starving, imprisoned Guido to help him solve a riddle because it's keeping him awake at night and ruining his life. The fascists are stooges, to laugh at; the Nazis are cruel, callous villains. The politics are hyper-simplified to a simple system in which Nazis are evil, fascists are buffoons, and good people are victims.

As I said above, the film opens in 1939 and this is significant because race laws in Italy were only passed in 1938, as Mussolini began to cozy up to Hitler, and they were extremely unpopular, even within the fascist party. According to Stanley Payne in A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, there a few main reasons for this: 1) the Jewish population was tiny in Italy, less than one tenth of one percent, and thoroughly integrated into Italian communities; 2) Mussolini had consistently up to that point ridiculed Hitler's obsession with race; and shockingly, 3) "the Fascist movement was itself disproportionately Jewish - that is, Jews made up a greater proportion of the party at all stages of its history than of the Italian population as a whole." The race laws actually weakened support for Mussolini, both within the party and within the country as a whole. Unfortunately, they also provided cover for people, fascist or not, to harass Jews with impunity, and far worse, gave the Nazis' anti-Semitic policies a decided boost when they occupied Italy in 1943.

A major issue within the film is that the only female protagonist remains politically undefined. Dora, a gentile engaged to marry a fascist bureaucrat, expresses discontent with her situation and chooses to leave behind her wealthy family to marry a Jewish waiter. Little insight is given into this radical decision. She never expresses an opinion about religion and the closest she comes to making a political statement is to complain that dinner with the prefect is boring. She then makes the astonishing, near-suicidal decision to follow her husband and son into the concentration camp. Her suffering seems like martyrdom, and she is framed like a Madonna, clear-eyed, gaunt, silent, her hair hidden under a scarf, a picture of suffering. She has no political point of view - she is purely a victim.

Though Guido mercilessly mocks the idiocy of fascist ideas like that of the superior race ("a perfect Aryan bellybutton!"), his political naivete is lost only when the reality gets so bad that his and his family's lives are in genuine danger. When his uncle warns him that he too will suffer harassment, he shrugs it off and chooses to remain positive. The uncle is fatalistic and un-protesting and Giosuè, only five years old, obviously cannot begin to comprehend what is happening. This situation creates a political black hole: the positive characters, the ones that we relate to and care about, are essentially apolitical, while Germans - exclusively Nazis in this film - are universally bad, even when they appear at first to be humane.

Thus, Life is Beautiful does not make a particularly complex political statement. Its politics are largely negative, (rightly) critical of the Nazi regime, only (too) gently critical of the fascist regime, and failing to propose any kind of alternative. This political simplicity is in harmony with the emotional tenor of the film and is probably intentional. Benigni has not made any serious statement about the Holocaust, what drove Nazis to commit it or what permitted some of their victims to survive, the thorny ideological messes of either fascism of Nazism, or what sort of political ideology should or could be brought to bear against these racist doctrines. Instead, Life is Beautiful makes precisely that statement: that life is beautiful, and that a father's love for his child can make his life beautiful even under the most barbaric, brutal conditions possible. Instead of positing an alternative political paradigm, Benigni places a set of values - love, tenderness, kindness, beauty, compassion - in opposition to the ideological monoliths of Nazism, and to a lesser extent, fascism. There is value in such a statement, but it lacks nuance and fails to reckon with the uglier parts of humanity, ugliness that can emerge in everyone because only a very naive person can divide that humanity into entirely good people and entirely bad, pure victims and pure perpetrators.

For English-speakers interested in a more nuanced picture of Italy under fascism and under German occupation, there is the essential history by Stanley Payne, A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, the brilliant novel The Garden of the Finzi-Contini by Giorgio Bassani, any and all works by the genius Primo Levi, and many, many brilliant political films, like those of Lina Wertmmüller (Love and Anarchy and Seven Beauties), Federico Fellini (Amarcord), or Bernardo Bertolucci (1900 or The Conformist).

Friday, November 13, 2015

In Praise of Grumpy Characters

I've always had a considerable soft spot for grumpy characters. In fact, more often than not they prove to be my favorites. Their grumpiness only makes them more lovable, more endearing, and it's often a mask for a deeper emotional engagement, a more mature intellect, and a profound love for those in their care. Grumpy characters also, in contrast to their real-life counterparts, attract a degree of affection, both because they make us laugh, often at our own, newly recognized foibles, and because they remain steadfast to their own temperaments. Grumps are nonconformists and dissidents; they speak what they see as the truth whether it is popular or not, and they're willing, if not delighted, to put a dark cast on the world as they see it. And, perhaps most importantly, grumpy characters tend to be those that come through in the end, complaining, lamenting, cursing, and protesting, but there they are, at the side of our heroes.

In T. H. White's The Once and Future King, especially the first volume, The Sword in the Stone, there is not one but two delightfully grumpy characters: Merlyn ("Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!") and Archimedes ("For heaven's sake, stop flying like a woodpecker."). Merlyn's gruffness is due partially to living backwards in time, which is confusing, uncomfortable, and liable to put one in a very bad temper, but he's also sensitive enough emotionally to realize that tenderly expressed sympathy isn't always the kindest response. As for Archimedes, being Merlyn's familiar, the highly educated owl is prone to peevishness and a pedantic, rather prim insistence on formalities. He is most offended when the Wart ventures to call him "Archie." In the Disney animated film, Archimedes is perhaps even grumpier than Merlyn and is without question my very favorite character in the Disney canon. When the Wart tells him he can't read (the Wart is literate in the novel), Archimedes nearly has a fit of apoplexy and then grimly asks, "Well, what do you know? Oh, never mind."

There is no greater grump in literature than Puddleglum ("And you must always remember there's one good thing about being trapped down here: It'll save funeral expenses."), the lugubrious marshwiggle who accompanies Scrubb and Pole on their quest to save Prince Rilian in C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair. Despite a constant stream of morbid projections onto any and every possible outcome of their quest, Puddleglum is actually quite positive in his way, precisely because he always gets pleasantly surprised that things didn't work out so badly after all, he's a fierce friend, an incorruptible champion for his beliefs, and the success of the children's mission is due in no small part to his efforts as their guide and guardian.

The Psammead ("What place is this?" - "It's a sitting room, of course." - "Then I don't like it.") of E. Nesbit's trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet, is a sand fairy, a rare creature that must grant any wish it hears expressed, puffing out its body and loudly voicing protest at its ill-use, as wish-granting is quite draining. Nevertheless, it develops warm affection towards the children it sends on such fabulous adventures and will deign, if treated with the proper respect, to give excellent advice, with a lecture or two thrown in.

Templeton ("Let him die. I shouldn't care."), the voluptuously gluttonous rat that shares Wilbur's sty in E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, proves rather more difficult to like, but he's invaluable to Charlotte's mission to save Wilbur, since he can leave the barn and seek out exciting new words to describe the anxious porcine in Charlotte's web. The acme of Templeton's life is his visit to the fair where he indulges his gluttony to a near life-ending extent - by the time he returns to Wilbur, he has swollen several times his normal size. What saves Templeton from being a rather disgusting character is precisely the sharp edge of his tongue. He is always selfish and always finds some advantage for himself, and yet, and yet, in the end, he becomes a constant, if crabby, companion for Wilbur in an odd, but binding friendship.

Badger ("Badger hates Society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing.”), from Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece The Wind in the Willows, is a rather mysterious character, one that inspires awe as much as anything else. He is unfailingly loyal to his friends, and mindful of their best qualities, but that doesn't stop him from being sternly uncompromising when they behave badly. His solitary life renders him somewhat remote, but when the animals are called to arms to liberate Toad Hall, he proves a deft fighter with his cudgel. He may not care for the lazy, sociable tea parties and picnics of his friends, but his gruffness takes nothing from his capacity for friendship.

It would be remiss to write about grumpy characters without mentioning Grumpy ("And all females is poison! They're full of wicked wiles!" - "What are wicked wiles?" - "I don't know. But I'm agin 'em!") from the landmark Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As one would imagine given his moniker, Grumpy is forever in a foul mood, skeptical, suspicious, somewhat prejudiced, and impatient. Yet, of all the dwarfs, he proves to be Snow White's greatest champion, as well as the most perceptive and decisive of any of the characters in the story.

