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Friday, April 17, 2009

Arbitrary Friday—with reservations!

Thanks to fardels bear (and uncle rameau and spokane moderate) for the Arthur Bryant’s tip in the comment thread in Wednesday’s post!  Cary Nelson and I went over around 8 last night and had ourselves a meat tray that was . . . well, a tray of very tasty meat.  Along with a frosty pitcher of Boulevard.  Here’s the funny part: because I are an complete ignoramus, I called ahead, just like Principal Skinner does in “Much Apu About Nothing.” Yes, that’s right, I had no idea you all were talking about a BBQ shack with fluorescent lights and formica tabletops where you fish your own beer pitcher out of the cooler.  I clicked on the link fardels bear provided, but I didn’t look at the interior shot of the restaurant, and I didn’t even realize there was a movie involved.  So I called for reservations.  What a maroon.  To translate this into New Yorkese, this is a little like calling Katz’s deli and asking to speak to the sommelier.

So to say thanks to people who know from Kansas City, here’s a YouTube of some obscure “jazz” musicians:

And to say thanks to everybody else, here’s a YouTube of Narciso Yepes. Why Narciso Yepes?  Because it’s Friday, and Fridays are arbitrary!

Seriously, I was just wandering around the YouTubes yesterday and wondered if they had any Narciso Yepes videos in them.  Why, yes they do!  In 1981 or 1982, a friend grabbed me by the arm and dragooned me to Carnegie Hall to see Narciso Yepes, and that’s a great thing for a friend to do.  And our tickets were five dollars.  Each!  No, we didn’t wear onions in our belts.  This was 1981 or 1982, and that wasn’t the style at the time.  But back then, you could sit way upstairs in Carnegie Hall for $5.  And the acoustics in that place are, you know, pretty good.  And as he was wont to do, Yepes included this song in the program, which is one of the greatest 11th-century hits ever:

Have a fine weekend, everyone.  And may Lundqvist continue to turn away Ovechkin’s shots, all 800 of them.

Posted by Michael on 04/17 at 11:30 AM
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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Goin’ to Kansas City

Kansas City, here I come.  I’m gonna go to the Cultural Studies Association conference and take part in a panel called “The University after Cultural Studies” and argue that cultural studies actually hasn’t had all that much of an impact on the American university.  Should be fun!

And in honor of the day and the momentous world-historical and totally grass-roots events that have been planned for it, I leave you with this immortal sequence from “Much Apu About Nothing”:

Homer: Woo-hoo!  A perfect day.  Zero bears and one big fat hairy paycheck.  Hey!  How come my pay is so low? ... Bear patrol tax!  This is an outrage!  It’s the biggest tax increase in history!

Lisa: Actually, Dad, it’s the smallest tax increase in history.

Homer: Let the bears pay the bear tax.  I pay the Homer tax.

Lisa: That’s home-owner tax.

Homer: Well, anyway, I’m still outraged.

As are untold dozens of Americans across the land!  The outrage is truly outrageous!  Let’s hope Neil Cavuto and Newt Gingrich have the courage and wisdom to inform the nation’s teabaggers bear patrol tax protesters that their taxes are high because of illegal immigrants.

Posted by Michael on 04/15 at 07:33 AM
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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pullman postscript and more

I was away from the Internets for a while there, but now I’m back!  We decided to go to Connecticut for a three-day weekend, because we just can’t get enough of five-and-a-half hour car trips in holiday traffic.  But thanks to everyone who contributed to a most edifying discussion of Pullman et al.!  I just want to post a couple of quick postscripts to some comments.  One, in response to late arrival Barbara Feinberg @ 84:

How could there be 80-some comments here without a mention of the astounding invention Pullman brings:  that of daemons.

D’oh!  We were so invested in our little theory about narrative scale that we forgot to say how very kewl those daemons are.  There’s no question that they’re a large part of Jamie’s emotional investment in The Golden Compass—and Jamie’s not alone.  Also, they’re the only things worth the price of admission in the movie.

Splitter Mrs. Tilton @ 69:

(No schism, no Reformation!) To argue that (a) the salient characteristic of the Reformation is that it was schismatic, or indeed that (b) it was the Reformation that introduced schism to Christianity, is, ah, pretty Romanocentric.

