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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Farming your own field*: Gilmore Girls kvetching, part 2

Now I've watched the whole thing and read the commentary, so what follows will obviously contain spoilers.

The first thing to say, I think, is that the reboot completely fails as a story taking place 10 years after the original ending. They should have just picked up the story two or three years on, disregarding the chronological disparity involved and covering up the physical aging of the actors with makeup. (Not that hard, really, considering that all three of the female leads could nearly pass for their original ages still.) If, as a viewer, you will yourself to think of the reboot as taking place in 2009 or 2010, almost everything will seem a lot more reasonable - Rory's affair with Logan, her professional floundering, the Luke/Lorelai relationship impasse and its resolution, etc. If it's true that the writers intended all these outcomes in the original series, then it follows that they'd only make sense in 2010.

So let's imagine that this show depicts the Gilmore Girls circa 2010. Lorelai and Luke have been back together for three years but, given their checkered marriage histories, are not sure whether to finalize the deal. Rory used her one-year campaign blogging gig to get a foot in the door and freelance in a few impressive venues over the past two years and is now unsure which direction to go for a permanent job - staff writer? professional freelancer with royalty income from books? lower-level editor with freelancing on the side? These are legitimate questions a 25 year-old journalist could be anxious over without being a washout. Characteristically weak-willed Logan was unable to stick to his demand for marriage or nothing on graduation day, and she in turn was indecisive enough to accept his invitation to continue their relationship under the radar. Richard has just died. See how that all seems so much more plausible?

In this context, the main question that the reboot sets up to answer is, now that we have all grown up and more or less attained our youthful goals (the attainment of which was the subject of the original show: Rory getting into Harvard-then-Yale and becoming a writer, Lorelai opening her inn, the multi-generational Gilmore family re-establishing a loving, if fraught, relationship), how do we remain satisfied in the lives we worked so hard to create? How do we settle? Not for something, which implies lowering our expectations, but how do we settle into expectations we've met? Because once you've got what you thought you wanted, there is always the threat of discontent, the danger of restlessness and underutilized ambition, which always wants growth and expansion, new things and more of them, and is never satisfied with the attainment of anything, no matter how intensely it was longed for before it was attained. Let's call this problem the Adulthood Question.

The Adulthood Question is a big part of Lorelai's plot arc in the reboot. She's made the Dragonfly into exactly what she imagined, but Michel urges her to expand, and she begins to question her own satisfaction. (And in the background, Sookie has left out of an inability to accept that what she had was in fact what she really wanted, although we have to assume that was more the result of McCarthy's schedule than the writers' wishes.) Lorelai's finally got The Guy, but doesn't know whether that's all there is to it; by getting The Guy, you get a nice, reliable "roommate," as Emily calls him. Emily's widowhood is a down-the-road restatement of the Adulthood Question - how do we live when the passage of time takes away the life we've settled into and learned to love? Even Rory, though she hasn't yet decisively established herself, has already largely become the person we saw her aiming at in the original show, and now has to decide only what version of her goal to select, though she has yet to address the family question.

If you continue to indulge my re-imagining of the reboot as taking place in 2010, then Rory's unplanned pregnancy is a very fitting resolution to her problems. As I wrote of the original series, this is a show that celebrates motherhood and emphatically argues that unplanned pregnancies do not have to ruin your life. In the Gilmore Girls, unplanned pregnancies jump-start adulthood for all of the women who seem like they might never reach it without a major intervention.

This LA Review of Books review (via Will Baude, whose post has a good round-up of other reviews too) is interesting, but I think ultimately wrong to see unplanned pregnancy as a mark of failure or unmet expectations in the show. That's only how Richard and Emily viewed Lorelai's pregnancy, but one of the main points of the original series is that they were quite bad parents to Lorelai - not as bad as Lorelai made them out to be, but certainly far too uncompromising and concerned with appearances. But pre-pregnancy Lorelai was hardly a diligent little bookworm on the road to Phi Beta Kappa at Yale like Rory. Teen pregnancy turned out to be a way out of a life she hated and into one for which she was suited. The other unplanned pregnancies in the show (Sookie's, Lane's, Christopher's wife's) are much better-received than Lorelai's.

