Friday, October 28, 2016

On Watching Writers Perform

Seattle hosted its annual Lit Crawl last night. I didn't go because I didn't know about it. Instead, I went out to dinner with a professor in my department, and afterwards I went home to read for a few hours. One of the books I read was related directly to my disseration. The other was a textbook for a class I am TAing for.

I have lived in Seattle for four years. Seattle is one of the most literate cities in the country. Washington, D.C. has more readers, but Seattle has smarter readers. It is home to wonderful independent and used bookstores. I've seen some giants come through, some of whom I've interviewed. But I just don't feel that comfortable at literary events anymore, even though I feel like I'm supposed to go to them. 

Maybe it's the anxiousness. There are so many aspiring writers in the audience who are quietly rooting against the young poet on stage or who are eager to sound smart in the Q&A. I admire anyone who is willing to stand up and go for broke on stage, but when a slam poet fails it's worse than watching a stand-up comedian die. I attended a great event four years ago. A group of local writers got together to do public readings of celebrity memoirs. Since they weren't so caught up in reading their own work, they were actually able to perform.

I guess that's the problem with the Lit Crawl. It puts the act of reading and writing into the public space. It turns the written word into the spoken word. It encourages an oral tradition. The participants of the Lit Crawlare are part of a tradition that goes back to the Greeks in the West, and American Indian storytelling, except with a lot less talent and a lot more pretension. 

I never like the Q&A's because I don't think anyone ever learns anything from them, and I prefer to ask my own questions, which I do, when I interview the writers I want to interview. Lately, I've been conducting interviews by email. My questions are more focused. My subjects' answers are more thoughtful. We're not performing. We're writing.

In an age when the media has offered us more access to the writer than ever before, it's odd that we don't have that many great writer-performers. Go on YouTube and watch the footage of Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, James Baldwin, and Mary McCarthy. They could say the most idiotic things -- even Baldwin -- but in their idiocy they had an amazing command of the American language. Like all actors, they had amazing command of their bodies. They had more interesting personas than most Hollywood stars. Vidal's American history novels and Buckley's impenetrable essays may not survive another three decades, but their public debates will live forever.

Lesson to writers: If you don't want to perform, don't go on stage. Lesson to publishers: Direct some of your publicity budget into public speaking and acting lessons for your writers. 


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

On What to Think Versus How to Think

There is a difference between teaching what to think and how to think.

When to teach what to think:

1. A student mixes up the concept of non-diegetic and offscreen sound. He or she is wrong. I explain why he or she is wrong.

2. A student believes that Thomas Jefferson's sexual relationship with his slave involved no problematic power dynamics. I explain why he or she is wrong.

So far so good. These strike me as objective truths. Now:

3. A white student uses the phrase "discover" to describe his or her experiences in a non-white culture. Some of my colleagues would describe this word as indicative of a colonial tradition, what we call Columbusing (Definition: Something doesn't exist until white people learn about it.) I might see the word as a fairly innocuous term. For my colleagues this student must be taught to see what lies behind the word "discover." I see their point, but I'm not sure. My colleagues are teaching what to think, because they think they are teaching objective truth.

4. We are reading a sixteenth-century work of political philosophy. A student, perhaps influenced by ideas from another class, complains about having to read work by a cisgendered, white, heterosexual male. The words "cisgendered" and "heterosexual" would have meant nothing to this author, I explain to the student. The word "white" would have meant something very different. But I don't know if I'm talking past the student. I don't know if I'm telling him or her what to think.

5. A student, perhaps of Jewish background, perhaps with family who died in the Holocaust, is uncomfortable with calling the killings of American Indians a form of genocide, as he or she feels that it might force him or her to redefine the experiences of his or her own family. I think this student is objectively wrong. I think it's clear that the killings of American Indians over a period of centuries constitute genocide. Still, I'm not sure if by explaining my argument, which I consider to be objective truth, I'm telling the student what to think.

I try to teach my students "how" to think, and I suppose part of teaching the "how" and not the "what" is to treat the ideas in 3, 4, and 5, and as many others as possible as debatable. My students may walk out of my classroom with the same bad politics as they had when they walked in, but at least they may have the tools required to explore arguments and come up with smarter ideas of their own, outside my classroom, in "real life."

