Monday, April 30, 2012
The thought break-through by Damasio and others came about by applying the principles of evolution to the concept of “consciousness.” This has been prevented because humans think of “consciousness” as something separated from “thinking” which is what brains do. To most people “consciousness” is a kind of mystical phenomenon, almost like soul. “Thinking” is more mechanical, like what computers do. But Damasio is applying the concept of “emergence,” the idea that as the brains of animals developed over time, each advance in complexity allowed a new capacity to process sensory information, always in the service of survival which is what governs evolution, but not always available to introspection, which has been the controlling access to thought about “consciousness.” He claims that “consciousness,” even with this accumulation of powers, can never quite get to direct contact with reality -- no brain can, since brains work by constructing maps drawn from sensory information. But we can get to an intense “feeling” of relationship that gives meaning to existence. It is this “feeling” that I pursue as a function of liturgy.
Every creature has “consciousness” in the sense of “sentience” because that’s more or less the criterion for being a creature. But it can be, in the one-celled animal for instance, merely the abilities to go toward, to avoid, to ingest, to excrete, and to reproduce. The four-letter functions, if you like to be blunt. I used to tell people in my animal control education role (if I had an audience that could get it, like kids) that the basics of dogs were eat, shit, fuck, sleep, give birth, and die -- all of which people have major cultural hangups about. (Admit it -- you reacted to these Anglo-Saxon words that have been markers of low class rudeness since the Normans invaded England.) Of course, dogs are several evolutionary stages beyond one-celled animals, which means that their body functions are entwined and expressed with emotion. Cats are usually the subjects of experiments on “emotion” because they are smaller, highly emotional, and not so protected by the culture as dogs are.
What we know is that the lowest levels of creature function (worms, sea creatures) do react but they have no emotion. Their basic sentience is that of the sea anemone, which shrinks and balls up when things are unpleasant but blooms and reaches out when things are rewarding. Damasio’s insight is that the sea anemones' reactions remain in us, no matter how many other processes are added. They may be complexified or morphed somehow, but they are still there. On top of them are arranged -- in our stacked brains going from early up to recent and then bulging out to even more recent developments like our round foreheads -- are all the self-regulations and sensory-mapping capacities that have survived the long trek through time. The bottom structures are the most basic, so damage to the bottom (brain stem) presents far more of a function problem than the top. In the top brain, the older and therefore more vital bits are in the middle of the tissue and towards the bottom, while the structures that are towards the outer rind (cortex) and the sides can be destroyed without destroying the creature -- simply removing some functions, maybe so minor as to hardly make a difference. The phenomenon of consciousness is not destroyed until damage is down towards the middle bottom, early in evolution. That means coma, if not death.
“Consciousness” as the word is used in ordinary conversation is not helpful because there are many SUB- UN- PRE- and UNDER consciousness functions. They are not necessarily “knowable” by introspection, but can be detected by instruments, experiments, and even simple outside observation of behavior. CONSCIOUSNESS IS NOT A MONOLITH but an interplay of sub-elements. It is like an orchestra, not a soloist. But to most of us it feels like a solo because only some of it is available for introspection.
One of the most basic functions of the brain is sensory perception of the world outside the body and also, at a rather higher level, “objects” that are in fact concepts, like love or mathematical zero. These objects, both the concrete ones that the body directly contacts and the conceptual ones derived from thinking, each have an emotional “attachment” or aura to which the brain directly connects and uses to recover the memory or thought of the object. When you think to yourself, “skateboard,” you cannot help but have an emotional response along with the sense memory. They are entwined and expressed in what you do about skateboards. You may not realize you have a feeling about them. You may have a passionate attachment to them, so that the thought comes with strong feelings. Maybe you are a rider and so your body gives you the sense of movement, even if you don’t move.
It is this dimension of sensory attachment that is lost when people think about religious objects in a factual, detached way. If to some people a Koran or Bible is only a book and if books carry no emotional meaning, then how can it register on them that others are deeply enmeshed with the emotional significance of certain books? The constant dry arguments about religion -- theological dogma about which statements are true facts -- encourages this suppression of emotional attachment. When people say they are not “religious” but are “spiritual,” I think this is the dimension they are talking about. Religion keeps turning into mathematics, while spirituality can be emotional and MUST be to carry identification and meaning of a higher kind.
How can objects, let’s say lighting a chalice on Sunday morning, be made meaningful? By connecting them to emotion in the form of the sensory experience but also the simultaneous evocation of memory, image, testimony. Starting with a sensorily perceptible solid object is an advantage -- we already have emotions about vessels and fires. But to expand, reaching out, associate with the act of lighting a chalice in a safe place and in the company of a “holding community” associated with supportive explanatory experiences, is to open those individuals to what I’ve been calling “liminal space.” In that space can be invoked “objects” that are concepts, like “freedom of thought.” Those concepts are invested (that’s the right word) with feeling and therefore meaning beyond just the dictionary definition, because it is felt in the mind and body.
Sunday, April 29, 2012
The writer and director of “Disengagement,” Amos Gitai (née Weintraub which is the same word in German) has a background in architecture and combat. Thus, the movie is a highly structured and logistic meditation on the importance of homelands. Leavened with eroticism and richly embellished details of place, it offends those who want only love stories to continue.
The introducing seduction scene is on a train where an Israeli man (Liron Levo) asks for a cigarette from a Palestinian woman who has a Dutch passport though she is not Dutch because Palestine is not granted the status of “nation,” in the same way that some tribes are not recognized as “tribes” by the US government. It’s all definitions that control entitlements. The hapless conductor who is checking passports is not sophisticated enough to sort this out, but finally gives up when the officer-status man protects the woman. The encounter, which began as a simple interlude, then becomes more intimate. It is a snapshot introduction to the film.
