Thursday, February 22, 2018

Hidden Christians


The making of Martin Scorsese's film Silence was, in various ways, an act of faith. Its first act of faith was relying on the film's audience to know the history of the Jesuits in Japan. The Jesuit priest Francis Xavier first arrived in Japan in the year 1549 when Japan was a disorganized collection of clans at war with one another. His mission was successful far beyond his wildest expectations, and succeeding missions to Japan resulted in the conversion of thousands of Japanese people to Christianity and establishing churches. But the many "daimyos" - or fiefdoms - in Japan were being consolidated into a single centralized government which regarded the Jesuits and the Christian religion as a threat to its power. By 1614, when there were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan (out of a total population of twenty million) along with Christian colleges, seminaries, hospitals and a growing local clergy, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered the immediate expulsion of the Jesuits and the suppression of the Christian faith. By the time the action of Silence begins in 1643, most of the Christians in Japan had been slaughtered by government authorities or run to ground (the so-called kakure kirishitan or hidden Christians). News of one particular priest in Japan, Padre Ferreira, has caused special concern in Macao, the center of Christian leadership in Asia, and two priests are dispatched to Japan to discover Ferreira's fate.    

By the time I encountered Silence a few weeks ago, I knew how special it should be, since it took more than two decades for Scorsese to finally make it. In all that time, the film took shape in Scorsese's imagination - plenty of time to arrive at a precise shooting script and storyboard. Watching the film certainly gives one a sense of the exactitude of its conception and construction. I knew that Dante Ferretti, who designed the sets and costumes for the film, was brought on board to Scorsese's plans quite early. As it turned out, he was prevented from realizing his project until two years ago. I think it is a formidable achievement, but one fraught with problems that arise from its conception as a statement of Scorsese's own Christian faith.

Shusaku Endo's novel Chinmoku (Silence), published in 1966 and published in English translation in 1969, is a carefully-wrought and moving memorial to the people who were converted in the 16th & 17th-centuries by waves of Portuguese Jesuits. Losing ground in Europe to Martin Luther's Protestant faith, the Jesuits expanded the Catholic Church's reach to North and South America and Asia. The results of this attempted expansion, as Silence but also the Roland Joffé film The Mission (set in Portuguese South America) dramatically show, were a disaster for the native populations. Both novels/films are tacitly critical of the Jesuits' zealotry, inflicting a foreign religious dogma on people living, albeit precariously, under dogmas of their own. But Endo's novel has a broader reach: Christianity in Japan survived two centuries of suppression and persecution.

There are two accounts of how Scorsese was introduced to Endo's novel, but he must have known that it had already made its way to a film adaptation in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda. Whatever Endo's intentions in writing the novel were, an important qualification is the fact that he was a Catholic. Some critics (without a trace of irony) called him the Japanese Graham Greene. Shinoda, a non-Catholic, was one of the best filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave. Writing his script with Endo's collaboration, Shinoda evidently approached the novel as a work of historical literature rather than as a work of religious art. This would account for the closing scene (in stark contrast to Scorsese's), in which Padre Rodrigues, now living as a Japanese named Okada San'emon, forces himself on his Japanese wife as Ferreira (now Lord Sawano) peeps in on him. Endo reportedly hated Shinoda's ending. All Endo gives us of Rodrigues's fate is from a fictional contemporary Japanese diarist who describes how Rodrigues lives out his final days in Nagasaki. Scorsese follows this account in his film's last scene, but includes what is known as an "auteur's touch" by showing us Rodrigues's body as it is being cremated with a tiny crucifix enclosed in his hands. Some critics even called it a "Rosebud moment." No one bothered to ask Scorsese how the crucifix got there.

Looked at objectively as films, the two versions of Silence both suffer from the sheer lack of spectacle. In fact, the action of the story, if it can be called action at all, is restricted to confined spaces, to huts and prison cells. It makes one wonder what could possibly have attracted either Scorsese or Shinoda to adapting the novel in the first place. It seems strange to me, given the similarities between the two films (the pacing of each scene and the framing of individual shots, even the buzzing of the cicadas) and the qualities to be found in Shinoda's film, why Scorsese wanted so badly to cover the same ground again.

Shinoda's film, photographed by Kazuo Miyagawa, famed cinematographer of such classic films as Rashomon and Ugetsu, is handicapped by its use of two unknown foreign actors, David Lampson and Don Kenny - chosen, I suppose, because of their command of Japanese. Neither actor is the least bit compelling in their roles, and their style of acting clashes unflatteringly with that of the Japanese actors. This clash in acting styles reaches its climax when Rodrigues is finally confronted by Padre Ferreira, played by none other than Tetsuro Tamba, whose false beard and bushy eyebrows fail to conceal the Japanese actor beneath. Further, the role of Kichijiro, the man who is in a perpetual cycle of informing and begging forgiveness, is played by the Japanese-American actor Mako Iwamatsu, better-known as simply Mako from such American films as The Sand Pebbles and a well-known face on 1960s & 70s American television.

Shinoda's film has, I think, the right tone of remoteness and abstraction, and his use of music composed for the film by Toru Takemitsu further diatances us from the action.  He clearly wasn't trying to bring the world of Endo's characters any closer. And for all the comments about Scorsese's depiction of the tortures inflicted on the faithful, Shinoda includes a quite hair-raising scene of torture in which a Christianized samurai is buried up to his neck and a man rides a horse back and forth over his exposed head while his wife is forced to watch. Only her placing her foot on the holy image (fumi-e) makes the horse and rider stop. But her sacrifice doesn't prevent her husband from being stabbed to death moments later. This same woman, played by Shinoda's wife Shima Iwashita, is given to Rodrigues as his wife after he himself apostatizes.

Two threads run through Silence, intersecting and intertwining: identity and faith - or nationality and religious allegiance. Significantly, at the start of the film, Kichijiro is asked two questions, Are you really Japanese? and Are you really a Christian? At the end of the film, with apostatized Padre Rodrigues adopting a Japanese identity and a Japanese wife, he knows that he is neither Japanese nor Christian.

As much as I dislike end-titles curtly announcing people's subsequent fates, I expected to see them at the end of Scorsese's film. I think it is significant that he excluded an historical note telling us of the astonishing survival of Christianity in Japan. All he gives us is a kind of dedication: "For the Japanese Christians and their pastors Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam." It's the motto of the Jesuits and it means, To the Greater Gloria of God.