Sunday, October 23, 2016

On Tom Hanks's Trumpie


In Tom Hanks's most famous roles, he reminds everyone that America has made some terrible mistakes, but, in the end, the wisdom of the American people comes through and the idea of America always wins. Clint Eastwood would have ruined Steven Spielberg's vision of World War II in Saving Private Ryan (1998). The D-Day invasion in the opening of the movie is brutal. American soldiers commit war crimes. The presence of Hanks assures us that those war crimes were necessary, and that even if they weren't, they were not what America really is or ever has been. The opening half hour of Spielberg's Bridge of Spies (2015) captures the weirdness of Cold War paranoia -- weird Spielberg is the best Spielberg -- but Hanks is there to remind the good people of America that civil liberties are really important. In the long run, America listens. 

Hanks's turn last night on SNL as a paranoid Trump supporter is John Wayne in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). Hanks's Trumpie is not a bad guy. He's uncomfortable around black people, but not really mean to them. He's capable of shaking their hand, albeit with a lot of hesitation. The black people on stage grow to like him as they discover the commonalities in their lifestyle and world views. They're all a bit paranoid of the police state. They all love Tyler Perry movies. Hanks's Trumpie eventually returns their affection. Still, the creepiness of the conservatism that lies underneath Hanks's roles in Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994), Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can (Spielberg, 2002), and Bridge of Spies is all there. Just as John Wayne's Ethan Edwards finally takes Wayne's persona too far, slaughtering buffalo just to spite the Indians, shooting out the eyes of an Indian corpse while knowing and enjoying the significance of such unnecessary cruelty, Hanks's Trumpie finally crosses the line. You like my unpretentiousness, Hanks winks at the audience. Well, here I am making someone you've been taught to hate as a neo-fascist look as cute, sweet, and decent as Forrest Gump. You like me, even though you know I'm capable of kicking a Muslim woman at a rally and spitting on the Mexicans. You like me and you're almost willing to forgive me, because you know some part of you is me.   

Hanks was wonderful in those '80s comedies no one watches anymore, and on his perennial appearances on SNL. It would be nice to see him use that showman talent to transform his persona. Maybe late-period Hanks could discover the nastiness in small-c American conservatism.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

On Dylan

This was the year for it. I guess every country needs something to feel good about and maybe it's important for the world to be reminded every now and then that America is more than bombs. Maybe it's important to be reminded that the American language, so dominant throughout the world, and often so destructive to native cultures, can be damn beautiful.

This verse cracked me up when I was 13. It cracks me up today:

"Oh God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son,'
Abe says, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on'
God say, 'No.' Abe say, "What?'
God say, 'You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run'
Well Abe says, 'Where do you want this killin' done?'
God says, 'Out on Highway 61.'"

The funniest part is not the comic-drama played out between God and Abraham. It's that phrase, "Kill me a son," a piece pulled from my vernacular. Grab me a beer. Sing me a song. Kill me a son. This is how a smart, serious Jewish boy, growing up in a middle-class household not all that different from my own, a boy with literary pretensions and a musical ear reads the Book of Genesis.

I discovered Highway 61 Revisited in my father's LP collection when I was 13. The only Dylan album that came with lyrics was Empire Burlesque. It was 1994, before I had the Internet, and as I was too lazy to look up a collection of lyrics from the library, I could only listen and feel the language. More diehard fans would write down everything they heard. I didn't. But I listened to that album a thousand times. "Ballad of a Thin Man" didn't interest me that much until someone told me it was about a visit to a gay bar. ("Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you and then he kneels / He crosses himself and then he clicks his high heels / And without further notice, he asks you how it feels / And he says, 'Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan') But the best stuff was great because it wasn't reductive. My favorite was "Desolation Row." "They're spoon-feeding Casanova to get him him to feel more assured  / Then they'll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words." I felt like I had seen that Casanova, as well as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound fighting in the captain's tower and Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood. All those names with tenuous connections to a shared culture, thrown together cackling on the way to apocalypse. That seems to be how every 13-year-old sees the world.

I spent 400 dollars of my money in high school on Bob Dylan CDs. And that line from "It's Alright Ma," the one from which I got the name of this blog, will stay with me until I die. "If my thought-dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in a guillotine." The "l" was pronounced because sometimes the spoken word can improve on the written one. "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" was a springboard for a narrative I could imagine for myself. I was never a wallflower at a party. When I was at a party, I was Rosemary, "seeing her reflection in a knife." I didn't know what it meant to be in love in those years, but I damn well knew loneliness and longing, and, out of necessity, the pleasures to be had in solitude. When teenagers complain that people don't get them what they mean is that they lack the facility of language to explain where their weirdness comes from. We all go to "old men with broken teeth stranded without love," because even though we're young we know that's not who we will become. That's who we are. 

