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Archive for November, 2007

Great writers make demands on our time and energy which is why, to be absolutely frank, they can be so annoying.

Readers of John Updike will know what I mean when I say that the man, who has all the virtues a writer could want, is just too much. He’s too glib, too polished, too prolific, too kind-hearted, too equanimous, too wide-ranging, too tolerant, too knowledgeable, and, if this can be considered a fault, too good to be true. He’s so consistently and abundantly and unceasingly excellent you often want to throttle him. Of his 33 books of fiction, I’ve read 10; so I feel like I’m only on the foothills approaching Everest. As far as I can tell from my sea-level vantage point, he’s never written an inelegant sentence (although he is at times florid). He has a painter’s eye for the surface of life combined with an ear that any dramatist would envy, and, best of all, he has an exceptionally acute grasp of psychology, particularly the knotty emotional-dynamics that play out in contemporary family life.

Even Updike’s failures, say the bizarre middle section of Rabbit Redux where the ordinary-Joe American hero shacks up with a runaway hippy and a black radical, testifies to a strength, his literary daring: rather than staying safe in the suburbs (a locale that he knows better than any writer alive) he’s constantly taking risks by tackling characters and environments far outside his comfort range.

Aside from his primary achievements as a novelist and short story writer, he has merit as a poet (unfashionably formalist and always readable), art critic (where his eye-opening eloquence puts the professionals to shame), memoirist, and literary critic (more than a million words of book reviews for The New Yorker). Except for poetry, he takes these tasks less seriously than his fiction. “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea,” Updike wrote in the introduction to one of his brick-thick essay collections. Yet even in these secondary efforts, the bastard is a master: I can’t think of anyone who has written as sensitively as Updike has on Kierkegaard, Borges, Nabokov and Phillip Roth. Reading his essays I’ve often wanted to beg him to just stop, to stop it, stop showing off, stop putting us all to shame.

In the latest issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason has a long, appreciative overview of Updike as a critic. Mason, the hardest-working young book reviewer around, as always goes above and beyond the call of duty in writing his essay. Purportedly, Mason is reviewing Updike’s latest omnibus collection Due Consideration, but actually the essay covers much of the writer’s earlier career and serves as a quiet manifesto on how to read. (Mason has something like Updike’s work ethic and typically seems to read all a writer’s work, including uncollected fugative squibs, before making the first critical comment). From the looks of the essay, Mason gone and re-read all of Updike’s critical writing and also trekked out to a small used bookstore in Massachusetts where Updike unloaded copies of the books he’s reviewed. Examining these discarded galleys, Mason notes how Updike blackens each book he reads with microscopically-detailed marginalia: the true sign of a intensive, focused, untiring reader.

Mason’s essay is available in full on Harper’s webpage, which also includes a 10-part slideshow of Updike’s marginalia. Find out what the great man really thinks of Tom Wolfe and Alice Munro. Here’s a sample from Mason’s essay:

Thus, you can sit on a couch in the store and open (until it sells, of course) Updike’s copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. A penciled “ugh” greets the reader in the margin of page 12 adjoining the line “Inman was shaking his head so hard his jowls were lagging behind his chin and flopping around.” On the same page, the pencil pinpoints the phrase “an extraordinary pounding,” and then notes, supra, “clichés-a semi cliché in every sentence.” Yet that same reader’s pencil, so peeved so soon, does not fail to fit a “good” onto page 531 beside a description (“He surveyed the tiny red eyes and all the mangy faces looking at him”); or, on page 552, to tag a sartorial catalogue of some length with a “beautiful.” And in Updike’s galley of Gain, by Richard Powers, one notes a ballpoint-penned “awful” pinned to the phrase: “For over a century, Clare laid countless clutches of eggs whose gold only the niggling would stoop to assay”; whereas, nearby, a passage of reportage earns an approving “what a trick!,” and an epigram soon thereafter-”Funerals are for the living, to punish them for all that they’ve failed to do for the dead”-nets a tidy “ha.” A peppering of “ha”s, in fact, in pencil and various tints of pen, season the once-bland margins of many of Updike’s uncorrected proofs; Norman Rush’s Mortals, say, in which its 700-plus pages are stung with spidery tattoos-”graceless sentence,” “good,” “run on,” “good,” “a talky style,” “‘angel-tits,’ cloying,” “‘worse for war’-pun!,” “do we need this?,” “dithering,” “is this too blunt or excellent?”-not to say corrections, even to the novel’s final page, where a forgotten “in” has been planted with a caret.

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I Heart Huckabee

OK, not really, but this ad is still pretty funny.

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There are now two kinds of people in the world: those who have seen Gregorius on Youtube and those who have not. Those who have know that the Finnish singer’s version of “YMCA” was the breakout viral video of the summer, when it was watched by over a million people online. For a few weeks in August, it seemed that every time we turned on our computer someone had sent us a link to the same hilarious cover song. Interest in Finland’s favourite son grew so strong, that a Finnish newspaper eventually tracked down the singer to share details of his current life.

Although other investigations into Gregorius were soon to follow, many questions still remain. Questions about those outfits and the dancing primarily, but also about Finland itself. Was Gregorius somehow cool there? Were Finns in on the joke? Did they deliberately time the release of the clip to follow on the heels of Lordi’s triumph at Eurovision 2006? What is it with Finland and costume bands generally?

