Tuesday, July 18, 2017

two centuries ago today, Jane Austen died, a few thoughts on one of Wenatchee The Hatchet's literary heroes

I've written this thought a few times before but the two literary voices I most leaned on as influences for how this blog works have been Jane Austen and Joan Didion.  If I had to boil my literary heroes down to a mere two figures I guess they'd be Dostoevsky and Austen. Fortunately nobody really has to distill their literary inspirations down to a mere two authors, but if I had to pick just two those would be the two.

I consider Austen one of the great comedic geniuses of English language literature.  That Austen's characters spend so much time navigating, with success or abject failure, the differences between the formalities of expected public discourse and the private realities of what people really do has been a natural fit for a lot of my literary and regional historical interests. 

Ten years on it actually feels inevitable that Wenatchee The Hatchet would be a Jane Austen fan who has written a lot about the gap between the branding and the interior reality of what used to be called Mars Hill.  I'm also a Christopher Nolan fan and his penchant for telling stories about corrupt and corruptible men who fool themselves into thinking the terrible things they want to do are the right thing to do is another inspiration for the kinds of stuff I love writing about. 

But as a contrast to the dudely dude chest-thumpery of Mark Driscoll and the bros who admire him, it would be difficult to find a literary figure who might be more antithetical in style and guiding ethic than, say, Jane Austen. 

I'd planned to write more for this particular day but there's other writing I've been tackling.  So drawing some inspiration from some famous Christian author who's had no problem shamelessly recycling old content ... we can do something like that here.

Here's an old piece from a few years ago that ... somebody ... wrote about Jane Austen's most famous literary work back in 2013. 

With a few years between publication and the present, it's evident to anyone who has read the book that Austen regarded the mercenary pragmatism of the Collins marriage to be less than ideal.  Yet Charlotte's correction to her friend Lizzy was to say that not everyone had the beauty and brains to have the luxury of shooting down a suitor on the assumption that another offer was just around the corner.  Lizzy could afford that, Charlotte could not.  Yet by novel's end it was abundantly clear that we weren't supposed to regard the stupid horndogs Wickham and Lydia as having married for particularly good reasons.  It would be a bit tricky to assert that Jane Austen was a feminist or a romantic/progressive of any of the stripes we see in 21st century American culture; but it was relatively clear that she believed that a marriage that was not "just" bout business concerns and also more than just the fire of the loins was what was necessary.  Her ideals regarding romance and companionate marriage may have become so notorious that her satires of the self-aggrandizing and entitled nature of the aristocracy can be all but forgotten.

Anyway ...

Romance in Pride and Prejudice: Sometimes, We Settle
February 18, 2013

It is axiomatic that an artist’s work will be admired and disdained for a single set of qualities. Some admire the breadth and passion of Beethoven while others find his stamina and pathos tedious. Some admire the precision and pacing of Kubrick’s films while others find them pretentious.  Jane Austen is no exception; her longevity is like that of any other significant artist. The defenders and detractors never stop having their arguments about the worth of her work.

It may be worth revisiting Pride & Prejudice, which is two hundred years old this year, to consider what distinguishes her romances from contemporary romances. After all, Elizabeth Bennett is not the kind of character we can imagine will be convincingly portrayed by a Meg Ryan or a Kate Hudson, or even a Julia Roberts. Lizzy and Jane are not heroines who lend themselves to being championed by America’s sweethearts in just about any generation of film.

Arguably, Noah Berlatsky, writing for the Atlantic, has summed up the paradoxical appeal of Austen’s work: “She has to be one of the least romantic writers ever to write romance.”
Austen’s tales of romance may endure because she put so little stock in romance as we tend to define it. In an Austen novel, career advancement, real estate values, the size of an entailment, and the social and fiscal connections that come with marriage all matter. If that seems unappealing it is because we can’t conceive of a culture in which a marriage could be arranged to benefit clans rather than as the culmination of a quest for a “soulmate.” We also live in a culture which, in some sense, denies the inevitability of death.  And so Austen’s tales of matrimony and negotiation don’t make sense to us because they are often, as Berlatsky put it, as “small as life.”  Americans want life to be bigger and grander in every respect than a life could be in Jane Austen’s time.