Well, yes!  This may be a both/and kind of blog, but it has always been and always will be Romanocentric, for Rome is indeed the very Center.  No, I really do see your point—the Reformation happened, but there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between churches reformed and unreformed.  Let’s split that non-difference by saying if John Calvin had become Pope, then your “Reformation” wouldn’t, you know, break with the idea of having a Pope.  That’s not just a schism thing; it’s a question of how to realize God’s church on earth, etc., so I’m going to amend my claim from “the Reformation didn’t happen in Lyra’s world” to “the Reformation as we know it didn’t happen.”

And apologist for imperialism roac @ 42:

[quoting me] “it’s not a question of whether Tolkien had any use for Britain’s imperial project.  It’s that LOTR allows us to imagine England as this tiny little Shire far away from, and blissfully-but-dangerously ignorant of, the great war that is about to erupt on the continent.” [/me]

Well, OK, I guess. . . but I don’t see the point of the observation.  The Shire is not England, it’s an idealized childhood memory of a tiny rural slice of England in 1897.  Whom are you accusing Tolkien of trying to fool?  He certainly wasn’t fooled himself.  He saw the War coming as clearly as everybody else, and the remembered sense of numbingdread permeates the first part of RotK.

It is not sufficiently appreciated that the juxtaposition of the bourgeois late-Victorian Shire and the great big mythic Late Bronze Age started off, in The Hobbit, as a joke.  Which Tolkien, in setting out to write a sequel, was stuck with.

Uh, well, actually I wasn’t accusing Tolkien of trying to fool anyone.  I was pointing to a narrative strategy—one which, in historical context, has a curious effect.  Good point about the joke Tolkien stuck himself with, though.  One of the problems LOTR had to solve, on that front, was how to move from the world of trolls and dwarves and treasure-hoarding dragons to the world of Frightful World War.  Also involving some dwarves, but the trolls and dragons, eh, not so much.

And one more thing about narrative, while I’ve got you here.  There’s a critical moment in The Golden Compass, just after Mrs. Coulter has discovered Lyra at Bolvangar (and saved her from intercision) and has asked Lyra how she managed to get to an experimental station in the frozen North far from any human habitation.  She can’t tell the truth, of course, without jeopardizing her friends and revealing to Mrs. Coulter that she’s onto the dastardly schemes of the General Oblation Board.  Here’s how Pullman describes Lyra’s sticky situation:

And now that she was doing something difficult and familiar and never quite predictable, namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again, the same sense of complexity and control that the alethiometer gave her.  She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible; she had to be vague in some places and invent plausible details in others; she had to be an artist, in short.

The passage is implicitly about the book itself, of course, because Lyra has to be careful “not to say anything obviously impossible” and to “invent plausible details” in a book populated by flying witches and talking armored bears, and the artist here is pretty clearly your humble narrator himself.  Lyra here takes her place among literature’s accomplished liar-artists, who drive their narratives partly by making up even more narratives, hatching plots, thinking up schemes, and generally being devious little devils.  Odysseus was good at this sort of thing, though of course his narrative was populated by completely unrealistic creatures.  But what really interests me these days is what happens to narrative when the central character doesn’t understand something important about narrative—like Benjy Compson not understanding time, or Christopher John Francis Boone not understanding motive, or Don Quixote not understanding the difference between fiction and fact.  Such characters not only explore the parameters of narrative; they seem to warp their narratives onto themselves, as when Christopher’s father finds the book he’s writing (that is, the one we’re reading) or when everyone in Book II of Don Quixote agrees, in effect, to inhabit Quixote’s fictional world in Book I, having already read that book and being well apprised of the poor man’s singular affliction.

Just a thought.  It’ll eventually wind up in my next book, but I thought I’d just toss it out half-formed like this.  I may even open the book with that passage from The Golden Compass, in fact.  Let me know if this sounds like a good idea, and let me know now, because I’m going to try to start writing this thing in five or six weeks.

And yes, yes, I know there are important things going on in the world and I’m not writing anything about them these days.  Don’t worry!  I’ll get back to them—they’ll still be there.  Why, over on Crooked Timber I have a brand new post about the most important thing of them all: NHL playoffs! 

Posted by Michael on 04/14 at 03:01 PM
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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

His Dark Materials, or Pullman Prêt-à-Porter

Hello again, everyone!  It’s finally time for my Considered Thoughts on Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.  Remember, I know nothing of Narnia except that the lion is named after an antidepressant of some kind, so my Pullman v. C. S. Lewis observations are based on my sense of how Pullman responds to Lewis’s Space Trilogy.  And to start things off on the right foot and establish myself as your infallible guide to pop-culture criticism, let me just say at the outset that George Lazenby was far and away the best James Bond in the franchise.

