Thursday, June 25, 2015

English Lit and Its Discontents: Some Thoughts After Re-Reading Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism

Why is literature central to the humanities? And why is it so difficult to study it?

The answers are related. The first thing to note is that among the humanities, literature is the odd man out because it is an art. Students and scholars of literature do not use specific, more-or-less scientific methods to study a specific component of human life; they study an art that takes human beings as its subject. Literature is the only art that inevitably takes human beings as its subject, which is one reason, presumably, that's it's grouped with the humanities rather than the fine arts. The other reason is that literature does not, like music, involve learning a new language, or, like music and the visual arts, isolatable and teachable techniques (the exception is poetry, which traditionally was grouped with the fine arts).

Literature was originally included in a liberal arts education, alongside the human sciences, because it was considered that a familiarity with the classics of literature was a necessary part of being a cultivated person. In order to become familiar with the classics of literature, however, all one has to do is read them. It has never been clear how one teaches these texts. After all, you don't “teach literature” the way you teach music, or teach painting, or teach dance. Art is represented in the humanities as Art History, but as such, like Religious Studies, it's taught as a special branch of history, looking at a cultural phenomenon on which great importance has traditionally been placed. Literature, on the other hand, is supposed to stand alongside History, as its own liberal art and area of the humanities.

The reason that literature, as an academic subject, has lagged behind the other humanities in becoming a type of (soft) science, is not that English students are especially backward or fuzzy-headed, but that at bottom, students and professors know that what they are there to do is read books. Literature students are not engaged in a practice, as historians are when they study history or philosophers when they practice philosophy. (Philosophy, the other non-scientific humanities field, asks many of the same broad questions about human beings and human life as science, but uses abstract reason rather than empirical analysis and testing to develop answers.) Literature students are reading books. Moreover, because of the status that canonical literature acquires, the humanists within Humanities departments often want to interfere as little as possible in the student's experience of the books, from which students are supposed to get everything they need.

Naturally this has led to a lot of confusion about what English, as an academic subject, is, and what its students and scholars are or should be doing. The confusion that what students are doing is studying literature as a cultural product leads to Cultural Studies and to attracting students to English with courses about popular new books (which can of course be made interesting through postmodern theory: everything can). We have already seen that students cannot be engaged in the study of literary history if English is, as it is taken to be, its own subject; although there is a large component of literary history to what English students do.

Another way in which English students become confused about their subject is that a large component of any university subject is reading books. In other subjects, however, the books present information or arguments about the subject (say, American history, or epistemology, or biology). In English, the books are the subject. Confusion about this difference leads to the idea that what one is studying is the author's ideas, making English into a less rigorous form of philosophy.

There are a couple of reasons why so much radical theory found a home in English departments, from Freud and Marx to feminism, queer theory, and postcolonialism. First, the literary canon has the peculiar feature of coming to stand for cultural authority, quite regardless of whatever ideas the authors represented in it may have had. We often view this as an ex post facto sacralization of literature, but although the phenomenon is most familiar from sacred texts (e.g. The Bible, The Koran), it occurs just as often with secular texts (The Confucian Four Books and Five Classics, The Iliad, Shakespeare). Although any art will acquire a canon, none of the others have anything like the cultural authority of the literary canon: no matter how visual the culture becomes, writing continues to bear authority. At the same time, humanists, understanding that literature is central to the humanities, mistakenly took this to mean that the literary canon exemplifies humanist values. Accordingly, those who are critical of or disappointed in humanism found a logical target in the literary canon, which is also a useful target because of its embodiment of authority.

As Frye recounts in the “Polemical Introduction” to the Anatomy: since neither English students nor English professors are exactly sure what they're supposed to be doing, professors have had to look outside of the subject area for ideas that are teachable, and have found no shortage of them. Since the nature of textual interpretation is such that you can make almost any text into an allegory for almost anything, literature turns out to be a fantastic way of teaching the ideas of the professor's favourite thinker; and as a bonus, you can also symbolically attack authority.

This is how English has gone, or always already went, from being about gaining familiarity with canonical literature as part of becoming a cultivated individual, to being about attacking canonical literature in order to prove you're duly sceptical of bourgeois Western values.

For Frye, rectifying this situation begins with understanding that what the literature student or scholar is doing (as the philosopher does philosophy or the physicist does physics) is not “literature”; literature is what writers do. What literature students and scholars are doing is criticism. It would therefore go a long way toward clarifying things to rename English, English Criticism.

This both is and is not a solution. Students who are avid readers will show up to gain a familiarity with literature; students who are pissed off (with good reason) about Western values or who just like symbolically attacking authority will show up for the other stuff. But I'm not sure who would show up to study English Criticism. We certainly believe that literature is as important as philosophy or history; but do we believe that criticism is?

And yet is makes sense. The philosophy student or professor who reads the work of a canonical or contemporary philosopher, as they will do in their studies, is reading the work of a person engaged in the same activity as they are. When an English student or professor reads the work that they are supposed to be studying, they are obviously not reading the work of a person engaged in the same activity as they are. Yet the literary works, and not criticism, are made central to the study of literature (which is exactly why humanists are always shrieking that they're losing centrality); and, moreover, justify it as a field of study.

For Frye, the real reason that literature is central to the humanities and the liberal arts is that it bridges history and philosophy, with the specificity, the ties to reality and necessity, of the former and the power of generalization and speculation of the latter. In doing so, it creates a hypothetical construct that liberates the reader by freeing her from having to recognize the mere contingency of the natural world (let alone the social world) as necessity. The impulse of imaginative literature is to always propose an alternative; and literature is most important to us of all when that alternative can't be realized, but can only be imagined. Behind these descriptions is presumably some kind of Kantian notion of art as the mental faculties of human beings in free play, liberated from instrumentalism and delighting in themselves.

Frye is all thunder and brimstone in his “Polemical Introduction”; curiously, in his “Tentative Conclusion,” as the title suggests, he has lost his fire, and states more than once that he's not suggesting that literary critics should change what they're doing. Supposing, however, that the study of literature were to become Frye's criticism, and were accordingly to become more scientific. This would doubtless be useful, since if nothing else, the magisterial, densely argued, wildly erudite, elegantly written, and occasionally mad-as-a-hatter Anatomy succeeds in showing what fascinating things can result if we stop reading literature as humanists, for the characters, author, and meaning (or their replacement, the oppressed and the means of oppression), and start studying it methodically and analytically.

This would be a great discipline that would definitely advance human knowledge more than the way we currently study literature does; but would studying literature in this way still do the humanist job that produces some of Frye's greatest flights of rhetoric in the Anatomy? For a man who wants literary criticism to be a science, he sure gets excited about the benefits of the liberal arts.

As an illustration (and only a minor one) of what Frye's kind of criticism can do, the portion of the Anatomy with most relevance to subjects I've written about on this blog is where he distinguishes between the different types of prose fiction (in the Fourth Essay): the novel (by which he means the social novel), the romance, the confession, and Menippean satire or anatomy. In other words, while public criticism currently consists of babbling about whether or not Sheila Heti or Karl Ove Knausgaard is really making art, Frye just throws confession (i.e., literary autobiography) in with “prose fiction,” which makes sense considering that particularly since Modernism, novelists have been blurring the line between fiction and autobiography, and, as Frye points out, the novel and the confession develop together and mutually influence each other. And yet we still can't get over this blurring, because in speaking of book-length prose fiction we have no vocabulary other than “novel” (by which we mean the European social novel) and “experimental novel,” which is every extended work of prose fiction that is not like “the novel,” although it may in fact be trying to be something else, and therefore be neither a novel nor experimental (even though the author himself or herself may make this same mistake).

We pay a huge price for reading literature the humanist way: not only a deeply confused academic discipline, but also an impoverished, ahistorical public criticism. No one took heed of Frye in 1957 and no one is going to do so now, but reading the Anatomy helps to clarify why English is the strange, fraught subject it is, as well as being extraordinarily, if fitfully, illuminating on the subject of literature. Frye manages the seemingly impossible feat of producing a methodical and theoretical work of literary criticism that is nevertheless consistently personal in tone, full of aperาซus and insights; which makes it, after all, the rarest and most valuable form of criticism, not scientific but humanist, a work of literature in itself, though not a work of (in the familiar meaning of the word) fiction – in a word, an anatomy.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Mad Men Finale, Montage of Heck, and American Endings

I was not a fan of Mad Men, and, although “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a hit when I was 16, I was not a fan of Nirvana. When it comes to monster pop culture trends, especially those with the greatest appeal to my demographic, I find myself frequently being the person watching everyone else with bewilderment and going, “Sure, it's okay – but that's it.” Or, “Maybe this really is the greatest thing in the world. But doesn't anybody have a different opinion?”

I am not, however, indifferent to The Cultural Conversation; if everybody's talking about it, and I have even the slightest bit of independent curiosity about it, I probably want to think about it, talk about it, and maybe blog about it too. So not only did I watch the finale of Mad Men last Sunday, and then see Montage of Heck in the theatre on Wednesday, but I've also been thinking about them, and about they mythos of America, since then. I was therefore pleased, though not surprised, to learn that the director of Montage of Heck, Brett Morgan, majored in something called American Mythology at Hampshire College before getting his MFA in film.

Don Draper, American Anti-Heroes, and the Soap Opera Heroine

I started thinking about American mythology in relation to the ending of Mad Men. The use of that iconic Coke commercial reminded me of the skin-crawly things about the show that made me stop watching it after a two-season trial binge (which happened, I think, around the time Season 4 was airing): how it takes advantage of the way that something that would have appeared to the world, at the time, as innocuous or even positive, now seems, with ironic, knowing hindsight, at once naive and sinister. In other words, our relationship to the recent cultural past, in Mad Men, is one of condescension, disapproval, and envy, which means that the show is not about the past and what it may have been like to live in it, but about our relationship to cartoon ideas about the past, which relies on, and fosters, cartoon ideas about the present.

I've heard a lot about Jay Gatsby in relation to Don Draper/Dick Whitman, but the series finale of Mad Men actually called to mind the endings of two other classics of American literature, one highbrow and one low: Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (another work that grapples with the present America's guilty nostalgia for its past). In the final sequences of both novels, an important character dies, while the protagonist, after reaching her lowest point, gets an ambiguous ending. Actually, Don Draper's final story arc even more closely recalls that of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in what ought to be an American classic, the film Now, Voyager, which takes its title from Whitman. In a moment of crisis, Charlotte, like Don, bolts from the city and seeks help and guidance at a retreat for the rich called Cascade. In Portrait, Isabel Archer, after increasing conflict with her husband, the social-climbing fortune hunter Gilbert Osmond, travels from Rome to England to see her dying cousin, Ralph, at his familial estate, the Edenic Gardencourt; after being confronted there by her obsessed stalker, Caspar Goodwood, who argues that Osmond's cruelty justifies them running off together, she decides, for reasons not revealed to the reader, to return to Rome and her awful marriage instead. And in the movie version of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett, after being left by Rhett, realizes that going home to Tara will give her the strength she needs to go on living and think of a way to win him back.