And, while I've concentrated on the grumps of children's fantasy literature and film, one of the most entertaining grouches of literature is Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot (“I find most of the human race extraordinarily repulsive. They probably reciprocate this feeling.”) Hyperbolically fastidious and fussy, snobbish to a fault, Poirot has little patience for bad cooking, sloppy attire, or less than cultivated manners, yet he can hardly be faulted for dereliction of duty, even when, as seems nearly always to be the case, he is en vacance. Then there is Sherlock Holmes, Carl Fredricksen (Up), Oscar the Grouch, Bagheera, Archie Bunker, and many, many others.

It's well worth noting that all of these characters are male (with the exception of the Psammead, who is unique and an "it" but reads as male), and indeed, it is difficult to find many such grumpy characters that are female. As a woman who is more often than not singularly grumpy, the dearth of characters that are both female and given the latitude to complain and lose her temper without being chastised or rendered hopelessly unsympathetic is a terrible frustration. The unfortunate truth is that most "feminist" characters are allowed as little scope to be unlikable as their more misogynistically portrayed sisters. If a feminist heroine must be an ideal, or "flawed" in such a way to make her slightly imperfect but still likable, then feminism itself avails us little. Most of all, grumpy female characters are often ridiculed, laughed at and not with, and their grumpiness is often explained as the result of past pain, often of a sexual or romantic character (spinsters, ladies jilted at the altar, cuckolded wives - Miss Havisham types), in contrast to the characters above who are grumpy purely and simply because that is who they are.

It's true that in the realms of feminist literary fiction, such a paradigm has been questioned, pulled apart, reinterpreted, and inverted on its head. But these books are hardly mainstream. The examples of grumpy characters cited above are drawn from books and films that are widely read and seen, that have a wide and diverse scope of influence. The best example I can call to mind of a lovable grumpy female character is J. K. Rowling's Professor McGonagall ("You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don't let you off homework today. I assure you that if you do die, you need not hand it in."). Though the gender paradigms of the Harry Potter series are staunchly patriarchal, it does offer, for once in a mainstream context, an unapologetically and unrepentently brusque woman, but the fact remains that much of her grumpiness is rooted in the exercise of a fundamentally maternal role, and thus, not so different from the explosive upsets of Molly Weasley, provoked by her fear for her husband and children. Though it is not explicitly stated in the books, her tragic background of romantic disappointment and heartbreak, revealed through writing on the Pottermore site, makes her teeter on the edge of grumpy by circumstance rather than nature.

However, perhaps mainstream television might succeed where mainstream books do not. In Parks and Recreation, April ("We have a new policy, parks can only be reserved for witch covens and slip 'n slide competitions. Which one are you?") essentially does not smile, though she takes a certain creepy delight in morbidity, she is supremely and purposefully incompetent - one could say that she is peerlessly competent at incompetence - and willfully obstructive, and she claims to hate everything and everyone, but she's perhaps the most loyal, perceptive, caring person in the whole crew, as understanding of Ron Swanson as she is of Lesley Knope, which is why Andr Dwyer, with his puppy dog demeanor and relentless positivity, ends up marrying her. The best part of April though is that she is grumpy because that is who she is. There's no tragic backstory, no unmet appetite. As such, she's a welcome counterpart to the unabatedly sunny, eyes-on-the-prize, and far more culturally acceptable feminism of Lesley Knope. It's certainly possible to have lovable grumpy female characters, but their grumpiness should be organic to who they are, not what they've suffered at the hands of men, not ridiculed, and not dismissed.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

11 Movies for Fans of "Wolf Hall"

Having given you a list of books sure to please the fans of Wolf Hall last month, it seemed apropos to follow up with a list of movies sure to do the same. There is of course the recent television adaptation of Wolf Hall, as well as the Showtime series The Tudors, which, though it deviates from historical record at times, makes fewer such deviations in service to sensationalism than one might expect. The Tudors have been the subject of numerous films, of ranging quality: Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), a beautifully mounted and lyrically acted drama deeply in sympathy with Anne Boleyn, though it suffers from overly stately pacing; The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), an enormously entertaining, though historically inaccurate film, with an iconic performance by Charles Laughton and a deliciously witty, even proto-feminist turn by Elsa Lanchester as Anne of Cleves; The Sword and the Rose (1953), a sumptuous costume drama produced by Walt Disney (reviewed here) starring one of my favorites, Glynis Johns; and there are dozens more. In particular, many, many films have been made about Elizabeth I and she has been played by such luminaries as Cate Blanchett, Bette Davis, Judi Dench, Flora Robson, and Helen Mirren, but by far my favorite adaptation of the queen's life is The Virgin Queen (2005), starring Anne-Marie Duff and Tom Hardy. However, it is easy indeed to find lists of films about the Tudors; the following, instead, is a list of films that should prove enjoyable to the enthusiastic reader of Wolf Hall, none of them directly about the Tudor monarchs.

Andrei Rublyev (1966)
Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece, set in fifteenth-century, pre-Tsarist Russia, examines the religious and political turbulence of the period through the narrative, largely invented, of the life of the renowned icon painter Andrei Rublev. Numerous controversies dogged the film's release; in the Soviet Union, its ambiguous, yet clearly critical dissection of repressive regimes that practice artistic and religious censorship, as well as the seriousness and near-piety of its treatment of Christianity, ruffled feathers, while both there and abroad, some scenes of brutal violence were criticized. In common with Mantel's novel, the film shares a deeply complex and nuanced examination of politics, Christianity, state violence, and artistic expression (what a treat we might have if Mantel were to extend her trilogy with a companion novel from the point of view of Holbein!).

Becket (1964)
Starring Richard Burton as Thomas Becket and Peter O'Toole as Henry II, this award-winning drama departs significantly from history, but delivers a stirring and deeply satisfying spectacle. The film examines the conflict between monarchy and church as they vie for power, both spiritual and temporal, through the foundering of the (possibly fictional) friendship of Henry and Becket, after Becket is appointed archbishop of Canterbury. Largely a chance for its stars to give knock-out performances, the film sometimes lags and shows its theatrical seams, but for all that, it's well worth watching, although for Americans unfamiliar with English history and particularly Becket's monumental reputation as a saint and martyr it may prove challenging (though the reader of Mantel's trilogy should catch on fast) .

Chimes at Midnight (1965)
In my opinion, Orson Welles's greatest masterpiece is this Shakespearean drama, in which he plays Falstaff and was never more brilliant. With an incredible cast of legendary actors, including John Gielgud, Keith Baxter, Jeanne Moreau, and Ralph Richardson providing the narration, the tragicomedy of Henry V's transformation from roguish, whoring scalawag to the hero of Agincourt is juxtaposed with the unhappy ruination of his former father figure and drinking buddy, Falstaff. The script is cobbled together from five of Shakespeare's plays, adapted by Welles himself, and despite the obvious license taken, I consider it the best adaptation of Shakespeare of all time, as well as one of the finest depictions of the medieval period. The battle scenes in particular are extraordinarily stirring, showing the brutality of medieval combat in all its chaos and strange intimacy. I imagine Mantel's Cromwell would enjoy sharing a cup of sack with Welles's Falstaff.

Ivan the Terrible (1944)
Sergei Eisenstein's epic biopic of Ivan the Terrible, originally commissioned by Stalin only to be banned when the dictator took issue with the political content of the second part, is among the greatest Russian films ever made. It is also a thorny, difficult, and at times maddening film to watch. Color sequences are spliced into the largely black and white film, and grandiose displays of power and ruthlessness contrast with joyous scenes of feasting, gluttony, and dancing and small, unexpected moments of tenderness. Stalin identified strongly with the first coronated tsar of Russia, and perhaps the film's depiction of Ivan descending into increasing paranoia and delusion, treading decidedly over the line between the necessary brutality of an absolutist state and unhinged sadism, proved too much for the dictator's ego (and perhaps for the casual viewer). The obvious parallels between Ivan and Henry VIII, both men determined to unite their countries under their absolute control and both shockingly cruel to their wives and children, should interest the fan of Wolf Hall. The film also has a spectacular score by Sergei Prokofiev.

