American Literature and I don't mix. I used to be absolutely militant on the idea that literary quality is literary quality, regardless of whether a dead white male wrote it or anybody else. Quality is quality regardless of its source, and with enough eons, other people will ascend to the pantheon. Then I realized I had the same problem. Just as so many minorities have trouble in literature with Dead White Males, I have trouble with dead goyim. It's not so much that I can't read non-Jewish authors (even writing that quid-pro-quo makes me cringe), it's simply that when they come from a society that has either complete ignorance of Jews, or complete contempt for them, I simply find that their worldview is so far from my own that I can't get into it. I don't mind reading antisemitic authors, or even antisemitic books, I just find, very often, that their worldview doesn't jive with mine - which is perhaps a clue as to why these authors have so much antipathy toward Jews.
I've written about this problem reasonably often. I was reminded of it recently as I tried to read The Great Gatsby again, or at least listen to it on audiobook. I know, I know, Gatsby is amazing. You know it, I know it, and the American people certainly know it. I've read Great Gatsby at least two or three times before, and it really is as great as people say - or at least I thought so the last few times. This time through, or this failure, I just couldn't get into it.
In so many ways, it's an ideal book. Every word means something, every sentence has direction, every piece of narration is part of a whole. There is not a single empty moment in the book - all that's left of it is a narrative voice who is guiding you securely from one paragraph to the next - secure in the knowledge that every place you go is ventured with a purpose.
But there's just something about it that doesn't jive. We see Gatsby's vitality and pit it against the buttoned up West Egg snobbery of the old money set, and while we see that their lives are full of decadent contempt for anything that stands out, Gatsby's nouveau riche vitality, gauche as it is, is something real and pure. And yet, this time, though I only read a small part of it, the novel simply seems like the myopia of a country club snob who sees the barbarian knocking down the gates while he congratulates himself on fitting in. Trivialities on that level are no way to spend a full novel, you'll get bored by quarter of the way in (as I was...). I don't doubt I'll fall back in love with Gatsby before too long, but it was disappointing to come to it with that feeling so close by. The last time I read it, a few months after I graduated college, it seemed like the best kind of irony, as though he were holding these supposedly attractive people up to contempt. But contempt only gets us so far in this crazy world, and why should anyone have to read about decadence like this? It's like the preacher who inveighs against pornography by showing the congregants a picture of it. No wonder you're/I'm bored!
I can't doubt that it's the Jew in me that's howling in protest. This, no doubt too censorious, voice is shouting at me that this kind of dessicated boredom is the kind of thing which you get from never having encountered poverty and not seeing a world past your spoiled social set.
"Oh really? Says the guy who grew up in Pikesville among Jewish guys who spent tens of thousands on alabaster staircases and vanity plates on their Porsches?" This voice, 'liberal internationalist Evan,' never ceases to make Evan self-critical about Jewish Evan's monstrously Prophet-like urge to denounce everything as an abomination in the sight of the God Evan's brain tells him can't possibly exist.
I had a similar experience a few days earlier trying to read Herman Melville - small excerpts from Moby Dick, the entirety of The Encantatas, and The Bell Tower. Melville, pointedly unlike Fitzgerald, was a philosemite - though I can't imagine that a mid-19th century New Yorker who spent most of his life either at sea or at a writer's desk knew many Jews.
Melville is, how shall we say?.... a little boring. Like Fitzgerald, his prose is absolutely beyond reproach; he writes in the kind of linguistic tapestry you can't possibly recapture in an era when our brains are more shaped by moving images than language - Dickens has that kind of linguistic tapestry too, so does Victor Hugo at his best. Today, the great over-writers go to the avant-garde and make (subject?) us to linguistic experiments. If any writer reached for their particular kind of linguistic feast (or feat) today, we'd just think of that writer as florid.
But to my view, Melville's problem, a common one among the earlier American writers, or perhaps simply artists the mid-19th century, is that he's so interested in the metaphysical striving that he neglects to note whether we're interested too. Wagner certainly has the same problem, so does Dostoevsky, so does Tennyson.
