Saturday, January 26, 2008

No Country for Old Men

I feel funny about not having written about this movie. I am something of a Coen brothers fan. Blood Simple is one of the greatest first-films ever (therefore in the same club as Citizen Kane), and Fargo is, rather obviously, a masterpiece.

Even with this movie, I go way back. I bought the Cormack McCarthy book on which it is based while it was only available in hardbound (something I never do with books I read for entertainment -- I'm too cheap!). I started reading it at Borders and couldn't put the damn thing down. I read it compulsively to the end. But once I had read it, I was not glad I had. I'm still not completely sure why I read it.

I guess I felt the same way about the movie, which is as faithful to the book as it could possibly be.

The movie is superbly well-made in every way. My problem is with the content. Both film and book are extremely dark. They have a superabundance of the noir in film noir. That darkness is really a feature of the world depicted in the noir work: it consists in the fact that the world the characters must navigate is unaccommodating to human wishes, that it tends to be evil or unjust.

In general I love this genre. There are Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Then there's the riveting James M. Cain, who was obviously the inspiration for the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There. And the horrific Jim Thomson, whose The Killer Inside Me is one of the most disturbing books I've read.

Why do we, or at least I, tend to like such works? For me, I think the answer is that the difficulty of the obstacles that the characters must overcome makes their struggles more interesting -- in several different ways. More suspenseful, for one thing. It also enhances their achievement, and that, for me is the main thing. The worst the world in what the hero succeeds, the more heroic that success becomes. The superb noir author Dan Mainwaring (Geoffrey Homes) once told an interviewer that The Fountainhead was a very dark book: the architect-hero blows up his own building. That's dark! But it is very closely linked to the character's heroic stature.

The trouble with "No Country" is that both book and movie push this darkness all the way into the territory of nihilism. The villain, Chigurh, is a heartless and sometimes utterly pointless killer -- yet no attempt is made to explain why he is the way he is. As his name suggests, he's just a blood-sucking arachnid. He does this because such is his nature. You get the feeling that what needs to be explained is not why someone is so evil, but why the good ever succeeds.

"You can't stop what's coming," one of the characters says. What is coming is some kind of tidal wave of moral sewage, rolling over us. "It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners" is a line that, I think, occurs bot in the book and the movie. Civilization is about to collapse, to be replaced by a Hobbesian jungle in which life is nasty, brutish, and short. The good sheriff, Tom Bell, retires [SPOILER ALERT!! PLOT DETAILS GIVEN AWAY IN WHAT FOLLOWS!] without ever catching the bad guy, who literally walks away at the end, a free man. Bell figures that the country will soon belong to guys like him (hence the title, I guess).

The trouble is, once the evil of the noir world becomes so total and insurmountable, that ruins the artistic point of it, at least for me. Once you realize that survival is impossible, suspense dies, replaced by its creepy cousin, dread. Suspense and dread, very different things!

Also, if the world is so evil that the hero cannot succeed, it no longer magnifies achievement, but prevents it. The young protagonist of the "No Country" film is killed, off-screen, while we are paying attention to someone else, as if to say, "what did you think was going to happen?"

Ultimately, I find McCarthy's nihilism to be not very gripping. His work is so self-consciously literary that it comes off, for me, as a mere aesthetic effect. Or maybe something of a macho pose. In a perhaps less offensive way, the movie strikes me the same way. Its unrelenting grimness is an artistic effect, very well brought off, but no more than that.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Robinson Jeffers, d. January 20 1962

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of one of my favorite poets, Robinson Jeffers (picture from Palouse Diary blog, hat-tip to Prof. Peter Quigley for pointing this anniversary out).

After decades of teaching a course in "philosophical ideas in literature," I finally assigned Jeffers in that class. We read "Give Your Heart to the Hawks" and "Apology for Bad Dreams". I was amazed to see how much the students like him. Why did I wait so long to assign his stuff? It certainly is philosophical enough! I guess its because my connection to him is so personal. I seem to assume that things that I love will be matters of complete indifference to just about everyone else. But what those kids saw in Jeffers was just what I had seen in him.