We never see the woman again, but the man, now traveling on foot, moves through small groups of evidently displaced people, perhaps refugees of some sort by improvised camps. He jumps fences, keeps moving. This “nomadism” (a Deleuzeguattarian concept) and displacement -- almost a component of disengagement, is a constant theme.
We go to a elegant but deteriorated French apartment where valuable objects (carved chairs with splendid but rotted upholstery) crowd rooms that seem to be on the verge of emptying to a warehouse or sales room. They are not arranged conventionally. In another smaller room a man lies on a bier, dead, while an African-American soprano sits by him singing. Popular symbols of Jewish religion, such a dreidels, hang from the ceiling. It seems an idiosyncratic presentation of personal religion for an independent man born in a Yiddish community in America, then taking refuge in Avignon. Religion in this film is song. But I never did decode the woman or her beautiful aria.
The man’s daughter, played by Juliette Binoche, is childlike. She is divorcing her husband, she says. He is as rich and white-haired as her father. (The funeral director pretends to introduce them to each other -- there is no emotional exchange.) But when the soldier shows up she is totally emotional -- volcanic, relieved, demanding, erotic. Though he resists her advances, it is clear that he loves her and will protect her silliness. He is her adopted brother and she tests his faithfulness to the conventions of family by trying to seduce him, but he IS faithful and instead of spending the night in the apartment, he goes to some kind of refuge packed with people of the street and lies down on the floor with them. Next day the sibs are dressed for the funeral but we do not see the ritual.
Instead comes a remarkable cameo by Jeanne Moreau as a lawyer. Was Jeanne ever “Marianne,” the fictional face of France? Moreau’s famous face has been punished by gravity, but she has lost no authority. The “key” premise is the will of the father which orders his estranged and damaged daughter to take the news of both death and will to HER daughter, now in a kibbutz that Israel has decided to order back inside the national borders. The daughter, who has quarreled with and resisted her father, now discovers that he has been a devoted grandfather to her own daughter, given up at birth. This movie will be about family versus family with every moral content ambiguous, arguable and incredibly painful. (Since I’m tying things back to Blackfeet, the parallel struggle now is between those who are enrolled -- one-quarter Blackfeet or more by family descent -- and their children who are not, which deprives them of rights and access to financial aid for college, loans and so on. There is another movement to open the enrollment, which further dilutes the original identity.)
After an industrial night-passage to get the plot-line to the Gaza strip, the rest of the story is witnessing the removal of the illegal Israeli settlers who refused to accept buy-outs to go back to Israel and declare they will not leave what they now claim as homeland. The Palestinians stand just outside the fence, declaring their own devotion and entitlement with poetry. Military, caught in the middle, do the best they can with an impossible situation. There are no “bad guys,” which probably confused those viewers expecting something more conventional. No explosions. Just big machinery. The daughter does find the granddaughter and they embrace whole-heartedly and physically connected, recognizing each other. By now the Binoche character has begun growing up. But then the story separates them again as the granddaughter is forcibly removed. The end is Binoche and her brother locked in agonistic embrace. She despairs, he restrains.
Religion saturates this film in terms of allegiance, protocols, capacity to deeply offend by touching heart-beliefs. It does not shirk nor diminish the rending dilemma of two different peoples (not so different at root, but religiously merged with modern nationality in irreconcilable ways) that claim the same land. Some would shrug and say one place is as good another, but not in this place where survival means passionate attachment that drives hard work. (The rez parallel is the idea that if Indians can’t find work, they should just go where the jobs are. But at the moment we are invaded by drilling rigs.)
Gitai is illuminating a true event with his characters. In fact, the only buildings left standing were the greenhouses and the synagogues. But some Jews wished the synagogues demolished to prevent desecration and others burned their own houses to prevent the Palestinians from having them, the same as American frontier homesteaders might try to deprive Indians. The greenhouses were bought by an NGO to protect them for Palestinian use. The granddaughter in the film works in a little plastic-covered hoop greenhouse and her mother tries to help save some plant stock. (She did not try to save anything from her father’s decayed apartment.)
Some of the scenes might seem gratuitous to those unwashed viewers who are taking a beating in these remarks. The settlers practicing for resistance. The soldiers (and their horses) practicing in hopes of a non-damaging removal. And then the actual melée where all the planning and drilling falls apart. There is only chaos, but no blood, no guns, the truncheons stay in the soldier’s backpacks. The violence is emotional. Maybe that’s the worst kind.
Saturday, April 28, 2012
The eye searches most of all for faces or maybe even parts of faces, but also the human figure and especially if it’s moving. There is not much of a body of curatorial comment on video as art so far -- at least that I know of -- so I’m winging this post. But looking for human faces and bodies must be one of the most basic principles of composing in three dimensions, (one being time), and composing in overlays that rhyme, reveal and obscure.
So far videos, originally created and televised in support of love songs, have been more seriously used for political reasons, or maybe for education, or for advertising. Maybe because of the commodification of young men’s bodies in perfume ads on the one hand and war documentaries on the other, a way of looking at the art that works with young male images, traditional as that has been over the centuries, has scattered. Quite apart from that issue, how to present this work in art galleries has been confused by discussion about how much to present work-on-video as a social phenomenon in homes (old-fashioned clunky televisions with living room couches) and how much to use flat screens (now everywhere) and how much to explore innovations (projecting onto buildings). But what abides, persists and recurs universally is video as seduction.
The work of the boys of Cinematheque uses a technique of transparent montage and overlay to mix human figure (usually their own figures) with the harsh environments of cities, abandonment, and decay. Young but hardly naive, restricted in terms of written words but eloquent in terms of image and symbol as well as totally unrestricted in terms of social sanctions, these boys -- many the age of soldiers killing in Afghanistan -- are not obligated to educate their audience.