To answer these and other questions, we spoke to Nordic-studies academic Sanna Peden (née Kankaanpää), currently affiliated with the University of Western Australia in Perth, Western Austalia. A PhD student in European studies, Peden has lectured on Nordic and European identity, and has recently written for Siirtolaisuus-Migration Quarterly and WiderScreen.

Warning: this interview contains references to Nordic people in leather pants.

UPDATE: The Gregorius clip below has been removed from Youtube because of a copyright claim by Can’t Stop Productions (who own the rights to Village People songs, and clearly have no sense of humour). If anyone notices it return, I encourage them to leave the url in a comment, so I can repost it. Until then, the video is available at the following (Finnish-language) site. (Note that Mac users may need to download the clip and open it with Windows Media Player.)

Above: Gregorius performing “NMKY.”

Let’s start with the name. Does Gregorius have any special meaning in Finland? Also, the singer and dancers’ outfits have the same colours as Sweden’s flag. How would that go over with a Finnish audience? Could they accidentally start a war?

Gregorius is a spectacularly pompous and papal name. Although the name was translated into English as “Gregory,” in Finnish it remained aloof from the general population in its original Latin form. As far as the outfits go, I doubt war was ever in the cards (keep in mind the video has no reference to ice hockey!).

Wearing Swedish colours in the music video for a gay anthem actually panders towards a popular stereotype held dear by many Finns: the belief that all Swedish men are gay, or at the very least effeminate. The singing isn’t exactly impressive, and the dancing is (let’s face it) rather embarrassing—so cloaking a feeble, decidedly non-masculine performance in Swedish colours was perhaps intended as joke about the Swedes at the time.

Gregorius is performing a “dance and exercise” version of YMCA. In Canada during the 1970s, public service announcements said the average 30-year-old Canadian was in the same physical shape as the average 60-year old Swede. This left Canadians of my generation with a strong impression of Nordic people as extremely physically fit. Is that true of Finns? Is “dance and exercise” a popular activity there?

Finns are among the most physically active people in Europe. “Dance and exercise” as such is not very popular these days, but other somewhat quirky sports such as pole walking and Finnish baseball do their bit to improve the fitness of the population.

A comment I read about this video said that it was hard to out-gay the Village People, but that Gregorius had found a way. This would seem to confirm the reputation Nordic countries have for being very progressive on issues regarding sexuality. On the other hand, unlike the Village People, everybody in Gregorius is (very) white, and Nordic countries also have a reputation for being less open to immigration. Are Nordic countries still working through their feelings about diversity issues?

Considering homosexuality was not decriminalized in Finland until 1971, and the homosexual references in the performance are “othered” and constructed as Swedish, I would perhaps argue that the video itself wasn’t intended to display a progressive approach to sexual minorities. However, sexual preference is considered a personal matter in the Nordic countries, so while the GLBTI population still needs to campaign for equal rights in some areas, in everyday life homosexuality is afforded equal repression and silence to heterosexuality.

800px-fazer_lakupekka_lakritsipatukka.png
Laku-Pekka, aka Licorice Pekka.

Racism is also an issue in Nordic society, perhaps because many people find it hard to acknowledge the racism inherent in some of their own perceptions. For example, last year the Finnish confectionary company Fazer decided to redesign its wrappers to better suit an international market. One of the designs selected for modernization was that of Fazer’s popular licorice. Since the 1920s the licorice had been marketed with the Laku-Pekka (Licorice Pekka) character, a golliwogesque black figure with thick red lips and wide white eyes. News of the decision was met with public outcry, as people could not see how the image could be considered racist—if black people are black, and licorice is black, then what could possibly be wrong with placing a picture of a black person on a black product? Some people even considered the character to be a symbol of Finnish open-mindedness, that Laku-Pekka represented black people being included in the Finnish community. A common element to many of the comments opposing Fazer’s decision was the idea that the picture couldn’t possibly be racist, because we are not racist: some people acknowledged that the image could maybe be offensive in America, but certainly not in Finland.

The episode demonstrated that while most Finns may not have anything against other ethnic groups, there is also very little understanding of how other ethnic groups “fit” into Finnish society, and how they can or should be represented.

Let’s turn now to Lordi, who won the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest with “Hard Rock Hallelujah.” Eurovision and European music more generally have long been associated with uncool synth-pop. But the Nordic countries are something of an exception, due to Scandinavian Death Metal and other forms of heavy rock. Is it accurate to view the Nordic countries as having their own cultural identity, one that sets them off from the rest of Europe?

Definitely. The five Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden—have their differences, but there is also a sense of Nordicness and a long common history that unites them. In my favourite quote about Nordic identity the academic Uffe Østergård describes Norden, or the Nordic countries, as “something non-European, non-Catholic, anti-Rome, anti-imperialist, non-colonial, non-exploitative, peaceful, small, and social democratic”—basically, Norden renounces power and doesn’t try to keep up with the Joneses. The licorice debate definitely draws from this conceptualization of the Norden—since we by definition aren’t responsible for colonialism, for example, we can’t possibly carry the baggage of colonialism, either.

As the Nordic countries are quite homogenous culturally, the strong welfare state and the influence of state churches have lead to conformity being the norm in Nordic societies. The Nordic penchant for metal and heavy rock is partly an expression of the frustration with this conformism. It also helps living in one of the only regions in the world where the climate lets you get away with head-to-toe black leather all year round.