But a title like Pride & Prejudice suggests that however domestic the tale, Austen’s themes are hardly small. Just as stories about war are rarely “just” about war, Austen’s tales of romance are not “just” stories of people who marry.  The title tips us off to character flaws before we’ve even opened the book. Though Elizabeth and Darcy are not imbued with a social or symbolic significance as apocalyptic as Dostoevsky’s characters, they do represent ways of living life. That Austen is quotidian where Dostoevsky is apocalyptic, that Austen is mundane where Dostoevsky is grotesque hardly means she was not writing about ideas. Austen had an eye for the mundane details with which philosophies of life must contend on a daily basis. Dostoevsky wrote about the personal and social cataclysms that philosophies create when untempered by other ideals.  But it is the dry domesticity of Austen’s narrative world and the long term decisions made within it that give her characters’ decisions weight.  Irreversible life-altering decisions hinge on a person’s ability or inability to make the right decision after observing mundane details.

The marriages that take place in the novel are made by people following ideals (Elizabeth and Darcy), altruistic affection (Jane and Bingley), pragmatism (Charlotte and Collins), and visceral chemistry (Lydia and Wickham).  While it is obvious that Austen did not endorse the latter pairings, it is equally clear she shows us the latter two couples are not at all disappointed with their respective catches. Charlotte Lucas isn’t ruined by settling for Mr. Collins any more than Lydia is unhappy to be married to Wickham.  Charlotte realistically assessed herself, knew marriage to be a sure defense against poverty and loneliness, and pragmatically accepted the best offer she had. Charlotte could tell Lizzy that Lizzy had the luxury of being beautiful enough and clever enough to actually turn down proposals. But Charlotte had neither and so went with her best option. Austen’s stories are stories in which social, economic, and sexual capital are all part of a calculation for a plausible pairing as a business decision, not merely a quest for true love. But even Lydia, silly as she is, never seems unhappy with Wickham or the support they get from the Darcys by books’ end.  They just continue as they do.

Today we may recognize that the ideal is Lizzy and Darcy, but when our culture advises to settle we prefer to settle for Lydia and Wickham rather than Charlotte and Collins.  The love that bursts forth like a fire, demolishing property and removing clothing, was the sort that Austen made fun of.  Yet in the 21st century that sort of attraction is so taken for granted that director Joe Wright determined that Austen was too discreet to tell us the real reason Lizzy and Darcy fall for each other. So it turns out for a contemporary film-maker to sell himself on Lizzy and Darcy he has to believe they were drawn to each other like Lydia and Wickham. They are now heroes for sublimating their desire more decorously than others.  But that sort of erotic obsession goes past the point of even Lydia and Wickham to become the obsession of Dmitry Karamazov with Grushenka, only benefiting from the refinement of English manners.

In Austen’s actual novel, Lizzy and Darcy must overcome their own character flaws to discover they love each other.  In Wright’s film they simply need to contain themselves long enough to get social permission to do what they soon realized they wanted to do.  Cinema is full of tales where transgressive love is prized as a philosophical statement. “Theirs was a forbidden love” has been the clarion call to more than one or two made-for-TV-dramas. If the sparks create a fire hot enough then the heat was worth it.  This ethos is so prized it was shoe-horned into a Jane Austen adaptation. Apparently without that spark we won’t believe her story in our time.

Even evangelicals who claim that we should not be like the world still seem to want that devouring spark. When evangelical speakers and writers say that a marriage founded on anything but mutual love and attraction is going to fail, this indicates ignorance not merely of literature but of history. Negotiated lives together have happened in all sorts of ways. Because the spark of mutual sexual attraction inevitably wanes, friendship is important.