Even on a still print, we must use our eyes. At first impact there is color and shape. Then our searching eyes see a profile, a nape, the rounded flesh of limbs, the seashell complexity of an ear, and always the eyes looking back at us. They know who they are -- when they can hold it together -- but they ask, “Who are those people who deny we exist, who insist we are invisible? Why don’t they want to see the delicate tracing of a near-child’s upper lip, the brushy thicket of hair that marks an older boy?” These images are like darkroom films slowly developing under fluid in trays, except that the fluid is in the observer’s eye and the developing is in the observer’s brain as it learns to interpret.
Many expect to see art images in galleries and museums -- in fact, cannot identify them as art unless that’s what it says out front on the marquee, so no wonder that the young people (make that INTERCONTINENTAL young people) -- who follow everything through YouTube on their own handheld device connections -- don’t think of it as art either. It is something much deeper, halfway between the mythic and the dreaming. Most of us are taught to tolerate nude people and even violence so long as it’s “art”, but for these young people it’s Life.
Kids know how to find these images, Cinematheque needs to sell them, but society gets in the way -- as usual with anything that seems to challenge the status quo. If someone with a Ph.D. and creds from museums presented this same material, they would be widely praised and discussed. But if kids do it, the first impulse is to label it out-of-bounds, pornographic. Kids should not desire. Kids should be obedient. Kids should wait until we want to pay them on our terms. (Grants, degrees, foundation applications). When we say “kids belong to us,” we mean we own them.
A big part of what propels the boys of Cinematheque is violence imposed on them in the past. Invasive, demeaning, stigmatizing, permanently damaging, it is socially-tolerated torture, meant to confine boys to homes and institutions that are also torturing. Besides image, the other liberating force is movement, maybe freeform like skateboards and bikes which make playgrounds of public places or maybe dance -- even when onstage the free-form funky intimate dance of the street in repertory creations. These are particularly satisfying to the loner who through dance is in sync with a working friendship group. They are not the formally restrictive companies of ballet, but accepting companies of all shapes and sizes. And excellent video subjects.
The misadventures of our clueless and adversarial politicians (as well as the commodified and scandal-mongering media) have so disempowered nations that they resort to shaking sticks at their own people -- no less in the USA than in Syria or Egypt, who cannot even refrain from killing. In an effort to escape, people migrate here and there, taking their children with them. Images of trauma haunt them as they try to learn new languages and survive. Their brains must struggle daily to find meaning. Some give up, sell their children, and sink into drugs. A few kids get hold of video cameras, so small and ubiquitous that they migrate from pocket to pocket almost as if they had lives of their own: the electronic equivalent of the first mammals in the world of dinosaurs. Once kids begin to see patterns, they look to see what the others are making. The computers in public libraries in the United States are used by children as avid as hummingbirds before hollyhocks.
Cinematheque is like those funky “peoples” dance groups. Their empowerment comes from willingness to collaborate democratically even when the results are scandalous. In the late Sixties (a time of assassination and street riots) and Seventies (communes and psychedelics) many people tried “pure” freeform democracy in small groups. They knew to actively avoid the government and were wary even of non-profit do-gooders. Those impulses have returned now on a worldwide scale, given a desperate edge by economic collapse. We cannot be paralyzed by the threat of apocalypse. We cannot simply protect ourselves with pessimism.
The reason people die is that they must make room for a new generation and that new generation is here. The fact that they are rather invisible is good. It protects them from censorship, control, capture, and confinement,
Friday, April 27, 2012
A small notice caught my eye about a gathering called “Our Land, Our Future” for folks working towards a positive outcome for the many forces coming to bear on our landscape, but particularly the area called the “Badger/Two Medicine” after the two rivers that originate there. There would be a performance by Jack Gladstone, the Montana Troubador and enrolled Blackfeet. http://www.jackgladstone.com/Oki,_Welcome.html I decided to attend. since I’d had a small donation that covered the gas. Ironic, eh?
Here’s the url for a movie of the place we’re talking about. http://glaciertwomedicinealliance.blogspot.com/ This movie is by Tony Bynum, a fine professional photographer working out of East Glacier who maintains a stunning website: a map of all the oil rigs on the rez. http://tonybynum.com/oil-map/ If you open any of the wellhead locations, you get photos and videos of it against the spectacular land.
I knew about Jack Gladstone and had heard his music. The man is famous and much beloved, but I’d never really seen him except in photos. Jack Gladstone’s cousin was Curley Bear Wagner, so I thought Jack would be something like wry and wary traditionalist Curley Bear, but NOT. Jack is huge, a football lineman from Seattle, a man of glowing power and energy who lifted a heavy speaker over his head to put it onto a stand and, while it was up in the air, did a few power lifts just for the heckuvit. Dr. Kendall Flint, slightly smaller, was Jack’s roommate at college, came out to visit him, loved it here, stayed, and now plays mandolin and harmonica with Jack to thrilling effect. Dr. Flint has been a doc here for twenty years (once took care of Bob Scriver) and loves the place, loves the job, throws positive energy alongside Jack. These two men are intriguing because they project power, but as a local person said to me, “They are so gentle.”
I just had no idea -- how could I have missed out all this time? The answer is complex. I do not go into the mountains. I do not participate in ceremonial life anymore. I do not relate well to Missoula, which once was very active in this unique organization that blends “white” with “red.” I should get over it.
The Commons room of the Blackfeet Community College was bouncing with energy as environmental leaders who knew each other gave bear hugs and those who’d just met made firm handshakes. A lot of these people are hearty backpackers as well as skilled writers, photographers, organizers. I visited with John McGill, the editor of the Glacier Reporter -- or rather pretended to have a conversation though I couldn’t hear much of what he said due to the pounding energy of the big pow-wow drum group from the high school. They included girls (yikes!) and the leader was so strong and hit that last blow of each song so hard I really thought the drum might split, but it didn’t.
