Friday, February 11, 2022

on Kristin Stewart's Diana

 I saw Spencer last night, and a miracle happened: my heart opened up and I had a little sympathy, a trickle of blood or some other humour, for Diana.

I have a strong sense that the reactionary culture of the eighties began with the marriage of Charles and Diana. It was like rock n roll heaven for reactionaries. Of course, I am more of the school that the royals and the aristocrats are spongers who sit on piles of blood money exacted from the skins of millions of peasants by their horrific ancestors. So I am not exactly unbiased. I have more sympathy for Ulrike Meinhof than for Diana.
Until I saw Kristin Stewart's performance, and realized that Ulrike and Diana were closely akin.
Of course, being plunged into the Windsor family must have been like being thrust nightmarishly into one of those Goya portraits of the Bourbon family in Spain: all the awful faces, all the inbred attitude. I've read the reviews: of course, the movie takes reality on a joyride, and there are some - such as the once enjoyable and now completely petrified Anthony Lane, the review for the New Yorker - who are a bit upset that more isn't made of Queen Elizabeth's bountiful philanthropy. The usual plea for billionaires. However, the film definitely resists using philanthropy as a prop to celebrate gaudy and unaccountable wealth. Thank God. The dialogue is all Pinter laced with underlings out of Shakespeare.
I'd love to see Steward do Ulrike Meinhof next. About ten years ago, the Austrian writer wrote a play that collaged Meinhof to Schiller's version of Mary Queen of Scots. A collaging of Diana to Meinhof would work much better. Politics, so often, is temperament. As it should be, perhaps.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

oh brother


If you look up the literature on jokes – which ranges from Bergson to Freud to analyses of the Gricean implicature of jokes, and so on – you will notice that the joke is always connected to laughter. Without laughter, it would seem, there is no joke. Even the feeblest joke is defined as such because it fails to provoke laughter.

Myself, I think jokes are often about laughter. But jokes are sometimes not about laughter at all. This seems to be a paradox from the mainstream point of view, but from ordinary converse it is obvious – at least to me, and I believe to almost everybody – that jokes are sometimes not meant to provoke laughter at all. There are many intentions packed into a joke. Sometimes they are meant to bother. Sometimes they are intentionally meant to waste time – to delay. Sometimes they are tics, like cracking your knuckles or stripping the cuticle from the side of your fingernails (a particularly bad habit in my opinion). You could say here that the laughter function is perverted, or diverted. Or you could say that negation and affirmation in the world of affects responds to a different logic than it does in the world of syllogisms. That the negation of laughter could be the motive of a joke is, from the world of affect, a logical result of the particularly enunciative situation of the joke.

Freud recognizes that there are different types of laughter – and that there is a pleasure in laughter that is sadistic. Sadism, however, throws the stage lights on too brightly to describe all kinds of jokes that are disattached from laughter. It is, however, true that laughter is, at some point, related to biting. In fact, satire is often described in terms of biting. Biting and sucking are, of course, some of our earliest intentional actions. The mouth is centered as an important organ for the newborn, who learns to use it to make sounds and then words and then when he is all grown up and a Dad, Dad jokes.

Lately, when I make a humoristic comment – something that is as related to a joke as an undershirt is related to a shirt – Adam tends to say ha ha. It is the typography of a laugh, or another way of not laughing at all. When he started doing this, it reminded me of something. A couple of days ago I remembered it: oh brother.

When I was about Adam’s age – nine – I started replying to jokes or things that were meant to be funny, offered by classmates and adults, with the phrase: oh brother. I must have used that phrase a lot, because at some point in the sixth grade I was dubbed “brother Gathmann”, and I retained that nickname for a long time. I’m not sure what I felt about it. When playing, it was shorted to Brother, so, say, in basketball it would be, “pass it to me, brother”, etc. etc.

Hearing this, I wonder if adults thought it had to do with religion (the Christian evangelical thing of sisters or brothers) or with white kids pretending to be black (brother, in the white mind, being what black men called each other – at least on tv). The one thing that wouldn’t occur is that the name derived from a conditioned refusal to laugh, or to enter the circuit of the joke.