Here is one of the poems I of his I read the earliest and remembered longest. Along with Shelly, whom he admired, RJ was one of the most consistently
pro-freedom and anti-imperalist writers ever. You get a glimpse of that here that here (note that it is written as a speech to his sons, Garth and Donnan):

Shine, Perishing Republic
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, rip
eness and decadence;
and home to the mother.

You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it
stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the
thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there
are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught -- they say --
God, when he walked on earth.

In the 'thirties Jeffers' point of view was that of the current peace movement (dubbed "isolationist" by its enemies). After World War II, ten poems in his book The Double Axe (1948) were suppressed at the request of the New Dealers at Random House, doubtless because of the political heresies they contained. His correspondence with his editors, Saxe Commins and Bennet Cerf, makes very interesting reading today. You can see much of it in In this Wild Water: The Suppressed Poems of Robinson Jeffers, by James Shebl (Pasadena: Ward Ritchie Press, 1976).

At one point, Commins objects to "the frequent, damning references to President Roosevelt" on the absurd grounds that "he cannot defend himself and on that score there arises the question of fairness and good taste." (This was two and a half years after the sainted Delano's death.) At another point, Commins complains that Jeffers' comments on Roosevelt and Churchill are more critical than those on Hitler. Jeffers responded "I do agree that Hitler deserves worse than he gets but the whole world is full of people cursing Hitler." He wasn't the sort of guy who would say something because everyone else was. In fact he would avoid saying it, because everyone else was.

Even though Jeffers graciously agreed to suppress the ten most "objectionable" poems, Random inserted into the printed book an unprecedented "Publishers' Note," in which they expressed their disagreement with "some of the political views expressed by the poet in this volume," while deceitfully hypocritically claiming to support "the writer's freedom to express his convictions boldly and forthrightly."

Jeffers' popularity and his critical reputation were probably at their height in April 1932, when he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. After that, both began to decline, and have been sliding ever since. To me, he is more alive and important today than ever, with his utter lack of political illusions and his refusal to say anything but the truth as he saw it. One truth he saw with burning brilliance was that the glories of war and empire are illusions. Jeffers! Thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Bobby Fischer, RIP

Chess immortal and onetime child prodigy Bobby Fischer died two days ago. (NYT photo to left. Please don't sue me! I mean well!) Inevitably, much of the writing about his passing has acknowledged the existence of the elephant in the middle of the room: Fischer's long, long tenure as a screwloose crank. Scroll down this article by the excellent Edward Rothstein and you'll see that some of BF's public pronouncements about the Jews make those of Hitler (if you can forget everything else you know about Adolf) seem mild by comparison. And then there was his hailing the 9/11 attacks as "wonderful news." And calling for the assassination of G. W. Bush.

Rothstein raises an interesting question: does BF's amazing weirdness have anything to do with chess? He thinks it does. Chess, like music and mathematics, is a field in which one can excel at a very early age. But it is also unlike them in a crucial way, he says:
Great music attains its power not simply through manipulation and abstraction, but by creating analogies with experience; music is affected by life, not cut off from it. Mathematics also comes up against the demands of the world, as the field opens up to understanding; early insights are tested against the full scale of what has been already been done and what yet remains undone.

But chess, alone among this abstract triumvirate, is never tested or transformed. The only way expertise is ever tried is in victory or defeat. And if a player is as profoundly powerful as Mr. Fischer, defeat never creates a sense of limits. Seeing into a game and defeating an opponent — that defines the entire world.
I have my doubts about this, for two sorts of reasons:

Sort #1, Empirical: This would imply that the chess world contains more nut jobs than those of music or math. Does it? I certainly don't have any supporting evidence here. Chess has BF, and it had Paul Morphy (the genius who was the unofficial first world champion, and quit chess because it is "only a game" in order to become a mediocre lawyer). But music had Wagner. And Michael Jackson. And don't get me started on how many nutty mathematicians there have been.

Sort #2, A Priori: The argument seems to be that music and math include some kind of reality-check for your ideas, whereas chess does not, unless of course you lose. Which, generally, Fischer did not.