And Rory's pregnancy at 25 (I insist!) occurs in a very different context than her mother's. Precisely because she gets along so well with her family, she isn't going to be raising a child on her own while scraping by as a hotel maid, but will have her mother and stepfather, grandmother, and we must assume the entire town of Stars Hollow, which still worships her, to help. Not only does her pregnancy not foreclose her writing career, but we're given reason to think it will focus and advance it. Given the timing, it's the pregnancy that finally motivates her to get serious and write her (probably slanderous, self-absorbed, Millenial stereotype-reinforcing) memoir. The fact that this pregnancy is not preceded by marriage like Lane's and Sookie's pregnancies were might give us pause, because what does it mean that you need a baby but not a husband in order to finally become an adult? But Rory is also her mother's daughter, and her independence from/inability to commit to men is an important continuity. (There is also the suggestion that Rory's future Luke will be Luke's own nephew, Jess - more continuity.)

So I disagree with Will and the LARB that the reboot is, or at least is supposed to be, dark. I don't think the point is that everyone will immediately celebrate Rory's pregnancy as though it were the most desirable event in the world, but the history of unplanned pregnancies in the show should give us good reason to believe that the characters will eventually be grateful for it. The Adulthood Question only has one broadly accessible answer, and that is children.** Children channel restlessness and underutilized ambition so that it doesn't leak out of you and ruin your life by making you perennially dissatisfied with everything you've worked for and always on the hunt for more and better. Children give you the novelty and open-endedness you desire, but in the form of someone else - a new person you bring into being, one whose future is still open, and who must be guided towards it by you. You have to stop worrying about your own ascent (is it high enough? is this as good as it gets? should we add a spa to the Dragonfly?) to launch theirs. So Rory's pregnancy actually solves apparently unresolved problems in the show by giving both Lorelai and Rory a new outlet for their ambitions (since apparently Lorelai won't have more kids of her own) while also helping to satisfy and anchor them in the lives they already live.

The Adulthood Question was actually set up in the original series by the problem of the Small Town Where Nothing Happens and Everyone Is Average. How can an intelligent, ambitious person be content in such a place? Most of the original show allowed us to assume that the children raised there were really destined for greater things: rock stardom (Lane), beat-revival poetry (Jess), Pulitzer prizes (Rory, obvs). But that assumption doesn't really work in the long run, or small towns would be unsustainable and everyone has only the choice between being a star elsewhere or a failure back home. There has to be some positive appeal of such a place, some reason to end up there instead of just beginning there and then moving on to greater things. I think the reboot does try to show that flipside by showing that no place can be big enough and exciting enough for the internally dissatisfied person who hasn't answered the Adulthood Question, while for the person who has, Stars Hollow's virtues will be clear.

The other triumph of the reboot was Emily, who solves her problems on her own, with only the help of her maid, while keeping a stiff upper lip and revealing vulnerability only rarely, and then only to her immediate family. Someone on the writing staff must be a great fan of midcentury WASPs.

All that said, significant problems remain. It was too much the parade of cameos, with most of the significant secondary characters from the original run appearing only in one episode and often only in one scene, giving us a quick update on what they've been up to, and then immediately disappearing again into the ether. The result is subplots of weirdly time-consuming but then eventually one-off things like the town musical, and a lot of loose ends. Does Paris go through with her divorce? Does Sookie realize what she's missing and return? Also, Rory's brilliant career idea to write a memoir is pretty lame. I completely support Lorelai's objections to it. A final important question: why didn't they use the old theme song until the closing credits? I loved that theme song as an opening. A definite minus in the reboot.