Religious leaders in Finland objected to Lordi representing their country in Eurovision, no doubt because Lordi’s music and appearance invert traditional Christian tropes. For example, the lead singer says, “I got horns on my head/ My fangs are sharp/ And my eyes are red/ Not quite an angel” right before eight-foot Satan wings burst out from his back. In their own way, Gregorius would also seem critical of Christianity: they sing an anthem of gay life while sporting the logo of a Christian men’s organization. Can you tell us a bit about religion in Finland? What makes people want to denounce it in song?

Between 80 and 90 per cent of the Finnish population are members of the Lutheran church, but only a very small minority actually attend weekly church services or consider themselves religious. Church ceremonies, however, are ingrained in society, and everyone is expected to have a christening, a confirmation, a church wedding and a religious burial. It’s a very peculiar arrangement: practically everyone is socialized into the formal aspects of religion, but faith itself is considered an intensely personal matter that people prefer not to talk—or hear— about, similar to sexual orientation. For example, it is rare for politicians to make references to religion or God, and many people choose church weddings for their traditions or beautiful surrounds rather than religious devotion.

Although there is definitely space in Finnish society for questioning the pervasive nature of the state church, I don’t think either of the videos denounces religion as such. The religious organization/gay anthem dichotomy in “NMKY” is present in the Village People original as well, and you could say Gregorius’s version simply translates the irony into Finnish, taking a swipe at the Swedes along the way. The “Hard Rock Hallelujah” quote you gave continues with “or the one that fell,” countering any satanic suggestions. Lordi’s lead singer, Tomi Putaansuu or Mr. Lordi, has been quite adamant in asserting Lordi’s music is simply entertainment, much like any other music—or horror movies. Incidentally, Putaansuu married his long-term girlfriend soon after the Eurovision victory . . . in a church, or course.

For part two of this interview, click here.

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For part one of this interview, click here.

Above: the opening of Eurovision 2007, featuring Lordi.

After Lordi’s 2006 win, the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest was held in Helsinki, and featured an Arctic Circle Video of “Hard Rock Hallelujah.” While researching this interview, I came across a reference to the Finnish myth of Pohjola, “a purely abstract place, the source of evil—a foreboding, forever cold land far in the north.” Is that what the video shows? (The video also flashes the word “Rovaniemi.” What does that mean?)

Pohjola, or the North Land, is a region first introduced in the Finnish national epic Kalevala, an edited collection of folk poetry that became an important symbol of Finnish national identity in the 19th century. The action in the Kalevala is predicated on the opposition of the people of Kalevala and the people of Pohjola, the former lead by the “old and steadfast” shaman Väinämöinen and the latter by its powerful mistress Louhi. Although Louhi is by no means a sympathetic figure, her resilience and resistance of the Kalevalaic heroes’ attacks is admirable. The antagonist of the epic, she still embodies the Finnish characteristic sisu (guts or persistence). Pohjola starts off rich and fertile, but loses its edge over Kalevala after Väinämöinen joins forces with his kinsmen and steals the Sampo, a magical mill that was the source of Pohjola’s wealth.

The subsequent description of Pohjola as a cold and inhospitable place certainly corresponds with the setting of the Lordi video. However, the word “Rovaniemi” equates the mythical North with the real and existent Lapland. Rovaniemi is the capital of Finnish Lapland, and home to both Santa Claus and Mr. Lordi. After the band won Eurovision, the town of Rovaniemi made Mr. Lordi an honorary citizen, and the town’s centre—Sampo square—had its name changed to “Lordi square.” The town’s favourite sons do collaborative work occasionally as well—for example, Santa Claus officially opened Lordi’s horror-themed eatery “Rocktaurant” in Rovaniemi recently. Due to their Lappish origins, Lordi won’t actually do television interviews in Finnish. They worry their regional accents would ruin the illusion—picture Darth Vader sounding slightly Scottish and you get the picture.

Above: Apocalyptica in concert.

Our last band is Apocalyptica. They began as four cellists playing Metallica covers, but now also do their own songs (and play with a drummer). In this particular clip, they seem to be performing at a European sporting event, doing a song that includes no words. This is reminiscent of Lordi’s decision to sing in English for an international audience. For Finnish bands, is the choice of what language to sing in (or whether to include vocals at all) an important one?

Choosing English is a fairly safe option in the sense that most people in Finland do understand English reasonably well, so it doesn’t limit your domestic sales in any way. Also, if you start off singing in English it will be easier to get a record deal overseas, if that’s where your ambitions lie.

There is also a saying that Finns are “bilingually silent”: Finns are generally quite reserved and comfortable with silences, and often choose to just shut up in both official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Watercooler conversations along the lines of “how-is-your-wife-and-oh-isn’t-your-youngest-starting-school-this-year” don’t tend to happen in Finland. Said good morning to your colleagues as you arrived to work? Well, what else do you really need to say to them? Large companies have even organized English-llanguage “small talk” courses so that their employees would feel more comfortable engaging in idle chat with overseas colleagues and clients.

