Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bits and Pieces: The Case of Marcel Proust and the Attacking Rats, and, Should We Abolish Literary Research?

Reflections on Memoir, Autobiography, and Biography

From autobiography of a soul to autobiography: apparently autobiography is much on my mind lately, because I've started writing a memoir. No, I'm not secretly famous and you don't know it, nor do I have an inordinately interesting life. But, I am a writer, and an interesting thing happened to me, so, putting them together, I thought I might have a story to tell – a memoir of a specific aspect of my life, like the addiction memoir or family tragedy memoir or difficult childhood memoir or mental illness memoir. Mine is a prodigy memoir, about how I became a prodigy between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, with a play produced at eighteen that won $10, 000 in awards, without coming from a literary or intellectual or theatrical background of any kind, which set me on the course of a brief career in Canadian theatre so insanely frustrating that I chucked it by age twenty-four. Since then I haven't been able to figure out what to do. I got an MA in English relatively late in life, in my mid-30s, then decided to chuck that course as well given the poor job market for professors. Now, at 36, I'm back to trying to write, and after several attempts at novels, it occurred to me that a memoir was something I could write now, since finding time to do research can be difficult when you're working forty hours per week year-round whenever you can get it.

After writing around 150 pages, I thought my prose was lacking, so I picked up Remembrance of Things Past again. After reading about 50 pages of that, I wrote another memoir scene and discovered that the only thing worse than not writing like Proust is writing exactly like him. Hearteningly, in the introduction to my edition of the original Moncrieff translation, Ingrid Wassenaar writes, “Pastiche was one of the foundations of Proust's wit: he was a great, and cruel, mimic. The problem of separating out his own style from what he absorbed from others was one of his aesthetic dilemmas.” (Apparently Proust wrote a series of pastiches of famous French writers as if commenting on a diamond forgery scandal. I'd love to get my hands on that....) This sort of aesthetic dilemma can be difficult to overcome: Proust started writing A la recherche when he was 38, and worked on it for fourteen years, until his early death. He wrote little, and nothing that's considered of consequence, before that.

Less hearteningly for my project, Wassenaar devotes space to distinguishing between autobiography and Proust's practice in A la recherche, to the detriment of the former. She writes, “While his whole enterprise is to crown subjectivity as the wellspring of creativity, he is careful not to collapse subjectivity in general into his own personality and life history”; however, in the process of making this claim, she informs the reader that Proust was bitchy, spiteful, and got aroused by watching rats attacking each other. Would the novel be less great if Proust had included these characteristics in his self-portrait, or just different? I have to admit that in writing my memoir I've already come up against the dilemma of how unflattering to make my own self-portrayal – partly due to a desire (a need, really) for privacy, should I choose to publish it. A century on, we live in a more permissive age than Proust did, and one that's absorbed Freud, though not without (sometimes abhorred) resistance. I can't write the bildung of my adolescence – the formation of my identity, including my intellectual and aesthetic development – without talking about sexuality. I can't think about it without thinking about sexuality. But how much of myself do I dare expose – and aside from that, how much of it is relevant? Does every psychological quirk contribute to our understanding of a person?

I came across similar problems when writing my biographical plays about Orton and Halliwell and Jane and Paul Bowles – not issues of privacy (my own or others'), since I was using published information (and writing about people who were dead, in the case of Orton and Halliwell) – but issues of what biographical information was relevant. I didn't solve the dilemma satisfactorily in either case: rather, I tended to throw everything I knew from the sources I was using into the dialogue, “just in case” it was psychologically central. Although one thing I learned from writing plays about real people was that everything depends on context, and just because something is true doesn't mean it will give a true representation of the individual in a given context.

As to how important biography is generally, it's true we come to literature to discover ourselves, not biographical information about the writer – and to assume that we “really” want the latter is the basis of the biographical fallacy in literary criticism. But it's too hasty to say that we read even biography primarily to learn about the writer. As a teenager, I (obviously) loved reading biographies of writers, in which I “discovered myself” as much as, or more than, in reading fiction. For one thing, these biographies – and all of the biographies I read were of queer writers: Wilde, Colette, Capote, Orton, Jane Bowles – dealt with the subject of sexuality, which most of the fiction I was reading (with Jean Genet as the major exception) did not. Nowadays homosexuals are more certain about their sexual orientation than anyone else, and often claim to have known they were gay their entire lives. Sexual orientation isn't such a simple matter for many heterosexuals, which is why sexual confusion still characterizes adolescence, and the biographies of these queer writers were essential in helping me understand my own identity through the central (and still taboo, for all of our “permissiveness”) subject of sexuality, which is not similarly problematized in biographies of heterosexual writers.

Biography and autobiography occupy a curious place in literary history. Despite the growing popularity of the memoir and “creative non-fiction,” often positioned by both its critics and its advocates as being “in competition” with the reading and writing of fiction, there are few canonical autobiographies; only the major instances that transformed (and conditioned) our understanding of subjectivity: the Confessions of Augustine and Rousseau, the essays of Montaigne, Newman's account of the development of his religious ideas. And, of course, the novelistic explorations of subjectivity and consciousness by the Modernists, Joyce, Proust, and (in more Expressionist fashion) Kafka; or, beginning earlier, the quasi-autobiographical Bildungsroman proper, from Goethe to Flaubert to Mann to Mishima. As for biography, no matter how well-written, it does not seem to be included in that amorphous category, “literature,” that usually means fiction, poetry, and drama, but sometimes mysteriously includes autobiography as well. Lyric poetry, like the personal essay, often takes the author's inner life as its subject, dynamically recounting and working through a personal crisis. When I studied Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (from which we get his most famous lines, “No man is an island” and “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls”) in a graduate class, I placed it in the context of the crisis memoir, such as Joan Didion's memoirs of the deaths of her husband and daughter, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. In the Western tradition, the exploration of subjectivity – of the soul – has two, equally important sources: Christian and humanist. (Also the sources of the novel.)

We read biography and autobiography for many reasons. We may do it because we have had similar experiences, or want to know about an experience we have not had. We may do it because the subject is a fascinating person; or because, in the case of memoir, they are peculiarly insightful about their experiences; or because, in the case of the memoir of a famous person, we want to supplement our knowledge of their lives with their own perspectives. While cults of personality surrounding particular writers can be annoying (see, for example, this snarky LRB blog post about speculation on the manner of Jane Austen's death), there is nothing wrong with going to biography or memoir of artists or performers to learn more about the artistic process and personality. We hear a lot these days about young middle-class people who fetishize the idea of “the artist” rather than committing themselves to producing great art, but that's been going on ever since Baudelaire and Wilde, the original proponents of art for art's sake, decided that being an artist was a way of being in the world, not just something you did (and the idea can be traced back through Romanticism and the Renaissance). If you want to dismiss “neoliberal individualism,” you'll have to sweep away the Renaissance, Romanticism, and Late Romanticism, but I won't be joining you. The current degraded “consumerist youth” form is a small price to pay for the anti-puritanical celebration of “personality” within this long Western tradition. Personally I'm more annoyed with the vulgar popularization of “genius” in recent bestsellers by Harold Bloom, who ought to know better. But I'm utterly seduced by Roberto Bolano's simultaneously critical and celebratory take on the idea of the writer and the cult of personality surrounding the writer-genius in The Savage Detectives and 2666. There is no getting away from the writer-genius now: we must live with her and do the best we can to still write in those conditions.

No, most biographical facts about the writer, whether psychological oddities or their manner of death, don't help us understand the work better, let alone give its "true meaning." But we do live in a culture that believes that great writers, and artists generally, are more interesting than the average person; if not in their external lives, then in their internal ones. If someone can manage to write a biography of a writer that does not make them sound boring (no one has managed this in the case of one of my favourite novelists, Henry James, whose bizarre psychology. ignored by his academic cult, is one of the main sources of my interest in his work), I will happily read about them. I don't think that learning about Proust's sexual interest in rat behaviour has helped me to understand one of the greatest novels yet written any better, but I'm happy to know it, just as I was happy to learn, when forced to read her largely boring letters as a research assistant, that the unmarried, childless Jane Austen liked to make cruel jokes in private about difficult, dangerous births, a common and sacrosanct experience in her time. It's always interesting to gain a new perspective on an artist that complicates the picture we get from their work and the received view of them, or of what a "great artist" is like. Sometimes, such information contributes to making an artist of forbidding reputation seem more mundane, as when I recently learned that Nathanael West had a long-time-bachelor's overweening attachment to his dog. Biographical facts about artists can help dispel the false mystique surrounding art and artists, while building a better, more vital mystique. 

Now I've got that line from a Nichols and May sketch in my head: "Too many people think of Adler as a man who made mice neurotic. He was more."

"Much more."

"Much much more."

"Can you move over a little I'm falling off the bench. A great deal more." 

The Decline of Liberal Arts Education and The New Aesthetes

Speaking of the poor job market for professors, I read two recent articles on the demise of the university system in the US and the UK, one in the New York Review of Books, one in the London Review of Books. They reminded me of another reason why I decided not to devote the remainder of my life to being an English academic, the NYRB article by lamenting the relegation of teaching to exploited grad students and adjuncts (called “sessionals” in Canada: I taught one course as a sessional before, thankfully, there wasn't enough work for me in the city where I'm presently stuck) while a shrinking minority of tenured and tenure-track professors who are sequestered away doing the research that brings prestige and funds to their schools, the LRB article by seeking to distinguish between universities, where research is conducted, and other types of post-secondary schools, as well as by lamenting the sorts of “publish or perish” conditions that Paglia was complaining about in the early 90s, which preclude serious, long-term, ambitious projects in favour of frequent publication if you ever want to get on a tenure track.

This additional dissuading factor was my inability to believe in “research” in the field of English. I think it's a waste of the academics' lives and a waste of public funds. I agree with Paglia that the only useful scholarship that can still be produced in the liberals arts has to be inter-disciplinary in nature, with an overarching revisionist orientation (the sort of major, ambitious work that publish-or-perish conditions work against). The endless production of feminist, poststructuralist, queer, Marxist, etc. “readings” of canonical works, taught to graduate school-track students as “literary theory,” is a waste of minds that “advances” our understanding of literature about as much as medieval scholasticism advanced Western philosophy. In other words, it's a bunch of eggheads talking to each other in their exclusionary language that most of them don't even understand about things of no interest to anyone else; a dead end comparable to the simultaneous analytical trend in philosophy (although at least that taught me how to analyze an argument). Digging around in one's “specialist” area in a confluence of cultural studies and historicism (writing about literary ephemera produced in the era you cover – Renaissance, Victorian) seems equally pointless to me. I have a certain amount of respect for the scholarly collaborations that produce painstaking new editions of central authors, but the qualities necessary for that sort of work are patience and meticulous attention to detail – there is no exercise of the mind at all.