One of the interesting ways in which Mad Men alters the Victorian ending is by killing off the most hated, rather than the most loved, character. The effect of this was not to punish Betty Draper, but to give her some unexpected dignity and redemption, in a muted, sardonic way that kept true to the character's limitations and, thereby, to human limitations in general. The best way to understand American endings is by looking at how the shared plot elements transform in these different works. Don attempts a kind of homecoming when he goes to see Stephanie, but when he tries to help her, she points out that he's the one who seems to need help, which he gets, in the end, from her spiritual retreat; Charlotte goes to Cascade to get help, but discovers that the best way to help herself is to help a girl who reminds her of a younger and more helpless version of herself. Isabel's one sentimental and ethical tie to Rome is her relationship with a helpless young woman, Osmond's daughter Pansy, whom Osmond has sequestered in a convent for her disobedience, and whom Isabel has promised to help. Don has sentimental ties to all three of the women he calls from California – his daughter, Sally, her mother, his childlike ex-wife, Betty, and his workplace protegee, Peggy – and obligations to the first two. Yet Peggy is the only one who wants him back, suggesting that the workplace is his only real home, just as his professional life is the area where he's been successful.

The American hero or heroine is profoundly alone at the end of his or her story, whether isolated by errors and others' wrongs or by their own bad behaviour. Scarlett O'Hara is still, curiously, the only female American anti-hero of iconic stature. Another way in which the Mad Men finale inverts the Victorian ending is that rather than going to a friend at the time of their death, Don travels away from Betty. The already-famous group therapy session hug combines the emotional breakdown, and breakthrough, that occurs for Isabel at Ralph's bedside with Caspar Goodwood's kiss – non-sexual touching being perhaps as difficult for Don as sexual touching is for Isabel.

Don Draper follows in the footsteps of Isabel and Scarlett by not having his future resolved at the end of his story. In this, he differs from all of the other major characters at the end of Mad Men, who are left in a place of contentment or at least acceptance, and who at least believe that they understand their future: Betty will die, reconciled with her daughter to the best of their ability; Sally will take care of her mother, which is enough to think about for the moment; Roger is newly married; Pete is reunited with his wife; Peggy is in a new relationship and settled in at her new workplace; Joan has started a business. He also differs from iconic American male protagonists, like Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane, who are dead before the narratives that tell their stories begin – or even his anti-hero peer, Walter White.

We don't know why Isabel chooses to go back to Rome and her marriage, but it's hard not to interpret the ending pessimistically: that she may be able to help Pansy somehow, and that the idea of being Caspar Goodwood's mistress doesn't appeal to her, don't seem like enough to constitute a bright future for her. The future looks somewhat brighter for Scarlett, although obviously not as bright as it would have been if Rhett hadn't just left her. At the end of Gone With the Wind, we don't know what's going to happen to Scarlett; at the end of Portrait, we not only don't know what's going to happen to Isabel, we don't know what has happened to Isabel: why she made the choice to return to Rome. And at the end of Mad Men, we have to infer what has narratively happened to Don from the juxtaposition of the image of Don meditating with the Coke commercial, without knowing thematically what it means.

The final image of Don Draper, meditating and wearing an enigmatic smile, has resonances with the famous final images of King Vidor's weepie Stella Dallas, starring Barbara Stanwyck, and Rouben Mamoulian's Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo. Both women have lost seemingly everything important to them and that defines them (a throne and her lover, in Garbo's case; a marriage and her daughter, in Stanwyck's). (What does it mean that I keep thinking of narratives with female protagonists in relation to Don Draper – supposedly a symbol of turn-of-the-millennium masculinity? Just that the genre of Mad Men, unlike Breaking Bad, is soap opera?) Garbo, her masklike face a careful blank (Mamoulian wanted the audience to read the emotions they wanted to see into it), looks toward the future with stoicism, grimly “going forward” in Don Draper, and corporate capitalist, fashion; Stella Dallas, in contrast, smiles, finding a source of joy unknown to us as she strides alone into a future that we equally don't know. 





From what I've heard and read about the internet reaction to the finale moments of Mad Men, a lot of viewers seem to think that the ending is saying, in a straightforwardly cynical way, that Don's smile seems to signify an epiphany, even enlightenment, but turns out to “really” be an idea for how to commodify his experience of connectedness and wholeness in the form of an ad; using our desperate thirst for higher meaning, “the real thing,” to sell Coke – and America, globalization, and capitalism – to the globe. That's the reductive interpretation, comparable to saying that Isabel goes back to Osmond because there's a conservative part of her that won't allow her to divorce, even if she's revolted by the idea of a sham marriage. There's also the interpretation that no enlightenment, however sincere, is entirely pure, at least none achievable by ordinary people; and at the same time, no really powerful popular image can be entirely cynical, even if its naivety benefits evil.

But isn't that America – or its mythology? I think Henry James would think so. Isabel Archer makes a mistake when she makes the most important choice of her life because, in her naivety, she believes she is free to choose, as the Americans (and aspiring Americans) who chose Coke believed they were free to choose.

The ending of Mad Men also poses the question, without giving us the answer: has Don changed in some way during the course of the show, or, in turning his epiphany, and the entire 60s revolution, into his most powerful image of desire yet, is he the same – only more? Portrait raises this question even more directly by making Isabel make the same disastrous choice again, but here Don really belongs in the company of fellow pop American icon Scarlett O'Hara, who is virtually incapable of change, to the secret pleasure of the reader or viewer, who finds her exciting, and a suitable wish-fulfilment identification figure, because of her flaws. Don is somewhat unique, however, in that he finds some reason to go on that is not external to him (as Charlotte certainly has a reason in Tina, her quasi-adopted daughter, and Isabel perhaps to some extent in Pansy), and that is not simply a reason to survive (like Stella Dallas's, in her loneliness and poverty), but to be great, and maybe joyous. And that's his work, meaning both his creative ability and his professional success. In this he most closely resembles (David O. Selznick's) Scarlett again, because although winning Rhett back may give her a project (like working on Coke), it's Tara that gives her the strength to undertake it, and Tara is nothing more than a symbol of renewal (Mother Earth, continuity): not Coke, but Om.

Montage of a Feminist-Postmodern-Punk Marriage

Kurt Cobain is a very different kind of American icon from Don Draper; and yet, as Montage of Heck also shows, maybe not so different. Feeling abandoned and unloved by his divorced, working-class parents as a teenager, Cobain sought to escape from himself in the very American fashion of reinventing himself as a rock star. Unlike Don, however, Cobain couldn't wholeheartedly embrace the American dream in all of its naive sincerity and absolute inauthenticity. He wanted a happy, united family, and wanted to rebel against it; he wanted to be a world-conquering rock star, and wanted to be a civilization-smashing iconoclast; he loathed conformity and craved acceptance.

At the birth of rock and roll, there was no conflict between being a world-famous billionaire and being a great rock musician. But Cobain belonged to a post-Don Draper generation that had seen everything that looked like the real thing become commodified, including every attempt to rebel against the process. He knew that there was no way to matter on a large scale except by conforming, or at least spawning conformity, and becoming a corporate tool. Cobain stood out not just in being the charismatic zeitgeist vehicle that brought punk into the mainstream, but by being willing to die – not by hedonistic accident, but by shotgun to the head – to establish his authenticity. In that, he was more Isabel Archerish even than Don Draper: in one interpretation that I've always liked, Isabel self-destructively goes back to her husband so that the marriage she was tricked into will be her own choice after all; and Cobain, it seems, killed himself to get back control over a narrative that was being determined by impersonal cultural forces.

Courtney Love's relationship to the mainstream and success is every bit as fucked-up as Cobain's, but very different, too. Her desire for success and acceptance has always been absolutely naked, and for that reason, the cool kids of punk (like Kim Gordon), who never questioned their punk ethos, found and find her embarrassing and disturbing; and yet she's more punk rock than they'll ever be, louder, angrier, rawer, more jagged, absolutely incapable of being assimilated into the mainstream. Or so it seems, but she, too, has engaged in an ambivalent dance with success. There was a moment in the late 90s, when, riding the wave of mainstream success that Nirvana had made possible for alternative acts, she released a perfect pop-rock album with Hole in Celebrity Skin; got the plastic surgery just right; successfully launched a Hollywood acting career; and was dating a nice, stable, talented Hollywood actor. Even Camille Paglia approved. As Love has said many times since, she could have fulfilled her dream, then, of being Hollywood Courtney. Did her demons reassert themselves at that point, or the realization that her dream contained a large component of bullshit? Punk Courtney and Hollywood Courtney are each as real as the other – like Professor Kelp and Buddy Love. And that internal tension is what makes Courtney Love (like Jerry Lewis) such a great American star. Whereas Cobain seemed to be unable to live with that tension and conflict, Love made it the subject of her art, and her life into her art.

To see Love and Cobain together in their home videos in Montage of Heck is to see Gen X allegorized in the form of a famous, fucked-up couple who are like inversions of each other. They've got the kind of playful, solipsistic soulmate bond that, in rock stars in their mid-20s, you normally only see between the creative duo in a band: the Lennon and McCartneys, Morrissey and Marrs, Doherty and Barats. Or yes, okay, the Lennon and Onos, which is one of the reasons Ono attracted such hatred: because finding a bond with a fellow artist within a feminist heterosexual marriage precludes the need for the homosocial bond that's the traditional basis of culture. And that fucks up our pop culture. You don't just want the music of The Beatles: you want the Beatles romping together. Morrissey and Marr flirting with each other. Doherty and Barat practically having sex on stage together.

The clips chosen for the documentary give the impression that Love and Cobain, in a way that's very 90s postmodern, were incessantly meta about their relationship and the way it was being mythologized by the public, as interpreted by the media. They were also, in a way that also strikes me as very 90s, very my generation, meta about their gender roles in relation to themselves and to their relationship. This did not produce harmony, however, but rather struggle within oneself and with each other. Cobain despises masculinity as traditionally conceived, but sometimes seems to struggle with conventional attitudes (“Mommy's loud,” he complains to the infant Frances at one point; at another, he pretends to punch Love in the arm and refers to his action as “wife beating,” but he's clearly actually frustrated with her); Love is openly competitive and effortlessly assertive, but has a conflicted attitude toward femininity (she complains about women being mean to her and warns Kurt about the woman who are going to try to get their claws in him on tour). (As I learned from rewatching my wedding video at the time of my divorce, there's nothing like video to capture the small tensions and aggressions that constantly flare up between friends, acquaintances, and members of a couple.)