Larry Salois, my former UPS man, showed up and I didn’t recognize him at all. A little gold earring, no brown uniform -- he laughed and then I knew who he was -- the guy who took on the MTTL high tension electrical line and changed the game altogether. Lou Bruno, one of the earliest, most steady, and healing presences on the rez for decades, hugged me before I recognized his voice and knew who he was. Wayne Bruno, a former student. Crystal LaPlante, another. No one fails to recognize Earl Old Person. An intriguing Canadian Buddhist, Stephen Legault, a writer of environmental murder mysteries shook hands. (www.stephenlegault.com). He was there because he does consulting for environmental organizations and is currently working with Crown of the Continent. Darrell Norman, artist, was there. Deana Leader, former school administrator and present activist. Hugo Johnson from St. Marys. Woody Kipp, journalist, teacher, force of nature. Ron Bloomquist already works at BCC where he manages the campus. We taught together.
Most of the white people who live locally are professionals, teachers or doctors. They’ve often lived here a long time, though as Dr. Flint remarked, being there for twenty years still defined him as a “newcomer.” Many have married enrolled people. I used to try to make a “typology” of rez people but gave it up because it’s too complex -- to say nothing of controversial and possibly risky. This particular group might be defined as the heirs of Walter McClintock. They are hip, political, and exasperated with the BIA and Tribal Council because these educated activists are “big picture” people and the local administrators of every sort are working inside limits. There are still many people here who are just trying to survive the day.
In his opening words, Earl Old Person emphasized that he was a main translator for the Blackfeet old people in the Fifties. The preoccupation of those oldtimers was land, the protection of the land and especially the mountains, which they saw accurately as a refuge and provider of both food and power. Earl, who has been around the planet, emphasized that water is the most vital resource of all. It comes from the Rocky Mountains where it is left in winter as snow and paid out to the prairie all summer. But now the storage system of glaciers is dwindling. This will determine the future of the People.
The background that no one was talking about was frakking, which requires huge amounts of water and always carries the possibility of contaminating the existing ground water. The Blackfeet just finished an enormously expensive system for bypassing the ground water in Browning which is limited and naturally saturated with interfering minerals like iron. The People are prone to diabetes and often require dialysis which cannot be done with impure water, so there could not be local dialysis centers. But it appears that many people are already locked into legal contracts from oil exploration companies. There are not enough safeguards or monitoring.
Much of these issues are highly technical, hard to grasp, not intuitive. This is the great value of someone like Jack Gladstone who can call the spirits of the charismatic mega-mammals as well as those of his own ancestors and the land, this sweeping, rising, challenging collision of forces we call names like “Badger/Two Medicine” so that people can speak of them plainly in conversation with each other. So we can make policies and laws that will protect them, just as they protect us.
The next Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance gathering is September 21 and 23 at Rising Wolf Ranch. http://www.risingwolfranch.com/ Fall is the sweetest month, and sweetest of all, as Bud Guthrie used to say, is close to the bone: the Backbone of the Continent.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
“The Night Porter”, a notorious movie from the Seventies, was thoroughly despised by Roger Ebert, which is rather bemusing since he wrote the script for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” a film “perhaps the greatest expression of [Russ Meyers] intentionally vapid surrealism” -- frankly pornographic. Ebert considers “Night Porter” soap opera. Pots and kettles? I think one could make a pretty good case that “The Night Porter,” which I had never seen before, is a precursor to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Same tortured and twisted girl, same Nazi sub-plot. Actually, I think I like “The Night Porter” better.
Wiki: “Liliana Cavani (born 12 January c. 1937) is an Italian film director and screenwriter. She belongs to a generation of Italian filmmakers that came into prominence in the 1970s and includes Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marco Bellochio. Cavani became internationally known after the success of her 1974 feature film Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter) . Her films have intellectual ambitions and historical concerns. In addition to feature films and documentaries, she has been an opera director.”
So, like “The Last September,” this is about the impact of political events on individuals, twisting them and confusing their fates, but this is much later in the sequence -- the war is over, not beginning. The debris is Nazi as well as internationally cultural. It is operatic. (The directors of both films are opera directors.) Instead of great country houses, we are looking at elegant hotels and theatres. Lives are very patterned and -- it seems -- quite shallow lest one break into something untoward. The former Nazis have a little therapy group where they “mock try” each other, the idea being that if they are totally open and honest, they will become normal. Or at least relaxed. The leader, who spouts pseudo-wisdom, is very Jungish.
Ebert is right -- a lot of people will see this movie because they are titillated by naked and tortured people, the same as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Others will see it as a feminist tract, pointing out the vulnerability of women and the exploitation of that by violent men. And yet the women find ways to fight back and take pride in their ability to absorb punishment. It’s not hard to find the pattern everywhere.
Briefly, the plot -- which is more like a premise -- is that a Nazi torturer meets his female victim years later and they resume their sexual obsession. One could profitably reflect on this movie by comparing it with “In the Realm of the Senses” or “In the Cut,” both of which focus on sexual obsession so strong that the couple turn away from all normal social context and react only to the bodies of each other until the point of death.
Or one could get more anthropological and talk about Victor Turner’s idea of “liminal space” and how it is a “place” in the mind where consciousness is free of all constraints and open to relationship to the point of being disconnected from reality. Or one could get REALLY contemporary and talk about how people get physiologically imprinted on each other, their identities intertwined in an electrochemical way because they formed the relationship under “hot” circumstances flooded with adrenaline, like combat or a terrible disaster. Anyway, it happens, however you explain it, and the consequences are not always happy ever after. I think the least helpful way to look at this movie is in terms of morality or even religion.