All of this is not to say that I consider only the most ambitious scholarship worthwhile. I am also a devotee of the critical essay – of criticism, not theory. My friend George Toles has been producing such essays on literature and film throughout his academic career, and although they are more academic than the early 20th century Anglo-American critical tradition I admire (Wilson, McCarthy, Hardwick, Esslin, Bentley, Trilling, Sontag), they are superior in quality of writing, in independence of thought (valuing the Paterian impression), and in close, loving attention to the object than the vast majority of academic criticism. There is always room for more well-written close readings of both canonical and relatively unknown figures by erudite, insightful critics who believe in the art of the essay; such essays are works of literature in their own right, and bring both pleasure and instruction to readers who love the arts under consideration.

Restricting myself to commenting on English, the subject I studied, I'll give my radical idea of what the priorities of an English professor should be. Teaching, including the teaching of undergraduates (now relegated to grad students and sessionals), should be the first priority – about 80 per cent of the job description. The NYRB article claims (based on studies, I presume) that a liberal arts education still provides students with a greater ability to write and reason than new, more pragmatic programs like business. (And English students are notorious for complaining about education students in this regard – tragically.) Presumably, being able to write and reason will ultimately help a person in any career, but these abilities should also be valued in their own right, as the primary purpose of post-secondary education – of becoming an educated adult individual. English professors should impart these abilities to students along with an appreciation of English-language literature (I think the degree should actually be in Literature, and include language requirements at the undergrad level as well as world literature in translation, but that's another reform) – which are not separate aims. Undergraduates do not need to be taught “critical thinking” via the application of critical theory to the literary canon. They need to be taught how to enjoy reading, which the vast majority of them do not, and so leave university with poor writing and reasoning skills, which will never improve since they have not learned how to enjoy difficult extracurricular reading. The goal of undergraduate education in English (whether it is a major or a requirement) should be exposure to great, difficult works, discussion of their content and formal qualities, and instruction in formulating reasoned critical arguments about them (the simple adoption and support of a position based on textual evidence).

The Anglo literary canon is an education all by its lonely, parochial self, from which the instructor can branch out into discussion of specific historical context, major historical events, and the history of ideas. Educating young people in this way – creating citizens, the traditional function of the university that has all but been lost – should be the prime role of the English professor. How, then, to measure the “productivity” of professors in order to judge who should get better positions? Perhaps instead of publishing articles, they could submit chapter drafts of ongoing major works, or research progress reports? Major works (including biographies) and critical essays – I see no reason for English professors to write anything else. (Among major works of 20th century English or aesthetic theory – works that do, in fact, count as “literary theory,” though not as schools or applications of it – I would include Hauser's The Social History of Art, Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, Cavell's The Claim of Reason, and Paglia's Sexual Personae.) Ambition, which is necessary for real contributions to scholarship and thought within a discipline, is what should be rewarded, not business-model “productivity.” In their spare time, professors should not be whipping up spurious articles that'll make a splash at conferences in order to gain a reputation and pad their resumes, but reading, both within and outside of their “specialization.”

English literature is not science. English literature is a tiny portion of world literature, albeit one with an outsized influence. But the possibilities for useful, significant research are not endless. Frye thought that criticism should be the study and theorization of what literature is and how it works, but no one has taken him up on this, although a group of kids online have extended the project of the Anatomy to include popular culture (in the universities, the territory of cultural and media studies) in the marvellous ongoing open collaboration TV Tropes, which is spontaneous scholarship for pleasure. Meanwhile criticism, abandoned by the universities and, for whatever reason, no longer supported by Anglo-American conditions in journalism, has also moved online – in literary blogs like this one (as well as high-profile ones) and “zines” by former students like The New Inquiry, recently featured in The New York Times. Here ex-English students informed by their love of great critics from the era of the public intellectual, like Wilson and Sontag, can practice their influence free of the constrictions of publication in academic journals, while also being influenced by the new, pop culture-friendly mood that the cultural studies approach has spread through academia, though the pressure, I think, is from outside of the academy. 

I think literary scholarship would be better served by a publication ban on professors for the first ten years of their career, so they could concentrate on teaching, reading, and developing their thought instead. The only dignified, culturally significant role that an English professor can serve is as an instructor teaching students to write, reason, and enjoy reading. To think, in the unique way that a humanities education can supply, that an education in science or mathematics cannot. And the emphasis on writing (learned, in part, through continuous exposure to good writing) is crucial here, and should be kept central; an education in history or philosophy cannot supply this component of learning how to think either. (These are the reasons that my philosophy professors and, once, a physics professor I took a theory of physics course from, nearly fainted in gratitude when they received my papers. Every academic discipline values the writing skills that English students learn more than English does.) If, in addition to teaching students, English professors also happen to be good critics (which requires being a good writer, but more, a good reader), or original thinkers, or to produce ambitious works of scholarship, more power to them; but the function that makes English departments necessary is the classroom encounter, not research.

Viewed from another perspective, as Frye arrogantly asserted, far from literary scholarship being dried up, the project of literary criticism hasn't even begun yet. The study of English literature has never been properly intellectualized, and imported French theory didn't accomplish that, either. The building blocks of the discipline haven't even been identified – that was what Frye attempted in the Anatomy. But the rebuilding of literary criticism from the ground up to turn it into a genuinely productive field of study can't be accomplished in a publish-or-perish environment where endless applications of French and feminist (or now “gender,” but arguably still feminist) theory are de rigueur, and where professors are now turning their attention to pop culture, including popular literature, in a desperate effort to engage students who are increasingly, bizarrely, stuck in a mire of reading YA fiction well into their 20s (and beyond). Which to me only shows that many students are attracted to English as a subject for reasons that have nothing to do with a love of literature, and succeed in it for reasons having nothing to do with an advanced understanding of it. (It may, in fact, be much easier to grasp the fundamentals of “literary theory” than to achieve an advanced understanding of literature. Certainly, the cleverer students think it's a lot cooler; and certainly, professors work harder at instilling the former than the latter.)

Personally, I'd rather write an unread literary blog and read the Anglo-American critics of the 1930s-60s, where treasures of insight still await.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Two Reviews: Eugenides and Bolano

The Marriage Plot and the Soap Opera Plot

With The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides moves into the self-reflexive mode of late 20th/early 21st century novelists who write books about readers. My favourite contemporary fiction writer, Roberto Bolano, started this game with his two big novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666. It was one of the things that enabled me to read those books when I had all but given up on contemporary fiction. To read about readers is, for a reader, a guilty pleasure. The Marriage Plot starts with the sentence, “To start with, look at all the books,” referring to the library of the heroine, Madeleine Hanna, an English major about to graduate from Brown University. I ate up that sentence, and the rest of the talk of books, greedily, and sped through the 400-page novel in a mere week (a weekend off and odd moments on weekdays). That's much faster than I ever read a novel these days, including Bolano's. Instead I tend to start reading five other books while intermittently going back to the big one until it's finished.

As this (originally literary) blog records, Bolano made literature, and the novel in particular, seem like an event to me again, and it was with this borrowed excitement that I read the new Eugenides, after his last novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer, and now that he was explicitly taking on the question of whether the social novel (that is, what we usually mean when we say “the novel”: the modern British novel, practised in American only by Henry James and his admirer, Edith Wharton) can still be written now that marriage, having lost its economic centrality during the 20th century, has lost its symbolic potency. It is the question of an English major, which I am (Wikipedia doesn't say what Eugenides' undergrad major was at Brown); in fact, a version of the question played a role in the Film Studies Ph.D. research proposal I drew up for a funding agency before I decided not to pursue further studies. I was talking about the impact of the depletion of marriage's symbolic potency on the dramatic structure and content of the studio-era Hollywood comedy, but it was the same ballpark, and so it was with somewhat of an academic interest that I devoured The Marriage Plot.

That doesn't mean I liked it. Before The Marriage Plot, I'd read one novel each from the all-male triad of American novelists who've garnered the attention of critics and the reading public for their attempts to revive the tradition of the big fat 19th century realist novel, to salvage it from accusations of being “middlebrow” from critics and writers who believe postmodernism killed it some time ago, and to make it relevant to a public who, unlike its 19th century one, has various electronic entertainments vying for its attention. I read The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (born 1959); The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (born 1963); and Eugenides' debut, The Virgin Suicides (Eugenides was born in 1960). The three form a generation, much like Mailer (1923), Capote (1924), Vidal (1925); or Fitzgerald (1869), Faulkner (1897), and Hemingway (1899). American male novelists who capture the public imagination seem to come in threes; America hasn't produced a female novelist who's done so on a comparable scale since Toni Morrison (born 1931), who belongs roughly to the same generation as British doyenne of the novel, A. S. Byatt (1936). In Canada, we've got Margaret Atwood (1939). Women novelists of renown come in ones.

I read The Corrections in the only undergraduate course I took that featured any contemporary fiction. (There were others, but I avoided them, thinking I could read contemporary literature on my own; but I wasn't moved to.) I was excited by the prospect of reading a “19th century novel” that was, at last, about me and the people I knew. Of finally seeing my own life, my own world, set in fiction – in great fiction. But The Corrections faded for me. Eventually I realized why I had trouble with contemporary realist fiction: I was schooled as a novel-reader in 19th century fiction, meaning that “reading,” for me, was about metaphorically identifying with characters and metaphorically applying their social situations to my own life. Contemporary realist fiction, on the other hand, demanded that I ask whether the novelist was accurately portraying contemporary life. And of course, the novelist could only come up short. (Here I'm unlike many readers: I know one English professor, anyway, who loves the 19th century realist novel as much as I do and thinks Franzen's a worthy heir of it. So my metaphorical method must not be how everyone experiences the 19th century novel; or they're able to switch reading modes more easily than I am.) When Franzen's Freedom was released, I knew I had no wish to read about the troubles of an affluent middle-class marriage. These people were not the kind of people I wanted to know more about or be; their choices were not my choices. (I am neither affluent nor married.)