In his translator's preface to the English edition of Endo's novel, William Johnston wrote: "in 1865, when Japan was reopened, the crypto-Christians came out from their hiding, asking for the statue of Santa Maria, speaking about Christmas and Lent, recalling the celibacy of the priests. They are still there in  their thousands, in Nagasaki and the offshore islands, clinging tenaciously to a faith that centuries of ruthless vigilance could not stamp out. Some of them are united with the world-wide Church; others are not. In their prayers remain smatterings of the old Portuguese and Latin; they preserve pieces of the soutanes and rosaries and disciplines  that belonged to the fathers whom they loved; they retain their devotion to Santa Maria. And it was while living among them that Shusaku Endo wrote Silence."(1)

I think that Scorsese excluded this information deliberately because he wanted to concentrate our attention on Rodrigues and Ferreira. In so doing, I think that Scorsese has misread Endo's novel, because it isn't about Father Rodrigues or Ferreira and their strange transformations into ordinary Japanese men and their subsequent fates. Nor, indeed, is it the story of Christianity and the remarkable cruelty with which it was inflicted on uneducated and unsuspecting peasants. Silence is the story of the Japanese, and how they managed to cling so tenaciously and steadfastly to their faith in a foreign religion, a foreigner's religion.

The film that Scorsese's Silence reminded me of almost immediately was a half-forgotten film made by the Australian Bruce Beresford in Canada in 1991 called Black Robe. It, too, tells a story of a 17th century Jesuit missionary. Also based on historical accounts of the native Americans' first encounters with Christianity and its disastrous effects on their lives, it, too, ends with a sense of the futility of it all. Father Laforgue has at last arrived in the remote Huron village in the dead of winter only to find the inhabitants are afflicted with smallpox, one of the foreign diseases introduced to the natives along with Christianity. The villagers plead with Father Laforgue to baptize them, hoping perhaps that God will cure the disease. The film closes on the baptismal service and a title informs us of subsequent events:

"Fifteen years later, the Hurons, having accepted Christianity, were routed and killed by their enemies, the Iroquois. The Jesuit mission to the Hurons was abandoned and the Jesuits returned to Quebec."

When Roger Ebert reviewed the film, he concluded: "I will not reveal the conclusion of the film, other than to say that when it was over, I sat there in a state of depressed suspension, wondering if that could possibly be all there was."

Heavens, is that all there is to the story? What uplifting conclusion was he expecting? I wonder which film version of Silence Ebert would've been more gratified by - Shinoda's, in which Padre Rodrigues is last seen "making the beast with two backs" with his Japanese wife, or Scorsese's, in which Rodrigues's dead body is secretly revealed to be clutching a crucifix? 


(1) Silence by Shusaku Endo, William Johnston, translation (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969).
(2) see https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/black-robe-1991

Friday, February 16, 2018

Antebellum Blues

The past is never dead. It is not even past.
- William Faulkner


There is American exceptionalism - the belief that America is unique and unprecedented, that it cannot be classified or compared to any other country at any other moment in history. It is used to defend all manner of wonders and outrages. It is a watchword for conservatives, a favorite expression in speeches and manifestos, a kind of explicit faith. As some of us have known for a long time, America is not nearly as exceptional as others would like it to be. But the relative newness of America is an excuse for disingenuousness or naïveté. The Greeks may have invented democracy. The Vikings may have practiced it. The Swiss may have codified it. But America perfected it. For awhile anyway.

So, there is American exceptionalism, which affects one side of American life, the side that is found in the great hinterlands of the country, in places like Montana and Iowa and Texas. (Texans seem to have an exceptionalism peculiarly their own - but that is another matter.) But then there is a Southern exceptionalism, an exemption, an anomalous history, that is distinct, in addition to, the national exceptionalism. It is so exceptional that it declared its independence from the Union in 1861, provoking the Civil War, the costliest war in American history in lives lost than all our other wars combined.

In a real sense, for the Southerner, since 1865 nothing has happened. A shattered agronomist culture that was dependent on slavery was made to pay for its own defeat for decades. The South when I knew it in the 1960s and '70s was backward compared to the rest of the country. It is still the region of the country that is most economically depressed, where poverty levels are the highest in the country.

Last August, after the demonstrations in Charlottesville, I wrote about what sparked the violence - the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park.(1) Just a week or so ago, I got an email from someone I've known for most of my life. We don't agree about many things, but we've known each other too long for any of that to come between us. With her permission, I quote a paragraph from her email:

In 2017 all we have done is bully people.  We bullied the president, bullied other people about misconduct, bullied people to get rid of statues, bullied people to change names of schools & streets.  I don't care what anyone says it is bullying.  But, no one sees it as that.

I must admit that I didn't see it as bullying. I saw it as another correction in a long line of corrections going back to 1866. It isn't at all a major correction, like the end of Jim Crow or indeed like the Emancipation Proclamation. It's mostly cosmetic - like the British royal family changing its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (which sounds too German) to Windsor in 1917 when Britain was in the depths of an all-out war with Germany.

History may indeed be written by the winners, but it is curious that no one seemed to mind that people erected memorials to the Southern dead until recently. How the South chose to remember its past didn't alter the fact that the Confederacy was a failure and that slavery was abolished for good. But the official version of events is now superseding all others. It's almost as if people only learned their own history in the past decade or so.

It should be pretty clear from her remarks that my correspondent is a Southerner. I, too, was born and raised in the South. But, strangely, I would not - could not - call myself a Southerner. Why? My father was from an old family in LaGrange, Georgia that likely owned slaves. I guessed as much when he repeated a family story to me of an old gentleman who had a rumored fortune in a locked chest in the attic. Upon the old man's death, the chest was cracked open and was found to contain millions in worthless Confederate cash. My father spent the last several years of his life trying to arrange to die in the South, which he accomplished at last in South Carolina in 1988. I think the reason why I don't consider myself a Southerner is because my mother - who was a much greater influence on me - was from Ohio, and had grown, over the course of her 42-year marriage to my father, to hate the South.

When he was awarded the National Book Award for his novel The Moviegoer in 1960, Walker Percy was asked why there were so many good Southern writers. "Because we got beat," he replied. Knowledge of defeat, of standing up and getting knocked down for values that are so scabrous to us today that it's impossible for us to comprehend how the standing up for them could have once been thought to be an incredibly romantic gesture, romantic precisely because they were so indefensible, informs the works of so many Southern writers. Flannery O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and James Agee are just a few of them. 

By far the greatest Southern writer was the novelist William Faulkner. He seemed to carry the full burden of the South's fabled and sinful past, and he knew his subject well:

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods, and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet. . . ."

