Friday, January 28, 2005

Literature, entertainment, censorship

From Book X of the Republic: "And now since we have reverted to the subject of poetry, let this our defense serve to show the reasonableness of our former judgment in sending away out of our State an art having the tendencies which we have described; for reason constrained us. But that she may impute to us any harshness or want of politeness, let us tell her that there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry; of which there are many proofs, such as the saying of 'the yelping hound howling at her lord,' or of one 'mighty in the vain talk of fools,' and 'the mob of sages circumventing Zeus,' and the 'subtle thinkers who are beggars after all'; and there are innumerable other signs of ancient enmity between them."

In Plato's ideal state, lyric poetry-- which is the product not of reason and logic, but of inspiration and emotion--shall be banned. This section is often criticized and attacked as an early example of state censorship; it also demonstrates, however, that the greeks perceived a clear distinction between the aesthetic and logical approaches to "truth".

Without getting longwinded or too theoretical, I think this distinction--as well as the argument for banning or controlling artistic and poetic creation--still holds. The latest brain fart spewed on some bubblegum star or rapper's CD is not near to Newtonian (or Einsteinian) constants, nor even to a syllogism. Poetry and really literature as a whole are anecdotally true at best and not on the same level as physical or mathematical laws. Literature may have psychological and occasionally historical relevance, yet it is not proof of any psychological theory or concept or the historical record itself. It's qualitative, not quantitative. Most students know far more about Hamlet, an imaginary "construct," than they do about English (or Danish) history of the 16th century, and Shakespeare's abiding presence ( really somewhat sinister) demonstrates how the literary myth overpowers the historical and economic reality of the Tudorian monarchy. Shakespeare's play Hamlet is, however rhetorically marvelous, not the historical record, nor does it contain any necessarily true statements regarding politics, psychology, or the physical world. Entertainment, much lower than classic poetry, is far less concerned with/addressed to any sort of logical or scientific truth.

Though many so-called liberals protest any forms of censorship, there may be decent grounds for the Chinese authorities controlling the spread of discos and pop culture in their country; and though a complete banning of western entertainment in the islamic countries may seem wrong--it is--controlling the spread of the religion of celebrity and instant gratification may not be the worst thing a country can do. Citizens in Morocco or China or Saudi Arabia should be able to read Shelley or Hemingway, listen to Bartok or Ellington or Metheny, I think, but do they need to have their kids listening to gangsta rap and Britanny Spears and death metal or reading Hustler? I think not. But the danger is letting religious zealots be the Ministers of Information, instead of Platos.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

"HOG, n. A bird remarkable for the catholicity of its appetite and serving to illustrate that of ours.

Porcus Episcopalia, vr. San Joaquin


Thursday, January 20, 2005

Let them eat Noir

Most humans are at least vaguely aware of "noir", having watched The Maltese Falcon, or parts of it, during late night brew or chronic sessions. And Bogie as Sam Spade is classic noir; as are Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet as the villains. Dashiell Hammett, the author of The Maltese Falcon was perhaps the American master of noir fiction, and his own life was quite dark --he was imprisoned in the early 50's for some time after refusing to rat out some of his pals suspected of being communists. Hammett's noir is as to the point as a Dempsey jab, with no frills, though with touches of irony and absurd comedy ( Lorre does the comic villain well); lit. types might classify it as "urban realism", but there is much more to it than mere realism.

Noir is a 20th century phenomena, really, perhaps foreshadowed by Poe in his non-supernatural tales such as the Purloined Letter and Murders of the Rue Morgue or Conan-Doyle's stories of Holmesian deduction; it's not about spooks, it's dark but not ghoulish. The noir of Hammett or Raymond Chandler is, however, much more gritty and "hardboiled" than Conan-Doyle's somewhat sentimental Edwardian tales. The language of Hammett or Chandler is pared down from Poe or Conan Doyle's more literary and elegant style; it's sexier, cocky, and with less gloss. Sam Spade is no British gentleman as was Holmes, and he's able to handle himself in a street fight. ( And remember to never mistake noir for dull, pissy English murder mysteries set in manors or european railroad stations).

Hemingway also wrote some noirish stories ( the Killers, the Battler) and Chandler shows some Papa-like influence, though I suspect that Hem. was also influenced by the noir writers. Like Hemingway the diction of noir is simplified, often macho--the speech of cops, lawyers, detectives, criminals, floozies, waitresses, losers. Jim Thompson is another classic noir writer though a bit more primitive than say Chandler. His book The Grifter's is a great story of losers and racetrack creeps, and a decent movie; After Dark, My Sweet is another Thompson fave, and the movie, with Jason Patric, is really superior to the book. In bad noir hacks such as Spillane the cliches can, however, become ridiculous, and obviously Ho--wood churns out bad noir year after year.

