So we've adopted an every week format which I pretentiously call 'dualities' to frame the discussion we'll have. The reason I call them 'dualities' is because I believe that more than anything else, it's the divided self, the tensions between our ideals and our realities, that create new thoughts. Perhaps these thoughts are no better than the thoughts before, perhaps they inadvertently create their own dualities, or perhaps these dualities lead us right back to where we were before. Sometimes there are not two sides to every issue, but three or four, necessitating trialities or quadralities, and sometimes there is only one side to an issue because any argument against it people have come up with so far is bullshit, and those are therefore monalities. But for the moment, this tension between polls seems like the best way to frame our discussions.
So here are the dualities for this week:
The Two Machaivellis
Groucho vs. Margaret Dumont
Ernst Lubitsch: Jimmy Stewart vs. Margaret Sullivan
The Two Machiavellis
So I was planning on a third week on Machiavelli, but then I realized that I didn't have enough material for a third podcast on Machiavelli, but I had a little bit of material left over that would frame this week's discussion a little too perfectly. It's perhaps the subject any podcast about politics or history has to inevitably get to in contemporary America - the battle of the sexes, and particularly how it's been framed as a battle by Hollywood.
So I want to talk this week about three classic movies which you could have seen in the last few weeks around Baltimore, and if you'll indulge me one quote from the penultimate chapter of The Prince and a very short one from the end of the chapter, you might be stunned by how perfectly Machiavelli frames our discussion.
"... not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half our actions, but that she leaves us still to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.This is the Machiavelli whom I think is of genuine use to the world. Yes, he thinks like a mafioso, but at the turn of the fifteenth century, thinking like a mafioso was an astonishingly forward-thinking notion. Everybody was being ruthless anyway, so you might as well redirect your ruthlessness toward the long-term goal of stability.
I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defenses and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valor has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and forces have not been raised to constrain her.....
Machiavelli always refers to fortune as a feminine thing - likening fortune to an ebbing a flowing river. This ebb and flow of a river, the slipperiness of the bank, the violent floods that bring about rebirth, the drinkability that gives life to people, animals, and plants, seem to have a kind of feminine connotation in mythology. On the other hand, seas - with their undrinkable saltiness which never seem to move from one place, their wrathful storms, their waves that move consistently and tides that are predictable - seem to be portrayed as masculine gods. Think of Poseidon, or Lyr in Celtic Mythology, or the Dragon Kings of the Four Seas in Chinese mythology. But Celtic mythology has at least four different river goddesses, Indian mythology has at least three. Satis was, at least in late Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian nile goddess, who brought about the annual flooding of the Nile, and therefore the destruction that enables rebirth. Or just remember how in the Grapes of Wrath, Mama Joad likens a woman's view of life to an ebbing and flowing river? This masculine/feminine duality with seas and rivers is obviously not consistent; the most obvious example is Poseidon, who seems to be the CEO of all bodies of water, and Greek mythology is intricate and androgynous enough that there are masculine gods of everything, and just as many goddesses of everything too. But in just all these mythologies, the male water gods seem to have more power than the women, each of whom seems to control but one river while Poseidon and Lyr get every sea, everywhere. Apparently even in ancient times, there was a 23% pay gap.
But this archetypal, and by modern ears, stereotypical, world of myth is where Machiavelli draws his feminine metaphor for fortune. And Machiavelli's readers would know that Fortuna is the Roman goddess of fortune, luck, and fate. By modern standards, the description here is a little bit sexist, but not stunningly so by modern ears:
So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valor has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and forces have not been raised to constrain her.This is a little sexist. This is a sentence that likens women to the manipulative temptress who tries to break through your defenses, but at least this quote is not about a man breaking through a woman's defenses, so I'm not sure this would qualify as sexist by anything but the standards of anything but the 21st century. The reason to talk so much about Machiavelli is because, in some ways, he is a moralist whose words we ought to heed in our own time. Machiavelli is helpful to us today not because he advised against evil and morality, but because by advising a kind of indifference to traditional morality, because a greater, long-term morality was at stake that could provide greater dividends of peace in the future. Machiavelli was, in some ways at least, the first thinker to realize that the greatest danger to the world, then as now, was fanaticism; the moral certainty that you are right and that what you believe is the incontrovertible truth and therefore everyone who disagrees with you is morally inferior to you. Machiavelli says, don't focus on what seems immediately right, focus on what is practical. Before Machiavelli, discussions of politics were grounded in the Greeks, who focused not on the practicalities of governance but on ascertaining what's the ideal forms of government. Only in Machiavelli do we see a politician instructed to delay gratification, to put his ideals or pleasures as a long-term goal rather than something that can be achieved immediately; and it can't be a complete coincidence that Machiavelli came up with his ideas in the same period that mankind finally began what in our lifetime seems like a permanent advance out of the dark ages.