The South was not some foreign nation that was conquered. It was defeated in a civil war - an internal, internecine conflict that pitted family against family. Lincoln suppressed a poorly organized, dimly conceived but valiantly fought rebellion. It took as long as it did only because the Union army underestimated the Rebels' determination. What the hell were they fighting for? For what did almost three-quarters of a million Americans die? The Union fought to preserve itself. The Confederacy fought for the same thing. Was the war fought over slavery? If not, then what was it about? We haven't yet made up our minds. The issue of slavery came up in 1776 when the Constitution was being drafted, but the southern states, whose economies depended on it, forced the postponement of the ultimate resolution of the issue. "We have the wolf by the ear," Jefferson wrote in 1820, "and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go." They finally let it go, knowing full well what would happen next, forty-one years later.

If it means something to be a Southerner, as I believe it does, then a Southerner has to account in some way for his past - the same past that every American must account for, as America's Original Sin. But Southerners were the ones who "got beat." For them, the Civil War was not a great leap forward from what Lincoln called the "dogmas of the quiet past," but a demoralizing defeat. Whatever the Rebels were fighting for (what they convinced themselves it was), the outcome of the war made them appear to have been fighting for slavery. Not against the tyranny of the federal government that was trying to take away from the states their right of self-determination, their right to decide for themselves how they might live. Because the Civil War, one of the defining events in our history, was for a Southerner a catastrophe from which in some places it has never recovered. In the Official History of the American Civil War, the problem of slavery was solved in 1863. We have been absolved of our sin. But have we?

In his brilliant essay on Faulkner, "The Secret of the South," Alfred Kazin wrote:

"There was a great guilt incurred in the South, a curse was put on the land that was given to all men freely to enjoy. Faulkner does not excuse this guilt, he does not apologize for it, he does not evade it. He is a Southerner and has a great story to tell. Man's immortality, if he can be said to have onecat all, reaches into the past, not into the future: it lies in a candid sense of history." (2)


(1) See "Victory to the Victims".
(2) Alfred Kazin, The Bright Book of Life.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Unintelligible Disasters


I watched a program on the Deutsche Welle channel last weekend in which American and Russian scientists found themselves in total agreement about the threat to our planet from climate change. They even commented on the comfort they derived from their agreement, having once worked against one another during the Cold War. At an historic moment, when there are some quisling scientists interpreting the data of melting Arctic ice differently, and politicians aggressively rejecting the message and rhetorically shooting the messenger, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the efforts of these scientists to raise awareness of the gravity of the threat of climate change.

The people who refuse to believe that human behavior has pushed us to the brink of possibly catastrophic environmental changes have been dubbed "climate change deniers," deliberately reminiscent of the term "Holocaust deniers" - coined for the people who still refuse to believe that the Nazis exterminated six million Jews. There was a moment during the war, in 1942, when the nations allied against Hitler were completely unaware of what was happening in Poland, the actions being taken by the Germans against the Jewish population. A clandestine meeting took place in Warsaw in October 1942 that had a potentially far-reaching impact for the Jews and for the ultimate outcome of the war. Watching the program about the scientists' attempts to warn governments about climate change reminded me of the strange, almost surreal meeting that took place in Warsaw in 1942.

Jan Karski was a professor at Georgetown University. At one time he was an agent of the Polish Government in exile who was acting as a courier between the Polish underground resistance and the government in London when he was approached by representatives of two Jewish leaders - a Zionist named Bermann and the "Bund" leader Leon Feiner - in Warsaw who requested a meeting with him. His account of the meeting was presented in an interview with Claude Lanzmann in 1978, and is shown in the last part of his great Holocaust documentary, Shoah. Here is a small part of his account:

A meeting was arranged outside of the Ghetto. There were two gentlemen. Now, what transcribed [sic], what happened in our conversation. First - I was not prepared for it. I was relatively isolated in my work in Poland. I did not see many things. They described to me what is happening to the Jews. They described to me, first, that the Jewish problem is unprecedented, cannot be compared with the Polish problem or Russian or any other problem. Hitler will lose this war, but he will exterminate all Jewish population. Do I understand it? The Allies fight for their people they fight for humanity. The Allies cannot forget that the Jews will be exterminated totally in Poland - Polish and European Jews. They were breaking down, they paced the room, they were whispering, they were hissing. It was a nightmare for me. At various stages of the conversation, they lost control of themselves. I just sat in my chair. I just listened. I did not even react. 

They realized, I think they realized from the beginning that I don't know, that I don't understand this problem. Once I said I will take messages from them, wanted to inform me what is happening to the Jews. And I didn't know this. I was never in a ghetto. I never dealt with the Jewish matters. This was their problem, to impress upon me, to impress upon all people - and that was my mission. 

So now, in this nightmarish (two meetings I had with them) nightmarish meetings, well, they presented their demands. The message was: Hitler cannot be allowed to continue extermination. Every day counts. The Allies cannot treat this war only from purely military strategic standpoint. They will win the war, if they take such an attitude. But what good will it do to us? We will not survive this war. The Allied governments cannot take such a stand. We contributed to humanity. We gave scientists for thousands of years. We contributed great religions. We are humans. Do you understand it? What is happening never happened before in history - what is happening to our people now. Perhaps it will change the conscience of the world.

We want an official declaration of the Allied nations that in addition to the military strategy which aims at securing military victory in this war, extermination of the Jews forms a separate chapter and the Allied nations, formally, publicly announce that they will deal with this problem, that it becomes a part of their overall strategy in this war -  not only defeat of Germany but also saving the remaining Jewish population. Once they make such an official declaration, they have an air force, they drop bombs on Germany. Why cannot they drop millions of leaflets informing the German population exactly what their government is doing to the Jews? Perhaps they don't know it. Let them make an official declaration that if the German nation does not offer evidence of trying to change the policy of their government, German nation will have to be held responsible for the crimes their government is committing. If there are not such an evidence, to announce publicly, officially, certain objects in Germany will be bombed, destroyed as a retaliation for what the German government is doing against the Jews. Who knows? Perhaps it will shake the conscience of the world.

One of the Jewish leaders offers to take Karski to the Ghetto so that he can see it with his own eyes and add conviction to his testimony to the Allies. Three hundred thousand occupants of the Ghetto had already been deported to the death camp. But what was left there was enough to leave an indelible and horrifying impression on Karski, some of which he relates in the Shoah interview. 

Upon his return to London, Karski fulfilled his mission and presented his report of the meetings in Warsaw and what he saw in the Ghetto to the highest officials. In 1944, he met with President Franklin Roosevelt and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in Washington, D.C., and gave them his report. Astonishingly, Justice Frankfurter, who was a Jew, didn't believe him. Already, before the Holocaust was revealed to the whole world, there were people who denied that it could possibly be real.

