Romanticism, sexual orientation, and rich people

Tim BlanningBBC History

“Art is no longer viewed as being representational or as recreational but as essentially expressive–that’s at the heart of the romantic revolution. It changes the purpose of culture from serving some other cause or patron to being artist-centered, that is, expressing what the artist feels inside himself or herself, and once that lep has been made from a work-centered to an artist-centered aesthetic, then the way has been cleared for music, which is the most expressive of all the arts, the way is cleared for music to move to the top of the heap.”

“One of the red threads that runs through [Wagner’s The Ring] is a critique of power, that it is the lust for power…[that it] corrupts and that there is in this constant struggle…the demands of love which must be privileged. So in that sense the meaning of The Ring was diametrically opposed to the ethos of the German empire with its triumphalism and its materialism. [ . . . ] If Hitler had understood…what [Wagner] was exposing…he would have [realized that] what he was trying to do was fundamentally misguided. [ . . . Wagner] would have been appalled. [ . . . ] He believed that Bismarck was ‘a brutal barbarian.’ [ . . . ] He was so appalled by the German militarism after 1871 that he talked about emigrating to the United States of America.”

“Professor Feldblum Introduces Moral Values Project”

27 Nov 06 @ Georgetown.

One’s sexual orientation is morally neutral, but the positive communication engendered by sex concomitant with one’s orientation is necessary and unique, and some would consider positive communication a good. Encountering those who consider homosexuality an aberration, an evil, allows potential dialogue introducing the question, “is it thus regarded merely because of something in Leviticus?” And is purely religious evidence reason enough to enforce anti-gay law? Tolerance is not enough, although it is a necessary first step. I find Feldblum’s project hopeful and admirable, but I think back to those I’ve known who have one book on their shelf, and who believe dinosaurs and gays never existed, and that a nation built on Christian values can uphold a separation of Church and State, and I don’t think that a handful of wealthy intellectuals can do much to change the world…except via violence.

“The Bin Ladens”

Steve Coll 24 Apr 08 @ London School of Economics and Political Science.

I suppose it’s no wonder that Bill Clinton played saxophone and George Bush is the guy everyone wants to drink a beer with, that somehow the key to American power is to appear simple, normal, middle-class, and just seem to fall into the good fortune of great fortune, all during the time of MTV’s Real World, and the explosion of the internet. I went out with a girl who did a lot of scoffing, and she scoffed at me for having read Zinn’s People’s History, and made some comment about it being a pernicious load of misguiding shit, and only now do I begin to wonder if, honestly, Leopold and Loeb are of more timeless relevance than Sacco and Vanzetti–I think yes. And I have trouble understanding the connection between the shits I went to high school with, all five-hundred of them very handsome, captains of the football team, graduating with highest honors, and going on to Harvard, yet unable to lead a decent conversation. I always liked to assume our enemies to be a ragtag group of fundamentalists who just happened to luck out back on 9/11–no–can it be that they’re just like us? The nation’s poor misled by the nation’s billionaires? Is it true that the bin Ladens have a rags-to-riches story that rivals anything Horatio Alger wrote? A Kennedy family with high ethics? When I stop answering the phone because all my friends have decided it’d be better to defer their dreams until after they have their own law practices and can let others work for them, they tell me “you’re so naive–honestly, you can make your fortune, and then be an artist,”–if you still have a soul. But it occurred to me today–rich people don’t have to worry about dying–because they have health care! Do you remember when Kennedy died? Do you remember the fiery chariot that swept down from the clouds and took his golden figure back to the heavens?

film: Neilan: Stella Maris (1918)

1918. I fall in love with Mary Pickford every time I see one of her films, and it’s difficult to remember that her hands were smooth and delicate, her body serenely curvaceous ten years before my grandfather was born. I cannot imagine her slacks torn, her belt broken, and yet watching her, how she loves, and how her heart breaks, I wonder how indebted I am to her for knowing the motions of love–is it she who taught me to slump in the corner or hold your hand to my chest or kiss the top of your ear and bury my face in your hair? Is it she who taught me that when the deus ex machina feels Aristotelian that’s just what we call love?

There was a three year age difference between us, me and the 15-year-old girl with whom I’d fallen madly in love. It was a very large gap at the time. To make things less awkward the first time we went out, I brought my best friend along and she brought some other girl, I don’t remember who. The moment she set eyes on my friend, she fell for him. Maybe they might have ended up together, but at first he loved me too much to hurt me like that, and later he ended up falling in love with some sexless knockout who nearly drove us all off a bridge in an attempt to spite his love. You can see photographs of the four of us looking painfully lovesick as we carried on in such torment for nearly three years.

Horatio Alger does not always prevail: the character Unity has an unfortunate face, a poverty of intellect, and a dearth of grace. But she’s played by the stunning Mary Pickford, who also plays Stella Maris herself. If the name Stella Maris indicates nothing but the character’s untainted purity, the choice seems a bit heavy-handed because the character is so predictable and empty; Unity, on the other hand, only lives up to her name by saving the day in the last five minutes of the film. It seems obvious that the drug-addict-wife needs to die, but it doesn’t seem entirely apparent why Unity has to commit suicide also. Stella Maris was born into misfortune, and upon rising from it becomes disenchanted with humanity. Unity is born into comparably bad circumstances, and only rises far enough to be a servant seemingly doomed to become an old maid. But the fact remains–underneath all that makeup is a very pretty Mary Pickford. So couldn’t the story just…you know, let her turn out happy? Of course not…The real turning point came when we went out on a date, the four of us, and then went back to her house to watch a movie or something–she asked me to get her a drink, and I walked to the kitchen before, looking back onto the sofa, I saw the two girls clinging to my best friend. It had been a set up! I was just a vehicle for propriety, and now they realized there was enough of him to go around all at once. I stormed out.