I found myself recognizing myself in Love, in terms of our relationship to feminism, again and again. Growing up in the 80s and early 90s, one was constantly bombarded by the media (which in those days was TV and magazine articles) with the message that men considered women inferior and didn't like you to be intelligent or angry; that men would ignore women when they spoke, or not take you seriously; and that being female meant to be threatened by objectification, sexual harassment, and rape. As a person with a healthy ego and a pretty elastic relationship to gender (learned from David Bowie – a Cobain favourite), I accordingly cultivated a persona of maximum force and directness. There were limits to this, since by nature I'm a quiet, introspective, meek person who likes to read and write and be left alone. And it was mostly brought to bear in relationships and intellectual engagement with men, and in the university classroom, where I usually dominated discussion; and in the street when having to walk through bad neighborhoods at night. In workplace contexts, on the other hand, it tended to work against me until I figured out what I was doing wrong: the constant expression of frustration just reads as entitlement in situations that call for high levels of patience or cooperation.

Love's context was punk rock, and for her that didn't mean cool, as it did for Kim Gordon, since cool was far beyond her, but the ability to express your aggression. And not only onstage, but to some extent in your personal interactions. There's a scene where she and Cobain are getting ready in the bathroom, their backs to each other, each apparently facing a mirror, where Love, rambling on with her trademark logomania on her usual topic of her perception by others, expresses her concern that she will become the most hated woman in America. Cobain pipes up, muttering, “You're already the most hated woman in America,” to which Love responds instantly by halting in mid-hair-tease and asking, an edge in her voice, “What?”, daring him to repeat himself. I smiled at that point, because I have done that so many times in conversations with men – especially in my 20s, as Love is here. He rephrases himself, placatingly, “You and Roseanne Barr are tied for the most hated woman in America,” and they move on. (Hyper-aware of their mythology, both Cobain and Love like to consider themselves, and each other, in relation to other pop culture figures of the present and the past. Cobain seems especially fixated on Axl Rose as his antithetical doppelganger.)

What's at stake in that exchange? Love is momentarily in denial about how much the public hates her, and doesn't want to hear the truth just then, from him; she's also sensitive to the possibility that by repeating the sentiment, he's supporting it. She has a category of things that men are not allowed to say to her and ways that they are not allowed to speak to her without challenge. In later footage, family and friends sing “Happy Birthday” to Frances on her first birthday, which seems like a joyous occasion until, the moment the song ends, Cobain exits the frame and Love shrieks “KURT DON'T LEAVE!” Was he only able to stick around for the length of the song before he had to get high? In any case, he's shirking his parental duties, and Love won't put up with it, telling him that she won't open Frances's present until he gets back there.

As men and women who'd grown up exposed to second-wave feminism sloughed off their traditional gender roles, it didn't produce equality so much as a new, topsy-turvy imbalance: the spectacle of an openly aggressive woman bossing around a small, quiet man. And yet the power imbalance in the public sphere remained the same, with the man having the more successful career. Which means the dynamic is less something new than the Macbeths archetype. Love is such an important figure not because she had the most respected career of a woman in rock (that would be PJ Harvey, who, unlike Love, has never inspired me to buy one of her albums, because I don't actually care about rock), and not because she and Cobain had a celebrity “power marriage,” which they didn't entirely (if you want celebrity marriages where the members of the couple have equal power, there have always been those, from Liz and Dick to Brad and Angelina), but because, again, she exhibited the ambivalence of ambitious women who were trying to achieve equality with men. Love wasn't content with being separate but equal: unlike Liz Taylor, Yoko Ono, Angelina Jolie, or Beyonce, she evidently considered herself to be in direct competition with her husband for his job of being the greatest rock and roll star in the world. At the same time, because that role wasn't as easily available to her as it was to a man, she was tempted to get power the way women have traditionally had to do it: through association with her husband. That is where feminism was at in the early 90s (see also the Clintons).

A curious way in which we mythologize famous couples, when their personalities or narrative fit the archetype, is by demonizing one of the members. Surprisingly, it's not always the woman who's demonized. When a woman is taken up as a cult figure, often by feminism, like Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Bowles, or Sylvia Plath, the husband may be demonized, suspected of somehow contributing to his wife's struggles with mental illness. On a larger scale, there's Princess Diana, victimized by her husband and the shadowy machinations of the Royal Family; or the conspiracy theories about Kennedy involvement in the death of Marilyn Monroe. The woman-abuser, wife-murderer, or gaslighter is one gendered Gothic narrative we have at our disposal; its counterpart is the emasculating bitch-wife, so iconic in Anglo-American culture that you can just call her The Yoko, although more recently she's been popping up in cult TV focused on male protagonists through which writers, and apparently viewers as well, work out their relationship to traditional masculinity. That is where feminism, which perhaps should now call “gender relations” (since we're well into getting meta about masculinity in pop culture), is at in the mid-2010s.

The Cobains weren't The Osbournes, in part because Love did pursue her own career rather than being part of her husband's, even as his “boss.” Love and Cobain also come across in the videos as far too intelligent, funny, and self-aware to play the parts of termagant and clueless “schlub” husband. On the other hand, who knows what they would have been like by the early 2000s, if Cobain and their marriage had survived. Is it better to die young, with integrity and dignity, or to get a reality TV show and become an unfathomably rich joke, but evidently enjoy your family life? Love has continued to cling to punk dignity, refusing to take the easy way and become the reality TV star she was obviously meant to be, even though her popularity as a musician didn't survive the 90s. But is it worth it, in a world in which no bit of real reality can survive the touch of commerce or media, and in which “reality” is a TV genre that means “gawking at freaks”?

Game of Thrones and the Obligations of Writers of Fictional Violence

Besides the Mad Man finale, the other thing that happened in TV – which makes up about 85% of The Cultural Conversation in any given week (with 10% devoted to Stuff That Happened on the Internet and 5% to news stories involving celebrities) – was, of course, the latest Game of Thrones rape scene. I don't follow GOT, because I can't imagine anything worse than its combination of static talking heads scenes, grim, grisly, sexualized violence, and tits. However, as with my other two subjects for this week, that won't stop me from weighing in. I've only got three more posts to go after this; I'm giving up this blog to focus on writing a novel after I turn 40 at the end of August. One is going to be on Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, which I've almost finished re-reading; one on my feelings about feminism (not to be confused with my feelings about gender equality); and a final one on the forms my reading has taken in my 39th year.

This subject makes a good introduction to some of the issues I'll be talking about in the feminism post. Having listened to podcasters on the subject and read several articles on the internet, I want to weigh in from a perspective that I haven't heard represented: a woman who's written in the same genre as Game of Thrones. I'm not talking about sword and sorcery fantasy, although I've seen articles defending the scene based on Martin's deconstruction of the “heroics” of the genre, or whatever. (That shows a bit of a short view of literary history, since the preeminent canonical fantasy epic, The Faerie Queene, is full of the rape and torture of women – for which see Fiedler and Paglia.) No, the genre I'm talking about is pulp, the pop culture continuation of medieval romance (in the sense of “fantasy”). It's the basic underlying genre of pretty much all popular novels, TV drama, superhero comics, daytime soaps, and such movie genres as film noir and horror, and it's characterized by a fascination with sex, violence, and their intermingling, as well as such moods, emotions, or states as “suffering” and “angst.” Thanks to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, we have come to refer to its pessimism (a lowbrow form of the sublime of tragedy) using terms like “comic book darkness,” a mood that strongly informs cult TV.

I myself was writing a fan fiction soap opera parody, but it was in the mode of pulp, which is exactly the same whether it's coming from the imagination of TV, novel, or internet writers. What I found is that following my Muse where it took me while writing a sexually explicit soap opera meant conjuring up a series of increasingly horrible scenarios of intimate abuse, violence, or exploitation. None of which, incidentally, were meant to be titillating, although a lot of other scenes in the story were. Notably, doing really horrible things to the people closest to you is also the basis of Greek tragedy, and in the case of Oedipus Rex, the most iconic of all the Greek tragedies, the crime is sexual; which, as an educated sort of person, I was thinking about in writing my silly, but dark, soap parody.

One of the arguments that critics of the GOT scene have made is that if you're going to put rape in a story, you should treat it sensitively and responsibly and not just use it exploitatively, for shock value. To which the counter response has been that the show is full of horrible violence perpetrated against multiple characters, male and female – beheading, stabbing, torture, castration. So why should this topic receive special treatment? And if you're going to get upset about this fictional act, why not get upset about all of the others?

Now, I think that a writer is aware of when they are writing something primarily to entertain, whatever the work's actual status as a work of art (as if that's something that's objective and unchanging across all contexts). Writing to entertain doesn't preclude writing to challenge, including writing with the hope that your audience will be shocked, upset, and disturbed. But the sensitive and thoughtful writer who is writing to entertain will pause before using a subject that's a real-life problem, and highly emotional for many people, as fodder for their project of shocking and disturbing in a way that entertains. Such a writer will want to treat those subjects in a way that, without ceasing to be shocking and entertaining, is thoughtful and sensitive, and has consequences for the characters.

So, for example, the penultimate shock-scene in my story was a climactic act of intimate partner violence within a relationship between two men that had been characterized by quasi-consensual rough sex. The result for the characters was that the victim ended the relationship, which was never even temporarily resumed, despite the continued existence of strong feelings. The final shock scene was an act of rape perpetrated on a woman by a man (the worst villain in the story, a sadistic madman), which I used to illustrate that acquaintance rape doesn't have to be violent and can even involve incidental arousal. Subsequent chapters dealt with her emotional healing, confusion, and anger, without making her final story arc entirely about her rape. (A complex and ambiguous character, like every character in the story except, for the most part, the hero and the rapist-villain, she was something of a stalker and sociopath, so her arc had to deal with those things too.)

The question is how I knew to treat intimate partner violence and rape differently from other kinds of violence, in a story that features such acts of violence as: attempted murder of a baby (twice); two murders (one extremely gruesome) and two notable accidental deaths; a good old melodrama shove down a staircase; and arson (twice). And those are just the parts I plotted. (I had two collaborators, and one of them was as “dark” as I was; the other one mainly ran around hooking characters up.) And the answer is that feminism has raised awareness of, and demanded sensitivity toward, those types of violence.

All of which means that I agree with both sides: I do think that writers should treat sensitive subjects with sensitivity; yet I also think that we should use furors like this as an opportunity to ask why only certain representations of violence deserve sensitive treatment, and usually only those in which female characters are the victims; while elsewhere, the sadism of the writer and viewer can run rampant. We should ask ourselves why so much of our entertainment (and, taking the long historical view, our art) is so violent, and whether we should embrace the reign of the unconscious in fiction or choose less violent fictions.