* "Farm your own field, don't try to farm the fields of others" is my husband's summary of the moral of Herodotus' History, which he repeats to me when I suggest undertaking some massive project completely outside my wheelhouse instead of focusing on all the projects within it that presently remain half-done. In Herodotus, this point is made by Cyrus in the final paragraph, when the Persians suggest to him, "Let us move from this land of ours - for it is little and rocky, too - and take something better than it. There are many lands next to us and many further off, and if we take one of these we shall be more admired for more things." But he tells them that their pursuit of something ever-better than what they have (which is what has already made them great at this point) will only result in their conquest by others.
** Another answer is the kind of superstar career where you go from one important and all-consuming project to the next, and so always have a newer and bigger thing on the horizon. But that kind of life is not open to most or even many people, including most Yale graduates, however enthusiastically they might believe otherwise while they're at Yale.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Utopia, VA

Despite my prolonged blog silence, I am still alive and everything is fine. We finally left nihilistic Southern California and moved back east in August, I started a new job, we put Goomba in daycare, where she caught every illness in circulation and passed it on to us, so we've been constantly sick, and it has generally been a very hectic semester.

But other than that, it's been great! We are now living in Utopia, a city built for Goldilocks. It's not too big, but not too small. It has all the amenities of a larger city: Trader Joe's, public transit, gourmet cheese, walkable downtown, a full array of coffee shop options, advanced medical care, absurdly specialized classes for toddlers too young to actually benefit from classes. But it has few of the drawbacks of a large city, strangers say hello to you when they pass you on the street, and it's situated in a very beautiful part of the country, disproportionately prosperous due to its connection to the university. In truth, it is basically a bubble, but I am well-accustomed to bubble-life and am not complaining.

The first bubbly thing that struck me about Utopia, is that there are very few luxury cars driving around (in San Diego, even our babysitter drove a Mercedes convertible), but every other car is a Subaru. We also have a Subaru, but we bought it in SD, where it signaled nothing. Indifferent practicality on a moderate budget, maybe. But here, the Subaru seems to be a real signal that one is of the university, or at least of the city's educated middle class, as against the people who drive either pick-up trucks or, worse, Detroit-made sedans. To be of this class is not to waste money on flashy luxury, but to invest in something cosmopolitan but not ostentatiously foreign, solid but eco-conscious, practical but also rugged, affordable but not actually cheap. What the Volvo is to private college faculty, the (less expensive) Subaru is to (public) Utopia University. Mr. Self-Important insists that I'm imagining it the whole Subaru phenomenon, but I am sure it's real.

The university is pretty great so far, a bit over-bureaucratized, but without the constant stream of low-grade scandals and crises that washed over a certain university in Boston. It seems weird now to read the school newspaper only to find no news in it on most days. 
 
Also, I have a new (academic) article out which I'm sure will shoot immediately to the top of your reading lists once you discover its compelling and even salacious subject: Locke's ideas about habituation.

So that is the life update to fill the gap since August. I do intend to blog again, now that the semester is over and next term's courses will require significantly less prep than this term's did.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

32 is the new 23: Gilmore Girls kvetching

I came out of hibernation just to complain about the Gilmore Girls. Well, not really, since I didn't mean to go into hibernation in the first place, but moving, teaching, child-rearing, and being sick all the time from the unceasing stream of baby germs brought to my home through child-rearing all got in the way of blogging this semester. More on that another time. But they did not get in the way of complaining about the Gilmore Girls.

I've only seen the first episode so far. I AM SPACING IT OUT, OK? I do not care that Netflix is not made for that. I do not care that you've already seen the whole thing and are in the process of preparing for the re-re-boot. Perhaps my complaints are premature, but oh well.

Ok, now, we did know this would happen. The basic problem is that Gilmore Girls is at bottom a coming-of-age show, and coming of age is not a lifelong process. Yes, sure, living is a lifelong process, and some people's adult lives are more interesting than others, but it's not all just a process of growing up and up and up until one day you accidentally fall down dead. So if you leave a coming-of-age show for a decade and then suddenly return to it now, everyone in it should have finished coming of age. What's left for the show to be about? That's the obvious difficulty with the re-boot.

Some characters can weather this difficulty better than others. Richard and Emily were of course in the best position to weather a decade off-air because they were always pretty much the only adults on the show, already settled in life and in their ways. The next candidates would be Sookie and Jackson. But death and scheduling conflicts felled both these couples, and turned Emily into an old version of needy, whiny Lorelai. So all we have left are perpetual-child Lorelai and the younger generation of the original show who were supposed to have used this decade to settle into careers and families and become dull, but have instead been essentially frozen in time for all these years, except for the physical aging.