Do music and math involve checking your ideas against extramusical and extramathematical reality in the way required by this argument? I'm really not sure. If I develop a theorem that there is/is not a highest prime number, and my proof is fine according to the rules internal to the practice of math, what reality check am I ever going to get?

Also, insofar as there is an external check, it might not be the sort of thing that would influence the mind of the individual practitioner. Maybe the check is on the realm as a whole. I don't think music could exist if all would-be musicians were as emotionally stunted and out of touch as Michael Jackson. Take one look at him and you know: this guy has no idea how weird he seems to others. His ability to perceive other people's emotions is probably very poor. The sort of music that Jackson does is both simple (compare it to a string quartet, say) and structured by traditional rules and practices, so he can do very well indeed by getting around in that self-sufficient parallel universe: the world of music. He doesn't need to know much about how to get around in the emotional universe of actual, concrete human beings.

But Rothstein does have a point. As Aristotle pointed out long ago in the Nicomachean Ethics, there is a difference between the fields in which the young can excel, and those in which they cannot. The difference, he said, is that the former do not need the sort of wisdom that can only come with experience of life, and the latter do. That's a big difference. Very big.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ron Paul and that New Republic Piece

Racism is simply an ugly form of collectivism, the mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than as individuals. Racists believe that all individuals who share superficial physical characteristics are alike: as collectivists, racists think only in terms of groups. -- Congressman Ron Paul

As you may know, a recent article in The New Republic by James Kirchick, a protege of the hawkish and strongly pro-Israel Martin Peretz, has escalated the flap about Ron Paul's newsletter to a new level. The blogosphere has been abuzz about it for a week. I was going to ignore it, thinking that I had read enough about that newsletter and was satisfied with Paul's explanations, but was shocked to see David Boaz of the Cato Institute taking the article at face value and denouncing Paul. I decided to take a closer look. Although, as Paul supporters have pointed out, the article does use some classic smear techniques, it also reveals that the problem with the newsletter is deeper than I had thought. I want to try to sort this thing out. (See Ron Paul's response to the TNR article here.)

Kirchick begins by telling us that Ron Paul's newsletters have been issued since 1978, giving the impression that the nasty things he quotes from them go back that far. Indeed, he says that "what they reveal are decades worth of obsession with conspiracies, sympathy for the right-wing militia movement, and deeply held bigotry against blacks, Jews, and gays." It seems to me that the evidence he cites, though it may be decades old, isn't decades long.

Some of the arguments he gives can, in my opinion, be easily discounted. He is horrified that Paul spoke in 1995 at a conference on the ethics and politics of secession and has long expressed sympathy with the right of secession. The idea seems to be that a century and a half ago there was a secessionist movement that was motivated by the desire to keep blacks in bondage and so people who believe in the right of secession must be racists. This, to say the best of it, is just silly. Every other secessionist movement I can think of, other than this one, was an attempt to get away from a tyrannical central government. In fact, the newsletter passage Kirchick quotes on this issue mentions the breakup of the Soviet Union as an example of a secessionist movement -- which it was!

He also cites some mildly conspiracist talk from the seventies and early eighties about the Bilderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission. I guess all I can say about that is that, though Ron Paul is much more sympathetic to conspiracy theories than I am, at least his theories are about groups that actually exist and have real power.

Having said that, there are a lot of statements in those newsletters about gays and blacks that are genuinely offensive, and in some cases downright odious. But as near as I can determine they are all from a time period of four or five years, from some time in 1989 to some time in 1994. That is also true of all the offensive comments that libertarian journalist Dan Koffler cites here.

I met Ron Paul before that time-period, when he was running for the Libertarian Party's nomination in 1988, and though I voted for Russel Means at the state convention, I was very impressed by Paul. I also have read or heard many of his public pronouncements since then. What I see in those nasty newsletters bears no relation to the Ron Paul I have seen and heard. And the comments on blacks from those years are totally inconsistent with the excellent statement I quoted at the head of this post. What is going on here?