I say this not only because it’s self-evidently true but because, to gauge by the responses to my brief note about Pullman’s series, the critical consensus is that (as more-antifoundationalist-than-moi philosopher Dave Maier put it @ 26, after I’d suggested that the Lord Asriel - Mrs. Coulter - Metatron scene in The Amber Spyglass was Teh suXX0r), “‘Teh suXX0r’ was my reaction not simply to Metatron et al but the whole third book, for which a better title might have been The Unsubtle Screed or something.” Indeed, I have since learned that Maier’s judgment concurs with that of less-antifoundationalist-than-moi literary critic Alan Jacobs, who wrote in the Weekly Standard,

Whichever party readers support in the ancient contest between God and Satan, they will be disappointed to see how often, in The Amber Spyglass, the tale’s momentum is interrupted by polemic. Pullman’s anti-theistic scolding consorts poorly with his prodigious skills as a storyteller. In imagination and narrative drive, he has few peers among current novelists. For such gifts to be thrust into the service of a reductive and contemptuous ideology is very nearly a tragedy.

I think this consensus, if consensus it be, is wrong.

But I’m not going to get all “relativist” on my sometime-Internets-correspondent Professor Jacobs (with whom, I have learned, I went to graduate school) by asking whose ideology is more reductive and contemptuous than whose.  I’ll simply suggest that if you all didn’t pick up on Pullman’s profound contempt for the Church in books one and two, you all weren’t reading very hard.  And it’s true, Pullman’s treatment of the Church is pretty reductive and contemptuous, since we all know that the Church didn’t really torture and burn witches, or torture and kill ordinary humans whose philosophical and scientific speculations were at odds with the teachings of the Vatican.  On the contrary, the Church has always been pretty cool about alternative readings of Scripture, on the grounds that the Bible is an ambiguous and contradictory text that can plausibly be read in any number of ways by honest people working in good faith.  About the varieties of human sexual expression, as well, the Church has always been admirably catholic.

Now, it’s true, as Jacobs points out at the end of his review, that Pullman fails to acknowledge the past two centuries of European history, which prove that some rebels against Authority turn out to be authoritarian.  For Pullman’s failure to acknowledge that rebellion against the Church can lead to Stalin and Mao, Jacobs has a harsh verdict: “a story so thoroughly sentimental and manipulative doesn’t deserve that loyalty. Pullman’s readers should not overlook the deception, conscious or unconscious, that lurks at the heart of his beautiful, misbegotten endeavor.” What’s misbegotten about it?  Just this: “this sentimental refusal of historical understanding leads directly to the Manicheanism of Pullman’s moral vision: closed versus open minds, tyrants versus liberators, the vicious Church versus its righteous opponents.” Yes, well, sometimes narratives of good versus evil can wind up, you know, casting Good versus Evil.  Sort of like the way C. S. Lewis’s trilogy did—and I’ll say more about that in a few moments.

But it can’t be denied that The Amber Spyglass is full of characters stopping the narrative to pontificate in this reductive way.  Take for example the witch Ruta Skadi, who tells the other witches about her encounter with Lord Asriel:

“And he invited us to join him, sisters.  To join his army against the Authority.  I wished with all my heart I could pledge us there and then.  He showed me that to rebel was right and just, when you considered what the agents of the Authority did in His name. . . .  And I thought of the Bolvangar children, and the other terrible mutilations I have seen in our own southlands; and he told me of many more hideous cruelties dealt out in the Authority’s name—of how they capture witches, in some worlds, and burn them alive, sisters. Yes, witches like ourselves . . .

“He opened my eyes.  He showed me things I had never seen, cruelties and horrors all committed in the name of the Authority, all designed to destroy the joys and the truthfulness of life.” [Ellipses in original.]

That’s pretty reductive and Manichean, all right.  Bad, bad Authority (and agents thereof) against joy and truth—you can’t get much more unsubtly-screedy than that.  But guess what?  That passage doesn’t actually appear in The Amber Spyglass.  It’s from book two, The Subtle Knife.  So I have to conclude that anyone who picked up The Amber Spyglass and said, “whoa, this anti-ecclesiastical routine is really getting out of control” was having something like a delayed response to aspects of Pullman’s project that were clear from way back in the opening pages of the series, back when we first learned about the status of women in the Church.