First, there is the chronologically 32-year-old Rory who is at life stage age 23, exactly where the show left her in 2007. Somehow, despite having pursued her journalism career with unswerving intent and ambition since college, despite racking up impressive credentials and networking madly, despite covering Obama before he was cool, we meet her a decade later, single, homeless, and still floundering around in Journalism Career Stage 1: Occasional Freelancing.* Lane has also spent the past decade in suspended animation because, despite being married and having twins at the end of the show, nothing at all has changed about her life since 2007. She still lives in the same house and her primary occupation is still drumming for her apparently hopeless garage band, now with two little kids sitting in a corner of the house quietly coloring. (Convenient children! Can I have some like that?) Only Paris shows signs of having continued life during the hiatus, following the awesomeness arc her character created in the original show. Paris is plausibly 32: she has built a business (an empire, apparently, but what is Paris if not motivated?), married and had children, and is now apparently ready for divorce (but not really!). Everyone else has just aged in place.

I understand that it is irrational to take this failure on the writers' parts personally, but I'm exactly the same age as Rory, and I expect my real life and her fictional life to unfold in tandem, but they haven't, and that's sad. I do admit of course that, if they had, and Rory were a TV-version of me, the re-boot would be, objectively, really boring. But not to me!

Besides my main concern that there would be no good way to work a decade of time passed and life lived into the reboot without undermining the coming-of-age premise of the show, I had two other worries about this reboot: the first was that, given current cultural preoccupations, it would turn into an elaborate condemnation of the original show's often-positive depiction of New England WASPs. The second was that it would just be a series of cameos and inside-jokey flashbacks to the original series. Concern 1 has not proven to be relevant so far. Concern 2 is very prevalent.

*I am holding out hope for one redemptive story line that might come out of this very inauspicious beginning, which is that the reason that Rory has made no progress in her career despite mightily trying is that she is about to realize that she never really wanted fame and prestige in the first place, but her real calling all along was to come home and teach at Stars Hollow High or something like that. Such a shift would obviously be inconsistent after 27 solid years of wanting to be Christiane Amanpour (an aspiration which I've previously insisted was itself out of keeping with her character), but it would be consistent with the show as a whole.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Oe, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

Another entry in the political uses of children in literature. This is a postwar Japanese novel that inverts Lord of the Flies to emphasize the innocent morality of children's society against the venality and cruelty of adult society. This also has a precedent, in Huckleberry Finn, for example, where Huck's naive sense of justice illuminates by contrast the sophisticated injustice of Southerners. Children are used as a kind of stand-in for or reminder of natural justice in moments when adult justice has grossly miscarried and adult society has failed. In Huck Finn, that failure is slavery, and in Nip the Buds, it's the war.

But not all children can be relied on to demonstrate this native moral purity, because if adults are corrupt, then surely some of their corruption will have rubbed off on their children. So it is only children who are somehow insulated from adult influence, and by extension from civilization, who can remain pure: orphans like Huck, or virtual orphans like the reformatory boys in Nip the Buds. Such outcast children appear to polite society as uncivilized and wild, but this is only because the adults have the wrong perspective and don't see that it is they who require civilizing. What they perceive to be wildness is in fact natural morality, to which they, in their gross immorality, have become blind.

To accept this device, you have to accept some version, religious or secular, of the view that children are born free of sin. And there are secular versions of this and its opposite: Hobbes and Freud are modern, secular proponents of children-as-sinners, at least in the loose sense that this kind of literature requires. They view the child as the father of the man, and the disorders of civilization as contained in miniature in the primitive, unrestrained passions of individuals. The Hobbesian, Freudian argument of Lord of the Flies is that the source of injustice and disorder is in our nature, and that the artifacts of law and government - adult artifacts - must be imposed on that nature in order to suppress or channel our innate tendencies towards injustice. Nip the Buds, and to some extent also Huck Finn, follows from the competing premise - that the child is naturally moral (and further, natural morality is good), though susceptible to corruption by adults. But where adult corruption has grown very great, we can still turn back to the instincts of children to guide us back to our natural state of goodness. 

