Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween, 1997

I was at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Having graduated Army Basic Training in late June, and finished AIT (Advanced Individual Training) in mid-August, I spent the next 2 1/2 months on "security hold" while the Army untangled some snags in my background investigation. It was ironic, since I was an artillery Cannon Fire Direction Specialist, requiring a secret security clearance (my job required the handling of radio encryption material), whereas in the Navy I had been an intelligence specialist for eight years, holding a top secret/SCI clearance. Since I had also, on my return to the military, been demoted in rank, perhaps the FBI was concerned that I had taken leave of my senses?

I already knew that I had orders to South Korea. I will never forget the day I got the news back in June. I went and hid under my bunk, contemplating having to spend another year away from my wife and my 79-year-old mother. (My orders were to Area One, too close to the DMZ for the Army to allow my wife to accompany me.) But between Fort Sill and Korea, the Army gave me two weeks leave to savor, enough time to be with my family and to say my goodbyes, knowing it would be six months before I would be with them again.

But that Halloween, my leave commenced at midnight - 0001 hours. I was scheduled CQ (Charge of Quarters) right up to midnight, so when my watch was over, I walked from my barracks straight over to the CQ desk in the headquarters of Second of the Eightieth Field Artillery, where the duty NCO took one look at my BDUs and told me I had to sign out on leave in my Class A uniform. So I had to walk back through the dark to the room I shared with three other soldiers, change into my Class A's, dress shoes, garrison cap and all, and return to the CQ desk. The NCO didn't expect to see ribbons on my chest and service stripes on my sleeve. To him, I was just another private, despite my being an E-4 and having turned 39 - with nobody noticing - in the middle of Basic Training. He signed my leave papers, officially setting me free from that awful place. I still had to wait until 0800 hours, when my bus would pick me up in front of my barracks and take me home. Until then, I was effectively invisible. With my leave papers safely in my pocket, I didn't have to worry about being present and accounted for, no longer subject to the whims of Sergeant Majors or First Sergeants.

I was standing at the bus shelter at the appointed hour in the bright sun of a Halloween Friday in Oklahoma, with two well-stuffed duffel bags behind me, when one of my roommates named Bill Muffler, who was coming back from breakfast in the chow hall, saw me and approached me with the usual cigarette in his hand. "Well, Harpis?" he said smiling, mispronouncing my name the same way that an especially clueless drill sergeant had done some weeks before.

"Well, Mueller?" I answered. He asked me what time my bus was coming. "Any minute now," I said. (The bus was already late.) He put the cigarette in his mouth and took my hand with both of his. We said nothing. There was such unexpected emotion in his eyes that words were unnecessary. He was 30, a prior service MP who, like me, had come back to active duty through a window that recruiters had opened briefly. We told each other our stories over the course of several drinking bouts and our friendship was as close as the two and a half months we were stuck together as roommates would allow. Some months later in Korea I learned that the security hold he was on lasted well into 1998, when they decided to pull his orders to Germany and station him permanently at Fort Sill, situated near a town called Lawton in the godforsaken southwest corner of Oklahoma. I have tried and failed a few times since then to find him, not knowing if he stayed in the Army until retirement or if he had quit after doing his three years and gone home to Big Torch Key. Fellow suffering always has the effect of fostering comradeship among the unlikeliest people. This is what the military has always depended on.

When my TNM&O (Texas, New Mexico & Oklahoma) bus drove out of Fort Sill's front gate, past the Korean barber shops, massage parlors and strip clubs, the sudden access of emotion that I felt didn't compel me to go so far as to look back. When one's life is full of so many departures, the only direction, it seems, is straight ahead. I settled back for a long ride.

Despite the direction to Denver being northwest from Lawton, my bus first took me south all the way to Wichita Falls, Texas. (Of course, it made me think of the long Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays piece, "As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.") At the terminal, the wait for the bus connecting to all points northwest was mercifully short. Once on the road (U.S. and local highways - my bus didn't go near any Interstates) we traveled more or less straight past Amarillo all the way through brown grasslands into southeastern Colorado.

Being on leave means that you're on the clock, that every moment spent in travel is a moment stolen from your family. I heard that Denver and the front range had been hit with an early snowstorm, so I expected some delay. What I didn't expect was that my bus would lose its hydraulics somewhere near Pueblo, and that the trip home would take thirteen hours out of my leave.

I phoned my wife on finally arriving in Denver in the evening. Despite my being seated the whole journey, I was exhausted. I felt the straps of one of my duffel bags digging into my shoulders as I stood outside on the street, watching for our Mercury Tracer to come around some corner and pull up to the curb in front of me. When it did, and I looked into my wife's tired eyes, I didn't wonder that I had spoiled her Halloween, since I knew that it was, when all was said and done, the leaving Lawton, the reds and russets of West Texas, the mounting anticipation of arriving home, probably the sweetest Halloween of my life.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Blessed or Just Lucky?

