. . . Romero

. . .

Kyra Schon Bosco We're doing everything possible. Movie Comment: Night of the Living Dead

"But if in either period brain tentacles had come out of Ludwig's ears and started waving about, it would have been even better." -- UFO Breakfast
Even more than most mad scientist movies, David Cronenberg's dedicate themselves to a Nietszchean critique of ego: The will never swaggers more than when in the grip of compulsion, and consciousness feels feeblest precisely when it has most freedom of choice. Thus an admirably honest way to make a plot seem driven by "character development" is to let physical metamorphosis take over the actual steering.

But self-loathing remains a form of self-obsession, and more often than not remains a form of self-aggrandizement; Cronenberg's heroes seem awfully close to the wannabe-macho breast-beaters of mainstream indie film, even if they're more likely to crack ribs and break skin doing it. Nietzsche never successfully became Beaumarchais.

And so I often find myself instead turning for relief to less egocentric misanthropy, whether it be the lowbrow slapstick of Herschell Gordon Lewis or the political savvy of George Romero's more sophisticated social comedy.

As much as I like Dawn and Day of the Dead, their nostalgia for a Howard-Hawks-style camaraderie of competence sweetens the medicine a bit -- although, true, opposing camaraderies always seem ready to spring up in the interest of mutual annihilation. As much as I respect The Crazies, its ambition and budget clash a bit too noticeably -- although, true, now is probably a very good time to revisit its weave of biochemical weaponry, governmental incompetence, and mass panic. OK, never mind; the "although"s win.

But the point I was going after is that Night of the Living Dead is still about as bracing a pleasure as the terminal ironist can find. In a genuinely novel emergency, all human connections and reactions seem tailor-made for maximal entanglement. Love (familial, romantic, or purely neighborly) betrays, hate betrays, rigidity betrays, compromise betrays, and even Hawksian competence reduces to newsprint images of lynching parties and genocides. No one can think things out without immediately becoming slaves to their own analysis ("It's important to be right, isn't it?"); no plans can begin without a power struggle and no plans can be carried through without disastrous improvisation.

Despite the lapses in acting and pacing, Romero's decision to leave the script unchanged after Duane Jones's casting makes the movie far more time-resistent than, say, Shadows. And the next-to-final irony -- that the brave leader is wrong and the snivelling villain is right -- not that it really makes a difference, given the final one -- is not only satisfying in itself but a continuing source of new satisfactions in the form of viewers who miss the point and thus help prove it all over again.

. . .

Just like medicine

I have two friends who, like me, have derived serious pleasure from poststructuralist writings. We three are easily told apart, and in terms of relative accomplishment I'm easily at the bottom. But I think we would all agree, more or less enthusiastically, with any of the following assertions:

  Un altro elleboro nero
Instead, we commonly enounter the assertion: And being all three of us sworn to defend our pleasures to our deaths, up goes the dander, flying goes the fur.

But I've finally come to realize that such a reaction replenishes the venom sacs of the poisoners I find most fearsome: canons and labels.

  Elleboro bianco
A kiss-off to the abstract blob game, then:

The only commonality I can find in my personal poststructuralism reading list is a tendency to complicate thought (if not necessarily writing; Delany and the sorely-missed Jardine write perfectly lucid American prose): to split hairs and splinter branches and seed beams with termites and combine bicker with blather.

My friends and I have little enough in common ourselves. But I think I can say that for all of us, the appeal wasn't a matter of being frozen, or being seduced, or being betrayed, or having our deepest beliefs called into question, or even being particularly influenced.

More a relief at seeing what we'd already sensed receive acknowledgment and elaboration. Self-conscious complexity is the net that's saved us all from drowning. ("Drowning," figuratively. "Dying," not.) In the nineteenth century, we would've been Kantians; in the eighteenth, what, Viconians maybe? Wherever was foggiest, that's where we'd be. In the fog with a lantern, searching for more fog.