The reaction of self-declared feminist critic Kate Kulzick on The Televerse, one of my favourite podcasts (I listen to it even though I don't watch 95% of the shows they cover and have never watched 80% of them), is instructive of the weird compartmentalization going on with this topic, because after expressing her anger at and disappointment with the GOT scene, she went on to express excitement over David Lynch's return to the Twin Peaks revival. I love David Lynch and the first season of Twin Peaks, but if ever there were a show that used violence against women for no purpose except shock value, that was it. I think particularly of the scene in which the villainous thug Leo advances on his kneeling and cowering wife while swinging a bar of soap in a sock, which was the most shocking thing I'd ever seen on TV as a 15-year-old. (As a superhero comics reader, I'd seen more violent images, including a couple of murders of men that stayed with me for the rest of my life.) Nor was that scene ever meaningfully followed up on. And the horrendously violent scene in which Laura Palmer's murderer is revealed in Season 2 was so gratuitous, disgusting, and silly that I not only never wanted to see Twin Peaks again – I never wanted to see anything by David Lynch again. (He didn't fully regain my trust until Mulholland Dr, a decade later.)

Lynch is a writer-director who knowingly trades in shock imagery, yet one seldom gets the sense that Lynch's intention is to entertain (except in the episodes of surreal humour that drain off some of the constant dread). At its best, such “meta” violence has the result of making the audience pause and question our relationship to violence, imaginative and real, while violence in entertainment has the precise opposite effect; yet it shouldn't be surprising that offence and rage is one possible reaction to such deliberately crafted extreme imagery. Since violence is a staple of entertainment, as it is of life and the imagination, I would in fact, as a viewer/fan, like to see more examples of it being treated as a thing with consequences in fiction, simply because it's an opportunity to deepen the characters and world.

However, violence doesn't show up in writing because writers want to portray “real” issues in sensitive ways, but because the imagination is violent, and a huge amount of what art (not only narrative but also visual) and entertainment does is imagine scenarios of violence and suffering, inspiring pity and fear. (I have now, in case you didn't notice, switched to using “art” in the broader, more inclusive sense of all cultural artifacts with which a significant segment of the public has strong engagement.) We should have strong reactions to these images that permeate our culture, and those reactions are bound to be emotional and confused, because the life/art boundary is confusing, or art couldn't inspire these reactions, or in other words, be art. But I think it's the duty of critics and feminists (and I count myself as both) to not just express emotion and have reactions, but also be critical about our reactions, and get clear about what is confusing and what is going to remain confused.

And let's also keep in mind that internet outrage, a type of mob emotion, is every bit as base a source of pleasure as an exploitative graphic scene. To give a foretaste of the Northrop Frye post (can you wait??), here's one of many great sentences from Anatomy of Criticism: "At play [e.g., in art or sports], mob emotions are boiled in an open pot, so to speak; in the lynching mob they are in a sealed furnace of what Blake would call moral virtue." The internet is somewhere between play and a lynching mob. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

59 Thoughts on Narrative and Meaning

One. The elements: metanarrative (e.g. the various world religions; capitalism; progressivism); cultural narrative (e.g., I will be happy if I become a mother; I will make a good living if I work hard and get a good education); archetypal narrative (e.g. the protagonist becomes a scapegoat, or undergoes something resembling death and resurrection); plot (a series of causally linked events in which the protagonist either suffers a terrible fate or faces and overcomes conflict). 

Two. Postmodern resistance to metanarratives, because they have been shown to be untrue – either because they made predictions that have proved false (e.g., the revolution of the proletariat), or because awareness of other cultures' metanarratives makes it impossible to both be tolerant and continue to assert the exclusive truth of your own. 

Three. We can either continue to cling to metanarratives, with an increasing sense of anxiety, since the existence of others is a threat to our beliefs; or we can do without them. A world without a metanarrative is one in which what happens is up to us. 

Four. I don't know what it's like to adhere to a religion, or to adhere religiously to a particular thinker or system of thought – Marxist, Freudian, feminist. I see spiritual traditions as depositories of wisdom, myth, ethics, symbols, metaphors, therapeutic techniques, and techniques for accessing different levels of consciousness. They combine philosophy, psychology, myth, and ritual. They can be a source of ethical energy and they can be a source of violence (they're hardly the only source of either). I don't see how any religious person can believe their tradition is right while also respecting the beliefs of others and the position of the atheist; or how they can have faith without believing that their tradition is right. The only way this could work is if you think that all religions have tried to apprehend the transcendent and the best way to do so is not through your own tradition but through all traditions. That makes sense logically but may not give believers what they are getting psychologically from believing in their tradition.

Five. When I was a teenager I liked the existentialist idea that there was no God, and therefore no objective ethics, so I could choose how to live my life based on what I, personally, valued. Later (after reading about Wittgenstein's late philosophy?) I realized that this made no sense: I can choose to live according to values that aren't the culturally dominant ones, but I can't choose what I value. There are a finite number of things that human beings are capable of valuing; many of them conflict with each other; and at any given moment, one may be in ascendance in the culture while conflicting ones appear as minor strains. So, for example, feminism (the liberation of women, the equality of women) has always been around as an idea, but until the idea of human rights became culturally ascendant, it could not affect the lives of women on a large scale.

Six. Two meanings of meaning: signification and significance (i.e., value). They come together in the idea of moral intelligibility: when bad things happen to good people, or good things happen to bad people, or the punishment outweighs the crime, we feel that the situation is morally unintelligible, and begin to wonder if our lives are meaningless. In fact it's so important to us that the world be morally intelligible that we find it almost impossible to escape from the notion that might is right.

Seven. The situation we desire is good things happening to good people. That would be a world that was intelligible, and meaningful, to human beings. Accordingly, suffering is meaningless – unintelligible and without value – unless we can find some value, and therefore meaning, in it. And after all, it's not that there is a fact of the matter: it's all interpretation. It's not quite that there's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so: true, but human beings can't make themselves think that suffering is, in itself, good. However, you can interpret an event as completely senseless (say, if you want to emphasize the human cost of a disaster, disease, or epidemic) or you can find some good that has come out of it. You can think of the latter case as God setting you an interpretive challenge. (See Donne's Devotions.)

Eight. As Northrop Frye points out, the protagonist of literature descends in status through the centuries: from gods to heroes to kings to ordinary people to ordinary people in deterministic conditions. Only once the protagonist is an ordinary person do we think that the job of literature is to represent reality, and by “reality” we mean the quotidian.

Nine. However, even during this phase, plot requires exciting events to befall the protagonist. A typical plot of the Victorian novel is a fairy tale-like wish fulfillment fantasy in which the low-born hero or heroine rises in social status through marriage or the inheritance of a fortune. Sometimes this fantasy is attached to a nightmare of guilt (e.g. Jane Eyre, Great Expectations), perhaps acknowledging the human cost of anyone rising. Sometimes it turns into a nightmare, as in the fortune hunter plot, which can be played for Gothic thrills (The Woman in White) or for realism (The Portrait of a Lady). Here, “realism” means the pleasure principle giving way to the reality principle: reality turns out to be more complicated, and more full of compromise, than the naive, optimistic protagonist, so full of belief in her own power and judgement, imagined. (This is a frequent theme of the 19th century novel, differently realized in Middlemarch, and differently again in Pere Goriot.)

Ten. Modernism gets rid of plot because the quotidian is, by definition, uneventful. The 19th century novel purported to represent reality, but it turns out that just meant that (to use Frye's analysis) the hero had no more or less power over the situation than the reader would.

Eleven. Literature may embody cultural narratives, or it may challenge them.

Twelve. Just because a work of literature challenges a cultural narrative doesn't mean that it doesn't have a plot. An American Tragedy challenges the American cultural narrative of equality based on social mobility, but it very much has a plot: a boy sets out to make his fortune and gets close to attaining the fortune and its erotic embodiment in the upper-class woman who goes with it; but due to contingencies, he ends up impregnating a lower-class woman who'll keep him tied to a life of poverty and low status; tragedy ensues with her murder and his execution, although technically they're both the victims of the cultural narrative. This is double realism: not only does the pleasure principle give way to the reality principle, but a false cultural narrative gives way to reality.

Thirteen. Note that plot isn't something impossible or even implausible. The plot of An American Tragedy is so effective because it's completely plausible (in contrast to, say, the plots of Great Expectations or Jane Eyre); in fact, Dreiser based it on a real criminal case. Modernism doesn't reject plot because it's implausible (although particular Modernists may have used that rationale), but because Modernism restricts itself to the quotidian. Different notions of realism: the protagonist who is typical of his society in the sense of embodying its contradictions vs. the protagonist who is a typical member of his society in that his life is uneventful.

Fourteen. The literature that we still study, especially the 19th and early 20th century novel, normally challenges cultural narratives; or if the wish fulfillment fantasy triumphs, as it does at the end of Pride and Prejudice, cultural narratives have at least been severely interrogated. The novel of this period is strongly engaged with reality (here meaning: the world outside the work of literature) and therefore with cultural narratives. Romance and Romanticism, in contrast, are involved respectively with the world of legend and with subjective states; Modernism is also, in its own way, more interested in subjectivity than in social reality.

Fifteen. The Gothic novel is, often, the nightmare version of the wish fulfillment fantasy of marrying up in class: instead of a poor woman happily marrying a rich man, a rich woman is victimized by a man who purports to be able to fulfill her fantasies. When played for thrills, this isn't a matter of the pleasure principle giving way to the reality principle but of pity and fear being converted into pleasure. The underlying archetype of the woman sexually menaced by monsters goes back to romance and reappears in the slasher film; the fortune hunter's female counterpart is the femme fatale, originally the sorceress of romance who distracts the hero from his quest. Both are fantasies/nightmares of sexuality destroying identity.

Sixteen. Let's hypothesize, then, that works of literature typically do not reinforce cultural narratives, but rather challenge them. Why, then, do we fear that works of literature tell us lies about reality? Why Don Quixote and Madame Bovary?

Seventeen. In Don Quixote, comedy is generated by the clash between levels of decorum: put a high mimetic hero in a low mimetic world and see what happens. The world in which Don Quixote moves is no truer-to-life than the world in which he thinks he moves, except that it has no magic in it – but only as a matter of literary decorum. But while only an insane person would take romances to be true, Emma Bovary, a reader of romances in their modern, erotic sense, is much closer to us: she has been led to believe by media focused on wish-fulfillment that she will find fulfillment in consumerism and a great love. In the first place, they're not easy to come by: she can only indulge in consumerism by going into debt, and her lovers can't live up to her expectations. And neither consumerism nor passion is fulfilling, either. As much as Clyde Griffiths, she's the victim of cultural narratives, although in her case they come to her through novels.