Election Day in America is more than a year away, but in our era of never-ending campaigns for political office it seems as if it might be next week. By the time the election takes place, hundreds of millions - perhaps billions - of dollars will have been spent, to what purpose is just another unholy American mystery.

Since the beginning of summer, when someone decided that all the campaigning should commence, we have been introduced, or re-introduced, to a few dozen candidates - most of them Republican. Since the Democrats don't seem to believe that Hillary Clinton is beatable, only a few others have had the chutzpah to stand against her. 

In the few opportunities they've had to express themselves above the din of the front runner, these candidates have let us know, whether we needed to know it or not, what they believe in. Since a reliably entertaining television personality - Donald Trump - is in the race for the Republican ticket, voters of every persuasion have watched the Republican debates. This has given the more innocent Liberals among them something of a fright at some of the more extreme views expressed by people who mistakenly thought they were preaching exclusively to the choir, which accounts for most of the "blowback" in the press. 

One of the biggest differences between the candidates that I've noticed goes to the heart of the difference between the two sides. When it comes to success in life, at whatever pursuit, it seems that there are two kinds of people: the ones who react to their success by believing that they are blessed and those who think they are simply lucky. (1) The former inspires, one can easily appreciate, an overabundance of confidence and egoism. Kanye West is the poster child for this interpretation of success. He apparently believes that the riches he has accrued merely by "rapping" into a microphone are proof of some sort of divine approval. 

The trouble with this interpretation of success is: the opposite of "blessed" is "cursed." The same divinity that dispenses a blessing can as easily (and as inexplicably) dole out a curse. Some people have no apparent problem believing in a divine power that can reward the labors of some while rejecting the labors of an overwhelming majority of others.(2) I am often surprised at how some of the unlikeliest people, whom one would have thought were immune to such a view, were, in fact, subject to it. Mark Twain, George Orwell pointed out, could never "wean himself from the notion, which is perhaps especially an American notion, that success and virtue are the same thing." (3)

The other interpretation of great personal success, however, inspires an overweening humility in the recipient, who sees it as the one in a million accident that fell on him rather than someone else, like winning a lottery or being struck by lightning - and living to tell the tale. He knows that he wasn't singled out because of any particular talent or achievement (because he knows there are colleagues who are at least as worthy as he is), but that a mindless and indifferent force focused randomly on him.

Last summer I watched Patrick Stewart in an interview with the BBC. He had become the spokesman for a charity organization, and the interviewer asked him why celebrities always seem to be attracted by such activities. While he disparaged celebrity sponsorship that is nothing more than self-promotion, Stewart said that most celebrities understand how incredibly lucky they are. They do something that they love and they get paid a fortune for it and they want to give something back.

Stewart's words are also a handy explanation for why so many celebrities are politically leftist (Stewart is a socialist). It's rare to find one who isn't. The ones who stand out, who embrace right-wing politics, probably don't think they are lucky - they probably believe that they are blessed, that, for whatever reason, their good fortune is the result of some divine payback, that they deserve it. Like football players who point to heaven when they score a touchdown, they believe that a divinity is actively involved in the performance of - and reward for - their work.

Of the two explanations for the absurd salaries that A-listers and athletes routinely draw for their "work," it's easy to see how preposterous the belief in blessedness is - an egoistic belief in divine intervention in the lives of completely unimportant people. They make the big mistake of thinking that the amount of money they make is also an estimation of moral value. Like Kanye West, their only explanation for their enormous fame and fortune is that they deserve it. 

On another BBC program I watched called "Hard Talk," the American composer Phillip Glass defended his work against its unanimously dim critical appraisal by saying how wealthy it has made him and how his concerts play to packed houses. This is the worst possible defense of anyone's work, since there is no connection whatsoever between financial and critical success. Glass should've defended himself against critics' attacks with Liberace's famous line, "I cried all the way to the bank."

(1) By "success" I don't necessarily mean financial reward, which is a dubious measure of success.
(2) Here is Charles Darwin's assessment: "I hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine." 
(3) George Orwell, "Mark Twain - The Licensed Jester" (1943). 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Spilled Milk

Having had a chance to watch a few more episodes of Downton Abbey Season Five, with Season Six coming down the pike, I find myself more in agreement with Simon Schama's harsh assessment of the series' "clammy delirium of nostalgia." In my post "Upton, Downton" I compared Downton Abbey to the series on which it was modeled, Upstairs, Downstairs, which aired on PBS forty years ago and which I watched from my late teens into my early twenties with the same rapt attention that audiences now lavish on Downton. Among the many differences between the two shows that I neglected to point out - and that Simon Schama singled out for scorn - is Downton's overpowering and noxious air of nostalgia. 

