“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, October 14, 2013

the death of Candide

I’m here to tell you that Candide is dead. Deader than Buffalo Bill. Deader than God.
This point was borne home to me Saturday night.
The plan was the babysitter, a movie, dinner. Going through the offerings, we decided that the Aero theater on Montana, being close and being sorta arty, was the place to go. There was a Diablo Cody premier there – her movie, Paradise. Diablo Cody rang a distant bell in a dusty part of my memory, which I refreshed with Wikipedia. We’d seen her last movie, or the movie she wrote, in Paris – a good night!
She was supposed  to do the Q and A at the Aero after the movie was over. We figured we’d duck out of that, go sneaking off to some restaurant that would surely be open on Montana.
In fact, we ended up sneaking out at about the point the movie, after its experiment with satire blew up in its face, made a turn towards sentiment. I believe at this point our heroine was getting in a taxi cab after telling her two new friends that she did not come to Vegas to be coddled.
No, as those who hadn’t ducked out at this point knew all too well, she had come to Vegas to Sin! The variation of the Candide plot as it played out here was that simple or even, I’d say, simpleminded. As opposed to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, which sought to  “Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;.
But vindicate the ways of God to man”, the Candide plot is meant to be “candid” about the laughability of the vindicative ways of God to man. Leading us to reject the Enlightenment apologetic for the Christian God constructed by Leibniz. The local circumstances with which Voltaire worked can be, in the anti-Christian genre, reworked, but the point is supposed to be the same. The ways of God to man are really nature red in tooth and claw.  In the negation of the premise that God is a loving God, we negate the principle of Christianity, and we can then hang other ornaments on that anti-Christmas tree, kicking it for this or that moral precept.
Paradise, from its very title, is certainly an entry into this tradition. But what it shows is how dead and dead and dead the tradition is. The plot goes like this: some 19 year old blonde Barbie, raised in a fundamentalist community in Montana, undergoes some horrible – but never really very clear – accident involving a jet, as a result of which she suffers from burns on 80 percent of her body and generally has to be reconstructed. Oddly, since one of the great points of Cody’s film is that the fundamentalist community is bigoted and reactionary, the essential plot point here accepts without question an old Republican fantasy: that the victims of accidents all get showered with money from insurance companies and from corporations fearing huge losses in court. This is of course nonsense – for the most part, victims of accidents in the states face the bankruptcy of their near and dear as the medical bills mount, insurance companies that bridle at showering money and don’t, and a court system that has long been scewed to reflect the desires of the monied in re: liability for those not rich enough to be entitled to every jot and tittle of it. Anyway, our Barbie/Candide is rich, and begins by getting up in Church and announcing there is no God to a fundamentalist congregation that is, of course, supposed to be shocked by this kind of thing. It is a Hollywood fundamentalist congregation, which means that it is essentially sketched in by people saying amen to the preacher from the pews. The sign system here couldn’t be clearer: the viewer is definitely not one of “those” people. From the start, in other words, the viewer is invited to wallow in his or her own presumed superiority. This is always a bad start for a satire. And the level of the laughs is about at the level that you would suspect. For instance, laugh one is supposed to be generated when Barbie tells the congregation that she is even going to vote Democratic. In fact, all the jokes are this kind of fluff. This is the kind of movie that thinks has caught a real howler when it has the heroine refer to gays as Sodomites. And if you think that is a howler, this movie is for you!
Which seemed to be the case with the California audience, although I think, maybe, that we are talking friends of the director here. Still, the chuckling over such inanities struck me as genuine enough. This was sad, as it made me feel much superior to the audience. Having a superiority complex anyway, I quickly realized this movie was not only stupid – of that variety of stupidity that comes with groupthink - but bad for me.
So, to make it better for me, I tried to reflect on Paradise as another proof that anti-Christian mockery, as a genre and theme, is past its prime. In fact dead – and you can’t be more past your prime than that.
The question is: why?
Perhaps it is because Christianity, as Pope and Voltaire knew it, is dead. That is, the ideology of the clerks – the ideology of what James Scott calls the Great tradition – has moved on. It is no longer about glory and redemption. It is about commerce and science. Religion, in the Great Tradition culture, is now something to oratorically affirm on set occasions. Meanwhile, in the little tradition, in the daily life of the masses, belief has gone back to the wild. Thoughts are free – meaning it is all syncretic, a little astrology here, a little pop science there, a little Jesus, a little Oprah, a little politics.
In these circumstances, the great biting ferocity of the old Candide tradition is simply out of place.
Of course, there are fundamentalists, but they, too, are for the most part more moved by politics and commerce than anything like Christianity. Of course, my own stance on fundamentalists is that they are misnamed, since any literal reading of the Bible will tell you a number of things: that wealth is evil, that princes and nations are misguided, that primitive communism is the way to go, that thoughts aren’t free. The prophets are invariably – without exception – traitors. The messiah in the Gospels is serious that the first are last and the last are first in the kingdom of heaven. He is also serious about taking up your cross.
But that is a mere aside. I think the Candide genre died in The Master and the Margarita. Perhaps I should say, the death is explained in The Master and the Margarita. At the beginning of the book, there is a conversation between a poet and an editor. The latter, Berlioz, commissioned the poet, Ivan Ponyrev – or “Homeless” – to write an anti-Christian poem, but as he explains to Homeless, he is not satisfied with the result. The poem attributes dark motives and actions to Jesus – but the point, Berlioz says, is to bring out the fact that Jesus is a myth. He never existed.
Now, Bulgakov is having some fun here, because as both are soon to find out, the Devil not only exists but has come to Moscow for an event. Berlioz’s rational world is swept away before the first chapter is over, in fact. But his theory about Jesus as a myth is a pretty good way of getting at why Candide is dead. In fact, in the current culture, whether Jesus existed or not doesn’t matter. Which is why some nice, no holds barred assault on Jesus would not go over in film, nor evoke chuckles from the feeble minded audience that thinks the word “sodomite” is a hoot. Our sentiments would be offended not because of belief in Jesus, but because of the belief that we should be tolerant of the belief in Jesus.
Such is the current state of explaining the ways of God to man

1 comment:

Ed said...

I am convinced that the attitude of all popular culture is to view all events before the television age as a myth, and this attitude might extend even to recent events. Its striking how little grasp people, even very educated people, I come into contact with have of the concepts of the past and the future.