But then there is the other Machiavelli whom we've not talked about too much in the last two weeks, the much more famous Machiavelli who still shocks the world with his ruthlessness, whose medievalism can never be doubted, and who says, and I quote:
For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.This passage is shocking today. The idea that it is necessary to 'beat' women is incredibly shocking, but still more shocking is the euphemistic 'ill use', because in thinking about it for less than a second, we can pretty much guess what kind of 'ill use' Machiavelli meant. And don't think that this was completely un-shocking at the time, when laws of honor were supposed to prohibit such conduct in courtly circles, or at least let people be in denial when ladies of high birth were treated that way.
So here we are, five hundred years later, faced in our time with the extremely uncomfortable truth for many of us various forms of liberals that for the better part of this half-millenium, these liberal notions of individual rights and security were still only meant to accommodate a very small class of people, and the state of everybody else was still barely any better than animals, and perhaps treated worse than animals because of how much utility their lords could derive from their productivity. Does this invalidate liberalism, does this make liberalism an antiquated notion? Many people would argue that it does, that liberalism is a sham that allows injustice to be perpetrated from century to century when what we need is solutions now before more people die and suffer. Nothing tried yet has nearly so productive a track record, but you'd have to be willfully blind to understand people's lack of patience with liberalism's gradual and always shifting and ebbing reforms, or even their insistence that liberalism all just a superstructure or a myth meant to blind people to the reality of how people suffer from it. So this brings us to our second duality:
Margaret Dumont vs. Groucho
I think it was while I watched President Groucho Marx bounce a ball against his desk while the cabinet of Fredonia look on for an indefinite amount of time that I became convinced that Duck Soup is the most eerily prescient movie ever made for our historical moment. Here is aclip from a truly fantastic video log everybody should bookmark, One Hundred Years of Cinema (up to 9:32), listen to how it describes Groucho in this movie. I would try to say all this myself, but he captures it so perfectly that I could never do it half so well.
There was a New Yorker cartoon last year that showed,... I forget which Founding Fathers, but two of them, and one said to the other, "What if a potential tyrant rises up, but no one can stop him because it's kind of funny."
So Donald Trump turned out to be exactly as authoritarian in outlook as we feared, but our saving grace is that he also turned out to be the dumbest man on the planet. Our American system knows exactly how to deal with demagoguery, but it presupposes that the demagogue is an intelligent, educated man duping a public less intelligent than he. The founders had no conception of how to get rid of a man-child puppet of another dictatorship who while he's in a bad mood might order a nuclear attack while his Chief of Staff is asleep.
The Marx Brothers were actual brothers, and one really gets the sense in the routines of all three of them, particularly in the silent Harpo, that their routines are just extensions of the ways they annoyed each other as children. At the time, the mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo was thought of as revolutionary, but it's hard to believe that every person didn't do something like the mirror routine at some point in their childhoods.
Or think of the scenes when Harpo drives the Street Vendor crazy by switching his hat when the vendor isn't looking; and think to yourself how many times childhood friends or siblings would try to pull that trick on you when you were ten. Harpo is a silent clown, but more importantly, he's basically an overgrown child whose routines are literally to annoy the people around him until they go absolutely insane.
Groucho on the other hand, is, like our President, stuck in adolescence - and while he does it 1000x better than just about any teenager, he's the class clown always cracking wise. And like our President, the usual subject of his jokes are women, whom he seems to hate and fear almost savagely.
( Some Groucho) - stop at 1:49
Next to Groucho, in a dozen movies, stands Margeret Dumont, the wealthy old dowager - more than three inches taller than Groucho when in heels, supremely confident, sublimely pompous, and unfathomably stupid, standing next to Groucho in every Marx Brothers movie purely to be the object of Groucho's abuse and show us that there is no just world in which a wealthy idiot like her is considered an aristocrat while this Oscar Wilde who seems to have glommed onto her from a street corner is considered an upstart. And so was the way of the world in 1933 when it was correctly seen as a given that the Margeret Dumonts of the world were in such an unassailable position that they could absorb every gibe and taunt and scoff and sneer, because her mind was so slow that she couldn't even process half of them, and even if she got them, what did it matter, she was blue blooded and rich. Groucho might have been a man, but he was the child of immigrants, from a poor and low-class background, and Jewish. Did it matter in 1933 that the Grouchos of the world used the one invincible weapon they'd have at their disposal to even the playing field a bit against the Margaret Dumonts?