So far, so obvious. But great art, music, and literature help us avoid underestimating the obvious. Charlotte and Mr. Collins may not know the rapturous heights of mutual affection that Lizzy and Darcy know, but neither do they feel the imagined betrayals or wounded egos with bitterness and shame.  For Mr. and Mrs. Lucas the whole thing was to make sure the clergyman had his wife and the wife had her home. Having asked for no more than that and having found it, that was that. Though they may seem insultingly insular and provincial to us, they found their happy ending.

That Austen showed us happy endings even for those who settled in marriage is a reason for her greatness. It is because we know the marriages in that time and place could not be simply annulled that Charlotte’s decision bears a hint of tragedy. She settled, and she settled in a way we hope never to do. And by novel’s end Lydia and Wickham also settled, in their own way. In their world there can be no seven-year itch in which they reconsider their choices.  But both couples seem happy, if not wise, and by contemporary American romantic tropes they may be sitting in a church pew near you or me.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

over at Aeon, a piece surveying how usury stopped being thought of as sinful in the Judeo-Christian millieu and became respectable finance

Much of the time pieces sent to Aeon can be unconvincing and even insanely stupid.  But the price of promulgating think-pieces is sometimes the think pieces have dumb ideas, like the idea that children should be redistributed by the state across all racial lines so as to ensure racism never happens again, as though the totalitarian regime that would be necessary to enforce such a policy over against "genetic narcissism" would only be a benefit to the human race. 

But sometimes there are useful or at least interesting surveys and to such a little survey we turn:


In Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), the anthropologist David Graeber argues that before the advent of money, economic life within a community was a web of mutual debts. People did not behave as self-interested individuals – at least not from the perspective of a single transaction; rather, they would share food, clothes and luxuries, and trust that their peers would repay the favour in return. When we consider these origins of debt and credit – as a system of mutual aid between people who trust each other – it’s no surprise that so many cultures viewed charging interest as morally wrong.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church played its own part in sowing the seeds of a change of attitude. In the 13th century, it introduced the concept of Purgatory – a place that had no basis in scripture but did offer some reassurance to anyone committing the sin of usury each day. ‘Purgatory was just one of the complicitous winks that Christianity sent the usurer’s way,’ wrote the historian Jacques Le Goff in Your Money or Your Life: Economy and Religion in the Middle Ages (1990). ‘The hope of escaping Hell, thanks to Purgatory, permitted the usurer to propel the economy and society of the 13th century ahead towards capitalism.’

and here's more along those lines.  Indulgences do get a mention. 

over at The Imaginative Conservative, an author rues the day Star Wars ruined arts culture by celebrating distraction, skips over the monomyth and the possibility that Star Wars franchises may be the distillation of the total work of art sought by German and French avant garde ideals

I admit I tend to identify as moderately conservative about religion and politics.  By moderate I mean to say I'm a Presbyterian dour Calvinist who thinks the human condition is fraught by human frailties so stark that I find myself thinking the Frankfurt school authors were too optimistic about the human condition in modern technocratic societies.  And I've been reading arts history/art criticism books by authors who write for Thesis Eleven ... .  My commitment is more to Christian doctrine and teaching than to the left or right on the political spectrum.   My views may be an uneasy grab bag of Edmund Burke, Jacques Ellul and Roger Williams ... . Throw in Dostoevsky, Kafka, Conrad, some Bonhoeffer and Brunner and I guess that's where I'm at. 

Which is set up for the observation that when I see a title like "The Imaginative Conservative" I can't help but wonder if "The Imaginative Reactionary" might not be a synonymous title.  Take this recent Sean Fitzpatrick piece that rues the day George Lucas' franchise exploded into the Cineplex. 