Instead, I’m going to suggest that the problem with The Amber Spyglass is a problem of scale—and that it shares this problem with The Lord of the Rings in one respect, but not, interestingly, with Lewis’s space trilogy.  Here’s what I mean.  Each of these narratives (unlike, say, Paradise Lost) opens on a very small scale, with little hobbits in their Shire, a medievalist on a hiking trip, little Lyra of Jordan College, Oxford.  The boundaries are tiny, almost cloistered, and our protagonists have no idea how vast a task lies before them or how vast is the world in which they must accomplish it.  The narratives then gradually expand in scope until they cover all of Middle-Earth (in one case) or the entire cosmos (in the other two).  The result, in LOTR, is that we move from the faerie-world of Tom Bombadil to the stage of World-Historical Events in which evil empires are overthrown, ancient lines of kings are restored to their thrones, and entire races of beings (I’m looking at you, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler) abandon Middle-Earth altogether and pass, along with our now world-historical hobbit heroes, into the West.  Along the way, though, the prose gets more and more portentous, as Anthony Lane observed a few years ago:

To read it again now, after a gap of decades, is both a rousing and a withering experience; nobody can deny the tweeness trap into which it repeatedly tumbles, or the way in which it tends, at moments of great import, to back off and scurry into the creaking comforts of outdated syntax. The hobbits, on their journey home from Mordor, arrive in the region of Eregion and stay for a week: or, rather, as Tolkien puts it, “Here now for seven days they tarried, for the time was at hand for another parting which they were loth to make.” This is the high style, but it is height without self-consciousness; Joyce climbed up there, too, but his was a parodic quest, and he stripped bare the language of nobility as if removing a suit of armor. Hardly anyone had used it unironically since Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” and to revert to it with a straight face in the nineteen-fifties was to mount a head-on challenge to modernity.

Since Lane brings up the historical record, I have to add that I’m not convinced that Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” didn’t also mount a head-on challenge to modernity.  I mean, come on, it’s the late 19th century already.  And while George Eliot was chronicling provincial life on the eve of the Reform Bill or tackling the Jewish Question, here’s Tennyson building a discursive bridge to the sixth century—and the mythical sixth century, at that.  It’s not like he’s writing a series of long narrative poems on what the railroad will mean for English industry.  “Idylls of the King” is neo-retro from the get-go, and its high style works only in that context.  But that’s a side argument, as is my sense that in LOTR, the British Empire gets to imagine itself, even at the late date of the mid-twentieth century, as a tiny, quiet nation of shopkeepers from the Shire who don’t quite understand those nasty world-warrish broils taking place in strands afar remote.  (I have a theory about the last time the high style could be used without self-consciousness or self-parody or neo-retroism, but I’ll save it for the end of this post, because it has something to do with the larger plot of His Dark Materials.) The important thing is that Lane is right about the increasingly inflated and eventually rather silly language of LOTR: as its scope and scale get larger and larger, you can almost spot Tolkien in the margins straining to crank up the Inflationary Diction Device.

Which brings me back to The Amber Spyglass.  The journey of The Golden Compass is an intermediate one: Lyra meddles in the affairs of adults, and soon finds herself swept up into a narrative much larger than herself—but one in which she learns, like that Harry Potter fellow or those Halflings from the Shire, that she is the subject of a prophecy uttered by creatures not entirely of the world we thought we knew.  But even as we establish the parameters of Lyra’s parallel-Earth world, in which there are witches and armored bears but no airplanes and no Reformation, we never leave that world; rather, we follow Lyra on her improbable trek to the frozen north via the world of the gyptians.  Only in The Subtle Knife do we begin to explore the many-worlds hypothesis (aka the Barnard-Stokes heresy, whose proponents have been imprisoned by the Church), and I have to say that Will Parry’s initial explorations in that deserted coastal town on the planet Cittàgazze are an appropriately eerie and unsettling way to open book two.  OK, so the first couple of expansions of scale are successful: with Lyra, we can make it to Bolvangar and we can intervene in the obscure politics of witches and armored bears, and then with Will we can enter new worlds with Specters in them by means of windows left open on busy English streets.  So far, so good.

But in book two, we’re alerted to the possibility that all these narrative possibilities are dwarfed by the Largest Imaginable Narrative of All, in which Lord Asriel is challenging not merely the calcified Church and its resistance to scientific exploration, but the Authority himself, He Am Who Am.  To this end Asriel is holing up in a mountain fortress and assembling the most awesome array of corporeal and angelic dissidents since . . . since . . . well, since the wrong side won the previous mother of all celestial battles eons ago and then got propagandists like Milton to chronicle their victory.  I hope I won’t be considered irreverent when I say that this is pretty big stuff.  The narrative better live up to it.  And in book two, as it builds momentum, that narrative sweeps up more and more innocents who have no idea what they’ve gotten into, most notably the nun-turned-cosmologist Mary Malone.

