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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Balls to the wall

Joseph Epstein has an essay in this week’s Weekly Standard, and it honestly isn’t very good.  What do I mean by “not very good”?  Do I say such a thing because I don’t like Epstein, or because I disagree with many of his remarks in the essay?  Not at all.  I say it because the essay isn’t very good as measured by the standards one applies to “essays” that are “good.” For example, in his fourth paragraph, Epstein introduces his subject—he’s writing a review essay on Elaine Showalter’s new book, Faculty Towers:  The Academic Novel and Its Discontents—in the following manner:

An early entry in the feminist sweepstakes, she is currently the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton, a past president of the Modern Language Association, a founder of “gynocriticism” (or the study of women writers)—in other words, guilty until proven innocent. She has also been described—readers retaining a strong sense of decorum are advised to skip the remainder of this paragraph—as “Camille Paglia with balls,” a description meant approbatively, or so at least Princeton must feel, for they print it on princetoninfo.com, a stark indication of the tone currently reigning in American universities.

The drawing-room prose is full of little drolleries—feminist sweepstakes, indeed!  jolly good, Joseph old boy!—guilty until proven innocent! oof! a snort of brandy for the merry fellow in the bow tie, sir!—before settling down to serious matters, advising “readers retaining a strong sense of decorum” (the word “retaining” is key, of course) that we are in for yet another shocking little demonstration—nay, a “stark indication”—of how degraded is the standard of discourse at American universities.  Yes, even Princeton now speaks of “balls.” Surely it is only a matter of time before Princeton offers a named chair to 50 Cent.

Except that Princeton happens to be innocent of this little transgression.  Epstein’s drawing-room prose may get its chuckles and its sputters of righteous indignation, but every once in a while, it behooves a writer to get out of the drawing room and onto the Internets.  Go ahead, Google “Camille Paglia with balls.” I’ll wait.  My own search took all of 0.2 seconds, and turned up this item from princetoninfo.com.  At the top of the page you can read the following: “This feature profile by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 14, 1997.” “Princetoninfo.com” is in fact U.S. 1’s website, and has no connection whatsoever to Princeton University.  As for the testicular-Paglia reference, you have to read for a bit more than 0.2 seconds to find that even the U.S. 1 newspaper didn’t call Showalter “Camille Paglia with balls”; in fact, Nicole Plett quite clearly held the phrase at arm’s length, no doubt out of a sense of decorum:

The six-page profile of Showalter, featured in the April-May issue of Mirabella, raised the critic’s public visibility enormously. The author, who shadowed Showalter for four days through routine classroom lectures, chats with professors, and a swank, alumni-hosted literary dinner party, rewarded the maverick feminist with yet another dubious moniker: “Elaine Showalter is Camille Paglia with balls.”

A stark indication of the tone currently reigning in American universities, indeed. 

Now, why does this matter?  Hell, Michelle Malkin, Ben Shapiro and the entire Clownhall.com crew do this kind of thing every day.  Ah, but Joseph Epstein is not usually considered a third-rate hack.  He is more often considered a master of the genre of the personal essay—so widely that at one point in the 1990s I began to wonder whether Epstein had secretly copyrighted the phrase and had had it contractually sutured to his name in some way (you know, Michael Jackson took “King of Pop,” and Epstein took “master of the personal essay”).  So it is especially surprising to find this piece of third-rate hackwork in one of his essays.  It’s almost as if he’s not trying anymore.  Either that, or someone at the Weekly Standard doesn’t like him, and left this gaffe untouched in order to discredit him.  But that wouldn’t explain why Arts and Letters Daily (which is, after all, a website, and tends to be read by people who have computers) saw fit to link to it.  No, I think Epstein just got lazy, and reached for the nearest club at hand, safe in the assumption that readers retaining a strong sense of decorum would never bother to check up on him.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t like the rest of the essay, either.  It really does sound to my ears like a tired old rant, and, like so much of Epstein’s recent work, it tries to make a virtue of its tired-oldness:

In the 1970s, I was invited to give a talk at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. I arrived to find all the pieces in place: On the English faculty was a black woman (very nice, by the way), an appropriately snarky feminist, a gay (not teaching the thing called Queer Theory, which hadn’t yet been devised), a Jew, and a woman named Ruthie, who drove about in an aged and messy Volkswagen bug, whose place in this otherwise unpuzzling puzzle I couldn’t quite figure out. When I asked, I was told, “Oh, Ruthie’s from the sixties.” From “the sixties,” I thought then and still think, sounds like a country, and perhaps it is, but assuredly, to steal a bit of Yeats, no country for old men.