As for the other two, The Virgin Suicides was a sort of poetic novella and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay a novel about recent American history. I thought the latter, which won the Pulitzer, was a lame soap opera, but I liked the former. The Virgin Suicides at least dealt with the topic of obsession, unusual for an American realist writer, though it fell just short of convincing me that the author was obsessed. It seemed too much like an English major's postmodernist essay on Victorian ideas about female sexuality (hysteria, green sickness, claustrophobia, narcissism) transposed into fiction that was dutifully feverish and hallucinatory. Nevertheless, the very fact that Eugenides was willing to do the politically incorrect thing of portraying adolescent female sexuality as morbid, and portraying adolescent males as voyeuristically fascinated with this negative “feminine mystique” was intriguing and promising. However, I threw out Eugenides' follow-up, Middlesex (another Pulitzer winner), after reading about ten pages, despite my excitement over its hermaphrodite protagonist. (Gender identity was the zeitgeist: I had just written a play with a transsexual main character.) I didn't like the voice of the protagonist, which was strangely lacking in colour, and the flashback to the 1920s seemed like pure kitsch. Therefore I was relieved to see William Deresiewicz, in his New York Times review of The Marriage Plot, spend a paragraph demolishing Middlesex, despite that novel's reputation.

In the same review, Deresiewicz suggests that The Marriage Plot is a better novel than Middlesex because it returns to Eugenides' theme in The Virgin Suicides of “the drama of coming of age.” This line of thought, however, leads him to an ominous conclusion: “Among the major male writers of his generation – he was born in 1960, the year after Jonathan Franzen and two years before David Foster Wallace – becoming an adult is possible to imagine happening, at best, at excruciating cost, and often not at all. Which makes them pretty representative.” (DFW, whom I've never read, throws a monkey wrench in my notion of triads of male novelists, even as Deresiewicz confirms my sense that we think of male novelists in groups, separate from female novelists, and as generations. Got no idea what it means, but it seems to be true.) The novel has been responsible for its own demise: I wrote earlier on this blog about the theory of Marxist critic Franco Moretti that the Bildungsroman (which is to say, coming-of-age novel), a glorious product of bourgeois capitalism, put all of its dramatic weight and artistic energy on the side of youth and becoming rather than maturity and being, although the latter was its goal. But now we can't even pretend that we're reaching for the latter, which casts a great shadow of anxiety over the former. Coming of age is the whole drama; after, nothing of interest can happen.

But this seems particularly true of the Anglo-American world, which is obsessed with youth and at the same time anxiously aware of the need to mature (or achieve), so it's instructive to compare Bolano's coming-of-age novel, The Savage Detectives, with its framing story of a teenage poet's sexual and literary adventures, to The Marriage Plot. Whether you prefer Bolano's Romantic vagabonds on a postmodern quest for an obscure experimental poet or Eugenides' young Americans on a post-graduation quest for their identities (or neither) may be a matter of personal taste. For me, despite his palpable naivety, Bolano's 17-year-old poet seems more adult than Eugenides' early 20s characters because he's less “responsible.” In the world Eugenides depicts, being a vagabond means not washing your sheets on a weekly basis (Madeleine's one suitor, the manic-depressive Leonard) or dabbling in tending to the homeless dying in India (Leonard's rival, author avatar Mitchell).

For one thing, the young poets of The Savage Detectives are living their own interior and exterior lives, even on parental premises, in a way that reminded me of what being a teenager in the late 20th century was actually like. It struck me as deeply telling that during the dramatic crisis of The Marriage Plot, in which the heroine must choose between her suitors (one of whom she's recently married), she is surrounded by her parents, who articulate and arbitrate her options. In the 19th century novel, parents have no impact on the heroine's romantic decisions: that's the point. Elizabeth Bennet and Dorothea Brooke must live with their parents until they marry (there's no testing of the waters of independence in university), but in their early 20s they are already far beyond consulting their parents on any matters touching their interior lives or their intentions for their future (except, in Elizabeth's case, to have her father formally excuse her from marrying a man they both loathe). Dorothea makes the wrong choice of partner, but there's no sense that her father could have advised her better.

Conceived under the influence of Protestant notions of private conscience – and consciousness – the 19th century heroine is young, naive, and often mistaken (her mistakes make up the drama of the novel of marriage), but she is an adult and an individual who consults only her own desires and ideas. If she does fall under the sway of adult persuasion (as in Austen's last novel), that too is a mistake of youth (although the argument of Persuasion is that for a young person to not sufficiently know her own mind is a lesser error than knowing it too well). Now, although officially they have no say in whom we marry, parents are too much with us. There is no hint of the pathological, suffocating parental protectiveness that destroys the girls in The Virgin Suicides in The Marriage Plot, but there is still too much interfering parental presence for these supposed adults, and the heroine in particular, to seem adult.

Deresiewicz also notes the failure of Madeleine as a heroine. He calls her “reactive,” which seems a kind, or vague, way of saying what I noticed: that every male character in the novel is more interesting – quirkier, more colourful, with more ideas and more interests – than she is. Both Mitchell and Leonard are on spiritual quests of sorts, Leonard's supplied by his manic-depression (the mental illness presently known as “bipolar disorder”: the novel begins in 1982.) Mitchell's post-graduation spiritual crisis seems modelled on Levin's in Anna Karenina, Leonard's vocation as a biologist on Lydgate's in Middlemarch, but Eugenides does not come up to Tolstoy or Eliot, the writers who touched the heights of the 19th century social novel. For a few moments, while Leonard's tedious job as a research fellow performing dull tasks with yeast closes in on him on one side, his mental illness on the other, Eugenides reminded me of Dreiser in the factory scenes of An American Tragedy, as Clyde is pushed towards his fatal affair with Roberta; while the India scenes with Mitchell made me wonder if this was what reading The Razor's Edge is like.

Eugenides' failure with Madeleine is a disappointment not only because she's a main character (and the centre of a love triangle) or because I'm a female reader hoping to identify with the heroine of a love story, but because the heroines of the 19th century novel were its chief glory. They are exceptional women, one and all, for one reason or another, and their male authors are in love with them (Richardson with Clarissa, Tolstoy with Anna, James with Isabel) while their female authors admire them (Austen with Elizabeth, Eliot with Dorothea). Austen and Eliot also invented heroines to criticize, and perhaps Eugenides thinks that WASP princess Madeleine, with her Katharine Hepburn cheekbones (as we're informed early on), is in the vein of rich, handsome, and clever Emma Woodhouse or haughty, narcissistic, pampered Gwendolen Harleth (Madeleine is reading Daniel Deronda on a train late in the novel). Unfortunately, Eugenides doesn't criticize her. Unlike other types of social novel, the novel of marriage requires a female protagonist. A Balzac or Dickens Bildungsroman might focus on a male protagonist who sets out in the world to make his fortune in order to win the woman of his desires (and the fortune of his desires). But the marriage plot turns on the heroine's choice among suitors. Thinking he's writing this type of novel, Eugenides must enter the consciousness of a heroine who essentially serves the role of Daisy Buchanan or Estella Havisham, and there's no there there. Madeleine is an erotic ideal for whom, at bottom, Eugenides (like Mitchell) appears to have contempt. She is complacency personified.

Eugenides hasn't written a novel of marriage, though: he's written a love triangle story, which has never gone out of fashion, and which can be found at every cultural level. The greatest love triangle story of them all is, of course, Gone With the Wind. The Portrait of a Lady is a sudsy love triangle novel with a tragic existential marriage plot superimposed on it, and in which the heroine isn't in love with either option (Goodwood or Osmond). She is, however, powerfully drawn to both of them, and the reader believes either could psychologically obliterate her. Madeleine doesn't seem especially drawn to either Leonard (after her discovery of his mental illness draws them back together) or Mitchell. The most that can be said is that she's sexually attracted to Leonard and not sexually attracted to Mitchell. That's all we've got to go on in the early 21st century: who we're sexually attracted to, and God forbid they should have to take lithium and put on weight.

The thing about the love triangle plot is that the triangle has to be resolved. In From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Molly Haskell rather deliciously compared the suspense during this part of the plot to a whodunnit. The suspense tends to operate regardless of whether you have any strong emotional attachment to the characters or not, and so it did for me. SPOILERS AHOY.

First Leonard disappears from Madeleine's life in a Stella Dallas-type move: the life of the WASP princess must not be beclouded by the inconvenience of marriage to a manic-depressive! Madeleine is complicit in this, and knows it. It's like when Gwendolen allows her odious aristocratic husband, Grandcourt, to die by drowning, except that this husband has jumped in the water for her (it actually looked like he was going to pull an Anna Karenina by subway for a second), Titanic-style.

Then, as at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, the marriage hangs in the balance, and the heroine may decide to turn to her ever-waiting backup suitor. There should be a death at this point, as there is in Portrait of a Lady and Gone With the Wind, where the deaths of the most loveable characters, Ralph and Melanie, lend gravity to the great interior emotional crisis of the heroine: James and (Margaret) Mitchell had the novelistic instincts for this, but Eugenides isn't in their class either. For a while, all the passages Eugenides devotes to Mitchell's new (intellectually and aesthetically sound, the surprised reader learns) interest in Quakerism makes it seem like Madeleine and Mitchell might settle for an asexual New Age quietism. This is actually quite an interesting possibility for anyone who's read Lionel Trilling's essay on the rejection of modernity in Austen's Mansfield Park, which I assume Eugenides has (Mitchell as Fanny, Madeleine as Edmund, and Leonard as Mary Crawford).

Instead, however, Mitchell draws on his Jamesian reserves of renunciation and erases himself from Madeleine's life, just like Leonard. Does anyone really want this woman after all? (I didn't think so.) The neatly thematic, meta-fictional, spectacularly unmoving speech in which he states that Madeleine has “more important things to do with her life” than get married rings hollow: if this is supposed to be feminism, it's too little too late considering that we were told early on that Madeleine is not as intelligent as her two male suitors (this is what she thinks, and Eugenides never proves otherwise) and Eugenides has spent the novel demonstrating that she's not as interesting. Mitchell and Leonard had important plans, although they've failed at them (Leonard perhaps temporarily): to become a saint and a scientific luminary, respectively. No offence to Victorianists (I nearly became an English academic myself, and might be one now if the job market was better), but what exactly is so important about becoming one, and why couldn't it be combined with marriage?