Even now, despite everything we know about Hitler, the physical evidence and the eyewitness testimonies of survivors, the Holocaust remains difficult to comprehend. Even when Raul Hilberg in Lanzmann's Shoah places the Holocaust in an historical context that contradicts the assertion that it was an event without precedent in human history, it is still difficult to fully grasp.(1) This does not mean, however, that we have any reason to disbelieve it.

Claude Lanzmann's interview with Karski was extensive and covered much more than the material he incorporated in Shoah. In 2010, he released a film that is a sort of addendum to Shoah, The Karski Report, that gives Karski's unique testimony center stage. Though Karski fulfilled his mission to report to the Allied leaders and deliver his vitally important message to them, he failed to convince them to take action. Why? At the opening of The Karski Report, he states:

What is knowledge? What can information about a horror, a literally unheard-of one, mean to the human brain, which is unprepared to receive it because it concerns a crime that is without precedent in the history of humanity? Whatever one may say, once Hitler’s war against the Jews had begun, the majority of Jews could not have been saved. That is the tragic side of history, which forbids retrospective illusions that overlook the depth, the weight, of the illegibility of an epoch, the true configuration of the impossible. Raymond Aron, who had fled to London, was asked whether he knew what was happening at that time in the East. He answered: I knew, but I didn’t believe it, and because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.

Although its effects could be catastrophic to every human being on earth, climate change deniers differ from Holocaust deniers in the respect that we have been given warnings about the adverse effects of pollution on the environment for more than fifty years - plenty of time to be prepared for the inevitable bad news that has resulted from our ignoring the warnings for so long. It was never the job of scientists to deliver a message that what we wanted to hear. Verifiable facts are what they present to us, and the facts are inarguable. Something is happening to the climate on a global scale, and carbon emissions - CO2 - is responsible. The source of most of the carbon emissions is not natural, but the direct result of human use of fossil fuels.

But the fossil fuel industry is such an inextricable part of the U.S. economy, and Donald Trump is a businessman who is acting on behalf of American businesses to eliminate regulations on coal mining and on oil exploration and production, that climate change could not have become such a serious problem at a worse time in our history. The only people who disbelieve in climate change are people who are misinformed, misled, or who have corrupt motives for refusing to accept the increasingly irrefutable data. These people - Donald Trump and his cronies - are not concerned with the ultimate impact of their rapacious acquisitiveness, determined to make as much money as they can before it's too late. If someone informed them that they will be judged severely by posterity they would probably express nothing but contempt for it - even if their children will be forced to live with the consequences of their denial of climate change.

It reminds me of the poem "The Parable of the Young Man and the Old"  by Wilfred Owen. Owen, who was killed in World War I (The Great War) just before the Armistice, knew first hand how the youth of a generation paid for the blindness of their elders.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.


(1) 'From the earliest days, from the 4th century, 5th century, 6th century, the missionaries of Christianity had said, in effect, to the Jews, "You may not live among us as Jews." The secular rulers who followed them from the late Middle Ages had then decided "You may not live among us." And the Nazis finally decreed, "You may not live."' From the interview with Raul Hilberg in Lanzmann's Shoah.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Hidden Fortress


The life of a man
Burn it with the fire!
The life of an insect
Throw it into the fire!
Ponder and you'll see
The world is dark
And this floating world is a dream
Burn with abandon!


The word "entertainment" has been abused and overused at least as much as the word "art" - to which entertainment is supposedly subordinate. Yet a work of solid entertainment is almost as hard to find as a work of art. No one has any reason to sniffle at good entertainment. According to Stanley Kauffmann, "I know that, in a good year, 95 percent of the world’s films were trash, four percent plus were good entertainment, and there was a small fraction of seriously good films. In a good year." (1)

The late Donald Richie assured us in his monumental monograph on Akira Kurosawa that when he made The Hidden Fortress (right after Throne of Blood, his imposing transposition of Macbeth), he was aiming to make a rollicking entertainment. That he was resoundingly successful in his ambition doesn't lessen the degree of difficulty that his task presented to him. Kurosawa had already made the great films upon which his reputation rests - Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai. The international success these films enjoyed was not enough, evidently, to earn for Kurosawa the independence that he wanted. The Hidden Fortress was so successful at the box office (it was the top-grossing Japanese film of 1958), it enabled Kurosawa to form his own production company.

What he accomplished with The Hidden Fortress is too often overlooked.  As comical creations, the two farmers, Matashichi and Tahei, approach the dimensions of Falstaff. The whole "adventure" presented by Kurosawa in marvelously muscular strokes can be seen, from the perspective of these two hapless n'er-do-wells as one prolonged calamity. We are introduced to them in the opening scene, the camera following them from a slight distance as they traverse an immense wind-scoured plain, jabbering and blaming each other for their miserable fates. Trying to enlist in the ranks of a warring clan, finding themselves mistaken for the enemy, forced to dig graves, they proceed through the course of the film from captivity to crime to scavenging, scammed by an apparent thief into carrying, like beasts of burden, stolen gold concealed inside pieces of wood to the safety of a neighboring province, not knowing that the thief is General Rokurota of the defeated Akizuki clan and the mute girl who travels with them is none other than Princess Yuki. At their worst, the two are the quintessence of cowardice, disloyalty, and selfishness. At their best, they are friends for life: believing he is doomed, Tahei even asks Matashichi if they can remain friends in the afterlife. These two miserable specimens are human beings, after all, survivors of the calamities their unscrupulous rulers bring down on them. 

The crucial scene is the fire festival, in which ordinary farmers and townsfolk build a bonfire and dance and sing ecstatically around it. Princess Yuki is entranced by her first close contact with her subjects, the common people whose lives would never otherwise have caught her attention. Later held captive and awaiting execution, the princess tells the disgraced Yamana general Hyoe Tadokoro (played by Susumu Fujita, unforgettable as Sanshiro Sugata, the hero of Kurosawa's very first film): "The happiness of these days I would have never known living in the castle. I saw people as they really are, I saw their beauty and their ugliness with my own eyes." Then she sings the song she first heard at the fire festival: "The life of a man - burn it with the fire!" 

One could argue that, like the surviving samurai at the conclusion of Seven Samurai, Princess Yuki and General Rokurota are the losers. The real winners are Matashichi and Tahei, rewarded with one measly piece of gold (one ryō), who are going home to their village, having learned that their humble lives as farmers are immeasurably preferable to the perilous adventures they have endured - that a living dog is better than a dead lion. 