I think I’m in broad agreement with a lot of people when I say that the narrative of book three doesn’t live up to the task.  But the devil is in the details.  Speaking of the devil: Lyra’s trip to the world of the dead is harrowing.  Really!  And when’s the last time you read about someone harrowing the world of the dead?  It’s not like it happens every day, now.  That sequence, involving Lyra, Will, and a pair of Gallivespians, gets stranger and stranger as it goes, and deeper and deeper into Western literary history, and by my count these are both Good Things.  But then, in the very depths of the land of the dead, the wheels begin to come off:  the harpies will be mollified if people tell them true stories?  And meanwhile the evil Church Fathers back on Lyra’s planet are planning to fire the world’s biggest cosmic slingshot, which, with a lock of Lyra’s hair, will pulverize her wherever she may be?  And this slingshot opens an abyss under the Abyss?  Wait just a second.  The narrative’s sense of scale has gone screwy on us.  The harpies are supposed to be hideous and terrifying, not the underworld’s version of thwarted oral historians who want people to tell their life stories.  And the cosmic slingshot—and the entire cosmic slingshot sequence—is just silly. 

And then Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel have their epic battle with Metatron, whose name sounds less like something out of the epic tradition than like something out of Power Rangers.  Hey, remember those legions of armies Asriel was gathering unto himself, comprised of the most awesome array of corporeal and angelic dissidents assembled since oh yeah, I just mentioned this two paragraphs ago?  Well, forget about ‘em, folks, because the climactic battle between good and evil is going to turn out to be something more like a WWE championship match, with flying scissor kicks and pile drivers, and Asriel gets bonked on the head with a rock, but whoa!  Mrs. Coulter totally betrays Metatron and fights against him!  It’s the most amazing turn of events since Miss Elizabeth turned on Randy “Macho Man” Savage!  And she gouges Metatron’s eyes and then Asriel hits him over the back with a metal folding chair!  Win!

Oh yeah, the Authority himself gets dumped out of his vacuum-sealed crystal container and decomposes within seconds.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I know it’s hard to depict a battle for the fate of the universe.  But that’s my point about the problem of scale here: the scope of the event is out of all proportion to what the narrative can plausibly do.  Perhaps Pullman could have conducted the war against the Kingdom of Heaven offstage, so to speak, and have it narrated after the fact by an angel or a witch who can say stuff like “terrible was the tumult my eyes witnessed that day.” All I know is that this profoundly anticlimactic scene doesn’t work at all.

Interestingly (well, I hope it’s interestingly), Lewis’s That Hideous Strength avoids this problem altogether.  That’s because the really grandiose celestial stuff—complete with lots of angelic speeches and Blessed-be-He songs of praise, talk of the Great Dance and capital-D Dust (!)—takes place at the end of book two, Perelandra. That Hideous Strength, by contrast, opens in the determinedly domestic realm, where Jane Studdock, a character who had not appeared in the first two books, is struggling with her doctoral dissertation on John Donne.  Indeed, it’s not clear for quite some time that book three has anything to do with book two; Lewis has reset the scale of the narrative from scratch, almost as if we’re back in the Shire or Lyra’s Oxford with no knowledge of the divine beings who closed out the previous volume by chanting for a dozen pages or so.

The results of Lewis’s strategy are kind of cool.  The book remains largely in the realm of domestic realism; the main plot follows a shadowy group called the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (or N.I.C.E., an almost Pynchonian touch—and it wouldn’t surprise me if That Hideous Strength crossed Pynchon’s mind as he was writing Gravity’s Rainbow) whose forays into fascism are but a prelude to an even more dastardly and far-reaching plot.  Gradually, Lewis gradually unearths the Merlin myth for incorporation into his Christian narrative, and then, at the very end of the book, brings down the planetary gods of classical antiquity as well.  But because the book doesn’t begin with the grandiose—say, an impending war in Heaven involving every conscious entity—the parade of deities at the end doesn’t come off as hyperinflated.  Also, there’s the fact that Lewis has some fun with the planets; as each god arrives, his or her nature suffuses the house in which the principals have gathered.  Here’s the first arrival, as felt by Ransom and Merlin:

Quick agitation seized them: a kind of boiling and bubbling in mind and heart which shook their bodies also.  It went to a rhythm of such fierce speed that they feared their sanity must be shaken into a thousand fragments.  And then it seemed that this had actually happened.  But it did not matter: for all the fragments—needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts—went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves.  It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry.  The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.  For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure.  He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech.  All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning.  For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest the sun.  Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth.