Of course, with friends like these self-protective and deluded Nazis, there is no need to identify other devils, predators or risks. They murder at will. The police are a shadow. All possible protectors pull away. The conductor does not come looking for his wife. (Harrison Ford would have.) She doesn’t want him anyway. She is a cat now and it is her former tormentor who is the mouse.
It’s interesting that when one sees Charlotte Rampling in recent movies, it’s as though she had actually lived those early parts she only played. I mean, the characters she plays in both “The Last September” and “The Spy Game,” one benign and one wicked, she seems deeply experienced and intrigued by life. But in “The Night Porter” in the scenes of imprisonment she is a puppet, a doll, no expression, barely any muscle tone. A “little girl” the Bogarde character calls her, but I wonder whether the original language might have called her a “poppet.” She is a pet. And one feels confident that the orchestra conductor also sees her as his pet. But in the starving/feasting moments, she is energized.
The following quote is from an online review by “Eight Rooks.” “. . .we discover what started as rolling over for someone who could snuff her out without thinking became a desire to cling to, then a growing dependence on the person who gave her existence in the camp some kind of meaning. While she remained with Max he kept her safe, protected her from harm and in his own way, genuinely cared that nothing should happen to her.”
Though there is room in the script to see it that way, I suspect this interpretation is an overlay from the sentimental reviewer, who admitted as much. Given the cut-off head of a bothersome man she’d asked to be rebuked or transferred, the Rampling character is pushed to the limit of her determination to show no emotion. When the Bogarte character tells the story later, he still finds it funny, but what does it mean? Is he stripping her seven veils? Or is it meant to show his sociopathy?
I had expected the torture to be far more physical, the usual erotic macro-closeups. But at first it was de-personalized: she was only a target, though the goal was evidently to miss her physically (he’s actually shooting at her) while making her suffer mentally. Then in the after war years, the tables are turned. “Eight Rooks” interprets: “a greedy, self-important dictator indulging his basest appetites has somehow become a broken man struggling to hold on to what he thinks (rightly or wrongly) is his last chance at redemption.” I don’t see that. I see ownership and fusion to the point of rejecting any interference from outsiders except death. I suspect that if I had seen this film in 1973, I would have seen it as the reviewer does. The meaning of the greatest art is always in the viewer, merely released by the story.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
“The Last September,” based on the Elizabeth Bowen novel, is about the last days of the Anglo-Irish in County Cork, Ireland. In the “Ascendancy” of the 17th century these privileged people had been imposed on the indigenous and largely Catholic people by English force. But now in the early 1900’s the original Irish were re-awakening. They were burning the country mansions of the Anglo-Irish. The intruders had been there more than two centuries, long enough to evolve into a hybrid people who thought of themselves as “Irish,” entitled, though they were Anglo-Irish. Neither were they Ulster-Irish or Scots Irish, who maintained their membership in the independent Presbyterian church rather than the state churches of England. All these strange sub-populations came about through the tug-of-war between Elizabeth I and Mary of Scotland. Some of the displacement fueled the American revolution.
The Irish potato famine of the mid-eighteen hundreds coincided with the “Prairie Clearances” of the plains Indians and the American Civil War. Europeans came to occupy Montana a little later than two hundred years ago, about the turn into the 19th century. Some of the early white businessmen in Browning were Presbyterian and organized a congregation. (It later merged with the Methodists.) When I left Browning in 1973, there were threats to burn down Bob Scriver’s museum in the same spirit as though it were an Anglo-Irish country house. It didn’t happen to Bob. In Montana many buildings burn.
Elizabeth Bowen is writing autobiography, displaced, in the novel that serves as the basis for this movie. She is the “niecey” character played by Keely Hawes who is caught between the two factions and doesn’t really have a family or a clear path to follow. On the one hand she fancies herself in love (perhaps) with a black-and-tan officer and on the other hand she has grown up with a man of the country who is now a killer revolutionary hiding in a ruined mill.
The original Anglo-Irish, appealingly unconscious, are played by Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith -- full of denial and little airs and graces no longer supported by income or automatic class respect. They seem to have no proper heirs. Their nephew, now at Oxford, sees that they are doomed and tries to tell them that. Another older woman, now looking to “settle” for a comfortable marriage, is also there to clean up the loose end of a former lover who married someone else. This woman is played by Fiona Shaw, who is from Cork and a collaborating producer with Deborah Warner.
So -- it’s all very Chekhovian, except that one doesn’t hear the ax of the developers clearing away the old cherry orchard. The jokes are bittersweet and the land is both seductive and brooding. Fiona says it’s a “bleeding watercolor,” not at all pastel and far too green to be natural. Wikipedia says: Of all her books, Bowen notes, The Last September is “nearest to my heart, [and it] had a deep, unclouded, spontaneous source. Though not poetic, it brims up with what could be the stuff of poetry, the sensations of youth. It is a work of instinct rather than knowledge—to a degree, a ‘recall’ book, but there had been no such recall before.”
Neither has anyone connected these Irish troubles in a major book or movie, and yet one of the reasons Metis were treated so harshly was fear that they would throw in with the Fenians who were in Gaelic Ireland. “These were warrior bands of young men who lived apart from society and could be called upon in times of war.” Wiki again. Fenians like Crazy Dogs. AIM did connect with the memory of these bands/gangs. For a while the Irish were inclined to think that Native Americans were lost bands of Irish. The Catholics would not care to discourage such ideas, since the Fenians were Irish Catholic. But the Canadians had to fend off Fenian ideas to keep its national integrity.