A glance at Wikipedia shows that this time period of creepy weirdness falls between 1988, the Libertarian Party run for the Presidency, and roughly the time when he decided to run for Congress again (that bid was successful in 1996). I don't have a way of checking this, but this was apparently a period in which Paul had dropped out of politics and was practicing medicine again full time. It looks like he allowed the newsletter to continue under his name but in the hands of others, and did a dreadful -- it must have been non-existent -- job of monitoring what they were doing.

This of course is Ron Paul's account of what happened. As others have pointed out, though, even this account is damaging to him.

One difference between a political movement and a philosophical movement is this: A philosophical school of thought is defined by the underlying premises the members share. A political movement is defined by the policy results to which one's premises lead. Members want the same policies but for different reasons. Sometimes you hold your nose and ally yourself with people whose premises you find troubling. But you need to draw the line somewhere. Eventually, holding your nose is not enough. Whose checks are you going to cash, and whose will you return to the donor? It looks like Ron Paul has at times failed to draw that line where he should. Whoever wrote those obnoxious newsletter articles, he or she was an associate of Paul's, someone he put into that position and trusted.

His response to these revelations has to some extent been reassuring. He says the he was "horrified" when he learned of the offensive articles, that he fired those responsible, that he is "ashamed" that it happened on his watch, that he "denounces" them -- but as others have said, he needs to do more. I had previously thought that the problem with the newsletters was a matter of one or two articles. Now I realize that it was something that went on for several years (not for several decades, as Kirchick says) -- and that needs to be explained. Who wrote them, why was this person in a position to do so, and why did it go on for so long?

This is not just about his campaign. Ron Paul has done more to popularize liberty than any American since Ayn Rand. Any slime that clings to him is likely to touch the ideas he has represented, at least in the minds of the many people who don't already understand what these ideas are.*
* Note that I do not include antisemitism as one of features of the articles written in that troubling time period. The only evidence that Kirchick presents for that charge is that Paul has long been a harsh critic of Israel. To those of us outside the Kirchick/Peretz school of thought, that isn't per se evidence of antisemitism. Antisemitism is indeed one reason to be anti-Zionist. Unfortunately, it isn't the only one. I don't agree with Ron Paul's position on Israel, but as evidence of antisemitism I think it's much weaker than the evidence against Desmond Tutu.

Added later: The President of the Austin Texas chapter of the NAACP, who has known Paul for 22 years, weighs in on Paul's alleged racism here. The article appears on the website of conspiracist Alex Jones, but I don't think that affects its credibility. Here is a recording of the interview reported in the article.

Added still later: Here is an article in Reason by David Weigel and Julian Sanchez, revealing the the author of most of the notorious newsletter material, the stuff that came out in the crucial '89 to '94 period, is almost certainly Lew Rockwell. During his very last declining years, Murray Rothbard became associated with Rockwell and they devised a cynical strategy to expand the political base of libertarianism by consciously appealing to the some of the nastiest elements of the conservatives' base, including their resentment of "the underclass" (gee, I wonder who that could be?). This explains why Paul has not been so forthcoming about this thing. Rockwell is still a friend of his. I guess it isn't realistic to expect Paul to rat out his friend. That means that responsibility falls on Rockwell to explain what happened and say how sorry he is about what a jerk he was in those days. He can also explain how he has seen the light and is no longer an asshole. As Carol Moore says, confession is good for the soul. He might also add that the success of the Paul campaign, achieved without coded appeals to intergroup hatreds and resentments, shows that the Rothbard/Rockwell race-bating strategy was, aside from everything else it was, completely unnecessary. Like someone said in another context: it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. Anyway, it was a mistake. (See Justin Raimondo's reply to the Sanchez/Weigel piece here.)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Driving in the Fog