None of us would've been Swift. I think you need to assume a certain height and distance before you can speak down like Swift.

When the world is known to be foundationless, it's pleasant to see that foundationlessness mirrored and elaborated, just like when we ache with anger and disappointment, it's pleasant to see a George Romero movie. But for anyone to force that on someone else for personal aggrandizement or gain, or to wave it as a liberating banner or as a pass card to an exclusive club -- yes, that would be monstrous.

That fucking pharmakon again.

. . .

In May 2009, Josh Lukin responded:

Seems to me that there's a big area in which a critic can "prove" something: the game of refuting sweeping generalizations. Girard asserted that "Every novel has all of these features"; Toril Moi "proved" that some don't. Now, I personally would not use that verb, opting instead for "Moi's convincing challenge to Girard . . . " But if I had to edit a submission claiming that she'd proven him wrong, I don't see how I'd argue that it was an infelicitous construction.

Girard: "Well, then, those are not a novel." But yeah, counter-evidence is something criticism can handle very well. Sometimes I think it's all that criticism's good for.

. . .

Land of the Dead (2005)

I'm sorry that "Mr. Tambourine Man" wasn't played over the closing credits. Even Dylan's harmonica would've been contextually justified!

Otherwise a near perfect Fourth of July movie, complete with fireworks and everyone wanting to move to Canada.


Re your "Mr. Tamborine Man" suggestion --wouldn't that have been PERFECT!!!? and so in keeping with the sensibility that produced the opening shot ("EATS >>").

I thank that fine newspaper man Tom Parmenter for copyediting.

. . .

No Better than We Should Be, 3

Ethical Joyce by Marian Eide

With the aid of Levinas, Derrida, and Irigaray, Eide tidies the Feminist Joyce, the Post-Colonial Joyce, and other Joyces beside into a unified Ethical Joyce. Psychoanalytic theory, l'écriture féminine, smirks about homosexuality, expressions of solidarity with racial stereotypes, genetic textual studies, family biography, puns, coincidences, misunderstandings all, all engage alterity.

As one might expect, Eide cites Joyce as often to illustrate summaries of French theorists as she cites French theorists to prompt explications of Joyce; she handles both tasks splendidly. (I'm particularly grateful for her analysis of Mr. Deasy's coin collection and her correlation of Finnegans Wake revisions to changes in Lucia Joyce's condition.) Neither will the experienced reader be shocked by an occasional hint of partisanship, as in this note on the structure of Exiles:

Joyce refuses an audience's scopophilia, the possibly prurient interest that might be satisfied by witnessing the love scene or failed love scene between Bertha and Robert in the cottage. As in so many of his other works, Joyce draws a curtain before a woman's body and her love (readers never, for example, directly witness Molly Bloom's assignation with Blazes Boylan), granting women characters a privacy that resists the prurience of mimesis and its claims to full revelation.

Few would agree that the last chapter of Ulysses respects Molly Bloom's privacy, and surely Joyce's reason for avoiding the Bloom home was to reserve Mrs. Bloom for his big finale. Similarly, the "moral dilemma" presented to the Exiles audience might be taken as a (generally unsuccessful) attempt to maneuver us into an attitude not far from Richard's scab-picking jealousy.

Special pleading and bardolatry are hardly new to the Joyce industry, and Eide is far from being the worst offender. But with "Ethical Joyce" she explicitly intends to raise the stakes even if she must also hedge her bet: "Ethics, as I am defining it... is an engagement with radical alterity or difference within the context of ultimate responsibility (in the sense of responsiveness) to the other."

Having gone against Levinas in applying his intrapersonal ethics to the production and consumption of artifacts, Eide goes further by treating dead texts as stand-ins for human subjects: "Rather than testing moral vision through ethical dilemmas within the text, I argue that the interpretive facility, that relation between text and reader, itself provides both an ethical dilemma and opportunity." "Perhaps the least obvious, though most immediate, example of this paradigm is the relation between text and reader." (Although I understand the impulse, it does remind me of the court decisions which granted American corporations legal personhood.)