Following on from this, English could be seen as an “easy” language to perform in, as it doesn’t have the same ingrained sense of reserve as Finnish—you don’t have to mean everything with the same intensity in English as you do in Finnish. Apocalyptica, of course, due to their background as classical cellists by default didn’t sing at all—although more recently their albums have featured guest vocalists from bands such as HIM, The Rasmus and Rammstein.

Like the previous two clips, the Apocalyptica one has the letters YLE in the upper right corner, which stands for Yleisradio Oy, Finland’s public broadcaster. My understanding is that YLE operates not one but five national TV channels. To a North American like me, that sounds like a lot for a public broadcaster to offer. I was also struck when reading about Apocalyptica that three of them went to a music university, Sibelius Academy, where tuition is not only free, but students have 24-hour access to rehearsal rooms with grand pianos. Do public institutions play a larger role in Finland’s cultural life than they do in non-European countries?

Public institutions are exceptionally important in Finland, mainly because of a clearly articulated egalitarianism in Finnish society. For example, it would be almost inconceivable for a Finn to accept paying for education—education is and should be free at all levels, and it should be of good quality no matter where one lives. Finland regularly scores at the top of the OECD’s PISA survey on the knowledge levels of 15-year-olds in a variety of subjects. Considering that school starts at age seven in Finland, by age 15 Finns have had up to two years less formal education than, for example, British students, the entirely tax-funded public schools of Finland must be doing something right to close the gap and overtake the competition so quickly. This is perhaps the key difference between Finland and many other countries: public isn’t the option you go for when you can’t afford private; public is world class.

In the case of YLE there are also cultural considerations. Both Finnish and Swedish speaking populations deserve a good range of programming in their own language, but neither language is large enough globally that there would be enough quality commercial programming available in them. Of course, YLE doesn’t only cater for Finnish and Swedish audiences: it also broadcasts news in the indigenous language Sámi and even Latin.

Finland exists next door to Russia, but it has a very different history from Eastern Europe. Not only was Finland the only country bordering the USSR that remained democratic during the Cold War, but in 1956 the Soviets actually ceded Finland a big piece of land. The overall impression I get from watching these videos is that Finnish people are highly creative, very fit and active, and absolute geniuses at designing costumes and disguises. Do traits like these explain Finland’s proud tradition of independence?

First, I’d suggest a correction to the interpretation of “ceded land” in the example you have given. As Finland was considered a “co-belligerent” of Germany at the end of the Second World War, Finland had to pay heavy war reparations to the Soviet Union, including ceding about a tenth of its pre-war land area. Finland also had to lease Porkkala in southern Finland as a naval base to the Soviet Union. The lease was supposed to expire in 1997, but due to a variety of reasons the Soviet Union returned the territory almost forty years ahead of schedule—so the area returned in 1956 was Finnish in the first place. One of the reasons for the early return was the fact that Finland was suitably “Finlandized”: meaning the opinions and reactions of Soviet leaders were pre-empted in Finnish political decision-making. Essentially, Finland was neutral in its foreign policies, but not too neutral. For example, it wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Finland could consider applying for European Union (then European Community) membership: earlier it would have been considered being too West-leaning.

So, the Cold War period certainly involved Finland wearing several “disguises”—such as the Nordic Welfare State Hat, Outpost Of Western Civilization Cape and the genuine bearskin Friendly Neighbour Earmuffs. Finnish history is also dotted with unlikely developments, such as the fact that 19th-century linguistic Finnish nationalism was driven by the largely Swedish-speaking educated elites, so you could say Finns have for a long time had to be able to reinvent themselves and adapt to paradoxical situations. Of course, I wouldn’t want to give all of the credit of Finland’s independence to the nation’s innate talent for pyrotechnics, string instruments and embarrassing dancing—although I’m sure they’ve played their part in international politics over the years as well.

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Beatniks with Low IQs

John Stanley and Bill Williams's Kookie

The American political blogs are all agog over the issue of intelligence testing and race. Charles Murray, the bad penny of the social sciences, has once again reappeared as the subject of debate for the 1994 book he co-wrote with the late Richard J. Herrnstein, The Bell Curve. One way to address this tiresome topic from an unexplored angle is to look at a now largely forgotten figure who is cited as an authority in The Bell Curve, Nathaniel Weyl (1910-2005).

Weyl had an unusually colorful past: in the 1930s he was a communist. If not a Soviet spy, Weyl certainly kept company with those who were, including Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. In the early 1950s Weyl reinvented himself as a born again patriot, testifying at great length against his erstwhile comrades. Like numerous other professional anti-communists, he found a comfortable niche the nascent conservative movement. Weyl’s specialty as a right-winger was defending white supremacy in the American south and in Africa. Just as he was once an admirer of Stalin’s Russia, now he exalted the regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa.

Among conservatives, Weyl was something of a pioneer in using data gleaned from intelligence tests to bolster the case against egalitarian politics. He repeatedly argued that black Americans didn’t quite have the intellectual maturity to be full citizens. Lacking introspection, Weyl never noticed that unlike himself, the vast majority of American blacks never entertained romantic fantasies about Stalin’s Russia or South Africa’s herrenvolk democracy.

The flavor of Weyl’s thought can be captured in an article he wrote in 1967 for the journal Intelligence, arguing for the superiority of white Rhodesians with evidence from his own visit to Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia. “Thus, white Rhodesians are an elite element within the English-speaking world in terms of psychometric intelligence,” Weyl argued. “This finding is reinforced by visual impressions. Salisbury whites appear larger, healthier, more vigorous, alert and bright than London whites. Beatniks, transvestites and obvious homosexuals are conspicuously absent.”