Eighteen. It was often thought – and we can see it especially in Don Quixote and Austen's Northanger Abbey – that novels dealing with the fantastic could make avid fans lose touch with reality. In the case of Emma Bovary, they simply set her up for disappointment. The quotidian has nothing in it that can fulfill her desire for big, exciting meaning; like Anna Karenina, she rejects Levin's solution of finding meaning in the small and daily.

Nineteen. Sheila Heti is Emma Bovary in reverse: she claims that life is much more interesting than a novel. Where might this impression come from? Novels only know how to tell a few stories: there's tragedy and “realism,” in which the reality principle triumphs; comedy and romance, in which wish fulfilment triumphs; and melodrama, in which fantasy becomes nightmare and nightmare becomes a source of pleasure. These stories speak to longstanding human longings and fears, but they don't much resemble the average reader's life. The fact that they are things that you want to happen to you or fear happening to you shows that they are not what is happening to you. Now in our late, “meta” Western culture, which has produced not only The Anatomy of Criticism but TV Tropes, we already know all of these stories. Life, in contrast, by the very contingency that makes it so precarious a source of meaning, offers surprise (as in Heti's conversations with strangers in How Should a Person Be?).

Twenty. Contingency: when you write, you learn to take out anything that doesn't matter to the plot, or the description of “one complete action,” as Aristotle put it. If you want to make your story more life-like, you reintroduce a little contingency.

Twenty-one. We've learned that a realist novel can challenge cultural narratives and still have a (plausible) plot. It's also possible to have a nihilistic narrative with a plot. Plot=/=meaning. Film noir shows couples who are driven by lust and greed and who still can't get ahead even after they've committed a crime for that purpose. Their failure can be read as evildoing being punished, but the tone of the genre makes it seem more like meaning can be found neither in human nobility nor in success. These are human beings in conditions of less power or freedom than the viewer, the pulp counterpart to a certain strain of Modernism (e.g. Kafka). Noir couples are enslaved by their passions and by a deterministic universe that is out to get them.

Twenty-two. One of the things I appreciated about Roberto Bolano's 2666 was that by being plotless in the sense that nothing was resolved and it wasn't clear what, if anything, the various protagonists learned from their activities, and by refraining, through this plotlessness, from even the suggestion of authorial commentary, it retained the essential mystery of its subjects: mass sexual violence; the legacy of European fascism; and the hope that we (although an increasingly small number of us) place in the figure of the writer. Anything that could be said about them, any attempt to draw meaning from them – even by pointing, with an owlish solemnity (as Frye would put it), to their lack of meaning – would be hopelessly trite.

Twenty-three. At the same time, 2666 provides the illicit thrill of runaway contingency. In literature, contingency is a daring hint of meaninglessness that also points to a fullness of meaning. If you have a character talk about things that are inessential to the plot (as Shakespeare sometimes does), on the one hand, it's meaningless: the reader or audience member's trained brain will try to find some way to relate it to the plot, and fail. On the other hand, it hints that this character is more than a plot function: he has his own life, his own subjectivity, of which we only get a glimpse. He could be the protagonist of another story. 2666 is nothing but a series of such digressions, and can only work within a context of expectation in which the reader imagines that eventually most of this, or some of it, will be tied together. That it is not suggests that the stories continue off the page, and that nothing less than a full description of every quotidian detail of every character's life and psychological quirks will adequately represent that life. (Compare the biographies of Nazi Literature in the Americas, which are compressed versions of such lives.)

Twenty-four. Life is contingent, literature is not. Normatively, in literature every event has meaning, i.e., significance. In literature, if a character brushes their teeth, there's a point to it: it's important to the plot; or it's a character point (this character is hygienic); or it's for mood (showing the character going through their daily routine before the plot gets going). In life, if you brush your teeth, the only point is to get your teeth clean.

Twenty-five. Say it's a misunderstanding of literature to think that it ought to be true-to-life, whether we think that it's more interesting or less interesting than life. What about other, apparently truth-telling narrative forms, like history or memoirs?

Twenty-six. The audience for memoir wants the story to be story-like, i.e., “a good story,” and also wants it to be true. These are contradictory demands, and lead to scandals over partly or entirely falsified memoirs, as well as “literary memoirs” and “novels from life” that purport to be part-true and part-fictional, with which is which unknown to the reader. The roman a clef has always been this, but its moral flaw was to pass itself off as fiction (when really there was no invention involved – for shame!), whereas the new memoir's moral flaw is to pass itself off as fact (when really there was invention involved – for shame!).

Twenty-seven. One sub-genre of the new memoir, the ordinary-person memoir, zeroes in on “the story you have to tell.” The idea being that even ordinary people – people who are not writers and not celebrities – have had at least one thing happen to them that makes a good story. But what makes a good story? Maybe it's inspirational (how I got off drugs; how I traveled the world and found meaning; how I traveled the world and got off drugs; how I live with an illness; how I survived abuse). Maybe it takes you inside a world that you would never come in contact with otherwise (drug addiction, mental illness, prison). Maybe it tells you about a discrete unusual experience – like what trying to get a book published is really like. “Really like” is key: the reader believes that by reading the memoir they bypass cultural narratives and fictional representations.

Twenty-eight. Obviously, then, the new memoir has sub-genres, and leads aspiring memoirists to try to squeeze their “true stories” into those sub-genres.

Twenty-nine. A favourite memoir sub-genre of writers is the loved one's death (e.g. The Year of Magical Thinking). Clearly in this case writing may serve a therapeutic purpose; and it may also be hoped that reading it will. The subject also presents a challenge to the writer: to extract maximum meaning from maximum meaninglessness. “Meaning” here means profundity, which may be achieved through focusing on the absence of meaning – on the absolute contingency of events combined with their relentless horror. It is important, here, that the writer doesn't embellish; that the writer tells us what death, one of the favourite subjects of both literature and religion, is really like.

Thirty. The writing of an autobiography often starts at a certain point in a person's life – generally, when they feel that they've reached a stable point, however temporary, at the end of a journey. The autobiography then tells the story of how they got to where they are: how the young man became an artist; how Augustine became a Christian. It is to view one's life through a particular filter, not to attempt to look at it, or recount it, without any filter.

Thirty-one. A noir protagonist also looks back, but from a point of desperation – maybe even death (as in Sunset Boulevard).

Thirty-two. Our lives have meaning, and narratives have meaning, but our lives are not narratives, and therefore do not have meaning in the same way that a narrative does. The confusion arises because we are so used to putting our lives into narrative form or applying narratives to our lives – whether metanarratives, or cultural narratives, or the stories we tell ourselves every day about why we do things and why things happen to us.

Thirty-three. Generally speaking, we feel that our lives have meaning if they're going well – which is why the ending of a comedy doesn't raise questions about meaning. There are limitations to this: if your life is going too well, you might feel spiritually empty, or guilty, or bored, or useless. For most people most of the time, though, questions of meaning – of moral intelligibility – are raised when a crisis occurs (death, illness, job loss). Or if you have suffered your whole life, you might ask questions not only about the meaning of your life but about whether life has meaning at all.

Thirty-four. The libidinous protagonist, who is after social status, money, and a wife who represents these things, or a wealthy or respectable husband, doesn't exist anymore. Romance is the genre in ascendance, at the movie theatre and among readers, but no longer as a depository of shared cultural lore – founding myths and quasi-historical heroes. Fantasy is now not even subjectivized, as in Romanticism, but individualized, and, like the cult of celebrity, provides maybe the same quality of spiritual experience that you can get from the cult of the saints. On quality TV, white male protagonists like Don Draper and Walter White grapple with their masculinity, privilege, and entitlement, and touch tragic status by creating Dad fixation in the audience.

Thirty-five. Then again, America never had the kind of comedy in which the hero or heroine sought social status through marriage. That plot appeared in the early 20th century novel – in An American Tragedy and Alice Adams, for instance. But in the classical Hollywood romantic comedy, hero and heroine act like equals, despite their genders, and despite whatever difference in social status there may be. If they do marry above their class, which isn't that often, that wish-fulfillment isn't the point of the story; the wish-fulfillment involves their relationship's playful enactment of democratic ideals. (American film comedy, which is now largely comedian-comedy, is still the same thing, but with two men instead of a man and a woman. The romantic comedy plot has been relegated to the “chick flick,” and is about the female protagonist's relationship with romance, or sometimes shopping, not with a man.)

Thirty-six. Nor, it seems, can inequality in America today be represented by a protagonist who tries to marry above their class. Today one tries to get ahead by going into debt to get a university degree (or two, or three), which may turn out to be a different kind of tragedy, but which doesn't speak to the libido in the same way.

Thirty-seven. Tragedy and comedy have different kinds of “meaning.” Tragedy is intelligible because one can see how the protagonist caused the terrible outcome. It is mysterious and fascinating because one can debate the protagonist's responsibility, especially when, like Oedipus, he didn't understand what he was doing; or, like Cordelia, she couldn't possibly have predicted the outcome. Tragedy is somewhat intelligible: if it were completely intelligible, there would be no drama, and no mystery of human life. And that mystery is part of what we mean by the meaning of human life.

Thirty-eight. The supreme tragic hero is Adam, who is spectacularly punished, and all mankind through him, for breaking an arbitrary taboo. Hence, tragedy (including the Genesis story itself) represents the feeling of human beings that they are somehow responsible for the terrible things that befall them, because to be human is to be imperfect, but not wholly responsible, so that life and morality remain largely mysteries.

Thirty-nine. Comedy is not causally intelligible, but it has meaning anyway – because, as I pointed out above, we don't question meaning when things go well. In comedy, the protagonist has a libidinal goal (money and a woman: the woman may have the money, or the money may get the woman); the villain blocks him; the villain is defeated; and boy gets girl in a happy ending. Melodrama is closer to this plot than to the tragic plot. In melodrama, the villain has a libidinous goal (the heroine's virtue, or, in the less racy version, her fortune); the hero stops him; and boy gets girl in a happy ending. In comedy and melodrama, that is, disaster is averted at the last moment, and the ending, as Frye points out, is manipulated – which is to say, unbelievable. It is more unbelievable in the case of melodrama, because libido has been thwarted; whereas the ending of comedy is the uncomplicated triumph of the pleasure principle. The only reason we're willing to believe the happy ending of melodrama is that we're so relieved that the heroine has been spared.