When readers with a newly-minted sense of decorum get over all the distracting things about this paragraph (did he say “a gay”?  the black woman was “very nice”?  and what’s that Jew doing there?  was he—or she!—one of the pieces, too?), they should ask themselves, wait a second—Epstein is citing “Sailing to Byzantium” about the 1960s?  Was Epstein old in the 1960s?

Well, dear decorous readers, not literally: he was born in 1937, so in chronological time he entered the 1960s in the full flower of youth.  But in Gerontion Time, he was about seventy, and there he has remained ever since, scolding the youth in the voice of an old man in a dry month even when he was a young thing and the youth in question were actually ten or twenty years older than he.  Look for instance at his essays about how “out of it” he is—the essays in which he writes with pride of having never read this contemporary novelist or heard of that current fad (yes, he’s written more than one—it’s like he has to keep updating us on how steadfastly out of it he is).  Or look at his habitual citations to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one of which can be found (sure enough) in this very essay.  It’s like finding the “Nina”s in the Al Hirschfeld caricatures, and it would be good fun, except that Epstein has (by some estimates) accounted for over sixty percent of all the Prufrock allusions in the world, and has left the poem with only five or six uncited words for future generations. 

I’ll say just a few things about the substantive claims of the essay.  These are tired, too.

Theory and the hodgepodge of feminism, Marxism, and queer theory that resides comfortably alongside it, has now been in the saddle for roughly a quarter-century in American English and Romance-language departments, while also making incursions into history, philosophy, and other once-humanistic subjects. There has been very little to show for it—no great books, no splendid articles or essays, no towering figures who signify outside the academy itself—except declining enrollments in English and other department courses featuring such fare.

The bit about “no splendid articles or essays” is a judgment call, of course, and needless to say, I disagree with it.  But the bit about “declining enrollments” is—and I really am getting tired (tired, I tell you!) of saying this—factually wrong.  Let’s start where Epstein starts, twenty-five years ago.  In 1980, English accounted for 3.5 percent of all B.A.s awarded in the country, 32,541 degrees in all; in 2001, the most recent year for which I have figures, we awarded 4.13 percent of all B.A. degrees, or 51,419 in all.  You can make any judgment call you like about English departments and their hodgepodges, but you actually can’t accuse “theory” of driving away undergraduates.  You can’t do it, that is, in the sense that it is “untrue,” just like saying “Princeton University trumpets the fact that Elaine Showalter has been called ‘Camille Paglia with balls’” is untrue.

Last but not least, there’s the complaint that nobody writes for nonscholars anymore.

All that is left to such university teachers is the notion that they are, in a much-strained academic sense, avant-garde, which means that they continue to dig deeper and deeper for lower and lower forms of popular culture—graffiti on Elizabethan chamber pots—and human oddity. The best standard in the old days would have university scholars in literature and history departments publish books that could also be read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars. Nothing of this kind is being produced today. . . .  The bad old days in English departments were mainly the dull old days, with more than enough pedants and dryasdusts to go round. But they did also produce a number of university teachers whose work reached beyond university walls and helped elevate the general culture: Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Ellen Moers, Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Ward, Robert Penn Warren. The names from the bad new days seem to end with the entirely political Edward Said and Cornel West.

OK, so it’s the new, inclusive nostalgia—look!  two women!  (But no human oddity, now.) Still, this is at once tired and tiresome.  First, note the unsubtle switching of the dice: we start off with the proposition that no one is writing books that can be read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars, and we finish with a dismissal of two of the people whose books are read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars, on the grounds that they are “entirely political.” As for Epstein’s giants who no longer walk the earth, well, that’s a fine list of names, but really, I’ll put Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Menand, Gerald Early, Ann Douglas, Mark Edmundson, Elaine Scarry, and Henry Louis Gates up against ‘em any old time.  Say what you want about their work, or about Said’s (Cornel West does not actually teach in an English department); but you really can’t pretend that these people aren’t read by nonscholars.  And even though I don’t always love everything written by these folks, I want to point out that these are all quite distinguished and serious people who are widely reviewed and generally acclaimed.  They aren’t just cranks with blogs, now.

But I return to my earlier point.  Joseph Epstein is not, in fact, a hack.  He’s capable of much better than this.  Even his most tedious essays have flashes of genuine wit and grace, and I’ve found his best work thoroughly entertaining even when I don’t care for its propositional content.  The problem with this ubi sunt genre of lamentation, in this respect, is that it’s inevitably self-aggrandizing: you don’t have to scratch the surface of the text very hard to find that its subtext is no one writes well for the general public any longer—except me, the way I’m doing right now.  And when you’re working in that genre, you’d better get your “Camille Paglia with balls” passages in order, or you’ll wind up looking very foolish.

