Friday, June 05, 2015

The real Pamela Geller?

Watching TV a few mornings ago, I saw Chris Cuomo interview the individual known as "Pamela Geller," recently in the news as the organizer of the Draw Muhammad event in Texas. 

My research has shown that she is a double agent, originally named Fatima al-Gallah. Like the Soviet agents who once infiltrated our society, al-Gallah has spent many years achieving a near-perfect simulation of an American Jewish woman. Her mission is to bring ridicule on legitimate criticism of Islam by caricaturing the critics, exaggerating everything. In this task she has been succeeding brilliantly.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


A friend, who has just read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, remarks that the book is of central importance to modern consciousness.  He does not say why.  Here is my response.

While Lolita is generally acknowledged (correctly) as having high literary value, its success was greatly boosted by the place and timing of its publication. Unable to find a US publisher, Nabokov agreed to give it to Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press in Paris, a firm then renowned for its dirty books. Anglophone travelers (I was one) would flock to Brentano's in Paris to stock up on these racy titles.

Lolita was originally published in 1955, heralding the collapse of literary censorship in the US and the UK. Thus the book's success reflected a confluence of intrinsic value and external circumstances. For those who lived through this era, Lolita was indeed central - as it is to anyone who seeks to understand those remarkable years.

The Stanley Kubrick film is also good, though it fudges by advancing Lolita's age from 12 to 16.  Nabokov had taken up this theme of girl love several times before in his writing, yet, to my knowledge, he had no personal interest in behavior of this kind.  I suppose curiosity goes beyond what we actually do.  I have a mild interest in BDSM, but no ability to practice it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


The other night Turner Classics presented a short film made (at the age of 79) by the ever-amazing Sofia Loren, La Voce Umana, an adaptation of a monologic play by Jean Cocteau, first presented in the theater in 1930. A number of Cocteau's works have been filmed, some directed by the writer himself. 

This occurrence started me thinking about the effect of Cocteau on the aesthetics of film. When he created the first installment of his Orpheus trilogy, The Blood of a Poet, in 1930, experimental cinema was already in existence. 

World War II drove it off the scene for a good while, so that when Cocteau's major films, such as Beauty and the Beast and Les Enfants Terribles (the latter directed by J.P. Melville), hit the art houses in the years after 1945, they represented the only viable alternative to the reigning models. There were two: the realism of Hollywood, as incarnated by the noirs; and the Italian neorealism of Rossellini, followed by that of Fellini and Pasolini. Cocteau's films were not in this tradition at all, and I believe that they made a decisive contribution to a new, broader contribution to the concept of what movies are - or could be - about. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Modernism in question

The fading of the fetish of postmodernism - long overdue in my opinion - has led to a revival of the trend it ostensibly replaced, modernism itself. 

But what is modernism? In literature it can clearly be identified with the emergence of such French avant-garde writers as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud. Those more oriented to the anglophone sphere focus on the "men of 1914": Pound, Eliot, Lewis, and Joyce. In painting a strong case can be made for the Cubist foursome, Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger, recently seen here at the Met in the Lauder Collection. In architecture the giants Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius emerged ca. 1922. 

What binds all these figures together is their seemingly contradictory embrace of modern life and technology combined with an ironic attitude towards them. I find myself returning over and over to these figures, who were truly "phares," beacons of light in Baudelaire's terms.

A question that frequently arises with modernist writers is this. Weren't all these figures reactionaries, if not actual fascists? That is true of Pound, Céline, and Marinetti, though not at all points of their careers. However, the poets Esenin and Mayakovsky were stalwart supporters of the incipient Soviet regime, as was, in a different way, Bertolt Brecht. During WW II in France Samuel Beckett worked actively for the Resistance. Some pertinent questions have been raised about J.-P. Sartre in this period, but after the war he consistently supported, in his own fashion, the left. Others, like Joyce and Rilke were uncommitted.

Sunday, April 05, 2015


My godless parents brought me up to have no religion. Never having assumed any formal religious affiliation, I have largely agreed with them - except for one thing. That is that they neglected the role of religion in inspiring major works of art, literature, and music in the Western tradition. I sought to grapple with these themes in my university teaching of the history of art. Moreover, my avocation is classical music, especially its early manifestations, which in such composers as Machaut, Palestrina, J.S. Bach and many others is hugely concerned with setting Christian religious texts. 

Because of these two interests - art and music - I feel most affinity with Catholicism - if I had to choose. Evangelical Christianity in particular leaves me cold, especially in its latest, hard-nosed form, so obnoxiously evident in recent homophobic outbursts in Indiana and other places. 