Let’s leave aside the question of race and look at the assumptions being made here. Is there any rational reason for thinking that beatniks, transvestites and “obvious homosexuals” have low IQs? At a guess I would say that Allen Ginsburg and Oscar Wilde both would have done very well in intelligent tests; certainly their command of the English language was superior to that of the graceless Weyl. Moreover, there is an obvious reason, one which has nothing to do with IQs, for why London had Beatniks, transvestites and “obvious homosexuals” while Salisbury didn’t. London was a metropolitan capital while Salisbury was a provincial colonial city ruled by a very reactionary elite. One might as well complain that Saskatoon, Saskatchewan doesn’t have good French restaurants and draw conclusions from that fact about the intelligence of the natives.

Weyl’s writings were once very popular: many issues of National Review in the 1960s carry ads for his books, available through the Conservative Book Club.  But he’s disappeared from the memory of even conservatives in recent decades (The Bell Curve is surely one of the very few places where he’s cited with respect). Most people reading his comments about beatniks can spot the obvious political bias that shaped his work. I don’t think Weyl’s successors are going to enjoy a happier fate.  

(The image above is from John Stanley’s great 1962 comic book series Kookie, a gentle satire on beatnik culture. The cover was drawn by Bill Williams, based on characters created by Stanley.)

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soft drink and straw

The job of a novelist is to pay attention to the everyday world, to notice the changes in language and behaviour that make up quotidian existence. In Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), Charles Dickens had his eponymous hero travel to the United States (a journey closely mirroring the novelist’s own journey to North America). Chuzzlewit notices many big facts about the new Republic: the contradiction between the pervasive rhetoric of freedom and the reality of slavery, the widespread worship of wealth and landed titles co-existing with an egalitarian ethos, and the constant pressures toward conformity. In all this, Chuzzlewit was the fictional counterpart to Alex De Tocqueville, whose own travels in America took place a decade earlier.

But Chuzzlewit also takes in many smaller details about American life, notably the love of drinking soft drinks. In chapter 17, Martin Chuzzlewit is perhaps the first character in English literature to witness someone drinking with a straw:

‘You won’t say that to-morrow morning, sir,’ returned Mr Tapley; ‘nor even to-night, sir, when you’ve made a trial of this.’ With which he produced a very large tumbler, piled up to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appealed from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator.

‘What do you call this?’ said Martin.

But Mr Tapley made no answer; merely plunging a reed into the mixture – which caused a pleasant commotion among the pieces of ice – and signifying by an expressive gesture that it was to be pumped up through that agency by the enraptured drinker.

Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.

‘There, sir!’ said Mark, taking it from him with a triumphant face; ‘if ever you should happen to be dead beat again, when I ain’t in the way, all you’ve got to do is to ask the nearest man to go and fetch a cobbler.’

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“There is no such thing as society”, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once famously declared. This was a cry of capitalist individualism – polemical, to be sure, but true to her outlook. Others have found the opposite: that society is all too real, an oppressive nest of deceits and compromises best kept at arms length. The hermits of early Christianity sat upon columns in the desert for months on end, or retreated to caves far up in the mountains, to accomplish this. For many young people in modern times, freedom has been found in a similar (if less painful) isolation, in cutting the umbilical cord of civilization and all of its responsibilities and duties, and venturing across country in search of new experiences.

One such was Chris McCandless – compellingly played by Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, John Krakauer’s recounting of McCandless’s two-year adventure hitch-hiking and camping across early 1990s America. In his diary and his letters, as well as in conversations with the people he met on his travels, McCandless portrayed his adventure as an idealistic search for authenticity, a rejection of the shallow materialism of his parents and the hypocrisy and lies of contemporary society. Yet his romantic odyssey ended brutally in his death by starvation, brought on by mistakenly eating a poisonous root. He had spent a season camping in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan back country; his body was found two weeks later by moose hunters.

This marks the second recent biopic involving death in the Alaskan wilderness – the other being Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which focused on Timothy Treadwell and his doomed attempt to live among and commune with Kodiak grizzly bears. After spending several summers creating self-narrated documentaries about the bears he shadowed, Treadwell and his girlfriend were torn to pieces and partially consumed by one of his subjects. There is a certain amount of consumer demand, it seems, for stories that depict the awesome beauty of nature, and its equally awesome ability to kill us. And while for Canadians almost any place more than one hundred miles north of one of our cities serves as our own potentially lethal wilderness (black bears wander across the doorsteps of Canadian summer cottages with some frequency), for Americans – whose continental states seem almost completely interlaced with roads and railways, a town occupying every grid square on the map – it is the state of Alaska that has assumed the lonely role of High Representative of the Untouched American Wild.

