Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rehabilitating Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling.
Poor Rudyard Kipling—winner of one of the first Nobel Prizes for literature and once one of the most popular writers in the world—has long since seen his reputation fall into eclipse (which can’t trouble him terribly much, as he’s been dead for seventy-eight years).  His reputation first foundered on aesthetic grounds, then political, and we shall address each of these issues in turn.
Rudyard Kipling was born in British India in 1865, wrote his best work in the 1890’s and 1900’s, and had the misfortune to live until 1936, by which point his colorful Victorian narratives seemed woefully out of date.  As Robert Gottlieb points out in his introduction to Everyman’s Collected Stories of Kipling, the Nobel Laureate lived to see the publication of Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce, and other pioneers of modernism.  Kipling, a contemporary of Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard (of whom the latter was his close friend), outlived his own era.  And so, when he died, the general feeling amongst the literati was one of “oh, he was still alive?” He’s reminiscent in this respect of E. M. Forster, who published in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, starting in the Edwardian period, and who then lived a largely idle existence until his death in 1970, by which point people like Pynchon and Beckett had taken the novel in directions he could never have conceived of.
So, Kipling did not fit in well with his time.  For those who are hung up on literary movements and “zeitgeistiness” (to coin a phrase), that might be troubling, but it’s fundamentally not an aesthetic criticism.  If one is willing to look at Kipling’s work for what it is—and particularly the short stories, the form at which he excelled—one finds that Kipling is one of the greatest writers that the English language has ever produced.  To Kipling we owe such varied and thrilling stories as: “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “On a City Wall,” “Without Benefit of Clergy,” “The Mark of the Beast,” “Dray Wara Yow Dee,” and “Mary Postgate,” among many others.  Borges loved the stories, and Borges was rarely wrong when it came to questions of taste.  And Irving Howe says of Kipling’s novel Kim that it contains the most colorful English prose prior to the publication of Ulysses, which isn’t bad for someone who so many of the modernists dismissed.  Howe also points out that Kipling’s poems—of which, I must admit, I am not as fond—were a profound influence on the poetry of Bertolt Brecht who never failed “to be absolutely modern.” Kipling was a pioneer of writing vernacular dialogue, and his stories of soldiers and colonial administrators and Anglo-Indian boys who couldn’t distinguish between Hindi and English in many ways anticipate the works of Joyce and Faulkner.
Having established his aesthetic bona fides, let’s move onto Kipling’s more pressing problem, namely his appalling political incorrectness.  Because the fact of the matter is that Kipling was a racist and an enthusiastic supporter of British imperialism (he is, after all, the author of “The White Man’s Burden.”) So, ok, he was an asshole.  That’s not an aesthetic consideration.  I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of his British and American literary contemporaries were also racists and imperialists (and anti-Semites and sexists and homophobes, while we’re at it).  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his “Sir” for propagandizing on behalf of the British effort in the Boer War; Virginia Woolf’s correspondence is peppered with casual anti-Semitism, despite the fact that her husband was Jewish (!).  Jack London believed that there were too many Chinese people and that they should be wiped out with biological weapons (the ostensibly left-wing London, who would say that “I’m a white man first and a socialist second.”) Graham Greene would in later years go back and replace some of the more egregiously racist and anti-Semitic epithets in his earlier novels (such that niggers became negroes and Jewesses just became women, although the opening line of dialogue in Our Man in Havana is still, “You see that nigger over there?”)

Jack London, who, for the record, was pro-genocide.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this is all appalling.  But the fact of the matter is that these are non-aesthetic concerns.  Plenty of writers have been bad people.  That has no bearing on the merit of their work.  William S. Burroughs shot his wife in the face, for Christ’s sake; it has no effect on the quality of Naked Lunch.  But unfortunately, in academia today, the approach to literature (and all the other arts) is rarely aesthetic.  The post-structuralist theories are all about racial and ethnic and sexual and colonial resentments.  Works of literature are artifacts to be mined to illustrate sociopolitical points and “reclaim” suppressed histories.  And so I once had an English professor tell us with a straight face that the reason we weren’t reading Kipling was because he wasn’t “politically correct.” And this professor didn’t think there was a problem with that.  But my God, if we were to weed out the classics that weren’t politically correct, what would be left?  We’d have Olaudah Equiano and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and that would be about it.