Forty years ago this summer—what seems to many a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—Star Wars was released, and America was sold into the slavery of pop-culture merchandising. With this era-changing movie, the American cinematic focus shifted away from sophisticated dramas—such as The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Taxi Driver—back to a pre-60s golden-age trope where exhibitionism and carnival capers in motion pictures made money. Some say that George Lucas effected a return to what the movies were meant to be, while others argue that his swashbuckling “space opera” was a backslide from which cinema has never recovered. In either case, Star Wars was the flagship film to sell itself as a franchise, driven and dominated by mass marketing, special effects, action sequences, and cornball dialogue. Gaining the status of highest-grossing film of all time, Star Wars became the epitome of the summer blockbuster, recasting movies as commercial events that cater to the lowest common denominator of the movie-going public. The effects of Star Wars run deep in the entertainment industry and have made explosive, eye-candy spectacle an idol of distraction for many whose lives are so meaningless that distraction is a crucial drug.

Popcorn flicks like Star Wars are central, even integral, to American leisure—which is arresting if Josef Pieper’s notion about the basis of culture is correct. Where would society be without its screens, its celebrities, and its space sagas? It is rare to walk into a home that does not have a television dominating, or even enshrining, its living room. It is almost a matter of principle akin to a religious obligation in the civilian temples of Americanism. The parallels between the television and the tabernacle show how deft the forces of darkness are at leading man from the truth by imitating it. Leaving aside the comparisons that exist between the local church and the local theater, entertainment has become something like a new religion, a ritual for people to fill the voids in their lives—only entertainment is fast becoming nothing more than an addiction to nothingness, a placebo against the emptiness of the times. In these ways, modern entertainment is not simply distorting the elements of religion, but actually commandeering the role of religion in human society. A new idol has risen for the idle neo-pagans, and it is the idolatry of distraction.

For an author to take this stance about Star Wars while singing the praises of Dickens or Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle invites a question as to what it is about the pulp fiction of earlier centuries that let it become part of a literary canon in our more recent era.

The Godfather was no less than Jaws founded on pulp idioms and popular fiction. 

The process by which multi-media comprehensive branded merchandising and marketing was not necessarily all done in 1977.  The process started but the deregulated industry practices that allowed for children to be exposed to films for which there were toys and comics and novelizations and cartoons more properly erupted in the Reagan years.  It's not a surprise if a contributor to The Imaginative Conservative would like to think that the beginning of the doom of pop culture enslavement happened during the Carter administration but that seems daft. 

Any accounting of Star Wars that ignores Campbell's monomyth is an accounting that isn't really worth taking seriously. 

It's like a whole bunch of people don't get what European avant garde theorists were proposing centuries ago about the role the arts could play in formulating a new mythological substitute for Christian religion.  It's not that pop culture somehow was "allowed" to commandeer the cultic elements of religions.  Entertainment figures explicitly set out to create cults around their franchises.  Even an atheist like Joss Whedon can talk about how great it was, twenty years later, that Buffy the Vampire Slayer became show with the cult following it has. Perhaps he hopes a comparable cult following can let him keep playing with Firefly stuff for a while.

Now David Roberts has written three books that can be pretty opaque but he proposed, at length, that the ideal of the total work of art as precursor of and catalyst for the ideal society moved from Germany and France to the United States.  Others have mentioned this, too, but the idea I'm mulling over is that if in the avant garde of Europe utopianism and the avant garde tended to fixate on the utopian past or the utopian future, the American innovation in the later 20th century is more inclusive.  The futurist tech of the Star Wars franchise famously took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  Ancient future.  Something Roberts discussed at length in his books is how the Germans venerated Athens and the French venerated Sparta and how theorists and philosophers imagined that the Athenian art religion was a unified celebration in art of a unified society.

Well, okay, let's suppose that the American approach to unified art or the total work of art or ... the brand ... is also a celebration of an idealized status quo.  That could mean the dreams of German philosophers and avant garde artists would have been most realized in American franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, My Little Pony, Transformers, G. I. Joe and so on.

But that can't be right.  It's supposed to be Wagner's operas and the literature of Mallarme and Schiller and Goethe and ... it's not supposed to be Optimus Prime and Twilight Sparkle or Captain Kirk and Luke Skywalker. 