While true to the feminist era, the insight that Madeleine does not have to marry either man (that Mitchell is the one who's been framing her options this way) has been done before, and better: in the romantic comedy Broadcast News (1987), with a love triangle formed by Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks. Hurt plays the Daisy Buchanan figure for Hunter, which at least permits her to be interesting (she's also believably dedicated to her work), although probable author avatar Brooks as the “smart, sexless friend” steals the show (as Mitchell does The Marriage Plot, at least for me). No, we can't write the marriage plot anymore, now that marriage is not the necessary end goal of a woman's (or man's) life. The love triangle can always be written, but it's not easy to make it transcend soap opera, and it should perhaps be left to writers whose work has got some kind of archetypal pop energy, like Stephenie Meyer. How love and romantic relationships can be serious subjects for fiction now, and how one can write a traditional realist novel without them, are good questions, but Eugenides has not provided the answers in The Marriage Plot.

Fascinating Fascism Redux: Nazi Literature in the Americas

Of course, Bolano's work, especially The Savage Detectives, is full of love and relationships, but they are just experiences among others. Nazi Literature in the Americas is one of the strangest works of literature I've ever read: all of the inscrutable privacy and inventive weirdness of Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies combined with a fascination with evil out of the 19th century decadents. Not one review – professional, blog, or customer – I've read on the net even comes close to plausibly accounting for what Bolano is doing in this fauxcyclopedia series of vignettes. The best explanation I've heard is a friend who suggested it was a depository for ideas that were too weird to make into novels. And Bolano's novels are pretty weird.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is not a satire of right-wing lunacy or the banality of evil (although there's plenty of lunacy, banality, and evil on display). “Irony” seems applicable in that you can't tell the author's attitude towards anything he's writing about, although the source and purpose of this irony is obscure. The only thing that rises above the irony is the ideal of art, and in the (relatively) long final section, in which Bolano appears as a character, he seems to take the idea of the serial killer as artistic visionary and prophet seriously. How seriously the reader can take this is another question.

Luckily, Bolano never fully commits to the idea (or any other), keeping things enigmatic. His collection of desperate outsiders and fringe figures, united only by their obsession with writing and their various connections with fascism, is bizarre enough to illuminate certain facets of early 21st century reality beyond the reach of the social novel. Everywhere I look now, I see the Bolanoesque: Anders Breivik, the Tea Party, and especially outsider artist Royal Robertson, schizophrenic African-American sign painter turned misogynous prophet of a sci-fi apocalypse (Blake meets American junk culture) when his wife of twenty years left him and took their children. (I found out about him through Sufjan Stevens's hipster indie electro album, The Age of Adz.)

The early 20th century was Kafkaesque. We thought that was scary. The early 21st century is Bolanoesque. Now you can be scared.

The Future of the Novel (Besides Movie Adaptations)

It seems odd that American authors should be trying to revive the European social novel, a non-native form whose only successful American practitioners were James and Wharton. In 2011, I feel less like the novel is dead than I have during my lifetime, with Murakami's 1Q84 following upon 2666: as long as epic ambition and formal experimentation are found in our world novelists (and those novelists have enough popular appeal to be read outside their own countries and languages) the novel lives as much as it did in the day of Tolstoy and George Eliot or Proust and Joyce. 

If I see anything worth “saving” of the 19th century social novel, it's the realist character; for me, the exploration of psychology and human nature remain primary reasons to read and write. But I cannot give a flying saucer of milk about the contemporary heteronormative white middle class. The novel has to press forward, press further: there are no further insights to be mined here. We know too much for that now. Even those of us who, like me, are white, heteronormativish, and raised middle class. I want to read novels that know more than I do about humans who are alive now, not less.

I wasn't surprised to learn that the movie rights to The Marriage Plot have already been sold. As I read the (entertaining) section where Leonard goes on a manic gambling spree on his honeymoon, all I could do was wonder what the movie version would be like, because it was already written like the big dramatic section in a glossy entertainment, maybe directed by Scorsese (I guess I'm thinking of Casino). In other words, it was there for dramatic pleasure, for spectacle of a sort, not truth-to-character (or truth to his mental illness). The novel's dialogue, too, was taken from movies, not life (or even books): a mixture of screenplay-bland and, occasionally, stageplay-clever, but always ringing false. But put it in a movie (an average, naturalist Hollywood movie) and it'll all sound fine, because that's how people talk in them.

A final thing I noticed about the novel that seemed to speak to the difficulty of writing realism now was the absence of strong emotion at crucial dramatic points. Eugenides's informal rhetoric (like Bolano, he even uses exclamation points in the prose, which seems more out-of-place in the absence of other experimentation) can't allow for it. The climax of the 19th century novel tends to deal in some kind of great epiphany or catharsis, whether it's Dorothea Brooke's extension of empathy to the Lydgates or the deathbed scene with Ralph and Isabel. But all emotional climaxes are muted here: “realism” now means quiet and small. (Only if a character has a manic episode do we get some good old-fashioned melodrama. He even wears a cape, like a proper entertaining crazy person.) It's impossible to feel much when Leonard abandons Madeleine, when the author won't go into her feelings about it in any depth; or when Mitchell renounces Madeleine, when he's so philosophical about it. 

But the example that really stands out is the climax of Mitchell's episode working in Mother Theresa's hospice. Mitchell finally gets up his nerve to give a sick old man a bath, and gets to see the massive, disgusting tumour on his genitals. After that he's out of there like a bat out of hell. I'm still not sure what to make of this episode. Are we supposed to identify with Mitchell's failure of idealism, faced with brute physical fact? It's the sort of thing about which one might lazily say, “I couldn't deal with it either.” Much like Madeleine's inability to deal with her boyfriend's mental illness. But that doesn't necessarily make it “real.” I know people in happy long-term relationships and marriages who are bipolar or schizophrenic (surely everybody does nowadays?), and although I can imagine feeling sympathy for a character who does not feel they can cope with having a mentally ill partner, the author would have to work a little harder to make me feel that, rather than taking it for the normal and obvious reaction.

I don't mean to single out Eugenides for these faults: they seem endemic to our present expectations of realist writing. The contemporary personal style is casual and unemotive, and we believe we are selfish, with no hope of overcoming it. These things constitute “realism” for us. There's a certain masochistic satisfaction in admitting that the average person could never deal with anything a bit difficult. No, we just throw up our hands and run off. No wonder we're not the marrying kind anymore. This opinion of ourselves isn't true (nor does it have to be to be “realism,” a convention): I don't think the average person is more selfish now than they've ever been, based on seeing what people around me do all the time when tragedy strikes in the course of life, as it regularly does. But I can't cope with these low expectations of literary characters. Reading the 19th century novel is a moral experience: characters either rise to the occasion, morally; or if they don't, that is their tragedy. “Yeah, I'd do the same thing” is no replacement, as part of the reading experience, for “I hope/fear I would do the same thing.” In fact the former is not what I understand as “the reading experience” (or experience of drama, since "I fear I would do the same thing" is the emotion of tragedy) at all. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Monstrous Masculine and the Rise of the Pop Psychopath

I've spent the last few weeks, in addition to working around the clock, working on a post about gender and androgyny inspired by my Kids in the Hall nostalgia trip. It occurred to me, however, that I should wait to finish it until I've finally read Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (which I just purchased as an e-book) and Mark Simpson's Male Impersonators (apparently going up as an e-book soon). Who knows, I might even get a publishable article out of all this research.

So instead I'll return to the topic that was originally going to be my next substantial post: the emergence of the male psychopath as a pop culture figure. Even though the topic gets heavily into gender, too.

In my previous substantial post, I suggested that pop feminism has validated, even valourized, female anger, originally as an expression of radicalized anger at the situation of women (directed against men), later, vaguely, as non-traditional gender expression. The assumption underlying the latter vindication of female anger is that female anger is culturally demonized. Although male anger is considered appropriate gender expression, however, that has not made it less demonized. On the contrary, it's the strong association in popular culture between men, anger, and violence that constitutes its demonization. If we want to examine negative gender stereotypes, there is nothing comparable among representations of women (not even the femme fatale of film noir) to the psychopath, who in the popular imagination is overwhelmingly male. And this applies to the most famous examples from life as well as from cinema; although here I won't be trying to tackle the former or the relationship between the two, which is far too ambitious for a blog post. Like many of my posts, in fact, this will consist of preliminary notes for a topic that would require massive research.

Precursors to the Psycho

Few would debate that the psychopath craze in movies was started with Norman Bates in Psycho (1960); however, his immediate precursors stretch back into the 1950s. We can attribute part of this shift in the perception of masculinity (like so many others), of course, to Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski, who burst onto movie screens in 1951 in Kazan's film of Streetcar Named Desire. Brando's Kowalski was a more primal, immediate, visceral version of masculinity; a fantasy of working-class masculinity that was received as more "realistic"; and characterized by a propensity for animalistic violence which, coupled with a wounded emotionalism, suggested mental instability. Sexy mental instability, of course; sexy because dangerous.

In the 1940s, movie masculinity still wore a suit, no matter how seedy that suit might be in film noir. As everyone knows, American film underwent a considerable darkening in the 1940s compared to the previous decade. However, it also went inward: both the 40s woman's film and film noir (which appeared to influence each other and produce hybrids from Mildred Pierce to Gilda) focused on the fractured interior life of female or male protagonist, respectively, and the emotions on display were hysteria and anxiety, regardless of gender. This Expressionistic investigation of neuroses was influenced by the belated American reception of Freud, which, however, wouldn't fully blossom in American cinema until the next decade.

As innumerable film commentators have noted, this focus of noir constituted a deconstruction of American masculinity, proving it ridden by doubt and fear, as well as "feminine" hysteria and anxiety. However, in the 40s there was still no strong association between masculinity and psychopathic violence. The noir protagonist is often a murderer, but passive nonetheless, like Tom Neal in Detour, so dissociated from his own aggression (which instead is foisted overwhelmingly onto the most aggressive of all femme fatales, Ann Savage's Vera) that he manages to murder twice "by accident." When he is associated with glamourous, tough guy violence, like Bogart in The Big Sleep, he is unmistakably heroic. Instances of full-blown psychopathy, as opposed to neurosis, remain the preserve of the villain, who in type is still the European or Europeanesque dandy-villain of 19th century theatre and literature (from Balin Munson in Gilda to Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt).