But I have a particular bone to pick with Melville, something to my personal experience that makes his flaws unforgivable in a manner that I can much more easily forgive Tennyson. I had to read the entirety of Moby Dick in the last trimester of high school. My English teacher, the recently deceased and mostly otherwise lamented Mr. Spaeth, made us keep a journal of each chapter to make sure we read the entire fucking thing. And I did, every goddamn page. If you think Moby Dick is agony, try having to read every page of it with the knowledge that if you don't, an abusive high school might mete out one last punishment for you.
But as a novel, Moby Dick's kind of sacrificing everything to distribute vengeance and some sort of perverse justice upon the earth seems, to say the least, futile. It reminds me of a description a great music critic once gave of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony - referring to its 'visionary dreariness.' No doubt, there is something sublime about chasing after the infinite, whether it's in the form of a great landscape, or a White Whale, or building a robot that will serve humankind. But since it's a given that those who wade too far and deep into the water will eventually drown, why are we going in at all unless there's a chance that we'll enjoy ourselves along the way?
What's missing in Melville is that thing that offsets the unremitting bleakness. Any artwork, any city or country, any human being, that ignores comedy at the expense of tragedy (or vice versa) is unhealthy. I may be the only person to believe this, but I believe that there is probably a finite amount of suffering in the universe. For every pleasure we experience, there is someone else who doesn't - whether that someone is the butt of a joke, or whether that someone is a slave-wage worker in Malaysia, or a chicken in North Dakota awaiting its slaughter among millions of other chickens, someone has to pay the price for our privilege and happiness. In a balanced society, the suffering is evenly distributed, with tragedy and triumph being roughly equal in its inevitability. And when that happens, the life cycle can continue uninterrupted. But the more one side profits from another, the greater their comeuppance will be. Nature always finds a way to correct.
...To everything there is a season... A righteous man falls seven times and gets up... Kleig, Kleig, Kleig - du bist a Naar (smart, smart, smart - you're an idiot)... If I am not for myself who will be for me, and if I'm only for myself, what am I...
The duality of Judaism... that idea is what makes it an attractive religion to me. Not the usual 'God is this, God is that...' which you can get in any other religion. No God will ever get my unconditional praise. I don't doubt that in actuality, Judaism is very different from my personal interpretation of it, and probably a lot more boring. But it's my personal interpretation that makes it interesting to me. The tragicomic nature of life, the idea that everything and anything can happen, that the mysteries are there for us to probe, but at the same time, those mysteries are merely to be enjoyed as best we can.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Life is a state of Mad Men, with Game of Thrones always creeping in. Mad Men, recreating an era of ersatz American perfection which turned out to be a prison from which America had to escape, and doing so with its own claustrophobic perfection.
Endings are tricky, they're much easier to do well when the show was flawed, because the show can then be about the ending itself. Was there any truly great TV show, or great novel, that landed its ending on a level as estimable as the rest of it? Any story longer than the story itself is not about capturing the story, but the passing of life itself. The passing of life and time can't simply end (unless it's The Sopranos), it has to wind down and show that life still goes on even if we don't see it.
Mad Men was a victim of its own achievements. It was, in my firm opinion, the greatest TV Drama that ever there was, or ever there could be. But subjecting that level of examination to life as it happens, to 'lifeness', can never be sustained forever. Just as life seems to, the story can go on forever, even if we're not around for it. But in the real world, every story has to end, and it's almost a given that a story that so deeply questions what pure life experience is made of will have no idea how to correctly land its ending, because no person has seen their end and lived to tell us what it's like. There was only one appropriate ending for Mad Men, and it was already used by The Sopranos.
The final half-season of Mad Men was perhaps its weakest. It did not end with a bang, it simply wound down to an ending that is completely in keeping with the tone of the show itself, yet it felt completely wrong at the same time. To see the shock of Don Draper becoming a fervent follower of an Ashram is so banal, so petty in comparison to the mythic man he once was, that it diminishes this larger-than-life figure to smallness. It leaves a horrible taste in our mouths that we've been following ten years in the life of a man we thought was of mythic dimension, only for him to confess his sins and in his first moment of true vulnerability, show that he's just a human as gullible as the next person. And yet, in keeping with history, in keeping with the tone of the show, it's still absolutely perfect.