I am at best ambivalent about this device. Empirically, I have little doubt that it is wrong, and that children (especially children in groups) are not naturally or instinctively good to others or one another in the absence of adults. But it has some literary merits: emphasizing the purity and innocence of childhood adult political injustice. And even Oe is not fully Rousseauian: in the end, the idyllic mountain-top commune of reformatory boys commits injustice when faced with the prospect of death. Still, it is a device based not just on a kind of noble lie about childhood's goodness, but one that potentially distorts the truth about nature and morality in order to heighten the poignancy of certain political injustices.

Also, I don't think I've ever read a modern parable of this sort - set somewhere unknown, taking place outside of time, populated by unnamed and half-drawn characters who represent moral ideas more than actual people - that wasn't, at bottom, kind of schmaltzy. The Lottery, The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas, The Plague, even Animal Farm. They're engaging, intriguingly ambiguous, highly-assignable course material to get students thinking about political theory without realizing it. But because they're ambiguous and sketchy, they always seems to end in an edifying condemnation of injustice arising out of a totally ungrounded hope that society could be better if we just put our minds to making it so. But things can't always be better, especially if the injustices are part of us or inherent in living together, and not just the unfortunate imposition of particularly horrible grown-ups.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Political correctness as a revival of etiquette

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a short talk at my advisor's book event in DC about the parallels between the recent speech-related demands from campus and online activists and the prewar rules governing social etiquette that the left had worked to subvert because they were hierarchical, artificial, constraining. Since then, I've come across two similar versions of this argument, from James Bowman and from Damon Linker. Linker writes about something I've been considering for a couple of years, since the Title IX controversy began:
Understood in this wider sense, we've been living through an extended libertarian moment since the early 1960s. Moral libertarianism presumes that no authority — political, legal, or religious — is competent to pronounce judgment on an individual’s decisions, provided that they don’t negatively effect other people. Thanks to this assumption, a grand edifice of inherited moral and legal strictures on sexuality have crumbled over the past half century, leaving individuals free to live and love as they wish, as long as everyone involved gives their consent.
Religiously traditionalist conservatives have rejected moral libertarianism from the beginning, while losing just about every political and legal battle over its spread. But left-wing dissent has been selective and sporadic...That may be starting to change.
Now, Linker overlooks the ways that the right has also appealed to so-called "moral libertarianism" during the past 50 years. What he's calling moral libertarianism is actually the principle of liberal neutrality, amenable to all partisans precisely because it transforms partisan demands into neutral rights. So, for example, in the 1970s and '80s, one argument for the legalization of homeschooling was that parents have a right to educate their children as they see fit, provided that they do not harm them or anyone else. Although this argument was advanced mainly by "religiously traditionalist conservatives," it was framed in a way that applies to anyone who wants to homeschool his children for any reason.

One of the most significant morally libertarian principles of this period has been the popular view of free speech. That view goes beyond what even the First Amendment permits, although First Amendment jurisprudence since the '60s has also expanded the limits of free speech. But I think the popular view is that speech should not only have no legal limitation, but that even moral or social sanctions are suspect. People shouldn't lose their jobs or even their friends just for expressing their opinions, especially their political opinions. Of course, this hardly reflects reality, where people are socially sanctioned for being disagreeable all the time, but it's a not uncommon aspiration. And it reflects a neutral or morally libertarian view of speech, even though everyone who holds it preferentially applies it to his own fellow-partisans. But, since it's pretty obvious why "free speech for my side only" is not sustainable, even partisans frame freedom of speech as a neutral right: the "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" principle.

Linker is down on moral libertarianism when it comes to sex, but I suspect he's more content with it in the realm of speech. But he's right that the moral-libertarian consensus, embattled as it may always have been, is starting to break down in every realm. In some cases - the pornography with which Linker is concerned, for example - breakdown will mean a change in the laws. But in others, it must mean a change in - or, more accurately, a revival of - manners. These manners, as both Linker and Bowman point out, are a distinctly "progressive" attempt at etiquette, but they're not in purpose and sometimes even in substance all that different from the etiquette that moral libertaranism overthrew. Before, for example, men had to avoid vulgarity and displays of sexual aggression around women, and now, men must...do exactly the same thing. Before, this was to defend women against offense. Now, it's to defend women against offense as part of a vague strategy to liberate everyone from gender sometime in the distant future.