Upstairs, Downstairs was a period drama about the lives of the people occupying one household in London's Eaton Belgravia district from 1903 to 1930. Because it covered such a long period in the history of England, many of the country's historical events - the sinking of the Titanic, the Great War, the General Strike, the Great Depression - were refracted through the fictional lives of the Bellamy household.  And it represented history honestly. At the end of the series, the maid Rose loses her life's savings in the 1929 stock market crash, and Lord Bellamy's only son, James, who survived the Great War, commits suicide.     

The historical period of Downton Abbey is more narrow: historical events (the Titanic, the Great War, the Irish Rebellion) are heard rumbling in the distance, but have little impact on the magnificent house and its occupants. Though popular in Britain, Downton Abbey has been especially successful in the U.S. The Anglophilia that the series seems to satisfy, however, appears to be more like necrophilia. Simon Schama, who clearly hates Downton's overwhelmingly rosy view of England's class-ridden past, and wants Americans to see the truth about the world that the series re-invents, agrees:

"Nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia. . . In the current series, historical reality is supposed to bite at Downton in the form of the Great War. Sorry, but history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance."

When the BBC dramatization of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet novels The Jewel in the Crown was aired in the UK in 1984, the whole nation, it was said at the time, held its breath. Everyone, it seemed, took a time out to watch the program - not because they were fans of the novels, but because Britons in the 80s evidently felt overwhelmed by a nostalgia for its lost empire, its lost global prestige. 

Perhaps because I wasn't British or because I wasn't particularly interested in India, I watched only the first few episodes of the series when it aired on PBS before giving upon it. European fascination with the world before the fall - whether it was World War I or II (or, indeed, the Berlin Wall) - certainly has some justification, but history shows how, on many levels, they should've seen it coming. 

It was Robert Graves, I think, who called nostalgia "crying over spilled milk." It's a harmless but ultimately pointless exercise - until it tries, for whatever reason, to misrepresent the past.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Of All Time

After having to wade through the fetid swamp of the BBC's 100 Greatest American Films last July,(1) what a relief it was to be presented last month with The Guardian's list of the 100 Best Novels Written in English, reinforcing my conviction that, even if the film medium survives another hundred years (and even if works of great merit continue - stubbornly - to be made), it will never completely escape its origins as a carnival sideshow attraction.

Robert McCrum spent two years compiling the list, which was published in the Observer and That he spent so much time coming up with the list seems astonishing given the results. One of the authors with a novel on his list - Anthony Trollope - had a daily routine of writing two thousand words before going to his full-time job at the Royal Mail. McCrum compiled his list after establishing a set of draconian rules that severely limited the quantity (only one novel per author) and quality of his choices. To mention only one example: when he compiled his 100 Greatest Novels of All Time in 2003, McCrum could only name one novel by Tolstoy, so he named Anna Karenina and left out War and Peace, which is one of the biggest sins of omission ever committed.

His defense of his choices is rather more impressive than the choices themselves:

In the parlour game called 'Humiliation', in David Lodge's 70s campus novel Changing Places, the players score points by confessing the famous works of literature they have never read. In a memorable comic climax, ambitious academic Howard Ringbaum admits he has never read Hamlet, instantly wrecking his career.

Lodge's insight into the practice of literature is that everyone who steps into the world of books and letters risks humiliation. Rightly, for the well-being of culture and society, this is a competitive affair. Beneath the eye of eternity, it's a matter of life and death: either some kind of literary afterlife or (more likely) oblivion.

Casual browsers sometimes took a moment to grasp that my list of 'top novels' was a) derived exclusively from fiction written in the English language; b) strictly chronological; and c) gave each writer equal space, an especially restrictive criterion. With a prolific writer, the selection of one 'classic' text became almost intolerable. To cite an unfair example - Dickens (No 15, David Copperfield) and Wilde (No 27, The Picture of Dorian Gray) appear in the list on the same footing, with one novel apiece. With such rules, every thoughtful person must concede that my list is bound to have its ridiculous side.

After answering the question "what is a classic?" McCrum admits that "thereafter, the issue becomes subjective. Classics, for some are books we know we should have read, but have not. For others, classics are simply the book we have read obsessively, many times over, and can quote from. The ordinary reader instinctively knows what he or she believes to be a classic. While our preferences inevitably reflect gender, nationality, class, and education, there is no accounting for taste."

But there are perfectly sensible ways of accounting for taste. McCrum admitted that it's "a competitive affair," otherwise known as "criticism." Not only are there books (and films) around which all the conflicting and contradictory subjectivities sometimes agree, but there are standards that exist - that must exist - to which every critic can appeal. George Orwell, who was an insightful literary critic, knew that "ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion."(2)

While admitting, like McCrum, that so much of serious criticism consists of emotional responses reinforced by often shaky rational arguments, Orwell also insisted that there was something called "intellectual detachment": "Supposing that there is such a thing as good or bad art, then the goodness or badness must reside in the work of art itself."