The Lion in Winter (1968)
Another historical drama centering around medieval monarchs, this film boasts one of the best screenplays ever, written by James Goldman adapting his own play. Over the celebration of the Christmas holiday in 1183, Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) hurl at each other the most venomous and brilliant insults they can muster, in their struggle to determine the succession of the throne. Henry favors John (Nigel Terry), while Eleanor favors Richard (Anthony Hopkins), and both are equally resolved to triumph over the other. Featuring a bold score, punctuated with clarion calls and a spirited choir, by John Barry, this film is superlatively good. The focus on monarchic power struggles, unorthodox marital arrangements, and linguistic parrying should prove delightful for the Mantel fan.

The Princess of Montpensier (2010)
One of my favorite films of recent years, Bertrand Tavernier's drama is set during the French Wars of Religion and stars Mélanie Thierry, Gaspard Ulliel, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, and Lambert Wilson. Marie (Thierry) is a lovely, naive noblewoman infatuated with the Duc de Guise (Ulliel), but married with little preparation to the jealous, immature Prince de Montpensier (Leprince-Ringuet). Their politically tactical yet emotionally tempestuous marriage becomes the fragile center of a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse as various men, from the Duc d'Anjou (Raphaël Personnaz) to the Count de Chabannes (Wilson) covet the princess. The jewel-toned cinematography by Bruno de Keyzer sets off to stunning effect the gorgeous costumes by Caroline de Vivaise, who makes use of a dizzying array of richly sumptuous colors and textures, while the score by Philippe Sarde judiciously blends a dramatically modern, rhythmically intense musicality with the instrumentation and vocal style of the sixteenth century. This film examines royal politics, religious schism and warfare, infidelity and gender, and the nature of love, all subjects examined with equal perspicacity by Mantel.

Queen Margot (1994)
I must confess my feelings about this film are mixed, as it proves a rather strange concoction of political intrigue, morbidly graphic violence, intense, almost nihilistic bitterness, and outrageously overblown romanticism. The operatic tone of the film is perhaps justified by its historically-based plot, also set during the French Wars of Religion. The protagonists are the French monarchs, back-stabbing, brutal men and women willing to poison, shoot, rape, bludgeon, or otherwise disable their own family members in their contest for control of the throne. The cast is excellent and universally visually striking and includes Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Vincent Pérez, and Virna Lisi. Few films outside the horror genre use blood to such dramatic effect, whether it is oozing through a prince's skin, gushing over Margot's white gown, or crusted over the embalmed head of a lover. If the film fails to convince us of the trope of true love, it reaches far more interesting, and embittered, conclusions about power and compassion, or rather lack thereof. The French court of Charles IX, in this film at least, seems to have been an even bloodier, more murderous one than that of Henry VIII.

Richard III (1954)
Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Richard III is the least critically acclaimed of his Shakespeare films, dogged with complaints of historical inaccuracy (rather silly, given that a number of these inaccuracies derive from the play) and Olivier's domination (again, a complaint that could equally be lodged against the play). Though having seen the play live with Mark Rylance as the treacherous and ill-fated monarch, I find this version less compelling than I did at first, it remains one of the finest films made from Shakespeare. Olivier of course heads the cast, which includes Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Cedric Hardwicke, and Claire Bloom, and this is very much his own project - he directed, produced, and adapted the screenplay. Richard III was of course defeated by the Lancasters, who crowned Henry VII, father to Henry VIII.

A Royal Affair (2012)
This critically acclaimed Danish film stars the astonishing actor Mikkel Følsgaard, in his extraordinary first performance as Christian VII, Denmark's severely mentally disturbed monarch in the eighteenth century. Alicia Vikander plays his unhappy wife Caroline Matilde and Mads Mikkelsen plays Johann Friedrich Struensee, the German physician who became powerful enough at court to implement Enlightenment policies under the aegis of the absolutist monarchy. The story, far less familiar than the dramas of the English and French crowns, is absolutely fascinating, examining with intelligence the dangerous power of ideas and the complexities of relationships torn apart by sex, madness, and political responsibility. However, as good as the film is, Følsgaard is a miracle - it is impossible to dismiss the monarch as simply sadistic and to be loathed or sick and to be pitied. His performance is one of the finest of the current century, across all cinematic genres.

The Seventh Seal (1957)
Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece about a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) who encounters Death (Bengt Ekerot) and challenges him to a game of chess in plague-ridden Sweden is populated by iconic imagery that continues to resonate in film, particularly the horror genre, today. Its monumental reputation is deserved, but for all that, there is an unexpected lightness to this film (like Mantel's Cromwell's unlooked-for flashes of humor) that counteracts the intense despairs suffered by the film's characters. Even as entire families perish, a woman is burned at the stake for witchcraft, graves are robbed, and women raped, the knight's mission, born of a profound disillusionment, is to perform one meaningful deed before he dies and this mission, like the final indelible image of the dance of death in the final frames, is one of hope. Though Bergman's theme, as in so many of his films, is God's silence, The Seventh Seal, even as it embraces despair, is anything but nihilistic. Far darker than Mantel's Cromwell trilogy, this film nevertheless shares with it many themes: religious conflict, moral responsibility both collective and individual, the mystery of death, and calculation as an art form.

Throne of Blood (1957)
Based on Shakespeare's Macbeth (and according to critic Harold Bloom, the best adaptation of the material), Akira Kurosawa's film recasts the story in feudal Japan, where samurai lords vie for power. Starring the great Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu (the Macbeth role) and Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji Washizu (Lady Macbeth), the film has a distinctly Japanese style; cinematographer Asakazu Nakai makes stunning use of the genuine fog - the movie was filmed largely out of doors on the slopes of Mount Fuji - to evoke both the terrifying chaos and ever shifting realities of power of the feudal world and the moral haze into which Washizu descends ever more deeply. Though this film has no character to match the calculated mystery and unnervingly flexible instrumentality of Cromwell, perhaps such havoc and violent ends would have been Henry's lot had Anne Boleyn succeeded in convincing him to execute his inscrutable right-hand man.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Challenges of Translation: A Glass Menagerie of Titles

Even a brief survey of how the titles of great works of world literature have been translated demonstrates the difficulties of rendering literary meaning in different languages, languages that may lack precise equivalents or that may have only words with shorn or different connotations. The frustrations, as well as the occasional creative brilliance, of translators are rarely appreciated by the reader, trapped as we are within the matrix of our own language(s). The following examples are a miniature glass menagerie of titles, each one a fragile imitation of the original, some of which bear up under examination and some of which fall apart under scrutiny. (By the by, the Tennessee Williams play is translated literally, though less evocatively, in Italian as Lo zoo di vetro, and more exactly in French and in German as La Ménagerie de verre and Die Glasmenagerie.)

Gabriele D'Annunzio's Il piacere is typically rendered in English as The Child of Pleasure, imitating the French translator's decision to render the Italian as L'enfant de volupté. The original title presents particular challenges for the English translator. A literal translation would be The Pleasure, which sounds awkward. The article is not really necessary, but to call the novel Pleasure is to lose much of the pregnant meanings of the original. "Piacere" in Italian is a word rich with diverse meanings and connotations - within its meaning are encompassed the expected definition of physical gratification, as well as intellectual and aesthetic enjoyment, the second definition being less salient in English. But the word in Italian can also mean a personal aesthetic, a free choice (a concept essential to the novel), and it also has a strong presence as an expression of courtesy, a favor, a rendered service, or an act of kindness. When one hears the word "pleasure" in English, it fails to evoke so many layered meanings and brings to mind almost solely the idea of the physical, while the title ought to hold tension between the physical and aesthetic, or even spiritual, connotations of the word. I question why the French translator did not translate the title exactly, as Le plaisir, a choice that would have retained the essential connotations of the Italian, but I understand why the English translator was moved to use a different title. Unfortunately, The Child of Pleasure fails to recoup the meanings of the original title, bringing to mind the idea of a bastard, product of an illicit union, rather than what it might mean in the context of the novel, that is, a protagonist in thrall to pleasure in all its diverse meanings. 