Forty. Yet even though we know that narrative fiction is not a representation of reality, we still often consider true-to-lifeness a virtue in it. But we have different ideas about what that means. For the unsophisticated, true-to-life means having characters with goals and motives. For the sophisticated, true-to-life may mean exploring the consciousness of one character or a few characters, through whose eyes we see the world, rather than watching, from the outside, characters try to achieve their goals through their actions. In the case of the sophisticated story, the character may not seem like she has any goals that extend beyond the immediate future, or that require heroic action. For example, in Mrs. Dalloway the heroine's only goal is to get ready for her party. The sophisticated hold that the quotidian is true-to-life; all of the drama is below the surface, and has to do with choices regarding relationships, social status, and, ultimately, whether life is worth living.

Forty-one. Other Modernist or Modernist-influenced novels (Beckett's, or Bolano's) may give us characters who have no goals at all and seem to drift aimlessly through life. If you have big goals, your life has a purpose – one kind of meaning. If you have modest goals, you may start to question whether your life has meaning, but you may, like Clarissa Dalloway, be able to affirm that it does. After all, don't the majority of people have modest goals, even if that's not what they write about in the history books or in novels? If you have no goals, presumably your life has no meaning (it's absurd), but that may or may not be a concern to you. You may continue to be driven by your own obsessions, which are obscure to those around you. If you have enough characters like that, as Bolano does in his big novels, you recreate a feeling of meaning by the sheer inexhaustible and inexplicable variety of human beings.

Forty-two. The sophisticated reader may say: fringe characters, like Beckett's, understand that meaning is a lie; everyone else tells themselves lies in order to muddle through in a morally unintelligible universe that itself has no ultimate goal. It's not so much, then, that it's true that the typical human being has no goals, as that these atypical human beings are closer to the truth. This kind of Modernism, or interpretation of Modernism, takes Emma Bovary's and Anna Karenina's extreme stance of rejecting the reduction of our expectations brought about by the weakening of metanarratives and cultural narratives that was the result of, first, the blow that the scientific revolution delivered Christianity, and, second, to compound it, the blow that the two world wars delivered Enlightenment hopes.

Forty-three. Reality TV is actually much less true-to-life than realist fiction (or Modernist fiction that explores subjectivity), not just because the editing creates narratives for the people on the shows, but because those people tend to become archetypes for the viewer.

Forty-four. We work out the meaning of our lives through narrative fiction. Reality TV characters become archetypes that we use to make intelligible the desires that drive us, not as individuals but as human beings, at a deep level. Cultural narratives give our lives shape by telling us what we want and how to get it; often, they are lies. Metanarratives tell us that all of human history, and perhaps the universe, has a shape and a goal. When metanarratives are uncertain and cultural narratives are in low esteem, we have to lower our expectations; for those who can't do that because their egos are too ravenous, the idea that human life has any meaning, or adequate meaning, becomes a lie.

Forty-five. The reason we can't uncomplicatedly think of human life as having meaning is twofold: being purpose-driven, human beings want to believe that their own lives, and the universe they're in, have a purpose; and suffering makes life morally unintelligible. Freud thought that love and work brought adequate meaning to human life, but meaningful work can be hard to come by (or make a living by) and love, even when it is found, can devastate and disappoint. As metanarratives and the cultural narratives dependent upon them recede, erotic love has to bear more meaning, but due to the nature of erotic love, that can lead to disaster: to murder and suicide. And we live in a culture devoted to profit, whose cultural narrative is that consumerism will bring happiness, rather than a culture devoted to meaningful work.

Forty-six. Reality principle and pleasure principle, objectivity and subjectivity: the life we are born into has no necessary correspondence to what would make us happy.

Forty-seven. Is it ever the case that the job of the writer is to show us what life is “really like”?

Forty-eight. Yes – when you're counteracting cultural narratives.

Forty-nine. Also, perhaps, when you're pushing at the limits of what can be represented. (Joyce, Bolano.) I don't mean the formal limits, but rather the cultural ones. The novelist makes us look at what we don't want to look at, because we feel shame or horror.

Fifty. And when you're reacting against non-realist characterization. To think that Harry Potter or Bella Swan or Batman are supposed to represent real, complex human beings is to misunderstand the function of an archetypal character, but the overwhelming popularity of archetypal characters makes the realist writer, who is always reactive, want to show that human beings are more interesting than archetypes. But behind that well-meaning desire is the old puritan fear that misleading representations will put fans out of touch with reality.

Fifty-one. The writer gives us fantasies or combats fantasies. Frye and Fiedler, reacting against the WASP elevation of realism in academe, wanted to focus on the first role, because obviously, that is what is literary about literature; but this is confusing, because literature presents itself as telling the truth and takes human life as its subject.

Fifty-two. It is of the nature of the human activity we call storytelling to be confused about its relationship to reality or truth. There is never a point at which the activity of literature does not make some claim about being related to reality: myths are supposed to tell the truth about gods and legends and romance about (distant) history; while realism is supposed to give an accurate representation of actual life. Only with Romanticism do we arrive at the idea that the truth contained in the narrative is metaphorical in nature. What we won't accept is for a story to be a lie. This is why we're so on edge about memoirs and even more on edge about the Bible.

Fifty-three. The story has an inherent relationship to truth. The parable, the simplest form of story, is a way of communicating a moral truth that can't be better communicated by any other means. Literature, as Frye says, turns away from direct or factual statement – because the facts do not have an exclusive hold on truth. (Given all of this, it's no wonder Frye thinks we haven't even begun to understand what literature is.)

Fifty-four. The universe may have no purpose, but human beings have built-in values. It may be that the story of human beings will end in disaster; at the same time, we seem to have the raw moral materials to be able to turn things around. Which, interestingly, corresponds to the Christian notion of free will: sufficient to stand, but free to fall. Although of course free will vs. determinism is a debate that predates Christianity.

Fifty-five. The universe produces life, which in turn produces consciousness. You can think of the universe as having become conscious through conscious beings. If human beings turn out to be suicidal by virtue of the very mechanism that allows us to flourish, the will to dominate, then life itself has a flawed design. After all – as mystery religions such as Christianity attest – animal life requires consuming other life to live. So life may be inherently tragic for conscious beings who are able to recognize other conscious beings. And although domination and self-destruction would seem logically to be opposed tendencies, they don't seem to be so opposed psychologically in human beings (hence Freud's theorizing of the death drive).

Fifty-six. Reasons for the inadequacy of the quotidian. With the modern European novel, the European audience for literature for the first time consumes stories about people like themselves. Audiences were used to locating meaning (i.e. significance) in the realms above them, whether social or supernatural: the quotidian was precisely what it was not worth telling stories about. Stories were for commemorating and broadcasting the doings of the gods and the astonishing deeds of heroes, and misfortunes only mattered if they happened to the high-born. When, now, we read tabloids and gossip about celebrities, we follow the same impulse; we may seem to be critical, but the Greek and Roman gods were notoriously misbehaved. The public mourning for Princess Diana is another example (not only a celebrity but a princess!), or our continuing fascination with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. So the quotidian was a realm where, by definition, nothing significant could happen. Although Protestantism challenged this, increasingly locating meaning in the private realm – and especially (in keeping with its emphasis on the individual's conscience) in the interior realm of subjectivity. That, now, was where all of the exciting stuff was going to happen: e.g. the drama of judgement, and anxiety over judging correctly, that we see in Jane Austen's heroines, which becomes interpretive hypertrophy in Henry James's novels. 

Fifty-seven. At the same time, the factual conception of truth was gaining ascendancy with the scientific revolution. Not only did science challenge the factual basis of Christianity; it increasingly made it seem as though factual truth were the only kind. Human beings' ravenous desire for meaning, which had been satisfied by story in the sense of myth, was not going to be satisfied by a factual quotidian world. It was possible to carry on and find meaning, but the immense psychological difficulty is dramatized in both Anna Karenina and Mrs. Dalloway, in which the author has one character choose to live and one character choose to die.

Fifty-eight. A story has meaning in that it communicates a truth, having to do with our desires and/or fears, that cannot be communicated as a direct statement. If I hear a true story, and it resonates that way with me, it's because it has a parabolic or archetypal quality. A story gives meaning if it offers an explanation of reality. Not just any explanation, though, because the laws of physics offer that, but a hopeful, redemptive, optimistic one, in which justice, peace, and happiness will eventually reign. A metanarrative not only explains the way the world is, but also renders it morally intelligible. (American capitalism would seem to be a partial exception: although propaganda has associated it with democratic freedom, its real appeal is not to social justice but to individualism. All it offers in the way of moral intelligibility is equality of opportunity and the idea of the individual's power over his or her destiny. It does not say that something is wrong that will eventually be fixed, but that, contrary to the appearance of injustice, everything is the way it should be already.)

Fifty-nine. My life has meaning because I have things that I value and I try as much as possible to build my life around them; but when a cultural narrative fails me, or when a crisis occurs, my life or life in general may become morally unintelligible to me, until I find some new source of meaning. We are not lacking for them, even if consumerism is not one of them. I don't know what it would mean to say that human life in general or the universe have a purpose, but they are both fascinating. The odyssey of human beings through religious and scientific phases, from imaginative speculation about the origins of the universe and life to evidence-based, but just as mind-blowing, speculation about them, is staggering; so is the fact that all of this co-exists with fundamentalism, McDonald's, and the brink of environmental and nuclear disaster.  

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey, the Movie: Of Tropes, Gender Politics, Sex, and Fantasy

The cultural conversation about Fifty Shades of Grey since the movie came out seems to have two main themes: how badly-written the book is (the movie reviews are showcases for snideness on the topic) and how bad the movie is for women. I've also heard complaints from the BDSM community, or friends thereof, about the book's irresponsible depiction of such relationships – echoes of the reception of Basic Instinct by the LGBT community. The obvious response is that, while anyone is free to worry about misinformation and object to whatever they want to object to, Fifty Shades is a sexual fantasy, not a lifestyle blueprint.

Lionel Trilling famously defended Lolita, a runaway bestseller in America when it was finally published there in 1958, by arguing that Nabokov's novel restored a sense of romance to romance by reintroducing the forbidden. By the late 50s, neither adulterous longing, on which the concept of Western love was founded (see Tristan and Isolde), nor out-of-wedlock lapses carried a sufficient charge of societal disapproval, or created sufficient internal and external obstacles. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, it's the love interest's fetish that creates these obstacles. Do they represent what women's magazines would call a “dealbreaker” for Anastasia Steele, weighed against Christian Grey's immense wealth and the frisson that his take-charge attitude evidently gives her?

Fifty Shades of Grey knows exactly what it owes to the Western tradition of romantic love, particularly as it has been depicted and promoted by literature. Anastasia is an English lit major, and on their first date, Christian asks her whether she's an Austen girl or a Hardy girl. She surprises him by choosing Hardy. Diffident, lip-biting Miss Steele (as Christian likes to call her) may seem like one of those garden-variety Austen freaks, but she's going to swerve away from that interminable trend. Deep within her is a repressed, oppressed Victorian maiden, a Tess of the D'Urbervilles, dying to get out.

