?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Dickens, the humanity! - click opera
February 2010
 
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
 
 
 
 
 
 
Page 1 of 2
[1] [2]
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 03:17 pm
Dickens, the humanity!

Because I'm generating a narrative myself at the moment, I'm super-sensitive to the way big bully narratives of different kinds shape our lives. They're everywhere. They're sort of Victorian-feeling, despite being made in the 21st century -- all about redemption and hope and humanity.

The more these over-hyped retro-Victorian mega-narratives bully and console us, the more people seem to love them. Roll up! Roll up! The greatest show on earth! All human life is here! The rich, the poor, the humanity, the melodrama, the orchestra, the spin-offs, the sales! You can't escape people discussing how the new Harry Potter is "a fitting conclusion", or how The Wire is "the greatest television ever made", or how Bill Viola's new video piece at the Venice Biennale is a moving meditation on the frailty of the human condition.

Nobody is telling us the new Harry Potter, or the last series of The Wire, or Bill Viola's new triptych is great because it shares insight with Kafka or Beckett or T.S. Eliot. No, we make a big lacuna over everything artists told us in the 20th century -- stuff rooted in Nietzsche and Freud and the Futurists and the Surrealists and all that nihilist dynamite.

Instead, they're invoking Dickens. Now, I have nothing against Dickens -- it's amusing, if a little exhausting, to keep meeting a man with a funny name who proclaims "I'll eat my head!", or to weep over the death of Little Nell. But is rolling out the name of a 19th century writer really the best way to legitimize art being made now? Have we just decided to skip the 20th century entirely?

"Rowling understands that grief is part of what makes us wholly human, along with the ability to love and forgive and show remorse. And while magic is ultimately seen to have limits -- Death has its dominion, even at Hogwarts -- love does not." That's novelist Elizabeth Hand, writing about the new Harry Potter in the Washington Post.

I'm already disturbed, in that, by the idea that some humans are not "fully human". You can already see, right there, how this brand of "humanism" might be employed in an inhumane way. We have to work to be human? Some of us aren't?

The kind of big-canvas, 19th century humanism being touted here is secularized religion, and therefore teleological (does love really have no bounds? Does human life really only gain meaning from suffering, vicar?) and rhetorical, designed to sweep us along, sweep us away, make us cry. Hand tells us she wept at the end of the Potter book, which reminded her of Dickens.

Someone else who summons Dickens to validate a 21st century artifact is Jon Wilde, who salutes four series of cop show The Wire in a piece in The Guardian.

"No other television drama comes close to the scope of its ambition," Wilde gushes. "As co-creator and executive producer David Simon says: "Our model when we started doing The Wire wasn't other television shows. The standard we were looking at was Balzac's Paris or Dickens's London, or Tolstoy's Moscow."

Woot! And yet... Is it really television's biggest and most laudable ambition to catch up, more than a century late, with the narrative and metaphysical models of the 19th century? Wilde adds that the Baltimore depicted in The Wire is a dark and hard place "not the fruitcakey world of John Waters movies". Good to know -- we wouldn't want any Waters (or any Oscar Wilde, for that matter) diluting our Dickens, would we? Who needs to hear about Baltimore from a homo-intellectual when they could have it described by "a former crime reporter and former homicide/narcotics cop"?

While Hand is lauding the Dickensian nature of the characters in the Potter book -- they have names like "Severus Snape" and you don't have to waste much time working out whether they're good or evil -- Wilde raves about the equally Dickensian-sounding "Bubbles, the most sympathetic character ever to appear in a TV drama... Bubbles breaks your heart every time he appears on screen... precariously holding onto his last scrap of dignity. I weep just thinking of him wheeling around his portable supermarket - a trolley piled with cheap toilet rolls and knock-off white T-shirts. More than any other character, Bubbles encapsulates the humanity at the heart of the show".

And all this weeping at the very thought of a character called Bubbles or Potter -- what would Brecht say? Is it really the mark of great art that it makes you weep uncontrollably? Are your 19th century tears making life any better for the poor?

The religiose, 19th century vocabulary of secular humanism gets wheeled out time after time to justify the greatness of mega-narratives. Humanity, hope, redemption, the human condition, moving, heart, dance. Sometimes it's commentators wheeling this creaky rubbish out as the ultimate justification and validation of works of art, sometimes it's the artists themselves. Take this Bill Viola interview about his video altarpieces at the Venice Biennale.

"This is a piece about humanity and it’s about the fragility of life," proclaims Viola. "Like the borderline between life and death is actually not a hard wall, it’s not to be opened with a lock and key, its actually very fragile, very tenuous. You can cross it like that in an instant and I think religions, you know, institutions aside, I think just the nature of our awareness of death is one of the things that in any culture makes human beings have that profound feeling of what we call the human condition and that’s really something I am really interested in."