Yesterday at noon Nat and I were driving on the freeway from Oregon to Madison in my Jeep. There was a dense fog. You could only see about thirty feet in any direction. To get an idea of what it was like -- somewhat exaggerated, but not by much -- see the picture of the fireman at the left (Wisconsin State Journal photo). Suddenly a car passed me at about 65 miles per hour. I said to Nat, “If there is a semi jacknifed across the road ahead, that stupid jerk is going to plow right into it. There’s just no way he could stop in time in this fog!” About two and a half hours later, on Interstate 90 nearby, some drivers entered the fog and slowed down to the proper speed. They were rear-ended by a semi truck that had not. There followed a series of crashes that grew hideously into a 100-car pileup. It blocked both sides of the freeway and stretched for five miles down the road. One person said that cars kept coming in “like rockets.” Police estimated that some of the cars involved must have been going at 70 miles per hour when they slammed into their victims. Two people were killed and about fifty went to the hospital. Here is the WSJ article about the mammoth accident [don't miss the entertaining forum comments about “driving while stupid”], and here is an eyewitness account. Here, just for the heck of it, is a blog post on a similar accident near Fresno.

What stunned me about this was the very thing that amazed me even before the disaster happened: so many people were driving as if it were a normal day. Why didn’t more people notice that they couldn’t see a damn thing, and drive accordingly? I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday, and I think I have an answer of sorts.

As the late Aaron Wildavsky explained in a great little book called Searching for Safety, there are two ways a decision-making system can deal with error: resilience and anticipation. A resilient system spots errors and modifies itself accordingly. An anticipatory system aims to predict errors and avoid them entirely. “Trial and error” is a resilient principle. Anticipation aims at trial without error. Tradition is a clear example of a resilient system (if, at any rate, it remains adaptable and does not petrify). We do what we have done in the past. After all, it’s working so far, isn’t it? We will modify it if it goes wrong. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is another maxim of resilience.

Those drivers were using resilience. They were driving as they usually do, prepared to change if something were to go wrong. The problem with that is that “going wrong” in this case can mean killing someone or destroying your car. Driving is a context that obviously calls for anticipation. “Drive defensively” is an anticipatory principle.

What those drivers were doing was not quite as irrational as it looks at first. Resilience is often a very good strategy. In fact, it characterizes the state of mind most of us are usually in. They were simply practicing resilience at the wrong place and time.

In our lives we use both sorts of strategy, sometimes simultaneously. But we also tend to rely at times more heavily on one, and at other times more heavily on the other. To use anticipation for all hazards would be far beyond the capacities of the human brain. It would mean constantly thinking about everything at once. We have to rely on resilience as the default, background response to risk, shifting into anticipation when it is called-for. What is it that makes one or the other the more appropriate strategy? What should trigger the shift into the anticipatory mode? This is a fascinating question, and as far as I know it has not been explored. It should be.

In a way, we are often driving in a fog, and we always know there will be crashes ahead. The important question is which strategies we should adopt toward them now.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Cave Painters

This is the third of the "Three Chinese Horses" in the Axial Gallery of the Lascaux Cave. It's one of my favorite paintings, and was made approximately 16,000 years ago, during the upper paleolithic period, at a time when the climate of southern France and northern Spain was about like that of southern Sweden today. I just read Gregory Curtis' The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists (Anchor, 2007). It's a fascinating overview by an art journalist of the discoveries and theories about Cro-Magnon art that have developed since the discovery of Altamira in the late nineteenth century.

These painters, who lived and labored between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago, are certainly one of the greatest mysteries in the world of the arts. Though many of their works were unsurpassed, if at all, only recently, they worked at a staggeringly early point in human development. The wheel had not yet been invented. There were no domesticated animals, not even dogs. No plants (not wheat, not barley) had been domesticated. In all the thousands of images in these caves, there is not a single one that clearly represents the use of archery. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers who probably killed the animals they depicted with such loving brilliance by using spears or throwing rocks at them. Not only were there no governments on Earth in those days, the first states were many, many centuries in the future.

And yet, what greatness they achieved! Curtis thinks that the The Crossed Bison, another image in Lascaux, shows a mastery of perspective that was not seen again until Paolo Uccello (1397-1475). There is much to wonder about here, and perhaps some conclusions to be drawn. Among the thoughts that this provokes, at least in me, are the following:

Visual art is separable from every other major, learned human capacity. These works were achieved before there was such a thing as writing, or elementary arithmetic. Obviously, they were within the reach of people who had not mastered anything else.