(Another Groucho Clip) - up to 1:48
Taking Groucho Marx to task for his ribbing of women is a bit like taking Roosevelt to task for the Japanese internment camps, Both are true, both are figures were of roughly equal importance to the world around 1940, and pointing this out neglects that between them, FDR and Groucho might have done more to break open the doors to more equitable social classes than any two men in world history - including those who shared their names...
The year of Duck Soup is 1933, the same year that Hitler came to power, and of all the volleys in the Jewish invasion of world culture, the Marx Brothers were, are, and probably will always be our single most important. In the same way that race, sex, and gender permeates nearly everything in our zeitgeist, 1933 was permeated with questions of social class, and the Marx Brothers were an atomic bomb that went off in the world's sense of propriety. It was also five years after sound came to Hollywood, and no film director, not even Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder, could pace his scenes at the fever pitch of Groucho riffing one zinger after another. Groucho had some of the greatest American writers and comics of his time pitching in on writing his dialogue - former household names like George S. Kauffmann and S J Perelman, but Groucho was just as quick on his feet as his writers. Here's what's probably the most famous ad-libbed line in television history:
Before Groucho, the list of unmentionables in polite society was a hundred times longer. No doubt the excess propriety of high society evolved because the world required a way of freeing itself from the grime and shit of that appallingly vulgar thing - nature, to which we animals once were slaves. But after the industrial revolution, when the world became fully mechanized, we could begin to reclaim the natural rawness we'd relinquished amid all of that refinement. When vulgarity can have as much wit as Groucho Marx, it becomes clear that Groucho is the natural aristocrat while Margaret Dumont is the natural peasant.
It's not like the Marx Brothers came up with the idea of lowly street hustlers tearing high society to pieces, but no one tore into high society as savagely as Groucho did. And so many of the rituals of high society were based on a show of excessive deference you made to women and their virtue. Groucho Marx clearly did not believe in virtue or deference, eighty-five years before President Trump, Groucho was America's linguistic id, saying all the destructive things aloud which popped into his head, which was obviously much smarter than Donald Trump ever was. The Marx Brothers were primal agents of chaos, who's very existence seemed to be to blow up well-ordered high societies. And if Groucho Marx could be celebrated for saying things that were not necessarily mentioned in polite company, so then could his millions of admirers.
But eighty-five years later, it's impossible to look around and not realize that the same populist urge which tore down the prison in which respectability trapped us now threatens to tear down respectability itself. The world now is so populist in every way - political and cultural, that the most immediate enemy to us is no longer excessive reverence but precisely its opposite, excessive irreverence. And just as the world was once obsessed with elite notions of social class, either ascending to a higher class or abolishing all notions of social class, the world today is obsessed with its polar opposite, equality. Whether it was made this way by Karl Marx or Groucho Marx, the field of play is now seen as so level, the differences in people's inherent merits so slight, that even though it's true that all men and women are created equal and owed the same inalienable rights, we can't be surprised that these rights result in hatred and fury since people disagree so vociferously about what those inalienable rights should be. In America, the Right says that these inalienable rights are economic and religious, the Left says these rights are related to social justice. The Right thinks we should have the right to be free from government interference on our economy, the Left thinks we should have the right to expect our government to provide us with prosperity. The Left thinks government has no right to interfere about whom we marry or whether or not women get abortions, the Right thinks the government has every right to interfere on such questions.
The traditional right wing of America has always thought, as traditional right wingers always have, that politeness and decency should place limits on the sentiments we're allowed to express. Any sentiment that questions traditional authority: family, government, the Church, sex, is something they would rather not permit. As with any other era, it's an impossible standard to uphold, but all the moreso in our era when information spreads so rapidly. We now live in an era so revolutionary that it's the Left who believes that politeness and decency should place limits on the sentiments we're allowed to express. The sentiments that are off-limits are no longer the sentiments that question traditional authority, but the sentiments which uphold them: race, gender, sexuality. Is this a good or a bad development? Like any ideology, it holds us to an impossible standard, but that's almost immaterial to the point at hand. Think of how greatly the world has changed since Richard Nixon who hid his evil deeds behind a veneer of excessive reverence for tradition. In the forty nine years since President Nixon's inauguration, the Left so thoroughly won their battle to liberate us from the constraints of tradition that the idea that we should be free to express whatever sentiment we wish, no matter how objectionable, is now a conservative argument, not a liberal one. The American Right is so unrecognizably changed from its traditional trappings that they can unhesitatingly support and champion a man who openly celebrates his duplicity arrogance and duplicity and greed and lust.