Intertexual Romance

With its basis in fan fiction, it's hardly surprising that Fifty Shades is self-conscious with its movie references, too: Anastasia dubs the woman who initiated Christian into BDSM practices when he was 16 “Mrs. Robinson.” (I guess recruiting children – Anastasia does later point out that it was child abuse – is an example of a behaviour that the BDSM community would rather not have associated with it.) The Graduate is a movie with a rather different resonance for the female audience for which it was not intended than for its male creators, and is maybe the last time an American movie about sexual desire and mores made such a huge cultural impact.



So Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie about a woman who seems to be the definition of vanilla but might have a secret dark side, and also a movie about a sexual initiation by a person who has a clear upper hand, that ends disastrously. In this case, the difference in power is a matter of money and sexual experience rather than age (I don't know if there's an age difference in the novel, but the two leads look about the same age in the movie although Jamie Dornan is in fact seven years older than Dakota Johnson).

E. L. James may not be a great or even a competent prose writer, but fan fiction requires different talents – such as the media literacy and savviness about media tropes that she does possess. As for psychological complexity, everyone knows that that can be a distraction in pornography. Anastasia and Christian are, first and foremost, types in a sort of role-playing scenario: the powerful businessman with dark appetites and the mousy, unassuming virgin. They are locked in a battle of wills, based in traditional gender roles, that (as Leslie Fiedler argued in Love and Death in the American Novel) is central to the English novel from its first great example, Richardson's Clarissa. Lovelace, as an irresponsible seducer, must get Clarissa to sleep with him before he agrees to marry her; Clarissa, as the most fastidious of virgins, must get Lovelace to marry her before she agrees to sleep with him. The Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies of the late 50s/early 60s are a comedic updating; so, in their way, are the Bugs Bunny-Roadrunner cartoons. We just want to keep telling the same story about appetite, over and over. 


In James's updating, Christian wants to get Anastasia to sign a contract that will make her his “submissive,” while Anastasia wants Christian to act more like a normal boyfriend: go on dates, sleep in the same bed with her at night, let her touch him – stuff like that. Because Christian is obsessed with Anastasia (obviously), he can't help but give in to her a bit while she contemplates the offer: they have some extra-contractual sex, although some of it involves a little light bondage; he agrees to go on a weekly date; she meets his family (who adore her – obviously). All of this giving in, of course, is used as leverage by Christian to make her give in – since, after all, he's made more concessions to her than to any other girl he's ever known.

I didn't find the sex scenes in Fifty Shades especially sexy, although that may be the point, in a way. It often happens in erotic fan fiction that the sex scenes become obligatory and perfunctory because the writer has become engrossed by the characters' relationship. And definitely that has happened here: the characters may not be either believable or especially individualized, but their psychological struggle is what interests James, not the sex. I don't mean to spread the myth that female creators and consumers of erotica are not interested in sex scenes. There's a sub-genre of erotic fan fiction called “PWP,” which stands for “porn without plot,” when you just want a shot of graphically-described, barely-characterized sex. But the truth is that, pretty often, the writer gets more interested in the characters' relationships and the sex scenes become about as much the point as the scene where Buffy fights the monster-of-the-week.

Furthermore, the climactic BDSM scene of Fifty Shades is not meant to be sexy at all. The movie heads toward the signing of the contract as the climax, but instead of that consummation, Anastasia demands that Christian show her the worst he has to offer so that she'll know what she's getting into, and we get a raw emotional scene in which, as she's beaten, we see her take in the realization of the depth of Christian's need to see her broken, vulnerable, and physically and emotionally suffering. This also parallels Clarissa, whose climactic act is the drugging and raping of Clarissa by Lovelace; the mind-bending post-feminist twist of Fifty Shades is that Anastasia is “in control” of the situation because she asks to be physically and emotionally brutalized.

After that, they're reduced to a couple of people at their most emotionally naked and have a kind of primal exchange that made me understand why the director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, has referred to Persona in discussions of the movie. (You read that right, cinephiles: go ahead and have a conniption fit.) Having braved the heart of darkness of her sadist boyfriend, little Anastasia Steele has finally discovered something about boundaries, and her boundaries in particular, and learned how to say “No” in such a way that a man, however powerful, persistent, and persuasive he may be, knows that she means it. Of course she'll be back for more in future installments – though I don't think I'll be.

The Genealogy of Tropes

In From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, possibly the funniest book ever to feature “rape” in the title, feminist film critic Molly Haskell described the favourite women's fiction trope of the Gothic hero: flattering in his controlling behaviour (you definitely know he's into you), exciting in his abusiveness (he's no pansy), and yet with a secret from his past that's left him secretly wounded and vulnerable. He is the perfect hero for the puritan (or just pubescent) heroine, Haskell explains, because despite his impressive displays of “masculine” power, his “feminine” woundedness means that he's unlikely to make real sexual demands on you; instead, he ultimately appeals to one's maternal instinct.

My favourite example of Haskell's is James Mason in the unbelievably silly 1945 British film The Seventh Veil. Mason is a bachelor who becomes the guardian of the heroine when she's a young adolescent. (He seems like an uncle – V. C. Andrews's Dark Angel, from which I'm sure James stole the piano-playing scene in Fifty Shades, is in this same mode – but the movie calls him a second cousin.) He uses a cane – a symbol of his mysterious woundedness and unsubtle indication of the impotence that keeps him sexually non-threatening despite his aggressive temperament. 

Mason doesn't only hate women because he's at a physical disadvantage in the romance market, though, but also because of his relationship with his mother, who hurt him when he was just a helpless little boy. (Aw!) He can only express his attraction to the heroine by being nasty to her, controlling every aspect of her life, and flipping out when she tries to use other men to break free. And yet he has a certain hold over her, not only because she's become obsessed, Stockholm-style, with pleasing him, but because they develop a professional bond as he trains her, Whiplash-style, to become a concert pianist. That can be one of the perks of a relationship with a wounded Gothic hero: sometimes instead of making sexual demands on you, he spurs you to great heights of professional achievement by demanding sublimation. And there's nothing a puritan – which is to say, Anglo-American – woman finds sexier than sublimation.

In that movie's climactic act of displaced consummation, Mason attacks her hands with his cane while she's playing after she informs him that she's going to leave him to get married. But despite having an array of suitors to choose from (a woman's picture trope with a structural similarity to the “whodunnit,” as Haskell points out), the heroine ultimately returns to Mason, whose violent outburst seems to have cleared the air and left him more capable of expressing tender emotions.

Mason gets ready to strike while Mommy looks on

Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, often held to be the paradigm of feminist TV, features an updating of the Gothic hero in Angel, who pretty starkly represents the gynocentric view of Good (non-sexual) and Bad (sexual) Men. And in case you thought that was an accident, the show reinforces that view when Buffy later develops a sexual relationship with a Bad (sexual) Man, Spike, which she has to break off because the puritan heroine ultimately cannot have a purely sexual relationship (Spike, no matter how much he may reform through his own effort, is still only a body, no soul) without compromising the virtue that's the source of her power.

Virtue, as Nietzsche, I think it was, pointed out, originally meant “strength,” and Buffy is the direct descendent of Spenser's warrior women in The Faerie Queene, Britomart and Belphoebe, who (according to Fiedler, again) turn into Clarissa when the tropes of romance meet the bourgeois realism of the English novel. In other words, the (usually blonde) woman who fights the monsters/rapist is the exact same archetype as the (usually blonde) woman who succumbs to the monster/rapist: Buffy and Laura Palmer are two sides of the same coin. Spenser is illustrating female chastity, or virtue, by embodying it in action heroines; while Richardson's emphasis on pathos rather than action means that he can best represent virtue by showing the fate it meets in a fallen world.

As secular writers from the decades after second-wave feminism, I'm not sure if Joss Whedon or David Lynch are aware that they're representing virtue or chastity; I assume Lynch is thinking in terms of “innocence,” with which his work has a deeply complicated relationship, and Whedon probably in fully secularized, vague terms like “strength of character.” Nevertheless, you can never completely escape the genealogy of tropes, which is why Buffy – strong, liberated, independent modern woman though she may be – can't just sleep with whomever she pleases, whenever she pleases, however she pleases. It's not just that we still have double standards regarding female sexuality; of course we do. But when representing female (or male) sexuality – whether on our screens (including computer screens) or in our fantasies – we also have tropes to contend with, and their embodiment of historical norms that may still hover in our present-day “sexual unconscious.”

A Troubled Relationship to Female Agency

In Fifty Shades of Grey, we may contemplate not only with the genealogy of tropes but also with a literal genealogy that is also a cinematic one: Dakota Johnson's descent from Melanie Griffith, who is in turn the daughter of Tippi Hedren. It is a legacy of portraying iconic characters with a troubled relationship to female agency, and specific moments of Fifty Shades become rich with resonance for that reason, whether it was intentional on the filmmaker's part or not. There's the especially on-the-nose detail of the room that Christian designates for his “submissives” having a caged bird among the wallpaper designs (“Back you go in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels!”), but there are also echoes of Griffith's humiliating first encounter with Harrison Ford in Working Girl in the scene where Christian comes to the rescue of a blackout drunk Johnson.

Mitch and Melanie have a smug-off

In Working Girl, one of many ambivalent 80s depictions of working women inspired by women's mass entrance into the workforce after second-wave feminism, the creepily baby-voiced Griffith was a throwback to a Marilyn Monroe/Judy Holliday dumb blonde archetype, her full figure and gauzy manner positing an inextricable link between female sexuality and female diffidence even as her character struggled to be taken seriously in the workplace while remaining “feminine.” The movie's linkage between women's professional success, WASP hyper-rationalism and suppression of sensuality, and anorexia through Sigourney Weaver's character and her “bony ass” (as Griffith memorably calls it) is right up Camille Paglia's alley: a traditional woman, and a working-class woman, Griffith has to learn how to “perform” Weaver's WASP style.

There's even biographical resonance in the final beating scene, given what we now know about the circumstances surrounding the filming of Melanie Daniels's traumatic attack by the birds in the attic in the climactic scene of The Birds. (To wit: according to Hedren, and as dramatized in the 2012 TV movie The Girl, Hitchcock became sexually obsessed with her, and in return for rejecting him, he arranged for the scene's filming to be almost as harrowing for Hedren as the attack was for Melanie.) Like the shower scene in Psycho, the attic scene in The Birds was a substitute for rape, but by 1964, American mores had relaxed enough for Hitchcock to finally be able to put a real rape on the screen for the first (but not only) time, in Marnie, also starring Hedren.