Interestingly, two of the earliest instances of the psychopath as villain protagonist or the "heroic psychopath" occur in 1950s literature written by women. Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley appeared in 1955, the same year that Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories was published. (The pertinent O'Connor story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," was first published in 1953, according to Wikipedia.) O'Connor's Misfit, a nihilistic, religiously inspired roadside killer who believes that his lifestyle choice is the only logically consistent fulfillment of his agnosticism (if I've correctly paraphrased his, and his author's, tortured and tortuous reasoning), along with Highsmith's Ripley, personality thief and occasional killer of ambiguous sexuality, are surely the first iconic psychopaths per se. In France, however, the country that legitimized (and gave the name to) film noir, we can find a killer representing post-religious modern absurdism in a manner comparable to O'Connor's Misfit all the way back in 1942, with Camus's Meursault; who, however, seems to be more in the tradition of Kafka's protagonist-victims of obscure determinism, but with a new violence.

1955 also marked the original publication of Lolita in Paris, to be followed in 1958 by its publication in America, where it instantly became a bestseller, again according to Wikipedia. Although Humbert isn't exactly a psychopath, and certainly not a serial killer, the appearance and American reception of Lolita signaled a growing popular fascination with criminal protagonists and taboo sexual subjects. A film version of Lolita had to wait until 1962, when Psycho had already cleared the ground for taboo popular cinema subjects, with new levels of onscreen violence and sexual suggestiveness (not to mention their conflation in the shower scene), completing a process that had begun with Streetcar in 1951. Arguably the contemporary cinematic equivalent to Lolita was Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams (naturally), adapted from one of his one-acts.

Throughout the 50s, Hollywood kept pace with American literature in its growing interest in psychopathology, criminal psychology, and violence. Even before Streetcar made it to the screen, there was Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950), which did for the Bogart persona (established only half a dozen years earlier with Hawks's To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep) what Rear Window and Vertigo would do for the Stewart persona at the end of the same decade. Bogart's pointedly named Dix Steele is prone to rages, mood swings, and violence that the film treats as pathological and problematic. Ray would go on to deconstruct male anger and violence again in Bigger Than Life (1956), in which James Mason is a benign, mild-mannered 50s patriarch who becomes a filicidal megalomaniac when he's prescribed cortisone.

Most famously from the perspective of popular culture, Ray also directed James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The psychiatric orientation of the film is evident from its basis in a 1944 book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath by Robert M. Lindner (which I found out just this moment on Wikipedia). To me it comes as news that there was such concern about the clash of generations already in the early 40s, two decades prior to "60s youth culture"; and that it was already being expressed, through psychoanalytic language, as concerns about "psychopathy" and delinquency. To me this strongly suggests that the pathologization and criminalization of masculinity were at least in part a creation of American Freudianism, which was already well underway in the 40s; although obviously this thesis would require much more research (or perhaps readers can direct me to works on this topic). Under this analysis, or psychoanalytic lens, in any case, masculinity (as well as youth) appears as a social problem, well in advance of second-wave feminism.

Poster boy for "psychopathy"?

Dean's iconic performance linked Brando's new masculinity directly to the problematized and pathologized emergent youth culture (indirectly, Brando's Streetcar performance anticipated rock 'n' roll, on which the new youth culture would center). A year later, the bizarre late Joan Crawford vehicle Autumn Leaves anticipated the exploitation direction Hitchcock would take with Psycho: Cliff Robertson's character, like Norman Bates, is ambiguously neurotic or psychopath, whose violence and infantile neediness (both directed towards a martyred Crawford) exaggerated the two poles of Brando's Kowalski, as his relationship with Crawford exaggerated the steamy domestic abuse undercurrent of Streetcar. (Director Robert Aldrich was no stranger to pulpy exploitation: his 1955 Kiss Me Deadly brought misogynous asshole detective Mike Hammer to the screen, and his 1962 Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? did the same for female psychopathy, in fine Grand Guignol form.)

Mommy's masochism is a great big sponge, soaking up baby's anger.

The 60s, or the Classic Psychopath

It was Psycho, however, that canonized the psychopath of the popular imagination. From now on, "psychopath" primarily meant "murderer," and American fascination with the murderer as a pop culture figure (with a special fondness for the serial killer, and as opposed to murder, as something that an ordinary Joe like the hardboiled/noir protagonist might stumble into) became overt. Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) gave the topic the sheen of legitimacy of serious literature. In the meantime, the juvenile delinquent gained a stronger association with violence in Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane, where the clash of generations is represented in no uncertain terms with the Grand Guignol coup de theatre of the unstable title character's spontaneous onstage murder of an elderly paterfamilias. Orton's debut was inspired by Harold Pinter's late 50s plays featuring menacing male intruders, and Pinter's screenplay for Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), with a superbly menacing performance by Dirk Bogarde (alternating identities between gentleman's gentleman servant and lower-class low-life as Catherine Deneuve would alternate between icy upper-class prude and whore in Bunuel's Belle de Jour four years later), managed to beat Orton to bringing the "thug" back to his homoerotic origins in Williams's working-class Kowalski. Although as Morrissey's early 80s appropriation of James Dean proved, the juvenile delinquent or thug and his violence were implicitly homoerotic all along.

All masters love to be dominated.

Despite being a demonized version of masculinity, viewed as erratic, violence-prone, and criminal-tending, the psychopath was always vaguely queer, from his appeal as a vehicle for transgressive self-portraiture for female, but not "feminine," writers like O'Connor and (the lesbian) Highsmith, to the rumoured bisexuality of Dean (and his Martin-and-Lewisesque tender relationship with Sal Mineo's gay-coded character in Rebel), to Norman Bates's Mommy-dependency and cross-dressing (and portrayal by a homosexual actor), to Capote's legendary ambivalent identification with "sensitive" murderer Perry Smith. "Psychopathic masculinity" was associated not only with violence but also with queerness. The new, openly emotional masculinity to which Williams and Brando had given birth was in a perpetual identity crisis; and it was this, not male power or dominance, that prompted its violence. The new masculinity was more male (more sexualized, more violent) but also more female (more emotional, more "unstable"... and more pathologized).

Unruly Boys, Who Will Not Grow Up/Unruly Girls, Who Will Not Settle Down: the 70s

The apotheosis of the juvenile delinquent genre was Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), in this case taking almost a decade to bring a controversial novel to the screen. Malcolm McDowell's iconic portrayal of Alex was bizarrely gender-bending despite its outrageous phallicism and misogyny (in my casual image search for this post, I found an image of a woman dressed up as Alex, alone among my psychopaths), and the psychiatric probing of and prohibitions against rebellious masculinity as a violence in itself is overt in book and film.

A nice, clean-cut boy

By the 70s, possibly as a result of radical feminism and/or popular backlash against it, portrayals of troubled female puberty and adolescence (other than as the j.d.'s sidekick) and female rage finally appeared with The Exorcist (1971) and Carrie (1976), and to make up for the lag in their appearance, they were several times more visceral (the former arguably the definition of "horror-porn," to use a term I got from Leslie Fiedler) than most portrayals of male psychopathy. I'm not sure if it was Camille Paglia or some other feminist theorist (or more than one) who pointed out that this is because of the direct link, in the cultural imagination, between femaleness and (voracious) nature. (An association that would be philosophically explored in many of Cronenberg's 70s exploitation films, as well as his "mature" work of the late 80s onward.)

Estrogen rage, and other side-effects

After taking the juvenile delinquent genre to its logical, operatic/bombastic conclusion with Clockwork Orange, Kubrick did the same with the male psychopath horror film with The Shining (1981). I assume I'm not the first to wonder if Orange and The Shining are counter-feminist bookends to the decade of radical feminism: the first literally reveling in misogyny (quite exhilaratingly, even for a female viewer, or at least this one), the second, the violent rage of the paterfamilias against prescribed domesticity. Although The Shining arguably accomplished, or enshrined, the cultural demonization of Daddy almost to the same degree that Psycho did for Mommy. Maybe along with Sylvia Plath. If the second-wave feminist movement was an influence on the horror movies of the 70s (which it surely was), it's in a variety of complex, contradictory ways.

The 80s to the Millennium

After the popular art film peaks of Taxi Driver (1976) and The Shining (1981), the male psychopath disappeared from pop culture for most of the 80s, with the exception of the slasher film genre that Psycho is credited with spawning. Perhaps filmmakers had to think of new twists, which started at the end of the decade with a couple of popular female psychopath films, Fatal Attraction (1987) and Misery (1990). Feminists cried "backlash" over the former, which represented the professional woman as a murderous stalker, desperately jealous of the domesticity she's denied herself; but maybe it's the modern horror film that's got an animus against domesticity. Remember, Daddy in The Shining has to get put down, too. Maybe the male and the feminist/phallic woman represent equal threats to a domestic unit imagined as being presided over by a sacred female guardian (not woman, but mother). (And not Norman's Mother, either.) In any case, Fatal Attraction was a last hurrah for the sacred nuclear family in the throwback-to-50s 80s, before everyone stopped caring in the 90s. Misery, meanwhile, has its roots in the Grand Guignol female horror tradition of Baby Jane rather than in Psycho. In fact, Kathy Bates's torment of an invalid (although male in this - post-feminist? - case) makes it a Baby Jane homage. Please allow me to pay homage to Mark Simpson's statement, "The feminist is Ms Whiplash" (found in context here), by suggesting that rather, the feminist is the woman breaking your ankles with a sledgehammer. At least in the male imagination (and legitimately enough).

A year later, the male psychopath experienced a giant resurgence with the film version of Silence of the Lambs and the publication of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. When you thought there couldn't be any more controversy over representations of sex and violence, Ellis managed it, and there was no movie version until 2000. Ellis's novel took aim at the sociopathy of yuppies and consumer culture, in other words looking backwards to the 80s, but the movie appeared at a different cultural moment and became a harbinger of the narcissistic, determinedy single masculinity of the metrosexual 2000s: Simpson namechecks it in the article, "Meet the Metrosexual," that brought this figure (or rather, theory of contemporary masculinity) to American attention.

Metrosexual? Are you looking at me?

But Patrick Bateman was nowhere near as popular or iconic as Anthony Hopkins's hammy Hannibal Lecter (or differently, Britishly hammy, since Christian Bale is pretty damn hammy, Methodly hammy, in American Psycho). Lecter (especially in Ridley Scott's awful, arty-bombastic sequel) is something of a retrograde psychopath to set against the thoroughly up-to-date, anal-retentive psychopathy of Bateman: Lecter is the European dandy-villain, albeit with a grisly little habit. Yet Lecter's awesome powers of ass-kicking, combined with his old-fashioned appreciation of manners, somehow made him into the first psychopath to be not just sympathetic but a positive hero. A sort of hero antagonist in the first movie, he became an unambiguous hero in the popular imagination, presumably the reason for making him one in the sequel, which seemed (like the Psycho sequels, in fact) to essentially be fan fiction.