So now you can tell your students (if you have students) why it’s worth their while to study poetry: it will enable them to maintain their sanity when mercurial Hermes Trismegistus shows up at their door.  And quite seriously, the “all the fragments” passage and the “all fact was broken” sentence are very nicely rendered.  I wouldn’t say that the entrance of the ancient deities is worth the price of admission by itself, but I certainly would say that Lewis handles this delicate matter of expanding narrative scale rather more deftly than Pullman handles the final struggle with Heavens-to-Mergatroid.

But the ending of Lewis’s novel!  Ye gods!  You want a reductive and contemptuous ideology, I gotcher reductive and contemptuous ideology right here.  In the novel’s closing pages, after the Forces of N.I.C.E. Evil have been defeated, the Director-with-a-capital-D (formerly known as Ransom) tells Jane Studdock what it all means:

Go in obedience and you will find love.  You will have no more dreams.  Have children instead.

You should understand that Jane’s clairvoyant dreams about Merlin and disembodied talking heads have driven the narrative from the outset, so that when the Director tells her she will have no more dreams, he is at once informing her that her nights will be easier (which counts as a relief) and that she will no longer have access to the supernal (which counts as a demotion but also a relief).  It’s not quite as cruel as it sounds.

But it’s still be fruitful and multiply—and most of all, stop trying to get that Ph.D.!  Leave the thinking to the menfolk!  To which Jane replies, “My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst/ Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains,/ God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more/ Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.” Whoops, no, that’s Milton.  Sorry about that.  Anyway, Jane complies, and on the final page she goes into the marriage bower to start havin’ babies with her husband Mark.  Now, this is a pretty raw deal for our Jane, not merely because her husband, preceding her into the bower, has thrown his clothes carelessly around the room (“How exactly like Mark!” she thinks with relief at the knowledge he is there), but more importantly because Mark is a bit of a pud and a toady who has spent most of the novel currying favor with the baddies at N.I.C.E. in the hopes that it will advance his career and give him Power Over Others.  It’s as if Jane’s reward, for her good work and her conversion to Christianity, is that she is ordered to bear Mark Steyn’s children.

Oh, all right, to be fair, Mark has an epiphany on his way to the bower in which he sees himself (rightly) as “a coarse male boor with horny hands and hobnailed shoes and beefsteak jaw” (you know, sort of like Steyn!) and the insinuation is that he will henceforth be more worthy of the lady Jane.  But still, as Erich Auerbach once said of this closing scene, “ew ew ew ew ew.”

To wrap up this Internets-breaking post with an observation and a question: it appears that for Pullman, as for Lewis, the fate of the universe hinges on what women do with their, you know, female sexuality.  Indeed, this seems to be an important concern of the Church in our very own world!  So when the Tempter shows up in The Amber Spyglass, in the shape of nun-turned-cosmologist Mary Malone, she basically tells Lyra to go ahead and do it, do it, do it ‘til she’s satisfied (whatever it is), because long walks along the beach with your new lover are way better than that flesh-scourging, pleasure-denying ascetic routine.  And she doesn’t even have to get married or have babies!  And she can go ahead and grow up to get a Ph.D. if she wants to, just like Mary did after she left the church!  You know what comes after that, right?  Deregulate women’s sexuality, and global financial-moral crisis follows.  You wind up with women doing science, women kissing women, men marrying box turtles, chaos in general. 

Now here’s the question.  In Pullman’s universe, everything went wrong with the cosmos a little over three hundred years ago, when the scientists of Cittàgazze, housed in the Torre degli Angeli, invented the Subtle Knife and began cutting into other worlds, thus (unwittingly) releasing the Specters who can suck the living spirit right out of your body.  As Pullman writes: “Three hundred years ago, the Royal Society was set up: the first true scientific society in her world. Newton was making his discoveries about optics and gravitation. Three hundred years ago in Lyra’s world, someone invented the alethiometer.” But why pick that point in history as the fateful turning point?  The Royal Society was founded in 1660, yes.  Hmmm.  Was anything else going on around then?  Major political events in English history, perhaps?  Major English poets writing major epics?  Maybe even a dissociation of sensibility of some kind?  As I’ve admitted, I’m a complete Pullman neophyte, so I don’t know if he’s discussed this elsewhere.  But I will suggest that whether or not human character changed on or about December 1660, thenabouts was the last time an English writer (like, say, Milton) could get away with writing in the high style about things like the war in Heaven. 