Another case is Il Gattopardo (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) universally rendered in English as The Leopard. A "gattopardo" is not a leopard; it's a serval, a fairly small African species of cat native to the areas around the Sahara. In this case, the translator faced a significant dilemma. A serval is not an animal familiar to many English speakers (in fact, the word is not in the dictionary of most word processing programs) and the word has few, if any, connotations in English, even for an erudite reader. The title references the family crest of the aristocratic Salina family, based on the author's own forbears, in which is a stamped a serval. By changing the title in English, the translator was able to a certain extent to recover some of the intrinsic connotations of the original title, calling to mind a noble, fierce, graceful, beautifully furred feline. Though the translation is technically incorrect, it's also a particularly fine example of transferring deeper meaning to a language that lacks it in the technical translation. 

Italo Svevo's La coscienza di Zeno has a multi-faceted significance in its title that cannot be rendered directly in English. The translator must make a choice between a number of versions: Zeno's Conscience or Zeno's Consciousness, or even Zeno's Awareness or Zeno's Sensibleness. The novel, one of the earliest to trace in complex detail the process of Freudian analysis, plays on these diverse meanings, and is written in the form of a diary expressly assigned by the analyst as a means of understanding the protagonist's psychological disorder. As such, the ambiguous title holds moral, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual connotations at once. In English, the translator must choose which connotations are more important and thus make a decided interpretation, in some ways, defining the novel in a way that is not demanded in Italian.  The book, however, is usually rendered as The Confessions of Zeno, a way to avoid the problem of the word "coscienza," at the cost of a title of pregnant meaning. 

And on and on, there are so many more examples. Alberto Moravia's Gli indifferenti ("the indifferent ones") becomes A Time of Indifference, Giovanni Verga's I Malavoglia ("the Malavoglia family," - "malavoglia" means "ill-will") becomes The House by the Medlar Tree, Dacia Maraini's La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa ("the long of life of Marianna Ucrìa") becomes The Silent Duchess. Marcel Proust's masterwork, À la recherche du temps perdu, has been translated alternately as In Search of Lost Time and Remembrance of Things Past. The latter is a quotation of a Shakespeare sonnet, while the former is a literal rendering of the French. What is known as The Holy Sinner (Thomas Mann) in English is Der Erwählte in German, which means "the chosen one," while The Black Swan in English is Die Betrogene in German, which is "the deceived one." In these last cases, however, I am only aware of these changes because I read critical work on these novels in an effort to understand them better. Since my German is poor at best, I have no choice but to rely on the translator. And beyond English, Italian, French, and to a far lesser extent, German, I must wholly rely on the translator, assuming that she has given the sense of the work as far as possible in a language that I do speak. Though some of the above examples are better translated than others, it's evident, merely from examining a few titles, that translation is a true art form, a deeply complex act of both interpretation and creation. It is impossible to appreciate the full, complex meanings of an original literary work unless one reads it in the original language; however, a good translation will render, not exactly, but with equal richness, the complexities of the work and thus become a new work of art in and of itself.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: Thomas Mann's "The Black Swan"

Published in 1954, The Black Swan would sadly be one of Thomas Mann's final works, and in the past few decades, it's garnered significant attention from feminist scholars. The Black Swan is often described as the feminine counterpart to A Death in Venice, but that diminishes the complexity of the slim novella, and most particularly, the radicality of its hyper-frank portrayal of a post-menopausal woman's sexual urges and gynecological medical problems. Though squeamishness about women's reproductive processes, especially menstruation, is less than it was, it's still very much present and it's possible for a modern reader to access the level of shock with which contemporary literary critics, the vast majority male, met Mann's novella. I'm undecided as to whether or not I would classify the novella as feminist, though it is undoubtedly of great interest to feminists.

The Black Swan, in a brief hundred and forty pages, details Rosalie von Tuemmler's post-menopausal infatuation with her son's American tutor. This May-December forbidden romance is what usually draws comparisons with A Death in Venice and that element is important, but it's not preeminent. Or perhaps it's better to say that framing the story in this wise dismisses how radical the actual framing of the novella is. Rosalie is a widow with two children, a grown daughter who is an intellectual abstract artist and a teenage son. In opposition to her daughter's intellectualism and rational approach to life, Rosalie worships at the altar of "Nature," in her eyes a sort of pseudo-deistic concept that is both expressed by the natural world, its trees, flowers, streams, etc. and cultivated by elevated appreciation for itself. Her passion for Ken, decades younger than she, is a renaissance, a reflowering, of her womanhood, which she sees radically expressed as a recurrence of what she believes to be a menstrual period. Both she and her daughter, however, are aware that this passion, though described often as love, is explicitly sexual rather than romantic: "'Oh, Anna, my loyal child, I indulge in lust, shameful and grievous lust, in my blood, in my wishes, and I cannot give it up..." Further, when Anna tentatively points out the obstacles to a marriage between two people that could be mother and son, Rosalie is almost amused, saying, "the idea is new to me... I can assure you that I do not entertain it." It would be disingenuous to say that such a plot was typical in its treatment of an older woman.

The most salient aspect of Rosalie's love is precisely that it actually has very little to do with the man himself. She dwells on his body above all else, though she also indulges him in his interest for European history. Through Anna's eyes, we see how unremarkable a person he is; through Rosalie's, what a desirable male specimen. This is one of the reasons why the novella is radical - because Rosalie is given the latitude, typically granted to male protagonists and much more rarely (though increasingly) to nubile young women, to love passionately and lustfully, objectifying the the man she desires and imbuing him with the qualities she would most like him to have. There is no ridicule, no judgement, no censure - it's eminently natural that Rosalie should feel and express carnal desire. The obstacles are social, but not fundamental. Such an attitude is remarkable for a book written in the 1950s (though it is set in the relative liberality of the Weimar Republic) and even more so coming from a male author.

In fact, Rosalie doesn't know Ken well at all. The vast majority of their conversations and meetings take place in the presence of others and it isn't until the crucial revelatory moment that the two of them actually acknowledge the possibility of a sexual affair. The relationship that is examined most minutely is not between Rosalie and her lover, but between Rosalie and her daughter. This is a radical re-imagining of a woman's romantic entanglements, as one negotiated between two women who are not romantically involved. As a result, female characters are constantly in the foreground, far more fleshed out than any of the male characters.

Menstruation and gynecological health are both treated at length in the book as well. Rosalie sees in her misunderstood vaginal bleeding a resuscitation of her lost youth, a "victory" - "I am a woman again, a whole human being again, a functioning female, I can feel worthy of the youthful manhood that has bewitched me..." Before this bleeding, Rosalie grapples desperately with the feeling of having been discarded, of having been demoted permanently to a worthless existence. This attitude towards middle-aged and older women still has significant currency and it would be utopian to summarily reject Rosalie's intense identification of her menstrual cycle with her value as a human being. In a world in which a woman's value is primarily sexual and reproductive, such an idea is at the very least emotionally valid. Nevertheless, for readers today, this potent identification of menstruation with personhood feels less acceptable and less stringently heeded by the larger, if still patriarchal, culture.