I had not thought about that nickname for a long long time, until Adam started with the ha ha. And now I am curious how, unconsciously, I pass things down to my son. Or maybe he makes them up for himself. And maybe that is a role in the schoolyard – the oh brother role.



Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Nobody likes political correctness

 Nobody likes political correctness. Which puts us in the position that it isn’t correct to defend political correctness. It is like picking your nose or flashing in a park – not the kind of thing you want to be associated with.

I think the phrase – and its villainizing character – goes back to a Cold War liberal discourse, in which the Communist figures as an authoritarian personality and the Western liberal figures as a groovy dialoguer. However, it occurs in a few places before World War II. Arnold Bennett submitted a novel of his to Lord Beaverbrook, who looked it over for “political correctness” – as Bennett’s diary puts it. However, I think this simply meant that it was realistic with regards to the political processes and political characters that it described.
Political correctness jumped majorly into the major outlets of the media with the civil rights movements and the New Left. The media, which had subserviently gone through the anti-Communist 50s with nary an op ed by a communist or a reflection on the merger of American foreign and domestic policy with anti-communism was jolted by the New Left attack on that monolithic ideology. It was an attack that, as was quickly seen, had a weak spot: for how about the “line” that the New Lefties themselves followed? The inner attitudinal policing – which, as all groovy liberals knew, was all to reminiscent of Big Brother and Communism itself. This made political correctness a great and bountiful phrase. All good things could be reaped from it.
One of the good things is humor. The groovy liberal was ever liable to laugh and joke, while the political correct policeman only knew how to sulk and snarl. This is put well by Erica Jong (who, author’s note, I adore) in an interview in Cosmo in 1978, explaining the lesbian scenes in her novel, How to Save Your Own Life.
“The chapter is the broadest parody- a humous takeoff on that whole period in the women’s movement when everyone I knew felt compelled to have an affai rwith a woman because it was chic… And, as a satirist of my society (which I assuredly am), I have the right (possibly even the duty) to spoof the fads of my day. That doesn’t mean I’m antilesbian or antiwoman or that I don’t support the very legitimate demands of gay activists for equal rights. But as a writer and humorist, I refuse to toe a party line and to inhibit my satire because certain humorless, sullen people think political “correctness” is more important than laughter. The fact is, even if a writer wanted to be politically correct, she couldn’t be. What pleases one group alienates another. So a writer really has no choice but to write books to please herself… Laughter and poetry may, perhaps, transcend their time. Politics never do.”
I think that Erica Jong’s comment about political correctness hits all the buttons – it is encyclopedic and at the same time brief. It idealizes the writer’s desire – what she wants – as an expression of freedom that she is compelled to – since any expression will alienate some group. It is a defense of humor – which is given a transcendent cast (along with poetry) – against the political part of political correctness – we don’t, in other words, read the Divine Comedy to get our bearings on the Guelphs, and Swift’s sticking it to the Whigs is, as any Professor of English Lit in the 1950s could tell you, representative of questions about human nature itself and the perennial questions thereunto. And political correctness is attributed to a power that is based in public opinion in America, but that is merely a click away from becoming a totalitarian bureaucracy – of the left, of course.
It is the latter supposition that is curious. Feminists in the 1970s, like antifascists today, were a protesting minority. The majority and the vested power of the Establishment – the makers of laws, the runners of corporations, the judges and cops – were not enforcing politically correct rules about feminism, but were busy being almost all male and all white. Their allergy to being attacked for being all male and all white was to say that the attackers were authoritarians who, by some astonishing accident, had almost no power at all, and who were showing what they would do if they had power with their attitudinal policing, which makes it a good thing that power rest in the hands that hold it.
This is one way of looking at the picture. Another way is to see in, say, movement feminists a possible future – a political one. In fact, for the “everybody” that Jong knew, that future turned out to be bright. Upper middle class women have gone from triumph to triumph since 1978. They have broken glass ceilings – an interesting goal, not exactly aimed at by those leftist feminists who combined feminism with some Marx-y notion of working class power. Perhaps those were the very feminists who were most humorless. Humor among those who see a bright future is, perhaps, a different thing from humor among those who feel, with every instinct, that they are going into the garbage.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...