Mad Men is a study in the glories, and the limitations, of perfection. It is as flawless a work of art as has ever been created, but its flawlessness is its flaw. It's a prison from which the only escape is to ignore it. By Season 5, their best in my humble opinion, the world no longer cared about Mad Men. It had moved on to Game of Thrones. Mad Men is about trying to grasp the mysteries of human personality, Game of Thrones is about showing us how cheap human life is. Mad Men is a work whose creator is a single authority who allowed no compromise to his vision and no telegraph as to what was in store. Game of Thrones is a work defined by collaboration, whose plot is developed in concert with the original novelist whose work half the audience already knew from the books before it's shown on TV, and whose work may further be developed by suggestions from the audience. Mad Men is meant as a work of Art with a capital A, Game of Thrones is a work of awful magnificence, but like so many works of great art, it is primarily intended as entertainment. Mad Men is a micro snapshot of our world and history, Game of Thrones is a macro panoramic view of an historical world that isn't even our own. Mad Men deals in perfection, Game of Thrones deals in the infinite.
Perfection is a prison from which the life force which is nature has to escape. The classical age of TV is over. Mad Men is our Mozart, our Leonardo, our young Shakespeare, our Tolstoy, our Jean Renoir. The elegance, the naturalism, the formal perfection, is so finely honed that the only way forward is to smash the rules it sets out into a million pieces. In the control which the showrunner has, Mad Men recalls the Hollywood's Golden Age of the Director, when Coppola and Scorsese and Altman could fulfil a genuine artistic vision. But in its achievement, perhaps Mad Men goes even past Coppola and Scorsese, with their concessions to potboilerdom, and is an achievement to rival great figures from the Golden Age of World Cinema - Renoir, Ozu, Ray, DeSica, Bergman and others of similarly gilded eminence to the World of Great Art. Except perhaps for Altman and Bogdanovich, no director from America's Golden Age mined the problems of real people so deeply.
But maybe great art needs that potboiler aspect to it. We are as much dust as divinity, and without the ability to be entertained, who will pay attention? Even I can admit that Mad Men had its dull, even wooden moments that didn't ring true at all. Perfection is an enclosed space from which by definition, you can't reach higher than its limitations. But when the White Walkers come spilling into Hardhome like latter day devils making their first inroads into Elysium, when Ned Stark is senselessly beheaded in front of his family, when Daenerys Targaryen emerges alive like a goddess from the fire - completely nude with baby dragons on her shoulders, when a condemned Tyrion Lannister curses the entire audience of the showtrial his father convened to have him killed, when Oberyn Martell's head smashes like a falling melon, when half the remaining Starks are butchered when they finally recover from the loss of their patriarch, when Stannis Baratheon - TV's Macbeth, or King Saul - literally sacrifices his daughter to fire as a last desperate attempt to fulfill his ambition, you realize that you're dealing with a different, wholly more potent and terrible, kind of sublimity. Mad Men merely hints at this horrific, warnographic sublimity in its 2nd to last episode when an Oklahoma WWII veteran alludes to his brief dalliance with cannibalism on the Western Front. Game of Thrones stands, perhaps lesserly, but still very much present, in the tradition of Beethoven, Michelangelo, older Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Orson Welles. It grasps at the infinite, and goes higher and further into the sublime than Mad Men ever could. It's strong evidence, like Dostoevsky and Shakespeare at his worst, that only works that sink so low can rise so high. No amount of absurd, bad, or trashy scenes can take away the horrific and disgusting greatness Game of Thrones has achieved.
There was a few weeks when I thought I'd made my peace with Game of Thrones. No matter how much sadism is served to us, no matter how many rapes, how much torture, how many grisly ways to mutilate bodies, how much undeserved death, it is still true to itself, and true to what we as the audience require from it. Here is a TV show, a work of art, of operatic, epic, Shakespearean, near-Biblical ambition; with more characters, more plotting, more set pieces, more sheer scope, than anything ever seen on a screen, either large or small; served to us in brilliantly disturbing bits, but with a surfeit of wit and panache to help us through the grimmest of passages. Last week, the White Walkers appeared, in a battle scene (or a massacre) whose filmmaking stands with the most extraordinary passages in Spielberg.