But for those of us who value literature as art (and art as art in general), that’s not enough.  We seek out works of quality literature because they are beautiful and we find them entertaining and aesthetically gratifying (I don’t like to make the distinction between the artistic and the merely entertaining, but that’s another argument).  So, to my fellow lovers of literature—and fellow lefties, for that matter—there is nothing wrong with embracing Kipling’s
work.  It doesn’t mean you endorse his abhorrent opinions, which should be self-evident to any reasonably intelligent adult.  And again, Borges signed off on it, and he wouldn’t steer you wrong.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Found it at the Movies: On Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture

Rithy Panh.
Cambodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh must have an inordinate faith in the power of cinema.  In bringing it to bear on the subject of the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities, he is trusting to film to engage with one of the most appalling episodes in human history.  Cinema is not only capable of documenting history, it can also, when necessary, supplant it.  This is the case in Panh’s latest documentary, The Missing Picture (2013), in which Panh declares that “there is no truth.  There is only cinema.” This is a sweeping statement, comparable to Godard’s famous assertion that cinema is “truth at twenty-four frames per second.” But for Panh, cinema is something that can surpass truth itself.
A little background on The Missing Picture: it is a documentary about Panh’s experiences as an adolescent in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime and about that regime in general.  In instances where documentary evidence (film, photographs) of a particular scene does not exist—and this is often the case—then Panh replaces the “missing pictures” with static tableaux made out of carved clay figures.  The clay figures are simple but, as Alfred Kazin says of William Blake, not simplistic.  They have the paradoxically wide range of depth and expressiveness that one finds in Noh masks.  Through them, Panh provides a heartbreaking narrative of Pol Pot’s “Democratic Kampuchea,” under which his life was destroyed and his father, mother, and brothers and sisters all died.  Where possible, we are presented with photographs of them, but when these are not available, they are each represented by a little clay figurine which carries with it all the pathos of the human capacity for suffering.

This highly idiosyncratic approach to documentary filmmaking works remarkably well, both in terms of its emotional power and its educational impact.  I would compare it favorably to Michel Gondry’s similarly weird documentary, the squiggle-vision-animated Is the Man who is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky, which is predicated on a gimmick that never really pays off.  Which brings me circuitously to one of the many fine points raised in Panh’s film (which is eminently quotable): Panh wonders if the fashionable left-wing intellectuals in Paris who were so taken with Khmer Rouge slogans were “missing a picture” of the starving and enslaved children of Cambodia.  He could just as well have been speaking of the American Chomsky, who in 1977 notoriously declared that “the so-called slaughter in Kampuchea is nothing but an invention of the New York Times.” With all due respect to Professor Chomsky: idiot.
The Missing Picture presents a challenge not just to the orthodoxies of the far left but to the concept of orthodoxy in general.  Panh says of Khmer Rouge propaganda: “Words change meanings.  We speak in slogans.” And when you speak in slogans, or clichés, it typically means that you’ve stopped thinking.  This is a threat posed not just by extreme cases like the Khmer Rouge but orthodoxies left and right, from academic liberalism, which its mindless recitation of post-structuralist jargon, to the idiocies of the extreme right, with their talk of personhood for zygotes and “job-creators.”  One of the signs that the Isla Vista shooter wasn’t thinking straight—and I admit that there were many of them—but one of them was his tendency to talk in clichés.  He complained about girls taunting him with their “cascading blonde hair.” He claimed the day before the massacre that “tomorrow, I will be a god.” First off, hair doesn’t cascade in real life.  You’re not talking about anybody’s actual hair, you’re talking about the abstract idea of hair, and abstractions rarely correspond to reality.  As for becoming a god, you can tell by the way he says it that he doesn’t believe it.  He just says it because he thinks it’s the sort of thing one says under those circumstances.  Abstraction has replaced real life and cliché has replaced actual thought.