Kurosawa's command of his material can best be seen in its minutiae. The great crowd scenes in the ruins of Akizuki castle reveal the mastery of the director, with every single character - among hundreds - delineated, every actor locked into his role, no matter how tiny. Watch how the armed guards swagger, with each showing off his ability to control the crowd of captives, but also hiding his terror at their sheer number. When the slaves rise up against the guards at night, we are caught up, just like Matashichi and Tahei, in an irresistible tide of movement. 

I first saw The Hidden Fortress in a movie theater in the 1970s. Since then I have seen it a few times on home video and lately on DVD on a 16:9 LED TV. It's like first love - trying to re-capture the original experience of watching a film where it belongs - on a big movie theater screen. Alas, the experience can't be re-created. It's a new experience, accompanied by different people in our lives. I feel blessed that I came of age as a filmgoer a decade before video gave us the irreplaceable pleasure of taking our favorite films home with us. But it's the memory of that first event that stays with me, that I hold in my heart.

Ah, lost innocence! When I saw The Hidden Fortress in the 1970s, I was unaware that it inspired George Lucas to make Star Wars. I have since learned that Lucas borrowed plot elements from Kurosawa's story not just for Star Wars but The Phantom Menace as well. I suppose that my immunity to Star Wars and its sequelae is due to the fact that I was 19 when it was released - a well-adjusted adult having finished my first year of college. In his review of Star Wars, Stanley Kauffmann wrote: "This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world’s affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."(2)

Out of gratitude to Kurosawa, Lucas helped finance a film Kurosawa made in 1980 called Kagemusha. It was a funny kind of gratitude, since the film was cut by almost 20 minutes for its US theatrical release.

Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, whose Japanese title translates as "Three Villains in a Hidden Fortress," is honest-to-goodness entertainment. It makes the word clean again.


(1) Stanley Kauffmann, "Old Ark, New Covenant," The New Republic, July 5, 1981. Kauffmann made this remark in his review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which didn't measure up to his standard: "I don't want to be a child again, not even for two hours. I reject the Raiders pact."
(2) Stanley Kauffmann, "Innocences," The New Republic, June 19, 1977.

Friday, January 26, 2018

One Year Later

"I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down." (H. L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1927)


Before Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring in 2015, and the campaigns for the party nominations commenced, I didn't like him. To me, he was a mediocre blowhard, a clown with a clown's hair. Like most clowns, his schtick wasn't funny. His schtick was a blustery, pompous, self-important and utterly insupportable jerk who made and lost fortunes in real estate and hosted a reality TV show that, just like most of the other reality shows, brought out the absolute worst in its contestants. But the attention that he got from the show seemed to boost his monstrously overinflated ego. Whether or not he knew the quote by Oscar Wilde, he certainly sought to live up to it: "There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Wilde, however, who sought anonymity in his last days, learned the very hardest way that being talked about was sometimes worse than not being talked about.

Trump's motives for running for president were probably inspired by the celebrity he enjoyed from The Apprentice. He was fixated on ratings, on the size of his audience, believing it was a gauge of actual worth. He may also have been enticed by the idea of power, which was something he never had before. Having enjoyed extravagant wealth and privilege all his life, and the dubious celebrity of his TV show, he probably thought that power was the next blandishment to his ego. What he clearly didn't realize was that celebrity cuts two ways - that his image was not simply that of a phenomenally successful business tycoon, titular author of a best-selling (ghost-written) book, but it was also that of a collossal buffoon. I, like many other - probably a majority of - Americans, didn't like Donald Trump in 2015.

Then he began his bid for the Republican nomination. Choosing the Republican party was a calculated move. Since he was running against a few heavyweight contenders, like Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, I didn't think Trump had a snowball's chance in the Philippines of winning. Besides, on a practically daily basis, he was managing to insult not just individual people in his off-the-cuff remarks, but entire swaths of the voting public - Hispanics, blacks, women, Muslims. And something unaccountable began to happen. Despite his offensive remarks, which I believed no decent person could possibly countenance, Trump started gaining in the polls. 

Then the primaries and caucases arrived. I even predicted on this blog that Trump would quit before or just after he lost in Iowa or New Hampshire. One by one, the lesser Republican candidates dropped out as soon as it became clear that they couldn't win anywhere near enough delegates. Trump's offensive jibes at his fellow candidates plumbed new depths of depravity with each succeeding day of the campaign.

By the time the Republican National Convention took place, the party was clearly in a treacherous position. Since victory was all that mattered, the Grand Old Party hitched its wagon to Donald Trump. At the time, I wrote on this blog that the party of Abraham Lincoln had handed its nomination to a man who would bring back slavery if he could. Many true conservatives, who were as disgusted by Trump as I was, withdrew in horror. The National Review, founded by William F. Buckley, the Knight of the Right, refused to endorse Trump.

My politics are unshakably progressive, but I'm able to acknowledge the legimacy of my political opposites - reactionaries, conservatives. Although they seem to be trying to pull America in opposite directions, the Left toward a better, improved society in the future, and the Right back to some dimly-remembered golden age in the past (Make America Great Again), we each have the happiness and prosperity of all Americans in mind. Trump is a pantomime conservative. He is using traditionally conservative issues (cutting corporate and wealth taxes, deregulation, and curtailing immigration) like dog whistles to fool voters. I watched him addressing an anti-abortion rally recently, saying things he would never have said a few years ago when he was a private citizen of New York City.

In 2016, I wrote about Trump eight times - the last time on October 25. Here are just a few of the things I posted on this blog prior to the election.

October 15, 2016: "I have always thought that he is an obscenity as a human being, let alone as a candidate for president. I knew that his disgraceful character would eventually become an issue in the campaign and that it would be his downfall."

"Donald Trump is incapable of seeing himself as virtually everyone else (except for his slavering supporters) sees him: a relatively undistinguished man who was lucky to be born rich, who has spent his life pursuing self-gratification, squandering several fortunes, marrying and disposing of attractive women (who bear him occasional children), and philandering without fear of any consequences - even if it comes in the form of a substantial divorce settlement."

September 30, 2016: "How this clownish billionaire became a populist hero of the American middle class is another of history's mysteries. Michael Reagan, son of the late president, has speculated that Trump has been listening to alot of conservative talk radio, knows what's on the minds of its listeners and has cleverly shoveled it back at them."


