Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The green umbrella

In theater circles the following story is sometimes told about the great Austrian director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). The master had hired an experienced actor for a particular part, but somehow the fellow just couldn’t get it right. During the rehearsals Reinhardt’s constant scolding made it seem certain that he would soon be fired. In desperation, the hapless actor bought a green umbrella and put it under his arm at the next rehearsal. “Now you’ve got it!” exclaimed Reinhardt. The next day the actor appeared without the umbrella, and the director again said that it was all wrong. “Get that green umbrella,” he admonished. The actor did so, and all went well thereafter.

Deriving from this anecdote, a green umbrella is a personal object which, when it is carried, “works” for the bearer. The green-umbrella meme may be regarded as a subcategory of the talisman, an amulet or other object considered to possess supernatural or magical powers. Talismans generally derive from religious contexts, such as those of the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Israelites, and some modern Jews. For example, in modern Orthodox Jewish observance the tefillin, also called phylacteries, are a pair of black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Bible. The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is worn by Jews wrapped around the arm, hand, and fingers, while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. According to tradional belief, they are worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. Reputedly, Madonna has taken to wearing these amulets; whether they assure her success as a performer is uncertain.

By contrast, “green umbrellas,” to use the term generically, differ from such traditional amulets in the following way: the power of the object resides not in its religious charisma, but stems from its personal significance for the individual who has chosen it,

The term green umbrella may also be used in an extended sense to describe a belief system that serves to empower the person who has adopted it, without its necessarily being literally true.

An example from a century ago is the role of Theosophy in the work of the pioneering abstract artists Kandinsky, Kupka, and Mondrian. Theosophy is a New Age religious philosophy devised by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1875, utilizing Egyptian and South Asian sources. In my view it has no inherent cognitive status. However, the belief system proved catalytic for some avant-garde artists, who held that Theosophy provided authorization for their departure from the accepted norms of representational art.

In our own day, Queer Theory has served a similar purpose for some scholars in the realm of gender studies. A few months ago I wrote a piece that I circulated on the Internet about Queer Theory, which I find incoherent and probably destined to have a short life. This piece elicited a passionate rebuttal from the British scholar Dan Healey.

Healey has produced important work on Russian and Soviet gay history. His book “Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia” investigates the private worlds of sexual dissidents during the pivotal decades before and after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Using records and archives available to researchers only since the fall of Communism, Healey has revisited the rich homosexual world of ordinary Russians who lived extraordinary lives, recording the voices of a long-silenced minority.

How can I reconcile my admiration for Healey’s work with my belief that he subscribes to a failed ideology? The answer seems to be that Queer Theory functions for the British scholar as a green umbrella. In my view, the ideology is not intrinsic to the success of the study, but serves to bolster its adherent’s commitment and sense of mission. In this way we all benefit--indirectly in my view--from a dubious ideology. It works because it works.



Blogger Burk said...

Very nicely put! It seems so harmless the way you portray it. But would we all benefit if the green-umbrella cult became institutionalized, with schools of green divinity that denounced the purple-umbrella-ists, and etc. and so on? Such ideologies, with their great motivational force, can become run-away trains in the larger society, as in the cases of communism and many others. So along with respecting the personal conscience and personal rights to belief, some work also needs to go into the project of keeping Augean stables of reasoned public discourse free of such umbrellas.

2:23 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Thanks, Burk.

Count me in the purple-umbrella faction, for sure!

7:37 AM  

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