As Penn’s film shows, finding true solitude and complete independence isn’t easy in modern America. McCandless starts out in a battered Datsun, which he soon loses to a flash flood in the desert. He burns all the money in his pocket, and starts hitch-hiking instead, becoming a “leather tramp” – as Catherine Keener’s sad and soulful hippie dubs him. Yet while he manages to acquire enough meals from the people he meets, the need for money doesn’t vanish, and he finds himself working odd jobs: driving a combine harvester owned by a farmer/entrepreneur played enthusiastically by Vince Vaughan, or flipping burgers at MacDonalds. He even hovers, momentarily tempted, at a Los Angeles welfare hotel, but when finally assigned a bed senses the psychological trap and breaks free again, returning to the road. Yet civilization doesn’t seem to want to let him go. Kayaking down the Colorado River, he finds its end in an artificial delta of concrete canals. More than once, he looks up at a clear blue sky marred by a commerial airliner blazing contrails behind itself.

When he finally reaches Alaska, keen to start his “great Alaskan adventure”, he bums a ride to the end of a remote road and accepts the effectively permanent loan of a pair of sturdy rubber boots from the truck driver. McCandless plods through the back country, fords a river, and discovers a “magic bus” abandoned on a bluff. He moves in, and promptly begins civilizing the nearby wilderness, carving hunting trails to and from the bus and building an outdoor shower for himself. The human instinct to impose order on nature’s anarchy is strong within him – he may be escaping civilization, but he’s bringing it with him, too.

In Alaska, McCandless comes face to face with an authenticity of the most physical kind. Only modestly successful as a hunter – he manages to shoot a moose once, then loses all of is meat to putrescence and maggots – he steadily eats his way through his supply of rice. With the coming of spring he is trapped by rising waters that make his winter ford impassable. Meanwhile, large game vanishes in its migratory way, and he is reduced to stamping his feet in frustration and yelling at the empty landscape, “Where are all the fucking animals!? I’m fucking hungry!!!”

This is authenticity. Stripped to our essence, we are animals, and we need to eat. At the most savage level of existence, our hunger is what drives our waking lives and fills our dreams. It is authenticity, but it is not nobility, nor is it philosophy or poetry. These things require surpluses, enough food and shelter to see us through many days of life, to allow us to devote time to thinking, reading, conversation. This is the trade that civilization offers: hypocrisy and compromise in exchange for culture and comfort and time to be fully human, rather than merely animal.

In the ancient world, men knew this truth, perhaps better than we. After being shipwrecked in the sea for days, Homer’s Odysseus describes the overwhelming power of hunger as he dines with the gracious Phaeacian king:

… I could tell a tale of still more hardship,
all I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will.
But despite my misery, let me finish dinner.
The belly’s a shameless dog, there’s nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget -
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding,
“Eat, drink!” It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, “Fill me up!”
- The Odyssey, Book 7 (trans. Robert Fagles)

Like Into the Wild, the Odyssey is a picaresque of a lone hero’s wanderings, and of the ways he is helped or harmed by the people he meets along the way. But while McCandless with his wanderings is trying to escape society, Odysseus is trying desperately to return to it, to his home and family, to his rightful kingdom, to comfort and peace. Of course, while Odysseus is the wiser of the two, he learned this wisdom the hard way: by going off to war as a younger man and spending a decade fighting it and another decade trying to complete his journey home. Who’s to say that when Odysseus first boarded his ship to Troy, that his mind and heart weren’t more than a little like Chris McCandless’s? Odysseus was lucky to survive his war, and to have time to grow wise. McCandless died just as his own adventure, cruel as it had become, had begun to teach him something.

Chris McCandless and his magic bus

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Food Fight

In 1939, Life magazine wanted to reassure  Middle America that baseball star Joe DiMaggio was a perfectly upright citizen despite his suspect Italian ancestry:  “Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now twenty-four, speaks English without an accent and is otherwise well-adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.” It’s interesting to reflect that at one point in history eating spaghetti was seen as somehow anti-American (and, conversely, chicken chow mein was considered good wholesome Yankee food).

Food brings us together but, as the Life article reminds us, our diets can also divides us. From at least biblical times, dietary restrictions are a way of creating ethnic identity: if you can’t eat certain foods then it’s hard to leave the tribe. For this very reason, many ethnic slurs are rooted in food words. This is why Germans were called “krauts” (from sauerkraut), the English “limeys” (from the lime juice that sailors in the British navy drank to prevent scurvy), the French “frogs” (from the eating of frog’s legs), French-Canadians “pepsis” (Pepsi Cola used to dominate the soft-drink industry in Quebec), and Italians “spaghetti benders”. There are also the many variations on eater: watermelon-eater (for African-Americans), rice-eater (for Asians), bean-eater (for Mexicans), and curry-eater (or curry-muncher, for East Indians). This is partial list (taken mostly from the Wikipedia entry on ethnic slurs).

On the other end of the spectrum, one sign of cosmopolitanism is a diverse diet, as can be seen in many big cities. Historically, perhaps the most crucial decision made by the early followers of Jesus was to give up Jewish dietary laws (along with the requirement of circumcision). Prior to that, the Jesus movement was a Jewish sect; but once they could eat anything, the early Christians were able to spread their doctrine throughout the Roman Empire, eventually becoming the official religion of the far-flung state.  An omnivore religion is well-suited for an empire, just as a restrictive diet works better for a tribe or small nation.