Truly worthy books, I must say from under my English (!) teacher hat and from my Scots/Ulster Irish heart, are those that trace out human predicaments that are universal in ways simple enough for anyone to follow (can anyone resist Keely Hawes’ confusion and sexual ambivalence?) but that include plenty of meat for those who know their history. And then there’s the landscape, the elegant house with the long lawn for tennis or simply taking a chair out to read in peace, the household with it’s little domestic quandaries. (“Sorrel soup, she says. I ask you, my dear, where will I find sorrel?” And “Have you done the flowers yet, my dear?”) How is it that a third floor bedroom has a removable section of floor for spying on the second floor bedroom under it? The girl, hoping for consoling revelation, hears only hurt.
The Gambon character, puttering with his new generator and hanging primitive lightbulbs over the candleabra of the supper table, knows but doesn’t know -- doesn’t WANT to know. The Maggie Smith character puts in her bit of interference by informing the young officer that a) he has no money and b) the girl does NOT love him, which lashes him into a deadly frenzy. And yet he is the one killed. The girl simply flees.
This is much darker stuff than Jane Austen. The comedy is a little bitter. Much physical energy and joy is expressed by the youngsters dancing and chasing each other through the woods, and yet they break through into knowingness -- literally opening a door in a forest wall to a little clearing where the purely English wife has been reading. She tells the girl, “You must leave here. This place is dying.” And so the girl goes with the woman reconciled to a loveless marriage but free to make up her own mind. The woman who was the English wife’s husband’s lover.
Elizabeth Bowen wrote versions and versions of this pattern. She owned one of those great Anglo-Irish mansions and dreaded that it might be burned, though it never was. The end of the book describes one of those conflagrations, but it’s not in the movie, Just a lot of rather gaudy sunsets.
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
“Angel,” the 2007 movie by French director Francois Ozon is as much a fantasy as Harry Potter movies. It’s kitch, it’s camp, it’s Barbara Cartland with a wink from Charlotte Rampling’s hooded eyes. A little kitten of a fantasist seems to be both telling us the story and being in it. The first half is the obligatory Cinderella tale -- the write-a-book-get-rich-and-famous-version -- so satisfactory with the clothes and the house and the big dog and, well, cats. And a devoted woman protector (sister-in-law and, well, maybe more), far more tolerant than any mother.
The second half is the tragic part, just as much a fantasy, about a scoundrel of a handsome man, who at least doesn’t tell her “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” but, damaged by war (losing a symbolic leg), simply hangs himself from a chandelier. And she’s been so ANGRY at him, but it all turns out that he loved her after all -- it was a misunderstanding and she is SO at fault! She can’t see because of her silver tears. There’s no sex, not really -- we’re only twelve! Don’t be silly! But there’s SO much desire. It’s just that desire fulfilled is then OVER, dahling, and then what is there to do but pet the cat. Cats.
Ozon has said that he reveals himself from behind a woman and that’s what gives this the campy perfume tale about a girl, not quite a queen but certainly a princess, slipping back and forth over a knife-edge of mockery -- sometimes a little sympathy. And also a fantasy for a Frenchman of what it would be like to be an ENGLISH woman with one of those famous complexions and one of those famous houses. But not to worry -- the English publisher and his wife are pretty well anchored in reality. (If Sam Neill and Charlotte Rampling can’t convey that, no one can, but it’s a challenge this time around.) One has to admire the intensity -- not the truth but the candor. Actually, these two hardened cases are fond of their "Angel."
A friend has said that the LGBTX thinkers have become the most flexible and insightful on today’s scene, because they have broken up their own boxed assumptions and gone to the meta-layer, the ur-culture, that the post-structuralists like so much. (If only they would be more intelligible about it!) Once a person has grasped that one’s own reality is not like the realities of other lives, everything is open to question. And renewal. Which is why politicians need to be prodded out of their limos and offices. And why I like Indie movies that go somewhere totally foreign to me, though it may exist only blocks away. This was an early idea of mine. (How did I escape the box? My playmate did not. Friendship with her now is impossible.) It must have been books that freed me before 1957 when I took “Language and Thought” at Northwestern where some of my classmates were aghast to discover that other people had other worlds. Xenophobia is so American, so sit-com endorsed, so comfy.
But some of the assumptions of “Angel” are not just American soap. Ozon himself was consciously channeling Lana Turner and Scarlett O’Hara, sometimes letting the fictional dominate the actual and sometimes the other way around, but then holding back the scrim now and then to show emptiness. Dog died? Too bad -- but the new one is not so different. Mother died? Too bad. Don’t let it spoil the evening. Your dress is so fabulous.
The original novelist Elizabeth Taylor, used the portrait as a marker. Surely Ozon knows “La Belle Noiseuse,” a film about a woman who insists on having her portrait painted by a gifted artist who can see her inner reality. The result is so frightening and ghastly that he walls it up so it can never been seen again. I think the original story was by Zola. A little of Dorian Gray in the story as well. It would be interesting for a class to discuss the juxtaposition of this movie with “Camille Claudel” which is taken to be an accurate depiction of a life as melodramatic and tortured as Angel’s, but quite real. Claudel was Rodin’s lover and a sculptor herself. Rarely does Isabel Adjani let her excesses quite give away that she is watching herself. (All those cats are there, cats -- the ultimate watchers.) In Ozon’s movie the portrait of Angel watches over everyone’s shoulders all the time, even when they’re out on the front steps.
The driving ugliness that Angel’s husband/painter gets her to confess and depicts in her portrait (rather successfully, I thought) is jealousy. We don’t see much jealousy directly depicted until the end when she goes to see her dead husband’s lover, as she deduces from a found letter, but “Angelique” is blameless, a childhood friend. Blonde, pure, innocent, and a mother. Cynical old woman that I am, I say to myself, “Yeah, sure.” I wonder what the publisher’s wife would think about this even more angelic Angelique..