We now living in a world in which debates on political correctness have reached such an unbelievable fever pitch that Donald Trump has been elected purely because of his persona as a man who will say the things everybody is thinking but afraid to say. Groucho's character in Duck Soup, Rufus T. Firefly was meant to be an irreverent parody of right-wing authoritarian rulers who hide behind excessive reverence, but he's now a prediction. And this brings us to our third and last duality, which in some ways is a triality:
Ernst Lubitsch: Jimmy Stewart vs. Margaret Sullivan
There are a lot of once famous studio directors who probably won't matter in a hundred years nearly as much as we still think they do. A famous director of the studio era like John Ford might have made a few undisputed masterpieces like The Searchers, or a movie like How Green Was My Valley that I seem to be the only person to think is an undisputable masterwork, but even many of the famous among his 150 movies, like Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine, don't seem to me to hold up nearly so well. The archetypal American Western, particularly, relies on notions of masculinity and patriotism that should be obvious have an enormous amount in common with authoritarianism. Even for its own time, it appealed to the worst instincts of America rather than the best. And when you compare the excitement of Ford's action sequences to the later action in directors influenced by John Ford like Spielberg and Scorsese, there's obviously no comparison.
Every genre in Hollywood ever coined has its problems, the very nature of a genre is that there is a specific audience whom you are feeding what they want without challenging them. Hollywood wasn't build to challenge people, it was built by giving the viewers what they want.
The average human being is more intelligent than an idiot, less intelligent than a smart person. One out of three are reasonably clever, one out of five or six are genuinely smart, so that means that there are roughly fifty or sixty million smart people in America. In the same way, one out of five or six Hollywood movies was of real quality, so it's amazing that in a place as seemingly dumb as Hollywood made so many great movies. How many of those movies will still attract attention once people stop caring about the movies completely the way they've stopped caring for written poetry or classical music. I'm sure that movies by directors of personalities to large to ever be contained by any genre will be watched by somebody for hundreds of years, but whatever the dramatic art form, genre fiction is usually the first to be thrown overboard, because without the popular zeitgeist surrounding it, it is impossible to convey what was so unique about them to later generations, who have their own genre entertainment that addresses the excitements of their own day much better, and will therefore be of more anthropological value than artistic. That's not to say that this is the fate of all popular genre fiction, but it is the fate of most of it.
But contrary to the Western, which celebrated manly virtues like honor and glory while pushing women and Native Americans to a status barely above props, the screwball comedy was the aesthetically progressive genre for its time - I dare say, it was progressive even by the standards of 2000. A screwball comedy is a very particular kind of romantic comedy in which a man and a woman who don't like each other are thrown into impossible situations together, and eventually fall in love. It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve, these were just some of the more famous ones - and for my money His Girl Friday still has to stand as the greatest romantic comedy ever made. But what's important to note about screwball comedies is that it's the only genre where the leading lady was guaranteed equal time to the leading man, half the best lines, and, at least by the standards of 1940, a three-dimensional character with a free will of her own.
The best of the screwball comedy directors, perhaps the best of all those classic Hollywood directors nobody talks about any, was Ernst Lubitsch, who in the span of five years made Ninotchka, Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be, and Heaven Can Wait. Lubitsch was a Jew from Berlin who started in Max Reinhardt's German Theater, and became perhaps the most venerated director of his time. Practically everything that we think of as Classic Hollywood originates with Lubitsch, and what strikes us now is that the greatness of his movies consists of qualities so un-American. The Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington describes Lubitsch's style as:
"At once elegant and ribald, sophisticated and earthy, urbane and bemused, frivolous yet profound. They were directed by a man who was amused by sex rather than frightened of it – and who taught a whole culture to be amused by it as well."
When was America ever amused by sex? And in the 30's and 40's? It's almost unthinkable. But there it is in The Shop Around the Corner.