Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Matter of Life and Death

Whenever the time comes to write anything about politics I feel sliding sickliness wash over me and a nearly overwhelming sense of apathy and depression opens up around me and plunges me into a dark cloud fraught with dragons and reptiles of the mind.  It's not that I don't understand what is happening in the world, or that I don't recognize the shapes, spirits, and forces that are guiding it and dragging it down dark well-trodden paths, it's that all the things that I see twisting and turning in the winds and over the lands of once great nations, all the white-washed rhetoric, all the thinly veiled deceit, all the posturing and moral dissolution, only seems to confirm and validate within me my desire to step out, kick the dust from my shoes, kick the very world to pieces, and simply walk away.  World be damned, I want no part of you.  And yet I am, reluctantly at times, still a part of this world -- a sort of resident alien -- and so can only ignore it to my own peril, can only detach myself so much before my detachment becomes itself not an act of self-preservation but an act of sabotage and irresponsibility.  So, with both Canada and the United States dancing on the razor's edge, two very different hells to find on either side, I feel compelled to add my own voice to the already over-loaded and terrifying cacophonous roaring din that is North American democracy.  

In all things, there abides either life or death; in every action we perform, we perform either life or death; in the words that we say or write, we validate either life or death; in the ways that we think and in the ideologies to which we cling, we are either struggling up the bright and rough mountain or sliding down into the dark pit, into a centre that cannot hold. I understand that such an absolute conception of the world is outmoded and no longer fashionable and I grant that there may in fact seem to be, in certain cases and under certain circumstances, shades of grey in our perception of the world, times when it is not clear if we are choosing life or death. But the world itself is not grey; it is not nearly as polymorphous, ambivalent and relative as we, grasping for self-satisfying justifications, so often try to convince ourselves that it must be.  Life or death. Good or evil. This is the nature of the world and this is the nature of people.  These are not mere philosophical considerations; they are not abstractions or moral hypotheticals; they are not metaphors or tropes -- you, me, everyone: we are either choosing life of we are choosing death. And recognizing which is which is not nearly as difficult or complicated as it often seems. Life corrects; death permits.  Life builds; death dissolves.  Life searches for truth; death denies its existence.  Life faces reality; death ignores it. Life speaks for the voiceless and abandoned; death consumes them before they can speak. Life recognizes evil and calls it such; death lies and says that evil does not exist. Life, because it does not deny the existence of evil, defines the boundaries of freedom; death, because it fears definition, sets fire to every bounding line and declares that there are no limits.  Life is self-affirming; death is self-immolating.  Life loves; death hates.  Life lives; death dies.  Life is eternal; death, like grass, whithers and vanishes.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In Memorium :: David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace -- novelist, essayist, cultural critic -- died on September 12, 2008 from an apparent suicide.  I've read his first novel, The Broom of the System, and some of his essays; I haven't yet read Infinite Jest but have had every intention of doing so for a while now, and that intention that has only been lent some urgency.  I can't say that I know much about him; I can't say that I'm an expert on his work; but I can say that he offered me some bright, shining insights into the nature of language and culture and so I thank him for that. The highest praise that I can give an author is that he's caused me to think more clearly about myself. Here, then, are two passages from his essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," from his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again; I found these quotes to be especially illuminating and relevant to my own thought.  Enjoy. 

And make no mistake: irony tyrranizes us.  The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down.  All U.S. irony is based on the implicit "I don't really mean what I'm saying."  So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say?  That it's impossible to mean what you say?  That maybe it's too bad it's impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already?  Most likely, I think, today's irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."

So then how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today's avant-garde tried to write about?  One clue's to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years of the dominant mode of hip expression.  It's not a rhetorical mode that wears well.  As [Lewis] Hyde puts it, "Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage."  This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exculsively negative funtion.  It's crtical and destructive, a ground-clearing.  Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it.  But irony's singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome.  It is unmeaty.  Even gifted ironists work best in sound bites.  I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly funny to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I've had several radical surgical procedures.  And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, ot sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow... opressed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Reflections on the Revolution in France (excerpt)

It's election time again, both in Canada and the United States, and that has me once again reflecting on the nature of democracy and freedom. Here's  an excerpt from Edmund Burke's famous book.  Enjoy.