I'd be interested in seeing Viola -- named, with Dickensian aptness, after the quivering stringed instrument designed to pluck your heartstrings -- draped over a tree in a Jake and Dinos Chapman installation, with his entrails being eaten by adorable little pet spaniels. (Only in a video triptych, of course.)

Timeless values... all religions... in any culture... through all ages... major work about our core humanity. It's such exhausted, rhetorical bullshit, especially when it's advanced as a claim for work as chocolate-box bland, and as technically clever, as Viola's (he boasts about using special effects designed by Hollywood director James Cameron's team). Put it together with the scary thought that some of us aren't quite as "fully human" as others, and you have the basis not just of a secular-humanist transcendental metaphysics but also the possibility of a kind of moral apartheid, and even a secular-humanist Spanish Inquisition: "Have you read Dickens? If not, you aren't fully human. I'm afraid we're going to have to torture you."

Let's look at what this Dickens-veneration ignores. Everything that's happened since, everything that displaces and disturbs our comfortable consolations, our desire for life to mean something tidy and pat, and for that meaning to come wrapped up in middlebrow blockbusters. Where's Nietzsche, or Freud, or Bataille, or Beckett, or Kafka, or Lacan? Where's just about any serious artist who's made work since the 19th century?

But, if you insist on staying in the European 19th century, let's take a look at the difference between Manzoni and Leopardi. Leopardi was an atheist who rejected the idea that life had any sort of transcendent meaning. He had to keep moving around because the Catholic authorities hounded and censored him. Tim Parks, writing in The Independent, describes his Moral Tales as "a world where the absence of all meaning is only made bearable by constant creativity, where a morally bankrupt Italy is urgently in need of some great collective illusion".

That illusion was provided -- very successfully, on a commercial level -- by Alessandro Manzoni. "Manzoni was feted for his great novel The Betrothed while Leopardi was ignored. The Betrothed is a must for understanding the other, non-Leopardi side of Italy: Catholic, confident, complacent, determined to believe that God is good."



So why have we skidded back to Dickens, and towards the sticky, chocolate-box sentimentality of the 19th century? Is it because, as we get increasingly fat, the provocateurs of the 20th century avant garde look to us like weird stick insects or Giacometti sculptures? Is the comedy nihilism of Beckett and Kafka just too ectomorphic for us? Is it because the post-war 20th century's trend towards income redistribution and global integration has been reversed, and that today's increasing gap between the super-poor and the super-rich leads to an essentially 19th century world -- a world of petty nationalism, unamused queens, wars of imperial conquest, charity for the good of the soul, faith-based initiatives and trickledown, religion-as-consolation, effulgent sentimentality, philanthropy, good works, handkerchiefs, workhouses, poorhouses, and chocolate boxes?

53CommentReplyShare

electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 01:38 pm (UTC)

Look, you can say what you want, but reading Harry Potter does not make me a New Victorian, ok.

But try telling that to all the semi-intellectuals who feel they have to tell me the myriad ways in which I´m stupid for liking it.


ReplyThread
trickseybird
trickseybird
Bruce Springsteen, you're not the boss of me
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 01:45 pm (UTC)

Kevin has the biggest intellicock of all.


ReplyThread Parent Expand

electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 01:41 pm (UTC)

Also, yes, we like HP cos we´re fat, and can´t understand Beckett or Kafka. Not because we like gay incest porn with magic.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 01:50 pm (UTC)

Ah, you're the Waters-Wilde school of Potter fan? The John Cale school of Snape fan? Carry on...


ReplyThread Parent Expand








(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 04:09 pm (UTC)

Indeed, the Brown years look to be even more conservative than the Blair years, if that is possible. The guy is apologising for building social housing, so completely does he exist for the investment class. But post-modernism means that the 19th century is as relevent/dated as the 20th century? They are, in effect, the same age? Personally I don't really need more existential interiors. We are post-Freud by about forty years. Big social panoramas filled with emotions might be quite refreshing.


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC)

As in 'its too easy to drift towards modernism and avant garde and call it art. Must try harder.' They challenge is to take the non-niche/commercial/pop/human interest and take it somewhere real. Take emotions somewhere real and you're getting away from the cosy safety of avant garde.


ReplyThread Parent

niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 04:55 pm (UTC)

I read the Sunday Herald.

The second age of philanthropy

and

Brown needs to 'stop glorifying the Empire'

Sir Tom Hunter is the wealthiest individual in Scotland, emulating his hero Andrew Carnegie by promising future charity donations of one billion pounds. Joanne(JK) Rowling, the Friends of literature, the U2 of writers is ninth.