Is my reluctance to label The Black Swan feminist a sub-conscious prejudice, a disinclination to grant the label to a work written by a man? Or, am I reacting more to the ambiguity and nuance within the work, leery of labeling it so when it is so difficult to parse out where to draw the line between Rosalie's and Mann's views on the wholeness of a woman being dependent on menstruation? I actually think that my reluctance is a result of the novella's conclusion; thus, those who wish to avoid "spoilers" (though I do think it's silly) shouldn't read the rest of this review. In the final part of the novella, it's discovered that Rosalie's vaginal bleeding is in fact a symptom of metastasized uterine cancer and the brutal last pages gruesomely detail, from the surgeon's point of view, the state of her reproductive organs. This revelation - that Rosalie's resurgence of sexual vitality is in fact the sign of her impending demise - was read by critics in the 1950s as a metaphor for the collapse of the Weimar Republic. I think, rather, that what I dislike about the ending is its inability to allow Rosalie her little bit of pleasure. It feels almost as though she were being punished for daring to want to be young again, to have a chance at the sexual satisfaction she didn't get in her marriage. I don't ultimately accept this interpretation however. Utopian narratives that satisfy feminist wishes for what ought to be reality are no more feminist than realistic narratives that place very real obstacles in the way of female protagonists. Despite the misery of such a devastating cancer, Rosalie dies well, and content, for she says, "for me [death] borrowed the guise of resurrection, of the joy of love, that was not a lie, but goodness and mercy." This is a remarkably optimistic ending, a generous and appreciative gratitude for what happiness was granted her. She feels no self-pity, she feels no need to apologize or demur or obscure what she felt for its "unseemliness." I'm inclined to think my reluctance to label The Black Swan a feminist work can be charged to my own prejudice, for it continues to reveal new layers of empathetic understanding for its heroine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How to Read a Misogynist Novel

The current literary climate demands that a book's politics define its readership. However, this demand is incompatible with reading any but the absolute latest works, as everything else soon passes out of immediate relevance, the acceptable vocabulary changes, and former hot-button issues are superseded by new ones. As such, this strict method of judgement, essentially a device to insulate oneself from opposing or complex viewpoints, should be rejected. That doesn't mean, however, that reading books, no matter how beautifully written, that directly and sometimes viciously contradict one's politics doesn't offer particular challenges. As a feminist, how can I laud novels that display misogyny, by writers that behave(d) in misogynistic ways, have said misogynistic things? More crucially, how can I like, or even love, these books?

Gabriele D'Annunzio is a particularly good example both because of the content of his novels and because of his active political life. He was the ideal Italian fascist and appeared to be, for a short while, a genuine rival of Mussolini. His novels are decadent and sensuous, luxuriating in baroque descriptions of art, music, and sex, and were considered scandalous at the time. His female characters are objects to be adored or vilified; his hero Andrea Sperelli, in Il piacere, explicitly pines for the Ideal Woman, a composite of the many women he's romanced, ultimately rejecting real women for their failure to live up to his imagined paragon. A war hero and aviator, D'Annunzio led an assault on the primarily Italian-speaking city of Fiume, which today is Rijeka in Croatia, in 1919, naming himself the Duce of what he christened the Italian Regency of Carnaro. Although he was eventually ousted by the legitimate Italian government and his attempted colonization ultimately failed, his superficially brilliant exploit won him many admirers among the various Italian nationalist and irredentist factions and symbolically he had enormous import to the Fascist party, establishing dozens of their rituals and defining many aspects of the ideology. (It is worth noting that D'Annunzio was not in sympathy with Hitler and told Mussolini that an alliance with Nazi Germany was a mistake, though that doesn't render his Fascist politics more palatable.) Between his extreme sexual objectification of women and total lack of respect for their autonomy and his staunch Fascist politics, D'Annunzio holds few attractions from a feminist point of view... but I still love his writing.

Then there is John O'Hara, whose sexually promiscuous, boozy heroines were inevitably doomed to a miserable end, while he in his private life was an alcoholic, bitter social climber. Charles Dickens had, with a few exceptions, three varieties of female character: the madonna, the whore, and the laughably desperate spinster; newer research indicates that he behaved as badly towards his long-time mistress as he did to his oft-cheated-upon and yet always pregnant wife. And no one beats Ernest Hemingway when it comes to misogyny. His heroes are macho, tortured, violent, and prone to shooting things, while his women are either doomed or too powerful to be anything but a castrating bitch. He lived his life as he wrote his heroes. Then there's F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Philip Roth, V. S. Naipul (writing by women is "feminine tosh" apparently), D. H. Lawrence, and I could go on at length.

How can feminist women read a work like Il piacere, or Sons and Lovers, or Appointment in Samara, and like them? They don't have to like them obviously, but what if they do? For one thing, anything can be read with a feminist lens. That doesn't mean that every work can be granted an organically feminist interpretation or subtext and it doesn't deny that some works are, incontrovertibly, misogynistic. For another, one can be a feminist and not judge every book one encounters by feminist standards, or, one could simply appreciate the many other facets of a given book, the beauty of its prose, the complexity of its characters, the intricacies of a finely crafted plot, the meticulously evoked milieu, even the finely crafted argument that perhaps you don't agree with - none of those pleasures need be negated by contrary politics.

A failure to read any work that disagrees with one's own politics is a failure to grasp one's own political fallibility. By the same token, a failure to read any work that reflects a state of being other than one's own - whether defined by gender, race, nationality, religion, etc. etc. - is a failure to grasp the limited scope of one's own point of view. This is why many feminists argue that men should make a conscious effort to read books by women and white people should make the same effort to read books written by people of color. And the opposite argument needn't be made because books by white men continue to populate the canon, high school and college curricula, and the larger public consciousness, but - and this is a big but - it doesn't follow that those books should be excluded, either for their politics or because they don't represent "diversity" by its current politicized definition.

Aside from a simple desire to be as open as possible, to read as widely as possible, I do think that there is also a particularly salutary boon granted to those willing to brave the waters of opposing political stances. By so doing, a greater appreciation can be won, a greater respect, not necessarily for an opposing point of view, but for one's own. To underestimate one's opponent is to risk ceding the battle by failing to engage deeply enough. If we are willing to examine these misogynistic works with a keen attention and a willingness to suspend judgement without thorough analysis, then we gain a considerable advantage because we gain profounder, more nuanced, and more subtly accurate political convictions.

Friday, September 11, 2015

9 Books for Fans of "Wolf Hall"

My obsession with the Tudor family predates the much-feted release of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, but just as my interest was waning I picked up the first volume of the Cromwell Trilogy and I am once again well and truly hooked. There are countless volumes of history and biography on the Tudors and other English ruling families, and they are well worth reading, but a good part of the fascination of Mantel's historical fiction is her uncanny ability to breathe life into the most unexpected figures, bringing us to them and their time, rather than they to us. Here are nine books sure to please the fan of Wolf Hall:

The Mists of Avalon - Marion Zimmer Bradley
In this gynocentric rendering of the Arthurian legends, the women - Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar, Igraine, Viviane, Elaine - are at the fore, while the men, so familiar from all other interpretations from Malory to T. H. White to Disney, recede into the background. The question of whether the novel can be considered feminist or not is a complex one, but in either case, the book is an engrossing foray into pagan England as it undergoes the first advances of the Christian juggernaut and a fascinating reevaluation of the standard ideas about medieval society and women's roles within it. Fans of Mantel's painstakingly researched work will appreciate the wealth of period detail, particularly as far as paganism is concerned, and the sheer breadth of spiritual and psychological perspectives.

Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
Although this novel was written for young adults (it won the Newbery Honor), its sardonic sense of humor, fantastically accurate and detailed depiction of medieval England, and surprisingly erudite wit make it a a worthwhile read for adults. Written in the form of a diary, the book follows Birdy, the clever and scheming young daughter of an English knight, determined to escape the revolting marital advances of a series of ancient, lecherous noblemen, whether they have social status and wealth or not. The book makes a profound feminist statement, all the more refreshing given that it was written for girls, without refuting the essential realities of the period. For fans of Wolf Hall, Catherine, Called Birdy is a quick, delightful foray into a period as fascinating as that of the Tudors. Equally wonderful, though much shorter, is The Midwife's Apprentice.

Versailles - Kathryn Davis
Kathryn Davis is nothing if not a subtle writer. Her characters dwell in liminal spaces, in the cracks and fissures of the metaphysical tissue of time. Versailles is not a straightforward work of historical fiction; rather, it imagines Marie Antoinette as a figure that exists across time, as though the novel were magically beamed from the shadowy mind of her ghost, still walking the halls of the famed palace. Those looking for a museum-piece rendering of the glory days of Louis XVI will be disappointed, but those open to a more psychologically engulfing and deeply subjective point of view will find riches in this short but profound novel. 