But to return to Rithy Panh’s film.  It is the third film of his that I’ve seen, after
S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012).  As the titles suggest, these are grim explorations of grim subjects, but in these films, and especially in The Missing Picture, Panh maintains a moral courage and a deep human compassion that make them essential viewing for anyone seeking to engage with the problem of the human capacity for evil.  The Missing Picture is a welcome addition to his oeuvre.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Bromance—Italian Style: Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso

Road movies, like the picaresque novels from which we can trace their origins, all have basically the same plot.  A group of people—and a simple duo is best—jump in the car (or hop on their horses) and have episodic mini-adventures, meeting strange people and learning about life.  At the end, the travelers are theoretically wiser to the ways of the world and are hopefully better people.
Dino Risi’s delightful 1962 road film Il Sorpasso, recently made available on Region 1 DVD by the Criterion people, follows in this grand tradition.  It depicts Kerouackian bon-vivant Bruno (Vittorio Gassman, in a volcanic performance) and straight-laced student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as they drive around central Italy.  Bruno and Roberto have met by chance and Roberto, yielding to impulse as he rarely does, accepts Bruno’s invitation to go out to eat with him.  This simple goal evolves into a two-day escapade during which they will flirt with women, drive recklessly, and deal with family issues, all animated by Bruno’s great appetite for fast living, which carries along everyone and everything in its wake.
Il Sorpasso is distinguished by dazzling black-and-white cinematography and consistently elegant compositions.  The Italy of the film is hot and sun-blasted; Rome itself is especially white and glare-y and seemingly abandoned, as we see in the opening shots of the movie, when Bruno drives solo through a deserted city.  There’s a great sequence midway through the film where Bruno and Roberto visit the latter’s aunt and uncle at their rural estate.  Roberto has fond childhood memories of the place and is eager to re-explore it.  As he does so, the camera captures the open, almost Japanese-style architecture of the house, and all the places where the sunshine penetrates inside and reflects off the bright white walls.  This is in contrast to sanctuaries of shade within the house, which seem to convey the melancholy that Roberto encounters upon realizing that the place “looked a lot bigger” when he was a child.
This sequence also provides us with a good comparison of Bruno and Roberto’s ways of perceiving the world.  Roberto, for all his intelligence—the beginning of the film finds him studying some very dry legal formulae and we gather swiftly that his is a serious, studious mindset—fails to grasp things that Bruno understands swiftly and intuitively.  When the travel companions are greeted by the house’s caretaker, a man whom Roberto has known for years and Bruno for seconds, Bruno immediately concludes that the man is gay.  When he calls Roberto’s attention to this—“I’ve never seen a country queen before,” because in the era before political correctness, people were just free to say terrible things—Roberto is initially taken aback, but then realizes that Bruno is right.  Bruno carries out a similar deductive performance later on in their visit, concluding that Roberto’s cousin’s father is not his uncle, but rather the overseer.  Again, Roberto has known these people intimately for years, and this has never occurred to him.  It took Bruno’s more intuitive way of seeing things to enlighten him.

While the first half of the film is fairly cheerful and lighthearted, it takes an interesting, more melancholy turn as things progress.  We meet Bruno’s estranged wife and his daughter whom he rarely gets to see, and it becomes evidence that his high living has come at a high personal cost for him.  He’s not the type to let it show how much it’s hurt him, but it certainly puts things in perspective.  If the film thus far has been telling us—as Roberto’s real-world counterparts—to “loosen up, goddam it!”, it has now added the qualifier, “But not without some restraint!” Which is good, because I like my comedy served up with a dash of contemplative sadness.