Your thoughts about any or all of the above (except the bit about George Lazenby)?

Posted by Michael on 04/08 at 03:10 PM
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Tuesday, April 07, 2009


While I’m finishing up that post on His Dark Materials, I just wanted to let you know—that is, those of you who read “print” publications—that I have a brief essay in the latest minnesota review and another brief essay in the latest Common Review too.  Why do I bother to hyperlink if the essays aren’t available online?  Well, because if you look around the minnesota review website a bit, you’ll find this delightful and instructive essay by someone named Tedra Osell, and if you check out The Common Review you’ll find this fascinating essay, “When Tommy Met Sally.” And then you’ll subscribe or buy these issues, and you’ll get to read my little essays too.

In the meantime, I am genuinely surprised to find how completely I agree with Stanley Fish’s latest.

Posted by Michael on 04/07 at 11:56 AM
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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Special “special” edition

While I was at LSU talking about disability and stuff, a graduate student asked me about Obama’s “Special Olympics” gaffe on The Tonight Show.  I said more or less what you’d expect: that it was a stunningly foolish and thoughtless remark, and something of a bitter irony that the United States’ first African-American president had become the first president to use “Special Olympics” as a laugh line.  Guess we didn’t see that coming! 

Now, of course I know the joke was supposed to be self-deprecating.  But there are much better ways to be self-deprecating!  Obama could have mocked his bowling skills by saying “I brought my Z game,” which would have been Very Funny because it would have been a play on the sports-cliché of bringing one’s A game, you see, and it would not have offended any Z-Americans, since they have notoriously generous senses of humor.

Then again, a joke about one’s Z-game would not have provided us with the “teaching moment” we’re apparently living through as I write.  The timing of Obama’s misstep is interesting: the Special Olympics has launched a new initiative to retire the R-word, and I hope they have more success with this than I did back in 2005, because my little post on cognitive-disability slurs seems to have had precisely zero effect on the frequency with which “that’s so retarded” is uttered in public and “WTF are you a Fing retard” appears in the blog comment sections in Left Blogistan. (Though not here!)

(Extended aside:  before anybody asks me about Tropic Thunder: strange as it may sound, I actually kind of appreciate how the movie was trying to skewer the Rain Man - I Am Sam - Radio representation of intellectual disability.  It did so in a ham-handed and aggressively unfunny way, but then, it was a ham-handed and aggressively unfunny movie, though not quite so aggressively unfunny as Burn After Reading.  My sense is that it was trying to do for Vietnam War flicks what Galaxy Quest did for SF: to wit, parade and lampoon the cheesy, well-worn tropes of the genre and then work those tropes back into the script for a clever and meta- closing sequence.  Except that Tropic Thunder forgot about the “clever” part and the “funny” part.)

The rest of my reply had to do with the fact that we really, really don’t know how or when or whether to laugh when the subject is cognitive/intellectual disability. The Ringer made a remarkably brave attempt at it, starting from a patently offensive premise (Johnny Knoxville feigns intellectual disability in order to win the Special Olympics) and offering some, but only some, genuinely surprising and warmly humorous moments as the plot unfolds.  (I think Stephanie Zacharek’s review of the film had this just about right.) And the reason humor is important here will become clear (I hope) at the end of the post.

First, though, here’s what the graduate student said in response: she said that she’d been hearing not merely that this should be a “teaching moment” with regard to cognitive disability but also that we should take the opportunity to revisit the term “Special” itself, in order to ask whether the word hasn’t become the kind of default euphemism that needs to be retired along with the R-word.  “Well,” I said, “I imagine that the Shriver and Kennedy families would have something to say about that, and I don’t imagine that they’d take it as a friendly amendment.” No doubt, said my interlocutor, but whoever made the suggestion to her had also suggested that Special Olympians themselves take the lead in determining the appropriate language for cognitive disability.  “Hmmmm,” I hmmmed, “now that’s an idea.” I promised I would throw it up onto the Internets for further discussion, and that’s exactly what I am doing right now.  Discuss!  Or don’t!  Or best of all, just listen when someone with an intellectual disability speaks to you about this!