Just ten days before election day, my sister died suddenly, shockingly. Still reeling from the loss, I watched in stunned disbelief as Trump's victory was predicted (on CNN). Watching him get elected was the last catastrophe of 2016. The Democrats are entirely to blame. People who would normally have voted Democrat were obviously fed up with the Clintons' watered-down neo-Liberalism, the same Centrism that did nothing to solve the social problems created by globalization. I found the Democratic National Convention almost as insufferable as the RNC. And there is enough evidence to question the DNC's treatment of Bernie Sanders. Who knows but that Sanders, a bonafide American socialist, could've beaten Trump. The strange thing is Trump has been publicly vocal about Hillary Clinton's loss. He is the only president who claims that his opponent "should've won." It's as if he is saying, "Don't blame me, blame Hillary!" 

I didn't watch CNN for months. I still find it hard to watch, even if I'm convinced that they're engaged in a good fight against the worst election outcome of my lifetime (I was born during Eisenhower's 2nd term). I mentioned Trump on this blog only twice in 2017. I was reluctant, I think, to stir the shit.

He has learned a little about the disadvantages of always making headlines. The number of people who actively, passionately hate him is enormous by now, and he can't possibly believe it's only because the press have misrepresented him. I'll give him the benefit of that doubt anyway. The damage he is doing to the country, to the environment, and to the image and standing of the United States as the leader of what used to be called  the free world is not irreparable. His successor - a Democrat - will have to put back all the things he tried to throw away. The pendulum swings. Unfortunately, American politics is now about revenge. When Trump was elected, I heard some of the people who support him say, "Now it's your turn to suffer. Eight years of Obama was hell." Three more years, however, may be all the time Trump needs to do as much damage as possible.

As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, before we were plunged into this miasma, I didn't like Donald Trump. Knowing that hatred is too important an emotion to waste on someone I don't like, but that a lover of the light must also hate the dark, I can now say, a year into his term, that I hate him with what my dad would've called a purple passion. Even a tragedy has an ending. This feels more like a farce, and I'm looking forward, as H. L. Mencken promised above, to an uproarious conclusion.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Whisperers


One of the most discomfiting poems I've ever read is Philip Larkin's "The Old Fools," which is about what will happen to all of us who are unlucky enough to live to be very old. Here is the poem's first stanza: 

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange:
Why aren't they screaming?

Another of Larkin's poems, "Long Last," tells of the plight of an old woman in the same blunt, terrifying terms:

Suddenly, not long before
Her eighty-first birthday,
The younger sister died.
Next morning, the elder lay
Asking the open door
Why it was light outside,

Since nobody had put on
The kettle, or raked the ashes,
Or come to help her find
The dark way through her dress.
This went on till nearly one.
Later, she hid behind

The gas stove.  ‘Amy’s gone,
Isn’t she,’ they remember her saying,
And ‘No’ when the married niece
Told her the van was coming.
Her neck was leaf-brown.
She left cake on the mantelpiece.

This long last childhood
Nothing provides for.
What can it do each day
But hunt that imminent door
Through which all that understood
Has hidden away?


The poem reminded me of The Whisperers, a 1967 film I first saw decades ago, and that I've recently had a chance to see again.

Now that a Republican-majority government in the U.S. has turned its attention to what are known as "entitlements," with an eye to undermine them as much as their constituents will tolerate, I think it's a good time to reconsider a film about one of the people for whom such entitlements were created - an old woman abandoned by what's left of her family who is slowly losing her grip on reality and sinking into what was then (in 1967) called senility, but which is now known as dementia.

The Whisperers is graced by the presence of Edith Evans, one of the greatest British actresses of the 20th century. Based on the novel Mrs. Ross by Robert Nicolson, the film depicts the difficulties faced by a very proud old woman, Margaret Ross, living in a rented flat in a labyrinth of row houses in a northern industrial city. She tells the police, who unfortunately know all about her, that she's being spied upon inside her flat (the "whisperers"). Whenever she enters her front door or otherwise notices the water dripping incessantly from the tap, she inquires of this unseen presence "Are you there?" 

A grown son, Charlie, shows up at her flat just long enough to hide a parcel that contains stolen cash in a cabinet in the "guest room." She mentions his father, who hasn't been seen in twenty years. Charlie gives her a "couple of quid" and leaves, saying he'll be back in a week. After a confrontation with "the woman upstairs" (Nanette Newman - Bryan Forbes's wife), Margaret decides to tidy up the guest room, finds Charlie's parcel and discovers the cash. It's nothing but bundles of one pound notes, a few hundred pounds perhaps, but it's more than she's ever seen at one time in her life, despite her claims of owning property in Argentina and having "married beneath her." She thinks that the money must be from the settlement of her late father's estate, and sends a note (along with a one pound note) telling her National Assistance case worker, Mr. Conrad, that she won't be needing him any longer and that she's going to the Bahamas. Before embarking, however, she stops once more at the National Assistance Board and, while waiting in queue, boasts to another woman that her money has arrived, and opens her purse to show her. Telling her she'd like some refreshment with a real lady, the woman takes Margaret by bus to a pub, plies her with port and listens to her stories from her genteel childhood (depicted in blurry images of a little girl and a chandelier). When night falls, the woman takes her back to her own flat where, after more port, Margaret passes out. She removes the money, stashing a little for herself, until a man, presumably her husband, arrives with two teen-aged children. Plopping Margaret in a push-cart, the man takes her to within a short distance of her flat and dumps her beside the street, where she is found by her upstairs neighbor and taken to hospital. 

Charlie is arrested and confesses to stealing the money. Mr. Conrad asks the doctor, "Is she going to live?" "Oh, yes." the doctor replies. "Well - recover, shall we say?" Once she has recovered physically (from pneumonia), she is transferred to a mental hospital. There is a fantastic shot of Margaret and a therapist sitting in a large room in the hospital with a bright shaft of light shining into the room - compliments of Gerry Turpin, the film's DP. Her doctor explains to Mr. Conrad how he has to peel away all of Margaret's delusions until she's left with nothing but the truth about her life. "Yes, that must be a very rewarding moment," Mr. Conrad observes to the self-satisfied doctor, "when you tell the Mrs. Rosses that they're nobody - and nothing."

Her husband, Archie, is located. He is played by Eric Portman, who is the only other actor in the film besides Evans to present to us a nuanced, many-sided character. Though he's a "bum" and a "drunk," he's reminded of his legal responsibility for Margaret, assured of some clean clothes and transportation to her address. Living with her again, her silences irritate him, calling her a "bleeding zombie." She discovers her flat has been tidied up during her illness, and even the tap no longer drips. Archie picks up a prostitute on his first perambulation around the neighborhood, and returns to find Margaret still awake in bed. "Don't worry," he tells her bluntly, "you've got nothing I want."