I find it easy to remove myself to the year of the film, to appreciate the maturation of photography, the use of the iris and the close-up and special effects (like two Mary Pickfords on screen at once, or a dog imagining another dog). After seeing the earliest Chaplin and Feuillade films it’s not difficult to be swept away simply by how the camera tracks away from the embracing characters in the closing shot, bumping along the road one can see appear just before the picture fades out; it’s not difficult to laugh or cry or lose your breath at the way Unity creeps through the shadows darkening all but a luminous stripe across her eyes, foreshadowing everything noir. These things become habit in later years, and if analogous to our own lives, we would, ideally, focus on intellectual pursuits; and so it seems natural that film should become more edifying as it grows less clunky. But not everything appreciates with time.

So, I left the house to cool off, take a walk. I removed my shoes because the air was so warm. And then my socks. And then my shirt. And my pants. And then through the populous suburban wonderland I marched a mile and a half down the center of the street in my underwear. I made it back to the house crawling, my feet swollen with blisters, bloody where I was lucky, and my best friend carried me to his car and drove me home, where they lanced my callous feet, again and again, blisters over blisters, a hundred times, and set me in an easy chair to dry. I was an eccentric, and he was a man, and that’s why they loved him and looked upon me as no more than a curiosity.

film: Newmeyer, Taylor: Safety Last! (1923)

Click picture for licensing details.
Click picture for licensing details.

Drinking for seven hours, and suddenly the inclination to make fun like this, and it’s not unusual? Mentioning Kafka is rarely a smart idea. The only instance I can recall when it was okay was during a discussion over whether the Germans or the Czechs have more claim to him. Using the word Kafkaesque is never a smart idea. Ever. No, I take this all back: one has to earn the right to use the word in the same way Milton claimed to have earned the right to blank verse, something one earns through perseverance and bleeding fingers. Mostly I hear the word dribbling out of the mouths of people whose reading lists comprise little more than The Metamorphosis, On the Road, and maybe something by Bukowski. And would the word be better replaced by “nightmarish?” Yes, I think we could successfully eschew Kafka in our idle chatter and the sun might continue circling the earth.

The idea of “Kafkaesque” brings another detail to my mind, something that the term does not mean, something I’ve never heard anyone mention before. And the reason I call it forth now is because this slapstick romantic comedy uses a similar technique. I meant to discuss the importance of Harold Lloyd here, but this technique is more important to me:

A technique Kafka enjoyed using, at least in his short stories, was to begin by presenting a major problem, and instead of solving it, to instead solve an extremely minor and unrelated problem and present that as the dénouement. What this means, essentially, is that we’re dealing with a tragedy masquerading as a comedy. I just came up with this shit, my head hurts, but golly, thanks booze! This differs from my general theory of tragedy, in which what’s bad for the protagonist is generally good for some lollygagging third party, e.g., what’s bad for Hamlet is ultimately good for Denmark, differs because what’s good for the protagonist is bad for the protagonist. I cannot remember a specific example in Kafka, but I do recall observing this.

So, now we have Harold Lloyd, and here’s a brief synopsis: he moves to the city to make his fortune so his girlfriend can marry him. He gets a shit job, barely makes ends meet, and writes to her that he’s very wealthy. She finally comes out to see him and hilarity ensues as he repeatedly convinces her that he’s rich and important. And then he invents a zany scheme to become rich, very dangerous, and pulls it off so that he’ll win $1,000. Super. The film ends as he and his gal walk off arm in arm, presumably to get married the following day. Is he worse off than before? Yes. Because in the beginning:
• His girlfriend is an idiot.
• He landed his best friend a police record.
• He needs money to eat.

And by the end:

• He’s now also got a police record.
• He’s been lying to his girlfriend and has a lot of ‘splainin to do.
• He landed his best friend in jail.
• He alienated all his coworkers.
• He got hurt a whole bunch and now has to cover medical expenses.
• He broke a very large and expensive clock.
• He needs new clothes after his adventure.
• His girlfriend is still an idiot.
And where did all his problem-solving energy go? Easy. He spent the last half hour of the film trying to climb a tall building in a publicity stunt. Climbing the building becomes the main problem. But what about all the money he wins in doing so? I mean, really, $1000 is a lot of money, especially when we see that his rent is $14 per 3 weeks, and a meal is only 15 cents. Let’s do the arithmetic, shall we? Roughly, rent for two equals $880 per year, and food for two is around $365. That’s $1,245. What I mean is that he’s by no means wealthy, and will probably spend most of that money on fixing all the things he’s damaged. This should all be beside the point, and I’m writing now 14 hours later, with a hangover, because it’s early cinema doing comedy, and there’s something of an appeal to the down-and-out American that we love so well. Chaplin, for instance. We don’t consider it a tragedy to leave an American in rags, because we know that there’s always riches in the future. Horatio Alger’s bootblack Ragged Dick doesn’t begin in tragic circumstances like a chimney sweep of Blake’s, and there’s the great American dream, that the future always looks brighter. Recent polls show that for the first time in the history of the U.S., a majority of citizens believe that the nation’s best years have passed. And perhaps it’s that new mentality that forces our comedies to tie up all loose ends positively, why we’re not going to create a comic hero with the depth of Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton these days.

A last note: this film exploits the capabilities of the new medium immediately by tricking the viewer into believing the protagonist to be in jail as the film begins, about to be hung. When the camera changes position, we see that he’s only on a train platform and our eyes deceived us.