The cinematic productions of noir fiction have not been so faithful to the text. Chandler's books--say The Big Sleep--were distorted and if you read the book with any understanding you might find Bogart as Phillip Marlow a bit miscast. Bacall seems to do the heiress well, but Marlow is a big guy--200 lbs, 6 ft. or so. Bogie is a great Sam Spade, but as Marlow he seems ineffectual. Mitchum does Marlow very effectively in Farewell, My Lovely.

Though noir might be thought of as macho , it's also romantic; Chandler's stories usually feature some hot if conniving starlets or washed-up, uh, courtesans. The traditional heros and villains of literature are absent in noir; there are antiheroes, women are not always angels or whores; there's a note of modern ambiguity. The white hats and black hats of westerns are gone, as are the saloon gals with the hearts of gold; or perhaps as in some of Chandler's more bitter visions such as Red Wind, everyone seems to be a black hat.

Though noir is often categorized in the "pulp" file, many scholars are coming to realize that Chandler and Hammett's visions are as worthy to be called "literature" as well, say Fitzgerald or Hemingway's writings. Noir presents the urban spectacle unsentimentally, and at its best without some obvious moral--and in Chandler, corruption, amorality and nihilism are the central motifs. Yet there is more than a hint of a leftist vision to Hammet and even to some of Chandler's writing. In the world of Noir--say in Farewell, My Lovely--corruption extends from the dives and shacks of Burbank to the mansions of Bel Air, and it seems about everyone is on the ol' payola.

James Ellroy is a modern noir master, though his writing is far more graphic, violent, and yes obscene than Chandler or Hammett's; the movie LA Confidential was made from one of his novels. Nonetheless Ellroy's wildly discordant visions of LA-- sort of Ornette Coleman with say Stan Kenton--have a flavor of authenticity to them, and a note of real tragedy....

Noir influenced the Beats, as any discerning reader of say Kerouac's "The Subterraneans" realizes; "cyberpunk" writers such as PK Dick and William Gibson also owe much to Chandler's keen style--and Gibson's crisp noir prose in Count Zero or Virtual Light is a refreshing change from the dull wooden language of earlier sci-fi such as Heinlein and Asimov.

Noir : c'est la vie

Protestant Doomsday Agenda

I have encountered more than a few protestant nutcases in my time who believe in the literal truth of the Book of Revelations; many of them, if not most, also believe in a literal "rapture". There are little videotapes on it--mostly out of Tejas or Okiehoma or some Dixie protestant nutcase seminary. And people are, in the Dixie Rapture vision, literally whisked off the earth to Beulahland in the midst of a nuclear holocaust or other nightmare (when Satan's legions take over or something. )

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R–Texas), who has quite a bit of control over the agenda in the House, does seem to be one of these prot. nutcase types (though there are plenty of catholic nutcases and deviants to be found--pagan nutcases are not so uncommon either). Bush II himself has indicated that the Book of Revelations is one of his "political" guideposts, a comment which should scare the shit out of all of us. The Book of Rev. is certainly one of the most bizarre pieces of religious writings to be found in that "old book" (as Thoreau said).

These modern-day Ezekiels and Revelators might do some re-reading of the Founding Fathers' rather skeptical comments on "End Time" theology--for instance, Jefferson, who claimed that Revelations was the work of a deranged mind. TJ realized that the protestant Rapture based on the Book of Rev. should be quite troubling to any rational person.

Perhaps some of you have heard of dispensationalism. It's a sort of uberCalvinist notion that Xtians are forgiven of ANY sins (e.g. crimes) at all times simply by being Xtians and attending Church, and "acceptin' Jee-suss as their personal savior" etc. In other words, the church-going, "faithful" Xtian can do whatever he wants and is forgiven simply because he's Xtian. There's more than a hint of that in much of the US right-wing agenda. The muslims have a scary rapture notion though too. And the leftist pagans are about as nauseating. As someone recently said on the Fray, the rightwingers are closet brownshirts, yet the leftists have become blackshirts....

Doomsday, thanks to Jeee-suusss

Monday, January 17, 2005

Excerpt: Dr. ML King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"

"You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may won ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the Brat to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all"

"Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression 'of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal."

To the stall the people come to go,
Reading an obscene graffito.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

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