Lecter paved the way for the serial killer as sympathetic protagonist, even a sort of superhero, which was realized in the Dexter TV series, debuting in 2003.* There have been plenty of true crime and popular psychology books devoted to serial killers throughout the 80s and 90s, and I've read a few, and Dexter is portrayed far less as a sociopath (except for those urges to kill) than as an autistic person, alienated from social norms, including relationships. I would have to do some research to be sure, but my impression is that the popular fascination with real-life psychopaths or sociopaths surged in the 80s, whereas by the 90s autism presented the new challenge to our ability to conceptualize rare mental states that estrange the common notion of what it means to be human. On the other hand, if 80s yuppie consumers seemed a bit like benumbed sociopaths, carefully observing surface norms with Darwinian competitiveness surging underneath, maybe by the turn of the century autism was a better metaphor for an over-mediated pervading sense of numbness and unreality. Although how that differs from Meursault's sense of numbness and unreality circa 1942, I'm not too sure.

If on the one hand Lecter paved the way for the psychopath-as-superhero, he also paved the way for the superhero-as-psychopath, namely Lisbeth Salander. As a tattoo-updated version of the retrograde militant virtuous women of puritan imagination (for which see Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel), Lisbeth, as rape victim, is justified in doing absolutely anything she wants to: no amount of degradation or torture she inflicts on the villains can remotely soil her moral credentials. She is, therefore, the perfect action heroine or hero, which it took Larsson's apparently limitlessly masochistic (and sadistic) imagination to produce.

Homage a l'Orange

Lisbeth Salander doesn't quite fit the schemata of the male psychopath, although she may represent a fulfillment of the fantasy represented by Hannibal Lecter impossible for a male character, because rape, in the prurient puritan imagination of which the "rape culture" strain of feminism is simply a particularly pathological manifestation, is a crime worse than murder, morally justifying any retributive actions by the victim (at least in representation). And these retributive actions, like Lecter's acts of torture and murder in Hannibal (2001), are simply ways for the average viewer or reader to vicariously indulge in the guilty, pornographic pleasures of sadism and righteousness simultaneously.

Incidentally, I say all of this without having read Larsson's Millennium Trilogy; my impression of the series is based on Tim Parks's New York Review of Books article "The Moralist," which I read in the light of Fiedler's theory of the rape theme in English literature in Love and Death in the American Novel. I may yet read the series, and may enjoy it even if I'm right about it. After all, as Paglia pointed out, art and literature are full of sadism and perversion, often disguised as moralism, as in Spenser's Faerie Queene (which introduced the rape theme, according to Fiedler). (That I have read.)

I'm considering reading the series despite my experience of being disappointed by popular literature (as well as "literary fiction") because I can't get away from the weird similarities (which I've mentioned on this blog before) between Larsson's life and writing and the life and writing of Roberto Bolano, the millennial darling of the same literati who turn up their noses at Larsson and Lisbeth. Larsson was born in 1954 and died in 2004, aged 50; his bestselling trilogy was published posthumously, starting in 2005. Bolano was born in 1953 and died in 2003, aged 50; his epic masterwork, 2666, was published in 2004. Larsson fought as a journalist against right-wing groups in Sweden, and his anti-right wing crusade informs his trilogy; Bolano gives a bizarre account of imaginary right-wing zealots and crackpots in Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996; English translation 2008), which I have nearly finished reading and will review when I have. (Its dark fascination with violence and sadism has, I'm sure, coloured this post, which I conceived before I started reading it.) While for the average North American, Nazism seems like a curious, antiquarian interest, just over a decade in, the new millennium has seen the rise to mainstream influence of the extreme right-wing Tea Party in the United States and the fascism-inspired mass killings of Anders Breivik in Norway. Suddenly, right-wing "fringe characters" are of urgent interest to us all once again.

In fact, when I read the August 15 Newsweek article on Michele Bachmann, "The Queen of Rage" (the one with the notorious so-called "crazy eyes" photo), I was struck by a quote that the writer featured from one of her sympathizers, Donna Fouts, 73: "Well, I'm sick of all them other politicians that tell me what to do with my life. Something about her tells me to follow her." I could hear the very intonations, as well as the reasoning, of O'Connor's Grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and thought, here we are back in 1955, with the socially and politically alienated responding to religious "rage"... while over in Norway, Anders "The Misfit" Breivik is going to make us all good people by putting a gun to our heads (and firing).

2666? 2011 feels pretty apocalyptic to me.

In addition to his fascination with Nazis, Bolano was also fascinated with serial killers, which is thematically prominent in 2066. Like Larsson, Bolano was a fan of crime and detective fiction who managed to transform it into something else: something with broader popular appeal, in Larsson's case, and something with greater critical appeal, in Bolano's. Bolano manages to give us serial killer fiction without a serial killer; the identity and motivations of the killer (or more likely, killers) remains mysterious despite several suggested "solutions." Instead of focusing on the killer, Bolano focuses on the crimes: the endless catalogue of forensically described dead bodies of raped, mutilated, and tortured women. The murders had a real-life model, and Bolano's portrayal of them is both feminist and misogynous: there's no attempt to hide, rather there is probably an attempt to evoke, a serial killer-like fetishism about these forensic descriptions and this exhaustive cataloguing, like Dexter's neat and orderly, fetishistic/ritualistic murder scenes on a grand scale (Dexter is, professionally, a forensic specialist).

The fastidious psychopath, for a hand sanitizer era

Conclusion: The Reign of Rage 

So here's where we're at in 2011 in terms of the psychopath in popular culture: a widely-acknowledged postmodern masterpiece (heavily informed by pulp and crime fiction) about serial killings with no killer, whose decadent art involves testing the limits of the writer and reader's tolerance for sadism; and the popular sensation of a psychopathic vigilante heroine who, thanks to retrograde attitudes to female sexuality that feminists have helped to keep in place when they should have been fighting them, is permitted through a double standard moral loophole to indulge the furthest extremes of the reader's sadism. Some of us may prefer plot momentum and cartoonishy charismatic characters, while others prefer literary experimentation and flourishes of the bizarre and erudite; beyond that, I think the fans of Bolano and Larsson are getting something suspiciously similar out of the authors' consciously millennial posthumous works. Namely, the underrated literary joys of vicarious sadism, disgust, and horror, especially as a reaction to millennial anxiety about where the hell the human race and is going (and has recently been).

All of the foregoing raises the question: why did the psychopath emerge as a pop culture figure, and will he ever go away? His appearance long predates second-wave feminism, reminding us that masculinity is not only a problem for feminism, and femaleness not alone in presenting a challenge to self-appointed guardians of society and culture. Gaining momentum during the 50s, he seems to have anticipated the cultural revolution of the 60s, which Paglia associated with "Dionysian energy," initially bringing a new surge of humanist optimism but ending in violence (much like the French Revolution). The 60s closed with the Manson Murders and Altamont. But the threat of violence was already there in the juvenile delinquent of the 1950s, who turned into the psychopath of popular imagination in 1960, at the start of the decade. In addition to Norman Bates, and with a direct relationship to 60s counterculture, there's Jerry in Albee's The Zoo Story, a visionary Village psychopath; the play was written in 1958 and first produced in the US in 1960. An acknowledgment of the energy of violence, and the violence of energy, was a part of the 60s (and the counterculture's hostility to bourgeois decorum and complacency) the whole way along.

But although the psychopath may have been a harbinger of the 60s cultural shift, he also long predated it (all the way back to the 40s, at least in psychiatric literature) and survived it. The sexual revolution was never just about "free love" and an increase of civil liberties regarding the private lives of individuals; it was also about a shattering of bourgeois decorum through an upsurge of sex and violence. Looking back on some of the classic movies of the 70s I mentioned above, the 70s would appear to be the decade of rage, and not just for women. One might also think of punk rock in the same decade. In the 80s, conservatism and decorum gained some ground again; while in the movies, hyper-masculine action heroes kept American free from Communism. Suddenly masculine violence was patriotic, rather than a threat to social stability. But the overall trend was still towards greater and greater social permissiveness, and especially permissiveness of representation. By the 90s, Rambo had been replaced as American hero by Hannibal the Cannibal, the first time the European dandy-villain was ever put in that service, and it was because he could kick ass better than anyone else. With Lisbeth Salander, we show no signs of backing away from that representational trend. I mean, in The Passion of the Christ (2004) even Jesus had to be represented as the greatest ass-kicker of them all, as logic-defyingly proved by his ability to survive the ass-kicking of all-time (including death!).

When I started this post I thought I might be able to discover a link between feminist misandry and the male psychopath figure of popular imagination, but it does not appear to be the case. Rather, feminist vilification of masculinity per se (men as rapists and abusers; violence as the essence of masculinity) seems to co-exist with a wider cultural perception of masculinity as a threat. Again, this suggests: not just femaleness (as feminism would have it), but masculinity are a threat to the status quo. To think that all of these years, I considered ways to modify the argument that Psycho is misogynous, and it never occurred to me to wonder if it was misandrous. (I also forgot to mention Cape Fear, Scorsese's 1991 bombastic remake of a 50s Robert Mitchell film in which a convicted rapist wreaks similar, but far worse, havoc on a nuclear family than Close in Fatal Attraction; or the 1955 noir classic Night of the Hunter, in which Mitchum plays a vile Southern preacher and widow-killer who is both a kindred of the Misfit and nearly his symbolic opposite, given his defeat by a virtuous version of the Grandmother, which O'Connor could never have conceived. Scorsese's cartoon violent male villains are counterparts to the psychopath-as-superhero: superheroic in power, they are nevertheless finally defeatable. The Coen Brothers seem to have picked up where Scorsese left off with this. Are films like Gangs of New York, which I saw, and No Country for Old Men, which I didn't bother to see or read because I figured it would be more of the same, critiques of the mythos of male violence... or additions to it... or misandrist epics? Or all three?)

(Incidentally, Cape Fear earned a photograph in Mark Simpson's blog post on misandry in popular culture, prompted by a tip by Quiet Riot Girl. You can find the post, which reproduces his 2002 review of a book on the topic, here, and below, tons of discussion, including my mild expression of initial skepticism towards the idea.)

By 2011 we love psychopaths more than ever before; in fact, they are our superheroes. Having accepted the tenets of moral relativism, the only morality we believe in when it comes to fictional characters is badassery, which is backed up by kickassery. I don't say that this is necessarily a bad (or worse) thing, or productive or reflective of actual increases in violence (private or political, on the streets or across the globe), nihilism, despair, or moral coarseness. Its fictive representation, however, is, at least, very non-Victorian. The violence, the sex, and the nihilism. (The despair is pretty Victorian though; as for levels of moral coarseness, I can't speculate.)