I notice Bill Viola uses two actually's and two really's in that quote.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 05:24 pm (UTC)

The Herald is one of the few UK papers I've actually written for (about ten years ago, in Pat Kane's Scotgeist section). And I'm pretty much on-message with them here, I think.

"With great wealth comes great responsibility. There is more great wealth in fewer hands than ever before in history, and you've got to take care of these things if wealth creation is still going to be seen as a positive force by the rest of the population," said Sir Tom, the day after a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed the gap between the rich and poor in Britain was at its starkest in 40 years."

It's pretty clear there that philanthropy, while it may be welcome in the short term, just bolsters the legitimacy of a Gini-situation that's really got out of... well, out of the bottle, actually.


ReplyThread Parent


(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
jonathankorman
jonathankorman
Jonathan Korman
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)

I can't speak intelligently for your other examples, but I think The Wire resembles Dickens not so much because of a Victorian moralistic humanism but because, like Dickens, David Simon is saying something about the intricate and frustrating social order through the device of a big canvas of vivid, interlocking characters.

Like the Victorian world, the American urban social order is the unintended result of powerful institutions constructed in recent decades that create huge injustices and other problems, but which we find difficult to imagine changing. Different people find themselves caught in the grip of this order in different ways. So it's unsurprising that The Wire uses some Dickensian devices ... though it is very different in important ways, not least in rejecting the sentimentality and melodrama characteristic of Dickens (and most television.)


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)

like Dickens, David Simon is saying something about the intricate and frustrating social order through the device of a big canvas of vivid, interlocking characters.

But that could as easily link him to The Tin Drum (recently broadcast on Radio 7 in a two-parter with Phil Daniels as Oskar Matzerath, good stuff!), couldn't it? The reason people go all the way back to Dickens is that TV prefers "gritty realism" to magic realism. I doubt anybody in The Wire breaks glass with a scream or sucks sherbet from a little girl's navel...

Would the critics say The Wire was better or worse if stuff like that happened? I'd hope there'd be a couple, here and there, who'd welcome it. Otherwise, why would we have even had a 20th century, and writers like Grass? What was it all for? Was it a big regrettable mistake?


ReplyThread Parent Expand









(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 06:01 pm (UTC)
Anti-uncommercial rant: Why are sequels inevitably 'darker'?

I saw 'Harry Potter and the Order Of The Phoenix' yesterday and was shocked by how unemotional it was. A few 'I will avenge you' fist shakes but mainly 1) introduce new character 2) a dilemma happens 3) new character solves the dilemma. Repeat to CGI fade. It also has this 'the sequel must be darker, grittier' thing running through it. 'We don't want to look too commercial' gives way to plenty of Uncommercial-commercial Bloodshed setting on the scripting engine. I wondered how much energy creatives spend on looking uncommercial: I'm too well-connected and went to stage school = I must take heroin. I'm too Oxbridge, too Andrew Lloyd Webber = I must talk in urban slang and rarely shave. Worst was that sense of 'Prince's new album' syndrome: meaningless output, something to do, nothing to say but the HP voice trundles on.


ReplyThread
fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC)

(Don't) see also, the new batman, miami vice, and james bond films. i call these antiparodies, where the creative demolition crew attacks the material from a place of disdain, as if it's their job to tear away the veneer and get to the truth of the franchise, as if it's possible to put away childish things and then go make a superhero story.


ReplyThread
fishwithissues
fishwithissues
jordan fish
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 07:17 pm (UTC)

that said, when i want gritty realism or harry potter, I'm going with alfonso cuarón.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 08:55 pm (UTC)
then again...

At its core I think the Anglospheric brain is a sort of over-tuned pattern detection engine. Drawing a bit from the new Dawkins and other works such as Glenn Grant's A Memetic Lexicon, you might say that the peculiarly American tendency to view the world in binaries (black/white, good/evil, socially acceptable/taboo, of the body/not of the body, and yes, that last one is a Star Trek reference)...draws them almost inevitably towards narratives where things are wrapped up with a big obvious ribbon (complete with neon sign saying BIG OBVIOUS RIBBON). The overall rejection of ambiguous narratives / writing / endings, specifically that of avant-garde 20th century drama and art, would seem to bear that theory out. We don't like those kinds of stories because they don't make sense to us. It's also why there's a big cultural barrier around understanding Japanese art and drama, because our brain-mappings and core assumptions don't match up.