The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
One of my all-time favorite novels, The Name of the Rose is easily the most erudite mystery novel of all time. Its plot concerns a lost and precious book by Aristotle, a labyrinthine library of forbidden books, numerous gruesome murders, and the inquisitional crackdown on heretical sects. In 1327, the Franciscan Guglielmo of Baskerville and his protege Adso of Melk arrive at a Benedictine monastery in the north of Italy to attend a theological disputation; they are met, however, with a curiously marked corpse. Though the plot is as complex and surprising as one could wish, Eco's extensive rendering of the monks' conversations, on subjects ranging from theology and literary theory to optics, are a veritable intellectual smorgasbord. One imagines that such a novel would have thrilled the brilliant, semi-heretical Thomas Cromwell, in many respects a close counterpart to Guglielmo. 

Romola - George Eliot
Set in the turmoil of apocalyptic preacher Savonarola's revolutionary, religiously extreme takeover of fifteenth century Florence, Eliot's novel has as its aim the same project as Mantel's Cromwell Trilogy, that is, to examine in kaleidoscopic detail the intellectual, political, and religious panorama of a fraught and distant historical period; like Mantel, she succeeds with exceptional brilliance. Romola, the intellectually precocious daughter of a widowed scholar, marries the superficially bright, but fickle and shallow Tito. Her burgeoning development as a thinker and the disillusionment of marriage to a man strange to her and deeply entangled in potentially lethal schemes ultimately lead her down a path to near-utopian, feminist enlightenment. To my mind, this is, of all Eliot's works, her most boldly feminist.

Discourse on Free Will - Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther
Readers of Wolf Hall get something of a crash course in the theology and politics of the great schism, but a deeper understanding of the theological conflicts that had such far-reaching, paradigm-shifting, not to mention lethal, effects on European society will significantly heighten (and complicate) one's appreciation of the devious schemes of Cardinal Wolsey and the dark extremism of Thomas More (a rather boastful friend of Erasmus). This volume, essential to students of both theology and European history, consists of Erasmus's "The Free Will" and Luther's "The Bondage of the Will," public discourses on one of the thorniest issues at stake in the schism: whether man is endowed with free will.

You Never Knew Her As I Did! - Mollie Hunter
Like Catherine, Called Birdy, this is a superb young adult novel (despite its melodramatic title) and well worth reading for adults. The book's protagonist is a young page, Will Douglas, whose admiration for, and perhaps infatuation with, the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, impels him to ever more dangerous schemes to free her from Elizabeth I's control. Hunter does a superlative job filtering the complicated power plays and political plottings through the perspective of a young boy on the sidelines, not unlike Mantel's use of Cromwell's perspective to give us access to such figures as Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn.

Redwall - Brian Jacques
The first of a series that would eventually comprise no less than twenty two volumes, Redwall is a thrilling, pseudo-medieval adventure that takes place in a world populated by talking animals. In this first volume, Matthias the mouse sets off on a quest to reclaim the famed sword of Martin the Warrior when Redwall Abbey is besieged by the villainous Cluny the Scourge, a rat. Jacques created an impressively vast and complex world, the political, social, and spiritual dimensions of which bear significant similarity to the fantastic world of chivalric literature, yet achieve a unique richness that stands well outside human history. Though many critics have complained that the series became formulaic once Jacques had established his story-telling structure, one could argue that this reliable composition adds to the pleasures of the series.

The Once and Future King - T. H. White
Comprised of four volumes (a fifth, The Book of Merlyn, is quite slight and perhaps better read as an epilogue), The Once and Future King tells the story of the boy Arthur, student of Merlyn and future king of England, continuing to his ill-fated romance with Guenever and equally ill-fated friendship with Lancelot. T. H. White's interpretation of the Arthurian legend (his principal source seems to be Malory) is my very favorite, its eclectic and very British style an amalgam of medieval, romantic, and thoroughly twentieth century approaches. If Mantel and C. S. Lewis somehow merged and attempted to write Wolf Hall and The Chronicles of Narnia at once, this novel might be the delectable result.

Monday, August 24, 2015

An Ode to Robert Newton, 'Arr Matey

This is Robert Newton:

I love Robert Newton. He is perfect. Look at that ruddy face, that feverish glare, those flared nostrils and beetled brows. He is the quintessential rogue, the consummate scalawag, the peerless rascal. He eclipses Charles Laughton, Geoffrey Rush, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks, Johnny Depp, and even my beloved Peter Ustinov, for in this crazed, hammy lunatic we have the most perfect of pirates.

Newton created what today we consider the archetype of the pirate, especially the heavily dialectic speech patterns of his thick West Country accent. He's the unofficial patron saint of Talk Like a Pirate Day, celebrated on September 19. Though his pirate voice is his most obvious legacy, the dimensions he gave to his most famous characters, Long John Silver (in Disney's 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island, as well as a number of unofficial sequels) and Blackbeard (the titular role of the 1952 film) have determined pretty much every aspect of cinematic pirate characters. His triumph, however, was also his downfall, since most viewers today see his performance as unoriginal and cliché, not realizing that his performance is the original, the one that established the clichés in the first place. 

Newton's is a hammy performance, but anyone who has read Treasure Island should easily recognize how rooted in Stevenson's literary portrait Newton's Long John is, a pirate whose success depends on his ability to enthrall, to thrill and tantalize, since physically he is no match for the seasoned cutthroats under his command. Similarly, the legendary Blackbeard has attained such a monumental cultural status in large part because he was a ridiculous ham - this is a guy who literally set lit fuses in his beard (or hat, depending on the source). Newton was born to play these characters.

Of course, Newton became typecast as a pirate in the wake of his success and today is remembered almost exclusively for his performances as Long John Silver and Blackbeard. But Newton was an extraordinarily accomplished actor, with a wide and varied repertory of stage roles, including Horatio (Hamlet) which he played opposite Laurence Olivier in the titular role, and dozens of screen roles, ranging from villainous murderers and thieves to the most principled and upstanding of policemen. As Pistol in Henry V (1944), he is deliciously droll opposite the pomposity of Olivier as one of the most successful monarchs of English history, and the performance gives us a taste of how great Newton must have been on the Shakespearean stage.

Perhaps his most interesting on-screen performance is as an obsessive and almost demonic painter in Odd Man Out (1947). Carol Reed's film is generally overshadowed by The Third Man, which enjoys critical adulation and is nearly always cited as Reed's best effort, but this film is a much more complex beast, less broadly entertaining, not so much a thriller as a meditation on human compassion and justice. Newton is given an opportunity to chew up the scenery and yet, despite the theatricality of the performance, its believability is key to understanding the entire film. Its power rests on ambiguity, on the conflicts between selfish desire and altruism, political idealism and pragmatism, obsessive madness and steely-eyed determination, all the grey areas where moral truths slip away like eels and the absolute loses all significance. Newton's character wants above all else to capture on canvas the last moments of a dying man, and, believing that he has found his model in Johnny (James Mason), the fugitive leader of an IRA-like partisan group, he is loath to lose his perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What fascinates about the performance is how quickly and evasively the character seems to flip-flop between qualities that nearly merge. Is he mad or brilliant, or both? Is he moral or amoral or does he occupy some twisted middle ground? Is he protecting or exploiting his subject, or vacillating between motives? It's an ostentatious, histrionic performance, but its jagged, profound complexity renders it anything but artificial.

Sadly, a familiar foe, one that dogged the pirate characters he so brilliantly played, ultimately destroyed Robert Newton, who died in 1956 at age 50 of a heart attack, after a long, losing battle with alcoholism. Alas, a pirate may love his bottle of rum, but rum makes for a treacherous lover, a verity that the liver of every pirate learns to its peril.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Feminist Wish List for the "Top Gun" Sequel

Rumors of a Top Gun sequel have been making the rounds for years, but as it appears that it might actually happen I'm already contemplating what, ideally, the new movie should be like. The news that the movie will focus on drone warfare certainly indicates that the potential franchise is being brought squarely into the 21st century. The film could go in several directions. I think it's likely that this will be, as so very, very many movies have been of late, a gritty reboot, with significantly less humor and a decidedly less lighthearted approach. The original film may be about fighter pilots, but it takes place in a bubble. Politics are so remote that one almost forgets that wars aren't just training montages and simulated games. Though much has been made on the internet of the film's ending - which realistically speaking, would have indicated that World War III had just erupted and been less a victory lap for Maverick than a sobering, possibly world-ending transition from a Cold War to a very Hot War indeed - the film doesn't really equate military action with real-world consequences. The pilots are after a trophy and the consequences and larger implications of warfare are pushed aside. The only acknowledged death in the movie is a pure accident during training and is no one's fault (I would assume the pilots in the planes Maverick shoots down at the end of the movie die, but they are dispatched callously, like faceless enemies in a video game). The movie is pure entertainment.