As I grew up, and found myself in relationships and better and healthier friendships, met more people I related to, and discovered a certain peace that I was what I was and people were who they were, Dylan changed too. The more unmarried I stayed, the more I understood the fantasy in "Sign on the Window. "Build me a cabin in Utah / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me 'pa' / That must be what it's all about." But when I heard it I would just smile. "Masters of War" was trite and the Staple Singers did it better. That long-ass song about the Titanic sinking was a blast, especially because Dylan stuck Leonardo DiCaprio in it, because he could.  

When I want to cry, I listen to country music, which Dylan loves even more than I do, and when I want to experience religious feeling if not religious belief, I listen to gospel, which Dylan also loves more than I do. But some things stay the same. When we say a book saves you, we mean that it makes you feel less alone, and it's a comfort to know that on my darker nights and during my darker days, that I'm just one of many people I've known, one of the many students in my classes, and the many sad folks I've met from Seattle to Riga, just one more of the "old men with broken teeth stranded without love."   


Sunday, October 9, 2016

On Donald Trump's Friends

I live in New York. Most of the people I know are Democrats. The Republicans I hang out with tend to be rich, successful people. Some of them are gay. Some have gay kids. I know a couple of black people and Mexicans here and there. They worked hard and got out of the ghetto, because they know they're better than the ghetto. I know a lot of Jews. They're good people. Smart. And I know women, beautiful, beautiful women.

People tell me interesting things. Some tell me they're nervous about hiring women because they're worried they'll get pregnant and then decide to stay at home with the kids and now, what are we going to do, find someone else, another woman, who'll we have to train all over again and who might not be good at the job? Some don't want to hire too many black people or Mexicans, not because they're racist, but because they're afraid other people might be racist. The Jews I know are always talking about Israel. Always Israel with those guys! My friends are my age: 50s, 60s, 70s. I think their kids have different ideas. They go to Brown, or something, or Princeton, and they get these ideas. But I don't know. Maybe they do think the way their parents think. Maybe they don't. There are more blacks and Mexicans around and they're young. We all agree that it's good they're getting out of the ghetto.

My friends go off and buy all this cool stuff. I saw someone who went to Sweden on vacation last year with his wife. But he came back with this giant glass thing. Huge. He put it on the kitchen table and it's half the kitchen table. I asked him how much was it? He said $25,000. They thought it was beautiful. Oren...something. He loves his wife. She's beautiful.

I was talking to them about Lewinsky back in the nineties and they all said, all of them, well Hillary helped out there. I mean, she knew all about it and she let it happen and, yeah, she helped take the fat bitch down. Why'd he have to go with such a fat bitch? You have to admit, they had a point. Their wives, get this, their wives, at a dinner party, they said the same thing.

When I talk about women with the guys, they're into it. Some aren't. I don't know. Some nod along. I don't know if they do what I do, but they look like they wish they could. They're not into the beauty pageants, though. I don't know why. But they have their fun, if they can still get it up.

No one talks to me that much anymore. It's okay. They'll talk to me again in five years when all this is over and Hillary is indicted. They like me. I'm a fun guy. They love me.




Friday, October 7, 2016

Thirty-One Opinions on Your Opinions of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

I've written before that I and most other people should probably shut the hell up about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well..."Two Jews, Three Opinions," they say, to which I'll add "One Jew, 31 Opinions About Your 500 Opinions."

Let me offer the following:

1. Israel's occupation of the West Bank is a human rights catastrophe. It involves the daily humiliation of a group of people who don't deserve to be humiliated. The Israeli state's bombings of Gaza are wrong.

2. There are many greater human rights catastrophes than those born of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gaza is not, as many activists like to say, the "world's largest open-air prison." North Korea covers a wider geographical area and has a larger population. 

3. If you are an American citizen, it makes sense to focus more on the plight of Palestinians than on the plight of North Koreans, because as an American taxpayer, you are more complicit in the plight of Palestinians, and as an American voter, you might have more ability to influence your government which has more sway over Israeli policy than North Korean policy.