Of course, you could easily point out that since conservatives love manners, they should cheer all these speech demands made by social justice activists, and form a strategic alliance like the one between the anti-porn feminists and the socially-conservative right in the '80s. Perhaps. But as Bowman points out, there is another axis to consider here that runs perpendicular to the left/right opposition, which is the many/few opposition. Manners are inherently exclusive; they always preserve a division between mass and elites.
Social elites have always defined themselves—and justified their elite status—by their manners. I think we must have forgotten this since the word “uncouth” became, well, uncouth. Originally meaning “unknown” or “unknowing,” the word was in common use by the eighteenth century to indicate someone who was unfamiliar with the manners of what was once called “polite” society...The manners of the postwar American elite do not admit of any such overt exclusions, which are now seen as wrong and undemocratic. But the elite would not be an elite if it did not retain some means of excluding the uncouth—something that it has accomplished in our time by turning its manners into morals. 
This is what so-called “political correctness” is all about. Now we are meant to show our fitness for membership in the elite by knowing that you must refer to “people of color” but never, ever “colored people,” a locution which, dating from the benighted past, is deemed to be racist and offensive... But the dictionaries would not be doing their job if they did not warn you off committing such social faux pas as these and others with the discreet notation: “Considered offensive.” 
Offensive, you may wonder, to whom? Not necessarily to the members of those minorities towards whose feelings the dictionaries have become ostensibly solicitous. You may be sure that The Washington Post’s recent discovery that the term “redskin” is not considered offensive by 90 percent of the American Indians it surveyed will not be taken into account the next time the dictionaries are revised. That is because the feelings that matter are not those of the minorities alleged to be offended but those of the elite who have moralized our linguistic manners so as to be able to exclude the unwanted and the uncouth—that is, those who do not signal their fitness for inclusion in it by adopting the elite’s vocabulary. Lacking the means of excluding such people merely on social or aesthetic grounds, the elite must turn the social and aesthetic into the just and ethical so as to be able to exclude them on moral grounds.
Because they're elitist and exclusive, manners - progressive as well as traditional - are anti-democratic and run counter to the populism of both the left and the right. Bowman thinks the main challenge to the elitist progressive effort to revive a moral code of conduct is conservative populist opposition (or just Trump, our great savior). I'm not sure. Why wouldn't the deep tension within progressivism between populism and elitism, the effort to reconcile these into an inclusive and egalitarian code of conduct that will continually result in exclusions, issue in a more thorough demise?

Another plausible, completely different explanation for all this is David Brooks's account of "shame culture."

Friday, June 03, 2016

Marks of adulthood

In the years just after I finished college, when I was working full time and living in DC, I was very concerned with the question, "Am I an adult now?" I very badly wanted to answer in the affirmative and worked hard to make it so, but when so many other people your age are still behaving like children, it's difficult to distinguish yourself as invisibly more mature. So I was always wondering when I would reach a point where my adulthood would be incontrovertible. Then I went to grad school, where the adulthood project had to be aborted as a matter of necessity.

But now, it is a lot easier to see the marks of adulthood. For example, I am drinking a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Ever since I started drinking coffee in college, I used to wonder at decaf coffee drinkers - for why? Coffee doesn't actually taste good; it's essentially a low-grade productivity drug to help you read more books and write more words, faster. Drinking decaf coffee is like taking placebo aspirin for a headache.