Another rather tossed off jackstraw in this pile-up was pacifism -- Angel’s hatred of war, not because she has any grasp of damage done to people (which she would deny even if she knew about it) but because it gets in her way. She’s jealous of war. So many women so opposed to any violence -- surely a conversion reaction. (When you hate in the world what is actually down inside yourself.)
The main criticism in the IMDB.com notes is that people didn’t know when to laugh in this movie. They understood that it was a sarcastic, mocking movie, but they couldn’t see that it mixed with sympathy. They seem to think that there are certain places where there should be laughter and that perhaps, like a TV game show, a signal should be given by a laugh track or someone with a sign. But this is not laugh-out-loud material. Neither does Angel deserve stoning. It’s wry recognition of ourselves. We’re all a little pretentious, a little more dramatic than the facts can justify. Speaking for myself, of course. You might not be like that.
Monday, April 23, 2012
At last it’s happened! My stubborn attachment to my seminary idea about religious liturgy based on feelings as described and explored by Susanne Langer has come around full circle and here she is, finally praised in Antonio Damasio’s “The Feeling of What Happens.” I had not understood that she took an academic beating because of being linked to William James or I would have given up all that nonsense about poetic rhetoric and gone straight to James, who is admired by many Unitarians, so often contrarian. Too bad my thesis advisor, John Godbey, is no longer living so I could tell him about this. (He thought I was engaging but a little deranged and couldn’t really defend me.)
The problem has been the proper sequence of “feelings” (with a couple of layers missing), an understanding of emotion as part of rationality, and objects as defined by object-relations people. (None of them mentioned here.) Damasio is a primary level neurologist -- that is, he does research on the most organic and functional level of the brain/body complex, mostly responding to the consequences of damage. Yet he is sharply analytic. But even after revealing distinctions are made, mostly based on the evolution of the brain as it became ever more complex and more abilities became emergent, we have no terms for them. So Damasio ends up talking about protoself, self, feelings, unconsciousness feelings, “felt” feelings, and feelings about feelings -- the feeling that you are feeling something which is your felt self. Part of Damasio’s task has been finding names for these stages. The task of the reader of Damasio is learning the parts of the brain, which is exceedingly complex! One important thing is that the most vital functions are lower and in the center, while damage in the outer layers at the sides and top are more likely to allow survival in the face of loss of function.
This work complements -- even confirms -- my thinking about Victor Turner’s “crossing the threshold” (entering a mood), feeling a liminal space where one is able to change or reconfirm one’s basic convictions, and then changing consciousness back into the larger world, but now I see that there is work to be done with objects presented as part of liturgy. Objects in Damasio’s terms are not just 3-D concrete sensory objects, but also concepts and, yes, feelings. Part of the art of liturgy is investing “objects” in an aura of meaning, which is something we do all the time in our lives, but not so deliberately. It’s not just the chalice that assumes meaning, not just the flame burning in it, but ANY special concept of significance and perception, like Communion itself. Or maybe something entirely different, like a bundle of animal skins. Which objects, what significance, is determined in the realm of ecology and culture. The enchantment is not powerful through a television screen: we are evolved to deal with the reality of the entire sensorium -- not just sound and sight. And the entire body, including movement.
Before this book I already understood that there are many small modules in the brain and that not everyone develops the same set -- except for the basics usually present at birth and necessary for survival -- and that some people had “knock-out brains” (like mice with one of their genes "knocked out") in which some modules have gone missing for one reason or another: lesions, infections, fevers, parasites, heredity, environmental lack. Maybe simply failure to develop. But I hadn’t thought a lot about what that might mean to the individual. I’ve known that some people could not learn to read, for instance, could NOT. And there is a family that has never inherited the ability to speak, to form words of any sort. But they get along -- they know what things are and how to use them. “Knockouts” might be far more subtle: inability to sort, failure to focus. etc. Things that might be taken for psychological difficulties.
The way brains handle emotion and feeling may vary enough from convention that behaviors and personalities are troublesome. We want those people to have “therapy,” to be adjusted. This includes everything from the inability to sit still to desiring the same gender for sex,( i.e. homosexuality), to getting morbidly obese and maybe to setting fires. Therapists have been very resourceful about devising ways of controlling such folks, but maybe it’s like trying to therapize a cat into being a dog. Only a little bit successful. Maybe we (Who are WE? What is our entitlement?) have to control them (Are they so Other?) in a special environment, not designed to be punishment but rather to be a support and guidance -- we do that now. Or maybe there’s something physical that could be done, though that’s a scary and slippery slope. (Lobotomies and electroconvulsive seizures? Compensatory molecules?) Still, maybe some of this is such subtle stuff that the solution is as simple as getting a different job.
I read that three or four out of a hundred are this or that: without consciences, or with unformed boundaries or unable to learn to read. Since this town is a little more than three hundred people, then we must have several of each kind. Some of them are obvious but they don’t get arrested. The “holding environment” of peer pressure keeps them from doing what they might otherwise do -- take off all their clothes or punch people. In a city everyone might just walk around them -- I vividly recall Bob and I walking down a Greenwich Village sidewalk where a man was slashing at the pedestrians with a knife. Everyone just walked around him and since he was very drunk, he was easy to avoid. We would not do that here. We would call his brother to come get him. Or the sheriff would know him by name, have been keeping an eye on him, and pick him up. It’s dangerous to depend on peer pressure, of course, and on the rez it can easily turn to real violence or vigilante action like the “stand your ground” guy.
Omar Little and his crowd on "The Wire" would ask (meaning “do you get it?”) “you feel me?” Feelings. Emotion. We’ve been ignoring them except in music. No wonder the Arabs throw slippers at our heads. Now suddenly we’re asking, “What the heck DOES Mitt Romney feel?” And “Don’t you think Obama is a little TOO cool?” Everyone likes Gingrich because his little chipmunk face is always FULL of feeling. We miss Clinton.