Just because the religious or cultic elements of pop culture don't adhere to an old conservative nationalistic or ethnic demographic does not necessarily make them any less functionally religious.  In an era where conservatives write about morally therapeutic deism why wouldn't they spot that this is central to a Star Wars spirituality?  A religion of universal humanity, human reason and art doesn't need a deity to be functional.  Consider the cult of Star Trek these last fifty years. What middlebrow arts critics find so loathesome about mass and pop cultural franchises is that they not only make no bones about being explicitly and directly philosophical, their moralizing is front and center.  Superheroes explicitly insist upon telling us who is and isn't a hero and why.  It's not like Woody Allen films where the protagonist is an author stand-in or other kinds of films that are open to the interpretations of suitable cognoscenti--no, the Star Wars cinematic universe doesn't give you the luxury of supposing Palpatine is the hero of the story.  You're not supposed to imagine that perhaps the Empire has some worthy goals.  Maybe someone will write a funny piece at The Federalist making such a case, replete with the line "The Empire is back, baby, and they're gonna show these hippies who's boss!" 

Fans of the highbrow from the left and the right will likely never stop wringing their hands that too many people derive too much pleasure from too much pulp fiction. 

Since I'm a moderately conservative Presbyterian rather than a really conservative Catholic I suppose I may never land in the same spot as the sort of person who writes what's quoted above at The Imaginative Conservative.

The idea that a franchise like Transformers could reflect a not-even latent desire to in some sense see the world re-enchanted in a paradoxical way through technology is probably not going to be on the table.  That's probably because the kinds of folks who write for The Imaginative Conservative are going to be soooo busy attacking all ideas that even could possibly be associated with Marxists as never being able to correspond to any ideas that people with traditional or conservative Christian beliefs could agree with.   Actually ... there's a piece at Aeon I want to link to about the long history of how Christendom in the West went from saying usury was straight up evil to defending it ...

over at Vulture a case that Tony Stark is the "real" villain of Spiderman-Homecoming with the bromide that the Vulture is a Trump voter ... but ...


Tony Stark’s always been something of a lovable rogue, and he’s accomplished many heroic things in other films. Here, however, his actions seem more sinister when he’s dealing with children — and as it turns out, when he’s running Stark Industries, which, in Homecoming, seems to operate on the shady end of the spectrum. In the beginning of the film, we learn that the business of cleaning up the wreckage from the Avengers’ New York battles has been given over to the Department of Damage Control, which, as Darren Franich pointed out in EW, is co-financed by Tony Stark and seems like a fairly malevolent force, despite the fact that national treasure Tyne Daly is its main spokesperson. DDC forces out local contractors like Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, giving it the monopoly on superhero clean-ups. This might be designed to prevent dangerous alien tech from slipping into the hands of the unready (even though Toomes and his pals manage to steal it anyway), but it also ensures that Tony Stark has a vertical monopoly on superhuman activity: The battles use Stark technology; the clean-up crews are Stark branded; the PR is managed through Pepper Potts. Stark’s superpower, after all, is that he’s smart and rich. He lives in a world with few consequences. Money solves most of his problems; his monopolies prevent him from directly answering to the public. Who is he to teach a 15-year-old personal responsibility?

It’s unclear whether or how Stark Industries turns a profit, but its actions, as Homecoming reveals, have forced Americans out of their jobs. Case in point: Adrian Toomes, who offers the most compelling critique of Stark before he decides to become the evil Vulture. Toomes starts out in salvaging, gets forced out of his job by the Department of Damage Control, and then turns to a life of crime. As he faces off against Spider-Man, Keaton also gives the film a rare jolt of class consciousness as he tells Peter, “The rich and the powerful, like Stark, they don’t care about us.” The movie’s quick to supply examples of Toomes’s hypocrisy; as Vulture’s own Abe Riesman pointed out, he’s something akin to a monstrous vision of a Trump voter, furious at the elites of the world but unable to acknowledge his own relative privilege, as exemplified by a modernist home with way too many windows. [emphasis added]