Since Joyce lived before Levinas et al, Eide explains how he achieved his signature values without their aid:

For example, his realization that his mother had provided him with his first habitat and sustained his life through adolescence and yet fell victim to the very system that nurtured his own success, altered Joyce's understanding of his obligation to women both in his literary representations and in his private relations with Nora Barnacle and later with his daughter, Lucia.

This smooth pass between the general and the personal amounts almost to (unintended) sleight of hand. It's hardly rare to find sexists who except their daughters or their wives from condemnation. Moreover, heterosexual male masochism doesn't guarantee feminist sympathies: dominatrices work in a clearly prescribed role, sometimes not of their own volition. Around the time of Exiles, Nora Joyce complained that her husband pushed her to "go with other men so that he would have something to write about," and Joyce's conversation bristled with a misogyny which anticipates that later skinny obsessive, Robert Crumb. Here's an unusually good-humored example:

His lips tightened, he moved in his chair with annoyance and said, "I hate women who know anything." But Mary Colum, not to be put down, said, "No, Joyce, you don't. You like them, and I am going to contradict you about this in print when I get the chance." He fumed silently for a few moments, then abruptly detached himself from his anger and let a half-smile show on his face. Mrs. Colum thought she had converted him, but the poem he recited to her a few days later about his women friends was scarcely corroborative evidence:
As I was going to Joyce Saint James'
I met with seven extravagant dames;
Every dame had a bee in her bonnet,
With bats from the belfrey roosting upon it.
And Ah, I said, poor Joyce Saint James,
What can he do with these terrible dames?
Poor Saint James Joyce.
- Richard Ellman, James Joyce, New & Revised Edition

Eide's Viennese-schooled treatment of incest ignores the very germane use of Aquinas in Joyce's own fable of artistic development:

Saint Thomas, Stephen smiling said, whose gorbellied works I enjoy reading in the original, writing of incest from a standpoint different from that of the new Viennese school Mr Magee spoke of, likens it in his wise and curious way to an avarice of the emotions. He means that the love so given to one near in blood is covetously withheld from some stranger who, it may be, hungers for it.

Joyce rarely welcomed fresh company or confrontation; by his own admission (and by others' critiques) he boasted neither broad experience nor power of invention as conventionally understood: "my foot strikes something, I look down, and there is exactly what I'm in need of." Instead, he took the risk of assuming that his sexuality could stand in for any man's sexuality, that (a caricature of) his wife could stand in for the whole of womankind, and finally that his own clutch of singularities could stand in for all the world through all history. He plotted the heavens through a microscope. His risk paid off, but not without losses along the way. It does us and his work no harm to acknowledge them.

To the pay-off, then. How, exactly, does Joyce perform his ethics?

"For Joyce the first ethical consideration is the experience and expression of sympathy within the preservation of difference. In other words, ethical response makes possible a communion that does not obscure necessary separation." "Ethical representation cannot unambiguously endeavor to mirror or shadow one's own consciousness; rather, an ethical representation carefully delineates a sense of one's difference from an other while at the same time registering sympathy and responsiveness to the other, in other words, partial identification."

In the literary realm, such performative ethics have been discussed under other names: "negative capability," "free indirect discourse," "rounded characterization," or simply "realism." "Locating his ethics in the interpretive space between opposites, Joyce would of necessity, to paraphrase Derrida, oppose racism, nationalism, and xenophobias of various kinds." And similarly, by locating his ethics in dramatic dialogue, Shakespeare would of necessity oppose anti-Semitism. But insofar as both chose ethics of art-making, such "opposition" became unlikely to influence personal habit or communal action. One can say "Joyce labored to recognize multiple subjectivities in his fiction" without indexing the statement as "ethical." "Artisanal Joyce" works just as well, I think.