By the same token, however, nothing is gained by name-calling, in particular by asserting that these narrow-minded individuals are "Christofascists." The term Christofaschismus was first proposed by a German theologian in 1970 to describe the churches in the Nazi era that had slavishly accommodated themselves to the Third Reich. With that specific meaning, it seems appropriate. Recently, though "Christofascist" has been revived as an epithet by such polemicists as Chris Hedges. Yet even in its most restrictive forms, evangelical Christianity has little in common with historical fascism - no single maximum leader, no posited master race, no unique party and so on. It is best to avoid such name calling.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Political Correctness (PC)

Sometimes we hear that the concept of “political correctness” (or PC) is a mere chimera invented by conservatives to vilify the left.  This claim is not factual, because the origins of the concept lie clearly on the left
In the early-to-mid 20th century, deployment of the expression "politically correct" was part and parcel of the dogmatic application of Stalinist doctrine.  What it actually consisted of was the subject of an extended three-cornered debate among formal Communists (members of the Communist Party, CP), Trotskyists, and Socialists. As it was generally employed, however, the phrase served as shorthand for the Communist party line, which stipulated "correct" positions on many issues. Of course the party line was always changing so that yesterday's political correctness became incorrect. A good example is the CP line on the Nazi regime.  Up to August 23, 1939, the Nazis were fascist beasts; after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement they became de facto allies of the Soviet Union, with the two countries in accord as to the decadence of the Western democracies. Two years later, in June 22, 1941, the line changed again when Hitler invaded the USSR.

According to Herbert Kohl, writing about debates in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s:  "The term “politically correct” was used disparagingly, to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion, and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in egalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance."

In the 1970s, the New Left purloined the term political correctness from the old left. For example, in "The Black Woman: An Anthology" (1970), Toni Cade Bambara maintained that "a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist, too." Sometimes the expression was used ironically or in a jocular fashion, but everyone who adopted it took the underlying idea seriously. There were correct thoughts and incorrect ones. I remember this miasma personally when the neo-Marxist wave briefly swamped gay liberation in the early seventies. Those were trying times,  Yet the history is not assisted by the claim that PC is merely an opportunistic conservative device.  It was the left that invented and promoted this misleading concept.

Whatever ones view about the particular issues, two things are wrong with the concept of political correctness.  1) It posits certainty about issues that are generally contestable, locating the source of this certainty in some particular political party or tendency, which has the power to arbitrate disputes and lay down the correct line.  2) In practice PC is strangely variable. Here is an example from my own experience.  In the 1970s trans people, especially drag queens, were anathema in mainstream gay-liberation circles.  We were told in no uncertain terms that these individuals were simply mocking women.  They were enacting a spectacle of misogyny, and that was all there was to it.  That was the view that was politically correct in those days.  Now in the 21st century, though, matters have come full circle, and trans people are in the forefront of a new and more flexible definition of gender, one that is to the benefit of all of us.  That is the new political correctness on this issue.  I take no view about the merits of these opinions: I am simply exhibiting the instability of the “correct” view.

Sunday, March 08, 2015


A few years ago I had a discussion with a fellow art historian about the French writer Jean Cocteau. My friend maintained that Cocteau's only significance was his brief role as a satellite of Pablo Picasso. Wrong.
To be sure, Cocteau may now seem somewhat dated, and his reputation is still suffering from homophobic attacks on the part of the Surrealists. To my mind, Cocteau had two main accomplishments.
1) With La Machine Infernale in 1934 he discovered a viable way ofmodernizing Greek tragedy. In this country that approach came to fruition much later with Schechner's Dionysus in 69, but it has dominated productions of the Greek classics ever since.
2) In the immediate postwar years after 1945 there were two models of film making: the realism of Hollywood and the neo-realism of Rosselini and other Italian directors. Without denigrating either one - and I love Hollywood noirs - there was a great need for another template, one that was more poetic. Cocteau provided this alternative in such evocative films as Les Parents Terribles (1948), Beauty and the Beast (1946), and Orpheus (1949).

In winter's grip

Snowed in, I decided to emulate my true culture heroes, the scholar-poets of traditional China who, in their humble hermitages, loved nothing more than to study with the seasons winging past. Study the classics, above all. I decided not to focus on the traditional favorites of the Tang dynasty, those that everyone knows or should know: Li Bo, Dufu, and Wang Wei. They are truly great ones. Nor would I read, once again, the 305 poems of Confucius' Book of Songs.
Instead I prefer to focus on the era in between: the writers of the Han and Six Dynasties. There is much of enduring interest there: longing and separation, observations of nature, the transience of earthly ambitions, subtle intimations of spirituality.

If only my Chinese would get better! But I do what I can with English and French.