Visual art is therefore surprisingly "primitive." Not only did it occur separately from all these other human faculties, but it came first. The paint brush and the paint sprayer are not only older inventions than the wheel, they are probably much, much older. This says something, surely, though something difficult to formulate in words, about the level of inner complexity that must be achieved by a mind that is capable of such things. It is safe to say that in all likelihood, that level it isn't very high. This is my little contribution to the task of explaining how the miraculous achievement of the cave painters was possible. As great as it was, it wasn't as miraculous as it seems at first. What would be literally miraculous, ie. inexplicable in principle, would be to find algebraic symbols incised into the walls of the caves.

Visual art tends to support the established social order. This culture lasted an astounding twenty thousand years. To put that into perspective, Western civilization, from its earliest beginnings in the eastern Mediterranean, has lasted about four thousand. In all that vast period, their culture changed very little. Obviously, nobody, neither these artists nor anyone else, was doing much to subvert the dominant paradigms of the age. Their work seemed to have a social function -- what it was we can only guess -- and it seems to have served it very well indeed. Curtis mentions their conservatism as something that is distinctive of the cave painters. It seems to me something that throughout its development has been typical of art in general. I don't mean to say that serving a social function is necessarily a good thing. The sculptor of the scowling, testosterone-drenched bull on the Ishtar Gate at Babylon wanted to help the king impress you with his overwhelming power, and with the futility of resisting is will. That was his job. But in his case it wasn't a very nice job. [By the way, if you look at the Ishtar Gate bas-relief and compare it to the Chinese Horse, you get a vivid picture of how different the social functions of art can be. What a world of difference! When I look at the horse, I want to run away and join these imaginative Lakota-like nomads. When I look at the bull, I want to draw a bead on Nebuchadnezzar and kill him.]

In art, for the most part, the object is all-important. Much modern thinking about art has been influenced by formalism, the idea that the appreciation of art as art involves appreciating features of the work that are quite distinct from its representational content -- formal features. To appreciate the beautiful body represented by a nude is to appreciate it as pornography, not art. I think formalism wrenches art out of the context in which it has living value and meaning. The people who stenciled their hands in the 30,000 year old Chauvet Cave were quite literally touching, feeling the cave wall as they made these images. According to a theory developed by maverick prehistorian Jean Clottes, the important aspect of the act of producing these images was the moment when the hand was submerged under the earth tones of the paint, blending with the wall of the cave and the cold earthy world beyond its surface. Whatever the truth about this may be, I find it hard to believe that the cave painters who represented bison, rinoceri and reindeer cared about anything but the bison, rinoceri, and reindeer. For them, painting was a way of dealing with the object painted. To control it, summon it, revere it, or fix it in memory. Nearly all of their thousands of images represent large animals. For them, art was in some sense all about the animals. And so I think it has always been, except for rare episodes in the history of art. The point of Mantegna's Crucifixion is not the composition, balance of colors, nor even the fact that it was an expression of the agony of being tortured to death. The artist and his audience were not concerned with the expression, but with the agony. The painting served as a clear pane through which they felt that they could view a moment in the greatest story of all. If you want to put it that way, then art has always been pornographic. The cave painters were producing animal porn and Mantegna was doing religious porn. Praxiteles did a lot of gay porn. It's pretty much all porn.
Breaking News: This is very disturbing, to say the least. An article in yesterday's NYT reports rapidly growing international concern about a mysterious black mold-like substance that is threatening the paintings in Lascaux Cave. Note the illustration showing spots above the head of the Great Black Cow. Comparing this picture with the gorgeous photos in Aujoulet's Lascaux: Movement, Space and Time, I see that they were not there a mere five years ago. In France there is a central, national bureaucracy that regulates all research and preservation of paleolithic art (this is France after all) and it seems clueless and unable to act (again, no big surprise there). [Hat tip to Nat Hunt for giving me the Aujoulet book for Christmas!]