I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society, be he who he will; and perhaps I have given as good proofs of my attachment to that cause, in the whole course of my public conduct.  I think I envy liberty as little as they do, to any other nation.  But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which related to human action, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.  Circumstances (which with some gentleman pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect.  The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.  Abstractly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government (for she then had a government) without enquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered?  Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom?  Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessing of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty?  Am I to congratulate an highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights?  This would be to act over again the scene of the criminals condemned to the gallies, and their heroic deliverer, the metaphysic Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.  
When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it.  The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we can see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface.  I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one. Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver; and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings.  I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners.  All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long.  The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned to complaints.  Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate insulated private men; but liberty, when men act in bodies, is power.  Considerate people before they declare themselves will observe the use which is made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers, and dispositions, they have little or no experience, and in situations where those who appear the most stirring in the scene may possibly not be the real movers.

Burke, Edmund.  Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Edited by J.C.D. Clark.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.  151-2.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Review :: L'Armée des ombres (1969)

It is only recently, over the last year or so, that I've become familiar with la nouvelle vogue -- the French New Wave -- and specifically with the filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. My baptism into New Wave films came, fittingly enough, with Godard's whirlwind A bout le souffle (Breathless), but while that film certainly secured a position of extreme importance and excitement for the New Wave in my own mind it was not until I came to the movies of Melville that the movement became for me something more than just an aesthetic innovation. The films of Godard, films such as A bout le souffle or Bande a part, are fascinating and exhilarating but I find that their iconoclasm and almost reckless sense of innovation in a way almost impede their ability to simply tell good stories. In Godard, aesthetics and narrative become fused and yet slightly desynchronized, as if the two, blended as they are, are never quite able to connect in a satisfying way. Take Breathless for example: the jazzy re-invention of noir and gangster sensibilities inside an accelerating and at first rather disorienting editing style almost becomes a story unto itself and threatens to overwhelm, through sheer aesthetic force, any concerns either Godard or we may have for the film's actual narrative. One of the effects of this, at least on me, is the formation of a slight gap between viewer and film. I feel distanced from the screen, from the characters and their emotions, from the immediacy of the story. With Melville, however, though the aesthetic once again becomes an absolutely integral part of the films' substance it never threatens to overwhelm them in the same way. Perhaps it is his more subdued, meticulous and more than a little foreboding aesthetic, or perhaps it is simply his more organized and much less frantic sense of pace, but I find Melville, much more so than Godard, to be in complete command of his own aesthetic and so better suited to simply tell a story.

L'Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) is Jean-Pierre Melville's film about the French Resistance during World War II. Sombre, pessimistic, and filled with a sense of inescapable and predestined resolution, L'Armée is by turns both heartless and sympathetic, both convinced and morally ambivalent. With blue and gray eyes (the film's dominant colour palette) it looks deeply into the moral ambiguity of both war and resistance -- and into the actions that both seem to demand -- but it seems to always refuse us the opportunity either to disengage entirely or identify completely with its characters and their actions. Though the narrative often picks up the stories of other resistance member's as well, L'Armée primarily follows Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a high-ranking member of the French Resistance.  Unlike the grand war films -- the storm the beach, rescue the prisoners, defeat the enemy type of films -- L'Armée is a very subdued affair, muted in tone and scope, and muted, one might say, in its depiction of the heroic figure.  The film's characters are not the young and the reckless soldiers and freedom fighter idealists that often accompany war films; they are hardened, professional, dedicated and appear both worn out and morally tired. Melville's resistance members have more in common with the type of characters we would normally associate with crime or gangster films -- like Melville's own Le Cercle Rouge (1970) -- rather than with war films: they are cool, aloof and detached; they go about their business in silent resignation, poised for sacrifice. In not glamourizing his subject, Melville humanizes it.

When Steven Spielberg was trying to create a sense of moral fatigue in Saving Private Ryan he was only faintly approximating what Melville is able to accomplish in L'Armée des ombres almost thirty years earlier. But while Spielberg allowed Ryan to slide across the line from moral fatigue to thinly veiled nihilism and into a faint disgust for its subject, Melville never lets L'Armée slump into such a relaxed posture. The resistance may be facing a hopeless battle, and they may know it, but neither they nor the film ever suggest that this is a pointless battle. The moral question that haunts the film is not "should we fight?" but "how should we fight?" which seems to me to be a much more relevant question, both in terms of WWII and present conflicts.  So often war films -- especially those of the high-brow variety -- contemptuously dismiss the necessity of war, as if WWII could have been avoided if we all had developed of more liberal understanding of the world; so often war films -- especially those of low-brow variety -- blindly grope about for an often false binary structure and an easy rhetoric of good versus evil.  L'Armée des ombres, more mature than either of those types of films, navigates between the two without really compromising either.  It's a rather remarkable fusion of pessimism and conviction.  One might call it realism, I suppose.  I call it strong filmmaking.