Then Stannis Baratheon sacrificed his daughter to the Lord of Light by burning her on a pyre, and we the audience are compelled to listen to this sweet little girl, more intelligent than anyone around her and who never got anything but suffering from this show, as she screams in agony while her mother is held back by soldiers after she tries to rescue her. There has never yet been horror quite like this so graphically rendered on a screen. And make no mistake, this is horror rendered as it is. It's the kind that haunts our nightmares for years because we're made to care about these characters in a way that slasher movies throwing fake blood at a camera never could. With slasher movies, taking their cue as they do from Alfred Hitchcock, there is almost always a wink that tells us this is all in good fun - you can disengage from your nightmares being exploited at any moment. But Game of Thrones never gives us that wink. We're carried along, horror after horror, with our critical faculties long since obliterated. The sensory assault continues week after week, battering us into craving ever greater levels of gruesomeness. What horror can possibly be in store after this?
I predicted that this would happen weeks ago, my mother can attest to it. And yet I honestly thought they would spare us the horror, just this once, because it's just too horrible. Perhaps she'd be led into a room with Melisandre, and it would tastefully happen offscreen. But no, it happens in real time, in front of a cast of thousands. Fortunately, we're spared watching the burning girl, but we hear everything, and short of actually seeing something like that, what could possibly be more horrifying?
Game of Thrones is in a terrible bind. In order to keep us watching, they have to create ever more horrifying levels of violence. Yes, war is war, today as much as in the Middle Ages, and people far more real than anybody on Game of Thrones get raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered; but to show it so often makes violence the entire point of the show. At this point, Game of Thrones belongs to that unholy class of art that's both great art and horrific exploitation.
Yes, I can hear the protests of the half-dozen of you who've read this far. It's the same protest my mother pointed out to me. There are so many other things in Game of Thrones - complex characters portrayed by great actors, amazing filmmaking of stupefyingly complex plots, and intrigue on a level The Wire can only dream of. But that's ultimately the problem with the fantasy genre. It can literally do anything, and because it can, it must do everything in order to be compelling. Reality may have moved past magic and medieval superstition, but our minds have not. Our psyches still boil with reptile fascination for the ability to destroy, and the more we gaze into the that power to destroy, the more likely society is to embrace destruction.
Art is a societal seismograph, and when millions of people are reading and watching scenes of horrific violence, with every taboo broken of what society once held sacred, history stands to reason that horrific violence is none too far away. Like the Ring Cycle before it, like The Brothers Karamazov, like even Candide, Game of Thrones exists in the world of the psyche and its archetypes. It speaks to its society because it gives voice to all the unmentionables that are already in the air.
Westeros is America. The phenomenon of Game of Thrones was created by a country with 270 million privately held guns, with nearly 20 trillion dollars in government debt and nearly another 40 trillion in personal debt, with temperatures and sea levels rising (summer is coming...), 400 nuclear weapons around the world unaccounted for and thousands more barely protected, 1 in 30,000 people controlling half the country's wealth, and a threat from a country known for its dragons just beyond the horizon. Game of Thrones speaks, very loudly, to the unmentionable, almost unconscious, fears of what lies in a future all too close at hand. Some works of art exist to console us, others exist to drive us mad.
The world has always relied on fantasy to give us the most stupendous bursts of sublimity. Religion is impossible without fantasy literature, so is all the human progress that comes in the wake of epic tales that awoke parts of our imagination we never knew existed. How many worlds of thought were opened by the Bible? By Homer? By Shakespeare? All of them traffic in a mental world where even the most miraculous things are possible. But the sublimity that makes them possible also drives men crazy with the idea that all things are possible so long as we make them happen.
There is not a shred of verifiable evidence to show that art makes us better people, but it is a mark of civilization that we can recognize our baser selves through art, but great art puts us in touch with the fundamental truths of what lies within our natures, almost like a 'warning and reassurance' system to our psyches as to what we're capable of. We shouldn't necessarily like what we see, and we shouldn't necessarily believe what great art tells us - nowhere moreso these days than on Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones was an inevitable show. If it weren't Game of Thrones which shows us the deep darkness of human nature, it might have been a still more violent show. But while we grew incredibly accustomed to violence long before Game of Thrones appeared, it's beyond debate that Game of Thrones has desensitized us to the idea of that those we are close to will be murdered.