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Schulz, Part Two

Charles Schulz’s favorite movie Citizen Kane is, in part, about the impossibility of writing biography. In the film, newsreel reporters struggle mightily to uncover the meaning of the mysterious last words of the media magnate Charles Foster Kane: “Rosebud.” They interview many who knew Kane but fail to solve the riddle. The movie itself, a work of art, discloses the meaning of Rosebud in the last few frames. (Schulz did several strips where the ending of the movie is ruined by thoughtless people prematurely revealing the solution). In effect, the movie argues that art can get at truths denied to fact-scrounging biographers.

The problem with biography is made particularly clear in a scene where one reporter interviews Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s lifelong business partner. Bernstein offers the reporter a lesson on the tricky nature of memory: “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

We can call this the Bernstein conundrum: our experiences are not weighed equally. A teenage fling that ends in heartbreak might mean more than many years of marriage; a year of soldiering could leave a stronger impression than decades of peace; the death of loved one can cast shadows on all subsequent events.  And in fact some of these key events could be utterly private and inaccessible to outsiders, undocumented but potently alive in memory, as with the girl “carrying a white parasol”.

All biographers deal with the Bernstein conundrum. One solution is to give equal weight to all facts, as we see in the long plodding multi-volume tomes like Norman Sherry’s life of Graham Greene or Martin Gilbert’s life of Winston Churchill, where we get a nearly day by day chronicle of the protagonist’s activities. The other option, the one taken by most biographers, is to be more selective, to highlight certain facts and events as pivotal and character-forming. In essence, a biographer has to be like a novelist, shaping the narrative for maximum effect. The danger is that the biographer’s choice of which facts to highlight might make his biography novelistic in a bad way: more a work of fiction than fact.

David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts tries to solve the Bernstein conundrum through sheer writerly bravado, not so say overbearing presumption. Like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles working on the script for Citizen Kane, Michaelis wrote his biography knowing the secret of both Rosebud and the untold story girl “carrying a white parasol.” Schulz’s Rosebud was the death of his mother, a lasting trauma. The girl with the white parasol is Tracey Claudius, a young woman who had an affair with Schulz in 1970.

No one, as far as I know, is disputing the importance of the death of Schulz’s mother, which took place while he was a young man about to head off to war. It’s an event that Schulz often referred to and left permanent scars. But the role of Tracey Claudius in Schulz’s life, and especially the prominence this affair is given in the new biography, can be questioned.

It’s a dramatic story. Like many reviewers I was seduced by it and gave it pride of place in my recounting of the book’s narrative. Here’s a quick summary (keeping in mind that the value judgments made here are from Michaelis’s disputed biography): Schulz married Joyce Halverson, a single mother, in 1951. Their marriage, which produced four more kids, became increasingly contentious over time, with Schulz’s aloofness, introspection and diffidence constantly clashing with his wife’s bossy adventurousness. By the late 1960s, the marriage becomes especially fraught as the couple quarreled over money spent on building an arena and on the best ways to raise their kids (Joyce was supposedly a hands-on mom while Schulz was allegedly more withholding and withdrawn). As their marriage soured, Schulz was increasingly attracted to other women, and in 1970s he had a fling with a young photographer who comes to interview him, Tracey Claudius. Although the relationship with Tracey quickly tapers off it does lead to a crisis in the marriage. In 1973, Schulz falls in love with Jean Forsyth Clyde, who was then also unhappily married. They divorce their respective partners and marry. The marriage of Charles and Jeannie Schulz lasts until his death in 2000.

To make the case for Michaelis: the importance of Tracey is that she came at a key moment in Schulz’s emotional life. Prior to meeting her he was thwarted in his search for love and awkward with women because of his unhappy marriage. Tracey thawed Schulz out, warmed by the affair with her he was more willing to take emotional risks. Tracey was the bridge between the end of Schulz’s first marriage and the beginning of his second.

The case against Michaelis: Considering how briefly it lasted, the affair is blown way out of proportion in the biography. As Jeannie Schulz noted in a comment to an earlier posting, Schulz didn’t seem to spend all that much time around Tracey: “If you look carefully at the timeline you’ll find: 1 weekend in Monterey, another possible night at Tracey’s when the roommate was gone, a dinner at the Tonga Room, a night at Jacques Brel, a lunch on the waterfront and a couple more meetings in book stores. The rest was telephone calls, notes, drawings, etc. Why does Michaelis give it so much space?” It could be argued that Schulz’s marriage to Joyce was already on the skids and that the fling with Tracey was simply one more milestone on the road to divorce. His affair with her was surely more a symptom of a broken marriage than a cause. And after Schulz marriage to Jeannie, it doesn’t seem he ever gave much thought to Tracey, who in any case had moved on.

If we grant the importance of Tracey in Schulz’s life, it’s still striking how much she overshadows almost everyone else in the biography. Aside from Schulz’s mother and his first wife, Tracey is the largest character that Schulz deals with (according to Michaelis). We’re given a nearly blow-by-blow account of the affair (the first meeting, the tentative signals sent out, the dates, and even when the couple first had sex). By contrast, Schulz’s marriage to Jeannie, which lasted 27 years, glides by quickly. It is Tracey’s somewhat unfavorable account of Schulz as a lover (he was allegedly selfish and given to romantic flights of fantasy while not listening to his partner) that leaves a strong impression; by comparison, Jeannie’s and Charles’s love for each other is only tepidly hinted at. Tracey also looms much larger in the narrative than any of Schulz’s five kids, not to say Jeannie’s kids from her first marriage (who are quite wraith-like in the book).