The Vulture wears a bird suit, and goes from murder-curious to murderous after accidentally killing Logan Marshall-Green, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore his ideas. In the long term, Tony Stark’s actions do hurt the little guy. He’s like a Silicon Valley CEO who, after disrupting the economy with one good product, doesn’t acknowledge the evil he’s produced as a consequence. Tony Stark and his compatriots have seized control of a significant portion of the world’s power apparatus, and they are forcing out the ordinary man. Does this make Iron Man the villain? Marvel movies tend to have villains who intend to do harm, while people who cause damage unintentionally are more redeemable. (See Bucky Barnes in Winter Soldier or Civil War.) Surely, there’s enough evidence in Homecoming to see Toomes as at least a complicated figure, operating in something of a moral gray area.

The thing about the stereotypical Trump voter/alt right voter is white nationalistic ideas.  Yet ... for anyone who has actually seen Spiderman: Homecoming, the interracial marriage that led to the existence of Peter's crush Liz is really obvious by act 3.  Perhaps journalists wanting to describe the latest Spiderman villain in political terms want to find some other reference point for a white guy married to a black woman who's committing all his crimes to provide for his family in terms that don't deviate from the mainstream script in the press about Trump. 

The problem with Toomes isn't that he's a hypocrite.  No Marvel antagonist so far seems more committed to doing everything under the radar and as quietly as possible.  Toomes ends up killing Shocker 1 after an incident where Shocker 1 insists on showing off high-powered weaponry in a suburb without regard for collateral damage.  Underground arms dealer though he is, this is still an Adrian Toomes he can regard Mac Gargan with contempt as someone he wouldn't even deal with if Spiderman hadn't messed up other business deals.  If people want to cast Toomes in some kind of political sense the idea that this Adrian Toomes is a Trump voter seems a bit much.  Maybe he could be likened to a Reagan Democrat ...

But his criticism of Stark and the Department of Damage Control (subtle name, as always) is that what Stark and company benefit from is the kind of crony monopolistic capitalism in which the haves get to have more and those who don't get completely sidelined.  How do we know that Adrian Toomes, if he were magically a real person, wouldn't have voted for Sanders?  He might even have voted for Clinton, whose record as a hawk doesn't seem in any contradiction to the Vulture's family-driven pragmatism.  Had Trump not won would journalists even think to interpret the Vulture's activities and motives in Trump-voter terms?  Not ... very ... likely.  Last year some tried to describe the antagonist of the Magnificent Seven remake of a remake in Trumpian terms even though the production was under way (i.e. already scripted) before Trump's candidacy was solidified.  But there seems to be this penchant in the entertainment industry for a kind of political punditry recency bias; X or Y is imputed to a pop culture event that may have taken years to come together as though it were somehow consciously anticipating or responding to current events.  That makes sense if we're talking about a show like South Park where Parker and Stone are obviously reacting within a few weeks to current events.

When Parker confronts Toomes at the end Toomes' objection is that he is, in fact, pretty much doing the same thing that got the Starks their empire of wealth, selling weapons to killers.   Toomes' problem isn't hypocrisy so much as that he refuses to concede that the difference between what Starks Tony or Howard did and what he's been doing is the difference between the formal relationship granted by the state.  The state, in the form of the Department of Damage Control, deprived him of his job and contract to clean up the post-Avengers 1 damage. He, in turn, steals from Damage Control to refurbish alien tech into weapons and tools that he sells on the black market.   he's still a criminal but with an understandable motive.

If the studios want to even bother with a Sinister Six film they can bring back Keaton as the Vulture and maybe bring back Molina as Doc Ock.  One of the fun things about the classic Spiderman villains is that since they're older guys older actors could step into the roles.  Odds are pretty decent that the Osborn stuff has been too badly played out to be worth continuing.