I think that's going to be a lot harder to pull off today. For one thing, attitudes towards the military have altered a lot. Yellow ribbon bumper stickers are everywhere and the focus on reporting about the military tends to be on subjects like PTSD, sexual abuse in the ranks, poorly administered and underfunded medical care, gender disparities and exclusions, and the implications of high-tech weaponry, like drones. A mixture of reverence, discomfort, and mystified incomprehension greets the veterans of our current military conflicts. Drones in particular have sparked passionate and divisive debate about their efficacy, the morality surrounding their use and the ensuing collateral damage, privacy issues, and a host of other concerns. With this cultural milieu, it's going to be very hard for the Top Gun sequel to both entertain and juggle the issues that any film about drone warfare inevitably brings up, especially if it actually does focus on Maverick's difficulties adjusting to a new paradigm of military aviation.

Here's the deal: I love the original Top Gun, a movie I binge-watched before binge-watching was a thing, but I'm also a feminist. I've said it before and I'll say it again: You don't have to like a movie's politics to like the movie. But how much more awesome it would be if the movie weren't so extremely misogynistic. I don't actually expect the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer to deliver any of the following, but I can dream that somehow my wishes for a more equitable, dare I say feminist, Top Gun movie will be fulfilled.

1. At least 1/3 of the pilots should be female.
The Navy has had female pilots since the 1970s - yes, they're a minority, but they do exist. There are no female pilots in the original film, not one. Kelly McGillis plays a civilian instructor and Meg Ryan plays a wife and mom; they are the only two women in the cast. I don't believe they even have a women's locker room. That's absurd. Though ideally I would like to see a full half of the pilots be female, I've learned over the years not to set the bar too high, and even if we get more than two female cast members, that will already be unusual. So, I would settle for a somewhat less skewed ratio of male to female pilots.

2. It needs to pass the Bechdel test.
Passing the Bechdel test - two women talk to each other about something other than a man - doesn't make a movie feminist by any means, but at the very least it indicates that female characters do not function solely in relation to the male characters. The original movie doesn't come even close to passing and at this point I don't want any movies produced that fail the test. If we got #1, #2 would be easy!

3. No female character should sacrifice her career for a man.
Nothing about the original movie sticks in my craw like the ending: the wildly successful civilian instructor gives up her highly paid, highly prestigious government contract to stay with the novice pilot. The new movie needs to allow the female characters room to value their careers as highly as the male characters do. This scenario is trite and done to death, not to mention a signal feature of patriarchal reaction against women entering the work force. If these pilots really are testosterone-fueled macho men, they shouldn't be threatened by a woman with a good job, and if they aren't... they shouldn't be threatened by a woman with a good job.

Thanks to the gods and goddesses, there isn't a whiff of rape in the original movie (it is rated PG), but it bears repeating: rape is not entertaining, rape is not fun, rape does not belong in movies that do not grapple with the consequences of sexual violence. There are way too many depictions of sexual assault in movies that purposely avoid confronting serious political, social, and cultural issues. The Top Gun sequel does not need to be another one.

5. A sex scene that revolves around consent.
Call me utopian, but one of the ways to make consent - and news flash people, if you don't get consent, it's rape - sexier and less intimidating is to show it as an integral, exciting part of sexual activity. I'll be stunned if the new movie doesn't have a romantic subplot and that will inevitably come with a sex scene, so it would be wonderful if it portrayed two adults, both fully engaged and actively giving consent. In the original film, the sex scene itself is fine, but there's an underlying assumption that Maverick "won" a shot with Charlie with persistence in the face of refusal - nix that.

I think I've set the bar quite low, and yet, depressingly, I'm not holding my breath for any of the items on my wish list. I'm expecting the Top Gun sequel to entertain and to have lots of great flying footage, but it remains to be seen whether the producers will be cognizant of how much they could do to make a blockbuster that doesn't rehash the same old misogynistic gender perspectives.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why Possible Time Travel Doesn't Create a Plot Hole in "Harry Potter"

Few books or films have been as thoroughly analyzed and obsessed over as the Harry Potter series, all the more so since the the generation that came of age with Harry also came of age with the internet. One objection frequently lobbed at the series involves the Time-Turners, devices introduced in the third book that allow witches and wizards to travel through time. These commentators claim that the existence of possible time travel in the series creates a massive plot hole and that Harry just needed to go back in time and stop Voldemort from rising to power in the first place. They're totally wrong. 

So why doesn't Harry just go back in time to defeat Voldemort?

Perhaps we should first understand why and how the time travel plot in Prisoner of Azkaban works. Harry and Hermione go back three hours in time and are thus able to save both Buckbeak and Sirius and they're only able to do it because of a few very, very specific reasons. First, they go back a short enough period of time that they are able to remember in detail their own movements, as well as the movements of the relatively few other persons involved. Second, this part of the story takes place in the outdoors where there are few people and thus fewer chances of them being seen and creating a paradox. Third, and most importantly, their tasks are hyper-specific - release Buckbeak after the official delegation has seen him, thus exonerating Hagrid of any wrong-doing, and release Sirius from his cell before the Dementors arrive to perform the dreaded Dementor's kiss. Thus, the risks of time travel are mitigated by intimate and detailed knowledge, a convenient and familiar location, and specific missions that are narrow in scope, if not in difficulty. Most importantly, the period of time is relatively quite small, only three hours.

Now let's say that Harry goes back in time to prevent Voldemort from creating the first Horcrux. It's revealed in Half-Blood Prince that as a student Tom Riddle created at least two Horcruxes while still a student - the Gaunt ring and the diary that played so significant a role in Chamber of Secrets - so Harry would have to travel fifty years back in time. This already creates exceptional difficulties. How can Harry have specific enough knowledge to accomplish his aim? He must know exactly where Riddle was when he made the first Horcrux, and at exactly what time, while somehow ensuring that he remains unseen. Not to mention, Voldemort, even at sixteen, would have been a formidable opponent, fully capable of murder.

If Harry were to be killed, obviously that would be bad for Harry, but more seriously, it creates a paradox - Harry would then die decades before he was born. But far more frightening possibilities arise as far as paradoxes are concerned if Harry is successful. The further back in time one goes, the more complex the results of the changes one makes in the past. If Voldemort never rises to power, the implications could be far-reaching and unexpectedly negative. As we learn in Deathly Hallows, Harry's mother Lily begins her stint at Hogwarts as Snape's best friend. The rift between them is caused by a number of factors, but prominent among them is Lily's disgust with Snape's affiliation with the Death Eaters and his increasing infatuation with prejudicial ideas about blood status. But if Voldemort was prevented from rising to power, the Death Eaters would never have existed. If the friendship between Lily and Snape remains unbroken, it seems fairly unlikely that Lily would have given James Potter the time of day, given his cruel treatment of her best friend. And if Lily and James never get together, Harry would never have been born and it would not be possible for him to go back in time and defeat Voldemort - paradox.

Even aside from the increased difficulties and high possibilities of creating paradoxes that would literally destroy the time traveler, it is not clear that Time-Turners can be used to travel forward in time. We only ever see or hear about witches and wizards traveling backwards and then living through the period until they arrive at the present in which they traveled back. Thus, beyond the pragmatic difficulties of the task, and barring the unknown possibility of traveling forward in time, Harry would then have to live for fifty years, staying strictly out of sight for fear of interfering with the fabric of time and creating more and more paradoxes. 