I did say one more thing that morning, as well.  (Just so you know.) I drew on something I wrote recently that may or may not appear someplace or other, in response to a request that I write a (very) brief essay on the languages of disability.  Here’s the relevant snippet from the essay I submitted, which I more or less paraphrased at LSU:

The last time I taught Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (a text that has become as important for disability studies as for queer theory), I couldn’t help noticing that at certain moments in Goffman’s text, the most heterogeneous conditions are yoked by violence together, as when Goffman writes that “ex-mental patients and expectant unmarried fathers are similar in that their failing is not readily visible” (48) and that “a woman who has had a mastectomy or a Norwegian male sex offender who has been penalized by castration are forced to present themselves falsely in almost all situations” (75).  What’s going on in these weird passages?  I think Goffman is winking at us, as one of the “wise”: he knows that stigma has a temporal dimension, that social opprobrium, like everything else, can be historicized.  He just doesn’t get around to saying so explicitly until the closing pages of his book, when he suggests that “when, as in the case of divorce or Irish ethnicity, an attribute loses much of its force as a stigma, a period will have been witnessed when the previous definition of the situation is more and more attacked” (137).  Divorce and Irish ethnicity aren’t discrediting attributes any longer; likewise, mastectomy and unwed fatherhood have lost much (though not all) of the stigma once attached to them.  Mental patients and sex offenders, by contrast, continue to be stigmatized, and many people might add that sex offenders are properly stigmatized.  My point—and, I think, Goffman’s implicit point—is not only that stigma has a history but that different forms of stigma move at different speeds.  Why, it is even possible, in today’s modern society today, to find openly gay men and women in elective office—something that was unimaginable at the time Stigma was published.

And yet disability remains deeply and widely stigmatized; I often suspect that cognitive disability is the slowest-moving of the stigmas, and will remain a subject of horror and avoidance for decades to come.  We argue about terminology, in other words (and it is always about speaking in other words), because we don’t yet know which fights to pick and which battles we can actually win.  Perhaps someday, when physical and cognitive disabilities have finally lost much of their stigmatizing force, we’ll be able to look back and determine which arguments about language made a difference, and which were simply clever language games.  Until then, we work in the dark, we do what we can.

I should have added that Stigma practically develops an entire lexicon of disability unto itself; and I might also have added, had I more room to work with (as here, on the Internets), a citation to the passage where Goffman writes, “There is also ‘disclosure etiquette,’ a formula whereby the individual admits his own failing in a matter of fact way, supporting the assumption that those present are above such concerns while preventing them from trapping themselves into showing that they are not.  Thus, the ‘good’ Jew or mental patient waits for ‘an appropriate time’ in a conversation with strangers and calmly says: ‘Well, being Jewish has made me feel that . . .’ or ‘Having had first-hand experience as a mental patient, I can . . .’” (101).  Yes, indeed, here are your good Jews and your discreet ex-mental patients, disclosing their “failings” via the proper disclosure etiquette (and see how the lexicon just taught you the term “disclosure etiquette”?).  I tell you, Goffman knows exactly what he’s doing by juxtaposing these two examples, and it isn’t about likening the two, any more than women who’ve had mastectomies are like Norwegian male sex offenders.

“Another strategy of those who pass,” Goffman writes seven pages earlier, “is to present the signs of their stigmatized failing as signs of another attribute, one that is less significantly a stigma.  Mental defectives, for example, apparently sometimes try to pass as mental patients, the latter being the less of two social evils” (94).  It’s passages like this—and “teaching moments” like ours—that lead me to think that cognitive/intellectual disability is the stigmatized identity that trumps all others, the one everyone else wants to distinguish themselves from, the one that will be hardest to destigmatize.

Which leads me back to humor.  The passage about divorce and Irish ethnicity losing their stigmatizing force goes on to say how “the previous definition of the situation” might be attacked: “first, perhaps, on the comedy stage, and later during mixed contacts in public places, until it ceases to exert control over both what can be easefully attended, and what must be kept a secret or painfully disattended” (137).  I think The Ringer was sincerely trying to destigmatize cognitive/intellectual disability with humor, and at least trying to imagine mixed contacts in public places.  And maybe we can use this teaching moment to think more productively about destigmatizing cognitive disability.  But we don’t quite know how to laugh, just yet, and we don’t quite know what to say.

x-posted for still further discussion

Posted by Michael on 04/02 at 02:12 PM
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