4. If you are a citizen of most countries of the European Union, your focus on the plight of Palestinians over the plight of many other groups doesn't make as much sense. That doesn't mean you are wrong to focus so much on the Palestinian conflict. You may not be complicit in the plight of Palestinians, but you may still have more ability to influence American policy in regards to Israel than Chinese policy in regards to North Korea.

5. If you are more interested in the plight of Palestinians than the plight of other groups, you are not necessarily an anti-Semite.  

6. Many people who spend a lot of time talking about the plight of Palestinians are anti-Semitic.

7. Many people who spend a lot of time talking about the plight of Palestinians care deeply about human rights.

8. Many people who spend a lot of time talking about the plight of Palestinians care deeply about human rights and are also anti-Semitic.

9. Anti-Semitism, like racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, is not always easy to define.

10. If you believe that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is equivalent to the Nazis' treatment of Jews, you are wrong, but you are not necessarily anti-Semitic. Your belief is ahistorical and it suggests that you believe that every conflict and every form of oppression is exactly the same. If you are not examining your claim in detail, you are intellectually lazy. But let me repeat: You may be wrong, but you are not necessarily anti-Semitic. You're just an idiot.

11. Many people who like to compare the Israeli state to Nazi Germany are motivated by anti-Semitism. They may idiots as well. They may also be horrible, cynical human beings. 

12. You are on firmer ground if you compare the Israeli state to South African apartheid. I think this is an imperfect metaphor. If you make the comparison without any caveats after having read at least 100 books about South African apartheid, alongside at least 100 books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you are not a good reader. Still, I agree it is effective shorthand, especially as the word "apartheid" has passed into the English language as a metaphor somewhat detached from the specificities of its original meaning.  

13. You should not be indifferent to the treatment of women or gay people in the Palestinian territories, anymore than you should be indifferent to the treatment of women or gay people in any part of the world. You should also be able to acknowledge that defenders of oppression like to point to instances of human rights abuses among the oppressed in order to defend their own indefensible behavior. (See "Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, American invasion of"). 

14. Many great Palestinian and Israeli writers have written thoughtful, humane books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some of these books are histories. Others are essays or works of political science. Some are memoirs. Others are novels. If you want to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you should read some of these books. 

15. You don't need to read anything written by Judith Butler in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

16. The word "Holocaust" is not a magical incantation that legitimizes your argument.

17. If you don't understand why the Holocaust may inform the way many Jews feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in one way or another, and why there are good reasons why it would inform their views, than you have an underdeveloped moral imagination.

18. If you want to fight for Palestinian rights, I am all for you doing so. I also believe you need to figure out what a decent solution to the conflict might be. A binational state? A two-state solution? What does it mean to be a "Jewish" democracy? How will the resources be shared? How will your solution ensure human rights for all? These are hard questions. They make your head hurt. Still, you should try to answer them.

19. I'm not sure if the most urgent need at this moment is to answer all the questions posed in number 18.

20. Hamas is evil. If you don't acknowledge that Hamas is evil, you are either ignorant or actively lying.

21. If you want to fight for Palestinian rights, I support you, but unfortunately, you may end up having to make common cause with people you might not like. (I call these people "anti-Semites.") If you are at a meeting and someone says something terribly anti-Semitic, or something that is not necessarily anti-Semitic, but still deeply toxic to the debate (i.e. "Israeli state = Nazi Germany"), and you disagree with this person because you are not an idiot...Then you are either a coward or making a tragic compromise in the interest of winning a cause. I'm not saying you should act differently. I am telling you to be honest with yourself and admit that you are either a coward or making a tragic compromise.

22. There are worse things in the world than being a coward at a political meeting. You may be less of a coward in other aspects of your life. 

23. Freddie DeBoer is my favorite writer on the Internet. Much of what I've written on this list would piss him off. But he's a lefty who likes to tell other lefties, "Doing good is more important than being good." Did you hear that? Doing good is more important than being good.

24. Steven Salaita is an anti-Semite.

25. Donald Trump is awakening an anti-Semitic movement. He's also an anti-Semite.

26. A human rights catastrophe may not be a "genocide." You can still fight a non-genocidal human rights catastrophe with every fiber of your being.

27. There are far greater horrors in the world than a sign on a college campus that compares the Israeli state to Nazi Germany.