Back to the beginning. Religion is big in the news but everyone thinks it’s about theology, the argument over whether God exists or not. In fact, that’s not the marker of a soul-changing liturgy, which can transport you to the feeling of sublimity and meaning and then lead you back down the mountain enlightened without ever mentioning God. We just need to feel ourselves feeling, and then we’ll know what we mean. Getting you there is the task of the liturgist. Explaining HOW is what I’m up to. Of course, the average Sunday morning will not be so grand . . . or grandiose.
Sunday, April 22, 2012
So now I begin to understand this political idea of mourning, or more specifically “left mourning.” It’s not really different from James Willard Schultz’ lament about the dispersal of the Old West and the buffalo days, except that this time the term is meant to be a prescription rather than a celebration. That is, the real message is “get over it.” LEAVE mourning. First, REALLY mourn, which means define exactly what it is you grieve for, as honestly as you can, without sentiment. Then accept the pain and finality of it, and let it go. Don’t hang on, making a fetish, a monument, a national holiday, when inevitably the passage of time erases all ideal paradises and even stone mausoleums. Make way for the future.
The Old West has been preserved in a thousand ways, all conveniently commodifiable as stories, art, ghost towns, museums, paraphernalia and conferences. The open range lasted only decades, yet there are still people all over the planet who believe huge cattle herds are still moved on their own hooves and Indians still camp in circles of tipis. You can make a living becoming expert on chaps, spurs, barbed wire. A certain kind of person, usually white and male, justifies privilege on the back of the Old West.
But rather, this specific critique seems aimed at the classic Lefties, the educated Europeans who barely escaped the holocaust and took refuge in Manhattan or nearby neighborhoods where they championed what they believed was right and true: a resolute view of freedom, a communal approach to economics, and the sanctification of the poor and the artists. Since that time they’ve been challenged and borne down to the ground by two main forces: diversification (ethnic, gender) that doesn’t even perceive the old groups and poststructural analysis that refuses to respect the old heroes and constantly redraws the lines of the argument, to say nothing of reading new meanings into old manifestos. The original discussion of this point of view is at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/boundary/v026/26.3brown.html
It’s new to me, so I may not be getting it quite right and I’m tempted to just quote sentence after sentence. You can get a feel for Wendy Brown if you go to YouTube and watch her speak, though you’ll have to wade through a few other “Wendy Browns” before you get to the scholar. I like her very much.
The original phrase, “left melancholy” comes from Walter Benjamin who used it in a study of Charles Baudelaire. He meant, according to Wendy, not Baudelaire -- whom he approved -- but “the revolutionary hack who is, finally, attached more to a particular political analysis or idea -- even to the failure of that ideal -- than to seizing opportunities for radical change to the present.” I ran across people like that in the Unitarian world now and then, still clinging to leftist commie pinko ideas and believing in the sacredness of genius -- Nietzche and Sartre, not so much Ayn Rand, but her, too. The younger ones were still grieving over the end of Civil Rights marches in the South -- not so much the persons who died, as the excitement and meaningfulness of those times. It didn’t seem as though much had happened since. Indeed. Three assassinations, the Vietnam War, demonstrations everywhere -- hard to top, hard to sustain.
The deepest loss of the Lefties seems to be their conviction that they were in the right, totally virtuous. Since then things have become pretty ambiguous. Easier to hark back to the memories and let them become “thing-like” mental constructs. Freud’s label was “narcissistic identification” and, always alert to the dark side, he suggested one can come to hate the idealized but vanished affiliation for not persisting, for failing, like a bad parent. Then pile on top of that resentment of class and capitalism without any alternative or strategy for a remedy.
Brown’s essay suggests this leads to “disorganized capitalism” which has been dominating the scene. “If you really want something, you can make it happen. Follow your dream. Your education can guarantee your future. Everyone should go to college.” Alas, while all the individuals were scurrying around lining their nests with guarantees and diplomas, the macro-scene was rearranging itself so that all the marbles would run into one corner: theirs. This is neoliberalism. I begin to see it as world domination by corporations while government shrivels. “Withers away,” a la Marx? We’re not there yet, but we’re sliding that way.
Nassim Taleb points out that when it comes to corporations, all the profits go to the big guys, all the losses go to the little guys -- who have no power to protest anyway, because they don’t stick together. They have no way to acquire inside information. Patrick Burns, better known as “terrierman,” brings the principles of dog-training to organizational reform. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ohS4GSGu6s&feature=player_embedded This is a speech he made suggesting ways to wake up corporations from their comfortable and complacent naps in the arms of the law. I’ve never been clear about what Patrick does for a living, but now I see he enforces whistle-blower law. These two guys, at least, appear to be roused and ready to reframe the laws, revalorize individual human beings, pull back winner-take-all thinking, and protect the minorities by de-stigmatizing them. Among other things. Recently, for the first time, a shareholders’ meeting refused to authorize a huge salary for their CEO.
I’m rarely around real-life “Lefties” these days. Not many in Valier. I hear their echoes in the comments of some friends: pessimistic, yearning, indignant, hopeless. They are unempowered. Not so stripped of comforts and intelligence as the unfortunate characters in that bogged-down movie I just watched called “Satantango” but headed in that direction. That movie was filmed in winter when there were no crops in the field, no leaves on the trees, nothing but mud in the roads. In summer the landscape would be quite different.
I’ve been out in the yard raking the dead leaves and wind-fall sticks away from the flower beds while the underlying growth is still new enough to slip between the tines of the rake. Little green sprouts everywhere. Soon there will be peonies and bluebells, allium and iris. I didn’t plant them -- they are perennials already there when I came. Not graves, not death, no grief. New times, new blooms. The peonies do not pout over last year’s peonies. The bluebells do not boast about last year’s bluebells. It’s a new season.