When Archie takes a day job as a driver for a local syndicate boss, and a few days later as his enforcer's driver, the film goes quite a bit silly. The enforcer is attacked, Archie escapes in the car with a bag full of cash, boards a train and mutters, "You poor old bitch. You're on your own again," At that point the film - and John Barry's otherwise subtle musical score - has reached its lowest point.

As soon as Margaret knows that Archie has run off again, she goes to the National Assistance Board and tells Mr. Conrad, who, of all the people acquainted with her case, seems to be the only one who gives a damn about her. He asks her if she's sorry he's gone. "Not him," she says. "You?" Mr. Conrad asks pointedly. "Yes," she says wanly. With Archie never coming home again, Margaret falls back into her old habits - the Free Library and the church soup kitchen, picking a newspaper out of the trash can on the way home, and, once alone in her flat, her whisperers.

Bryan Forbes (1926-2013) was a British filmmaker with a background somewhat different from his contemporaries, entering films as an actor in the 1950s. Older than the generation that introduced the "kitchen sink" realism of such fine films as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, and A Kind of Loving, he was nonetheless the beneficiary of a renewed international interest in British films and shared the same interest in working class subjects. If his films lack the raw energy of the best British films of the period, their technical polish and structural plottedness were used by Forbes to his advantage. He made three films, I think, that will last - The Whisperers, The Raging Moon (1971), and The Slipper and the Rose (1976).

In his biography of Edith Evans, Ned's Girl, Forbes wrote:

"I elected to shoot the film in the Moss Side area of Manchester; in 1966 this was in the process of becoming a planners' Hiroshima; whole areas had been flattened by the bulldozers in preparation for a petrified concrete forest of high-rise tenements. It was a waste land ... It provided me with the requisite desolation I needed for my story and I moved my film unit into the area."

Evans was 78 when she appeared in the film and she was entirely committed to whatever was required of her. Accustomed to playing dowagers, like the old countess in Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949), The Whisperers was the first time she had played a working class role in a film. This was the same woman for whom George Bernard Shaw had written roles in the 1920s, the same woman who had played Juliet's nurse in four different stage productions of Romeo and Juliet. Her performance as Mrs. Ross is especially remarkable today for its intimate study of an uncomfortable subject, an old person's descent into dementia, which wasn't as well understood or documented in the '60s.

Forbes cleverly shows us how mercilessly such charitable institutions as the "Free Library" and a church soup kitchen are presided over by mean-faced men who can't let an old man sleep over his morning newspaper or allow Margaret to warm her stockinged feet on a steam pipe - or who make a roomful of hungry people sing a hymn for their supper and order them around like they're children, under that ghastly sign on the wall, GOD IS LOVE. (is He?) 

So many hoops they have to hop through for their "entitlements" - like the new Republican proposal that will require Medicaid recipients to work for their "entitlement" (an odious, offensive word, especially in the mouth of a Republican). It reminds me of how two people, a husband and wife, define "home" in Robert Frost's poem "The Death of the Hired Man":

"Warren," she said, "he has come home to die:
You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time."

"Home," he mocked gently.

                          "Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he's nothing to us, anymore
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail."

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."

                           "I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."


In his Paris Review interview, Frost pointed out about the poem, "You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. One’s a Republican, one’s a Democrat. The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat." Republicans think the poor and the old should do something to "deserve" the assistance that the government provides for them. Democrats think it is a citizen's right. The debate will go on as long as people cannot agree on what role a government is obliged to play in society, since private charitable institutions have to worry about profits before providing for our most needy citizens. It always comes down to Gandhi's remark that there is plenty to satisfy the world's need, but never enough to satisfy its greed.

The sad irony is that the National Assistance Board was terminated before The Whisperers release date, replaced by the Supplementary Benefit Act. In a sense, the film is a rather sad protest, like Kenji Mizoguchi's last film, Red Light District (Akasen Chitai-1956) - stupidly renamed Street of Shame in the U.S. - which follows several women engaged in legal prostitution in Tokyo, a film made while the Japanese government, during the American occupation of postwar Japan, was voting to ban legal prostitution. 

It's a bit difficult communicating the shattering effect this film has had on me. We have watched an episode in the life of a forgotten old woman on the extreme fringes of our world, going through the motions of what is left of her life, for how much longer Forbes couldn't bear to say.

The last moments of The Whisperers leave us with Mrs. Ross, somewhat the worse for the wear she's been put through, returning to her flat, smiling wanly (because it is, after all, home), asking - hopefully for a change - "Are you there?" The voices in her head are all she has left for company.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Who Killed the Novel?

I get the feeling that a lot of people hate literature. I get that feeling every time - which is every so many months - I see an article in the literary press announcing the death of the novel. The novel has one foot in the grave, evidently, and the other on a banana peel. The trouble is those of us for whom novels are the length and breadth of literature, the measure of the truth in writing, were not even aware that the novel was sick. 

Last week The New York Review published "The Novelist's Complicity" by Zia Haider Rahman that blames the imminent demise of the novel on an imaginary Golden Age of Television, on the death of the critic, on people who don't habitually read, and on novelists themselves.

This argument, that new media will eclipse old ones, is older than some people think. In the 1920s, radio was supposed to destroy the record industry. In the '50s, television was going to end movies. In fact,  neither medium was seriously affected. Radio actually boosted record sales. And movies changed to include technicolor (color television didn't arrive until the '60s) and letterbox screens.

Rahman argues - feebly - for the ascendancy of TV over fiction: 

"Reading now, also, has strong competition from screens. This is a new golden age of television, we’re told, and I agree. With The Wire, The Sopranos, Madmen, Breaking Bad, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica (think “Shakespeare in Space”), and many, many other shows, there has been a steady supply of riveting dramas, with rich characterization, moral depth, and tumultuous plot lines. The boxed set and the binge-watching of viewers have freed up writers from the constraints of the weekly serial, whose intervening seven days ensured that scarcely more than a cliffhanger of the plot survived in the memory. Now TV writers can craft and develop character over time, something novels do. Binge-watching offers space, also, to introduce subordinate plot lines and ideas. Just like novels.

Television today appears to be capable of delivering many of the rewards novels might offer. There’s some research suggesting that reading fiction improves our capacity to empathize with others whose lives are very different from our own. Even on this score, television can claim some success. Who would deny that The Sopranos has inculcated in viewers a strange empathy for the New Jersey mobster or that Breaking Bad has inspired warmth toward a drug-dealing chemistry teacher?"

I'm dubious of Rahman's claims for TV when she offers as "riveting dramas" shows that offer - at best - solid entertainment. And I'm tempted to credit Rahman with sarcasm in that last sentence.