Even Voldemort, evil as he is and with no regard for others, doesn't want to mess with time. His Death Eaters infiltrate the Department of Mysteries and one might wonder why Voldemort doesn't order them to steal a Time-Turner, especially since they are right there for the taking. Voldermort certainly has his regrets - he might want to go back and attack the Potters in a different way, thereby denying Harry the protection of his mother, or perhaps he might want to go back and steal the philosopher's stone before Hagrid removes it from Gringotts. There are dozens of moments that Voldemort could conceivably want to change in order to consolidate his own power more definitively and earlier.

But he doesn't even try. That's because Voldemort is no dummy. Hermione describes to Harry the terrible things that happen when wizards encounter their past or future selves and those concerns are not inconsequential: "Loads of [wizards] ended up killing their past or future selves by mistake!" But even beyond that danger, even small, seemingly inconsequential changes can have momentous implications that are all but impossible to predict. The risks are of such a magnitude and the difficulties so extreme that to chance time travel would be foolhardy at best, insane at worst. Whether one would wish to use time travel for good or for evil, its practical use is progressively nullified the further back one travels. Therefore, possible time travel does not create a plot hole in Harry Potter.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Who (and What) Has a Soul in the Harry Potter Universe?

The fact that wizards and witches have souls is fundamental to the Harry Potter series as a whole; in fact, the story hinges on this fact, since Harry's primary task is destroy all of Voldemort's Horcruxes, that is the preserved pieces of his damaged soul, in order to ultimately defeat him. However, the issue of who or what, aside from wizards and witches, has a soul is a fairly open one.

The ghosts in Harry Potter raise some interesting questions about the nature of the soul. In the wake of Sirius's death, Harry seeks out Nearly Headless Nick in the hopes that somehow the sympathetic ghost could help him understand what happens when someone dies. In the course of this conversation, a number of salient points emerge. Nick tells Harry: "Not everyone can come back as a ghost... only wizards." Since Nick has chosen to "leave an imprint of [himself] on earth, to walk palely where [his] living [self] once trod," all that he can tell Harry is that those who have died have "gone on."

If only wizards and witches can become ghosts, what are the implications for other sentient beings, magical or otherwise? Apparently, Muggles cannot become ghosts (good news for Harry, who might otherwise have to worry about a malevolent, if transparent, Uncle Vernon haunting his future). What about Squibs? Is magical ability a requirement to become a ghost? In that case, could house elves, centaurs, and goblins - all powerfully magical beings - become ghosts? What about giants, who do not appear to be able to perform magic, but are part of the magical world and are certainly sentient? What about animals, some of which, like acromantulas, can talk and have fully developed personalities, moral systems, and political loyalties?

One thing that makes me a little uncomfortable with the logic surrounding ghosts in Harry Potter is that it indicates that wizards are given an active choice at death that is denied, at the very least, all Muggles. The bigoted elitism of Voldermort's Death Eaters, represented in the statue "Magic Is Might" in which a wizard stands upon the miserable bodies of Muggles, is really just the nasty incarnation of an idea that permeates the whole Wizarding world. The wizard most sympathetic to Muggles, Mr. Weasley, sees them almost as children, admiring their "ingenious" inventions and regarding them with an indulgent fondness. This paternalistic attitude is somewhat validated by the fact that Muggles are in fact severely limited in Rowling's universe. The fact that Muggles cannot choose to become ghosts could indicate one of two things: 1) it could support the fact that magical ability is a requirement to become a ghost, or 2) it could indicate that Muggles have less agency upon their death and therefore are never granted a choice. The humanitarian view of Muggles is not unlike our humanitarian view of such intelligent animals as elephants, primates, and whales, their lack of magical ability paralleling animals' lack of speech.

The reason that I am so concerned with who and what can become a ghost is this: typically, ghosts are defined as a the corporeal form of a soul. If only wizards and witches can become ghosts and ghosts are in fact souls, it is rather problematic that Muggles cannot become ghosts. We know, however, from the books that Muggles do have souls because Dementors happily prey on wizards and Muggles alike, as we see in the fifth book, when Harry and Dudley are attacked. Thus, we know that, at least to a Dementor, the soul of a wizard and the soul of a Muggle are essentially the same. Since Squibs are essentially Muggles that had the misfortune of being born into a Wizarding family, they evidently also have souls as well, though their ability to become a ghost is questionable.

Non-human intelligent creatures pose other problems. House elves, goblins, and centaurs are as intelligent as human beings and while their magic, like that of wizards, must operate within certain bounds, one of the central lessons of the series is they are not lesser, but different, than their human magical peers. My assumption, particularly considering the character of Dobby, is that they also have souls.

The question becomes trickier as we turn to giants. Although giants have primitive linguistic ability and a set of social protocols, their level of intelligence is questionable, but intelligence and the soul are two entirely separate things. It seems reasonable to me to think that giants have souls, for the following reasons: 1) they are capable of interbreeding (how in heaven's name, I don't, and don't really want to, know) with human beings and their offspring - Hagrid and Madame Maxime being the examples - have magical abilities, 2) Grawp, Hagrid's half-brother, is able to develop bonds and loyalties, and even compassion, that are outside the assumed bounds of his giant nature. It's difficult to believe that a being with a soul and a being without could procreate together and it is clear that giant nature, bestial as it is, is capable of the development of those deeper emotional bonds with which the soul in Harry Potter is concerned; therefore, giants also have souls.

Far trickier is the case of animals. Magical animals in the series exist in several classes. There are those that can speak and exhibit intelligence equal to their human masters, like Aragog the acromantula. Perhaps, acromantulas belong among house elves, goblins, and centaurs, but I think there is a distinction. Whereas house elves, goblins, and centaurs have highly complex social structures, belief systems, and political perspectives, acromantulas seem to be bound to instinct in ways that the former are not. For instance, Aragog forbids his offspring from preying on Hagrid, but feels no remorse for allowing them to attempt to eat Harry, Ron, and Fang - three of the beings that Hagrid loves most in the world. Hagrid would almost certainly believe that Aragog, a beloved pet, has a soul, but I think this case remains an open question.

Then there are the many magical animals that act largely like regular animals. When Ron takes his rat to the Magical Menagerie for veterinary care, the witch who works there asks him, "What powers does he have?" Thus we know explicitly that, as in the case of humans, there are animals with magical abilities and those without. Hedwig is able to deliver mail without an address, Crookshanks can detect that Scabbers is not what he seems, and Fawkes can be called to protect those who are loyal to Dumbledore. Some animals, like owls, seem to share traits common to their species, while others, like cats, seem to have more individually defined powers. Emotionally, I want to believe that these beloved pets do have souls, but it's a tough call, not least of all because having a soul in Harry Potter carries with it a deep responsibility to not harm the integrity of that soul. Another issue is that animals can be conjured from or transfigured into inanimate objects. For instance, Fudge transfigures the Muggle prime minister's tea cup into a gerbil. This is not a temporary bit of magic, as the gerbil becomes the P.M.'s niece's pet. It seems entirely impossible within the framework of the story that a soul could be conjured from nothing and therefore the ability to practice magic in this fashion would seem to contradict the possibility that animals have souls. So, it is possible that animals have souls, but it seems more probable that magical animals are more likely to have them than ordinary, non-magical animals.

What about Peeves, another problematic case? Peeves is a poltergeist or a spirit of chaos, classed, like Dementors and boggarts, as a non-being. Presumably non-beings do not have souls, but in the case of Peeves, I wonder if they could. Peeves has emotional responses, such as fear of the Bloody Baron and respect towards the Weasley twins, that might indicate a somewhat more complicated nature. While Dementors and boggarts show not the slightest shred of humanity, acting always by their natures as a species, Peeves shows a certain degree of agency and decision-making that makes me doubt, just a bit, whether he may not be a creature with a soul.

The finer points of these issues can, obviously, be contested, though J. K. Rowling has resolved many issues through the years and may yet have something to say on this one. Meanwhile, it's fascinating to contemplate the implications of these metaphysical questions in the Harry Potter universe.