It would be irresponsible of me not to object to some of McCrum's list, but what is more interesting to me are the little inconsistencies that have appeared between this list and McCrum's 2003 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. For instance, of the many novels in English that made the Greatest Novels list, McCrum chose Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang rather than his Oscar and Lucinda, Roth's American Pastoral rather than his Portnoy's Complaint, Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians rather than his Disgrace, Bellow's Herzog rather than his The Adventures of Augie March, Greene's The Quiet American rather than his The End of the Affair, Beckett's Malone Dies rather than his Murphy, Dos Passos's USA rather than his Nineteen Nineteen, and Conrad's Nostromo rather than his Heart of Darkness. And Mailer's The Executioner's Song, which is one of McCrum's Greatest Novels of All Time, was omitted by him two years later because he thought Mailer was "too much of an American celebrity in thrall of the medium."

While I strongly object to a few of McCrum's choices (Bram Stoker? Jack Kerouac?), I had far less to quibble about with McCrum's list of best novels than I had with the BBC's list of greatest American films. Why? Only one person compiled the list of novels, but sixty-three people submitted suggestions to the list of films. So why does the opinion of one person seem so much more authoritative and acceptable than the opinions of sixty-three people?

Clearly, Robert McCrum was given the job of evaluating three hundred years of English fiction because a) he has done a good deal of reading and only someone who has read as much has any business making such determinations; and b) there happens to be a much broader concensus among literary critics about who is in the winner's circle and who is out. With film, as anyone who has taken the medium seriously knows, consensus is practically nonexistent. For every film critic who thinks that the best films are the ones that employ screenplays and actors, there are others who argue that documentaries or experimental films or silent films are the medium's purest examples; or that only the Russian masters of montage or the Italian neo-realists or Bresson or Straub had it figured out; or that Godard is as important to film as Dante is to literature, and so on. Every ten years since 1952, the British Film Institute has managed to locate enough critics to vote for a handful of films that they think represent some sort of core value, even if that value shifts so erratically from poll to poll that it mitigates all notions of authority.

In his book, Movies Into Film, John Simon suggested that there is a difference between a film and a movie. For instance, Bicycle Thieves is a film, whereas Psycho is a movie. The two words not only imply a difference in quality, they represent wholly different pursuits. I recently watched To Each His Cinema (2006), a compilation of short films by many different filmmakers which captures - or attempts to capture - their nostalgic feelings about the pursuit of filmgoing. Watching it, I thought that, while the ceremonious act of filmgoing, of attending a film screening in a pre-arranged place - whether it's an actual theater or a village square - is dying out, the activities in front of the screen that each filmmaker eulogizes in the To Each His Cinema - the ecstatic attention to the events unfolding on the screen or the interactions of the filmgoers - has nothing whatever to do with the films being presented. One filmmaker depicts people sitting in the dark watching a Bresson film, another shows us people watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but the people and the films seemed to me interchangeable.(4)      

I think McCrum's list is intended to be prescriptive. Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who made a canonical list of a thousand greatest films, confessed that when he bought the issue of Sight and Sound in 1962 that contained the BFI Film Critic's Poll of the Top Ten Films of All Time, he set out to find and to watch every film on the list. That must have been a daunting task in the 60s, even in a big city. I found it just as daunting in the 70s, when I was on the hunt. The amount of trash I had to hew my way through to find a worthwhile film sometimes made it seem like a sleeveless errand.

If David Lodge's parlor game were to concentrate, instead, on film, the players wouldn't face humiliation because they hadn't seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, nearly ninety years old and still one of the three or four greatest films ever made. The winner would always be someone like Quentin Tarantino - not because he has seen every film and is proud of this dubious accomplishment, but because he obviously can't distinguish the good ones from the bad.

(1) If you wanted a list to provoke the greatest number of howls of execration, you could not improve on the Rolling Stone's recently published list of The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time, which seems to use the premise that songwriting originated in Lubbock, Texas in 1955. Instead of commissioning the Rolling Stone, Apple Music might just as well have commissioned someone who was both illiterate and stone deaf.
(2) George Orwell, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool."
(3) In a stab at fairness, The Guardian asked its online readers to submit titles that they thought belonged on the list. They published fifteen titles, seven of which were written by what one reader called Straight White Men (some of whom are dead, and who once would have fit the horrible term DWEM from the 90s, or Dead White European Men. Now the word Straight has replaced European as a mark of contemptible distinction). The rest of the novels on the list were written by three straight white women, one African male, two Anglo-Indians (one male, one female), and two African-American women, one straight, the other lesbian.
(4) Despite the fact that the title of Walker Percy's novel is The Moviegoer, which has a far different meaning than if it were called The Filmgoer, which was, of course, Percy's intention.