Posted by Michael on 05/03 at 12:23 PM
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Monday, May 02, 2005

About last night

You know, I bet “About Last Night” would be a really good name for a blog about art, music, and cultural events of one kind or another.  If I had a blog like that, I would tell a story about last night, when Janet and I traveled to the Philadelphia premiere of The Passion of Joan of Arc / Voices of Light.

The story would go something like this.  Richard Einhorn, the composer of Voices of Light (1994), got in touch with me via the Internets at some point last year about something or other, and we corresponded for a while; in late October I met him and his wife in New York, and we caught a performance of something at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and hung out for a bit.  By happy coincidence, my mother had seen Joan / Voices in Norfolk earlier that year, and described it to me as if it were something approaching an out-of-body experience; so by the time I met Richard Einhorn himself I’d bought the CD and listened to it a couple of times, and was mightily impressed, but I didn’t know anything about the film except what I’d read in the liner notes to the CD.  So Richard very kindly invited me and Janet to last night’s performance.

Ahem.  You see, in keeping with my customary practice of representing myself on this blog as if I were much cooler than I am, I have to establish first that Janet and I went to see this performance as guests of the composer.  This kind of thing happens all the time, I assure you.

Now, the film by itself is an amazing work of art—which is one of the reasons Einhorn wrote Voices of Light for it.  Its history is bizarre, but rather than paraphrase things I’ve learned only recently, I’ll just crib from the program notes:

The strange history of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) nearly equals Joan’s itself. It has many of the same elements, including obsession, madness, and even fire.

The original screenplay for Joan was by Joseph Delteil, who had written a rather hyperventilated book about her. For one reason or another, Dreyer chose to forgo most of Delteil’s ideas and instead used actual excerpts from the trial transcripts as the script (the film, which is set entirely at Joan’s trials, and burning, compresses the action of the trial from seven months into a single day).

The film, censored somewhat by the Catholic Church prior to its release, was soon hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. Reneé Falconetti’s performance as Joan was (and is) considered one of the most extraordinary ever filmed. With its extreme close-ups and bizarre camera angles, with an editing rhythm that breaks nearly every rule of the craft, The Passion of Joan of Arc makes virtually every movie critic and scholar’s short list of masterpieces. It clearly influenced such filmmakers as Bergman, Fellini, and Hitchcock, and echoes of its intense style appear in the work of such contemporary masters as Martin Scorsese. Shot without makeup and with “natural” acting, Joan looks like it was finished yesterday.

But a few months after the premiere, Joan’s judges descended upon Dreyer’s film. The negative and virtually all prints of The Passion of Joan of Arc were destroyed in a warehouse fire. Dreyer, referring in all likelihood to his workprint for the original cut, painstakingly reconstructed the entire film from outtake footage that had survived the fire. This second version was destroyed in a second fire!  Devastated, Dreyer gave up and moved on to his next film, Vampyr.

From here the history of the film becomes confusing. Highly corrupt prints that somehow managed to survive the fires circulated for a while. In addition, the Cinémathèque Français unearthed a copy of the film in its vaults (at the time, it was unclear which version it was). In the late forties and early fifties, a French film historian by the name of Lo Duca pieced together his version of the film (apparently using prints from both versions) and added a score that was a montage of Albinoni, Vivaldi, and other Baroque composers. The result so horrified Dreyer that he completely disowned the “Lo Duca” version.

Then, in 1981, several film cans from the ‘20s were discovered at a mental institution in Oslo, Norway, stashed in the back of a closet. They were shipped unopened to the Norwegian Film Institute. Inside the cans, in nearly perfect condition, was a copy of The Passion of Joan of Arc with Danish intertitles. The accompanying shipping information made it clear that it was, in fact, a print of the original version of Dreyer’s great film.

In an informal talk preceding the performance, Einhorn mentioned that the people who discovered those film cans recognized that they contained nitrate film, and that opening the cans would not only destroy the film but also release some nasty toxic gases.  Had they not understood this, Dreyer’s film would very likely have burned a third time.

Voices of Light, heard by itself, is a beautiful, moving piece of work; much of it is written in the style of “early” music (medieval chant, the first fumblings at polyphony, motets; there’s even a viola da gamba in there, and last night I learned all about the gamba), but it never sounds merely neo- or citational.  The libretto is composed of texts written by female mystics of the period (St. Hildegard von Bingen, Marguerite d’Oingt, St. Umiltà of Faenza, Blessed Angela of Foligno, among others, and the nonmystic protofeminist Christine de Pizan as well) as well as the letters Joan (illiterate herself) dictated, all of which are sung in the original languages (Latin, Old and Middle French, Italian).  It’s quite overwhelming in and of itself.