28. If you don't find the current rise in anti-Semitism alarming, you are actively ignoring at least the last 150 years of European history. That's a conservative estimate and I don't really know enough to say that you are ignoring the last 2000 years of European history.  

29. I take that back. You are ignoring at least the last 50,000 years of human history. You know, around the time human beings started separating into groups and picking on people different from themselves.

30. There is a child whose name I don't know and you don't know, who once lived in Gaza who was killed by an Israeli bomb. That this bomb killed this child is an absolute atrocity. If are indifferent to the murder of children in the service of any political philosophy created by adults, I honestly don't understand who you are as a human being...Actually I do understand. I don't have a high opinion of human beings. If you care more about your feelings than the death of an Israeli civilian killed by a Palestinian terrorist...well, I guess I understand you too.

31. I have at least 31 more opinions on the matter, but frankly, I'm just sick of you. I hate you. I hate myself. I hate anyone who cares more about his personal feelings than a girl killed by a bomb in Gaza.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

On That Shakespeare Thing in Oregon

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is putting together a project to translate Shakespeare's plays into "contemporary modern English." The first problem with the New York Times article about the project: it doesn't explain that Shakespeare wrote in what linguists define as modern English, which is to say the language we currently speak. If we take the organizers of the Festival's word, that we are now at a point where we have to translate the "modern English" of Shakespeare, than we are now all but officially speaking a different language. Still, in the eighteenth century, poets started "translating" the Middle English of Chaucer. Although I and many college students enjoy parsing Chaucer's Middle English, I wouldn't even bother with an edition that didn't include both an original and a translation. So I'm not sure if I'm one hundred percent willing to reject the idea of translating Shakespeare.

I'm about ninety-five percent sure.

I can only write as a layman who took one wonderful undergraduate course on Shakespeare -- taught by James Shapiro, who ripped into the Festival's project last year -- and makes it to one or two Shakespeare performances a year. I'm an avid theater-goer in a town with a fantastic theater scene. Seattle has one Shakespeare troupe, whose productions have been hit-or-miss. I grew up in Washington, D.C. which had a well-respected Shakespeare company. Their best productions featured Derek Smith, who would go on to a long career playing Scar in the Broadway production of The Lion King. He was often one of the few people on stage who knew exactly which word would make a line funny. I don't know if he had a background in stand-up comedy, but I wouldn't have been surprised. I wonder if every production had not one but 25 Derek Smiths, we wouldn't feel the need to translate Shakespeare.

I also think of Shapiro's argument, that even audiences in Shakespeare's time found his work difficult. I was flipping through a collection of Marlowe's plays someone had left behind in the hallway the other night in my office, while I was procrastinating on a grant application. I have to say that I found him a lot easier to read. We make a mistake when we equate age with difficulty. To move the argument to prose, Daniel Defoe is a lot easier to read than Thomas Pynchon.

The young playwrights, many of them women and members of ethnic minorities, in this project, according to the Times article, complain of elitism in the criticism. They point to the undeniable fact that no one, even the smartest theater goers, know everything that goes on in a Shakespeare play. And they have a point. I will concede that I would get at least one key plot point wrong if I saw a Shakespeare production with 25 Derek Smiths.

But I suppose what bothers me most is not the closing of the gap between high and low culture, as much as an unwillingness to embrace difficulty, the unwillingness to accept the unexplainable, or to demand that audiences do work.

The truth is, we do make these demands in some of our contemporary work of mass or semi-mass culture. There's a lot of poetry and difficulty in the dialogue in The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Deadwood (2004-2006), and, as in King Lear, glaring plot holes and ambiguous character motivations. Several scenes deserve to be watched again. There's a lot of pleasure to be had in parsing the weirdness of David Milch's diction if you have the time to do so.

I think it's wrong to compare these translations of Shakespeare to the destruction of temples in the Middle East. The original of Shakespeare will always be available for the elite to study. When you destroy a temple, it isn't available to anyone. And the translations may come up with curious surprises, although I would rather we spend more time examining the surprises inherent in Shakespeare's own poetry. I would like to live in a world in which the elite, and the non-elite, well, everyone, appreciated difficulty and enjoyed the game of engaging with a work of art that doesn't provide ready answers.

Side note: Do you live in a town that regularly puts on productions of Ibsen, Strindberg, Marlowe, Shaw, O'Casey, Sheridan, Brecht? Because I don't. I would like to live in that town.