The questions we keeping running against are ones of balance, proportion, and selection. Yes, Schulz had the affair with Tracey. Yes, he was often melancholy. The question is, what weight to give these events and how to keep them in balance against other facets of Schulz’s life (like his love for his kids and Jeannie and her kids; even his happy early days in marriage to Joyce). Some fans of Peanuts are keen to emphasize the dark side of the strip, in order to counteract the syrupy “Happiness is a Warm Puppy” reputation it has. The dark side of the strip is there, but there is also joy in Peanuts: the Snoopy dance surely owes something to Schulz’s gratitude for being alive, when he could easily have died as a soldier. After the War, Schulz knew every day was a gift and intensity with which he lived his life was a testament to how much the gift meant to him. As a biographer, Michaelis seems to want to give us a “dark” portrait of Schulz, in the same way that DC Comics occasionally offers up a “dark” version of Batman or the Green Lantern (to shake things up and make the stories more interesting). But the darkness of the portrait hides some key elements of Schulz’s life. The shadows don’t just give character and create mood, they also obscure and distort.

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As soon as you write down an idea, you start to realize how it needs to be qualified, expanded, and generally revised. Blogging helps this process along by giving you commentators who jump-start new thoughts. In my earlier post I suggested ways in which science fiction, a literature thematically obsessed with encounters with the alien, was shaped by the childhood experiences of a few key writers, who grew up witnessing colonialism at close hand. Thanks to the bright suggestions from David Sachs and Tim Hodler, I’ve been spurred to append a few additional notes.

 Limits of the theory. First, I should make it clear that I’m not offering a theory of the genre as a whole: the encounter with the alien is a major part of science fiction but doesn’t define the field. There is an entire tradition of gothic science fiction, coming out of Frankenstein, that has little truck with colonialism. (If you go back to the very early days of the blog, you’ll see that I’m trying to map out the relationship between science fiction and real world subjects like religion. The imperialism post is one of a series).

The Essential Ancestors.  There are two key figures who should have been singled out as the crucial instigators of imperialist-tinged science fiction. The obvious name is H.G. Wells, whose The War of the Worlds (1898) is very explicitly an allegory about imperialism. The Martians who nearly conquer the earth are acting out of the same morality that allowed the Europeans to conquer Asia and Africa. The more surprising ancestor is Wells’s great rival, Rudyard Kipling. The author of “The White Man’s Burden” deserves mention here not for his handful of proto-science fiction stories but for books like Kim and his short stories about India. Like Alice Sheldon and Paul Linebarger, Kipling was a child of empire: as a boy he spoke fluent Hindu, taught to him by a servant, and halting English. His literary achievement was to broaden the range of the British novel by introducing into it imperial argot, ranging from barrack-room cockney to bubu English.

Heinlein and Kipling. Kipling entered science fiction through Robert Heinlein. Heinlein was a great reader of the imperialist bard and constantly reworked Kipling-esque themes into science fiction settings. The military ethos of Starship Trooper is pure Kipling, and many of Heinlein’s juveniles (books aimed at teenage boys) follow the core pattern of Kim: a young man from the provinces, cocky but unsure of his identity, is initiated into adulthood through the mentorship of avuncular older men and a grueling rite of passage. Stylistically and thematically, everything in Heinlein can be traced back in to Kipling: the dialogue rich in banter and slang, the sprightly narrative pace, the evocation of an exotic environment through unexplained foreign (or alien) words and inexplicable background details, the anti-modernist faith that the world is fully knowable and conquerable, the didactic insistence on the importance of willpower (as against intelligence) in overcoming adversity, the clipped manly tone that hides a sentimental self-pity, the plebian distrust of intellectuals and other soft guardians of cultural authority, the celebration of engineers, soldiers and other competent men who get the job done without dawdle or time-consuming introspection.

Military Science Fiction. Out of Heinlein came the whole sub-genre of military science fiction: Gordon Dickenson, Jerry Pournelle, David Drake and countless others. It has to be said that Kipling was vastly superior to his children and grandchildren. He really knew how empire worked and his books grapple with genuine questions of moral responsibility. Military science fiction, by contrast, avoids these very questions by creating scenarios where morality is not an issue. In Starship Troopers, you never feel that the killing of the insect-like enemy is at all questionable (animal rights activists might disagree). More than that: the popularity of military science fiction comes from the fact that it allows readers to enjoy stories about war without thinking about the moral costs of killing human beings.

An Epigram. Kipling is to military science fiction as William Gladstone is to George W. Bush and Tony Blair: an ancestor who shames his progeny.

Other branches of the same tree. Of course, imperialist-inflicted science fiction has other branches. Much of it is implicitly anti-imperialist and tries to portray convincing alien civilizations that are treated with anthropological respect. In this regard, two other names should be mentioned: Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (who was surely influenced by the fact that her father was the great anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber) and Doris Lessing (the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, who was born in Iran and grew up in Southern Rhodesia). Many critics have been puzzled by Lessing’s forays into science fiction ( notably the five-volume Canopus in Argos: Archives Series). These books might make more sense of we see that Lessing falls into the same pattern as Alice Sheldon, Paul Linebarger, J.G. Ballard, and Gregory Benford: a child of western parents who grew up in a non-western culture and then tried to grapple with the experience by writing science fiction.

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