It's hard to know where the pop psychopath can go after Lecter and Dexter (a show I stopped watching after a few seasons because it turned out that I only had so much sympathy to spare for the moral dilemmas of a serial killer); but then, it was hard to know where he could go after Norman Bates, and really no one has ever surpassed the feat of Hitchcock and Perkins in making the first true pop psychopath always already lovable. But where masculinity studies might go is figuring out the precise nature of the threat that the masculinity embodied by "the psychopath" posed, and poses, to the status quo. (Unless it's already done that and I don't know about it.) God knows we've spent enough time and spilled enough ink and characters over the "feminine threat." What about the monstrous masculine?

Not So Original

In the internet era, you've barely had time to congratulate yourself on a clever concept before you've discovered that, of course, someone has already thought of it. So far I`ve only glanced at this blog post, "What We Talked About At ISA:  The Monstrous Masculine:  War Rape, Race/Gender, and the Figure of the Rapacious African Warrior," from the site The Disorder of Things, but it looks excellent, and far, far more politically informed than my modest little pop culture tour, though it also calls for further research. I can't even tell if the approach is feminist, or part of masculinity studies, or gender studies, or what. Clearly, cultural studies (or is it called international studies now, or is that different?)  has moved far beyond my meager version of feminism, as vanguardish as that was in 1991. (Wait, I'll find out that "the monstrous masculine" dates from, like, 1994.) However, if it's new to me, it may be new to someone who stumbles on this post, and it`s the first encouraging sign I've seen in what might be called contemporary "feminism," or might be better called post-feminist theory. (Bet that concept dates from 1972.)

(For a different example, I offer Quiet Riot Girl's intriguing post "Against Feminisms," and she may object to "post-feminist theory" in the comments if she wishes.)

Oh well, I'm not a cutting-edge theorist (in case you were deceived), just a blogger and a reader (and a film buff). So I'll leave you with instructions to puzzle over whose 1970s badass makeover was better, Robert De Niro's or Olivia Newton-John's:

*I feel like it was Jonathan Rosenbaum who gave me the idea that Lecter is a superhero, but in looking over his negative analysis of the popular and critical hoo-hah surrounding the film, the frankly titled "The Ill and the Sick," I can only find references to Lecter as as a religious figure, so perhaps "superhero" was my own gloss on his analysis.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Whip v. Cane: Kink and Spectacle in Wyler's 'Jezebel'

The strengths of William Wyler's Jezebel do not lie in its screenplay, based on a stage melodrama by Owen Davis (a Pulitzer Prize winner, I just learned on Wikipedia). However, the stage origins of the film do become a strength: many of the film's most memorable scenes (including the one that's lived on in cinematic legend, the Olympus Ball scene) turn on rituals, and Bette Davis's disruptive relationship to them. There is an awareness of space and bodies within it, and what the characters are doing and how they interact is far more important than what they're saying. It's a film full of what creaky old theatre parlance calls business, as well as the use of significant props. Through these props the kinky sadomasochistic subtext of this coolly classical Hollywood film is revealed.

From the beginning, the play/screenplay anticipates the sexually/dramatically charged Olympus Ball scene, in which Davis scandalizes antebellum southern society by appearing in a dress fit for a prostitute. Davis makes a fine theatrical entrance, late for her own engagement party in horsey clothes. Inappropriately – and masculinely – dressed, Davis announces that she's been busy breaking a horse that's been giving her trouble, and to underline the point, she's first seen holding a whip. The terms of her relationship with her fiance (an infuriatingly stoic, stiff, and self-righteous Henry Fonda, auditioning for his role as Stanwyck's whipping boy in The Lady Eve) are set: who's going to break whom is an issue that needs to get dealt with before they can marry. Although absent from the scene, Fonda has already made his own, passive-aggressive move – by his absence. What's more important: an engagement party (the feminine realm) or a bank meeting in which progressive young Fonda is trying to convince the fuddy duddies to act to prevent a new outbreak of deadly Yellow Fever? Rationally, we have to side with Fonda – and on the surface, the film asks us to. But of course we know this untouchable moral position is a dirty move, and emotionally, we side with Davis.

From there, they just keep upping the ante. Characteristically, Davis decides to deal with the problem directly, by barging in where she's not supposed to go: she marches into the back of the bank, where ladies are not allowed, and interrupts the meeting. Her “frivolous” purpose is to get Fonda to go with her to her dress fitting for the ball. We know, of course, that if he concedes to this request, he will be completely emasculated – especially if he concedes to her in front of a roomful of men. This is his punishment for humiliating her (and it is a genuine humiliation) by not showing up at their engagement party. Like her, he pretends that all is well, but when one of the men (older and wiser) suggests that a round of physical abuse is just the thing to improve their relationship on every level, even the “progressive” Fonda is tempted.

The scene of Davis's fitting is beautifully bizarre, another tribute to Owen Davis's instinct for stage spectacle if it came from him: Davis, in bloomers and undershirt, is trapped from the waist down in a cage-like petticoat hoop, through which we can see her sitting on a high stool while she tries on gowns. Because this is Bette Davis, her upper body – especially the arms and hands – moves incessantly, restlessly, emphasizing her enforced stillness. Make no mistake, this is not only a metaphor for Julie Marsden's entrapment by propriety, against which her ultimately sexual energy rebels: it's also kinky pornography. Wyler can get away with showing a woman in a state of undress because of the old-fashioned setting and full covering of her undergarments – but they're what make the whole thing so kinky.

It's here that Julie impulsively selects the red dress, as it goes by her (it's been ordered by some “scandalous” woman, a high-class prostitute, no doubt), as Pres's punishment for not conceding to her at the bank. She knows she can't possibly get away with it, and probably doesn't seriously intend to wear it. But the move that tips things over into tragedy – within the terms of melodrama – is Pres's. When he's finished at the bank, he goes to see her and see her dress, as promised. However, he's denied entry. Deciding it's time to deal with Julie properly, he, too, makes an impulsive decision – grabbing a cane on his way up the stairs to her bedroom. There's a great moment where her sympathetic aunt, watching, is horrified and moves to intervene, but she's held back by Julie's other guardian, her disapproving uncle. He's quite right: these two have to work it out for themselves, by whatever means necessary.

Before the moment of truth arrives, however, we're treated to what, to my mind, is the film's greatest set-piece (or at least, it's most overlooked one, overshadowed by the famous Olympus Ball set-piece), one that fascinated me as a young viewer. I went through a Bette Davis obsession between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and during those years and for a couple of years afterwards I watched Jezebel – my favourite Davis film besides All About Eve – dozens of times. Although I'd been finding out about the history of Hollywood from library books, I didn't know about the good movie rental stores in my city at the time, so what I got to see was limited to what I could tape off of TV (half a dozen classic Davis movies and a couple of Garbo ones). Much more than the literature I was reading, the handful of studio-era Hollywood films I endlessly rewatched during this period served as my induction into the mysteries of what one might inadequately, on all counts, call “normative” adult psychology and opposite-sex relationships. (I mean, it wasn't like Naked Lunch or Our Lady of the Flowers or The Trial were going to give me much help there. Or even Colette, since I was never going to be a perfectly handsome, vain, spoiled young man obsessed with a middle-aged courtesan.)

The long, silent movie-like scene that comes between Pres's decision to use the cane and its consequences fascinated me more than any other scene in the film in my original viewings. Once again, Davis is “in her underwear” – once again, fascinating underwear (a lacy, beribboned, semi-transparent dressing gown). She is lounging in a chair next to her bed, doing her needlework, her hair – another point of fetishistic fascination, knotted in little bows – being attended to by her Negro servant. The picture of upper-class feminine luxury, indolence, and “Christian” industry. But what fascinated me most was the psychological game that she plays.

Having made her move by denying Fonda entrance, she knows how he will react – and she is prepared for it. She is going to torture him by making him wait; as a woman in a conservative society, even one as restless as she is, she knows how to practice patience. (This is another scene of female waiting, which I described in a previous post with reference to another forbidden female bedroom.) The scene is as blisteringly brilliant as it is, however, due not only to the kinky premise, but to Wyler and Davis's execution.

The scene could only be conceived by a theatrical intelligence: we do not see Pres for its duration, but only hear him, through the door, while watching Julie's actions and reactions. He starts out sugar-sweet, appealing to her to let him in so they can make up. As soon as she hears him, Davis's servant instinctively moves to let him in, but Davis (always brilliant with her gestures and expressions) stops her by seizing her arm – behind her, while her eyes, looking at the door, in front of her, glaze over and glare. The maid doesn't understand: like the child-viewer I was, the caricatured “darkie” can't comprehend the destructive and self-destructive games that adults play.

I remember the very first time I (formally) met the critic George Toles, who arranged for us to be introduced after he saw, and admired, my play Live With It. I was eighteen and he was about fifty. We met at A&W and, although I can't remember what I ate (a Teen Burger and vanilla milkshake were my usual fare), I do recall that George was eating fries dipped in gravy while we avidly discussed Bette Davis films. (Or that, or the conversation, could have been the second time we met, in the same place.) I don't know what he was doing (perhaps having an innocent conversation), but I was sussing him out – I had heard that he was a professor of English, theatre, and film, and while this impressed me very much, I had to know that he had good taste before I granted him my esteem. And for me at the time, with my limited range of reference, “good taste” meant honouring Bette Davis. Luckily, George was fluent in Davis films, and we got into a spirited argument about the infamous scene in The Little Foxes where Davis wills her invalid husband to die after he has an attack and falls down the staircase behind her, unable to reach his heart medicine. I was gleefully into the sadism of the scene, whereas George told me what he found remarkable about it was Davis's visible, valiant fighting of every human impulse in her to prevent her from going to his aid.