Marnie bears a much closer relationship to Fifty Shades of Grey than The Birds. In it, a young Sean Connery plays a wealthy and powerful businessman, Mark Rutland (yep), who becomes obsessed with a compulsive thief who takes jobs as a secretary in order to steal from men like him (except older and less hot). When he catches her, he threatens to turn her over to the police if she doesn't marry him, even after he finds out that she's frigid – unless that's part of the appeal. When patience doesn't make her come around, he rapes her on their honeymoon, and realizes that she was serious when she said no one million times when he has to rescue her from her suicide attempt the following morning. The rest of the plot concerns his attempts to cure her neuroses by playing amateur psychotherapist while keeping his businessmen friends from discovering his new wife's identity and turning her over to the police.

The resemblance between the movies is in the couples' combative relationship and the way they're forced to present a facade of normalcy while hiding problems that no one could understand, but in Fifty Shades it's the man who's suffering from a mysterious childhood trauma that's affected his sex life, and the woman who's forced to play amateur psychotherapist if she has any hope of making this relationship function. And notably, if anyone's a masochist in the Mark-Marnie relationship, it's Mark – who, as Marnie points out, is obsessed with a woman who can't stand for him to touch her.

Hitchcock gives us plenty of scenes from Marnie's point of view, both with and without Mark present, but James and Taylor-Johnson don't bother to allow us inside Christian's head, either because that would make him less enigmatic or because they don't give a crap about him except insofar as he affects Anastasia. This presents Jamie Dornan with a notably tough task, as does what seems to be some pretty striking miscasting. I can see Christian Gray as a Sean Connery type or, if they were going to go with small and effete (however buff), maybe a Dirk Bogarde type. To deliver all of those Smut 101 dirty-talk lines about fucking and wanting to fuck, he's got to have an air of either authority or depravity, while Dornan has less of either than your average boy band member. If they wanted to go boy band, why didn't they get Justin Timberlake? That would have made the movie into some kind of work of genius. 

Meh
Better

Dornan doesn't project an air of much of anything, except discomfort. And it's a shame because in addition to her resonances, Johnson brings everything to the part of Anastasia that it needs, and more (from the perspective of someone who hasn't read the books, anyway): brunette Everywoman prettiness (big nose, wonky teeth, breasts untouched by plastic surgeon, under-eye smudges suggestive of neurosis), charisma, and “go there” guts seldom seen outside of a David Lynch movie.

Source material be damned: there's no reason at all why Fifty Shades of Grey couldn't have been a great movie. The casting is one reason why it's not, but the more important reason is that it doesn't seem to be the director's sexual fantasy. Taylor-Johnson has a feel for the characters' battle of wills and emotional clashes, but unlike a Bunuel, Hitchcock, Polanski, or Lynch, she doesn't have a lascivious eye; one never feels that her own psychosexual fears or desires are on the line. 

Ultimately, the movie's about two things: a woman's attempt to find out the sources of the trauma that keeps her boyfriend from being sexually normal and prevents them from being together; and a man's attempt to stain an innocent woman with his dirty male sexuality. Make no mistake, in this movie's conception of sexuality, men represent sex as its most essential, which, in this movie's conception, means its dirtiest. The heroine's progress from innocence to experience involves finding out what goes on inside the male brain – and bedroom. But that's exactly what makes Anastasia such a courageous heroine, within this movie's terms. She doesn't want to remain naive, and she knows that to get out of that state she has to have such kind of decisive encounter with maleness – with maleness as absolute otherness. In this stark two-hander (as it basically is), the encounter with the man is the encounter with the world.

But What Does It All Mean?

We have lately become entranced with stories about how the genders perceive each other, or how we perceive each other through the lens of gender, and how narratives about gender, sex, and love are entangled with narratives about violence; but Fifty Shades of Grey is actually far less about female masochism than Gone Girl, the second-biggest publishing phenomenon of 2012 (after the Fifty Shades series). The heroine of Gone Girl, Amy Dunne, isn't a sexual masochist, but her roundabout method of getting revenge on men for slights big and small – physically injuring herself to make it look like she has been stabbed, beaten, or raped, and staging her disappearance – suggest internalized misogyny in combination with the cultural training that tells women to take their frustrations out of themselves. This kind of masochism is inseparable from narcissism, since the narcissist is always manipulating her image and altering her body (through exercise or surgery – which of course applies to men too, especially in the media saturated, metrosexual 21st century) in order to change the way others react to her. In the end, concerned only with how others perceive her, she has no “real,” “inner” self.

Anastasia Steele isn't a masochist at all, which is exactly the problem. The movie isn't about a woman who enjoys being beaten or punished. The relationship is emotionally masochistic insofar as Anastasia can't get what she wants out of it: she's not as concerned about the whips as she is about the fact that Christian can't easily show her affection or accept it from her. He does not, in the parlance of women's magazines, “treat her right.”

In her thinkpiece on the series, Katie Roiphe pissed off feminists, as she does, by suggesting that its popularity is the result of professional women secretly desiring submission in the sexual arena – a thesis stolen from Paglia, who suggested back in the 90s that the burdens of boardroom power might lead to a compensatory desire for someone else to take charge in the bedroom. (Sounds reasonable. I mean, there's that scene in Wolf of Wall Street.) 

Roiphe found lots of other pop culture fodder for her thesis – including Girls, which was then in its first season. It's true that first-season Adam is some kind of Bizarro-universe, internet-porn-era version of the Gothic hero; perpetually shirtless and inarticulate except on the subject of porn-derived role-playing fantasies, Adam is Stanley Kowalski with mild Asperger's. What I see as parallel to Fifty Shades in first-season Adam and Hannah is not Hannah's curiosity about BDSM, but her debate within herself and with her friends over whether it's “okay” for Adam to just use her for sex rather than acting as a full boyfriend – as well as the fact that Adam seems, to her, excitingly, and a little dauntingly, in touch with his sexual desires, whereas she hasn't got a clue about her own. Hannah, however, unlike Anastasia, also doesn't know, initially, whether she wants Adam to be her boyfriend or not. Her concern is, rather, about whether it's degrading, from a feminist perspective, for Adam to use her for sex (is feminism about sexual liberation, or about getting men to treat you right?), and whether, from a feminist perspective, it's okay to be degraded (is feminism about the freedom to have all kinds of experiences, even unpleasant ones... or about not letting men treat you badly?).


Maya Dusenbery's pro-Fifty Shades response to Roiphe's piece on Feministing is way more interesting than Roiphe's pseudo-daring thinkpiece. (That's what you get for using a thesis that was part of a conversation going on in feminism over a decade ago.) Dusenbery suggests that the popularity of the books has to do not with any desire for submission on the part of female readers, since the sub-dom relationship that Christian wants never actually happens. Instead, Dunsenbery emphasizes the “negotiating that happens in their relationship” and the “classic damaged-boy-saved-by-a-good-woman narrative that everyone loves.” In which case the tastes of female readers in romantic fiction haven't changed much since Clarissa – except that Richardson was hellbent on ruining everyone's fun by rejecting any version of the “saved by a good woman” narrative, even though, according to what I've read, his female fans pleaded for him to get Clarissa and Lovelace together even after the rape. I'm sure they took care of that in the privately-circulated, quill-written fanfic, though.

I agree with Dusenbery that whatever the massive popularity of the Fifty Shades series means, it's not, contra Roiphe's insinuations, that “women don't actually want power/equality/liberation.” The fact that women have made an erotica series into an international phenomenon in a world that still does not cater equally to the (heterosexual) female libidinous fantasies, because women still aren't creating 50 per cent of the media we consume, has got to be something for feminism to celebrate. And it didn't happen in a day: it happened because of women on the internet – of all ages, gay and straight – writing erotic fan fiction in a gift economy for over a decade, until a tipping point was reached. 

The fact that the series depicts, in part, female masochism, or at least plays with the idea, makes that feminist triumph imperfect, or at least complicated – bringing an awareness, as it does, that traditional gender roles and our sexual fantasies remain inextricably tangled up. And our reactions to such fantasies are complicated by real events and the narratives about gender, gender roles, and abuse and violence that affect our perception of them and are, in turn, shaped by them: just like the Gone Girl movie, whose release was shadowed by the appearance and discrediting of an account of campus gang rape in the Rolling Stone, the Fifty Shades movie and the criticisms of it coming from the BDSM community, follow on the heels of the fall from grace of popular Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi for having, it seems, practiced BDSM without properly gaining consent in all cases, and for sexually harassing female co-workers.

Eros, Masochism, Genre, and Gender

A “healthy relationship” is the kind of thing most people aspire to have; it is not necessarily the stuff of romantic or erotic fantasies. As I can recall from the soap operas I watched as a child and young teenager, in the late 80s and early 90s, often women's romantic fantasies revolve around a man who is unreliable and in some ways unavailable, so that she has to chase him. (I'm thinking of Jack and Jennifer of Days of Our Lives, the ultimate good girl-redeems-damaged/bad boy story, in which the virginal girl-next-door rehabilitates a rapist.) This may be because it makes him less threatening sexually, but it's also, surely, because, just like men, women are – again, in fantasy – more interested in what they can't get. They may be so interested in it, in fact, that they're willing to withstand a lot of disappointment and heartache in order to keep pursuing it.

There's no real counterpart to this for men, since men do not have romantic fiction explicitly marketed to them. If men are consuming romantic fiction, it's “women's fiction.” In fiction marketed to men, men don't seek romantic love, they seek trophies: in one comedy after another, hot chicks who are way out of the schlubby hero's league but who are so good-natured that he eventually wins them over anyway, and who have no characteristics other than “hot” and “nice.” Dramas marketed to men tend to have women in them as little as possible.

At one time, there was a Hollywood genre that dealt with men's romantic and erotic fears and desires, which was retrospectively termed “film noir,” and if we were viewing it from the perspective of whether or not the fantasies it contains are “good for men,” we'd have to conclude that men are, as a group, perilously masochistic. We do not view narratives from that perspective, however, but – if we're feminists – from one in which if a female character is cruel to a male character, it means the work is misogynous, and if a male character is cruel to a female character, it's because the work is misogynous. This suggests that, for all the valuable insights of feminist analysis of narratives, it has its limitations.

Occasionally in satire, a male gets to totally abase himself before a gorgeous woman in a way that would be unthinkable in a gender-reversed scenario, as in Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, or every movie that Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich. It's important to think about how our narratives socialize us, particularly if we are part of a group whose rights are often at risk, and it's understandable that representations of violence toward women by men will have more real-world associations than representations of violence toward men by women to complicate our reactions (although we might want to ask ourselves: why are we not upset by representations of violence toward men by men, which is very much a real-world problem?). But we shouldn't let the narratives that we form out of these facts make us forget that eros makes masochists of us all – at least in our imaginations.