But together with The Passion of Joan of Arc, the effect is stunning.  Einhorn’s music is not exactly a “score”; although it’s coordinated with the film, in fifteen movements—and Einhorn even took along a portable DAT recorder to get the sound of the church bells in Joan’s home town of Domremy, and the chiming of the bells occurs at key moments in the film—it’s more like a parallel text than a score.  And since the film relies on the transcript of Joan’s trial, you find yourself dealing with no fewer than four interwoven textual threads: the transcript, the visuals of the film itself, the music, the libretto.  It’s dizzying at first, and it stays dizzying for about half an hour or so.

The overpowering moments of the music were, well, overpowering: the thundering “HOMASSE!” of the interrogators as sung by the entire chorus would tear the roof off of any building, and then there’s the menacing but beautiful “Glorioses playes” ("glorious wounds") of the scene in which Joan’s inquisitors kindly show her around the torture chamber.  But what especially struck me about the performance were some of its most subtle and vulnerable moments: the opening—just one alto and one soprano in a delicate chant, almost too ethereal to survive in this world—and the violin solo that accompanies Joan’s “relapse” about two-thirds of the way through.  I had been listening to that solo for about a minute before I realized that I really hadn’t given it its due in its CD version, and then a moment later I realized that the first violin was playing it with an intensity that had her practically flying out of her chair.  All right, I exaggerate.  But not by much.

About the final ten minutes I cannot speak.  Partly because I don’t want to give the ending away—you all have to go get the DVD for yourselves, right now—but mostly because I can’t possibly do it justice.  I’ll say this much: there’s a burning.  There’s a riot.  There is much swinging of maces.  Musical motifs from the interrogation scene and the torture chamber return, transformed.  There is a climax that is anything but cathartic.  The performance ends.  And nobody, in an auditorium of over a thousand souls, can find the voice to speak for another fifteen minutes.

So instead, we all jumped up, those of us who were crying and those who were merely shaken, and gave the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia Chorus and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia a nice long ovation.  Then, as everyone calmed down a bit, but only a bit, Richard Einhorn took the stage for a brief question-and-answer.

We went out for drinks with Richard after he’d been thoroughly congratulated by everyone, remarking what a pity it was that after all the rehearsals and all the planning, there was only one performance of the piece in Philadelphia.  And guess what?  We wound up at a bar where we bumped into . . . members of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, including the first violin, whose name happens to be Gloria Justen and who, in response to my praise of her solo, gave me (along with her thanks) a postcard advertising her upcoming performance (with Charles Abramovic on piano) this May 13 at 8 pm at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.  (I can’t make it—I’ll be in Ontario that day, speaking to the Canadian Down Syndrome Society—but I’ll pass the news along to any of you who might be in the area.  Twelve bucks—and the program will look like this.) It was so odd—it was like being backstage with the band, though of course it wasn’t really backstage and they weren’t really a “band.” We did entertain ourselves, though, by picking all the orange M&Ms out of the candy bowl for the benefit of the cellists.  Cellists are such pains in the ass about these things.

Actually, what happened was that we talked with Richard for quite a while before realizing that we should stop monopolizing the guy already and let him hang out with the good folks of the Mendelssohn Club who’d actually put this whole event together.  D’oh!  You just can’t take us anywhere.  But we had a great time, all the same.

There’s one more thing about last night.  Last night was the very first time we left Jamie alone for an overnight with a sitter (along with copious instructions about getting him to school this morning).  I’d originally asked Richard if we could bring Jamie—Jamie’s very well-mannered at such things, and actually loved going to a recent performance of the ballet “Giselle” with Janet—but Richard gently reminded me that, uh, you know, some aspects of the performance might be a bit much for a child.  And as I watched the crumpled, silhouetted form of Joan burning amid the flames and the chanted words of St. Hildegard, I thought, OK, so maybe this would be a bit much for a child.  I guess he had a point. For that, too, we owe Richard Einhorn our thanks.

Now stop reading this aesthetically overwhelmed and emotionally drained blog, and go get that DVD already.  And remember to play it loud.

Posted by Michael on 05/02 at 02:12 PM
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Sunday, May 01, 2005

May Day news

I interrupt this Happy Valley Sunday (yes, Penn State is in a place called Happy Valley) for a couple of brief updates.  One, this florid blog somehow entertained 175,000 visitors in April, shattering its previous record of a lot less than that.  Thanks, everyone.  We are at once humbled and vainglorious.  Two, we’ve updated the blogroll.  No kidding.  I mean, we’ve added tons and even long tons of blogs.  We’ve even gotten the name of “The Weblog” right, at long last.  That was a really tricky one.  Three, in other news, the workers have thrown off their chains.  It’s the final conflict!  And the earth shall rise on new foundations!  Cool.  I hope it’ll save Social Security.

UPDATE:  In real news, read the first comment below.  And check out the story, too.

Posted by Michael on 05/01 at 09:43 AM
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