If I'm correct that the book's chosen epithet is unnecessary, why should I treat it as undesirable?

Although Eide wishes to avoid intentional and biographical fallacies, I think we can call "Red light!" at the point when our interpretation of a seventy-year-old novel depends on weighing the pros and cons of a long-dead couple's treatment of their daughter. It seems impossible to mount an ad hominem defense without admitting the validity of ad hominem attacks. And Eide's assertion that "ethics" must be taken as technical jargon convinces me no more than a soft-Lacanian's insistence that the Phallus mustn't be confused with a penis: if you wave a huge pink sex toy around while you talk, it's disingenuous to tell listeners not to look at it. I fear the chemical reaction which would be set up in our critical discourse by a false homage to an abstraction behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration:

The Objection from Creepiness asks us to imagine an artwork whose aesthetic value is only available to ethically flawed people or, as I shall call them for brevity's sake, creeps. [...] The problem is not just the work's limited appeal to a highly specific audience. The artistic value of James Joyce's Ulysses, for instance, is only fully accessible to those who can read Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, and who are well versed in Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, to name only a few, but the novel is not thereby aesthetically defective. This is perhaps because doing whatever it takes to get inside the novel would be good for us; it would help us realize our potential as human beings. What's special about the creepy case is that we have to do something that's bad for us in order to get inside the work; we would have to become creeps, even for just the moments that we spend with the work, and this is contrary to our flourishing.
- A. W. Eaton, "Where Ethics and Aesthetics Meet: Titian's Rape of Europa"

With apologies to Eaton, Greek and Latin are scarcely the major stumbling blocks of Ulysses, and "creepiness" was precisely the objection of Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and many other early readers yea, unto some of my own undergraduate faculty.

As it happens, I do believe Joyce's books are distinctively and genuinely good in both senses of the word. And although third-party corroboration may be limited, I feel I become a better person when I read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

This sense, however, has little to do with some unique "engagement with radical alterity," nothing to do with avoiding "creepiness" I also feel I become a better person when I watch George Romero movies and much to do with humor, honesty, technical chops, and formal innovation. While the reductionism of "What else were they invented for?" cannot be redeemed, it is in some sense balanced by the open self-pity and self-loathing of "Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?" And Joyce's mortar-and-pestling of Flaubert's determinist realism, Flaubert's spectacular phantasmagoria, and Flaubert's idiot burlesque sets up a most un-Flaubert-like chemical reaction in some sore souls.

Writers aim to create something which is better at least more persistently articulate than they themselves; readers aim to have some experience otherwise unavailable to them, which may well include the experience of an ethics which remains within reading. If in some sense it's true that a Europe which took Finnegans Wake to performative-heart would have experienced a very different sort of 1939, it's just as true that a James Joyce who took his own work "seriously" would never have cut off friends, threatened law suits, drank to excess, sponged or possibly written at all. If I took my Joyce reading "seriously," my life would be something better than a quotidian wreck (Prius, pass by!) I might even limp through it without the balm of re-reading Joyce. Sadly, happily, and all other sensations besides, life cannot be a book.

. . .

Lurch for the Cure

Trumbull Park by Frank London Brown

I never trusted those suspense stories where comfortably well-off families get menaced in their own home by psycho scum. Every arbitrary authority who's ever pushed us around exists for their benefit and we're supposed to feel concerned when some dorks start calling each other daddio? Why?

And asking why? isn't healthy for suspense.

In Trumbull Park, lower-class families stuck where they're not wanted get menaced by very-much-at-home mobs for long past forty-eight hours, for weeks, for months, and those arbitrary authorities act as arbitrarily as we'd expect. Mary Helen Washington's right that some of Brown's 400 pages "anticipate the aesthetics of protest of the 1960s and 1970s." But even more of them anticipate the aesthetics of Romero's zombie movies.

Any why? is taken from life.

Title source: Skin Horse


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
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