It's possible this sort is neurologically genetic. America was founded by Puritans who were drawn towards a very specific narrative of an "ordered world," and the big-picture Deist types are pretty much relegated to the coasts if they exist at all. It's been shown in surveys that Americans who lean towards conservative values also have a high intolerance for change / crisis situations, and the opposite is true of liberals. Thus the themes you discuss - the fascination with the antihero who ultimately meets his fitting end and other stock tropes - would seem to resonate automatically with this kind of audience.

Note, also, that while we're discussing John Waters, his outsider critique of 'middle america' has itself been co-opted into a kind of stock countercultural response; yes yes, being strange is ok, suburbia is to be mocked, conventional values are to be flouted, etc. It's become just part of the mainstream. Subjectively, to me it feels like there's some sort of arms race in the avant-garde to be more outré, more pretentious, to out-Matthew Barney the next guy.

To a relatively well-educated, arguably sort-of-mainstream observer, this arms race arts world is increasingly disappearing up its own fundament. I don't think you can legitimately complain that the Great Masses don't like it and instead prefer their dickensian / tolstoyian / george-lucasian entertainments. They're programmed NOT to like it, maybe even hardwired not to like it, and since it takes great effort just to appreciate it, why should they even try? (thinking from their perspective).

aj in montreal


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)
Re: then again...

Even Henry Darger gets his own film with a Trajan-and-Tom-Waits title sequence these days! The mainstream gets mired in its own deep boredom, and America turns to its outsiders to recognize itself. Maybe.


ReplyThread Parent Expand



akabe
akabe
alin huma
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 10:00 pm (UTC)

now you've got me reaching for the other pierrot lunaire: schoenberg's.

kafka & co were hardly mainstream in their day so the comparison with HP etc is a bit unfair so the question becomes 'why is yesterday's avantguarde not today's currency?' but then again it kind of is , with a (debilitating) twist; more so in the 90s; or why is today's avantguarde (what avantguarde?) not as energetic as the previous ones ? etc.


ReplyThread
akabe
akabe
alin huma
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 10:02 pm (UTC)

actually you say this with the italians' example.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 22nd, 2007 10:41 pm (UTC)

Stop Press: Themepark Dickensworld comes to "a flagship site in the heart of the Thames Gateway."


ReplyThread
peacelovgranola
-
Mon, Jul. 23rd, 2007 12:11 am (UTC)

foucault would also appreciate this post...

yes, the anglos love their religion and their humanism
and their grand-narratives...it's amazing how two centuries on,
people are still so attached to religious and racist ideological garbage.
absolutely barbarian. but anglos aren't the only ones, as the news
reminds us all...

and yes, sometimes "whores" are women, and sometimes they're
military generals, presidents, spokesmen, "national security
advisors" and secretaries of state, too.

"good television" reminds me of some other phrases...
military intelligence, compassionate conservative,
business ethics, etc. there's tons more.


ReplyThread
geweih
geweih
Mon, Jul. 23rd, 2007 04:42 pm (UTC)
mega- narratives

I noticed no voices in defence of Viola. I'm not about to add my own.

It always struck me that the correct perspective from which to view his work was from on your knees. The endless, tedious references to Fra Angelico as a legitimizing art historical source. The idea of wanting video to be painting was always a reactionary one.

Last summer I remember some dreadfull old nonsense with waterfalls and fire near Tower Bridge in London - how apt that he staged Wagner's Tristan, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in in L.A, this April.


In relation to Jake and Dinos though, perhaps Viola might be better abandoned (using only the crudest of greenscreens of course) to the minituarised mega-mega-mega narrative that was their 'Hell'

Now there's a Gesamptkunstwerk for you!


ReplyThread Parent




(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 23rd, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC)
"Warning: Potter/Draco Noncon and Rimming"

Considering the amount of Harry Potter gay 'slash' fiction http://www.salishna.net/hdslash/ (http://www.salishna.net/hdslash/), often written by 13 year old girls if the authorship is to be believed, perhaps we like innocence and chocolate-box precisely to subvert it in our fantasies, something that the 'Lynchian' and 'out there' deny us?


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Tue, Jul. 24th, 2007 12:28 am (UTC)

Don't believe the hype. The Wire is no more influenced by Dickens than Babyshambles is influenced by Late Beethoven. The most important influence on modern TV dramas like The Wire is previous TV dramas. There's a great chapter in "Everything Bad Is Good For You" by Stephen Johnson, where he analyses plot structures in TV shows from "Dragnet" through "Starsky And Hutch" and "Hill Street Blues" to "The Sopranos". "Hill Street Blues" was the breakthrough show, because it imported the multiple narrative technique of the lowly and despised TV soap opera into "serious" drama.


ReplyThread