But now I see things differently. It's like the hat/elephant drawing in The Little Prince. Children are defined as those who see the elephant in the gullet of a boa, adults as those who see a hat. Neither can satisfactorily explain their perspective to the other.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Love and Friendship

We went to see this, and it was very enjoyable, but I still think Whit Stillman is adrift. His first four movies were all commentaries on and against contemporary manners, and in this sense they had a purpose and an argument. But everyone (except me) hated Damsels in Distress, because they dismissed his apparently whimsical argument about the importance of dancing for social life and for bringing the young together in an innocent but auspicious way, and his complaint that we've failed to create a suitable substitute for it, to the detriment of the social lives of the young. (Notably, he made exactly the same argument Last Days of Disco, and no one was contemptuous of it then. I suppose it was more subtle there, but not that subtle, given that Josh has at least two monologues about the importance of disco for his generation.) But I think that, in the first place, Stillman is serious about this argument, and in the second, he's right, even though I am a terrible dancer and doubt that I would've personally benefited from a youth culture to which social dancing was central.

Anyway, it seems like the poor reception of Damsels unmoored Stillman. First, there was the Amazon TV pilot that went nowhere, though according to his Twitter, it's not dead and Amazon is just waiting for him to actually write the rest. Now, there is Love and Friendship, which is very clever and witty, but doesn't have any clear point. Or the point is just that Whit Stillman loves Jane Austen and wants everyone to know it, and he demonstrates his love by filling out one of her unfinished novels instead of adapting Austen's style and intentions to the social world of the present, as he had been doing before.

The filling is mostly good, with some dialogue that seems anachronistic (for example, at some point, one of the characters refers to a relationship "dynamic" - probably not an eighteenth-century usage), but there's something a little narrow and academic about the project. It doesn't have a broader argument or any real connection to the present. There is a kind of Machiavellian moral (or anti-moral) point within the story, that those who are always abuse friendship probably should not rely on the sincerity of their friends, and the manipulators are the ones who least expect (and so are most likely) to be manipulated themselves. There are worse things to make than a clever fable in period costume, but also better things, like Stillman's other movies.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Yes, this is the first time I've read Dostoevsky, even though when I was college, it seemed like everyone was taking a class on one or another of his books every quarter and then writing a thesis on him. I kept my distance from all that, just as I kept my distance from the Jane Austen enthusiasm, only to discover soon after college that Austen was in fact as good as the enthusiasts claimed. So sometimes Miss Self-Important is wrong, or too quick to dismiss. When I happened upon this old Commentary article by Gary Saul Morson a few weeks ago, I decided now was the time to be wrong about Dostoevsky. And I was, but not as much.

Here's the thing: Austen is for young women. Not exclusively, since no excellent novelist is so narrow, but I suspect that the greatest direct pleasure and edification to be gotten from her major novels will occur between the ages of 18 and 28. After that, you can still appreciate the wit, craft, morals, and aesthetics, but it no longer has immediate application to your life. (Come at me, geezers!) So Austen's popularity among college students is fitting. But what about Dostoevsky? Who is Dostoevsky for?*

Here is who Dostoevsky is not for: mothers. No one among his collegiate enthusiasts mentioned to me that Dostoevsky assiduously collected lurid stories of child abuse because they tested the limits of Christian faith, and he put this collection to use in his novels. Another thing no one mentioned to me is that after you have a baby, your capacity to read about little children suffering, especially at the hands of adults, falls precipitously. And moreover, the treatment of children in literature (or movies, or any representation) becomes disproportionately memorable. I think this is what is meant by "faint-hearted," which it is very uncool to be because it impinges on one's sense of detachment and irony, but which is a deficiency that can apparently be acquired in mid-life after many years of impeccable detachment and irony. No one mentioned any of this to me, but now I am mentioning it to you. So even though this was a great book in some cosmic sense, I think the main thing I will remember is the one not particularly important line from Ivan's Grand Inquisitor speech about a Turk tickling a baby to make him laugh and then shooting him. I will not quote it here, in the unlikely case that you too happen to suffer from the defect of faint-heartedness.

The book is about other things, like the Russian obsession with the decay of the aristocratic order with its nobility of character (of both the actual nobles and the peasants, for we must not forget the subtly-named peasant Platon in War and Peace) into cold, bureaucratic stupidity on one hand, and boiling, revolutionary stupidity on the other. And Christianity.

Maybe someday, once I've re-hardened my heart, I'll go back to the Grand Inquisitor passage because it was important to Arendt, and the book will work on me more effectively. But for now, all you get is this half-hearted post and no further interest in reading Dostoevsky.