She continues: "Television might offer strong competition and attention spans might be sagging, but there may be deeper cultural trends that have led to the decline of novels. In a paper published in 2014 in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, researchers found that winning a famous literary prize seems to be followed by a steep fall in the quality ratings of a book on the online book review site Goodreads, a limb of the Amazon behemoth. This happened after Julian Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending . The researchers speculate that what might be happening is that winning a famous prize draws in a great many readers who would otherwise not consider the book, many of whom have no other reason for expecting to like the book.

"Some of these readers might not even be habitual readers of fiction. Amazon and Goodreads ratings, and numerous online book-reviewing sites, have all contributed to and reflected the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste. But such democratization is not intrinsically a good thing. The arbitration of scientific evidence is not conducted under the auspices of universal suffrage; it is scientists who adjudicate on the risks of climate change, for instance, not elected politicians, and that’s exactly how it should be. The democratization of reading tastes has gone hand in hand with the demise of the critic, and with that, the idea of reading a novel because certain people with discernibly good judgment think that the book is worth reading. A writer — I think it was the novelist Claire Messud, but don’t quote me — suggested that the literary critic should aspire to be able to be able to say of a novel that “this is a great book even though I didn’t like it.”[1] The implication is that there is much more to what makes a book great and worth reading than merely one’s visceral reaction of liking it or not. Great works allow us to gather around the campfire and discuss things of importance — not least of all, our diverse subjectivities. This idea might smack of snobbery, but it’s useful to reflect that the idea retains influence in other areas of art, such as painting and sculpture — notably, areas that don’t rely on an economics involving a large number of buyers of the same product."(2)

All of this sounds to me suspiciously like a phenomenon that Hilton Kramer called "The Revenge of the Philistines" - many people (most of them with no qualifications) are now involved in evaluating works of art merely because everything is now subject to the marketplace, where the only rule is What Sells is Good. 

Rahman leaves out of her argument, probably on purpose, the strong anti-intellectual streak in contemporary culture - the hostility towards what is perceived to be "elitist" or requiring a depth of experience or specialized learning that is beyond the average person's immediate grasp. She quotes remarks made by Philip Roth in a 2009 interview. Predicting that within 25 years the readership for novels will be negligible, he holds out a little optimistism:

“I think people will always be reading them, but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range . . . To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks, you don’t read the novel really. So I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by.”

Forty years before Roth's remarks, John Cheever, in his Paris Review interview, had a better - if considerably dated - explanation:

INTERVIEWER: What about the beginning of stories? Yours start off very quickly. It's striking.

CHEEVER: Well, if you're trying as a storyteller to establish some rapport with your reader, you don't open by telling him that you have a headache and indigestion and that you picked up a gravelly rash at Jones Beach. One of the reasons is that advertising in magazines is much more common today than it was twenty years ago. In publishing in a magazine you are competing against girdle advertisements, travel advertisements, nakedness, cartoons, even poetry. The competition almost makes it hopeless. There's a stock beginning that I've always had in mind. Someone is coming back from a year in Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship. His trunk is opened in customs, and instead of his clothing and souvenirs, they find the mutilated body of an Italan seaman, everything there but the head. Another opening sentence I often think of is, "The first day I robbed Tiffany's it was raining." Of course, you can open a short story that way, but that's not how one should function with fiction. One is tempted because there has been a genuine loss of serenity, not only in the reading public, but in all our lives. Patience, perhaps, or even the ability to concentrate. At one point when television first came in one was publishing an article that couldn't be read during a commercial. But fiction is durable enough to survive all of this.


I have had the pleasure over several decades to see some outstanding things on television, a few of which exploited the special qualities and limitations of the medium. But it has never seemed to me that television has ever really distinguished itself as a medium. The outstanding television programs that I have encountered in the past forty years have been documentaries like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (which was made for television but also had a theatrical release), multi-episode dramatizations of literary novels like the BBC's War and Peace (with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezuhov), or Ken Burns's The Civil War. The impact of these programs derived from the fact that viewers experienced them in the privacy and intimacy of their homes.

A novel is even more of a private and intimate experience, since it uses words alone to identify characters and settings. The "interiority" of the novel comes naturally since everything the author presents to the reader takes place in his mind. 

Rahman argues that novels and television shows function differently and that novels have a great advantage when it comes to "interiority". The weakest part of her argument is blaming novelists themselves for anticipating film adaptations of their work by deliberately avoiding a first-person narrative or by striving to maintain a visual perspective to facilitate their novel's translation to the screen.

I also found Rahman's aim to be scattershot. In the middle of her essay, she switches from discussing the decline of the novel to that of the "literary" novel, which is a very different matter. If the numbers of readers for fiction is in precipitous decline (23% in the past five years), then literary novels must be in danger of total extinction. I'm always dubious of such worries, since I have known from the beginning that reading literature is a pursuit of a very few. A few years ago on this blog I addressed the claim that poetry was dead, for the same reasons that fiction is on the skids.

Literature will continue to live, I think, because what it gives the reader is something that nothing else can give him. In his 1951 essay on Anna Karenina, Lionel Trilling wrote:

"It is a subtle triumph of Tolstoi's art that it induces us to lend ourselves with enthusiasm to its representation of the way things are. We so happily give our assent to what Tolstoi shows us and so willingly call it reality because we have something to gain from its being reality. For it is the hope of every decent, reasonably honest person to be judged under the aspect of Tolstoi's representation of human nature. Perhaps, indeed, what Tolstoi has done is to constitute as reality the judgement which every decent, reasonably honest person is likely to make of himself - as someone not wholly good and not wholly bad, not heroic yet not without heroism, not splendid yet not without moments of light, not to be comprehended by any formula yet having his principke of being, and managing, somehow, and despite conventional notions, to maintain an unexpected dignity."(3)

Ironically, Rahman's essay was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4's "A Point of View." Wasn't television supposed to have killed radio ages ago?


(1) It was, in fact, George Orwell, who wrote in 1944, 'Obviously one mustn't say "X agrees with me: therefore he is a good writer," and for the last ten years honest literary criticism has largely consisted in combating this outlook.' "As I Please," Tribune, 28 January 1944. Orwell also provides us with a useful decinition of the novel: "A novel ... is a story which attempts to describe credible human beings, and - to show them acting on everyday motives and not merely undergoing strings of improbable adventures." ("George Gissing," May-June 1948?, Essays, Everyman Edition, 2002, p. 1288)
(2) http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/05/the-novelists-complicity/
(3) "Anna Karenina," The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism (London: Secker and Warburg, 1955).