And that is one, primary thing that makes Davis so compelling on film: her visible, hysterical conflict as she perversely acts in opposition to her own needs, desires, and best impulses. Here, we watch as she responds calmly to Pres's growing insistence and, finally, naked anger (after she gives another turn of the screw by turning the lock), floating around the room, pretending to take her time as she prepares herself to receive him. (Who's she performing for? Not for her – gawking – servant; not for Pres, who can't see her, although in one sense for him; not for the audience, whom she cares about as little as Pres. It's all for herself.) She rises, straightens her dressing gown, and wanders over to her dresser, where – in another strange, archaic (and masochism-tinged) ritual, she picks up a large hairbrush and smacks herself on each cheek with the wooden back, also aggressively pinching her cheeks to add colour. (Ladies don't use rouge.) All the while, she knows she's safe from his rage – after all, he's in a position of impotence, and in dramaturgical terms, his words are just meaningless sound in accompaniment to her actions. But all of this is mere provocation, coyness elevated to a fine, sadomasochistic art: she's winding him up as a sexual game, the deep level on which the scene works.

The game, however, is fated to go awry. She finally opens the door, making a flirtatious remark about the indecency of pounding on a ladies' bedroom door – and then she sees the cane. Wyler makes a point of it: a shot of the cane, a shot of her reaction. As usual with Davis, it's a thinking reaction. Importantly, Pres doesn't notice her noticing; in fact, as soon as she lets him into the room, he forgets about the cane, leaving it just inside the door. He would like to forget about everything that's passed between them, even what just happened. But he doesn't get it. There is no going back from the cane. The implication that he would beat her is unforgivable; he's playing outside the rules.

And perhaps, just as he wasn't “really” planning to use the cane, so she wasn't “really” planning to use the dress – by showing it to him as her choice. But once she sees the cane, the die is cast. Now she will have to use her weapon, even though the consequences will be for her, not him: first, by humiliating her in front of the entire community; second, by ending their relationship, which, since she loves him, is the last thing she wants to do.

Jezebel is one of those films – about the battle of the sexes – that I assume must be entirely different viewing experiences depending on whether you're a woman or a man, even though presumably most viewers can sympathize and identify somewhat with both perspectives in it. Wyler, certainly, appears to understand what it means for Julie to be threatened with abuse in response to her unruly behaviour. After all, she may have metaphorically been holding the whip hand with Pres, but she never threatened to use a whip on him. And although on the one hand, these props – the whip and the cane – are metaphors for the kinky aspect of their sexually charged battle of wills – the cane, and abuse, here, is also literal. And not just literal (and literal abuse, not BDSM), but also symbolic of something that may even be more offensive than the use of violence: the implication that he wants to control her behaviour as a woman. This is Wyler's version of so-called “patriarchy,” in which men will decide the limits of female behaviour, and punish their transgressions, as an act of psychological violence that will be enforced with physical violence if necessary.

But the film's psychology is a lot more complex than that. It's important that even the female viewer never entirely loses sympathy with Pres's behaviour, no matter how unsympathetic it becomes, or knows what one would do in his place. (It's a film full of unsympathetic behaviour by both principals.) Until the Olympus Ball scene, Julie has brazened her way through society's opposition; but here, with all of society staring at her, positioned in direct violation of its precepts, she gives in to shame and can't go through with it. But Pres, as stubborn as she is, forces her to see through the consequences of her willfulness and keeps her a prisoner at the ball: if she wants to make a spectacle of herself, she will have to experience what being a spectacle means.

For him, the relationship is over before he even takes her to the ball, as soon as he sees she's determined to go through with wearing the dress. Once he's fulfilled and more than fulfilled his duty as her escort, he then has the temerity to dump her – at her doorstep. What ensues – again, gestures and facial expressions – also had an enormous impact on me as a teenage viewer. He tells her it's over and she pretends to accept it graciously, smiling and offering her hand; but when he takes it, her other hand whips out and slaps his face viciously, whereupon she gives him one of her classic Bette Davis glares, never more powerful than in this film where she and Wyler emphasize her physical and psychological fragility. I was fascinated by this sadistic undercutting of social pretence; by Julie's refusal to assume the moral high ground or conceal the ugly hostility of their parting. She can't refuse herself her revenge, even though, again, it's Pyrrhic.


The second act of Jezebel deals with Julie's attempts at redemption after she realizes she has really driven Pres away for good. In the film's “official” morality, Julie is a quasi-sympathetic bitch who goes too far and alienates her man, which teaches her a lesson and sets her on a rocky road to becoming a genuine “good woman.” The film – or anyway, the screenplay – is a textbook example of the “having it both ways” morality of classic Hollywood: on the one hand, the audience gets to enjoy Julie's shocking behaviour and sadism; on the other hand, we pretend it's all in the service of her moral redemption.

But there are many scenes to enjoy in the second half, too. For me the scene in which Julie essentially throws herself at Pres in the virginal white dress he wanted her to wear – kneeling before him – without knowing that he's married, is not one of them. Similar in its emotional dynamics to the climactic onstage scene of De Palma's Carrie, the Olympus Ball scene is nearly unbearable viewing for a female viewer, but in that scene, at least, Julie is made abject – by her society, by Pres – whereas in the kneeling scene, she humiliates herself (both deliberately and inadvertently). And for my teenage self, at least, that was far worse, since she couldn't conceive anything worse than throwing yourself at a man and being rejected. (Which is why the ball scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy refuses to dance with Elizabeth was such a feminist revelation for me.) George Toles has argued this point with me as well, and perhaps Davis herself thought that Julie was simply humbling her pride in this scene – but perhaps Davis, as an actress or persona, is incapable of doing that “correctly,” in a way that would be moving rather than painful to watch; or perhaps we, as viewers, are incapable of wanting to see her that way.

Much better, for me, is the scene where Julie is pushed to a point of desperation akin to madness when she's faced with having to play hostess to Pres's northern wifey, and indulges in some of her worst behaviour yet. She takes herself off to the back porch of the manor house, overlooking the Negro shacks, and suffers the little slave children to come unto her, leading them in song. When Pres's wife looks askance on this wild scene, Julie informs her, batting her eyelashes more aggressively than you would think possible, that it's a quaint “southern custom,” and also announces that she wore her white dress “'cause I'm bein' baptized!” Amy the northern wifey may be all for progress (including a marriage based on modern “equal partnership” rather than sizzling one-upmanship), but there's something about a white woman in a white dress mingling with the Negro slaves that appals her delicate puritan sensitivity. I wouldn't go as far as this blogger, who thinks that the threatened caning stands in for the violence of slavery, but I do think that Julie's “lowering herself” to mingle with the slaves makes a symbolic equivalence between her and their abject pariah status – and, with it, innocence. She tried to exalt herself by demeaning herself when she knelt in front of Pres, but here she actually accomplishes it, even if only the viewer recognizes it. (And even if the slaves – like her maid – are merely uncomprehending props in her complicated, sophisticated, grown-up “white person” games.)

I will confess that I'm not unaffected by the “redemption porn” that Wyler and Davis so beautifully accomplish at the end of the film, especially since the final bartering exchange – for Pres's unconscious, half-dead body! – between Amy and Julie contains Jamesian elements of ambiguity as to just how selfless Julie is being. Wyler turns Davis into a soft-focus waif, wearing herself to death in Pres's service, a single-minded somnambulist in a sweaty, ragged black gown that's been dragged through a swamp (with fabulous puffy spotted sleeves I've never forgotten). (Davis, I recall, once said that Orry-Kelly's gown designs did half her acting for her in another Wyler film, The Little Foxes; here, the same designer's gowns are, at least, brilliant collaborators with her.) The wasted beauty Wyler finds in Davis in these final scenes, surpassing the prettiness she achieved in earlier scenes and never managed to repeat in another film, is a distinctly Hollywood (glamourous, erotic) version of “spiritual beauty,” but I can't deny its effectiveness in its own terms.

But Julie's real redemption takes place in the film's subtext: the scene where Pres collapses from Yellow Fever in a crowded bar, where all of the men (now truly revealed as emasculated cowards) stand back from him except for the doctor (who, incidentally, is the one who recommended the caning) makes a symbolic equivalence between this infected, infectious pariah and the “contamination” of unconfined female sexuality symbolized by Julie's red dress in the Olympus Ball scene. Including the fact that Julie is shunned in a feminine “society” space, by the “good,” “pure” women who fear her contamination (and who lead their men in that respect), while Pres is shunned by a roomful of men.

Other than the – disturbing – “Raise a Ruckus” singalong scene, my favourite scene from the second part of the film also answers the Olympus Ball scene. (The film not only leads up to it by echoing it in advance, but keeps on “answering” it – digesting it – afterwards.) Julie has made herself a pariah a second time over by trying to manipulate Pres and his former rival for her, Buck, into a duel, but accidentally getting Buck's naive young man-about-town protege involved instead of Pres. In the end, Buck is killed or lets himself be killed. This melodrama subplot is a manipulation that forces Julie into a technical villain position, in a way that feels rather artificial and a betrayal of her more interesting qualities. At the same time, however, it also echoes the dynamics of the Olympus Ball scene, since Buck's protege is being rash and headstrong and Buck intends to “tutorially” make him see through the consequences of it – although in the end he can't go through with what that would mean.

Now everyone – even her supportive aunt – in Julie's household turns against her in a wall of self-righteous moral outrage. The time-honoured dramaturgical result, of course, is to make Julie seem morally sympathetic, even though she's in a morally inexcusable position for the first time. The only thing worse than a villain is the villainy of group moral outrage. And when Yellow Fever means that they can't march out of Julie's house en masse as they wished, it's the group's turn to get a comeuppance. They return to the house with grumpy bad grace and forced humbleness – while Julie exhibits perfect good grace and the grace (almost in the elevated Christian sense) of genuine humility and southern hospitality – in bowing before them, welcoming them back in. Which also shows that Davis can “do” humility – when it's actual humility, not humiliation posing as humility. Once again, the scene – drawing on the film's stage origins and the southern setting – pivots around ritual and formal manners. Julie draws on the Magdelene side of her casting as whore and on her similarly demonized southern background, disappearing into a social tradition of humility: she is not humiliated (and humiliates no one) in this scene because her visibility is diminished rather than heightened.

One thing I can agree about with the blogger's slavery subtext theory (marvellous blog title, by the way: I Hate the New Yorker): I think the film's sadomasochistic thematic undercurrent (not just the cane) probably refers to the suppressed subject of slavery. In which even, perhaps (and now I'm warming to the theory), women – the abject, the uppity – are metaphorically equivalent to slaves. But then, so is the abject, disease-ridden, backwards, unreformable south: it, too, is the demonized/romanticized Other. At any rate, the transformation of the master/slave conception of the world into BDSM kink at the interpersonal level (which in turn serves as a metaphor for the former) also shows up in one of the most overtly kinky mainstream English-language films ever made, Losey's The Servant. Which will surely turn up as a subject in a future post.