*I don't mean to leave this hanging as some great unknown. It's pretty easy to answer. Dostoevsky is for young men alienated from modernity having a theological-political crisis. So, young men who read books.

Monday, May 16, 2016

High school impostors

Two new, bizarre stories in my favorite genre, one involving an old guy masquerading as a high school student, the other a high school student masquerading as an old guy. The fake doctor story is funny, but ultimately there isn't really anything so shocking about a kid pretending to be an adult with a good adult job. It's fraud, sure, but it suggests that society is working ok, instilling sufficient and even overweaning desire in the young to grow up and be respectable. But Miss Self-Important does love this defense of the kid, advanced by his father:
“He’s not out doing drugs, he’s not out trying to rob nobody,” Robinson said. “He’s trying to do something constructive, and if he did do something and the paperwork wasn’t right — he can get ahead of himself sometimes and he may have been trying too hard, but he had good intentions.”
The old guy who posed as a high school and also as a fake teenaged son to an actual married couple though, that one is much weirder, but it's hard to know from the reporting which parts of this scheme were his idea and which were his "parents'," and what the goal of the charade was. Was it just the most bizarre way to stay in the US illegally that anyone has come up with, or was there some other motive? The article has him playing the clueless foreigner card, so who knows. But since both of these stunts have already occurred in film (recall the great Drew Barrymore vehicle, Never Been Kissed) there isn't even anything ultimately original about even the old guy's weirdness. We can thank Drew Barrymore for her culturally pioneering work normalizing creepy old guy impostordom.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Notes on baby sleep

1. When strangers strike up conversation with me about the baby (the sharp increase in unsolicited stranger interactions is an additional benefit of having a baby), the order of their questions is invariably: what's her name, how old is she, how's she sleeping? I know baby sleep is a fraught topic, but how could strangers have any real interest in my baby's sleep patterns? I have no interest in anyone else's sleep patterns, not even my friends' (sorry). I oblige them with a response (pretty well), but the prevalence of the question continues to puzzle.

2. I actually don't know if Goomba is sleeping pretty well. I only know that she sleeps the requisite number of hours per day that the baby books suggest. But I also think the baby books are full of lies about sleep training. They're all like, "Just toss your kid in the crib and shut the door and plug your ears. Don't worry, she won't cry for more than 40 minutes! And she'll sleep through the night (except for the 90% chance that she'll wake up at midnight to eat). And within three days, you won't even hear a peep out of her when you put her down. She will practically be begging for naps! She will learn to talk just so she can say, 'May I please be put to bed now, Mother?' It's gonna be great!" This is a lie. It is true that Goomba has never cried for more than 40 minutes and that she sleeps for many hours after crying. But it is not true that she doesn't cry. "Sleep training" is a false advertisement. There is (eventual) sleep, yes, but no training. Or, at least the baby is not the one being trained. If anything, it trains parents to withstand willful baby crying and to enforce baby sleep. Which is fine if it's all that can realistically be achieved with a pre-rational creature whose driving passion in life is to be held all the time, but the sleep-training gurus should just admit that. When you read further into the books, there are some disclaimers about how maybe the magic won't happen quite as quickly as three days, and maybe you just have to keep at it for a while until the child finally achieves protest-free sleep. I suspect that will occur closer to 10 years than three days.

3. Up to about five months, Goomba would fall asleep as if by spontaneous collapse. There was no gradual drifting off like an adult, but instead, normal activity or even howling one minute, unconsciousness the next. This was especially funny in the cases of howling. Now she drifts off, in principle, except she mostly prefers not to sleep at all. I miss the days of spontaneous collapse. It was the cutest thing.

4. Before the instruction to put babies to sleep on their backs became widespread, it was apparently very common to sleep babies on their stomachs. But most babies hate "tummy time" until pretty late into their first year, when they're already rolling and sitting and therefore not stranded like sad, overturned turtles when they're put on their stomachs. How then was it possible that a majority of infants used to be put to sleep on their stomachs from birth? This question has been bugging me for many months.